Monday, February 25, 2019

February Reads Part Three

Tell Me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen
Dead Lions by Mick Herron


A short read, but an incredible and valuable read. Tillie Olsen's book of 4 short stories are rooted specifically in the experience of working class families and working class mothers. The 4 stories sort of overlap, as three of them (I think, maybe all four?) cover aspects of the same family. In the first story, the only one I'm suspicious doesn't connect, a mother stands ironing and considers her daughter's upbringing and tragic life. The parallel of maternal labour and domestic labour isn't accidental, of course. This was the shortest but makes its point quite cleanly and empathetically. The second story, my personal favourite, is a bit more modernist than the first. A sailor on shore leave stays with a family but his alcoholism threatens the friendship. I was reminded quite a bit of tough guy literature from the 40s and 50s, such as when I tried reading The Thin Red Line. There's an effort to deliver the sailor's speech phonetically and honestly so much of the dialogue features spellings and words like "whaddya mean" etc. The third story, my second favourite, is about the insurmountable barriers of race and class, focusing on the friendship between two elementary schoolchildren, one white and other black. The opening scene has the black girl bring the white girl to church where the white girl experiences religious ecstasy for the very first time, a novel way of implying the richness and depth of black culture and religiosity. The rest of the story has the two girls growing up and growing apart. Very heartbreaking but also inexorable in a way. This is the best kind of class-conscious writing, I think, the kind that doesn't explicitly tell the audience the structure needs to be dismantled, but showing us how the structures impact us in ways we're often not equipped to discuss. The fourth and final story didn't work for me as much as I'd hoped, considering it's the title story and the one Olsen is most famous for. An old Jewish Russian immigrant couple living in retirement contemplate moving into a assisted living home, but these plans are torn asunder by the intractability of the wife and her delayed diagnosis of cancer. The end is quite beautiful as both characters reach an almost mystical epiphany about the beauty of death, but the story felt a little long and by the time I was near the end, I was coming to close to being out of patience. All told this is an indispensable collection of stories. I will definitely be picking up her only novel, unfinished though it might be.

Dead Lions is the second Slough House novel from Mick Herron. I loved the first one, Slow Horses, which I read here and was excited to see how Herron gets on with a second entry.I can't say I loved this book but I did have a good time with it. My dissatisfaction has its roots in the novel's expanded scope. Not only is the cast bigger, but they are dispersed even wider. The stakes are raise in a somewhat unwelcome way, with explosions and an entire city being brought to its knees by threat of terrorism. And while this might be a logical extension of the spy novel in the twenty-first century, but it feels out of character for the kind of spy novel Herron is writing. It's almost like a capitulation to market forces, if you ask me. Where Slow Horses felt very literary and in the mode of le Carré, Dead Lions gave me flashbacks of reading airport thrillers, which aren't intrinsically bereft of positive qualities but I had hoped for more le Carré and less James Patterson. This is an insult to Herron though because Herron can write beautiful sentences and hilarious dialogue without it ever feeling quippy. Overall not my favourite Herron but I'll keep reading these for sure.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

February Reads Part Two

White by Bret Easton Ellis
High Time to Kill by Raymond Benson
The Night Manager by John le Carré
The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner


It's been 6.5 years since I read a James Bond novel (Thunderball). Raymond Benson was the third writer to take on the superspy after Fleming and I had always had my eye on the two omnibuses of his six novels. One being three discrete stories and the other a trilogy about a shadowy cell of spies known only as The Union. High Time to Kill is the first novel and reads typically like a 90s thriller and a James Bond novel: there's the protracted list of brands and products James approves, the sex, the exotic locales. Where this one differs is the mountaineering sequence, which takes up an entire third of the book, if not half, and goes into minute detail. I hadn't realized how alien and unwelcoming is the atmosphere at a certain altitude. The characters hike up to a certain point, the base camp of the actual summit, and there have to acclimatize to the oxygen content for a full two weeks! A question bubbling around me while I read was why couldn't they have taken a special helicopter up to the summit and if such a helicopter doesn't exist, why not invent one? But of course, this is the exact same question as "why didn't Gandalf send the hobbit on eagles if he could?" Which is to say, the answer is because then there would be no story. I read High Time to Kill quite fast and enjoyed my time with it, especially the mountaineering stuff. Many of the action sequences at high altitude carry an additional layer of suspense as the more strenuous and laboured your physical efforts, the more likely you will suffer hypoxia. The drama of combat then becomes more dramatic. I can't say I'm disappointed by this, as I knew what I was getting into.

