Crawl Out from the Fall Out

GirlIt’s no secret that of all the fictional monsters out there, zombies have been employed to do the most allegorical heavy lifting.  Director George A. Romero has made a cottage industry of this practice, using zombies to critique race relations (Night of the Living Dead), consumerism (Dawn of the Dead), the military-industrial complex (Day of the Dead), economic inequality (Land of the Dead), social media (Diary of the Dead) and – I think – survivalists (Survival of the Dead, which is easily his worst movie, so it’s hardly a surprise there’s no apparent theme).  The reasons for this are well-documented; the most popular theory goes that because zombies are personality-free eating machines, directors can easily filter the conflict through whatever message they hope to impart.  In all this time, though, there hasn’t really been a zombie movie – or book, since that’s what I’m writing about here – that deals with the inescapable humanity of zombies.  In the pressure to survive, characters engage in very little hand-wringing over killing things that used to be people.  Jonathan Maberry is the only other author I can think of who’s tackled this subject.  In his Young Adult series Rot and Ruin, a character “releases” zombies with as much dignity as possible in an effort to respect the people they once were.  But virtually every other depiction of zombies is mainly a vehicle for lots of stabbing and smashing and gooshing.*  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  I love a good gorefest as much as the next horror movie nerd (which I absolutely am), but I also like movies that confound our expectations and tinker with the tropes we’ve come to expect.

Which brings me, if you couldn’t guess, to M.R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts, one of the best novels I’ll read all year, and one of the best horror novels of all time, full stop.  Carey does something that’s almost unthinkable: he writes a novel that works simultaneously as a  thrilling horror story, a thoughtful meditation on what it means to be human, and a critique of what comedian Patton Oswalt describes as, “Science: We’re all about coulda, not about shoulda!”  And he does this the good, old-fashioned way by creating characters that we come to care deeply about and for whom we want the best to happen.  Even the villain – and I use that term loosely, because this is a book that deals exclusively in shades of gray – is complex and sympathetic.  Carey does so many things well that I almost don’t know where to start – and I’m very hesitant to say much at all at the risk of ruining things for everyone else.

Here’s what I will say: The book begins twenty years after the Breakdown, a biological catastrophe that turns most of the population into ravenous zombie-like creatures the survivors eventually call “hungries” (which I have to admit is probably my favorite nickname of all the ones given to zombies by movies and television and books).  At a remote military base in the north of England, Helen Justineau teaches a class full of young hungries, small children that display all the zombie signifiers but which are also capable of speech and rational thought and, most importantly, learning.  They behave like normal children except for the fact that they have to be strapped to chairs with arm and neck restraints, and Justineau and the other adults at the school have to slather themselves with a medicinal astringent that masks their scent.  Justineau develops a particularly strong connection with Melanie, the smartest child in the class, and this causes her to butt heads with Dr. Caroline Caldwell, a military scientist in charge of studying this unique group of children in the hope of finding a cure.  Also present is Sergeant Eddie Parks, the no-nonsense leader of the guard who essentially views the children as a threat to be carefully monitored.

For the first part of the book we watch these four characters in uneasy orbit around each other.  Justineau becomes heavily invested in the well-being of her students, and especially Melanie.  Melanie, even though she doesn’t fully understand what she is, loves Justineau for seeing her potential and giving her glimpses (especially through Greek mythology) of the wider world.  Caldwell sees the children only as subjects, and has no compunction about, say, removing their brains so she can study them further.  And Parks is all about by-the-book containment; he doesn’t hate the children, they’re just part of his job.  As a result, Parks and Caldwell see Justineau as unnecessarily (and probably unforgivably) soft-hearted, failing to see the animalistic nature of the children.  Justineau, in turn, sees Parks as a violent military puppet who just follows orders and Caldwell as a cruel sadist who delights in torturing (undead) children.

The beauty of all this is just how subtly Carey establishes these inherent conflicts.  Even though we see them developing, nothing is telegraphed, nothing is obvious. It wasn’t until the second third of the book, as the characters (along with naive soldier Kieran Gallagher) have been cut off from the base and now face a long march south to the main military complex, that I realized just how clever Carey had been.  He took his time to bake in the suspicion these characters have for each other and then put them in a situation – marching over hostile terrain, pursued by human enemies and encountering more hungries – where they have to depend on each other.

