Monday, November 12, 2018

The Fortress at the End of Time

McDermott's novels were recommended to me by writer and friend Benjanun Sriduangkaew on the basis that they were beautifully written and nothing happens, two of my favourite things. The older I get, the more I'm pushed onwards by aesthetics rather than the strict pull of narrative which spurned me on before. Not that narrative is bad, per se, but the less plot I get, the better, it seems to me. Perhaps my subjective rejection of over-plotting is in reaction to mainstream cinema's obsession with plot above all else; these films operate under the assumption that if there isn't copious, overflowing amounts of plot, audiences will feel cheated. I gather this comes after the extreme success of Nolan's The Dark Knight (which, despite my grumbling and my paeans, I still kind of like). Hence, detractors of Mad Max: Fury Road pointed to its simple plot as a negative; they complained "they drive from one point to another and then back! That's it! Nothing happens!" as if a super-abundance of plot makes a movie.

The Fortress at the End of Time does not have a super-abundance of plot, thankfully. The stakes are extremely low: this is a character study of a clone living in a decaying, rotting watch station at the far edge of the known universe where the military stands ready, ostensibly, for the return of a mysterious enemy (who will no doubt never return). The decomposition of the actual space station is mirrored in the deterioration of the military's standards. The narrator has his ideals and tries to stand firm against this rot, but he is arrogant, naive, almost simpleminded in the execution of his duties. He's moralizing, fervent in his beliefs of military conduct. All of it works against him. The entire novel depicts the frustrating tension between what this character wants and everybody else's wants. Often, when giving narrative advice, writers suggest the plot should derive from the disjunction between the cast's desires; the desires are at odds and thus there is conflict. Most narratives can be boiled down to this: a superhero desires saving the city while a supervillain desires to destroy it. However, most audiences would find these narratives boring if there aren't complicating factors, such as the complexity or uniqueness of the plans used by the characters to thwart each other. The Fortress at the End of Time isn't bereft of these complicating factors; it's just that they are pared down to the roughest of surfaces.

On Goodreads (oh boy, here he goes again about Goodreads), most popular review for this novel reads simply: "What if a guy went to a remote space station on the outskirts of the galaxy and nothing happened?" (here). It's one of the few reviews I've clicked "like" on. Other reviews, more negative reviews, suggest readers were expecting something completely different. No review says this better (or more explicitly) than the poor soul would thought this would be like Scalzi's Old Man's War (ie the Platonic ideal of inoffensive, forgettable military science fiction with an incommensurately rapturous reputation). Other negative reviews make mention of the lack of plot ("nothing happens!") or they persevere on the dialogue, which is somewhat stilted, purposefully so. Not all dialogue needs to be realistic! Just as not all characterization needs to be realistic! Break the chains of realism holding back narrative! Release your desperate grip on the life-preserver of realism! Or whatever metaphor you'd like me to use. However, some of the reviews seem to get it... in fact one says it almost perfectly: "I'm calling this military SF because I suspect it's truer to a lot of people's military experience (being bored a lot in far away places) than zap-pow laser marines fighting alien hordes" (here).

This character study gives enough room for a mild but effective denunciation of how labour without aim, with alienation, can be dehumanizing and soul-destroying. I don't think it's an accident how religious this society is, without all the succor religion can actually provide. The monastery in this novel is as corrupt and conniving as their ostensible allies, the military. Religion, in this tiny place, is as soul-crushing and withering as labour because it is greedy and myopic. We should not take this as the novel's disdain for religion in general—this book is far too clever to be straightforward. We should not generalize from the minimal data (this space station, this monastery) that religion in the entire universe is as predatory. The Fortress holds its cards close to its chest, an ambition we should applaud.

I'm definitely going to read more of McDermott's works now. I'm suitably impressed.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

November Reads Part One

Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson
Exhalation and other Stories by Ted Chiang

The pleasure of reading these Fractured Europe novels is in becoming hopelessly lost, both geographically (the point) and narratively (the fun!). For much of this third of four volumes, I was wonderfully confused, adrift among seemingly unrelated plot points and characters hitherto never seen. The finale does do a bit of explaining, thankfully, but I spent much of my time with the final 40 or so pages shaking my head and smirking, impressed with Hutchinson's masterful mashup of Len Deighton and parallel world narratives. We've spoken before on Twitter, sharing our mutual admiration for Deighton's early stuff, and though Le Carre gets the explicit name drop in Europe in Winter, it's to Deighton the novel gives its heart and soul. Though I haven't finished the series, I can confidently state the Fractured Europe sequence might be one of the all-time great SFF series of the 2010s... maybe even of the 21st century. I can't think of any other series of speculative fiction which is as insightful, sharp, clever, and politically necessary. There are bigger thematic goals for the series than a unique or fresh take on the parallel universe narrative, an ambition to be applauded. I find it frustrating Hutchinson hasn't received any major award attention for these novels. It's wholly deserving.

