Thursday, February 24, 2011

100 Books 12 - Anthony Neil Smith's CHOKE ON YOUR LIES

Choke on Your Lies - Anthony Neil Smith - Amazon Digital Services

My last book in this challenge featured an irritating narrator; this one merely features an unlikeable one, albeit one whose own skewed sense of self leaves him with a hilariously vast set of blind spots about himself and others. The reader, so amused at this, can almost forgive him for being a self-centered, self-pitying jerk, for being an incredible snob, for being a clueless sissy and an asshole.

Almost. Choke on Your Lies, in other words, has a far nastier narrator than does poor old Moby Dick, but where Ishmael's bad habits made me long for the damned book to be over, Mick Throoft's faults, though far more severe, were not aggravating enough to make me want the book to end at all. And that's damned impressive.

Furthermore, I know author Anthony Neil Smith (DocNoir on Twitter), after a fashion, and he is nothing like this nasty piece of work he's written -- except maybe a bit more particular in his tastes than many -- and yet I absolutely believe in this awful character Smith has created; Mick's voice and thoughts never ring false. I believe in Mick Throoft as a real and believable character, and I believe in all of the other equally unsavory, hateful, spiteful, tasteless, power-mad, lustful, pretentious bastards with whom he associates.

Overall, I believe in Mick's best friend Octavia, the only person to emerge from this narrative with any claim at all to my sympathies despite the fact that I've spent the bulk of the novel disliking her just as much as I have everybody else.

Smith's novel is a thoroughly unpleasant experience of a read, one that made me want a shower after finishing it, and I loved every word of it, not just because it's fun to watch bad people behave badly and, to a degree, get their comeuppance, but also because it's fun to see bad people enact a carefully constructed, intricate and fascinating plot, or interwoven series of plots. Smith says his book is an homage to Nero Wolfe, and while it has little of Wolfe's urbanity and dash, it has all of his intelligence, cynicism and clarity about human behavior and the weird impulses that drive it.

It's also dripping with depravity, which a reader who thinks she's wandered into an updated sort of country house mystery in an academic setting may find slightly shocking, but at which a habitual reader of modern crime fiction will likely snicker. These professors and poets think they're pretty hot stuff under their tweeds.

Caught up in all of this is our poor narrator, Mick, who makes light of his own transgressions, yet has been too wrapped up in them -- not as occasions for guilt but as proof that he is an Artist -- to notice that everyone around him not only knows his little secrets but makes even lighter of them because they're really sinning, all over the place. Their homes, offices, even their public hangouts would be a CSI nightmare, loaded with gooey DNA and other tawdry clues at a level even Gus Grissom himself would find daunting. Mick is shocked -- shocked! -- to learn of all of this, even as he sort of wishes the rest had thought him cool enough to join in the ickiness.

But while Mick tells the tale, the story really revolves around Octavia, his angry, genius-smart, morbidly obese power broker of a foil. Everything he is not, including piercingly self-aware, it is she whose resources that crack the cases, whose amazing mind, twisted though it is by a lifetime of pre-emptive loathing of the rest of the world before it can loathe her, that penetrates the tawdry secrets that have made Mick's life such a mess. She is a monstrous and terrifying presence through most of the novel, but when her weakness is at last not only revealed but exploited, her dissolution into tears and need is the book's only moment of genuine pathos, and is as affecting as anything you're likely to read this year, even if your list includes the death of Little Nell. It's not just a matter of lo how the mighty have fallen, but of seeing the real Octavia at last, the damaged, vulnerable, passionate woman whom Mick has always known but who disappeared into a world of wealth, leverage, sex (news flash: big fat ladies have sex, too, and a lot of it, maybe even more than you!) and marijana smoke.

And though, as I've said, the reader spends most of the book being heartily glad not to be Octavia's best friend, when she gets her last laugh, the reader shares it sincerely.

I, for one, want to read more of her adventures. Especially if she ditches the poet.

Friday, February 18, 2011

100 Books - 11: Herman Melville's MOBY DICK: Ware Fanboys

Moby-Dick - Herman Melville - Public Domain

I'm kind of a fan of unreliable narrators. Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest made the story all the more realistic and interesting; most of Faulkner's characters are off their rockers or children, and it's always fun to argue over whether or not Odysseus can be trusted as a narrator.