So that’s the horror/thriller part.  But I also said at the top that it’s a thoughtful rumination of humanity, and it is.  Melanie is kind of an ingenious creation: an engaging and preternaturally smart child who also happens to be a ruthless killing machine.  She’s constantly at war with herself, fighting against her nature and refusing to harm the humans with whom she’s traveling.   This is largely down to how they view her.  Justineau, especially, takes her seriously, and even Parks comes to respect what she brings to the group.   She has a role.  She belongs, and Melanie doesn’t want to jeopardize that because of a little hunger.  So she encourages them to keep her in restraints and muzzled, and makes sure they remember to coat their exposed skin in “e-blocker,” an ointment that renders them scentless.  But during their journey she starts to learn more about herself, who she is, and what Caldwell ultimately wants to do to her.  Justineau and Parks know this, too, and as the external threat increases the farther south they travel, so too does the internal one.  This all comes to a head in London, when the characters learn the truth both about the Breakdown and what Melanie truly is.

It’s a fantastic book – an effortless thriller that, yeah, also made me a little weepy at the end.  The movie adaptation comes out later this year, and I will fight everyone involved if they mess it up.

 

* Colson Whitehead’s Zone One also qualifies as a thoughtful take on the zombie genre, but I think I’d argue that the zombies are almost incidental to what he’s doing and therefore Zone One isn’t really a zombie novel.  Nit-picking, probably.

*****

Current listening:

Sonic murray

Sonic Youth – Murray Street (2002)

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Adventures in Dementia

sleeeping-while-drinking-coffee

Once again, time and workload and life and laziness conspired against me.  While my personal interest in writing these reviews has never entirely abandoned me, the end of April and all of May and – okay – early June saw me besieged by end-of-the-semester grading, pre-Writing Project Summer Institute planning (and the start of that institute last week), and a general malaise that always strikes in the lull between semesters.  So: lots of reading, little writing.  Here’s another of my by now patented omnibus reviews, where I reduce hundreds of pages of prose to one- or two-sentence critiques.

Before I do that, though, it’s worth mentioning that it’s now been nine months since I began the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project.  In that time I’ve read 70 books, which leaves me with roughly 90 to go.  At the six-month point I predicted I’d be finished around June 2016.  I’m still on target to meet that, assuming I don’t get further bogged down in Clive Barker’s tedious Coldheart Canyon (but more on that in a day or two).

Ian Rankin – Set in Darkness. The 11th John Rebus book, this one is set during the founding of the new Scottish parliament and centers on the confluence of three seemingly unrelated events: the discovery of a body in a walled-up fireplace, a homeless man’s suicide, and the murder of a promising young politician.  Typically gritty and awesome.

Jonathan Maberry – Bad Moon Rising. The best of a mediocre trilogy, this conclusion to the saga of an ancient evil residing in a Pennsylvania town isn’t great, but it is the first indication of how good Maberry would become with his subsequent Joe Ledger series.

David Peace – Nineteen-Eighty-ThreeA typically pitch-black conclusion to Peace’s Red Riding Quartet, this book sees a resolution to the Yorkshire Ripper case, told in bravura fashion from three different narrators.  Not for the faint of heart.

Elmore Leonard – Glitz. One of my favorite Leonard novels, it’s got all his usual tropes: dumb tough guys, smart ladies, dialogue that crackles, and a flawed protagonist that can’t get out of his own way.  Breezy and fun.

Ian Rankin – The Falls. More of a straightforward mystery than we’re used to from Rankin, the 12th John Rebus book has the curmudgeonly detective investigating a series of murders with connections to Scottish history.

Will Self – Cock and Bull. Frequent readers of Self’s work will know what to expect.  This pair of novellas is ballsy (literally), telling, first, the story of a woman who spontaneously grows a penis, and later, the story of a rugby player who grows a vagina behind his knee.

Jonathan Tropper – How to Talk to a Widower. I love Tropper, but I can see now how his schtick has grown thin.  It’s not a bad book, but after six tales of aimless thirtysomething dudes who can’t get their shit together, it’s like, I get it.

Elmore Leonard – Pronto. The first (I think) of Leonard’s novels to feature U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, this one started strong, staggered in the middle (as the characters improbably head to an Italian villa), and finished with some of Leonard’s characteristically sly violence.

Irvine Welsh – The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs. The most bizarre of Welsh’s books (which is saying something), this high-spirited riff on Oscar Wilde somehow manages to combine the grime of Trainspotting with the central conceit of The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Sherman Alexie – Blasphemy: New and Selected Stories. A predictably powerful collection of short stories that should be required reading for everyone.

Ian Rankin – Resurrection Men. Rather than decline into staleness, the 13th of Rankin’s John Rebus mysteries switches things up by transporting Rebus to Scotland’s police training college and embroiling him in a mystery featuring dirty cops and duplicitous gangsters.