I read Ted Chiang's first collection of stories before this blog, when I was in university the first time, and I found it a mind-blowing experience: poignant, intriguing, beautiful, delicate, thoughtful. My memory must have gilded the rough edges, because how else to explain how disappointing I found Chiang's second collection? The most cutting edge SF concepts are still present, but I don't remember the older stories being so clumsy with the execution of said concepts, or even worse, the stentorious "philosophizing" around them. Imagine, if you can, a first year philosophy seminar, run by a teacher's assistant and attended entirely by 18 year olds. That's the kind of earnest, wide-eyed navel-gazing you can expect from the stories and their rooting around in the dirt for some nugget of wisdom at the level of "having a child changes your perception."

Hold up. I sound much grumpier about these stories than I actually am. I found the exposition clumsy, the characterization clumsy, the reaches toward poignancy clumsy, but clumsy isn't necessarily a failure. That Chiang doesn't have the grace or lightness of touch other (moralizing) science fiction writers have doesn't mean these stories aren't worth your time. There are positive aspects. Firstly, they're all immediately readable. I ploughed through all nine stories in two days, never once finding myself impatient or restless. Even the less plot-focused of stories, such as the title story, about a mechanical man performing brain surgery on himself to discover the secrets of the universe, were alluring and compelling. Chiang is probably the most readable of the "hard" science fiction writers (Greg Egan I've found completely unreadable) thanks to his general storytelling skills. He spins a good yarn, overall. It's just the smaller things pricked at me, a frustration built of a thousand tiny cuts. Clumsy, as I've repeated, is the most appropriate descriptor.

The final story is about prisms which allow communication between parallel universes, and in true Heisenberg principle fashion, the act of communication itself causes the divergence. This is perhaps the best story in the entire collection, or maybe second best to the multiple award-winning "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate." Both feature Chiang at his emotional best, using the science fictional concept for emotional truth instead of whiz bang theatrics. The final story, "Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom," is anchored by an emotionally complex focal character, and by grounded ethical stakes. Take away all the science fictional aspects and the story still functions as a narrative: the lead character must face her own past ethical choices and forge ahead to make new choices, in an effort to be a better person. The integration of the fantastical isn't quite as smooth as in the aforementioned "Merchant" story (presented à la Arabian Nights-style nested stories), but it's emotional genuine, which makes it all the better for it. 

"The Lifecycle of Software Objects" might be the worst story in this collection and I'm truly baffled it won so much praise and so many awards. It's a completely inert, cold, lifeless tale of raising AI as if children. It's classic hard science fiction: emotionless, suffused with technical writing, and human characters functioning only as mouthpieces for oration. Only a parent, smug with the delusion that parenthood is the only meaningful pursuit in life, could come up with something so teeth-rottingly sweet and pablum-like. I find reading about the quiet nobility of child-rearing especially difficult in the years after reading James' What Maisie Knew (here), a face-melting excoriation of the selfishness of parents. 

The collection, Exhalation, comes out in May 2019, and I'm grateful to the publisher for an advanced reading copy (especially so far in advance of publication!!)

Sunday, November 4, 2018

October Reads Part Two

Perfect Recall by Ann Beattie
Dancing After Hours by Andre Dubus
The Snow by Adam Roberts 

Dancing After Hours is as close to perfect as short story collections go. From "All the Time in the World," about a young woman yearning for a connection beyond the physical:
The other men she loved talked about marriage as a young and untried soldier might talk of war: sometimes they believed they could do it, and survive as well; sometimes they were afraid they could not; but it remained an abstraction that would only become concrete with the call to arms, the sound of drums and horns and marching feet. She knew with each man that the drumroll of pregnancy would terrify him; that even the gentlestthe vegetarian math teacher who would not kill the mice that shared his apartmentwould gratefully drive her to an abortion clinic and tenderly hold her hand while she opened her legs. (89)
This quote, excavated from a longer paragraph gives examples of what makes Dubus' stories and prose work so well. His sentences are long (this isn't even close to the longest sentence in this collection) but never lose focus or clarity; his use of the polysyndeton ("and" instead of commas) generating a beautiful rhythm; the sensitivity and honesty; the love he has for these characters even when they frustrate. Most of the stories in this collection are harrowing little pieces of drama, the kind of short stories which use random catastrophes and tragedies to probe about how people will react, how they'll cope, how they live. Which is to say, my favourite type of short story. I can't wait to read more of his work.

