Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Acts of Faith

Belief is a virus, and once it gets into you, its first order of business is to preserve itself, and the way it preserves itself is to keep you from having any doubts, and the way it keeps you from doubting is to blind you to the way things really are. Evidence contrary to the belief can be staring you straight in the face, and you won't see it... True believers just don't see things the way they are, because if they did, they wouldn't be true believers anymore.
Philip Caputo's novel Acts of Faith is one of those big novels. It's one of those novels with a large canvas, a large cast of characters (and a helpful dramatis personae at the beginning), a map, and of course, big themes. Many Big Novels, let's capitalize that, tackle their Big Theme with arresting confidence in the importance of tackling said theme. War is bad. Friendship is good. History repeats. Stuff like that. However, Acts of Faith (as its ponderous thundering title suggests) is a Big Novel about real stuff. By this, I mean, the crisis in Africa, specifically Sudan.

I actually know a few boys from Sudan. They're tall, mostly affable, and can tell you scary stories, anecdotes so effective because you can see that they actually happened to the boys telling them. Stuff like fighting a monkey for the only piece of fruit you've seen in a month. Or like hiding in the bushes from a roving gang of children armed with Kalashnikovs and machetes, hoping to lop the heads off people just for looking at them funny.

Caputo takes that sense of unbalance, that sense of chaos, and bottles it up, maps it out over a Big Novel with Big Themes and a large cast. The difference between Acts of Faith and other novels that attempt similar things is that Acts of Faith's crisis continues still. This is the kind of novel that inspires me to donate to things and get fired up about being socially conscious. This is, of course, the point. This is the intention. Nobody writes a 700 page novel set in Sudan starring relief workers and white people because they want to tell a story. They want to make a difference. Caputo's labor is one of love and immediacy in equal measures. He obviously loves his subject matter (enough to research and write this mammoth tome) but it comes at the price of asking the reader, "what are you going to do about it?"

I'm not going to address the immediacy of the Big Theme in this novel other than in the above paragraphs. There's no point in rehashing my political beliefs or that I'm intensely interested in the plight of countries like Sudan (especially after getting to know a number of Sudanese immigrants). So that being said, I want to look at Acts of Faith as a novel. And surely, it's constructed like a novel, more so than other Big Novels with idealistic outlooks. By this, I mean despite Caputo's journalism background, he's constructed something carefully, deliberately, and novelistic. Truly, a labor of love to have done so meticulously.

On Goodreads, a site that I often frequent, a reviewer said this of Acts of Faith:
It pains me to give a ho-hum review to a novel that was clearly so dear to the heart of the author; "Acts of Faith" must've been a labor of love for Philip Caputo...sadly, what mostly is conveyed is the labor and not the love (at least to this reader).
I'm kind of building on this particular reader's two star review of the novel when I say that this subject obviously means a great deal to Caputo. It raises an interesting and hopefully fruitful avenue of thought in my mind.

I wrote 2,000 words on Marvel's The Avengers the other day and 2,000 words on Lanchester's Capital. Over 4,000 words devoted to effectively taking apart a work, no a labor of love, and demonstrating why they don't function. This comment, offhand probably, from this anonymous reviewer actually coincides neatly with something Film Crit Hulk wrote about only this week, which you can read here. Hulk, if you didn't already know, is one of the best film critics working right now, and I have tremendous respect for him. His article, if I can boil it down, is that critics have forgotten that cinema and other media of art have soul and are meant to establish an emotional connection with the consumer of the art. Critics have lost themselves in a fog of too rigorous criticism such as dismantling the technical flaws of the film instead of recognizing the film's emotional connection with the audience. This is one of Film Crit Hulk's pet themes: stories only work if the audience accepts the characters and their motivations/decisions. Of course, this is totally reductive, and if Hulk ever read this, he'd rightfully quibble.

What I'm trying to say is that I take no joy in dismantling a work of art. Sometimes I do lose myself in a fog of overly rigid critical thinking. I think about things in terms of technical expertise (such as my love for efficient genre exercises) and I forget that my engagement with art should at first be on the emotional frequency and not on the over-educated framework I've been employing.

Why do we take glee in attacking something that's clearly a labor of love? Because of Schadenfreude and our adoration of other people's misery. Why do we enjoy insulting a work that took so much energy that it only be considered a product of obsession and love?

Film Crit Hulk argues that film criticism should be about understanding why a text either works or doesn't. It's not about providing a letter grade or demonstrating with mathematics why the film is good or bad. It's about engaging with the work to understand the text on a deeper level and figuring out why it succeeded or where it went wrong.

At this point, I'm going to connect the act of reviewing and engaging with the text to the very theme and meaning of Caputo's Acts of Faith. That is to say, this long preamble serves a specific logical function.

Acts of Faith suffers in the second half because Caputo employs a rather overwrought non-journalistic voice. It's melodramatic and quite distracting. It reminds me of those old paperbacks with the painted cover of a man standing proud, his arm curled around the waist of his buxom love interest, but his eyes squinting over the harsh landscape he intends to dominate. Those kind of historical romance novels that are often called "epic" not just for their sweeping timescale, but for their length as well. Obviously these types of novels were informed by imperialism, colonialism and manifest destiny. But Caputo's novel, while deploying a similar voice, isn't motivated by imperialism. It's an interrogation of what brings white people back to Africa. Do they have faith in their mission, in themselves, in Africa? What is it? Perhaps that's why Caputo adopts such an overwrought and painfully earnest voice for a few hundred pages. The kind of voice that says, "he propels himself into her and fills her with his seed" as opposed to "they fucked in the bush and finished just before the ostriches came by to satisfy their curiosity". So why does he use this voice? To match the earnestness and naivety of the cast?

He's trying to understand why these relief workers compromise themselves so totally for the myth of Africa. They make choices and they do things they think are necessary for their belief in the idea that they're doing what's right. Their labor of love is to provide aid to the unfortunate people, whose only flaw is a circumstance of geography and hundreds of years of history. Caputo has written a long labor of love in order to figure out why he has written a long labor of love.

Authors don't choose their subjects, Paul Scott once said. Instead, their subjects choose them. Caputo's subject, since his memoir about Vietnam, has been war and the lengths people go to in order to continue that war. One of the main characters, a corporal for the Sudanese People's Liberation Army, implies that war has been his labor of love. His wife says that war has become his mistress.

Caputo is working through why his subject has chosen him through his cast of characters, his earnest overeager naive relief workers and pilots and doctors and nurses. Why do they return over and over to the harsh world of Africa? What is it about the myth of Africa?

Thus, Acts of Faith isn't about assigning a letter grade to the characters. It's not about mathematically judging them. It's about engaging with the idea of returning to Africa, returning to the subject of war, and trying to understand why it brings them, and by proxy Caputo, back over and over again.

What does this mean for Acts of Faith as a novel? Like I said earlier, the novel's shift in tone to an earnest one doesn't and does work. It doesn't work because it's too earnest to take, especially in light of the moral complexity of the situation in Sudan. But it also works because the form meets the content. Caputo has successfully merged, in definitively novelistic fashion, the meaning of the text with the text itself. This sounds easy to pull off, but it isn't.

The emotions of Acts of Faith seem so overwrought because the author is trying to understand why the characters believe in such things so dogmatically. The novel is called Acts of Faith after all. In the excerpt I posted at the very beginning of this review, a character explains that belief is a virus. Other characters reformulate this assertion later in the novel, all of them trying to work through their faith, their faith in the mission, their faith in themselves and in the future of Africa. Dogmatic belief in things is not a rational discourse, though it can lend itself to complex critical thinking (theology for example). The acts of faith in the novel shouldn't be examined in so rigorous or logical of a manner because they are an emotional connection, bridging the characters to their emotions.