Current listening:

Teardrop kilimanjaro

The Teardrop Explodes – Kilimanjaro (1980)

View from a Shaky Ladder

BookshelfSix months ago I began the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project.  In early September I realized I had accumulated 150+ books on my “to read” shelves.  A lot of them were fairly recent acquisitions, but some of them had been sitting there for years, following me from Santa Barbara to Atlanta six years ago and not getting any closer to being read.  The larger problem was that I was still buying books so frequently that the situation would only ever get worse, even if I increased my reading pace.  So, in the tradition of the desperate addict, I decided to go cold turkey.  No more buying books until I completely cleared the shelves, and, in the process, this blog was transformed from solipsistic musings on pop culture and politics to solipsistic book reviews.

Six months later, I’ve read 48 books and made a decent amount of headway, especially if you compare the picture here with the photos at the link at the top.  I wish I could report that my attitude toward book consumption has undergone a sea change, that I’ve realized I don’t need to buy books as frequently to satisfy my literary jones, but I’d be lying if I claimed my eye wasn’t so firmly on the prize because I’m so keenly aware of how much good stuff I’m missing out on.  You have no idea, for instance, how much it pains me to know that this project has prevented me from reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.  But I’m fully committed to seeing it through to its conclusion.

And it is fun.  Of course it is.  I’m reacquainting myself with a few authors I hadn’t read in a while and introducing myself to some new voices, and my extended chronological exposure to both Elmore Leonard and Ian Rankin has been one of the project’s true pleasures.  So, 48 books in, what’s made an impression?  Here’s the scorecard for the first six months.

Favorite Book(s): I’ve read a lot of good stuff, but nothing has made quite as much of an impact as the very first book I read back in September.  J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S. is sort of ingenious, an experiment in multiple voices told in the form of marginalia recorded between two readers in a library book.  David Peace’s bleak and brilliant 1980 is another high point, and both Elmore Leonard’s Unknown Man #89 and Ian Rankin’s The Hanging Garden stand as my favorite of the several books of theirs I’ve read so far.

Least Favorite Book(s): It’ll take a lot to top Andy Weir’s The Martian, which I found tedious in a variety of ways: the artificially chipper voice of its narrator, the superfluous scientific tangents, the rice-paper-thin supporting characters, the Crisis-of-the-Day contortions of its plot.  Jonathan Maberry, whose Joe Ledger series I adore, struck out with Dead Man’s Song, the second book in his Pine Deep Trilogy.  Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions is a failed experiment that never rewards the effort it takes to read it.  But at least I remember all three of these, which is more than I can say for Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist.  Goodreads tells me I read it, but I’ll be damned if I can remember a thing about it.

Biggest Surprise, Positive: I’ve never been a science-fiction guy, so Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is the most unexpectedly pleasurable thing I read.  Shades of Philip K. Dick and James Ellroy in a story about an android seeking her freedom.

Biggest Surprise, Negative: David Sedaris’ Holidays on Ice is an uncharacteristically  mean-spirited collection of sketches.  The author’s typically affectionate tone is missing, replaced with misanthropy and cruelty.  I don’t mind a little misanthropy and cruelty, but it suits Sedaris like a sweater that’s too tight through the shoulders.

A Book Everyone Loves That I Had Problems With: I took a break from writing reviews for a while, and I wish I’d written one about John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  I completely understand why this book is a juggernaut in the world of spy fiction.  It’s a labyrinthine tale of Cold War intrigue, full of well-drawn characters working at cross-purposes with a variety of motivations.  It’s a classic.  Totally.  But after a while it got to be too much work – a case (for me, at least) of diminishing returns as I just waited around patiently for le Carré to tie up all the loose ends.

A Book I Loved that I Don’t Think Everyone Else Will Love but I Think Is Worth Reading Anyway: I was sort of blown away by Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods.  A mystery without resolution, a curdled romance, and a rumination on the effects of war, it’s a book that invites argument.  The fact that O’Brien tells it in stark, spare prose makes it all the more haunting.  It isn’t for everyone – especially for readers who need a satisfying, definitive conclusion – but anyone who appreciates ambiguity as much as I do will find a lot to love.  And, even though I still have a hundred pages to go, I can say with some certainty that Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin is a powerhouse of a book that dares you to love it.  That review will be coming along in a day or two.

So: six months and 48 books down.  I should have cleared all my shelves in a little over a year and a half from the start date.  Call it June 2016.  Place your bets now.

*****

Current listening:

Fall this

The Fall – This Nation’s Saving Grace (1985)

Become What You Are

dead manAuthors are like musicians in one important way.  Some bands emerge on the scene fully formed, delivering a debut that appears to encapsulate everything great they would eventually accomplish.  Think Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division or Oasis’ Definitely Maybe or Entertainment! by Gang of Four. These albums land with a seismic impact that heralds the arrival of An Important Voice,™ one that the rest of us mortals should do well to notice.