Perfect Recall is more of the same from Beattie, but with a bit more stylistic and formal experimentation than in previous collections, I've gathered. The first story even features a rare appearance (in a Beattie story) of a Joycean epiphany! Some of these were ok and some contained the brilliance which keeps me coming back for more. "See the Pyramids," about two models and their flaky boyfriends, tickled me, as did "In Irons." Two of the best stories featured men taking care of other men, either as a job or as friends. "The Big-Breasted Pilgrim" (not a great title) follows a chef's personal assistant and the surrounding friends and lovers as he attempts to organize a private dinner for the then-President Bill Clinton. This is mirrored quite in a lovely way with the final story, "The Famous Poet, Amid Bougainvillea" in which two personal assistants to two famous artists have been disabled and are hiring their replacements. In each case, the characters are confronted with the assumption of gay romance, but all of them resist this easy speculation; instead, the relationships are complicated in different ways, not cluttered by eroticism, but cluttered by professional responsibilities and idiosyncrasies. All in all, not the most even collection—I can now understand why people claim her star dimmed in the late 1990s—but still a terrific read. 

Reading a high concept work of science fiction from Adam Roberts is often deflating. He zigs where other authors might zag, leaving readers potentially disappointed that the narrative didn't do what was promised on the tin, as it were. The Snow suggests an end of the world cozy catastrophe (yes, the Aldiss refrain about Wyndham) but instead, like Splinter and Gradisil, opts for emotional exploration using the structure of a speculative fiction novel. The snow does indeed fall, though this takes up only about 40 pages of a 300 page novel. The rest is an emotional journey, following the narrator (through a series of false documents) as she reacts, mostly passively, to the insanity of a government forming itself from the ruins of society. I suspect that, like many of his other novels, The Snow is self-consciously inspired by Wyndham's 1950s cozy catastrophes. The society Roberts imagines to form feels conservative and bourgeois, in a decidedly pointed way. It's no accident that the narrator is a woman of colour; this allows Roberts to bounce her off of Wyndham's small-minded science fiction. But like I say, it can be a bit deflating. There's a long section from another narrator which details his drug abuse problem as a Hollywood TV writer, and while it's funny and well-written, I can't help but wonder why Roberts loves his digressions so. Especially since the crucial piece of information in this section is purposefully and explicitly omitted, only to be revealed much later. He does love his puzzles that Adam. Still, as always, a pleasure to read.

Monday, October 15, 2018

September Reads Part Two, October Reads Part One

The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum
The Castle of the Otter by Gene Wolfe
On Blue's Waters by Gene Wolfe
Where You'll Find Me and Other Stories by Ann Beattie
Judith Hearne by Brian Moore

I took a small vacation in the first week of October and I used that time to watch two entire seasons of The Good Place and catch up on some reading. September was fairly light for me; I spent most of the month working my way through Peter Straub's The Throat, which I set aside as I was losing interest, through no fault of Straub (who writes beautifully as always in this conclusion to the trilogy). I needed a break. I hope to return to The Throat before I forget all the details and characters but I won't chastise myself for abandoning it.

The Girl Next Door has a devilish reputation and almost lives up to it, I'm equally delighted and unnerved to report. After having a crisis of opinion regarding Open Season (which I now regard as good verging on great), Ketchum's most famous novel beckoned to me. It was also cheap on Amazon and in print. I read it in a matter of hours, not solely because of the prose's simplicity but also due to its propulsion. Ketchum certainly knows how to pace a story. What fascinated me the entire time was the subtlety of the horror. I had expected wall-to-wall torture, both physical and sexual, but instead, Ketchum wrote a careful dual, interlocking portrait of the ease of evil, the banality as its known, and the ease of complicity. The master stroke of The Girl Next Door is the use of the first person. The audience is drawn into the nightmare of torture at the same time as the narrator without ever the audience forgetting the narrator's participation, silence, tacit approval. No matter the amount of crocodile tears, the narrator is still party to this. The novel can be read at the surface as a tale of everyday American horror but the text is fecund enough to support a reading of fascism's allure. One would be hard pressed to avoid comparing the torture to the Holocaust. I'm not sure if I liked this more or less than Open Season—enjoyment is a tough word to apply to either of these novels—but I do want to keep reading more Ketchum. He's much wilier than his reputation as "extreme horror" would have you believe. 