This is why I opened with such a long preamble, echoing both another Goodreads reviewer and Film Crit Hulk. Once somebody applies logic to acts of faith, the acts themselves fall apart under scrutiny. But they're more than just technical flaws or missteps. Their very existence is illogical; that's why they're called acts of faith.

Hence, it's unfair to apply rigorous systems of logic to Acts of Faith the novel. The emotional connection the reader feels is equally important to whether or not the text functions successfully.

I do think the novel works, even if I had problems with some of the technical aspects of the text. While I didn't buy into every character's motivations, which might be due to the sheer size of the canvas (some cast members are bound to be underdeveloped when it's so big), I did buy into the overall emotion of the text, the exploration or rather interrogation of the acts of faith.

Africa is a subject that chose me, just like India chose me and Paul Scott. Thus, I understand the cast and Caputo's compulsion to return to Africa over and over, despite events and people that serve to disabuse or shatter our collective belief in the myth of Africa.

Why do the relief workers hold such faith in Africa, the mission, themselves? This is a question I keep returning to, but not because I don't know the answer, but because that's the question Caputo is asking in the text itself.
That any African kid, even a kid, could have faith in the future baffled him. His own future... was no future at all. The human capacity for hope when no hope was visible, the human will to live, to blindly, dumbly go on, were riddles that he would never solve - and didn't want to solve.
However, the answer that Caputo uncovers isn't so simple as "faith is good".

Sort of like in Scott's Raj Quartet, nobody is innocent. Everything they touch corrupts them, but it is the constant faith in their mission that corrupts them so absolutely. To quote from the novel, one of the characters is "so certain of his inner virtue that he believes anything he does, even something this terrible, is the right thing". Africa is a corrupting influence, or rather, it's an irresistible force.

Quinette, the young Midwestern evangelical girl, arrives in Africa hoping to change her life and change the lives of those to whom she preaches. Her life inexorably changes due to the force of Africa. She becomes romantically involved with the aforementioned corporal of the SPLA, and it changes her. Because she so fervently believes in her mission, to love this man and help his cause, she is corrupted.

In the end of the novel, people live, people die, but mostly, the villains are punished, but not by the authorial hand, but by the inexorable irresistible force of Africa. It's not something informed by logic but by the structure of the interrogation in which Caputo is engaged.

It's emotionally satisfying to read what happens in the denouement, not just because I had already 600 pages and was eager for the tension to overturn, but because I had been emotionally invested in this cast of characters. When the form meets the content, and when the author's sensibilities are in line with the subject matter, the artist produces a work of art. I can't help but again, compare this to Scott's Raj Quartet. While both are interested in the meeting of Westerners with an alien world, only one is interested in asking why the subject matter chooses the author. This isn't a fault of the Raj Quartet. Its interests lie in greater more ambitious pursuits. Acts of Faith deploys a similar moral sensibility: dogmatic faith in one's self in light of a visible lack of evidence is inherently corrupting. Whereas the cast of the Raj Quartet had the utmost faith in their superiority, the cast of Acts of Faith has the ultimate self-confidence in the purity of their mission. That very purity undoes itself in the face of Africa's unbalance, in its chaos.

What does this mean for Caputo, the author, the grand architect of this interrogation into faith, into the attractive properties of the subject? Ultimately, the artist is consumed by faith in the subject. Just like all art, the artist pours himself into his labor of love, ending drained and empty, like Quinette at the end of Acts of Faith. This is purely poetical of course. I have no idea what Caputo felt once completing this Big Novel. I can only imagine a sense of dissatisfaction. A compulsion to return to the attraction of war and unbalance. Surely the proof is in the fact that Caputo's 2005 novel echoes the sensibility of his war memoir from thirty years previous?

This novel isn't perfect. But it is great because of the author's investment into the cast, into their emotions, and eventually, into the technical beauty of the structure of the novel. The title isn't merely a fancy phrase. It informs and shapes the entire thematic architecture of the novel. Its meaning cascades from the author's very belief in his subject down to the acts committed by the cast of characters. Acts of Faith isn't simply some historical romance, depicting the love affairs of important people on the canvas of history. It's a Big Novel that implores you to emotionally engage with aid work in Africa, but remember that Africa, and war, are irresistibly attractive. It's a complex interrogation of a subject, and that is what propels this novel into my heart - and mind.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Avengers

I'm opening this review of Marvel's The Avengers, as it's called, with a page from Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's Daredevil story, called "Born Again". It is, without a doubt, my favourite depiction of the Avengers ever. Certainly with only a few pages - no, a few panels, Miller and Mazzucchelli absolutely nail the Avengers' inability to come to grips with the real world. They are gods and man of iron. They're not real people. They're not humans with emotions or attachments. They're above everything, literally.

Joss Whedon's Avengers movie is a lavish expensive well-cast and entertaining work of fiction. That's the short review. That's the best thing I can say about this movie. At first glance, this is probably glowing praise, especially from somebody who picks and picks at things until others would say there is nothing fun left. I wanted to start the review with Miller's depiction of the Avengers as my favourite as a counterpoint to Whedon's breezy fun romp. While I think Whedon's Avengers is an eight year old's dream film, he will grow older and eventually (hopefully) read Miller's Daredevil. It says more about superheroes in one page than Whedon does in two and a half hours of spectacle.

So you can tell I already have problems with Marvel's The Avengers. I hate that it's called that. I hate that it has to be branded so definitively. I presume it's due to the old British television show similarly titled that existed in film version long before Chris Evans was able to hit the gym to build such tantalizing chest muscles.

Of course I have problems with the movie. But let's get the positives out of the way first. I mentioned that it was lavish and well-cast and entertaining. These are not half-truths or half-measures of praise. I truly mean it. It's a spectacle. But this - this I will get to in a moment. It's certainly well-cast, especially Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, the third Banner in a decade. He portrays the scientist-cum-monster as a wounded animal, constantly holding back the pain that is the Hulk. Other impressive members of the cast include Jeremy Renner, criminally underused, but then again, they all are. The movie's not long enough for all of these A-list actors. Chris Evans provides some meaty gravitas as Captain America, but he's not quite authoritative enough. He's unsure of himself in the world, but that might be due to his boyish good looks and soft Midwestern voice. Robert Downey Jr is - as always - a delight to behold. I wish he was in every movie, frankly. The list goes on. All of the cast are well chosen and perform admirably, considering they were no doubt in front of a huge green screen for most of the filming. The guy who plays Thor, that giant bulk of a man, whoever he is, well he looks good. That's about all I can say about that guy.

I also said it was entertaining. I was entertained. For two and a half hours, I was transported to an alternate Earth where superpowered folk are able to destroy copious amounts of prime New York real estate without too much blood. What blood there is, is sparse and brightly coloured. Not the brown grit of dirt smeared all over like on real soldiers' faces, but comic book red. One of the primary colours.

Look at this poster. It looks Photoshop'd. It looks fake. The whole movie has this feel of bright cartooniness, like they all stepped out of the garish comic book world. Chris Evans earnestly and without irony dons the star-spangled garb of Captain America and someone earnestly tells him that with all the darkness in the world, people need something old-fashioned. This same person dies believing in the idea of a team, of cooperation, of joining forces and overcoming differences in order to defeat a common enemy. This villain has but one motive, of course, to enslave and destroy freedom.

In the climax of the movie, Whedon's camera lingers on the panicked faces of New Yorkers as flying objects from the sky pulverize buildings. Debris and dirt and ash linger in the air as citizens, human beings, cower in fear as gods and men of iron clash high in the air. It's not hard to point to Marvel's The Avengers as a post-9/11 movie. It's also not hard to point to every fucking movie as a comment or rather observation on 9/11.

Because this is the problem, this is what I've been building to. While The Avengers is an entertaining fiction, it's ultimately that, and nothing more. It's always an observation of superheroics rather than a comment or an exploration of what it means to be a god or a man of metal.

