The Diary of Samuel Pepys

- 13/06/17 Books,Reviews

In 1660, an English functionary called Samuel Pepys began keeping a diary. This diary would eventually run for a million words, covering ten years of his life (and England’s history). He documents some of the most important events in history, along with things like his masturbation in church, his affairs with a variety of household maids, and the first performance of Romeo and Juliet (“it is a play of itself the worst that ever I heard in my life”). The diary has no longer just describes history, it has become history. It’s like the Great Pyramid: built to memorialize a great man and great times, and now great for its own sake. People will know of the Great Pyramid long after they have forgotten Khnum-Khufu.

A lot of the diary is spent documenting minutia of Pepys’s day to day life. The diary begins not long after the death of Oliver Cromwell, and the rearrangement of the state has landed Pepys with a new job (he notes at one point that when England suffers, he prospers). Soon we learn more about his personal life, which includes plays, wine, and endless marital strife (Elisabeth Pepys was often unhappy with him. Given his habit of seducing their housemaids, one feels empathy). Some of this is eternally fascinating, and some would have been mundane at the time but now provides a valuable glimpse of how an upper class Englishman lived his life in the days of the Rump.

Almost everything we know about the past is drawn from a stacked deck – conquerors writing of their greatest battles, artists painting their subjects in the full flower of youth and health. Time has an editorial process that winnows out mundane events, but you need the mundanity. A historical document without trivia is like an English sentence without conjunctions or articles – informative, but jarring, and you spend a lot of effort reconstructing the missing words. Pepys’s diary, even in its most boring pages, provides one of the clearest windows we have into Renaissance England. Most of the others are made of stained glass.

The diary’s most harrowing pages are the eyewitness descriptions of the Great Fire. Pepys’s prose is evocative and almost Blakean (“the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconys till they were, some of them burned, their wings, and fell down”), which is appropriate, because the fire was apocalyptic, a bowl of wrath spilled before the appointed time. And it was very typical of Pepys to notice the poor pigeons. Earlier parts of the diary are hard to read (particularly Pepys describing his careful renovations of his home) because you know what will happen soon.

But the diary leaves mysteries as well as answers. For example, was this really a window into Pepys’s private, unfiltered thoughts? Or did he intend for it to be read by the public?

We don’t really know. The diary was written in a nearly impenetrable shorthand, and was deciphered in the 19th century by a St John’s College undergraduate (he would later learn that his effort was needless, and the key to the cipher was in the college’s very library). Modern editions of the diary are very clean and readable, once the reader trains his brain out of imposing anachronisms on the text (“sack” means wine, and when Pepys refers to someone as “a black man” he means that their hair is black, not their skin.)

A lot of this is embarassing and frank. I suspect Pepys knew that he might be playing to crowd. The prose seems not just precise but laboured – the work of a man not just trying to get words down, but gets not getting the ideas down, but getting the ideas down right. But he certainly composed the diary in a variety of different moods, and there’s probably portions he would have edited or excised, had he reviewed it with a cooler head.

A politician (who was not Pepys) said that writing a diary lets you experience life three times. Once, in the living. Twice, in the writing. Thrice, in the reading afterwards. But sometimes diaries reach the outside world, which means the experience was lived thousands or millions of times, or a number that might approach infinity (depending on how long such books are read). Khnum-Khufu obtained immortality, but not the sort he was hoping for. Pepys captured that immortality even better, in written words of his own design. “Dear diary” usually precedes boredom and narcissism. But here, a diary becomes genuinely great literature.


The Burning Book

- 28/05/17 Books,Reviews

In the 1970s, there was a book called The Anarchist Cookbook. Hippies had many gods, and just as many bibles. This was the bible of the Church of the Broken Window.

The book isn’t much. It’s a “how to” guide for picking locks and phreaking phones and building shoebox bombs. Although never outright banned in America, it was printed in small quantities and was highly sought after in certain circles. Owning a copy made you the belle of the domestic terrorism ball.