Twice a year, in my city, there's a massive charity booksale which overtakes much of a large mall. I look at these biannual sales as Christmas. I try to go on the first day and scope out the horror, science fiction, and fantasy tables. The books the sale accumulates comes from donations and private collections donated after death (I'm guessing). This can be the only explanation for the wild and esoteric books I tend to find. Usually, every sale, I stumble across an almost priceless gem (priceless to me, of course). This year, I found two hardcover omnibuses of Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun (which I also own in individual paperbacks) and The Book of the Short Sun (a volume I had previously purchased online, but this particular copy is in better shape). Also, I found a hardcover edition of The Urth of the New Sun in terrific shape. A strange find, the one I was most impressed by, was a slim hardcover called The Castle of the Otter. Without examining it, I added it to my cart. After the dust settled, and I was home with my purchases, I saw the little book is a collection of essays about The Book of the New Sun. I devoured it in an entire sitting, I'm pleased to say. I skipped a chunk of the lexicon in the middle, which reads as a dictionary, but the rest was pleasant and insightful. Not so much into the meanings and symbols of the tetralogy but into Wolfe's own process. His main income source for much of his career was editing a technical journal relating to engineering and this engineering angle informs much of his writing and thinking. One entire essay is devoted to an extended rationale for the "destriers," a warhorse. He approaches his imagined future as a logic problem: if x was absent, how would people accomplish y? This shouldn't be a surprise to readers of The Book of the New Sun and its sequels, as narrators often pose problems in the form of Catechisms or logic problems to solve. I derived much of the pleasure reading this from the section in which Wolfe obfuscates and dissembles even about the very work he's meant to elucidate. He's a trickster and a fine one at that.

Reading The Castle of the Otter inspired me to dive into The Book of the Long Sun, the final three books of The Solar Cycle. On Blue's Waters returns the metanarrative to the first person narration, away from the third person of the middle tetralogy. Which provides Wolfe the opportunity to play his usual games. The key mysteries afoot here are the identity of the narrator (is it Silk or is it Horn?) and the provenance of the "inhumu," a vampire-like race (or species) that may or not be alien to humanity and/or indigenous to Green, the jungle planet in twin orbit with Blue. Where The Book of the Short Sun was an almost political text, occupied with matters of rule and governance, On Blue's Waters is more of an Odyssey homage; Horn sails across the oceans of Blue in search of a spaceship to take him back to the Whorl, the generationship from whence they came. The tone is more melancholic, as if the characters know they're near the end of the road. Most of Wolfe's usual tricks are present, such as the classic obfuscation, the withholding of vital information, the after-the-fact exposition of important moments. Equally present are Wolfe's usual faults: his complete inability to write women, the homogeneity of voices, his conservative, almost reactionary politics. Even in a new society, Wolfe imagines the populace grasping desperately for the single ruler, the king, the God. A cooperative? Imaginatively impossible for Wolfe.

Where You'll Find Me and Other Stories, from 1986, is Beattie's fourth collection of short stories. I had hitherto pledged not to purchase any of her books as they were all available from the various libraries to which I have access, but the allure of collecting won out. Now I have almost her entire bibliography on order or on the way. However, I feel no regrets, especially after this collection. There are a couple stories which shook me. When reaching the end of these stories, I closed the book and closed my eyes, to internalize, to breathe, to savour. Beattie's skill, as I've demonstrated in my review for Chilly Scenes of Winter (here), is her accumulation of observances, of the objects and emotions which comprise everyday life. Her style, imitated to exhaustion in the 80s and 90s, is one of meticulous observation and gentle minimalism. The everyday fabric does much of the heavy lifting as she's often adverse to plot or the classic Joycean epiphany. Her stories often end without signalling any end. They could almost end mid-sentence with the same effect (if ending something mid-sentence didn't have a different connotative meaning). I didn't take notes, I'm afraid, so I can't even specify which of the stories throbbed through my consciousness. With the next collection, I'll be more fastidious.

Perhaps an odd complaint, but maybe this will make sense in context of my reading practices: I wish Judith Hearne had less plot. The first half of Brian Moore's most famous novel worked wonders; its sensitive observations and characterization are sublimely juxtaposed with Moore's cynicism about the Church. I won't claim the novel lost me in the second half—it never came close to that point—but the descent into pure plot disappointed me. When the novel is carefully examining Judith and the characters around her, I was entranced. Moore's ability to make drama out of characters having breakfast impressed me. When Judith's alcoholism and subsequent fall take over, I was reminded, unfavourably, of how much better Richard Yates did this. Perhaps Yates has ruined me for prose depictions of alcoholism because I can't imagine anybody writing it better (even Zola's L'Assommoir fails to live up to Yates' mastery). I'm not sure if I need to read another novel by Moore. I liked Judith Hearne a lot, but I wasn't blown away the way I have been by other authors. 