This is surely intentional. Whedon's movie is an efficient, by the numbers but effective comic book movie that uses the colour palette of its source material to steer its design and its moral message at the heart of the film. There's no gray area in regards to enslavement or the total annihilation of freedom and thus there's no spectrum of colour in Marvel's The Avengers. The good guys are bright, the bad guys are dark. That is the equation.

But this leaves me wanting more, and surely, it leaves other people wanting more, judging by the excitement developed by Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises. It's almost unfair for both Whedon's film and Nolan's upcoming Batman story because I'm going to ultimately compare them both to my standard of comic book movie: 2008's The Dark Knight.

Where The Avengers is an observation on heroism and comic books, The Dark Knight is an exploration, a study in the themes relating to the symbiotic nature of heroes and villains. The Dark Knight looks to Batman, Harvey Dent and the Joker as a complicated triangle of need. They are on a spectrum of heroics and motivation. Each one is dynamic and changing under scrutiny and under each other's manipulations. Nolan's film explores, plays with, takes apart and puts back together a definition of heroism in the face of inscrutable terrorism. Whether or not The Dark Knight's success matches its ambitions is irrelevant. The fact that is has ambition is germane to Marvel's The Avengers.

Captain America, Ironman, Thor, the Hulk, Hawkeye and for some insane reason Black Widow band together, bond and join forces in order to defeat a villain's who's primary plan seems to consist of one step: sit on the throne. Both Heath Ledger's Joker and Tom Hiddleston's Loki engage in a specific type of terrorism that's particularly affected by 9/11. However, the pertinent question to ask is complicated. The outcome of terrorism is to create terror. What causes the most terror? The unknown. What is more terrifying than not knowing the motive behind the act of terrorism, or at least, not understanding it. Loki helpfully informs a group of Germans, and by proxy, the audience, that humans are designed to kneel, that freedom causes them to act foolishly. Heath Ledger's Joker, instead, tells the audience that he is a dog chasing after cars. It's worlds more terrifying. The Joker is more scary because he is detached from the world. Loki isn't scary at all because, even though he's a god, he's paradoxically more human thanks to his small goals. He's even called a puny god by a character in the film.

That's where Marvel's The Avengers ultimately gets the Avengers wrong. Instead of exploring what it means to be a superhero in the face of a post-9/11 world, or at least, a god hovering over the sea of humanity, the movie presents us with all-too human characters with foibles, with emotions, bickering stubborn small-minded humans but who have great power. Only Spider-Man can bridge this gulf, but that is due to his character and his location of being close to the street. Thor is not a street-level character. He's a god. That's why it's so disheartening to see the movie offer him as more than human, but still a person at heart.

This is due to the fact that the movie is - after all - a movie. It's a piece of entertaining fiction, and it operates with the language and the logic of a film. Just like other conventional superhero movies, things are set up and then pay off, such as somebody saying "Hulk smash" or when Captain America accuses Iron Man of being the last person to ever make a sacrifice, the audience knows that choice will be presented to him, and he will make the right choice.

In screenplay jargon, there are things called "beats". Beats are rhythmic pulses that the screenplay hits in order to satisfy the audience and the logic of the story. Beats are inevitably predictable once you've seen a number of conventional films. There's nothing wrong with this type of determinism. Audiences like stories to be tight and self-contained. However, stories are diseases that spread, and they need people like Joss Whedon to efficiently and effectively make sure the screenplay doesn't scatter itself all over. Marvel's The Avengers is extremely adept at hitting beats in a logical and consistent manner. We know Iron Man will be offered the opportunity to sacrifice himself just like we know that Batman and the Joker will end up in a confrontation.

However, just like how Marvel's The Avengers is an observation and The Dark Knight is an interrogation, Iron Man makes the right choice but Christian Bale's Batman makes a choice. The ending of The Dark Knight is predictable only if you understand the logic of the story that Nolan is telling. The ending of Marvel's The Avengers is predictable because you've seen a movie before.

Again, this is intentional, and many of you will disagree with me that this film suffers from its adherence to conventional storytelling, or that I'm being unfair in comparing this film to one starring Batman. My mother always complains that I read too much into things. "Why can't you just enjoy things for what they are?" I can. And I did. I was entertained by Marvel's The Avengers. I was transported by the fiction for two and a half hours. Some would say this qualifies the film as a success.

But this movie doesn't exist in a vacuum. It exists in a world where superhero movies can do and say more than they ever could before. X-Men 2, Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight, Watchmen, Super, and probably The Dark Knight Rises are not just movies, but interrogations. They explore what being a comic book character means. They understand that superheroes are not just humans but gods as well. Being gods, they should stand above, separate from the world, gazing down. They should accomplish things and acts in inscrutable ways because they are gods.

The Avengers fails for me because there is something to be said about superheroes that this movie is too shy to say. It's too interested in loud noises and big spectacle. This isn't a bad thing, but I guess I'm tired of fast food and ache for the five star experience, one that entertains and interrogates.

Just because you're a comic book movie doesn't mean you don't have to say anything about being a comic book movie.

Friday, June 22, 2012

My 500th tweet

Yup. I injured my ankle and I'm crutches. If this doesn't sum me up, I'm not sure what does.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Amulet

Southern fiction is sweaty, mean, and filled with a sense of the grotesque. That is why it's all the more believable that a Southern Gothic could turn into a Southern horror novel. At first glance at that cover, you'd be forgiven for thinking this is just another post-King horror paperback with a predictable cast of blue collar people trying to scrape by until some unimaginable horror (usually from the every day) saunters in and destroys their lives. At this point in the review, I'd say that this novel is anything but. Of course, I'd be lying to you.

The thing about my love of genre is not that I love things that resist genre, but things that execute within the genre with perfect ease. Not every novel I read needs to be the one novel that breaks away from convention and does its new thing. If you read all of my reviews on genre fiction, you'll notice a pattern in that I'm searching for the examples that function the smoothest. Just like in my glowing review of A Gentleman's Game, I'm interested in the best examples of the genre, the ones that gather up the various gears and cogs of the genre and interlock them in the most efficient manner possible.

The metaphor of a mechanism of precision is often used in conjunction with thrillers that seem the tightest, and it's one of the better comparisons to make. A great representation of a genre is a watch that never loses time and never leaves its owner behind. The Amulet by Michael McDowell is a simply stunning example of the genre.

It certainly doesn't start out like other examples of the genre. The first thirty or so pages of the novel are sketches of Pine Cone, Alabama, a small town numbering maybe 2,000 souls. Using little to no dialogue, McDowell carefully and artfully draws the reader into the town, detailing the various economic and sociological struggles that faces every single member of the town. Certain details sound completely true, and probably came from McDowell's upbringing. For example, the school quickly rescinds their recent ban on students without shoes because too many children are staying home, too poor to afford footwear. Bits like this help establish an evocative sense of place.

One of the hallmarks of the horror genre is to create a small town, populate it with a lively cast of characters, and then slowly or swiftly demolish it. I can point to literally dozens of examples. What helps The Amulet succeed within the genre is that McDowell's small town of struggling, religious normal people feels so absolutely authentic.

It's a vivid evocation of a town that is swiftly populated with a cast of characters. In genre fiction, when introducing a character, the usual procedure is to detail their name, their physical description, and enough background to keep the character from blurring too much next to other members of the cast. One of the reasons why Stephen King is the master at what he does is that he slowly builds those details up and repeats them. Characters remember snippets of songs that circle through their head, ones that remind them of their youth or an element of their past. King understands the madeleine and its power. This is a fundamental tool for the genre writer, and honestly, for most writers.

McDowell doesn't do this any differently. He just does it better. He provides enough background information and biographical detail to allow the character to be visualized, then he simply uses the character and their makeup to propel the plot.

