Thursday, June 27, 2013

Louis L'Amour's RIDE THE RIVER

I'll admit to having put off picking up this one, even though so far the Sackett books have pretty much been a sausage fest (for all that each one of them is about the winning of a wife as awesome as each novel's hero deserves), partly because I wasn't sure how well Louis L'Amour could really do a female voice, mostly because it seemed from the opening paragraphs, that his version of said female voice was in backwoods dialect, and I'm still getting over the wounds dealt to me on that score by one Mr. Stephen King (see the footnote to my reaction to fan unfavorite Wizard and Glass). So, though I've been loving the Sackett novels as nice, somewhat wistful entertainment, I was not eager to plunge into Ride the River as I had been into its predecessors.

I'm glad I finally got over my aversion, though. Fans of The Hunger Games and whatnot take note: Echo Sackett is the spiritual ancestor of Katniss Everdeen and lots of other plucky young tomboyish heroines (Kaylee from Firefly and Amy Shaftoe from Cryptonomicon come to mind as well).. As in Echo was huntin' and killin' and feedin' her family long, long before la Everdeen volunteered as a replacement tribute in some young adult fiction. Except Echo uses guns. And an "Arkansas toothpick." And, yes, the power of her last name.

Ride the River takes place some two hundred years after the last Sackett story. Echo is a descendent of Kin-Ring, one of the the heroes of The Warrior's Path, and so also presumably of his stupendously badass wife Diana. Moreover, she is the youngest of those descendents, which means she's about to come into a special legacy. For back in the days of Barnabas Sackett, Barnabas had a great friend. And said great friend did well for himself. And felt that he owed so much to Barnabas that he instructed his heirs to make sure that if his line ever died out, all the money and a special puzzle box with a secret inside would go to the youngest descendent of Barnabas' first-born son, Kin-Ring.

Only problem is, Echo lives in Tennessee, and the lawyer working the inheritance case is in Philadelphia. So to the big bad city goes our little paragon, only to learn that the lawyer is more than a little crooked, and he's not the only bad guy after her windfall.

Enter the Chantry family, heroes of another Louis L'Amour series (of which I've only read one book, Fair Blows the Wind, and that reading was back in my early teens). These writers just can't resist the urge to link all their series and characters together, eh? And here it seems a tad gratuitous, but what the hell. Finian Chantry, octagenarian lawyer who can still kick ass, proves himself a more than worthy descendant of Tatton, and so, eventually, does his strapping (and yes, handsome) nephew Dorian, whom he sends after Echo to keep her safe on her journey home with a carpetbag full of gold.

But this is Echo, and she is a Sackett, so who do you think winds up rescuing/taking care of/worrying about whom? Even as she "sparks" on him.

But so basically this novel is fluff, but it's enjoyable fluff. I'm relieved to discover that later Sackett novels will take up with earlier generations again as a Sackett in the years after the War of 1812 is a bit boring even if she is dinky and cute and never misses with a rifle or a pistol and isn't above clocking you with the butt if you get into close range. I wouldn't mess with her, sho nuff.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Ned Beauman's THE TELEPORTATION ACCIDENT

No book that I actually finished has ever made me want more to take a shower after the last page (no, not even one by Chuck Wendig. I KNOW!) more than Ned Beauman's debut novel, Boxer, Beetle. It was therefore with a trepidation only partly assuaged by my knowledge that my best reading pal SJ loved this one that I began The Teleportation Accident.

The cover helped.

Misleading as it is as to its contents.

What's inside is often unspeakably foul, vaguely misogynist (at one point early on the phrase "non-mercenary vulva" is used to describe a theoretical female who might be kind enough to sleep with our protagonist) and reads a lot like one might imagine a (wildly unlikely) collaboration between Robert Silverberg and Douglas Adams would, if it were set in pre WWII Berlin, Paris and Los Angeles (with a little -- a very little --  and the wrong bits of -- Henry Miller thrown in). I was craving a shower before I'd even finished one chapter. But...

But...

Well, I did not mention Douglas Adams lightly, except instead of gentle absurdist/parodic humor, the humor one is slapped in the face with every few lines is nasty and sordid and really pretty repugnant, but funny nonetheless. Funny enough to make even the most umbrage-taking feminist keep on reading, even if she winds up hating herself for it. As in chock full of lines like "the moon over Berlin shone bright as a bare bulb in a toilet cubicle." Ha ha ha and eww.

As for what it's about, well, it's sort of a companion piece to Boxer, Beetle in that it, too, is largely concerned with Germany in the 1930s, but where many characters in that book are obsessed in various ways with the Nazis, those in The Teleportation Accident, even though unlike the Boxer, Beetles they are from Berlin, are pretty much oblivious to them. Egon Loeser and his friends are more concerned about parties and pussy and scoring some decent cocaine -- or a corkscrew -- no, an actual corkscrew, jeeze -- than about world or local affairs. Politics is for people who can't handle art.* "History happened while you were hungover," the tagline says. And for these people it's so true that it's only when Loeser chases his ill-chosen anima projection, one Adele Hitler**, to Los Angeles (via Paris) that he gets even an inkling of what is happening to the Jews in his home city and country, and this only in that people he meets in LA assume he's a refugee like everybody else -- and assume he knows why they might think this.

So this book could almost be an exploration of how people could remain carefully, willfully ignorant of one of history's greatest crimes right up until it was too late for them to do anything about it. So described, this book becomes somewhat admirable (I'd posit it's this quality that got it listed for the Man Booker prize). But that makes it no less tough to take. But I suppose I'm supposed to admire that as well.

The book does, though, get a few bonus points for playing a bit with an amusing conceit -- that H.P. Lovecraft's fiction wasn't really fiction but just sort of veiled/fictionalized references to staggeringly difficult concepts in particle physics and dimensions and whatnot -- but like so many of the neat ideas tossed around in here, it doesn't get the attention it deserves. It's kind of like Randy from A Christmas Story opening his presents. Wow, oh neat, wow, yeah, and RIIIIIIIP into the next package. Except the Lovecraft stuff is not the toy zeppelin we see the kid asleep and cradling at the end. The Lovecraft stuff is the socks.

And speaking of the end, or rather, the four ends, the words "Scooby Doo Ending" kept coming to mind. And even though the very last bit where [REDACTED] turns out to be [REDACTED] in [REDACTED] is pretty cool and amusing, that last of the four epilogues is really the most interesting bit of the book. So interesting, in fact, that I wound up wishing I'd gotten to read that book instead of this one.

Ah, me.

*Of course, in no small part that proved to be quite true, as Adolph Hitler was famously a failed artist.

**No relation to Adolph, we learn in very casual passing.




Monday, June 24, 2013

Patrick O'Brian's H.M.S. SURPRISE #ReReads2013

It's interesting, isn't it, that these novels appear to have been marketed originally as "Jack Aubrey novels" (see first edition cover art to the left). But where, oh where, would Jack Aubrey be without Don Esteban Maturin y Domanova, better known as good old Dr. Stephen Maturin, Spock to Aubrey's Kirk if ever there was one.

As it happens, we get a pretty good idea as this novel opens, finding Jack alone in acting command of the crack frigate Lively, which he admires and enjoys only in principle -- likening it internally to a brother's officer's wife, elegant and chaste and living her life according to sound scientific principles. Not very sexy, but not a slovenly waste of wood and canvas, either. He is alone in command because Stephen, revealed last novel as a valued secret agent, is on assignment and, as it tuns out, in peril, because the new First Lord of the Admiralty blundered into mentioning him by name in a public meeting (Plamegate, anyone?), a remarkable thing that did not go unremarked by enemy agents!

So while in Post Captain both Jack and Stephen engaged in a ridiculous dual escape, in H.M.S. Surprise the former starts off the story enacting a rescue of the latter, who was captured on one of his spy missions, in deadly earnest. That it is from the very island where they met --Minorca, Port Mahon, since fallen into the hands of the Spanish who are, in 1804, allied with France (the French turned on them in 1808), makes it all the more poignant and interesting. It's a very broken and battered Stephen who joins the Surprise's crew, and his ordeal is far from over: no sooner is he aboard than he's itching to get off the ship again to go explore a rock in the middle of the sea, a rock teeming with bird and insect life the likes of which might well be nondescript, in the old fashioned phrase*, which, this is Patrick O'Brian, so everything gets an old fashioned phrase at some point.

And that's just the first act!

Really, I generally think that if one is, for some unfathomable reason, going to read just one Aubrey/Maturin novel it should probably be this one, because it packs pretty much everything we love about O'Brian's creations into one dense little book -- staggering geographical scope (England to Minorca to India to Africa to...!), slapstick escapes/rescues, hot naval battle action (this time with a fleet of merchant ships having to fight like military vessels, with Jack having to engage in hard core diplomacy as well as seat-of-his-pants strategizing to pull it off), charming/brutal scenes of shipboard life, and perils ashore in love and war. Especially in love. Poor Stephen. Poor Jack. But mostly, in this novel, poor Stephen, for Diana Villiers leads him quite a merry chase all over India and beyond; he even winds up fighting a duel over her.** And then there's Dil. Ah, Dil.