I mostly like unreliable narrators.

But Ishmael in Moby-Dick is not so much unreliable as he is irritating as hell. As I observed on Twitter last week, he's the annoying, over-enthusiastic hipster on the boat, and from the reaction that remark got there (and mine is a highly literate following), most readers are heartily sick of him long before the Pequod even leaves Nantucket.

What do I mean by hipster? It's a term that gets flung about quite a lot these days, but at base it refers to a person who comes from a comfortable, if not moneyed, background who affects the dress and frequents the hangouts of a working class he has largely imagined from reading too many other slummers' books about them at his liberal arts college. His enthusiasm for the manners, mores and for the inner life he projects onto the real working class is hilariously overblown ("give me a condor's quill! Give me Vesuvius' crater for an inkstand!") and frequently he resorts to a sort of half-baked Walt Whitman as he celebrates the big burly guys he so clearly wishes he was. He affects to shun the mannerisms and accoutrements of his own class and smugly announces that those of the class he apes are better for the world, the environment, the economy, whatever he is pretending to care about that week.

So yeah, Ishmael is pretty much a textbook example, as he makes plain even before he finds himself snuggled up in bed with Queequeg, waiting until the next time the big Polynesian addresses himself to his "heathen rituals" before the little idol he's brought into the New Bedford inn where the pair first teams up. An obviously educated New England gentleman of a certain type, he has already spent many pages haranguing the reader about how sometimes a rough, hard-working life at sea is really the only cure for his melancholic ennui. Eyeballs, get to rolling. You'll have a lot to do through this novel.

Like most hipsters, though, Ishmael is not without his talents; "his" work is often extraordinarily vivid and readable, occasionally very punny, even funny, and there is, at the heart of his tale "as told to" Herman Melville, a riveting story of obsession, revenge and doom (and really, is there anyone left in the literate world that doesn't already know Ahab meets his death when he again meets the whale that originally bit his leg off?) The story often gets lost, though, for chapters at a time, as Ishmael shows off his tiresome erudition, his poetic "gifts," his deeply philosophical soul and his exhaustive knowledge of the whaling industry, knowledge that only a demented fanboy could ever be bothered to amass or think others would wish to share. This, too, is a very hipster trait: for whaling and whales, substitute Apple products (he even gets all indignant and defensive when an imagined interlocutor points out that his chosen industry/cult engages in a lot of questionable, even brutal, behavior. How very like a fanboy*).

If you can't tell, I feel oversold. My 30-some years of hearing about this book had led me to believe, among other things, that I'd see a lot more of Ahab, that he and his whale are the twin monsters at the heart of this story, the former more terrifying and awful than the latter. Instead, Ahab's barely there, his presence diminished to insignificance by that of Ishmael's ego, until the book is almost over and Starbuck is, rather abruptly, contemplating Ahab's murder. The scene itself is wonderfully dramatic and intense, but feels tacked on, coming after hundreds of pages of Ishmael imposing himself on the reader as it does.

All that being said, there are some rippingly enjoyable bits within this immense pile of verbiage. Captain Boomer's story and his banter with his ship's surgeon late in the book are an amusing breath of fresh air even as they sicken the reader; Chapter 122 is good for a belly laugh, and Tashtego falling into the severed head of the first sperm whale harvested is a welcome bit of ridiculous slapstick (one can hear the wet, squelchy sounds as he slides in and flails) -- and the daring rescue Queequeg effects would grace any action flick. There is also unintentional humor, of course, for the modern reader as Ishmael and company process a tub of spermaceti (not to be comfused with the male gamete; it's a waxy "unctuous" substance ["unctuous" is one of Ishmael's favorite words; I await the day it is used by one of his modern counterparts to describe the mouth feel of a Pabst Blue Ribbon] found in a cavity in a sperm whale's head), squeezing the goop and each other's hands within the goop, and exchanging sentimental looks. A fan of Camille Paglia, I was long ago warned about this passage and haunted by her comparison of it to a circle jerk. Bog help me.

On the whole, I find the idea of this book to be a great deal better than its reality. Those who like it have edited its tedium from their memories, I suspect, concentrating on those brief passages of brilliance it unassailably has, just as fans (and marketers) of Yellowstone National Park focus on the stunning highlights of Yellowstone Falls, Morning Glory Pool and Old Faithful and edit out the miles and miles and miles and miles of dense, dull stands of lodgepole pines. By their very nature, the long stretches of blather are forgettable; the promoter of book or park neglects to mention them when praising the experience to the newbie, and the newbie is left feeling, as I did, oversold on a book that has been inflated into a classic.