The mechanics of this plot are simple. Sarah Howell is a 20 year old girl married to an injured soldier, Dean. He is practically comatose, his head wrapped in bandages, unable or unwilling to speak or make motions that he understands. They live with Dean's fat spiteful mother, Jo. When the man in charge of hiring at the rifle factory shows up to express his condolences, Jo blames him for not securing a job for Dean fast enough to avoid the draft. She gives him the gift of an amulet that Sarah had never seen in the house before, that seemingly has no origin or logical explanation for its arrival. Once the amulet is in the man's hands, he gives it to his wife. As soon as she wears it, she burns down the house with her, her husband, and her five children in it. So being a lengthening chain of violence and destruction as the amulet works it way into the hands of other townspeople.

Each time a character is introduced, it's only a matter of time before the amulet is somehow passed into their hands. This provides McDowell the opportunity to detail the person, a little bit of their background, and then he swiftly jumps into their head and explores their new compulsion to murder. The wife of the factory man is irritated with her loud crying children. The beautician is tired of hearing about how much better her friend's boyfriend is. Another wife becomes infuriated with her husband's nightly requests for a glass of water.

The chain of murderers and victims grow longer as Sarah realizes that it's the amulet that is the connection. Unlike in poor examples from the genre, The Amulet's protagonist is not an idiot nor does she make dumb decisions. She figures out the connection logically and then spends the rest of the novel trying to keep the amulet out of people's hands, but she is always a step or two behind.

It builds to a specific climax, one that I didn't quite expect, but once I had read it, it was like the tumblers falling into place. There could be no other ending to this novel once I had reached the end. It is surprising, but also satisfying, as if the ending was meant to be.

There's a scientific principle related to music that's relevant here. Using Adele's Someone Like You, scientists explain why certain songs make us cry. It's all due to what's called an appogiatura. The Wall Street Journal writes:
An appoggiatura is a type of ornamental note that clashes with the melody just enough to create a dissonant sound. "This generates tension in the listener," said Martin Guhn, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia who co-wrote a 2007 study on the subject. "When the notes return to the anticipated melody, the tension resolves, and it feels good."

Chills often descend on listeners at these moments of resolution. When several appoggiaturas occur next to each other in a melody, it generates a cycle of tension and release. This provokes an even stronger reaction, and that is when the tears start to flow.
This is similar to how shocking but satisfying turns of the plot work in genre fiction. Each twist or turn has dissonance. It creates - obviously - tension, due to drama or suspense or what have you. It's tension that causes us to continue reading. Once we reach the appropriate melody, or the logical outcome of the plot, it's all the more satisfying because of the reversal of the tension, of the dissonance. Yes, I just used science to explain why the ending of The Amulet was so good.

However, the Amulet is more than an efficient example of the genre, in which all of the moving parts function together in a precise and engaging way. Many many many critics have pointed to horror fiction's supposed ability to articulate or react to something uncomfortable or unnerving in society. For example, Count Dracula might represent the increased understanding of sexually transmitted diseases or he might represent the new wave of immigration from Eastern Europe into England during the late nineteenth century. Horror fiction, as critics have rightly pointed out, is a space to explore that which frightens us as a society by using exaggerated forms or symbols of that fear-inducing thing.

Like all good exemplifications of the genre, The Amulet seems to say something about the entrenched poverty of the county. The novel posits that one reason why the amulet is able to move from victim to victim is that each time it comes into the hands of someone, it represents to that person a costume. It's becomes a garb that quietly elevates them above their peers. It's a way of separating themselves from the plague of poverty that surrounds everybody and everything. Plus, the word "amulet" is weighted with a richer meaning than "necklace". It automatically connotes something bigger or more meaningful than jewelry. It has a whiff of sacredness.

As the novel tells us, there are no atheists in this town, or at least none that will admit to it. And in true Southern Gothic fashion, everything is imbued with a sense of the spiritual. Any object that connotes spirituality immediately denotes an elevated status. Thus, The Amulet, the novel that is, attempts to express the townspeople's desire to impossibly rise above their miserable lives or hardship and toil.

However, the novel is not reflecting a simple aspiration. The Amulet is horror, not realism. It's reflecting instead, the people's fear of divine or otherworldly retribution due to ill-gotten gains. It is the same fear that pervades every story of the rise and fall of individuals. We gleefully observe as those that have achieved something they don't deserve fall violently back into the mire from which they sprang. Southerners, McDowell seems to imply, are just waiting for those uppity people to get what's coming to them. This idea persists even outside horror.

This is not something particularly unique to McDowell's novel or to horror itself, but again, The Amulet is simply an efficient and spectacular sample of horror in that it accomplishes this seemingly effortlessly.

Is the novel entertaining in addition to provocative? Of course. While McDowell seems to carefully lay the groundwork for his horror, he's also extremely adept at dismantling it. For those that love their horror to be quiet and slow-building, this is a good novel, but for those that enjoy their gore, there's plenty to be had. The pacing is absolutely stellar in that the reader is always being rewarded for their patience with some setpiece right out of their darkest imaginations. I don't want to ruin any of the surprises in this novel save for one: this is one of the rare horror novels where not even babies are safe from the murderous pen of the author.

I knew that I was going to be a McDowell fan for the rest of my life when I saw that he had the huevos to brutally murder an infant in a fairly inventive and shocking way. Anybody who wrote a horror novel back in the 80s weren't quite familiar with splatterpunk or any of the excesses relative to that subgenre. So it's rare to read an 80s horror paperback, a Southern Gothic no less, that indulges in brutal infanticide.

Although, this is again logical. Southern fiction lends itself to the grotesque, and there's practically nothing more grotesque than this particular kill. Lovers of gore would kick themselves if they missed out on The Amulet. It's a spinning exhilarating and evocative journey into the darkest parts of the South, where retributive justice remains - usually - the only source of brutal violence.

McDowell passed away in 1999, and I'm sure that if he had continued to write horror novels set in the South, he would have started to touch upon the problems facing them now - which is to say, what TV's Justified deals with: meth and poverty. Of course, there's nothing stopping another writer from tackling this in a horror novel, but I'm afraid that they probably won't have the talent and professionalism McDowell displays in The Amulet.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

A Gentleman's Game

In May of 2012, Greg Rucka wrote an article for io9.com called "Why I Write 'Strong Female Characters'". It's a fascinating article that is both insightful and also painfully obvious. Essentially, he argues that writers write characters that are true to their backgrounds and their profession. Thus, if he writes a character that is a female spy, the story would be served by a writer who understands the background and psyche of the character. He writes, "if I'm writing a story about a pilot, it might, conceivably, be of use to me to know something about how to fly a plane" and goes on to say that it is more than verisimilitude but also respect for the reader. The audience absolutely knows when the author is a "poor liar". Thus, the effect of writing strong female characters is a product of being, essentially, a good writer with an eye for detail and an awareness of authenticity. The article is insightful for how Rucka achieves this authenticity (conducts interviews in the voice of his character to pin down the voice and mannerisms) and also painfully obvious: a good writer writes good characters. He concludes that writing is something one is never good enough at. One must constantly work at it, writing being an arduous process with limited rewards (emotionally speaking that is). It's this article that caused me to seek out one of his prose novels, after reading quite a few of his comics (Gotham Central) and concluding that I want to experience more strong female characters.

Note that the adjective strong refers not only to the character itself, but to the construction of the character. Tara Chace, lead protagonist of the Queen and Country series, is a very strongly constructed strong female character. She can kill people with her bare hands and get out of Iran with two bullets in her body, but she is unable to maintain a healthy relationship with people due to the job, which is a lead assassin for a British black ops group operating under the government's watchful eye.