And hey, everybody, it's okay. I still have a heart. I know this because once again the story of Dil, the wise-beyond-her-years little girl in Bombay who adopts Stephen and more or less keeps him out of trouble during his wanderings there -- she considers him a sort of idiot saint who can probably fly if he chooses, but would definitely fly the wrong way if not smack into something and knock himself out -- still makes me tear up. I picture her as being played by Sarala Kariyawasam. Brilliantly. Except Sarala might have been too cute. Ah, me.

*Meaning "not yet described" rather than "not worth describing because it's so boring" as we tend to use the term nowadays.

**And getting wounded. And surgically removing a pistol ball from his own gut in a scene wonderfully depicted in the film adaptation of Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World but in the film his wound is gotten quite, quite differently. And much less tragically.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Francis Bengtsson's THE LONG SHIPS

As anyone who follows me on GoodReads already knows, I spent the first few chapters of The Long Ships pretty much just giggling at the character names. I kept imagining Danish King Harald Bluetooth* wandering around the tenth century equivalent of a supermarket looking like he was talking about himself, for instance. Toke, well, that's pretty self-explanatory. And then there's Brother Willibald, the Christian monk who comes home with Orm from his adventures in Ethelred the Undready's England. Heh. Willibald. And there's another man named Ugge the Inarticulate. I mean, come on.

But then there's our hero, Orm. My reaction to this name only makes sense to fans of Walter Moers' Zamonia books, in which "Orm" is the name of the universal source of creative power, especially in literary terms. Here, of course, it merely means "serpent", and is usually accompanied by the epithet "red" because of his hair.

So, the cover and the era in which this book is set and the ethnicity of its characters should give away that this is, in fact, a Viking novel, but what they won't necessarily tell you is that it is regarded as a veddy veddy literary work, bearing the aegis of no less an entity than the New York Review of Books, who published it as one of its NYRB Classics series,** which is how I came across it. And there is good reason for it to get this stamp, for it's an ambitious and interesting work; more than just an adventure tale (though it's a very good adventure tale), it's also the story, really, of how Scandinavia went from the rough, violent, pagan land as depicted in the sagas to the more settled, orderly, responsible and overwhelmingly Christian one of, say, Sigrid Undset's work.

But don't let the high culture imprimatur deter you from the great fun to be had here, for The Long Ships has enough fun and fighting, and very funny imagery (like a huge stolen bell from a church in Asturia being hit, gong-style, at regular intervals, to help a bunch of untrained galley slaves row from Spain to Ireland) to satisfy even the guy who only wants to read Terry Brooks and David Eddings and Robert Jordan over and over again until the end of time (and yes, those guys really do exist; there's one on my old bar trivia team).

For me, well, Orm reminds me a little bit of Jack/Bobby Shaftoe, Neal Stephenson's hilariously hapless bad ass adventurer from the Baroque Cycle and Cryptonomicon. He shares the Shaftoes' bumbling heroism, right from the start with how he comes to go a-Viking: he is knocked on the head while defending the family farm from the followers of Krok (Worst Viking Chieftain EVER, is Krok), who are on a provisioning raid. They bear away the sheep and the young man, whose mommy had kept him home for one more season because he was her favorite and was too young and delicate yet.

But, he acquitted himself well before getting knocked out, even killed some of the raiding party, so he is allowed to join Krok, Toke and the gang on their rather slapstick voyage. As I said, Krok is the WVCE. But that's just the first bit of the book, which is basically told as Orm's life story, and once he's free of Krok (but he takes vengeance, oh yes he does, because he is a Danish Raider a-Viking) he starts gallavanting all about the known world, Moorish Spain, Ireland, Aenglaland... and, we learn later, his big brother spent quite a lot of time in Byzantium, which news drives most of the plot of the last quarter of the book.

Really, the only thing I don't like about The Long Ships is the way the narrative is framed, though it's a common enough device. Throughout the story we are treated to authorial/narrative intrusions indicating what Orm said about a given situation as an old man. It's usually something wise and often something witty, but never enough of either to justify the constant intrusion and the robbing of scenes of any sense of jeopardy. See also Doctor Who.

Maybe it's just George R.R. Martin's fault that this bothers me now? That makes me expect primary characters' danger to be real? At any rate, knowing ahead of time that the hero is going to make old bones often robs his story of some, or a lot of, its joy for me these days. I'd probably bitch about Conan the Cimmerian, too, nowadays, though maybe not because Conan!!!

At any rate, Orm's Viking picaresque is still plenty enjoyable. And as an added bonus, depicting as it does a society in which "any man who could not understand poetry would be regarded as a poor specimen of a warrior", there is more than a little bit of what amount to tenth century poetry slams, in which burly, drunken, beardy men strive to outdo each other in witty and lyrical depictions of their adventures and, sometimes, pratfalls. I'm not sure how well their efforts survive this translation into English, but the flavor of them is still there in trace amounts, as is the overall dry wit of the narrative tone; Halldor Laxness did not invent this tone, he just won a Nobel with it. As have so many of his regional fellows over the years.

The Long Ships is not necessarily Nobel material, but it's high quality entertainment -- rendered even more so by my contemporaneous choice to start playing Skyrim at long last. Skyrim is The Long Ships with dragons and lizard men, you guys. Well, sort of. At least it looks and sounds that way. But I haven't even found High Hrothgar yet, so, you know...

*Who is not himself much of a character per se, but the events take place during his reign.

**I had better just get this out right here: I am a big fan of NYRB Classics, and regard them as sort of my highbrow Angry Robot Books (which I doubt they'd appreciate) in that they are a go-to house for quality reading material when I want literary rather than genre fiction. They, like AR, have not yet let me down, at least inasmuch as what I've chosen from their offerings I have always, always liked. And lookie, they've sort of, kind of, taken a page from AR's playbook in that they now have a subscription program! Alas, it is dead tree only, and until my elbow/arm problems are sorted I'm ebook-only. I tweeted them about considering offering an ebook subscription but so far have gone ignored. Tristesse.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Karen Maitland's THE GALLOWS CURSE

Mandrake root has been believed to be capable of many, many things, but who knew it also had narrative talent?

Such is the conceit of The Gallows Curse, in which a mandrake root tells the story of various intrigues taking place during the reign of King John the Worst*, aka John Lackland, specifically during the height of his dispute with Pope Innocent III over who got to pick the Archbishop of Canterbury, which, as the main flow of this novel opens, has not only resulted in John's excommunication but also in, effectively, a complete interdiction on church activity in John's dominions. While neither the King nor the Pope exactly chose this, their dispute left all the parish priests and bishops so afraid that most of them fled or went into hiding.

Result: no one can take confession. No one can get married. No one can have a Christian burial. Et cetera. With interesting results, conceit #2 being -- and I cannot dispute this or call it far-fetched in any way -- that the interdiction had the effect of driving good Christians at least partway back into the arms of a paganism that still survived at least insomuch as there were "cunning women" and all sorts of lively superstition still abroad in Merrie Olde, which superstitions and folk beliefs are cleverly disclosed between chapters in the form of extended quotations from something called the Mandrake's Herbal.

More specifically, The Gallows Curse involves the story of some returned crusaders who variously compelled or were compelled to perform an especially hideous act, the nature of which is kept secret through most of the novel. All we know as the story begins to unfold (told, as I say, by a mandrake root, though we could easily forget this for long stretches that are indistinguishable, narratively, from any other novel written in good old First Person Omniscient, without the odd reminder here and there in the form of the mandrake root's breaking the fourth wall and making a direct observation -- which, I'll confess, I found a bit disappointing, wishing that Maitland had tried harder to invent a real and unique narrative voice for the mandrake narrator) is that it was bad enough to weigh so heavily on one's conscience when he lays dying, and dying unshriven, that his best friend, Raffaele, resorts to tricking an innocent local girl into acting as a sin eater over his friend's corpse.

Much of the rest of the novel's plot spins out from that simple action, and while we spend far too much time with the local girl, Elena (who is, of course, not as innocent as she gave out she was when she was engaged by Raffaele; in fact, she was pregnant when she ate his friend's sins, which causes all sorts of interesting trouble later on), her course brings us into contact with some pretty interesting characters, many of them Bechdel-passing females of considerable wit and strength and interest -- they would not be out of place in a Dorothy Dunnett novel -- and, weirdly, into the heart of a plot against King John.

But chiefly for me, the interest in The Gallows Curse lies in its exploration of what  the world would be like if all of the folk beliefs in the Mandrake's Herbal were true, if sniffing a marigold every morning would keep you from getting sick, if carrying certain seeds made you invisible, if tying a sack of live mice around your neck would get rid of a cough, etc. Maitland does a pretty good job of imagining the inner lives of people living in that kind of world, something I've wanted to see every since I encountered the made-up academic disciplines of Clement Hollier in Robertson Davies' wonderful The Rebel Angels.