Unfortunately, many of the recipes were a little “off”, plus the people who tried them generally didn’t know what they were doing. The book’s actual recipe was 1) dumbass kids try to make nitroglycerine 2) they blow off their own fingers or burn down the Podunk High gym hall 3) juvie prison sentences all around, plus the school goes into lockdown from now until the end of time. Over and over. There is quite possibly more authoritarianism in the world thanks to The Anarchist Cookbook than there would have been without it.

There were always conspiracy theories that the Cookbook was written by an “outsider”, someone trying to discredit anarchy or sabotage the movement from within. As of 2013 the copyright resided with a publisher just two blocks away from a National Security Agency depot in Arkansas, but that’s probably a poetic concidence. Regardless of his intentions, the book could be viewed as reverse-activism, advocating violence and accidentally making the world a safer and more secure place.

Or maybe the world would have become safer anyway – books usually don’t matter much. Writers are very excited by the prospect of book burning, the way Christians are excited by tales of Satanic cults running global governments, and it’s easy to see why. Life frequently stomps on us, seemingly for no reason at all, and it’s flattering to believe that we’re being stomped on because we’re important.

BBSs soon became popular, and the Cookbook obtained a fragmentary second life. Bits of it (literally) were streamed over 1200 baud modems, often interpolated with additions by someone calling himself “The Jolly Roger”. This person appeared to be barely literate, someone who learned English from the txt files in Doom wads, and his advice was even worse than the original’s.

“Break a ton of matchheads off. Then cut a SMALL hole in the tennis ball. Stuff all of the matchheads into the ball, until you can’t fit any more in. Then tape over it with duct tape. Make sure it is real nice and tight! Then, when you see a geek walking down the street, give it a good throw. He will have a blast!!” -Jolly Roger-

Consider putting a fuse in the tennis ball too, otherwise it won’t blow up and he’ll think you’re challenging him to tennis for two. Aerobic exercise is linked to positive health outcomes, and you won’t have killed him, you’ll have made him stronger.

Decades later, the author of The Anarchist Cookbook went public and disowned the book, thus inspiring perhaps even more people to seek it out and learn from its recipes. This page has now been viewed by hundreds of thousands of eyeballs. Do you doubt that at least one pair belong to a young, impressionable person who will actually try the recipes in the book? And that we’ll soon hear about him on the news, along with the twenty or thirty unfortunates who happened to be standing near his trailer at the time?

I don’t believe William Powell has ever made a decision that worked out the way he wanted it to. He should have gone to Vietnam, and watched the war effort crumble within a week. Or he should have advocated for cleaner streets, and watched as whole communities drowned in an apocalyptic tide of cigarette butts and plastic bags. There are hippie gods, and hippie bibles. William Powell, apparently, was the hippie Jonah.


Flesh Inferno – Simon Whitechapel

- 05/05/17 Books,Reviews

Jesus proclaimed himself the light of the world. Light obtained by burning heretics on pyres is probably not what he had in mind. Flesh Inferno is the third book in Creation’s Blood History series, and covers the Spanish Inquisition in general, Torquemada in particular, and religion in abstract. Although Whitechapel writes from a secular background (the very first sentence contains the words “I despise the Catholic church”), the book is evenhanded and fair. It’s not full of gruesome descriptions of torture, which might have been a miscalculation. The audience for the Blood History books probably wanted gruesome descriptions of torture.

Sadly, there might not have been as much of it as we thought. Although the cover blurb states that “nearly some 9,000 perished in [autos-da-fe] – and nearly 100,000 in the dungeons – during Torquemada’s reign alone” the actual book states that Torquemada was probably responsible for only around 2,000 direct executions. But isn’t that still a lot? Maybe. It’s also the number of homicides reported in the United States of America every two weeks during the crack epidemic. Museums often feature recreations of elaborate and diabolical torture equipment supposedly used by the Inquisition, but most of them seem to be artifacts from the Victorian period. If you were tortured by the Inquisition, it would probably be with something cheap and easy to hand. Nothing the Inquisition did was unique to the Inquisition, and a secular version might be even better at it: the Inquisition’s hand was forced, because it had the nominal goal of saving souls. A nonreligious Inquisition would be free to explore sadism for its own sake.