A Gentleman's Game is the first prose novel after 30 plus issues of comics starring Tara Chace and many of the characters contained within the novel. Since I've never read the comics, I had assumed that I would be missing crucial information or I wouldn't appreciate the novel as much without that initial investment in the cast. Fortunately, Rucka is too strong of a writer to allow me to be left behind. I was given enough information about the characters to not miss a beat, but also, as I will get to in a bit, thoroughly understand the cast.

When a small group of Muslims set fire to various trains in the London Underground, the British government frantically looks for who might be responsible. Chace and her department go through intelligence from the Middle East and figure that Faud, head of an extremist and violent sect of Islam, is behind the atrocities. However, he is safely in Saudi Arabia, where no covert operation could ever hope to succeed logistically nor politically. When Mossad and the CIA come to Chace's department with crucial information, a deal is struck that will have vast consequences, including Chace being offered to the Saudi government as a sacrifice.

What separates A Gentleman's Game from all other spy action thrillers of the 20th and 21th century is not only Tara Chace, but Rucka himself. The adherence to brutal realism lends the novel a sense of verisimilitude that is practically unheard of. Only a few spy novels that I have read have ever struck me as believable. They're fun, and there's nothing wrong with that, but only Ignatius, Le Carre and Rucka seem to have managed this feat. In Tara Chace's world, one doesn't simply pop into the Middle East, execute somebody and then pop out. There are real world elements at play, including the massive bureaucracies of not only the governments but also the competing spy organizations. It's not simply the CIA and Mossad, but also the Home Office and the Foreign Office. Each is a colossal hierarchy with many people jostling for their careers. Some of these spies express a loyalty to the government, or at least their policies, but the truth of the matter is that many of these characters are functioning with an internal compass, sometimes at odds with the moral compass of those that employ them.

Again, this might seem obvious. Of course there are people in the spy world who are forced to behave or operate in ways that are opposite to their own beliefs. Le Carre has built an entire genre of spy fiction on this premise. What happens to the individual when they are forced to constantly compromise their own beliefs in the face of the organization? David Simon takes this to a logical place with his masterpiece The Wire. Whenever the individual struggles against the grain of the larger institution, they are inevitably beaten back or corrupted.

But what does this mean for the spy novel as written by Rucka? It goes back to verisimilitude and authenticity. Nobody exists in a vacuum. Nobody has no motives or ambitions or beliefs or morals or what have you. People are people: complicated, frustrating, inscrutable, obvious, greedy, and above all things, motivated by desire. By understanding this very basic and very conspicuous fact, Rucka has managed to populate his spy novel with believable people.

Thus, it is very entertaining when Rucka puts his cast into tight spots as dictated by other members of the cast and watches them extricate themselves. Notice that I didn't say dictated by the plot. Rucka is too professional of a writer to allow the machinations of his plot to command the characters. Rather it is the drama of humans that sustains the plot, not the other way.

Of course, it seems painfully clear that this is how novels should be organized. But the reality is that often the plot is written first and then populated with variations of the author's psyche. This isn't necessarily a negative thing. Emile Zola constructs a plot around factors of which the characters are never in control, and his novels are often masterpieces. The difference between Zola and airport-thriller authors is that Zola was interested in how the characters reacted against the factors, not how they were going to solve the factors. This is a subtle but essential nuance. Airport thrillers, including run of the mill spy thrillers have invariable strong-jawed men racing through the clockwork of the plot to the inevitable end. Any twist in the plot is merely to sustain the predetermined end.

A Gentleman's Game has a predetermined end of course. No writer should ever write a novel not knowing the outcome. However with this particular book, the end's details are determined by the actions of the cast rather than the arbitrary nature of the spy genre itself. There is a late stage twist in the game, but the seeds for it have grown logically from a) real world factors and b) the motivations of the characters.

As I said, it's hard to imagine how or why this is so different than other novels if you haven't really been trained to see it. Let me illustrate an example. In the twist of Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, the only other character aside from the red herring character is revealed to be the villain. Because I am trained to predict twists or reveals to mysteries, I immediately discounted the villainous Kohler, who is clearly offered as the antagonist due to his simplified motives ("I blame religion for my paralysis!"). If he is a red herring, there are only so many logical choices. Thus, I correctly predicted that the nice friendly priest played by Ewan McGregor in the film (which I have not seen). In the logic of airport thriller, there is no other option. When his motives are revealed, the plot of the novel becomes ridiculous. He was conceived by artificial insemination and he wants to break any link between religion and science or some other fucking bullshit. The novel's fucking terrible. Why? Because the twist is a) obvious and b) makes no goddamn sense. The whole climax rests on a serious of astronomically impossible coincidences. Thus, it is the plot that dictates the twist and not the characters (who are all stereotypes anyway).

The twist in A Gentleman's Game, like I say, is carefully put in place and then is executed with a minimum of coincidence. Each step taken by the characters leads them to the conclusion because it is inevitable that this people who do this actions. Nobody totally reverses themselves in light of revelations. People are people. Rucka totally understands this. It's what gives A Gentleman's Game its power.

Plus, it's an aggressively paced and tightly bound thriller. Each (logical) step is followed closely by the next, with character detail providing the texture (and the plot) of the novel.

This might seem like a lot of words to articulate that Rucka isn't Dan Brown or other airport thriller authors. However, I think it's necessary to map out why I think this spy novel elevates itself from the pack. It's not just the artful plotting or the crisp prose, but something more, and I believe it has to do with Rucka's ability to write strong characters.

Tara Chace is easily one of the most engaging female characters I have ever encountered. Many people point to Ellen Ripley and other such females as examples of strong feminine characters who can still kick ass. That being strong doesn't equal being a bitch. That being a woman doesn't equal being overly emotional. But Ripley, while an amazing performance from Sigourney Weaver, is not a strong female character in the sense of being well constructed. This is no fault of the films. They provide an efficient and stripped down horror or action experience. They doesn't waste time filling in the gaps. Because A Gentleman's Game is a novel, Rucka is allowed that space to fill in the gaps. The immediate and positive effect of this is the logical nature of the plot, as aforementioned.

Chace is a woman who likes cigarettes but wants to quit, likes shooting things, bristles at sexism in the work place, but understands that to dress her inferiors down for it is counterproductive in this man's world. She likes sex, emotionless, but also in a loving but doomed relationship. Just like everyday people. Tara hurts herself and then curses herself for her clumsiness. She's clever, she's knowledgeable, she's snarky when tired, she has moods, she's wily, she's invested in her friends, she has respect for her bosses that respect her. She doesn't like to be told what to do, but she understands the logic of a military hierarchy. She's got a mouth on her. She likes lagers.

These are details that I simply remembered from my reading of the novel yesterday. I didn't open the book to write this list down. If this doesn't speak to the authenticity of Tara Chace, I'm not sure what else I can write that will convince you. Greg Rucka has written an effective and efficient spy thriller. It's not a masterpiece, and it's not a game-changer. It's imminently successful in its intention to provide a quick and entertaining spy action thrill. It's intentions are to say something about the characters and to vaguely point to larger themes of globalization and the impossible end to the Global War on Terror. Surely art's success should be judged on its ability to provide what it purports to. If this is the case, then A Gentleman's Game succeeds as an entertainment and a work of art due to its characters and its writer.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


Novels like this are often referred to as a state of the union. They're a comprehensive, expansive and panoramic view of the current status quo, not just culturally but politically and economically. State of the union novels are multiplying thanks to the utter ease of access to information and the 21st century phenomenon of feeling connected despite geographic or economic differences.

John Lanchester's Capital is a state of the union novel about the economic crisis of 2008. Its focus is on a particular street in an upper middle class neighbourhood in London, and its various inhabitants. Because this novel is trying aggressively to be current, its cast is ethnically and socially diverse, such as a traffic warden seeking asylum from Zimbabwe or a beautiful but poor Hungarian nanny working for a white and rich trader living beyond his means.