I did have to put this book on pause for a while, though. Like a lot of snobby readers (cough! SJ! cough!) I have some rage-triggers. Overuse of "whilst" is one I share with SJ, but I have one that sends me into tantrums worse than that, and one that writers employ all the damned time. I'm talking specifically about a phrase that gets slipped in when describing beverages. God, why do you writers keep doing this? Do you think it's sophisticated? Clever? Original? It's NOT. Anyway, I'm talking about mentioning a beverage, say, wine, and then, usually within the same sentence, describing it as "the [color] liquid." So one might come out with "'This beer is good,' Blah said, sipping (sometimes "quaffing") the amber liquid." Or in this case, one character offers another a flagon of wine and he pours "the ruby liquid." STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP. Really, it's perfectly okay to use a simple pronoun there. Pour it. Sip it. Drain it from a corpse and make it into stew. Whatever you fancy, I probably fancy it, too, because I'm not noticing it. And wanting to throw my ereader at the wall upon said noticing.

But anyway, that's just a pet peeve, and after a few days enjoyment of less doltish prose (that being The Six Directions of Space and some Patrick O'Brian), I returned to this gladly, because I wanted to see where the story was going, even if it was mostly with (sigh) Elena. And really, rage trigger aside, there is some nice prose here. And lots of inventiveness. It was worth getting over my ire, it really was.

And here I have to give a shout out to my own dear personal mom, who recommended it to me, albeit indirectly. When BooksFree finally punted on providing this and several others on her wish list, she decided to punt on BooksFree and finally let me get her an ebook reader, and agreed to share with me a list of as many of the titles she was missing out on as she could recall. Of course my sister and I got them all for her, to fill her new reader! Anyway, it wound up being quite an intriguing list. This is the first of those I've read -- I was sucked in by that fantastic cover art! -- but it won't be my last, and it won't be my last Karen Maitland, either.

Especially when I see via GoodReads that lots of people do not consider The Gallows Curse to be her best work!

*Wink to you fans of Disney's Robin Hood.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Summer of Jest Part the Eighth - Chapter 11, Mostly


So now the Entertainment, aka the Samizdat, has claimed lots of victims, we meet yet another character (Tiny Ewell) who's on his way to his rendezvous with all of the other characters in rehab, we've learned that the United States Bureau of Unspecified Services thinks the Quebecois Wheelchair Assassins are responsible for the distribution of the Entertainment (and have only gotten hints so far, via perhaps the extensive footnote that lists JOI's entire filmography in exhausting detail, as to who the creator of said Entertainment might be) by way of protesting/fighting against the Great Concavity/Convexity (into which the United States' Empire Waste Disposal service literally flings great catapult loads of U.S. trash -- it's a giant uncleaned Superfund site-cum-landfill occupying territory that used to be Maine and Vermont and New Hampshire, is the Concavity), and that junior tennis players are stressed out, self-medicated and weird.*

I won't say that all the pieces are in place, but quite a lot of them are, enough to where DFW now indulges, in Chapter 11, in quite an extensive round of character development via first, a bitching session in the locker rooms of E.T.A. after PM drills, when all the upperclassmen are showered and trying to work up the energy for dinner and Little Buddy time and are just venting their frustration and paranoia and annoyance and exhaustion, and then the Little Buddy sessions as well, in which DFW winds up pulling a Ted Sturgeon (for an explanation of that see footnote to this post) in that midway through the Big Buddy riff he stops identifying speakers and rooms altogether and just lays heaps of dialogue on us and we can tell which speaker is easily, if we've been paying attention at all.

Curiously missing in all of this, I notice this time around, is any actual spoken dialogue from N.R. (as in "Not Really") John Wayne, the one ETA student most clearly destined for the pro circuit ("The Show"), whose portrayal reminds me a lot of DFW's real life portrait of middling pro Michael Joyce for Esquire magazine (also collected in his A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again); he is focused completely on his game (and on a certain semi-illicit liaison we'll learn about later, but that doesn't require him to talk much, either. Though how he'd get a word in edgewise...) to the point of seeming terribly dull. He says close to nothing, letting one of his Little Buddies do the talking for him in his session and his only contribution to the conversation in the locker room bitching session is to lift one leg, Canadian style, to fart.**

Which speaking of farts, there is a hilarious conversation about to fart or not to fart in one of the Big Buddy sessions, conducted in earnest, that kills me every time.

There really is something for everyone in Infinite Jest...

*Like using Lemon Pledge for sunscreen weird. Which my friend Heather and I are now borderline obsessed about, this time around. Are there people out there who really do that? Because it has the weirdly specific ring about it of something that DFW, once a middling junior tennis player himself, actually did and is recalling with his trademark mixture of fondness and horror. Does anybody know? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

**Again, I'm wondering if this is really a thing. I've spent a bit of quality time in Canada and never observed this behavior and suspect it's urban legend, but...?

Alastair Reynolds' THE SIX DIRECTIONS OF SPACE #ReReads2013

A prized possession of mine is a limited signed edition of The Six Directions of Space in hardcover, and not just because it is a limited signed edition, my only signed Alastair Reynolds (to date; hope springs eternal while there is life, etc.), but because it is one of the coolest stories ever, and I do not engage in empty hyperbole there.

Three words. MONGOLS. IN. SPACE.

Yes, that's right, oh my blogettes, this story concerns the future that sprang from an alternate past in which the Mongol Empire did not fall apart after the death of Temujin, better known to history as Genghis Khan, but went on to conquer the entire world, which became known simply as Greater Mongolia. Sure, there are still pesky pockets of, e.g., Buddhists and Nestorian Christians and the odd Muslim here and there, but basically the Mongol culture, horses and all, dominated everything right up to and including humanity's journey to the stars.

A funny old thing, though, Mongols in space. The culture transmits to a space-born empire pretty well, if one can imagine people taking their steppe ponies with them on their spaceships (and hey, Reynolds has depicted a people who plan to take elephants into space with them, so why not ponies?) and still functioning without the Zero, which these Space Mongols still insist is a fruity Arab affectation they'll have no truck with, even though it makes their science and engineering a bit clunky and cumbersome. These are people who get drunk on fermented mare's milk and found a way to sing more than one note at a time, folks. They do stuff their own way. Even in space.

I'm ever astounded at how Reynolds managed to convey the scope and sweep, not only of a galactic Mongol Empire, but of what is essentially a multiverse, in just 85 tight pages.* And it's not just this empire he's describing, but its unique settlement of inhospitable worlds, like in this passage:
"There were no fixed communities on the moon. Instead, immense spiderlike platforms, mounted on six or eight intricate jointed legs, picked their way across the ever-shifting terrain in awesome slow motion."**
 And oh, there's a tight and nifty little plot that still manages to convey a sense of grand scale, too. It involves a secret government agent, a woman named Yellow Dog (one of a series of Reynolds' ass-kicking female characters who would not pass a Bechdel test so much as beat the crap out of you -- literally or metaphorically -- for suggesting it to her) whose mission is to investigate a series of phantom intrusions into the empire's (found and scavenged, a la the Gateways in Frederick Pohls' Heechee books***) interstellar transport network, and who runs afoul of a petty official who turns out to be anything but -- and discovers some mind-blowing secrets about the way things really work out there.

Truly a marvel, this one.

*Anyone who accuses him of bloat obviously hasn't had a look at this story (or any of his short fiction for that matter).

**Shades again of Volyova's Spider Room on the Nostalgia for Infinity in Reynolds' Revelation Space universe.

***Thus perhaps a bit too neatly solving the problem of how a zero-less science and society would someday achieve faster-than-light travel, but I don't care. It's awesome. Did I mention it's Mongols in Space? It's Mongols in Space, people. Drop everything and take the time to listen to Dan Carlin's awesome multipart podcast on the Wrath of the Khans and imagine all of that in space, minus the diminishing/loss of empire bits. Would I want to live in that universe? Hell no. I wouldn't have been allowed to grow up, most likely. But I can admire them from afar, especially their women (Borte!). And cheer them on. And stuff.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Bernard Cornwell's SHARPE'S GOLD

I've never been more eager to see a TV/movie adaptation of a novel as I am that of Sharpe's Gold. This is not because of its quality, which is fair to middling as Sharpe novels go.* Rather, it's because I'm dying of curiosity as to how the continuity problem is going to be handled.

The continuity problem named Teresa Moreno, whom I've already seen played to dashing perfection by the great Assumpta Serna in the TV movies of Sharpe's Rifles and Sharpe's Eagle. Even though her character didn't belong in them. Ahem.

Of course, I didn't realize until I got to this book what a problem she was going to pose, as this, Sharpe's Gold, is the novel wherein Sharpe and Teresa meet, and it's not at all cute. Sharpe has been directed to go collect rather a lot of Spanish gold that was moved to a sort-of-safe place until it could be paid out to the Spanish army -- their wages -- but then the Spanish army got its collective posterior well and truly kicked by the French and there basically isn't one anymore. There are just guerrillas (and I just this second noticed that this word basically translates into something like "mini-war"), known as the Partisans, herding sheep and growing barley by day, making life hell on earth for the French by night, sleeping, uh... sometime?

A family of them is more or less guarding the gold, in the family crypt, until what's left of the Spanish government figures out what to do with it and how to transport it to where it's needed.** Except said government has pretty much farmed that task out to the British, who have, via the newly made Lord Wellesley, in turn farmed it out to one Richard Sharpe, killer of men, destroyer of armies, hopeless dimwit when confronted with a pretty face (or, in this case, a girl with the guts and the looks to lead the French army away from her men by running naked through the night).