I said to a friend I was washing the taste of James Bond from my mouth with le Carré's The Night Manager, but this isn't fair to either, considering how much I enjoyed, in a lower, almost primate level the Benson novel. This also implies le Carré's novel doesn't descend into the depths of the more physical aspects of the spy novel. It's a false dichotomy in other words.

The Night Manager, though, is a straight up masterpiece. I've waffled on this before, but I'm getting the sense the post-Cold War novels of le Carré are the better examples of his work. The espionage world after the 90s provides the author with more material to satirize, to evince his justified anger with the state of the State. The bureaucracy of espionage receives a better drubbing than in previous novels because MI5 and MI6 are even more useless than ever, mired deep in endless committees and subcommittees and memoranda and initiatives. The spies were being run by politicians and bureaucrats and le Carré provides no mercy from his cutting wit. Power has shifted away from governments and ideologies and now flows between individual capitalists and their corporate machines bearing their names. Greed is the most dangerous game now, not Soviets or public school-educated Brits with estates. To put it simply, greed has become the overriding ideology. The antagonist of this novel, Richard Roper, never really seems to be interested in the wars he's profiting from. He mentions how people will find guns no matter what so he may as well be the one who provides them. He makes gestures towards explaining himself, trying to sketch out his understanding of the world, but it's half-formed, unexamined, and how else would it be, according to le Carré. It's not simply a desire for money, but a desire for money at the expense of others. It's lack of duty of care. It's the absence of care. It's the black, soul-sucking, nihilistic empty void of care. le Carré doesn't bother with narrative opacity or subterfuge. Any of his usual tricks would just get in the way of his thesis. Greed is not good and has real material costs.

A word about the physical object of The Mars Room: I bought the hardcover (ISBN 978-1476756554) from my bookstore's bargain section, which sources everything not from dead stock in the store but from remainder houses. We never stocked the hardcover in the regular priced section because we had access to the paperback from the outset (ISBN 978-1982100759, dubbed, mysteriously, the Canadian export edition). I avoided this paperback like the plague because of its cover stock. The book itself works for me: French flaps, deckle edges, but the cover stock is that soft cover which picks up any and every fingerprint. I am an excessively oily person. This has its pros and cons. The major pro is that my face and skin aren't ageing as noticeably as other folks my age. I'll stay youthful thanks to my natural "moisturizer." The con of course is that I stain everything I touch. I could never commit crime without leaving ample evidence of my DNA everywhere. Thank heavens for the hardcover with its removable dust jacket (made of the same material as the paperback).