In other news, I have been reading short stories by William Trevor (from the omnibus Selected Stories, which, contrary to the title, aren't selected), Deborah Eisenberg (from her recently released collection Your Duck is My Duck), Munro's Moons of Jupiter, and Kelly Link's Get In Trouble. Trevor's stories are immaculate, precise sparkling gems of exquisite beauty. The hype is real. Kelly Link was recently award a MacArthur "genius" Grant, thus prompting me to give her stories a try. I should have known from the blurb by Gaiman that Link wouldn't be exactly for me. She's got a great eye for detail and sentences, but I feel a bit cold with these urban fantasy stories unless they veer hard into the Weird or into horror. Link is writing extremely well... but in a register which doesn't vibe with me.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Miami Vice S01E02

Title: "Heart of Darkness"
Airdate: September 28, 1984
Notable Guest Star: Ed O'Neill
Notable Song: "Going Under" by Devo

Thus begins my series of reviews, either small or large, of every episode of Miami Vice, which I bought on Blu-ray this week. I hope to maintain the format (the four items below the title screenshot) but I won't hold myself to a timetable for reviews nor a predetermined (and arbitrary) length for each review. Some might only be a paragraph (many will); others could take the form of an essay. I'm skipping the pilot episode because a) I've seen it a bunch of times before and I don't want to revisit it at the moment and b) surely there's been enough writing on it that I feel no need to contribute to the corpus on "Brother's Keeper." For this first review, I might talk about the meaning of Miami Vice to me.

When I was a small child, about 4 or 5, my parents were invited to a wedding; they purchased an off-the-rack suit for a child in light grey and pastel pink suit. I don't remember this at all, but I have seen the picture of me, standing next to a beautiful bouquet, and it has struck me, again and again, the fashion. I've also been, as far back as I can recall, a fan of Michael Mann and his singular aesthetic. I remember seeing Collateral in the theatre and being blown away. Collateral, along with 3 other cultural objects, make up my (hopefully not hypothetical) book on my obsession with California. Mann's depiction of Miami in the TV show isn't quite as impactful for me as his efforts to capture California. Yet, the same 80s sheen shines on this show as it does other cultural objects of the 80s that I find so fascinating such as To Live and Die in LA (the link goes to a piece on Letterboxd which functions as an almost manifesto for my book on California). For those that live in California, my dreamy-eyed adoration of a state I've only visited once might make sense, for isn't California the land of dreams? Others might find my starry eyes silly or childish. The situation isn't helped by my inability to articulate exactly what it is about the state which possesses me so totally. Miami Vice, created by Anthony Yerkovich (a fact often forgotten during Mann's ascent to auteur-god), is obviously not set in California, but shares some of the hallmarks of the 80s sheen which speaks of Cali so strongly. Where California famously has Googie architecture and design, Miami is well known for its pastel-coloured Art Deco buildings and Broadway typeface (famously used in the show's logo). I recently purchased an architecture book called Miami Beach Deco by Steven Brooke (here) which looks at the venerable pastel colourswhich, fun fact, weren't the original colours: Leonard Horowitz, in the 1970s, painted many of the famous Art Deco buildings in an effort to preserve them for their historical significance (source). In fact, the palette his devised directly informed the TV show's palette (most notably, Mann banned the stars from earth-tone colours).

The architecture featured in Miami Vice is backdrop and I hesitate to characterize Miami as a "character" in the way some people refer to London in Dickens or LA in Mann's Heat ("it's like the city is a character itself"). Miami Vice loves its setting, don't get me wrong, but it doesn't feel essential. (There are positive side-effects to the setting, however, such as Miami's inherently diversity. The show leans into this realism with more Latinx actors than most contemporaneous shows.)

Case in point, "Heart of Darkness," the second aired episode, which takes the title from Conrad, and its interest in being subsumed by darkness, but doesn't take a literal journey to depict this. Crockett and Tubbs are undercover as New Jersey porn distributors looking to expand in Florida. They're moving their way up the illegal porn trade's ladder, trying to maneuver a meeting with one of the top tier criminals (the higher the guy, the bigger the bust). They're stalled out with Jimmy, a mid-level dealer, who keeps promising meetings with Artie, even though Sam Kovics is the boss and ostensibly the target of this operation. Eventually, after being "arrested," the detectives prove their bonafides and meet with Artie, played by Ed O'Neill (the notable guest star). The end of second act twist is that Artie is himself undercover for the FBI. The Bureau (significantly dressed in more 70s-style cop outfits, something the camera doesn't forget to linger on, as to demonstrate visually the difference between older cop shows (dated, ill-fitting, uncool) and our protagonists (cool)) reveals they worry Artie has gone through to the other side. Crockett can understand this dilemma; he's been there, and he knows. Tubbs, trying to argue with Crockett, remarks (quite famously) that there's undercover and not knowing which way is up (a line revised and refined for the sublime film version). After a tense meeting with Artie, the detectives go for a final meet with Sam Kovics, but their cover is blown thanks to faulty equipment. Artie, faced with the challenge of executing the protagonists, instead shoots his boss and murders Kovics (hiding in a limo) in cold blood. The denouement reveals Artie hanged himself.