But see, the Partisans don't trust the British. And Teresa's fiance is chief of the Partisans thereabouts. And may also have some ideas of his own about what to do with that gold.

So next thing we know, Teresa is a hostage. Who doesn't seem to think much of Sharpe. Whom she has just met. But in the TV movies, in the movies, they've already made whoopie and promises. Quite a lot.

So as I said, for this one, I'm mostly interested in seeing how the whole Teresa plot gets handled for the little screen. My guess is the fiance will just turn out to be an ex-lover and there will be no side-switching and whatnot. Which will be duller than this novel was.

But maybe I'm wrong. Because there is plenty to enjoy aside from the Teresa plot, of course. I can't wait to see that great German brute, Helmut, in action, for instance. Because anyone Pat Harper regards as a big ol' monster is going to be something to see, a veritable Hodor, except trained with the sabre. Zowie!

And also, one of my favorite minor characters dying. Le sigh.

And also, Alameida. Which, OMG Alameida.

*Meaning it's still a damned fine book, but there have been better ones. I still like all the India books better than any of the Peninsular ones, so far, and this one didn't change my mind. And Sharpe's Havoc is still the best of the Peninsular War novels I've read.

**This, of course, reminds me of the bit with the heaps of Nazi war gold in the middle of the Philippine jungle in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, and of Goto Dengo's observation that "gold is the corpse of value." But unlike that gold, Sharpe's gold is needed for a mind-blowingly epic purpose, in one of Cornwell's neatest weaving of history and fiction and speculation I've yet seen. Well done!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Summer of Jest Part the Seventh: A Good Chunk of Chapter 11


I will persist in referring to Hugh Steeply, agent for the United States' Bureau of Unspecified Services, as Helen because he spends pretty much the whole novel in drag and seems to enjoy it rather a lot. At any rate, I am always somewhat jarred on the odd occasion when, as here, he is referred to by his actual name.

When I first encountered him and his foil, Remy Marathe, I didn't know what to make of them or what in the world they could possibly have to do with anything else, but that's been true for almost everybody we've met at this stage of the novel; the only stuff that hangs together involves the Incandenzas. This scene, too, involves them, but in ways we (mostly) won't even begin to realize until much later on, so for now it just hangs there, like Helen's and Remy's giant shadows over Tucson as they meet in semi-secrecy to discuss, as it turns out, what has happened to the medical attache and dozens of other people who have come into his apartment looking for him or for his wife or for the neighbors and later emergency services types who have gone in, never to return, all just happily watching the unlabeled cartridge (referred to as a samizdat) on infinite replay; it's so entertaining no one is eating or sleeping or using sanitary facilities, no one is doing anything but watching, turning into the giant eyeballs JOI once posited in a film...

Helen thinks Marathe's cell of Les Assassins des Fateuils Rollents (Wheelchair Assassins) are somehow behind this weird form of attack-by-entertainment ; the medical attache is also of French Canadian descent, after all, and is of some strategic importance to ONAN by way of his job for the Saudi Minister of Entertainment and whatnot. Marathe scoffs at this but doesn't really convince Helen. Nor does he convince me. Guys weird enough to deliberately jump in front of trains that they might lose or cripple their legs and be confined to wheelchairs as part of an initiation into anti-ONAN terror protesting the "gifting" of most of uninhabitably polluted New England, inhabited by devastating locust-like herds of feral hamsters (as we see in an interlude, here) and worse monsters, to Canada, well, they're weird enough to hit people with fatally entertaining film cartridges, too.

Oh, the Concavity (which Canadians refer to, usually resentfully, as the Convexity). Any other writer would treat us to more than a few odd glimpses of its wilds, but DFW just teases us with tantalizing little bits of it, because while its existence is vital to the backstory of IJ, that's all it is: part of the milieu. I'm sure some enterprising souls have written Concavity-based fan fiction, though, involving fighting off giant overgrown feral infants and whatnot, and I bet it's a hell of a lot of fun to read, but we're concerned with the place's geopolitical importance here, not its phenomena. One staggers to think of how much longer IJ would be if DFW had included more than just the odd vignette...

At any rate, here we leave them, Steeply getting ready to go back undercover as a journalist who shall shortly be pestering Orin Incandenza; Marathe to his double-life as an agent for the Wheelchair Assassins and as an informant for the Office of Unspecified Services (they have been providing unspecified [heh] medical care for Remy's wife in exchange) -- or is he? Is he only pretending to betray the Assassins? Intrigue upon intrigue!

Patrick O'Brian's POST CAPTAIN #ReReads2013

The perils of life ashore are many and varied if you are Jack Aubrey, Master & Commander in His Majesty's Navy ca. 1802. Post Captain, the second Aubrey/Maturin novel (and one of the funniest) seems to exist to detail them all.Or at least a whole lot of them.

Chief among these perils is that you might be trapped in a bit of Jane Austen-flavored courtship porn* for a good third of your novel. You might take a house to share with your shipmates and start thinking of starting a hunting pack when all of a sudden you run right into a pretty face. A pretty face with a wickedly grasping, calculating mother who is the chief reason that pretty face is still unmarried. But because you're only a dashing, commanding, formidable figure on the deck of a ship, you might be helpless and kind of thick when confronted with this pair. And if the pretty face has a pretty widowed cousin who is well on her way to being something of a courtesan for you to pursue as well, even though your best friend kind of likes her, too, well!

All that's going to be enough to drive your typical naval action, Napoleonic War-fixated O'Brian fan just a little batty, although it is nice to see that O'Brian conjured up some female characters that could more than hold their own against our sea captain and his physician friend. And I do mean more than hold their own! The boys are dished, simply dished, in their company, kind of hilariously helpless, mostly because they've not been prepared to deal with the likes of Sophie Williams and her awful mother, of Diana Villiers. These are future wives, and their presence changes these stories forever, and it's good to see how these relationships came to pass, but ugh, courtship porn.

Fortunately, the Seamen & Senselessness side of the story is more or less over relatively quickly, due to Jack's having run right into an even greater peril: debt. Houses and horses and country balls at which girls can look pretty and dance cost money, money Jack didn't quite have secured. He did many wonderful and potentially lucrative things in Master & Commander, but note that "potentially." His fortune was still vulnerable to legal and political maneuverings. What if, well let's not call them bad guys, let's call them other interests, won out against Jack?

Before we know it, he and Stephen are fleeing to Spain-by-way-of-France, but an end to the Peace of Amiens means they must make a hasty and rather ludicrous** overland escape from France to Spain. And then find their way back home because now that the peace is over, Jack can go back to work as a dashing naval captain and make some money to pay off his creditors. They don't call him Lucky Jack Aubrey for nothing, right?

Well, about that.

Because while Jack has been learning the perils of lubberdom, the Royal Navy has been experimenting with lunacy in the form of building a ship that can launch a giant rocket capable of destroying an enemy ship a mile away. And then scrapping the rocket idea after the lunatic inventor gets himself blown up the first time it's tested. But then building the ship anyway, because of reasons. Said ship being hailed as the "Carpenter's Mistake" and featuring all sorts of fangled notions like sliding keels and other nautical nonsense that makes it instantly recognizable from a distance and, as her captain will learn shortly, a horror to try to maneuver.

Guess who the captain of "that wicked Polychrest" is going to be?

But Lucky Jack isn't just lucky; he knows what he's doing, and while what he's doing looks quite comical to his fellows -- at one point a good friend on meeting the Polychrest at sea signals by way of alphabetical flags a reference to a line in psalms about delighting not in the strength of one's horse -- he actually finds a way to sail the thing, and even manages to fight an action with it that does everyone proud -- everyone except for his admiral, that same Harte with whose wife Jack meddled last novel.

Meanwhile, we get a satisfying look at Dr. Maturin's life when he is not playing music with Jack, or patching up Jack's crew, or gawking at seabirds from the deck of Jack's ship; Stephen is a secret agent! Whose achievements in that area wind up having direct bearing on what Jack gets to do after he's finished with the Polychrest! Huzzah!

My only regret with regards to this novel is its lack of news of my favorite subsidiary characters, for while Bonden and Preserved Killick and Tom Pullings and Babbington get to join in a touch of the fun, mostly because, well, someone has to be there, where is dear Mowett? Padeen, the Hodor of the Aubrey/Maturin books, we have not met yet but already I long for him. But that's part of the fun of re-reading these books, meeting everyone anew and then just anticipating their moments of glory.

There's plenty of that to go around, in over 20 novels.

*Please note that in saying this I do not mean to cast aspersions on Ms. Austen or her stories, though they are not to my taste. I simply don't think that "the masculine side of a bit of Jane Austen courtship porn" is something anyone goes looking for. Prove me wrong?
†Courtship porn = any story in which the courtship, usually leading to marriage, is the only point of it to the exclusion of pretty much anything else, whether the participants in said courtship are willing or not. It's a genre (or would it be a subgenre?) that I find tiresome. Courtship stories are fine and good, but they need to be part of something larger to tempt me.