As for the novel, I liked it a lot. A different animal than I was expecting. I think many folks were mentally prepared for a retread, if darker, of Orange is the New Black, but Kushner isn't interested in the same kind of pathos, the same kind of gentle humanizing touch as that TV show. Instead, she seems keen on exploring the dark dank corners of criminality mostly ignored by media. Which is to say, the dumb criminals, the tragic criminals, the ones doomed to a lifetime of recidivism because of their social category. Much of the narration is almost hardboiled, specially in the old-timey sense of the word: hard, cynical, sneering. Perhaps it's a front put up by the first person narrator, to disguise the anguish, but the reader is given sustained looks into her personal pain, so I'm not entirely sure I'd call it a front. The Mars Room, with its subject of violence and societal corrosion, has moments of genuine beauty. It was a sincere pleasure to read. There's a tenderness for its hapless characters, which makes sense, as the not-so-secret thesis of the novel is that prison is dehumanizing and US society criminalizes the poor for being poor. Late in the novel, the narrator observes
The word violence was depleted and generic from overuse and yet it still had power, still meant something, but multiple things. There were stark acts of it: beating a person to death. And there were more abstract forms, depriving people of jobs, safe housing, adequate schools. There were large-scale acts of it, the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians in a single year, for a specious war of lie and bungling, a war that might have no end, but according to prosecutors, the real monsters were teenagers like Button Sanchez (262).
"Button Sanchez" being a pregnant teen who gave birth in the prison and whose baby was taken away, but this could be any other character in the novel, really. The women in this novel were guilty of committing crimes and are reminded constantly by the guards that this was a moral failing, a character flaw. Again and again, guards harangue the inmates, "you should have thought of that before you committed the crime," but this is simplistic moralizing, the novel argues. Instead, like all good sociological literature, we should be examining the social structures which gave us for-profit prisons and their vested interest in recidivism. The powerful benefit from a carceral state, that's why they keep doing it.

If I had one complaint, and this is minor, I wish The Mars Room had spent a bit more time eviscerating the for-profit prison system specifically. It's at the edges, gently almost, but I wish there had been more time for a pointed focus. Still, a great novel.

Monday, February 4, 2019

White


Bret Easton Ellis is perhaps my favourite author. I own first editions of two novels and still own my original Vintage paperback of American Psycho from 2001, since high school. No other author has cast such a huge influence on my style, my aesthetic preferences, even down to the very typeface used in his novels (Electra). Thus, it was ever disappointing that Ellis has mostly given up novels and fiction and has instead pivoted to podcast host and near-constant complainer about what he calls Generation Wuss, ie millennials. He proves that Baby Boomerism isn't a demographic (he's Gen X) but rather a mindset. I've unfollowed him on Twitter and do my best to avoid reading news articles about him, as their subject is mostly whatever inflammatory nonsense Ellis has dashed off. He's become the old person version of what he's always been: a moralist masquerading as a satirist. White is his first book of nonfiction, a book somewhere between memoir and essays, some perceptive and sharp, the kind of cultural criticism you yearn to become popular, and others shrill and indistinguishable from FOX News, the worst kind of "old man yells at cloud."

The first two sections of White are more memoir than argumentative. Ellis tracks the development of his debut novel, Less Than Zero, and the aesthetic and thematic inspirations. He writes perceptively and beautifully on the allure of Paul Schrader's American Gigolo, which I hadn't known to be the huge influence it so clearly is, despite being a megafan of the author. Ellis admits the movie isn't good by most measures, but his appreciation of the aesthetics, of the way Richard Gere is queered by the male gaze speaks volumes about Ellis' own skill as a critic. It makes me want an alternative history where Ellis became a preeminent film critic, famous for his acuity and insight. This long section about acting and actors features the story behind his famous Vanity Fair hoax pulled off in part with Judd Nelson. Again, this kind of precise satirizing, cutting and ringing true, works so well, even if his worldview betrays a deep Baby Boomerist moralizing, an accusation I'm sure Ellis would reject vehemently. He's Gen X, he'd say. His apathy and irony are weapons against the establishment and products of the ways the Baby Boomer failed us all, he'd say. But how else to explain during his reminiscences his repetitions of the Gen X version of "I walked to school, in the snow, uphill, both ways"? These tears in the fabric of the otherwise fantastic bits are distracting, even if they're meant to prepare the reader for the political haranguing yet to come.