Other bands?  Their first albums resemble the toddler taking his first wobbly steps.  The potential for great things is clearly there, but the talent still needs some time to incubate.  The best contemporary example of this is probably Radiohead’s 1993 debut, Pablo Honey.  There was nothing on that album – not even the juggernaut of “Creep” – to indicate that within four years they’d transform into one of the most influential bands of all time.

Some authors follow similar trajectories, either delivering a powerhouse of a debut or stumbling about for a book or two before hitting their stride.  As a huge fan of author Jonathan Maberry, it’s obvious from Dead Man’s Song that early in his career he was more Radiohead than Gang of Four: lots of promise but still lacking in execution.  I first discovered him through 2009’s Patient Zero, the first of his books to feature Joe Ledger, the leader of a secret government agency devoted to tackling paranormal threats.  This series remains hugely satisfying – action-packed, dark in tone, and featuring some deliciously hard-boiled dialogue from Ledger and his team.

I recently backtracked to the beginning of Maberry’s fiction career (he started as a writer of non-fiction books about martial arts) and picked up Ghost Road Blues, the first novel in the Pine Deep Trilogy.  It was, as I wrote a couple months ago in my lazy one-sentence review, “the sound of one of my favorite horror writers still finding his voice.”  That book held great promise, detailing an epic supernatural struggle in the haunted town of Pine Deep, PA (more on that in a second), but also featuring some clunky description and plotting, as well as, most surprisingly, some unforgivably cheeseball dialogue.

If there’s one thing the Great Bookshelf Deprivation Project ensures, it’s that I’ll continue reading series that might not initially grab me.  Also, Maberry has engendered enough goodwill from the Ledger series for me to give Pine Deep another shot.  Sadly, Dead Man’s Song, the second book in the trilogy, only adds to the impression that Maberry still hadn’t figured out who he was as a writer.

The fault isn’t in the premise.  In Ghost Road Blues we’re introduced to the town of Pine Deep, which was the site of a gruesome series of murders in the 1970s.  The details of that backstory are too circuitous to go into here except to say that it involves a murderous German named Ubel Griswold and an African-American hippie (called the Bone Man by the local children) who was framed for the murders and lynched by the racist townspeople.  Fast-forward to the present day and the grown survivors of that tragedy – ex-cop Malcolm Crow, his girlfriend Val, and town mayor Terry – become involved in another series of senseless killings when a trio of fugitives arrives in Pine Deep.  As it turns out, the leader of the gang, Karl Ruger, is working in the service of Griswold, who (but of course) isn’t just any garden-variety murderous German but a murderous German who may or may not be an immortal source of evil (and therefore responsible for both Hitler and Justin Bieber).  Ruger teams up with some of the Bone Man’s grown killers to enact a plot whose desired outcome still hasn’t been revealed by the end of the second book.  Crow, Val, and Terry are the only thing standing between Ruger and total domination of Pine Deep, and they’re aided in this by the ghostly form of the Bone Man, who acts as a sort of mystical protector.  At the end of the book, Crow seems to have killed Ruger and everything appears to be hunky dory, despite the trail of carnage that preceded their final confrontation and Ruger’s warning to Crow: “Ubel Griswold sends his regards.”

Dead Man’s Song picks up almost immediately after the closing pages of Ghost Road Blues, and maybe the most frustrating thing about the book is how little progress is made in it.  The bad guys kill some people, the good guys worry about who the bad guys will kill next, we learn some more about why the bad guys are killing people – it involves vampires and werewolves – but in terms of momentum the book is largely an exercise in stasis.  Which is weird because, I mean, stuff happens. Life and death, fate of the free world hanging in the balance stuff.  But at the end of 500 pages everyone is pretty much at the exact same place they were at the beginning.  And that’s sort of weird when I consider how Maberry’s Joe Ledger series is a careening beast, with a race against the clock almost always the default setting.

So there’s that problem.

There’s also the issue of some tremendously stilted dialogue, pitched to be clever but reading like conversations that have never actually been spoken anywhere on the planet. Witty banter is tough to pull off.  Carl Hiaasen can do it.  Denis Johnson can do it.  Elmore Leonard can do it (and was probably the best at it).  The Jonathan Maberry of Dead Man’s Song can’t (although the Jonathan Maberry of Patient Zero can).  Many of the exchanges between characters had me alternately rolling my eyes or sighing, such as this one between Crow and Terry:

‘Crow, for God’s sake, stop looking at me like I have two heads.  If I’m going crazy, then I’m going crazy.  Don’t worry, once Halloween is over I’m planning on checking myself into a hospital for a nice long stay, and when I get out – providing they don’t throw away the key – I’m taking Sarah and the kids to Jamaica for the rest of the winter.  No crops, blighted or otherwise.  And no Halloween.’