**Okay, actually very ludicrous.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Summer of Jest Part the Sixth: More of Chapter 10


Just as I seem to be sympathizing more with James Orin Incandenza than his son this time around, I'm newly fascinated with another fixture at Enfield Tennis Academy that I've usually just treated as local color: Gerhardt Schtitt. He is a striking, incongruous figure to find there even before he dons his leather aviator helmet and goggles and starts tooling around in an old BMW motorcycle with Mario in the sidecar. That alone, even before we get into his philosophy of education and junior level competitive sport, makes him someone I dearly wish I could have actually seen, riding the streets of the greater Boston area behind the jogging files of ETA students on their daily conditioning runs.

But his philosophy intrigues me more, even as it makes me a bit melancholy. In Schtitt's view, education, and sports at the junior level (and perhaps even beyond?), are chiefly valuable as training for citizenship -- an outmoded idea to be sure, even more so now than when IJ was written, I sometimes think, for the focus on education as training for the assumption of some economic role or niche seems greater than ever, and how is competitive junior level tennis in any way preparation for that, unless you really are training little pros to entertain the masses in big Grand Slam type events someday?

But that old-fashioned idea, that competitive sport prepares one to be a citizen by training him to submit to the needs of a team and to a set of rules, that's still a very, very good one. I'm not sure Schtitt -- or anyone -- achieves his goal in IJ, but of all the agendas at work in IJ I think Schtitt's the most admirable. Which makes Mario's dialogue with him in Chapter 10 all the more wistful and disappointing and sad, because Mario casually leads the discussion to its most depressing conclusion. Tennis is not a team sport, he posits, and Schtitt agrees: it's just you versus the other guy. Ah, but, Schtitt says, your opponent is not the other guy; the other guy is your partner in your competition with yourself. Then how, Mario asks, is playing tennis different from suicide -- the ultimate defeat of the self. Schtitt cannot answer, and neither can we, and suddenly we're back in Kate Gompert territory and IJ suddenly starts feeling like a gigantic suicide note written decades before the deed.

Because what all of the interconnected plots in the book have in common is people desperately trying to find something worth giving themselves away to -- sport, drugs, or, as we are gradually watching in the medical attache updates, mindless entertainment. And nothing ever really fills the hole, but will gladly take over your life. And give what in return?

That's all I've got the energy for today, but there is hope on the horizon, for the bizarro figure of Helen Steeply awaits. Which means we're soon going to meet the weirdest terrorists, maybe EVAR.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Summer of Jest Part the Fifth: Chapters 9 and some of 10


Even after all these years and all these re-reads, I still find the first part of Chapter 10 of IJ some of the most difficult reading the novel offers -- not for any matters of technique or comprehension or anything, but just the nature of the scene it depicts, the character and the subject matter. And the difficulty only grows, it seems. Eugh.

But first, Michael Pemulis!

A Google image search brought up this absolutely perfect image of him:


Perfect even though he's missing his maroon paratroopers' pants and orange turtleneck, which is the ensemble he wears, along with the yachtsman's cap, whenever he has to meet with Authority. This is one insouciant motherfolklore, Pemulis, though he's got some ridiculous habits that belie his cynical coolness, like the way he always looks both ways before he speaks...

Here we come upon him at long last, in all his pedantic goofy glory. An upperclassman, he is a Big Buddy, assigned a small group of Little Buddies that he might help them acclimate to Enfield Tennis Academy and its rigors, a role he interprets to mean having to spell out for them, in excruciating and painstakingly researched detail, the precise biochemical and psycho-pharmeceutical effects of every last recreational substance that the littler kids might encounter, from crappy synthetic Bob Hope (local argot for marijuana) to high grade designer drugs that still only have chemical nomenclature designations. He lectures blithely on, oblivious to all of the attention his Little Buddies aren't paying him. His future, both within the narrative of the novel and in general, is not great, but he doesn't care. He is Pemulis. Wolf Spiders Rule.

From there we have, it would seem, nowhere to go but down. From Pemulis in his jaunty cap telling his Little Buddies what drugs he would sure as heck avoid were he they, we move to the psych ward of a nearby hospital, where one Kate Gompert, another marijuana addict with all of the same problems Erdedy displayed in Chapter 6, plus crippling clinical depression to boot. She's hospitalized following a very nearly successful suicide attempt. When asked why she wants to hurt herself, she says, she doesn't want to hurt herself, she wants to kill herself. There is a difference.

Kate then goes on to describe The Feeling in excruciating detail, and I do mean excruciating. I've had a brush or two with that kind of depression since I first read this book, and I sometimes catch myself slipping into Gompert-Instead-Of-Sherrod when things get really nasty. As did DFW, we now know. Oh do we know. And really, I should have realized back then that his descriptions and verbalizations on this topic were a bit too spot on to be merely literary productions. And we know that depression is what got him in the end. This passage still really, really scares me.

And so there I'm just gonna stop for this post. Ya gotta be careful with Kate. She can annihilate everything, in a perfectly ordinary, animated voice. Just don't look at those dead eyes. Eugh.

Alastair Reynolds' DOCTOR WHO: HARVEST OF TIME

Right out of the gate, Doctor Who: Harvest of Time has two things going for it: it was written by Alastair Reynolds, for whom my enthusiasm is well known by now*, and it's not just a Doctor Who novel but a Third Doctor/Jon Pertwee Doctor Who novel. Pertwee's Doctor being a fantastic (if asexual) Jerry Cornelius-type dashing 1960s action hero interpretation of the Doctor, whose performances and poise transcended his epoch's earthbound scripts and rather drab settings. And whose foils, especially Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier and Roger Delgado as the Master**, were more than up to the task of sharing screen time with Pertwee.

But that's all just happy TV memories. How's the book?

Well, so, two questions persisted in my mind as I started reading here: how well can Alastair Reynolds do Doctor Who, being one, and, more importantly, how well can Doctor Who do Alastair Reynolds.

That Alastair Reynolds can do Doctor Who, especially the Third Doctor, becomes immediately plain. His grasp of the characters and milieu are note-perfect. All the best bits of that era are here: the Roger Delgado Master, all half-daft over-complicated schemes and the overwhelming need to brag about their infallibility (just before they fail); Jo Grant with just the right combination of pixie charm, shrewd social intelligence, and keen determination; Captain Yates and Sergeant Benton carrying their spears well and being generally good helpmeets; and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, ever reliable as the steady, sensible if somewhat befuddled dad to the Doctor's madcap grandpa (remember, Doctor Who was originally a kids' show, so these are exactly the proper roles for these two characters to play in the viewer's/reader's imagination). There is the traditional underlying theme of the struggle between the urge to use military force and blow things up versus that to employ science and finesse to think one's way out of the problem. And yes, there is the requisite drabness of the setting -- military bases and bleak northern beaches and an offshore oil drilling platform full of big grey analogue equipment out in the North Sea. Oh, there is no doubt that Alastair Reynolds can do Doctor Who; one can see the teenybopper fanboy he once was sketching all of this out in loving detail long, long ago between cliffhangers.

Whether or not the Doctor could do Alastair Reynolds remains an open question for most of the book, however. I don't read Reynolds for confined gunmetal grey spaces and military jargon and busloads of old ladies being controlled by weird metallic crabs from outer space. I read Reynolds for vast atmospheric starscapes, cosmic ideas, staggering epic time scales, big ideas and mysterious alien artifacts of stupefying mystery and antiquity. And for cool noir-ish plots mixed in with all the astro-awe. These qualities are mostly lacking here as Reynolds romps through his childhood dream of taking charge of the Doctor and his pals.***

But note that "mostly." For the book splits into two storylines about halfway through, with the Doctor and the Master journeying into the future -- farther into the future than anyone has gone to with a time machine -- in a complicated scheme to prevent a hostile and sinister race, the Slid, from themselves accidentally preventing the very possibility of time travel. Reynolds just can't leave things like Fermi's Paradox (or whatever the time travel version of Fermi's Paradox would be) alone, can he, even when he's writing fantasy. The chapters dealing with this adventure of theirs are quite satisfyingly Reynoldsian, with an added bonus in that they spin out a new dimension to the Doctor/Master backstory.

But interspersed with this big cosmic stuff is more plodding earthbound UNIT action, in which Jo and the Brig and Yates and Benton are fighting a sort of rearguard action against the Slid on the oil rig, and these chapters are rather tiresome. Though as reminders of how it must have felt to be a Time Lord confined to earth in the 1960s they work marvelously, oh yes they do -- we want to be out in the universe with the Doctor and the Master, but no, we're stuck battling alien metallic crabs with plain old fashioned guns and bombs -- which would probably be fun, admittedly, if we didn't know what was going on Out There.

But of course, that's the essence of the Third Doctor's milieu, isn't it?

Ultimately, therefore, the answers to my two questions are "brilliantly well" and "well kind of." But the book is a hell of a lot of fun and were it the work of anyone but Reynolds I would just chalk it up as a fun bit of science-flavored fluff. But it is Reynolds, from whom I expect substantially finer stuff, and I didn't quite get it.

I look forward to his return to Reynolds doing Reynolds. As in the next Poseidon's Children book, On the Steel Breeze. Just a few more months!