He moves on to Moonlight and King Cobra, one the winner of Best Picture at the Oscars and the other a movie largely forgotten except as another weirdo gay role for James Franco. Ellis' main bone of contention is that Barry Jenkins' movie is a victim narrative, its popularity only due to its uniqueness (a gay impoverished black man) and ideology. He claims people overrate the film because of their ideological stance, because they are toeing the "corporate ideology" which he vaguely refers to as being positive all the time, maintaining the groupthink of social justice (though he wisely never refers to SJWs for fear of undermining his own rhetoric nevermind, he does a bunch). Ellis makes a strong point against the film, only one though, which is the film lacks the specific gaze of the gay filmmaker. Barry Jenkins is straight and though the cinematography is beautiful, the gaze, the voyeurism, the look lacks the specificity of queerness. This point, well taken, does do a good job undermining Ellis' invective against the supremacy of identity politics. Ellis writes:
this is an age that judges everybody so harshly through the lens of identity politics that if you resist the threatening groupthink of progressive ideology, which proposes universal inclusivity except for those who dare to ask any questions, you're somehow fucked. Everyone has to be the same, and have the same reactions to any given work of art, or movement or idea, and if you refuse to join the chorus of approval you will be tagged a racist or a misogynist. This is what happens to a culture when it no longer cares about art. (92)
Ellis imbues millennials with this incredible power to destroy people, but at the same time, he argues, they're politically powerless, completely out of step with the popular sentiment (whatever that is). He argues Academy members voted for Moonlight as a protest vote, as a signal Trumpism won't be tolerated. He is snide about this, saying this does a disservice to the film, even though he doesn't think the film is all that good in the first place (not surprisingly, he believes La La Land to be the superior film). Which is all the more frustrating because when he sticks to aesthetic judgements, he reveals a deep, perhaps innate understanding of film and narrative.

Where the book falters is, not surprisingly, when Ellis turns his eye to politics. He positions himself again and again as the rational centrist, the man swayed not by emotion but only by logic and arguments. He agrees with some of Trump's policies and disagrees with others. He chose not to vote as neither candidate appealed to him, but he's dismayed by the visceral reaction of millennials and affluent white coastal elites to Trump's success. His argument starts out small: at first he keeps the focus on his millennial boyfriend (22 years younger than Ellis). After Trump's election, the boyfriend grows his hair long, is untidy in his appearance, has nervous breakdowns, cajoles, shrieks, screams, argues, fights with Ellis over Trump. Reading between the lines, one wonders if the arguments are more over Ellis' apathy and political stagnation than Trump's policies.

Ellis then expands the scope to his white or Jewish affluent friends in California and NYC. Here the book is at its nadir, a repetitive series of short sections which begin all the same: "at yet another dinner I had with another two friends I hadn't seen since the election" or "I was having drinks with a friend" and so on and so forth. He never names the friends and I have to be a good faith reader and assume these "friends" are real. Each dinner ends the same: somebody says something about Trump and the friend unleashes this "deranged" rant; "I had never seen them this angry," he muses wide-eyed.

The rhetorical strategy is so irritatingly transparent I can't believe Ellis thought this would fly, especially as he repeats himself endlessly. Each dinner ends with Ellis the victim of these unhinged, completely emotional rants. He writes:
When I countered with something noncommittal about the day's events or perhaps offered another opinion, placing the supposed fuckup in context, they both lost their shit and became infuriated, lashing out at me in ways I'd never seen from either of them (159).
Let's examine the language used here. Where the friends are described with heated words such as "lashing" or "infuriated" but Ellis describes himself as merely "offering" an opinion. He uses a classic weasel word, "supposed," to dismiss whatever clearly fucked up thing Trump did. Where Ellis is presented as calm and bemused, the friends have "lost their shit." Ellis never presents himself as anything other than purely rational, amused by the vociferous hatred of Trump. His friends are described in emotional terms, without self-control and without self-awareness. He continually makes reference to how wealthy these folks are, how Trump's election doesn't affect their riches in any way. Readers could be charitable: maybe these wealthy friends are demonstrating empathy for the marginalized folks who are in danger from Trump's policies. It's ironic Ellis would miss this, considering he spends a couple pages talking about how being exposed to shocking art, to art which challenges taught him empathy. He can't seem to muster any empathy for millennials, ironically enough.