Miami Vice is known for its nihilism, the relentless rat race that is police work: criminals are freed on bail just as soon as they're arrested. The cycle continues. "Heart of Darkness" boldly states its claim, not only with Artie's rather unhinged execution of Kovics with a submachine gun, but with his suicide as well. Sometimes going too deep means you can never get out, just as Conrad's Heart of Darkness suggests. The abyss stares back.

The main issue with this particular episode (other than its flimsy B-plot: amusing, but flimsy) is withholding Artie until the middle of the hour. The writers are faced with a tough choice, of course: the show is about Crockett and Tubbs and we see almost everything from their perspective (such as in classic whodunit fashion). The show can't follow Artie so we can't observe his descent. But the emotional impact of his heart of darkness is blunted by the scenes leading up to his reveal. We're taken aback that he is FBI, but we never get the sense that he's gone deep. A tough choice, as I say. The twist pops, shocking the audience, but it comes at a cost. Since this reveal comes at the halfway point, Crockett's sympathy with Artie feels a bit rushed. Yes, we know Crockett has some trauma related to his undercover work, and this episode begins the hinting towards this, but his rather hyperbolic reaction doesn't have the groundwork established to sell this to the audience.

While my partner and I were watching this (their first time ever seeing the show), I admitted I watch Miami Vice more for the style than the writing, which is typical cop show writing. Yes, its grittiness and realism contributed to the significant boom in 90s cop shows (NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life on the Street) but the show hasn't quite shaken the cop shows of the 70s (even some of the blocking, lighting, and framing in this episode feel very Rockford Files to me). I know the writing improves in some ways and worsens in other ways as the show continues, the danger of any American TV show produced by assembly line and produced in copious quantities (surely Miami Vice didn't need 24 episodes a year).

Which isn't to say I found the writing dismal. Rather, I just had to remind myself to see the blueprints concealed beneath the style for that which comes in the future. The writing is good for what it is.

Significantly, the episode rises above its contemporary cop show peers thanks to the MTV-inspired editing, specifically during a quite beautiful montage before the third act. Set to Devo's "Going Under" (the notable song I mention, though there are other good songs in the episode), the montage cuts between the detectives getting dressed, in dark rooms, with bold lighting, and shots of Crockett's car driving through the glowing streets of nighttime Miami (fun fact: this sequence liberally borrows shots of the car from the famous "In the Air Tonight" montage in the pilot). The staccato synthesized drums and the stark lighting have the feel of a music video, the intended effect, I'm sure. I wouldn't go so far as to call it abstract or avant garde, but the likes hadn't been seen on primetime television (and really aren't seen anymore aside from the superlatively good editing on Sharp Objects). The music video effects provides a sense of urgency (faster cross-cutting, more suspense), steering away from the traditionally languid editing of dialogue scenes. The fact that a TV show could and did shut up for 4 minutes for a music video is novel in of itself and I applaud it. I admit it's a retread of the pilot's famous scene, but boy it still pops.

There's also more alligator hijinks in the episode, which don't really work for me, especially since these scenes really give Tubbs nothing to do other than smile warmly at his partner's idiosyncrasy. As much as I love animal shenanigans, Elvis the alligator tests my patience.

I don't want to say too much more about the show as a whole for fear of repeating myself inevitably, so I will leave it here. I also won't be grading the episodes, just as I do with books, but I can say I enjoyed this episode quite a bit and my nostalgia for Miami Vice has been rejuvenated.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

September Reads Part One

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
The Separation by Christopher Priest
Pet Sematary by Stephen King