Perhaps, though, this book has a hidden value I've not accounted for: as a warning across the ages that if the Ishmaels of the world are given their day, we'll all be rolling our eyes.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm behind on my 100 books goal.

*Even more fanboy-ish: Ishmael had himself tattooed with the measurements of a whale skeleton he got to observe while hanging out with his good buddy, King Tranquo. While I know of some folk who've gotten tattoos of Apple's logo, I know of none who have had the tech specs of a device so emblazoned on himeself, and if you happen to know of one, please do not tell me about him. Quoth I on Twitter quite recently "Oh god. Ishmael is reading his tattoos to me. MAKE IT STOP."

Sunday, February 13, 2011

100 Books: 10 - James Hannam's GOD'S PHILOSOPHERS

God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by John Hannam - Icon Books

I'm still kind of making up my mind about whether or not I *liked* God's Philosophers. Its subject matter is very much up my alley and it's by no means a poorly written or unreadable book, but...


On the one hand, I am not a fan of revisionist history, and this book at times feels like exactly that: a sometimes haranguing and opinionated effort to prove that "The Dark Ages" is a perjorative and misleading term for the historical period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, that the Renaissance couldn't have happened had not medieval thinkers prepared the way for it, that scholasticism shouldn't ever have been mocked.

On the other, well, I am keenly aware that I have reached a certain stage in life in which a lot of the stuff I was taught as fact in primary and high school is out of date, inaccurate, maybe just plain wrong. I speak not just of cherished juvenile memories of brontosaurs and a system of nine planets but also subtler matters like the characters of presidents and other leaders (many of whom we never even studied; shocking but true, we never talked about John F. Kennedy OR Martin Luther King in my elementary, middle or high school curricula). I like, whenever I can, to redress these defects, fill in these lacuna in my education, and so I deliberately seek out material like this that deliberately and systematically challenges something I've long taken as a given: in this case, that the almighty Catholic Church kept science down in various ways.

Of course, as Hannam is quick to stress, what we think of as science didn't really exist in the period his book covers; modern science with its rigorous schema of hypothesis, experimentation, analysis and peer review is a product of the last century or two at best (even the word "scientist" was only really coined in the 18th century). But, he asks, is it really reasonable to believe that those who would have been were just ground down by the ecclesiastical and secular powers that were? Was knowledge deliberately suppressed and kept from us and questions banned from being asked?

Well, Hannam says, yes and no.

A lot of names familiar to people who read a lot of Umberto Eco and his ilk surface all over the place here: Bernard of Clairvaux, Ansemlo d'Aosta (aka Anselm of Canterbury -- wink wink to those who love Foucault's Pendulum), Peter Abelard (of Abelard and Heloise fame, you fans of Being John Malkovich), the Merton Calculators, and of course Galileo and Paracelsus and Avicenna and Thomas Aquinas. Each gets a brief moment in the spotlight alongside some names unfamiliar to any but the dwellers in deep academe like Nicole Oresme, who discussed the notion that the earth rotates on an axis a hundred years before Copernicus did -- it's these little tidbits and new names that are the most attractive feature of God's Philosophers.

What is less attractive is, for lack of a better word, the tone of the book. While ordinarily I'm something of a fan of a certain kind of prickly cultural criticism (Paul Fusell is an old favorite), I find I don't like it nearly as well when it seems chiefly employed in the service of haranguing me about how grateful I should be to the Catholic Church; the implication appears over and over that had it not been for the Church and its hierarchy and its (grudging!) acceptance that Aristotle was right about a few things and maybe Plato was, too, the Renaissance could not have happened, but anyway, all of those ideas that our Renaissance heroes had, well, good little church boys thought of them first. Except for the fact that the Earth revolves around the sun -- Hannam lets Galileo keep that one. Mostly.