The historical parts were a bit boring. The parts I liked were the speculation and theories. Whitechapel’s really good at coming up with interesting connections, and cross-breeding ideas from unrelated fields. The reciting of Psalms during torture is contrasted with Pavlovian conditioning. The smell of roasting human flesh (evocative of pork) is suggested as a possible inspiration for a Spanish anti-Semitic slur “marrano” (filthy pig). I didn’t like the editorial decision to have every translated passage matched with its untranslated Spanish, regardless of length or relevance. On page 75 there’s a block of uninterrupted Spanish that spans across four straight pages. There’s simply no need for this, and it comes across as a strategy to push the book’s page count as high as possible.

Comparisons between the Inquisition and Nazism are inevitable and obvious, but Whitechapel gets something out of it: the similarities between the Spanish concept of limpieza de sangre (“cleanliness of blood”) and the Nazi concept of Blutschande (“blood defilement”). This is something I’ve always wondered – why has Christianity, a faith with overt universalist literature (Romans 5:1, among many others) so often associated with ethnic concerns of blood? Is this a universal impulse that finds its way into all human affairs? Or is there something in the religion itself that enables this thinking? We never get near the answer in this book, but maybe nobody ever has.

History is an Ouija board, and when you imagine the past, you are also (at least in part, sometimes in whole) imagining the present. Facts are facts, but our interpretation of them changes with the weather. Joan of Arc was a nationalist figure until that went out of fashion, an ecclesiastical figure until that went out of fashion, and now exists as a cross between a Disney princess and a “grrl power” feminist icon. Christopher Columbus has been an explorer, a pioneer, a symbol of Italian pride, and is now a disreputable villain. Soon he’ll be alchemized into something else. Time’s crucible spares nobody except the obscure and forgotten, and when we are dead our descendents will imagine inaccurate things about us.

In particular, there’s often a bias to depict the past as more violent, lurid, and gruesome than it actually was. Maybe this is to exculpate our current society – a failing civilisation can appear successful by rewriting history to be worse. Or maybe it comes from a need to create interesting stories. Romantic 19th century woodcuts of the Barbary wars depict dramatic swordfights on crowded decks, gunsmoke swirling around scimitars and turbans. The actual diaries of the soldiers involved in these battles recall lots of boredom and pipe smoking, with occasional pauses to fire a cannon. The past doesn’t complain when we revise it. Nobody’s ever been sued for libel by a historical figure. But one can’t escape the impression that historians are like those Jewish POWs who swallowed the family jewelry so it wouldn’t be discovered. Yeah, there’s a pearl in there somewhere. Are you ready to go searching through shit to find it?

The book is out of print now, and used copies might be hard to find. If you’re looking for a history book, there are surely better options available, but Flesh Inferno asks a number of interesting questions about the past, and finds an angle that probably would have been impossible within the confines of straight history. It’s difficult to study a pile of ashes and discern the causes and reasons, but it’s a worthy task, and perhaps a necessary one. Someday, the fires might burn again.


Watchfiends & Rack Screams – Antonin Artaud

- 24/03/17 Books,Reviews

watchfiendsandrackscreamsI wish you could say “he wasn’t crazy, he just played one in his pictures”, but that would be a lie. Artaud was insane. Translator Clayton Eshleman describes his films, poetry, and prose as the partial salvation of a life broken beyond repair, and that cuts to the heart of Artaud: He was a cracked plate, glued together by golden strands of art.

Artaud’s life almost feels like a play. It’s full of narratory techniques: callbacks, references, echoes of past events. The amateur electroshock therapy administered by his father in childhood prefigures the far more brutal electroshock therapy he received decades later in a Rodez asylum. A damaging relationship with laudanum prefigures a lethal relationship with chloral hydrate. Artaud’s life has a diegetic quality, a “written” quality, and the sense that things are screeching off the rails into an inevitable tragedy.