The title of Capital refers to both London as the capital of its country and to capital as money. In terms of being a state of the union novel, Lanchester frames his examination of the current age in terms of money. Everything that occurs in this novel is related to or determined by the accumulation of wealth or the lack thereof.

Everybody in this novel is driven by money. Either to acquire more, or to lose it by consumption. There's a Polish painter who takes on work so that he can eventually move back to his place of birth and work with his father. There's a daughter, recently bereaved of her mother, who decides to sell the house of her childhood because of the staggering increase in value in the past few years. There's the wife of the trader who spends vicariously in order to make herself feel better about her deteriorating marriage.

If a pattern is immediately becoming clear, that is my intent. One of the biggest problems with Capital, and to a lesser extent, the state of the union genre itself, is that characters rarely rise above the ignoble fact of being a type. This is especially true of the trader's wife, Arabella. She and Roger have enjoyed a comfortable living, but as outside economic problems begin to pressure their family, Lanchester explores how both cope. In the most obvious way possible, Arabella sticks to conspicuous consumption (a phrase actually used in the novel) and Roger indulges in the possibility of an affair with his Hungarian nanny.

Since Roger and Arabella are essentially the central characters, I don't think it's entirely unfair of me to use them as examples of the novel's central and fatal weakness.

In order to do that, I am going to call Lanchester's novel a post-postcolonial novel. Postcolonial literature, if you'll allow me a didactic tangent, is defined as art that responds to the power dynamic resulting from imperial conquest and domination. The art and literature reflects and reacts to the reality of the power dynamic, and usually it is from the perspective of what is called the subaltern, or the colonized end of the dynamic.

Capital is a post-postcolonial novel because instead of worrying about the effects of imperialism through the lens of the subaltern or the immigrant, the novel instead examines an equalization thanks to globalization. Not a literal economic equalization, but certainly, narratively speaking, Roger and the immigrant characters are on equal footing.

Ostensibly, this is a side effect of what is called hyperlink fiction, in that with so many characters of varying social backgrounds being portrayed, it is inevitable that the ensemble as a whole takes center stage rather than any particular character.

It is post-postcolonial in that instead of charting the inevitable collapse of imperial rule, whether literal or figurative, the narrative equalizes the subaltern characters with the white imperial rulers (figuratively speaking) by giving them equal time in the spotlight.

It is a careful and deliberate attempt to be fair that creates this sense of the post-postcolonial. The narrator is self-consciously allowing each voice a chance to speak, regardless of how interesting or important that voice is to the narrative. There's a subtle difference between this and postcolonial literature. The latter purposefully gives voice to the voiceless. The post-postcolonial gives a voice to everybody. In the history of literature, the scales have always tipped towards the ones in power. Postcolonial literature attempts to shifts the scales. Post-postcolonial makes them even.

As aforementioned, this is due to globalization, and even to the genre itself of the state of the union novel. Some of this discussion might seem superfluous or even obvious, but this is important to the logic of my criticism. If the novel truly wishes to be current and expertly capture the state of the union, then it is important to put the novel in context with the world that it attempts to convey. Globalization is an important but unexamined part of the novel.

Instead of focusing on how the world's finances have shaped the London of 2008, Lanchester looks to how it affects the microcosm, using a cast of types to do so.

Despite the equalization of narrative in the post-postcolonial, Roger and Arabella are the hub upon which the wheel of Capital spins. Roger opens and closes the novel, with the first and final paragraphs being devoted to money. This is compounded by most of the other characters having their relationships in varying degrees to the trader and his wife.

Thus, as Roger and Arabella represent both the inherent failing of the imperial ruler in the financial collapse of 2008, they also represent, for this review, the utter collapse of the novel. In what appears to be a gross assumption on the part of Lanchester, Roger and Arabella are offered as typical representations of the upper class. The assumption is that all members of this particular class are engaging in, or rather are obsessed with mindless consumption.

There's a kind of tentative judgement on the part of the narrator, a sort of weak chastising for the circumstances of the trader's class. Essentially, this amounts to a lazy and generalized to the point of useless moral: empty consumption is bad.

This is the monochromatic kind of moral examination that only children's literature and comic books tend to indulge in. "Rape is bad you guys" or "revenge is never fulfilling you guys", as if they are world-shaking insights discovered by a single person, when in reality, they are obvious things stumbled upon by adolescents.

And in Capital's case, the obviousness of the moral lesson is only exceeded by the obviousness of the plot's direction. As soon as Roger hires a nanny that the narrator is at pains to describe as beautiful, the outcome is clear: Roger will attempt adultery. As soon as the money problems begin to surface, the outcome is clear: Arabella will retreat into further consumerism as a defense mechanism.

Neither of these two things are interesting. Or at least, they can be if handled in a particularly nuanced or intelligent fashion. Capital suffers in my eyes because it follows from Ballard's Kingdom Come, a novel I quite liked. But this is not the only reason why Capital fails.

Capital fails because in its attempt to be fair to all voices, it relies on the most obvious of types in order to represent as panoramically as possible the current age. In its desire to be post-postcolonial in the globalized world, Capital resorts to plain character arcs and obvious plot machinations.

This isn't confined to Roger and Arabella. The honest, hardworking and resolutely honourable Polish painter finds money in the house he's renovating. What will he do? The Senegalese superstar football player is finally given a starting position, despite a childhood of economic and political strife - what will happen when he finally gets on the field? The Muslim shopkeeper's brother attends too attentively to the sermons of a possible radicalist? What will happen when he expresses too extremist of an opinion? If you answered that respectively, the Polish worker would feel guilt over not earning the money himself (because all Poles are hardworking unlike lazy British workers), the football player would be injured and have to fight a nasty insurance company, dashing his whole family's hopes at a comfortable life and the Muslim man would be detained for days in an inhumane prison, then you'd be correct. These are three (four if you count the trader and his wife) examples of types being aggressively deployed in a novel that's particularly obsessed with types.

Is it fair to condemn Capital for engaging in stereotypes and stereotypical plotting when all state of the union novels somehow manage to do the same? Yes of course. Other state of the union novels do the same, but not in conjunction with Capital's other faults.

If the plotting was irritating, the least a reader could expect is that it is told in an entertaining fashion. After all, it's not what story is being told, but how it is being told that matters. Unfortunately, Capital indulges in the plainest most nondescript prose I have ever read in an ostensibly high end novel. Lanchester's novel is not the work of an amateur, as it was reviewed in the Guardian, the New York Times and other reliable sources. So why is it that his prose is so absolutely plain?

Let's examine a rather telling bit. Early in the novel, Roger is expecting a lucrative Christmas bonus from his firm. The chapter opens with a detailed description of Roger's traditional "preparing for important events" routine, which includes moisturizing, grooming and other typically feminine pursuits. We are told Roger doesn't tell anybody about this because he fears appearing too feminine. Obviously I have a problem with this, but that's another post for another day. At the end of the routine, we have this clunker:
It was thus armoured that, on Friday 21 December [2008], Roger went into the conference room at Pinker Lloyd ready to open the envelope that would tell him what he would be getting for his bonus. Going into the room, with its white noise switched on so that it was scientifically impossible to eavesdrop, and with the walls turned opaque for the meeting, Roger felt confident, fit and healthy, braced for whatever would come.
Superficially, this isn't terrible prose. Unspectacular, but not terrible. Upon closer inspection, this paragraph falls under the weight of its redundancies. First of all, this is a hundred pages into the novel, and we have spent all of our Roger-focused time on the Christmas bonus. The novel opens with Roger imagining what he will do with his bonus (pay off bills, go on lavish holidays). We were also told in the first few Roger chapters that the office had the white noise machine and the walls could turn opaque. It was part of the minimal physical description. To have it repeated again for no other reason than to remind the reader that it exists is somewhat irritating. If you expect me to remember all these people, why won't you trust I remember what his office looks like? More specifically, I've already read what the white noise machine does - why waste the clause explaining it again? Isn't its function immediately obvious from its name?