*I say "for whom" rather than "for whose work" because in addition to appreciating his fiction, I find him, via Twitter and his blog, to be rather a wonderful fellow.

**As the very best Master, I should add, though I so would have enjoyed seeing Derek Jacobi continue in the role†, once he knew he was the Master and all. Le sigh.
†I would also accept his return to be a foil for this weirdo John Hurt version of the Doctor next year, whatever Hurt gets up to, because I ,Claudius, you guys.
***A dream that, let's face it, most of us share. Even I have proved incapable of resisting the allure of writing Doctor Who fiction. I'm writing, Bob help me, a novel featuring the Ninth Doctor but not Rose, thank you very much. And of course he's visiting some of my favorite long-forgotten locales and cultures from the show's deep past. I have no control over this. It's happening without my consent. When someone asks "Are you a god" you say yes. When a Doctor Who plot no one else has thought of yet comes knocking at your brain, you open the door and let our favorite Time Lord seize control of your writin' hand for a few weeks. Watch this space for details.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Summer of Jest Part the Fourth: Chapters 7 and 8 with a bit of leftover 6


First of all, I have to say oops, but to add that this is the sort of thing that can happen to someone who has read a large and complicated book like this multiple times. I've mixed up the appearance of an incident, namely Hal's and Mario's discussion of Avril's reaction to their father's death with an earlier scene in their dorm room when Orin makes a kind of pointless, aimless phone call that basically just serves to introduce his character. Apologies! I wonder how many lazy students' homework I've just screwed up.

Also, I left out of yesterday's post the last bit of Chapter 6 in which we meet Bruce Green and Mildred Bonk, a charming, melancholy interlude in which we meet the housemates of the pot dealer with the harelip who is the supplier, one way or another, for most of the marijuana users in the story. In Wire terms, he's maybe Proposition Joe, though without Joe's sophistication or swagger, being instead a trailer trash guy who keeps snakes whose stinky tanks he can't smell due to the harelip blocking his nose. How Bruce and Mildred become his roommates is deftly told in a sketch that could come straight from the Wire: boy falls for girl when they're in middle school and she is "a vision in a sundress and silly shoes", girl starts to hang with a bunch of burnouts in high school, boy becomes the biggest burnout to win girl, boy impregnates girl but they're both such burnouts that living with Harelipped Pot Dealer seems like a reasonable choice for living environments in which to raise their child. Ah, me.

I also left out our first Orin interlude, in which he sleeps in and we learn about his routine with women whom he refers to as "Subjects" and regards them as interchangeable and just sort of makes me want to kick him in the crotch almost as much as it makes me want to scream at them to have some self-respect. Which is really all I have to say about that part, as Orin mostly just bores me, at least until the wonderfully Tim Powers-esque Helen Steeply gets hold of him later on, and even then it's mostly for Steeply that I read, there.

But so finally moving on to Chapter 7, we are at last getting a good look at the physical plant at Enfield Tennis Academy, founded by Hal's and Orin's and Mario's parents as a serious academic institution-cum-sports academy, and aping the old, old curriculum of the great medieval universities to make sure that the next generation of hotshot tennis pros is full of highly erudite smartasses who will do things like quote Spinoza in interviews with the jock sniffer press and make everyone else feel really, really dumb. Or at least are prepared for unspecified brainy careers of some sort if/when they fail to make it as professional tennis players and all the "prorector" positions at E.T.A. are taken by earlier washout alumni. As such.

DFW goes into staggering detail in describing the school's layout and facilities and especially its equipment for turning the middle section of its outdoor tennis courts into habitable playing space in wintertime: the Lung. I'm pretty sure a talented HVAC professional could build the apparatus from DFW's descriptions, shared with us from the point of view of Hal Incandenza as he goes through his elaborate rituals for getting high in secret. Of course, this interlude just makes me anxious for when we'll finally get to meet his friends and schoolmates, who are highly entertaining people of the sort I wish I'd had as friends and classmates when I was growing up but who would probably have eaten me alive because I'm nowhere near as athletically or intellectually gifted as they were so I'm probably just better off being a fly on their walls via DFW. Sigh. Anyway, them. I'm really looking forward to them.

But first, back to the Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland (the year before YDAU, i.e. this is a one-year flashback from the perspective of most of Hal's story) and one Don Effing Gately, whom I now cannot imagine as anything other than Rory Cochrane on steroids (Cochrane turned in a bravura performance as Charlie Freck in Richard Linklater's film adaptation of A Scanner Darkly). I'm not sure I can exactly justify or defend this, but that's how my brain casts this part now.

Gately has perhaps the broadest character arc of anyone in IJ and sometimes I think of him more than Hal as the novel's real hero, even though he appears much less.* Oh, what's not to love about Don Gately? I mean, if you're going to love a character who's a drug addict and a criminal and kind of a dumbass until he finally learns all of his lessons the hard way. I still laugh like a loon at the story of the revenge he took on an Assistant District Attorney who got him convicted of one crime, revenge I won't spoil for first time book readers who will have to read its disgusting hilarity for themselves. And I still shake my head in wonder at the bumbling, ridiculous story of how he accidentally became a murderer due to a language barrier and a headful of snot. Someone else's snot. In someone else's head. Oh, go read the story. I don't want to spoil that either. Except insomuch as to observe that Gately's choice of burgla-murder victim wound up having vast implications for the rest of the story in that said victim was a key figure in Quebecois objectionism to the United States' having "gifted" Canada with a big chunk of uninhabitably polluted and ruined former New England territory and other such "experialistic" crimes, which objectionism takes on some truly bizarre and surreal forms and will be discussed at length later on, I'm sure.

Also, yuck, thanks a lot, DFW, for making us focus on snot and matters nasal again. No, really, thanks.

Now we move on, back to YDAU and the good old ETA, where there is as yet no sign that there is any connection between the ETA/Incandenza story and the Gately story OR the sad tale of Wardine OR that of the medical attache, we just have to have faith that there WILL be and yes, indeed, there is, but hundreds of pages of text and footnotes and thinking on your part, dear reader, yet separates you from all of those aha moments. For now just trust us and enjoy finally meeting some of Hal's schoolmates, whom up till now we've only seen in footnotes. Chief of these here, in terms of focus, is Jim Troeltsch, the one who dreams of someday being a sportscaster and spends most of his non-tennis-playing, non-academic time practicing/pretending he already is one, but whom we find here at first in bed with a cold, allowing DFW to indulge in another round of rubbing our noses in various studies and observations of the theory and practice of nose goblinology, as it were, ew and harumph. Fortunately, though, this go-around DFW is more interested in making observations about the kind of fugue state-cum-four-alarm-nightmares that I usually only get when I take Nyquil but which Troeltsch just needs to be sick to have -- observations which are startlingly accurate, I think.**

While that's going on, we get the barest glimpse of another favorite character of mine, Michael Pemulis, townie from good old, bad old Allston Mass ("broken dreams strewn amongst the broken glass" as the old song says), affector of a yachtsman's cap the way Hal affects a bow tie (yes, bow ties were cool long before Matt Smith), discriminating drug connoisseur and dispenser of dubious advice, but only at a remove. We will hear more of his wisdom later.

Then it's on to the story of the Enfield Tennis Academy itself, and of its founder, James Orin Incandenza, aka Himself, sometimes also known by his initials JOI. We learn he was sort of forced, Dondi Snayheever-style, into becoming a semi-tennis prodigy, but parlayed his tennis scholarships into advanced degrees in optical physics, which he then put to work pioneering, among other things, the research that led to "annular fusion" and the solution to North America's energy independence issues. He met Canadian braniac Avril Mondragon, the most gorgeous blond bombshell ever to grace North American academics, and married her despite a series of bureaucratic hurdles complicated in no small part by her slender ties to certain angry Quebecois objectionist types (we are told the birth of their first child, Orin, was at least partly a legal maneuver) and together they founded ETA, after which optical genius JOI discovered his true calling as a filmmaker. This last bit being the most important thing about him aside from his being the father of Hal and of ETA.

But speaking of Orin, dreary old Orin, enduring some of the novel's best pure satire, the pre-game spectacle at an away game (he is the punter for the National Football League's Phoenix Cardinals) at none other than Denver, CO's  Mile High Stadium***. This is one of the funniest and stupidest passages in IJ: DFW has taken the hype machine show biz silliness of the NFL's penchant for spectacle and turned it up to eleven. In IJ's world, the players have to dress as their mascots and enact a big dumb and sometimes dangerous bit of pageantry before the game. The Denver Broncos just have to caper about in two-man pantomime horse rigs, but the Cardinals have to don bright red feathers and some kind of hang-gliding suit and jump off the edge of the stadium and swoop down over the crowd to land on the field. Financial incentives exist for players who squawk or otherwise make an effort to sound like a bird to descend. Orin, though, just bitches to the old quarterback plummeting next to him, who tries to cheer him up with a "cleavage check" as they descend. See? Pure foolishness. Like Idiocracy. DFW having apparently shared Mike Judge's general perspective on the American Future.

Tell me he's wrong.

Next on Summer of Jest: we finally meet Pemulis directly. Hooray!