Ellis can't even keep his own political analysis straight. He refers to Trump as a disruptor who changed the rule book by throwing out the rules. He points out, accurately I think, the legacy media had trouble reporting on Trump. They created this reductive binary in which Hilary Clinton was the hero and Trump the villain, which completely disregarded the feelings of many people on the ground, the disenfranchised white people yearning for a populist leader to "say it like it is." The media couldn't report on Trump because he had thrown out the rule book. Ellis even compares him to *eyeroll* the Joker in The Dark Knight, just an anarchic force without foresight. And so it's doubly irritating when Ellis' suggestions for defeating the beast that is Trump was to "learn to play by his rules" and report "about Trump more objectively" (153).  Which is it, Ellis? One can't play by his rules if he's thrown out the rules.

Over and over he claims other people are motivated solely by ideology but he never points that finger back at himself. His dismissal of Moonlight as a victim narrative comes from ideology and from his own subject position. He makes gestures towards acknowledging his class and racial privilege but these are just empty gestures, a kind of rhetorical covering one's ass. He positions his own ideology as common sense, as being natural and thus correct, a biological imperative (he explicitly uses this phrase) and therefore, he implies, his ideology is not ideology, but just how it is. So in his view he can't be accused of ideological bias. He's too rational for that.

His political worldview betrays a deep-seeded sense of fatalism. His impatience with millennials stems from their alleged dissatisfaction with how terrible the world truly is. He maintains millennials feel entitled to a world wherein each of them are special and recognized as such, but the real world is harsh and unfair and violent and cruel. Thus, Ellis has no practical political insight. The world is as the world is, homo homini lupus, and any attempt to change the world or express frustration is entitlement or facile or useless. Ellis upholds the status quo by his complacency, his lack of investment. He's a rich white man, so why does he need to make any political changes? It's political entropy at its finest. Nothing is at stake for him so there's no pressing need to fight. He blames millennials for their softness but he never asks himself if they're right to be mad.

A disappointing read but not without its rare gems of insight. Ellis is a great writer of narrative but it's obvious he's had no training in political analysis or argumentation. If he had, he might not have deployed such base and transparent tactics. Stick to fiction or film criticism. 

Sunday, February 3, 2019

February Reads Part One

Time Out of Joint by Philip K. Dick
The Vanishing Tower by Michael Moorcock
Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert

I was inspired to read Time Out of Joint thanks to Mark Fisher's book on The Weird (here). I'm certain I ordered the Dick novel online from the UK closely after finishing Fisher's book, which is to say around May or June of 2017. It is now February of 2019. Over a year to get around to reading it. The delay between purchasing and reading isn't always this long, but that's significant. I'm sad I didn't read it right away because it's probably the best novel by Dick I've read so far. It turns out Ubik was the last Dick novel I've read, back in 2015 (here). Three and a half years to reading another Dick novel. Going through my blog's archives, I notice that I've read, in 2009, The Crack in Space and The Penultimate Truth, though I can't remember the specifics. I've always been more drawn to his short fiction, where I feel he shines at his brightest, but Time Out of Joint might challenge that notion. It's tightly constructed and sensitive to the philosophical undercurrents in which his characters are swimming. Fisher applies the notion of The Weird to this one not out of left field. The most harrowing moment in the novel reminded me a lot of some of the quieter Weird fiction I've read: a character is stumbling in his own dark bathroom, grasping for a chain to turn on the light, when his wife outside the bathroom, reminds him it's a wall-switch. His muscle memory betrayed him, or perhaps, his brain betrayed the more physical honesty of his muscle memory. Later, another character describes the off-kilter feeling of ascending what she remembered as being three steps up a porch when in reality, there are only two. These little moments have as much an impact as the bigger reveals, the artificiality of the world in which the characters live. I hadn't mean to read two books back-to-back about revolutions on nearby space colonies, but this novel made a good companion to Robinson's Red Mars, though Dick's novel depicts Lunar revolutionaries, not Martian. This was a great read!