“Watchfiends and Rack Screams” collects most of Artaud’s later writings. There’s not much theory, not much organisation, and most of it resembles an opium-deranged brain evacuating and ejaculating over a blank page.

“Artaud, The Mômo” is a typical display, with profane rants going back and forth with tracts of unintelligible gibberish, written in a language I cannot understand or identify.

“To Have Done with the Judgment of God” is a planned radio play that was cancelled the night before it was scheduled to air. It is a twisted, convoluted helix of words, delving into themes both personal and political. “Is God a being? If he is one, he is shit.” Artaud’s relationship with religion was as tumultuous as his relationship with everything else. At certain points, he was possessed with a foul-mouthed, blasphemous kind of heathenism – think the Marquis de Sade with Tourettes. At other points, he tried to become a priest, and compared the Tarahumaran peyote god Ciguri with Christ.

As with everything he does, “entertaining” isn’t the word for it. “Important” is close. “Strong” is closer still. Artaud wrote and did many things that were striking and difficult to ignore, and a decent number of them are collected here.

But was his work ever good? I don’t know. While his work has the impact of bloody viscera on the hood of a car, his contributions to film theory are gnomish and impenetrable, and so is much of his prose. He’s an important figure in surrealistic film and literature, but mostly because he broke things apart – I don’t think he was capable of building them back up again.
Un Chien Andalou is probably the best exposition of Artaudian ideas, and he didn’t make it. Luis Buñuel and Salvadore Dali did.

But here’s a better question: did he ever have the chance to be a great film-maker? No. He was broken, and he couldn’t do anything except document his brokenness. The rock band KISS once had a stage act where bassist Gene Simmons would “fly” around the stage by a crane-mounted hook on his back. One day, the crane broken down in the middle of a gig, and Simmons was left dangling helplessly in the air. He tried to continue his act, scowling and wagging his tongue and breathing fire, but it was soon obvious to everyone that he was a puppet on a string.

Antonin Artaud was like that. He went down into the darkest depths of the psyche without a net, a plunge he ultmately didn’t survive. Heroic? No. Heroism means you have a choice, and Antonin Artaud never had one.


Flashman – George MacDonald Fraser

- 30/01/17 Books,Reviews

220px-FlashmancoverStockbrokers cheered as they watched Wolf of Wall Street. Thousands of girls have tried to redeem Draco Malfoy through fanfiction. It’s surprisingly hard to create a villain that people actually dislike.

Flashman take a bully from Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s School Days and describes his later adventures in the British Raj (and beyond). He rides horses, plays cricket, embarrasses himself in battle, and has carnal knowledge of many famous historical women. He’s incredibly cowardly, but his attempts to desert, abandon, and betray his own side are always misunderstood as acts of heroism, and he emerges from each book with a lapel weighed down by still more (spectacularly unearned) medals and decorations.

Fraser seems to be taking shots at Victorian-era vainglory. Or maybe he’s not even being cynical: Flashman legitimately inspires people, even though his heroics are a sham. Shadow puppets are cool, and they don’t get less cool because it’s a wrinkled, liver-spotted hand making them.

The books are hilarious and action-packed. What’s often missed is how well researched they are. Fraser was a soldier, a journalist, and a historian, and the Flashman Papers are packed full of footnotes illuminating the time period, all written from the presumption that Flashman himself is a real historical figure. (“Flashman, like many other European writers, uses the word “Ghazi” as though it referred to a tribe, although he certainly knew better. In Arabic “ghazi” is literally a conqueror, but may be accurately translated as hero or champion…”)

The books contain walk-on appearances from legendary figures, both real and fictional (even Sherlock Holmes). Frasier takes glee in depicting beloved cultural icons as nasty, malevolent people, every bit as bad as Flashman himself. It’s like the monster movie cliche where you have to show Godzilla smashing Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower.

I hit the eject button on this series after about four or five books. They were blurring together, and the sheer number of Flashman’s improbable escapes was starting to bother me (as was his supernatural ability to learn every new language he encountered). But like many women I had a good time with Flashman, at least while he lasted.