*Kind of the way I've become convinced that Jaime Lannister is the real hero of A Song of Ice and Fire. Hero in the sense of being the most important actor in the plot(s) and in the sense of being what passes for a moral center in the books. I mean, aside from the sister-schtupping, of course. But as a wise woman once told me, we don't get to choose whom we love, or who loves us. But anyway, I may also favor Gately as Hero just because his Boston story comes closest to being something like mine; he winds up in a halfway house for a good bit of the novel and my first real job in Boston was as a temp secretary at a pre-release facility that still counted as a by god Massachusetts State Correctional Center but was focused towards drug and alcohol recovery for the less hardcore types like say, Tobias Beecher on OZ, who was a perfectly law abiding citizen until his drunk driving killed a girl and landed him in the clink. IJ was published just maybe two years after I left that job, so I could totally picture Gately and the rest of his gang as residents of my former workplace though, as I said, it was still a prison rather than a residential halfway house.

**Conveyed as they are in an odd second-person interlude, all they could make me think of, this time around, was what horrible experiences inspired them. I bet DFW was a helluva cabin- or dorm-mate at whatever summer camps he got sent to when he was a kid.

***I'm amused that DFW, inventor of "subsidized time" has the name of Mile High Stadium surviving into his brave new future; that joint was torn down some time ago and is now known as Invesco Field. Unless some other corporation has taken over the naming rights. I can't keep up.

A Theory for Which I Cannot Take Credit

The great and mighty Dave Slusher, the mastermind behind the Evil Genius Chronicles and much else, shared with me his magnificent theory concerning Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe novels, about which I have written so very much on this here blog.

He has only watched the film adaptations (whereas I have only read the books, except for the very first film) starring Sean Bean as our favorite proper bastard, and had this amusing and highly accurate insight into what's going on with those.

Quoth he: BTW, I came to a theory as I was watching them that each novel/movie is basically an episode of Star Trek.

Location in Europe == Planet
Sharpe == Kirk
Chosen Men == Away team
Any character you haven't heard of before == red shirt
Hot Spanish/French/Portugese woman = Hot green woman

Tell me he's wrong!

Bernard Cornwell's SHARPE'S EAGLE

I don't often encounter historical/military novels that themselves have a strong sense of prior history the way that Sharpe's Eagle has, for the Roman Empire strongly permeates the book, especially in its opening chapters.

We open with Sharpe and his rifle company* being drafted into yet another weird little scheme. An ancient Roman bridge crossing the river Tagus, a bridge that has stood strong for hundreds of years, has to go for strategic reasons, and Sharpe's friend and sort-of-commander, Captain Hogan, is the engineer who's going to do it. All fine and dandy. But the mission comes with certain... accompaniments.

A right upper class twit of a politically connected jerk has raised a brand new regiment back home and dedicated them to the cause in Spain and Portugal, and they're coming along in all their finery and splendor. The upper class twit thinking that it's more important that his soldiers look well than fight well and all, it's a pretty useless regiment but one that, maybe with some seasoning, might do all right if their Colonel, one Sir Henry Simmerson, doesn't get them killed first. Anyway, they're coming along for the bridge blowing party.

But because this is Spain and everything here is a matter of hidalgo honor, so is a fancy Spanish regiment, even shinier and fancier and more useless than the British noobs. "Hell's teeth," one of Sharpe's men observes on the approach of these military fops. "The fairies are on our side."

So, the early mission turns out not to be so straightforward after all. And that's before the French show up. Which shouldn't be a problem, as it's obvious to Sharpe it's a classic calvary vs infantry standoff, wherein no one has sufficient advantage to make it worthwhile to attack. Alas, this is not so obvious to the Colonel or his Spanish counterpart, who, in a scene of prolonged hilarity, pretty much provoke the French into massacre. And lose the regimental colors (the physical embodiment of a regiment's honor and pride the way a Roman legion's eagle was back in the day, and what the French still use for this purpose ca the early 1800s, and now the title of this novel makes all the sense in the world, don't it?) into the bargain.

That's all prologue. It establishes a new enemy for Sharpe in Colonel Simmerson, who needs a scapegoat for his enormous blunder and finds Sir Arthur Wellesley's favorite gotten-up, up-from-the-ranks officer a perfect candidate as much because Sharpe is a protege of Wellesley's as because Sharpe disobeyed an order in the middle of the debacle that was essentially for him and his men to commit suicide and make the French win all the faster (instead, Sharpe rescued one of Simmerson's colors and captured a French cannon, because Sharpe is awesome). When Wellesley promotes Sharpe to Captain and gives him command of a Battalion of Detachments, consisting of odds-and-ends groups like Sharpe's own fragment of a rifle company, and puts the survivors of Simmerson's regiment in that new Battalion, he's just painted the biggest political bullseye ever on Sharpe's back, and Sharpe is, of course, the last guy who'd ever want to be entangled in any politics at all. Especially the kind that can result in his being yanked out of the Peninsular War and deployed to the West Indies, to likely die of a tropical disease within a year of his arrival!

But so there's only one thing Sharpe can do to redeem himself from the results of his badassery: something even more badass, something no one has managed to do in this war: capture a French Eagle.

And of course he'll have to do this in one of the Peninsular War's biggest battles.

With Simmerson and his underlings (including an odious nephew, who is, of course, fighting with Sharpe over, of course, a beautiful woman) in tow.

And even more useless Spaniards mucking things up. Seriously, the Spanish army does not come off well in this novel! When they're not cocking up minor actions being show-offs, they're delaying major actions by oversleeping and letting the French gather up even more forces. And then there's bits like this, describing the aftermath of an ill-planned bout of shooting at some out-of-range Frenchmen:
For a second Sharpe thought the Spanish were cheering their own victory over the innocent grass but suddenly he realised the shouts were not of triumph, but of alarm. They had been scared witless by their own volley, by the thunder of ten thousand muskets, and now they ran for safety. Thousands streamed into the olive trees, throwing away muskets, trampling the fires in their panic, screaming for help, heads up, arms pumping, running from their own noise.
 I bet Spanish readers hate this book.**

But I, I loved it. I'm in serious danger, folks, between this and my re-read of the Aubrey/Maturin books, of making this as much a Summer of Napoleonic War Stories as a Summer of Jest!

Though I do sometimes wish Sharpe would stop taking justice into his own hands. Dude has almost as much cold blood on them as hot. Not cool, Richard. Not cool. As it were. Um. Please don't hurt me.

*Now a seriously rag-tag bunch of military orphans, whose regiment is back in England and who therefore cannot get new uniforms or boots or gear of any kind, even from the plentiful other fighting recipients of the King's Shilling who are still on the Iberian Peninsula, because no one wants to take on the bureaucratic headaches that would ensue if Sharpe's boys were given kit out of some other regiment's or division's stores.

**But, as Cornwell informs us in his traditional historical afterword, that incident really happened.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Summer of Jest Part the Third: Chapters 5 & 6


These next two chapters have neither of them ever been favorites of mine, though one is a giant plot mover and the other is a pretty remarkable literary achievement. I admire but do not love them.

They made me realize this time around, though, just what a big task DFW set for himself in this novel; the only comparable endeavor I can think of is the brilliant HBO series The Wire. The Wire wasn't so much a police drama as an anthropological/ecological study of community-as-ecosystem, as food web, with the Baltimore Police Department and its internal struggles as pretty much just a convenient framing device for the storytelling. Similarly, IJ is looking at a whole city, Boston this time (and, to a lesser degree, an imagined nation of ONAN), as ecosystem, with the Enfield Tennis Academy in the role filled by the Baltimore Police in The Wire. And DFW did it first, all by himself, and did a whole lot of science fiction-y world building to boot!

But so, Chapter 5 brings us around to the weirdly delimited little world of a Saudi Arabian medical attache, an Ear Nose and Throat specialist whose job is to keep his country's Minister of Entertainment's never-ending naso-pharyngeal yeast infections at bay* while the big man is in Boston striking a big deal with ONAN's big Netflix/Redbox analog, Interlace Entertainment. Which yeast infections the Minister is pretty much constantly aggravating via his staggeringly poor lifestyle choices. Our unnamed attache is pretty much in Sorceror's Apprentice mode without having had the fun of casting the spell, poor guy.

Attache's only happiness is to come home, sink into a futuristic superchair that converts into a bed, sheets and all, when he's ready to go to sleep, strap on a tray that's more like a feedbag, and eat dinner and watch "entertainment cartridges"** while his wife does the hard work of keeping crumbs out of his beard and whatnot. Except on Wednesdays when he usually works late and she gets to go play Burqa Tennis. Aren't we all jealous as hell of her life.

On this particular Wednesday, though, our man gets home early, to no dinner, no pre-selected DVDs, nothing but crap on broadcast/cable ("spontaneous dissemination"), his mail unsorted, himself bereft of options. In desperation he decides to watch an unlabeled DVD some unknown party mailed to him, a decision which seems utterly innocuous and utterly time-wasting, but will turn out to be pretty much fatal and crucially important to the overall plot of Infinite Jest. I'd say it's probably equivalent in its combination of banality and importance, if not in, you know, actual content, to McNulty's spouting off to a judge about how the Barksdale Outfit keeps intimidating witnesses in The Wire.