The Vanishing Tower is the fourth collection of Elric stories from Moorcock. How I wish I was rich and could afford to buy the numerous other editions which collect these stories in order of publication. The publishing history of Moorcock's fiction is almost as deviously complex as the fiction itself! The edition of The Vanishing Tower I read was previously published as The Sleeping Sorceress but I'm not sure of the differences. This collection is the closest these have felt to a single novel, even if I can sense the seams where the individuals bits have been sewn together. Elric and his companion Moonglum are on the trail of a sorcerer called Theleb K'aarna (who appeared in the previous volume, The Weird of the White Wolf, read here, though I don't remember the specific villain). In typical form, each time Elric comes close to killing the evil wizard, the brigand escapes and Elric's soul is twisted a little bit more by his parasitic sword Stormbringer. It's a bit repetitive, each Elric story has been so far, but the variations are where the pleasures are to be found. By which I mean of course, the absolute bonkers weird shit Moorcock comes up with as obstacles for Elric to overcome. One such monster are the giant naked ladies with hair conveniently covering their naughty bits who swing swords above their heads. Another, ugly black pig creatures who change shape, including a giant humanoid with to-scale genitalia. The most memorable is the spell which calls forth a roiling, undulating mountain of flesh from the ground, which crushes and overtakes all the enemy troops. Truly, the most Cronenbergian thing in a bibliography full of Cronenbergian stuff. This was, typically, terrific. Imaginative, compelling, sickening, depressing. Wonderful stuff.

Dune Messiah is in many ways better than its older sibling (here). It's more tightly written, the stakes are bit higher (the destruction of the self), and it's even more politically elaborate. Yes, the book suffers from the absence of the wow factor, the utter strangeness of meeting this world for the first time, but even that shock of the new was dulled for me thanks to having seen the film more than once. It seems in the interim between books one and two, Herbert grew up a lot. Instead of 700 pages of internal monologue and hand-wringing, the narrator gives access to inner thoughts without them ever upstaging the drama. And drama it is. I couldn't help but think of David Mamet's memo to the writers of The Unit (here). I'll quote the most relevant bit (and yes, it's written in all-caps):
QUESTION:WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, ACUTE GOAL.

SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES OF EVERY SCENE THESE THREE QUESTIONS.

1) WHO WANTS WHAT?

2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER[sic] DON'T GET IT?

3) WHY NOW?
Almost every scene in Dune Messiah features this maxim, down to the character with the least amount of time on stage, as it were. The opening sequence violates one of Mamet's maxims ("ANY TIME TWO CHARACTERS ARE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT") but this is due to the nature of the obstacle in question, ie Paul Atreides. The four characters in the opening scene are: Scytale, a face-changing assassin; Edric, a member of the Spacing Guild; Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam of the Bene Gesserit; and finally, wife (but not mate) to Paul, Irulan. Each character has their own motivations (Scytale's plotting cannot be revealed at the beginning of the novel for fear of ruining the surprise) and though their first, immediate goal is the elimination of the Emperor, what happens after that concerns each one. The narrator accomplishes this tapestry of drama with asides, internal monologues, pregnant pauses, double meanings in speech, and so on. It's dramatic in the classic sense. All four characters are at odds, each wants something different, each has money in the pot so to speak, and time is of the essence.

This structure extends to most of the novel. Scenes are often just two characters engaged in dialogue, forced by circumstances to be together but always with different goals in mind. The plot is intricate without ever being abstruse or impenetrable; the characters' goals specific and feasible; and the obstacles are 100% of the time the opposing goals of other characters. This is ideal pulp writing if you ask me. Prose doesn't do action well, I've been saying for years. Better to keep the drama at the level of words than endless descriptions of karate chops and who pulled which trigger. The major act of action in Dune Messiah is explained in laborious detail for a specific reason: it's a vision from another angle, in slow motion, and its slowness heightens the suspense. The slower the description, the more tense the audience's nerves. This was great. I loved this book a lot even if not everything makes a ton of sense and Herbert relies on exposition too heavily some times. Can't wait to read the next one, to be honest.