Hannam is especially down on the humanists, whom he describes as "incorrigible reactionaries" "bent on recapturing an imaginary past" in their focus on recovering nearly-lost Greek and Arabic knowledge. Not since the latest radio preacher rant against those nasty secular humanists have I seen that term used with such venom, and the book seems rather thin on evidence to support this characterization. Because they weren't interested in leafing through page after manuscript page of torturous arguments and reasonings trying to reconcile Aristotle's writings on mathematics and physics with Christian doctrine and scripture in quest of the odd scrap of something that may, possibly, sort of, kind of lead to a conclusion about how actual nature actually works, they were bad guys? Really?

That aside, there is still lots of fascinating stuff. Hannam and some of his colleagues are the first in a long, long time to actually be willing to comb through all of that scholasticism in quest of the germs of ideas our culture has embraced and let flower, and the truth about us as a species that it reveals, that mankind has always been curious and intelligent and interested in the real world no matter what the era, is an inspiring one. We didn't all drink the Christian Kool Aid in A.D. 700 and stop thinking for ourselves, even if most of us were illiterate peasants. The Kool Aid maybe wasn't a smart drug, but it wasn't a brain killer, either, and it the society it shaped did have a certain framework for investigating the natural world that kept our quest for knowledge moving forward, if slowly. I get it.

But man, sometimes this guy's attitude about it a lot to stomach.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Shinya Tsukamoto's VITAL: Some films really need a warning label

Vital Directed by Shinya Tsukamoto - Japanese - 2004

This is my first film from Tsukamoto, known well to fans of Japanese "body horror" flicks like Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Ichi the Killer and A Snake of June. I am as yet undecided if I will check out these and other films from him his oeuvre, though, as by all accounts Vital is something of a departure from his norm -- and despite my outbursts on Twitter yesterday, I loved Vital, even as it broke my heart and made me want to scream and, never want to see another movie again.

I was drawn to the film, of course, by its star, the amazing Tadanobu Asano. I've yet to dislike a performance of his, whether he appears as one of the three strange "Unpopular With Women" brothers in Katsuhito Ishii's Funky Forest: the First Contact, as a young Genghis Khan in Mongol, or as an obsessive-compulsive librarian on the run from the yakuza in Last Life in the Universe, he's always watchable as hell, subdued and sure and completely fascinating. And he's a busy, busy actor, is Mr. Tadanobu; there's a lot he's made that I've not seen yet; Vital was just the next on my list.

For this one, he more subdued than ever as Hiroshi Takagi, a man stricken with a kind of amnesia after a brutal car crash which he barely survived; his girlfriend in the car with him was not so lucky. Trying to reconstruct his forgotten life and move on, he finds some medical textbooks and delights his parents (both of them physicians) by deciding to re-enroll in medical school, where he emerges as a top student, largely because he has absolutely nothing else going on in his life. A fellow student wants to change that, but she finds she cannot penetrate his affectless surface -- at least not until they start a four-month course in human dissection and the cadaver they are assigned begins to trigger memories -- or hallucinations -- in Hiroshi. The cadaver, a young woman, has a tattoo on its arm he seems to recall having seen before.

I'm not spoiling anything in sharing that the cadaver does turn out to be his dead girlfriend, Ryoko; this film is not about surprises or gotchas, but about gradual discoveries of a strange and haunting kind. As Hiroshi seizes control of the dissection -- driving his fellow students well away, except for the young lady trying to catch his eye -- and makes his meticulous notes and beautiful sketches of the many layers and parts that made up the woman he once loved, he starts to experience what may be memories but may just be daydreams, in which the body disassembled and cold on his table is alive and warm and moving and balletically dancing on a beach somewhere, with him. Neither of them is more than a physical presence in these scenes -- he remembers neither her nor himself and so has no material to work with in these constructions, or reconstructions -- but the actors are so good and the cinematography so beautiful that there is tremendous emotional resonance to them even so.

Nor are these the only scenes that earn this film its tear-jerker status; Hiroshi, wondering if his "memories" are real, pays a series of visits to Ryoko's parents, who are fond of him and want to help even as they themselves are still grieving -- and bewildered at Ryoko's dying wish to leave her body to science. Is it a coincidence or not that she wound up assigned as Hiroshi's cadaver? No one asks this outright; it's treated as unknowable and unimportant, an enigma much more powerful than "who is the girl?" would have been.