Fantasy writer David Gemmell learned early on to never discover the truth about his heroes. As a boy, he read a history book about the Alamo, and was revolted that he’d ever admired Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett. He took refuge in the books of Tolkien and Moorcock, where heroes’ names are written in permanent ink. Nobody can ever make Gandalf less than Gandalf. But some of us prefer heroes with feet of clay – or in Harry Paget Flashman’s case, an entire body made of the stuff.


Ralph 124C 41+ – Hugo Gernsback

- 08/12/16 Books,Reviews

11123_2Publishing’s most legendary svengali wrote this work of science fiction in 1911. Is it a good? No. Is it “so bad it’s good”? No. Is it interesting from a historical perspective? Yes.

The story could be reduced to a boring paragraph, and an (only vaguely) interesting sentence: Ralph (a brilliant inventor) must rescue a charming moll from the clutches of a Martian. The book sometimes has the subtitle “A Romance of the Year 2660”, which is more fitting, because the it’s actually the year 2660 that’s the star, not Ralph. We get taken from place to place, Gernsback showing us all sorts of fancy toys and tricks, while the plot dodders along behind like a guest that isn’t sure he’s wanted at a party.

Science fiction vide Jules Verne (and Mary Shelley) uses futuristic technology to reveal truths about the human condition. Science fiction vide HG Wells uses futuristic technology to reveal truths about society and its ordering. Science fiction vide Gernsback uses futuristic technology to reveal truths about…futuristic technology.

He shows us “telephots” (video phones), but the conversations held over them are all trivial. There’s entire newspapers held on a single sheet of paper (you view different “pages” by exposing the sheet to different lights), and tube tunnels that take you right through the center of the earth, and gyroscopes that take you to Mars, and many other things, all described with breathless, autistic zeal.

But there’s a old-fashioned quality to Gernsback’s futurism. One of the arguments brought up against alien abductions is that descriptions of alien spacecraft always seem to track mankind’s cultural aesthetics (fifty years ago the interiors were all paneled wood and bakelite, now they look like something from the X Files), and Ralph 124C 41+ is like that. A futuristic society where you still have a manservant to bring you breakfast.

Despite the clever and evocative title, (“One to forsee for many”), the prose is very bad. Dangling participles scream from the pages. Gernsback doesn’t use many commas, and untangling his clauses is a constant headacge. This aside, the book has a graceless way of just…telling you stuff. Blurting it out. Here’s where we meet Ralph:

“He yawned and stretched himself to his full height, revealing a physique much larger than that of the average man of his times and approaching that of the huge Martians. His physical superiority, however, was as nothing compared to his gigantic mind. He was Ralph 124C 41 +, one of the greatest living scientists and one of the ten men on the whole planet Earth permitted to use the Plus sign after his name.”

A modern writer would communicate this by indirect means (perhaps Ralph has to stoop to get through the doorway after coming home from an award ceremony). Gernsback just cuts right too it. “Meet Ralph, he’s big, he’s smart.” Gernsback was a man of technical inclination, a builder of wireless radios and many other thiings (Ralph 124C41+ was first serialised in an electronics magazine), and he might have not seen the point of “show, don’t tell”. An electrical manual must provide exact specifications of capacitance and resistance, not just a demonstration of the device in action, and he probably took the same lesson to his fiction. He didn’t realise that fiction doesn’t traffic in information, it traffics in experience, and it’s hard to get any experience from overly-literal descriptions beyond “online dating profile.”

I was bored, and didn’t finish it. I guess this is the closest you can get to being ripped off by Gernsback in 2016, so that’s something. It’s like a cultural experience where you visit a reconstructed medieval village and they put you in the stocks for a few seconds or something. The book tries to take you to the future, but the lanes are crossed, and you end up stuck in the past.