Our only hint that something unusual is going on is hints toward the end of the chapter that the attache is watching the program for like the third time in a row. It's that entertaining, apparently.

Moving onto the next chapter, we are jolted further out of our contemplation of the Incandenza family's drama (remember the Incandenzas?) by an entire chapter written in, what appears to this white girl anyway, perfectly rendered Black English, a study in unconjugated verbs, phoenetic spellings and all. The chapter, from the point of view of a pre-teen black girl, tells an old, old story, of a pretty young woman, Wardene, who is desired by her icky stepfather figure, Roy Tony, is brutally punished for it by her mother, and runs to her boyfriend Reginald for shelter and comfort. We get hints of a future conflict between Reginald and Roy Tony. All of this will have implications in the larger plot later on, but for now it's just sort of sitting here confusing readers and perhaps annoying them even as they might admire DFW's dual achievement of technical skill and sheer ballsiness.

We'll be doing that a lot.

*Thus introducing the icky theme of dealing with mucous membranes and nasal secretions that recurs in IJ in surprising and sometimes seriously plot-propelling ways, as we'll see shortly in the backstory of one Don Gately.

**Let's just make like they're DVDs, because DFW was very close on this. To the point where I call the TV in my living room, not connected to cable but via an Xbox 360 to Hulu Plus and Netflix and Amazon Instant Video, the teleputer. Which confuses the hell out of my lodger who has not read IJ. Tee and also hee.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Summer of Jest Part the Second, Chapters 3-4


One of the weirdest, saddest and most strangely touching bits of Infinite Jest for me is always this next scene, in which our man Hal, at age ten in the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad, is persuaded to take a detour from his normal routine to keep a mystery appointment with a service provider of unspecified function. "Are you a dentist?" he keeps asking as the provider implores him to have a soda to allay the dry mouth sounds Hal is allegedly producing as he talks.

No, he and we learn, this is a professional conversationalist, which (as far as I know) does not exist in our real world, but well might in the IJverse and so we're in danger of just accepting that surface fact and rolling with the scene, at least until Hal notices a lack of credentials on the wall. And that his interlocutor has a great deal of specific knowledge about Hal, such as the boy's fascination with Byzantine erotica, and is also startlingly well-informed about Hal's mother Avril's entertainingly varied sex life.* And other little details that are somehow off.

I love the way this scene unfolds, purely through dialogue, dialogue that is perfectly natural (if you're David Foster Wallace or his alter-ego at least) but still conveys all the details of what's physically going on in the room as the professional conversationalist's disguise and act start to melt away and collapse, revealing none other than The Man Himself, James Incandenza, Hal's Own Dear Personal Father, who may be a "towering figure in optic and avant garde cinema" but at home is sort of coming apart just like his disguise is and suffers from a wide range of delusions, including that Hal doesn't talk to him; even when Hal does talk to him, James seems to think** that Hal is merely moving his mouth, that no sounds come out.

Hence this elaborate charade, staged with the full cooperation of Avril, a charade that, once Hal penetrates it, he abandons immediately for a return to his demanding schoolboy-cum-tennis prodigy life. Nothing gets resolved; James is left forlorn and clinging to his deception and his delusions. It's heartbreaking.

This time around, reading, I feel much more for James than I do for Hal, with whom I of course identified when I first read IJ at age 26. Now I'm at James' time of life, though I don't have children to fret over, but the image of him trying so desperately to connect with his son affects me nonetheless, and more deeply than identifying with Hal's disgust at this ploy ever did.

We then move along to another glimpse of Hal's family life, in Y.D.A.U., which year we can pretty much regard as the novel's present. Hal is trying to sleep, but his older brother and roommate Mario wants to talk, and to talk specifically about Avril, whom the family calls "The Moms" the way they call James "Himself", and how she was the only member of the family who doesn't seem to have been sad when Himself died (we do not yet know the spectacularly weird way that happened, nor will we for a while, but re-readers probably flash forward to such outbursts as "something smelled delicious!"), indeed, seems to have gotten happier. The important bit here is Hal's metaphor for a half-mast flag. There are, he explains to Mario, two ways to bring a flag to half-mast. One is to lower the flag to the necessary height, and the other is to double the size of the pole, the implication being that Avril chose the latter means. I'm not quite, quite sure she deserves that much credit, but just as I find myself identifying way more with James this time around, I may come at last to have some sympathy for Avril. We shall see.

But so, already in just these few chapters we're juggling a lot of themes, aren't we? The impossible illusion of connecting and communicating, first elucidated by Hal's disastrous college interview and then illustrated in new iterations through our brief tour of Erdedy's skull to round out with the Professional Conversation; the agonies suffered by the addict (and especially the addict who is addicted to something most people consider lame and harmless), the challenges of precocity and hyper-awareness, the burden of self-consciousness... it's all, isn't it, very Hamlet. Wow!

*I love this kid. Seriously, does anyone ever read this book and not just freaking love this kid?

**I say "seems" because I can't ever shake the notion that James only pretended to think this, that it's an elaborate passive-aggressive pretense of delusion designed to convey to his middle son that he wishes they'd communicate more. Although really that's more Avril's style, isn't it?

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Summer of Jest: Post the First: Chapters 1 and 2


Already, as these first chapters get going, David Foster Wallace is indulging in a bit of reader annoyance, but also quite cleverly confounding a common habit of a certain type of science fiction reader I call a Prediction Sniffer.*We don't know where the Year of Glad is supposed to fit in our timeline so it sort of hangs there in a literary timelessness that encourages us to let it go, nerd. Maybe O.N.A.N. doesn't exist for us yet in whatever year it's actually supposed to be, but that's not to say it mightn't someday, you know?

Furthermore, only re-readers like me who have paid attention to the chronology presented somewhere in the middle of the book and bothered to remember it know immediately that Chapter Two, which is set in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (Y.D.A.U.), is actually taking place the year before the events described in Chapter One, though again, so far, that doesn't seem to matter much, as there is really nothing more timeless than a closet stoner getting anxious about how his next big marijuana binge needs to be his absolute last even as he is self-consciously and anxiously repeating almost exactly his time-honored rituals established in previous absolute last marijuana binges.

But so, back to Chapter One, in the Year of Glad (and don't we love Subsidized Time? Can't we just imagine our governments choosing to make an extra buck or two by selling the naming rights to a calendar year as they might to a football stadium? And doesn't it just scare us to death that someday this might actually seem like a reasonable idea? DFW would have lost his mind watching our current Congress and POTUS and SCOTUS in action. It's hard to say which branch would have driven him craziest), in which our hero, Hal Incandenza, is juking his way through his college admissions interview with the help of an influential alumnus from his prep school and his uncle. The tension in this chapter is marvelous: we are sharing Hal's internal monologues in which his dazzling precocity and erudition are in full evidence, the kid is near genius level and quite marvelously level-headed about it, and that he is also an awesome "balletic" tennis player just makes him seem like even more the kind of kid every school would be chasing after with scholarship offers and letters of intent even though he plays a minor sport, but there is a creeping sense that something is very strange, even very wrong. We re-readers know what has happened to him -- there is a positive "Dick Click" type revelation that finally explains this scene at the end and makes it even more terrible than it is on first reading -- but even knowing why and how it happened, we're riveted a the results on display here. Something has come profoundly unstuck in Hal's mind, something has created a vast gulf between his mental processes and his outward aspect. The erudite and articulate thoughts to which we have been privy are not translated to his speech: he gibbers and makes animal sounds and twitches and we-don't-know-what-all but whatever he does, it terrifies his interviewers to the point where one tells Hal's uncle that his sleep will be forever disturbed by what he has witnessed.

As far as setting up mysteries go, that's pretty original, and first rate, I'd say.

Then we go back in time to sit and wait with Ken Erdedy, who has started up his marijuana binge machine again and is caught in brain loop after brain loop of pothead anxiety, waiting for the girl who said she would show up at a certain time with a good quantity of high quality weed and worried that his attempts to make it seem casual were maybe too successful, worried, too, about all the other kinds of self-versus-other, reputation-obsessed, relationship analyzing, self-flagellating habits of mind that all humans, really, get caught up in but that potheads like Ken seem to be especially, acutely, painfully conscious of to the point of minute over-analysis of their own aspects, thrown in with more than a little magical thinking. All of this is exhausting and exquisitely uncomfortable to read, and it's the kind of thing David Foster Wallace did better than just about anybody, and thus even more uncomfortable to read now, knowing how things ended for Wallace. Honestly, at one point re-reading this chapter, which is only a taste of the kind of stuff that is to come, I doubted whether my going on to read the whole book again was such a good idea. I might have even cried a little. But then Wallace made me laugh again.

And so, I say to the book and to all of you other SoJ types out there, well, okay. Bring it on.

*When a book is set in the future, but that future is now the reader's past, a reader who is a Prediction Sniffer spends a lot of time and energy going over the text to see what the author correctly and incorrectly predicted, whether to herald the author as a prophet or to indulge in Nelson Muntz laughter, doesn't matter which, really.