I read Sharp Objects in preparation for watching the tv show, and I'm glad I did, because there's a couple things the book does better than the show (not a lot, but a couple). My interest in the show was piqued by friends on Twitter claiming it was less of a mystery and more of a Gothic-style exploration of trauma and memory. The book is that, of course, but less so. The mystery and the noir style is first and foremost, but when Sharp Objects becomes focused on the unique suffering of women, often at other women's hands, it transcends its quotidian mystery (which, and I'm not bragging here, I solved within 100 pages, that's how simple it is). After seeing Gone Girl and reading this book, I begin to understand the appeal of Flynn. She's tapping into the desire to see complicated women villains, to see women villains who aren't just femmes fatale or golddiggers or maneaters. They're women living in a patriarchal system, inescapably so, and how they lash out or writhe against those bonds. The show doesn't quite hit this note as hard as it does its affecting and extremely empathetic portrait of mental illness, my preferred aspect of the novel. I definitely cried watching the show. Where the novel stumbles, other than in its by-the-numbers mystery, is a tendency to over-explain. The narrator is at pains for you to understand absolutely everything. I'm surprised the narrator doesn't explain metaphors too while at it. The show's final few minutes are exquisite: suggestive, allusive, enigmatic. This goes against the novel's final 30 pages which are laborious, exhaustive in detail. Both are quite good, but the show is excellent.

The Separation is my first Priest novel and I suppose the first "science fiction" novel I've read since May. Though, my categorization of this novel as science fiction derives from the market's assignation of alternate history as science fiction. Surely we can all agree that alt-history falls under the umbrella of the literature of the Fantastic, but where it nudges against sci-fi is determined on a case-by-case scenario. I'm sure Priest is difficult to market for his publishers. His novels resist easy categorization. The Separation is World War Two alt-history, with a puzzling blurring of the contra-history and the factual history. There's no easy solution to the divergence; Priest only suggests a couple lynch points instead of laying it out. Instead, the alt-history and Fantastic elements are the stage-setting for a nuanced and conflicted portrait of pacifism, duty, and the corrupting nature of war. I admit I struggled a bit with this one. While I loved the puzzle aspect of it, the waffling about pacifism struck me as almost metafictional pacifism, a refusal to stop sitting on the fence. What is this novel about, exactly? It's tough to say and I'm not sure I have a clear answer. Pacifism? Brotherhood? Why use fantastical elements to tell a story which could have been excised of alt-history and probably still make its points? I still quite liked this book—it's elegantly written, ingeniously constructed—but I don't think my critical lens is sharp enough to figure it out. This is like reading Adam Roberts: I can detect the allusions, references, the superstructure, but I can't grasp them with any authority, at least not enough to glean meaningful or productive insights. Still, my own ignorance hasn't stopped from enjoying Roberts or The Separation (or at least not enjoying to the fullest capacity) so I'll keep trying!

I put Pet Sematary at number two in my "for shits and giggles" ranking of Stephen King's work (here). I'd have to read 'Salem's Lot again to be sure, but I still think it's a solid Silver next to the latter's Gold. It's definitely in vogue to dismiss King and his prodigious output but I still believe that King produced a handful of all-timers, maybe more than most of the Great Writers. Pet Sematary was a great reread for me. I first read it when I was in university (the first time around) and I was trying to fill in the gaps in my King bibliography. I remember so clearly, so vividly, reading the final page and being blown away. King often struggles with endings but he completely nails it here. It's easily his best ending. What disappointed me a bit this time around and maybe I'm being oversensitive is that I remember there being more of a cosmic horror angle. There's a suggestion at the end there is more to the Pet Sematary that meets the eye but when the dead kid comes back to life, he's violent and crude and annoying in the way all King villains here. It's a bit deflating when the monster speaks like it has the Hollywood version of Tourette's Syndrome. I guess years of reading cosmic horror, Lovecraftian stuff, Weird fiction has made me a bit resistant to King's singular brand of folksy conversationalist horror. Still, very glad I reread this. What a whopper of an end.

Friday, August 31, 2018

August Reads Part Two

The Ritual by Adam Nevill
Tomato Red by Daniel Woodrell
The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay
The Likeness by Tana French

I last read Nevill in 2013, when I read Last Days. I guess he didn't make too big of an impact on me because it took me 5 years to get around to reading another one of his novels. I'd heard from a friend with excellent taste that Last Days isn't great but The Ritual is a big improvement, and I can definitely see that. I liked The Ritual quite a bit, especially the first half. In fact, I would go so far as to say I love the first half. Ever since reading Ketchum's Off Season and Simmons' The Terror, I've had a bit of a jones for survival horror or backwoods horror. The Ritual doubles down on this fairly hard in the first half, opening with the characters already lost, one of them already injured, and tensions running high. There is little time wasted on flashbacks or motivations or what have you. Rather it's just the four hikers against the oceanic black forest in Norway. Once I had reached the halfway point, and idly wondered how Nevill was going to fill another 200 pages after killing off most of his cast, the novel pivots to something else and it's a small letdown. I didn't love the direction the novel takes, but I also still enjoyed it. This isn't like Justin Cronin's deeply dumb The Passage (which I never finished because it was awful) which takes such an irritating left turn after its pretty decent opening. The Ritual doesn't have big ambitions like Cronin did. Instead, it just wants to fuck things up and give the reader a thrill. I can respect that. I can respect genre work which knows what it is and what its limits are. I was impressed enough with how little needless cruelty there was in this. In fact, there's a stupendous and very welcome amount of empathy in this novel, for its protagonists and even for its hapless misguided villains. I was shocked by how emotionally engaging the finale was. I don't think I'll wait another 5 years before reading another Nevill!