However, the most telling crime in this paragraph is the final clause. We know Roger is confident thanks to previous chapters (we are told he calculates a million pounds) and his behaviour, so it's redundant to hear it again, but not egregiously so. What is unforgivable is that Roger is "braced for whatever would come". This is clearly untrue considering that a) Roger is "confident" and b) we've spent at least thirty pages reading about his high hopes. Thus, this last clause is not just plain and boring, but it is inconsistent with the previous paragraphs detailing his confidence-building routine. If he is confident, arrogantly so, then he is not "braced for whatever would come". That phrase implies Roger won't be devastated when, in the most obvious plot turn the novel could possibly spin, his bonus is tiny. Capital couldn't surprise me even if the author had physically shown up at my door with a troupe of stereotypes collected from BBC soaps.

After all this excoriating, one would naturally ask if there was any element of the novel that I enjoyed. Mostly, I liked how breezy the novel is. It's terrifically paced, with short sharp chapters, similar to modern thrillers in the post-Dan Brown world, but without the irritating shocks being obstinately deployed. It's a novel that you can read in a couple sittings, despite its 500 plus page count. It's never daunting due to its ease of prose and its sheer accessibility.

These are all very subtle backhanded compliments you might say, all of them carefully worded to inflect a bit of damage. Truthfully, I admire Lanchester's ability to keep me reading, despite my issues with the novel which were immediately apparent to me. Lanchester got me to finish a novel I obviously disliked, so he can hardly be criticized for writing an inaccessible tome.

When reviewing a state of the union novel like this, it's helpful to conclude with the obvious question of whether or not the novel was successful in accurately capturing the state of the union in question. Luckily, I can wrap up this review with a positive note: Lanchester seems to have conveyed a believable world, grounded in the economic realities of 2008, even if to do so, he was armed with a litany of stereotypes. Summarily, I didn't hate the novel, but I certainly did not like the novel. Mostly, I tolerated it. This is not something any author would want to hear of the fruit of their labour. Even if I wrote over 2,000 words about it.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012



I've switched my shitty laptop from Windows Vista to Ubuntu 12.04. It's quite a change, but I'm slowly getting used to it. Certainly things run a bit smoother and a bit faster. The graphics are an improvement. But, I'm finding having to learn scripting for a terminal to be tedious. It's always a disconnect when I realize a program I like isn't one I can use anymore. Still, it's better than fucking Windows.


Reading has slowed down considerably, but to be fair, I'm reading a lot of non-fiction at the moment. I find myself incredibly interested in spies and the global stage. That's all I'm going to say about that.


I'm writing a screenplay. Slowly. But there is progress. I've mapped out most of the thing, and now it's just a matter of sitting down and getting it all out.


I'm re-watching Six Feet Under for the first time since it aired. The show hasn't aged and holds up remarkably well. I'm almost finished the fourth (of five) seasons, so I will write something up when I'm done, I hope.


I find myself both excited for and depressed by school. It's a lot of work, and it's not helping my social life, it appears. The future looms darkly on the horizon like a gathering storm. There's so much to do before I can work, before I can stabilize my life, and that distance fills me with dread. Life is never going to be easy for me. Never again, that is. However, life isn't hard in the sense that I can't afford to eat, so I suppose I should shut up about such a thing.


I haven't been writing for the blog because I am tired and I don't feel like reviewing everything anymore. Perhaps I'll get another surge of exhilaration and write long reviews of everything I touch.


I saw Prometheus. Here's my Twitter review:


Exercise and diet have taken a nosedive. I'm no longer interested in running or working out. I'm still eating decently, so that's keeping off the pounds, but I'm not eating well. Hopefully in a few months, when I decide to do another update, this will have turned around.


Ultimately, the mood of this update is one of emptiness, lethargy and depression, but not depression as a clinical diagnosis. Maybe a better phrase would be deflation. I feel deflated. I will monitor this behaviour for any further signs of clinical depression.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

There But For The

What would happen if you did just shut a door and stop speaking? Hour after hour after hour of no words. Would you speak to yourself? Would you lose language altogether? Or would words mean more, would they start to mean in every direction,all somersault and assault, like a thuggery of fireworks? Would they proliferate, like untended plantlife? Would the inside of your head overgrow with every word that has ever come into it, every word that has ever silently taken seed or fallen dormant? Would your own silence make other things noisier? Would all the things you'd ever forgotten, all layered there inside you, come bouldering up and avalanche you?
This is a long excerpt, but one that perfectly captures Ali Smith's interest - no, obsession with words.

There But For The is about a guest who gets up from a dinner party and locks himself in the spare bedroom for months. Each of the four sections, titled after one of the four words of the title, focuses on a peripheral character to the action. The first section charts Anna, who knew the guest, Miles, briefly when she was seventeen. The second section is Mark, the man who randomly met Miles and brought him to the dinner party. Next is Mrs. Young, a woman in a nursing home who chooses not to speak, and finally, Brooke, the hyper-precocious daughter of neighbours. Miles' self imprisonment or self-exile or self-liberation, affects the four in different ways, and each section explores that alteration to the everyday.

There's a parallel to Ali Smith's other novel that I have read, The Accidental, which I felt was utterly brilliant. In the latter, a small family is torn asunder by the arrival of a young Scottish woman. In both novels, the introduction of the foreign element allows for the focal characters to think about time, narration, life, family, and especially language. Ali Smith strikes me as the type of person who just can't stop playing with words, fiddling with them, poking at them, turning them over and over until they're hardly recognizable.

Each of the sympathetic characters in the novel are obsessed with puns. The jokes and wordplay is endless in There But For The. Each section plays around with the eponymous word. Characters trade irritatingly clever puns at a ludicrous speed, such as Miles referring to a group of lawyers as "nasty, British, and sharp". Or Brooke being called Mount Cleverest. While a reader such as myself takes utter delight in the puns, other readers might find themselves wondering what the interest in wordplay is about. As aforementioned, I suspect it's compulsion. Each of the characters who make these jokes are doing so compulsively, perhaps to mask the pain or emptiness inside. Or maybe, as the novel tentatively and opaquely suggests, the puns are a way to communicate, to connect with sympathetic people.

Language is, inevitably, a way to communicate. As Mrs Young deftly observes, the younger generation's compulsion to be constantly connected to the sphere of knowledge, via texting and smartphones, means a withdrawal from immediate conversation. During the dinner party, which Smith conveys in excruciating detail, someone quotes the beginning of Jabberwocky: "`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves" while another replies, "Did google and twitter". The joke here is that one of the less sympathetic characters observes that Carroll was brilliant for coming up with these words long before the Internet existed.

As language becomes an increasing barrier between people in the know and those that aren't, the ones in on the joke trade their puns as a secret language, as a code existing on the surface of language that simultaneously overturns meaning, because, after all, that's what a pun is.

The novel explores another mode of communication that exists side by side with language, which is music. Smith establishes a connection with Joyce by exploring old musicals and pop standards, what they mean and what they say and where they come from. Each of the songs being detailed, through expository dialogue at the dinner party, reflects the songwriters' desire to communicate something essential or primal but without the means of regular language. There's a disconnect between the song and the meaning, the novel questions. Only those present really understand and we are all simply getting the joke long after it's been told. Or as one character quotes Warhol, the repetition of the song dulls the meaning until we are compulsively listening to it, aching to understand. Or as Brooke observes, jokes told again are never as funny as the first time.

Obviously, there is more to the novel than jokes being told. Some of the jokes convey the themes in an opaque manner. The first section's virtuoso (virtue so-so) vivisection of the word "there" asks the reader to question what it means to be "there". Is Miles all there? Of course he is, he's in the spare bedroom, all of him. But is he all there... in the head? What does there mean? Smith takes up the same compulsion with puns but with something more serious in mind. Can you be there and simultaneously be not there? Is it possible to be present and absent synchronously? What happens to those who are there when you are not there?