Lots of scenes, too, are shot with strong red and blue filters. I still haven't figured out the aesthetic scheme guiding Tsukemoto's choices as to what to use where, but am told it's a hallmark of his work. If so, I look forward to exploring more of it (Ichi the Killer is already in my queue, as Tadanobu appears in it as well); I like Tsukemoto's eye and have no objection to creeping horrors in film.

But man, oh man, I wish I'd had some prep for the emotional devastation this film had in store for me. By the time Ryoko was "reassembled" and placed in the crematorium (its smokestacks, going full-bore, are the first thing the viewer sees in this film), I was a complete wreck.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Ants, Frogs, Slings and Arrows

The Canadian television drama Slings & Arrows is one of the best things I've seen on the small screen in years. I'm only halfway through the second of its three seasons but am pretty confident that this bold statement of mine will hold for the entire thing. It's a Robertson Davies novel come to life, a backstage and back office look at a fictional Shakespeare festival that makes the latter as exciting and dramatic as the former -- sometimes more so.

The first season sets the stage for the shenanigans in the second that are what has me writing about the show on this blog at five in the morning. The festival's hapless business manager Richard (Mark McKinney) got caught up in a wildly ill-advised affair with a liaison for the festival's major corporate sponsor, with predictably disastrous results; a huge chunk of funding lost, Richard must scramble in the second season to replace that resource and resorts to a loan/grant package that requires the moneys be spent on a "rebranding" effort. This leads him and his festival into the corybantic arms of a bleeding-edge marketing firm, Froghammer, whose operations and front man made me want to run and find William Gibson and whoever has the film rights to his latest trilogy and say "Lookie here! Lookie here! Colm Feore should totally play Hubertus Bigend!!!!!"

Hubertus Bigend, for those who are not fans of Gibson and his three most recent books, Pattern Recognition, Spook Country and Zero History, is a post-post-modern, globe-trotting, talent-tapping, zeitgeist-twisting student of the edge, a man with apparently infinite resources and an insatiable hunger for a kind of cool that has yet to be invented. His marketing firm, Blue Ant, runs on pure potential and never-ending capital. Nobody likes him, but no one can avoid him: he is omnipresent in a world that doesn't yet exist, applies forces that don't yet have names; he is a human search engine on a web that no one else can yet perceive. He's the kind of guy who can commission a business suit dyed in International Klein Blue and actually wear it around and pull it off, not because it looks good on him (though he is handsome in his creepy way; as he is described in Pattern Recognition, he "looks like Tom Cruise on a diet of virgins' blood and truffled chocolates"), but because he's just that guy.

He's an arresting and slightly terrifying figure, and he's probably the most vivid and memorable and deeply idiosyncratic character in 21st Century literature so far.

So imagine my howls of recognition when Slings & Arrows took me to the offices of Froghammer, Blue Ant with a vigorous dance soundtrack in place of the dreamy electronic/ambient I imagine plays in the background at Blue Ant. Sanjay is Toronto's Bigend, thinking wildly outside the box, shuffling resources for the sake of shuffling them ("Let's go see if we can find where the conference room is today!" he shouts to Richard before bounding off on that quest) and creating a truly outrageous ad campaign for the festival: the first phase mocks its subscriber base as a bunch of old fogeys with one foot in the grave and a tagline that says "Don't bother" (see above); the second selects choice remarks from the worst reviews the festival's performances have ever gotten and plasters them on billboards. It's reverse psychology, meant to piss off the festival's traditional base, generate adverse publicity and create unbeatable mind share in its new target audience of younger people who don't make plans, who attend things on impulse and who don't want to be bored -- not quite a Blue Ant strategy, but rather a long way from Mad Men -- and I look forward to seeing if it pays off as I expect it to.

Midway through Season 2 as I am, I've just seen another way in which Sanjay differs from Bigend in that Sanjay is an actual charlatan, a professional imposter, while Bigend just feels simultaneously too good and too bad to be true, but even with that divergence I still say Feore's performance and the role he plays here constitutes one giant audition reel for the part of Hubertus Bigend if ever film adaptations of Gibson's books see a green light.

Why I didn't think of this before and on my own, I cannot say, but at this hour, coming up on 6 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, it's all I can think about -- which is also very Blue Ant, isn't it?

And now I'm off to watch some more episodes of Slings & Arrows. You should, too, if you haven't. It's the best argument I've found in a very long time for continuing to keep a glass teat in my home.