I last read Woodrell in July of 2013, the same month I read Nevill (!). It was just coincidence I revisited these two authors after 5 years in the same month. I don't remember a ton about Give Us a Kiss but I do remember really loving Winter's Bone. Tomato Red is more of the same, of course—not as refined as Winter's Bone in terms of plotting, but Woodrell's obvious empathy for the underclasses shines through. This novel gives us some absolutely fine prose in addition to the gentle sympathy. Here is Woodrell's narrator on the "holler," an Appalachian pronunciation of "hollow" (which is an example of an epenthetic r sound):

This holler, at night or during the day, either one, had the shape of a collapsed big thing, something that had been running and running until it ran out of gas and flopped down exhausted exactly here. The houses were flung out along this deep crease in the hills and the crease surely did resemble the posture of a forlorn collapsed creature. Scrub timber and trash piles and vintage appliances spread down the slopes and all around the leaning houses to serve as a border between here and everything that wasn't here.
Woodrell makes this stuff look easy, this hillbilly poetry, but his prose isn't simply gorgeous and all unexpected verbiage ("houses were flung," a great example of the expert passive voice) though this surely adds to his overall magic. No, it's not just the intensified physicality of the details, but this holistic magic trick. Woodrell is the type of author I can't get enough of: he performs sorcery with words but never loses his humanist attention. Here he is on the rich:
You know, the regular well-to-do world should relax about us types. Us lower sorts. You can never mount a true war of us against the rich 'cause the rich can always hire us to kill each other. Which they and us have done plenty, and with brutal dumb glee. Just toss a five-dollar bill in the mud and sip wine and watch bodies start flyin' about, crashing headfirst into blunt objects, and our teeth sprinle from our mouths, and the blood gets flowing in such amusing ways. Naw, it's always just us against us—guess who loses?
The plotting of Tomato Red doesn't quite make this happen as clearly as it could have been. Lots happens off-stage, with characters telling the audience what is happening. There's never a clear antagonist or threat to their existence. In noir, the most obvious obstacle to the protagonist is the protagonist themselves, something Woodrell picks up on, leaving behind the rich oligarchs to manipulate off-stage. 

The Likeness was better in some ways than French's first novel and worse in other ways, I'm sad to report. It seems everybody claims her second novel is her best, and if that's the case... I'm not sure how many more in this series I'll finish. The Likeness is fine. Just fine. Very readable. The prose is great, French's management of suspense is great, her characterization is pretty good. What she excels at is the low descent into chaos, the way her characters think they have things under control but they don't, the reader knows it and in the back of the protagonists' minds, they know too. Where The Likeness really sets itself apart from what I assume as vast swathes of homogeneous murder mysteries is the centering of the victim herself. I'm going to quote at length a bit of narration from Cassie, the protagonist.
Here's one of the more disturbing things about working Murder: how little you think about the person who's been killed. There are some who move into your mindchildren, battered pensioners, girls who went clubbing in their sparkly hopeful best and ended the night in bog drains—but mostly the victim is only your starting point; the gold at the end of the rainbow is the killer. It's scarily easy to slip to the point where the victim becomes incidental, half forgotten for days on end, just a prop wheeled out for the prologue so that the real show can start. (152)
It's hard not to read French as frustrated with her peers. And it's exactly the reason why I struggle with so much of the mystery genre: this pornographic obsession with the body of the victim and nothing to do with the life. Cassie's focus on the victim has a cost, much like the detective of the previous novel paid a cost for his investigation. The ambitions of The Likeness are admirable but it just wasn't enough to wow my socks off and I'm not sure if I can pinpoint what could have been done to do so.

Tremblay's novels have been enjoying hyperbolic praise, especially this new one, and I felt I had to read it. I'm not sure I can accurately state how good this book is. I'll have to leave it as just this, I'm afraid. Sometimes novels are so good as to defy analysis or review. I can't wait to read more of his work.