There But For The is an interruption. In the usual way of deploying that phrase, it's an interruption. There but for the grace of God. It would have been if it hadn't been for: this phrase even demonstrates the tension Smith's novel explores so beautifully. And it is beautiful.

Anna's section, with its flashback to the age of seventeen, is utterly tender for its small moments. Anna and Miles meet on a trip to the continent, after they and forty eight others had won the trip for composing an essay. Miles, ever focused on the elasticity of words, begins his essay thus: "There was once, and there was only once. Once was all there was." He makes a small joke about her punk shirt, quickly falling out of fashion, and he observes that if her last name was "Key" she would be "Anna Key in the UK". It's these small moments where the novel goes from being good to excellent.

Brooke, who is adept at wordplay and being clever, has brief but intense moments of anxiety when she remembers that school is about to begin again, and she is the only one like her, she is the only Brooke. She is THE Brooke. Nobody in her class understands her, not even her teacher who berates her for her cleverness.

Mark looks at online pornography for a moment, but then feels crushing loneliness so he googles, literally, "something beautiful" but never feels completely at ease. He visits the Observatory during election season ("observe-a-Tory") and looks through a Camera Obscura.

Mrs Young remembers being in a crowded theatre, howling along with a warbling film actress, and then making eye contact with the man who would eventually become her husband. Her connection with Miles ("Miles before I go to sleep" is the name of a monologue performed by an irritating character outside the house) is left mysterious, even after the novel's conclusion, but there are hints, hints of a portentous relationship between her dead daughter and a younger Miles. In the spirit of the novel, during the years that Miles comes to visit, Mrs Young is unable to say something of value or anything to Miles. He simply shows up and visits.

There But For The absolutely shines during the small moments, and just as the titles of the four sections add up to a novel, the moments cascade into a brilliant aesthetic experience. I can totally understand people not "getting" Smith and her compulsion to wordplay, but for me, this was a captivating read. I loved this novel during and after the reading. While maybe not as emotionally satisfying as The Accidental, this is still a harrowing and illuminating experience.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Blood Money

Somebody has been organizing the assassinations of covert CIA agents across the globe, all of whom are on secret missions not publicly authorized by Congress to bribe select Pakistanis in various levels of power. Sophie Marx, a CIA operative working outside of the house in a secret lateral organization, is tasked with figuring out how the agents' legends had been compromised. Evidence seems to point to a link in the financial world, increasingly made globalized in the wake of 9/11. Marx goes off the grid to London and Pakistan in order to solve the mystery and figure out the next target before it is too late.

My synopsis of this novel makes Blood Money sounds like a regular thriller, the kind of fiction one picks up at the airport before a long flight, the kind of fiction one reads around the pool or the beach in order to achieve maximum relaxation. It doesn't sound like the kind of fiction that unnerves the reader, or forces them to think critically about the world of espionage beyond the usual cliches of James Bond or Jason Bourne. David Ignatius, author of Body of Lies (made into a disappointing Ridley Scott film), is an expert in real world situation, and he totally eschews the generic conventions of the spy novel in favour of scaring the pants off the reader with fiction more thrilling for its nefarious and shadowy implications than for the machinations of the plot.

Ignatius is a journalist, a respected and lauded columnist for the Washington Post. He was raised in Washington, and his column reflects that upbringing, with a focus on political entities such as the Justice Department and the CIA. All of which he has used for his novels, lending his fiction an unmistakable sense of realism. On the surface, Blood Money reveals Ignatius' background as a journalist, with its terse jargon-filled dialogue, and sparse character moments. Ignatius fills in the lines of his cast with slight details, as journalists do when trying to find the human element in a story. Ignatius is concise and wastes little narrative time with environmental description or asides. Instead, there is an almost cold-blooded focus on the facts of the matter.

In 2002, the Treasury Department and the Counterterrorism Center worked together to formulate a system to track the funds of terrorists. Patterns and systems were analyzed by great banks of computers and processed until patterns were identified. This system was applied to the global financial market and subsequently was used to predict and/or track the financial movements of terrorists. Blood Money, Ignatius' 2011 novel, takes this to the next logical step. What happens when the technology that allows for this analysis becomes pervasive enough for the terrorists to have access? What happens when the very targets this system was designed for get their hands on it?

It's no spoiler to reveal that the government in the novel is similar to the government in real life. That is to say that the institutions that protect our freedom and way of life are doing so through extremely scary means, including financing terrorist cells and bribing the very same enemies the government swore to eradicate. The Global War on Terror is far more complicated than simply using Predator drones to destroy training camps and in one costly (and very real) case, a factory for veterinary medicine. The shadowy world of espionage was exposed to the light, and the common people realized that the world is more complicated than the movies show us. The reality is that Blood Money is not only realistic but entirely probable. In terms of pure shock, Blood Money is on the same level as LeCarre's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, but lacking the deft hand and gorgeous prose.

Globalization is a real and unavoidable thing. The inevitable outcome of the Soviets in Afghanistan, the dominance of neoliberalism, the West's inability to understand Islam, and the sheer complexity and variety of the people have caused the Middle East to enter the global spotlight in a way that has never happened before. Ignatius' novel capitalizes on the total lack of awareness the regular joes of the world have of the Global War on Terror, if indeed this falls under that category.

The CIA allows for a covert organization without approval from Congress. The funding for the hidden cell comes from skillful manipulation of a hedge fund based in London where insider trading allows for a mutually beneficial relationship. The money, illegally obtained, is used to persuade and collude with high ranking and valuable assets in Pakistan in order to protect the interests of the United States. Not only does this sound possible, but it sounds... inevitable.

The true Global War on Terror is not fought with Predator drones or massive armies marching across the desert, but in cyberspace, on the Internet, and mixed up with the global economy. Blood Money is thus far more effective in sustaining a narrative than other spy novels because it's real and it's fucking scary. The sheer fact that this could happen is what makes me want to read this. It's rewarding to read something so clearly inspired by real events.

When the second agent is murdered, a terrorist organization releases a statement taking responsibility and outing the murdered man as an operative for the US government. The CIA quickly releases a statement denying the link and provides records proving that the man had no links to the agency. The White House laterally releases a statement calling the accusation of covert operations in Pakistani territory as absurd. The effect is to distance themselves from the reality that a cell within the CIA has been operating outside the law and the Justice Department. Because Ignatius tells it so realistically, it's believable that the government would deny everything, and thus, in the real world, when they do deny something, I'm more inclined to wonder about the reality of the situation.

When Russian sleeper agents were exposed a few years ago, many people criticized the already beleaguered CIA for failing to capture or at least be aware of cells within the USA. Any astute and shrew reader of good espionage fiction and nonfiction will tell you that the CIA and the FBI were probably already aware, but didn't want to take action for fear of revealing a greater asset or a greater tactical advantage. Not only that, but the darkest implication of all, not really explored by the mainstream media, is that the public has no idea how many operations are currently happening on American soil and how many sleeper agents from various countries are waiting within American borders for orders.

Ignatius' novel totally exploits that dark implication of the modern world. Fiction is scary, but the real world is even scarier. This is an excellent novel for doing what all good art should do: react to and reflect the world. Blood Money is similar to The Wire in this respect, but at least The Wire's exposure of the unfairness of the system is altogether in the public eye. Blood Money's exploration of the covert operations happening across the globe is more unnerving because there is little confirmation and when there is, one cannot even take at face value what the trusted institutions say. It is utterly crass to say this, but 9/11 represents one of the greatest boons to the espionage genre for offering a scarier reality than the Cold War. The world has irrevocably changed since 9/11, and Ignatius' novel masterfully explores this new world.