‘Sounds like a plan.’ Crow cleared his throat again.

‘And stop clearing your goddamn throat.’

‘Well, dude, cut me a break.  My best friend is going crackers on me and I have no freaking clue about what to say or what to do.’

Terry looked at him and for a moment a smile softened the worry lines on his face. ‘Being my best friend is doing a lot, believe me.’

‘Pardon me while I say nothing during the awkward pause that has to follow that kind of statement.’

Terry threw a small pillow at him; Crow ducked.

It’s all just so very precious and cutesy, and cumulatively it’s hard to take seriously.  And, as much as I hate to do it, let’s talk love scenes for a minute.  If ever one has been written that works, I’ve yet to discover it.  And Maberry certainly hasn’t mastered the craft.  While it’s tempting to share one of the most explicit passages in a multi-page howler of a scene between Crow and Val that I think is meant to pass as the calm before the storm at the book’s climax, here’s a less explicit scene that’s no less silly for all its detail:

After a while, once her skin has soaked up the richness of the water, Crow slipped one hand into a terrycloth mitten. Wetting it, he fetched a bar of scented wheat-and-lavender soap and worked up a good lather; then he helped her to stand up in the tub.  Water sluiced down the lovely length of her, and pausing once in a while to kiss her glistening hide, he used the luxurious soap and the gentle roughness of the mitten to wash every inch of her glorious skin.  He was diligent in his thoroughness, and then with a large bath ladle he poured water over her to rinse away the soap.  He drained most of the water from the tub as he did so and quickly refilled it so that when he helped her down again, she lay in fresh water and that sloshed around her.

It’s just.  Blerg.

Maybe I’m handicapped by knowing how good Maberry would get in a couple more years, but I’m really conflicted by this series.  It’s not unreadable, but if I had encountered the Pine Deep trilogy first, it’s doubtful I would’ve stuck around for Joe Ledger.  One book to go.  Here’s hoping Maberry brings it home in a way that redeems the first two episodes.

*****

Current listening:

Joanna weird

Joanna Gruesome – Weird Sister (2013)

No Medicine for Regret

lazy

I got lazy.

How else to explain the sudden absence of book reviews after dutifully posting 1,000ish words for the first twelve titles that comprise the beginning of the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project?

Long story short: I’m reading too fast to comfortably devote the time to writing.

The project, however, is ongoing.  For the curious, here are the books I’ve read in the last month, accompanied by a one-sentence review, because I’m all about customer service.

Jonathan Maberry – Ghost Road Blues. The first book in a trilogy, it’s the sound of one of my favorite horror writers still finding his voice.

David Nicholls  – One Day. Forget what you’ve heard about the movie, this book reduced me to tears in the middle of a hotel bar in Alexandria, VA.

Tim O’Brien  – In the Lake of the Woods. Lyrical and perplexing, it’s a mystery without resolution, which still ended up being completely satisfying.

Chuck Palahniuk – Tell-All.  To tolerate Palahniuk you have to buy into each book’s gimmick, which I just couldn’t do with this underwhelming quasi-screenplay.

Ian Rankin  – Strip Jack.  Another dazzling mystery based in the everyday lives of its Scottish characters, featuring John Rebus, the intriguingly rumpled sleuth.

David Sedaris – Holidays on Ice. Thoroughly disappointing and unexpectedly, frustratingly mean-spirited.

Jonathan Tropper – The Book of Joe. Another winner about a shaggy-dog thirtysomething protagonist coming to terms with his past.

Kurt Vonnegut – Palm Sunday.  It’s Vonnegut, which means it’s worth reading, but there’s no doubt that this pseudo-autobiography comprised of previously published nonfiction is a minor effort.

Elmore Leonard – The Big Bounce. Leonard’s first crime novel is sharp in all the right ways, and features the template of clueless men and whip-smart women that he’d use and use again in future books.

Teddy Wayne – The Love Song of Jonny Valentine. After an extremely shaky beginning, this book about a Bieber-esque child singer coming to terms with the adults in his life grew on me.

And that brings me up to date.  Full reviews may return if I can find the time and the motivation, or I may just check in periodically with brief recaps like this one.

*****

Current listening:

Archers all

Archers of Loaf – All the Nations Airports (1996)