Kathy Goes To Haiti – Kathy Acker

- 03/10/16 Books,Reviews

146908There’s a pianist joke that goes something like “When [butt of joke] started to play, Steinway himself came down personally and rubbed his name off the piano.” Some works would are improved by an attachment to their creator, others degraded. Thomas Pynchon and JD Salinger are/were notorious recluses who feel/felt that nothing about them should reach the wider world, except their books. This might be the polar opposite, a boos that’s almost worthless on its own merits, but gains a degree of interest through its connection to Kathy Acker.

In short, it’s the story of the author going to Haiti and having sex with several people there. I don’t know if it’s autobiographical, or intended as a riff on Cole Porter’s “Katie Goes to Haiti” (I suspect the latter).

It’s easier to say what it isn’t than what it is. It’s not experimental, and not particularly Burroughs inspired. There’s no cut-up prose. There’s sexual content, but no violence. It’s short but still overlong, with many pages detailing Kathy’s transport and lodging arrangements, as well as uneventful conversations with natives.

Kathy’s descriptions of carnal knowledge read like stereotypical male pornography. No “and then our HEARTS became as ONE”, just hyperbolic and florid descriptions of erogenous zones grinding. Towards the end, she abandons the “sexcation” angle and strays into political and social commentary.

If this wasn’t written by Acker, it would probably be instantly forgettable. But coming from one of the most notorious and difficult Beat Generation artists, you’d start to speculate on the whys and the wherefores. In other words, Acker’s name was a treasure map, so I was inspired to dig in barren soil.

The boring longeurs might be a parody of holiday writing (sun-kissed people giving you the blow-by-blow real estate dossier of their hotel suite, under the impression that this is as interesting to you as it is to them.) The male-oriented pornography might be a statement on…something. Cameras as phallic objects. Male gaze.

The political angle at the end is the most interesting, particularly in contrast. At the start, everyone she meets is happy, welcoming her with open arms and open legs. On the strength of her first few hours, Haiti is paradise on earth. But the further Kathy strays from the main tourist towns, she encounters other things: poverty, disaffection, and fear. Don’t forget, this book was written during the auspice of Papa Doc and Baby Doc. I heard someone say “Minnesota Nice is when you wait until someone’s left the room until you backtalk them.” Likewise, I’ve always thought that extreme, showy openness of much of the third world is often a mask for something.

It’s not much of a book no matter how you judge it, but it’s interesting. The Beat Generation was like Monty Python: most of their juice comes from surprise, and their defiance of convention. Here’s the ultimate and most cynical execution of that: a book that’s almost completely normal. Probably hard to find, but the things Acker wrote about aren’t. In fact, they’ve probably become even more common since her day, for better or for worse.


Nishioka Kyoudai – Kami no Kodomo

- 14/08/16 Books,Reviews

kaminokodomoDonald Duck chops down a tree. Pluto goes for a swim at the beach. Most Disney shorts sound like absolutely nothing when you describe them. But when you see those bare vapours animated at 24 frames per second in bright Technicolor, something incredible happens. The Disney magic emerges, like a Golem shambling from mud (Walt wasn’t crazy about Jews, so a very goyish Golem). No piston does much on its own, but put four of them together and they move a car.

Kami no Kodomo “Child of God” is a manga that achieves extreme effects with simple ingredients: in this case, a simple Kafka-esque monologue from a serial killer. It was written and illustrated by Nishioka Kyoudai a brother-sister manga team who sometimes write as “Nishioka Brosis”.

This is pretty underground. Their art is so stylised it’s barely recognisable as manga: it looks like Klasky-Csupo mixed with Picasso and spliced with dangerous recessive genes from that “Worker and Parasite” short that was on the Simpsons. I think I will credit Nishioka Brosis as inventors of a new style: Worker and Parasite Manga.

The narrative a little confusing. At times it’s surrealist nonsense (the story begins with the protagonist being born from a woman’s asshole), at other times a cohesive and naturalistic plot unfolds. Kami no Kodomo is a little like ice at that critical moment when it starts to freeze: hard parts bobbing awkwardly in yielding water. I think this is an intentional effect, with parallels to Bret Easton Ellis’s America Psycho, where you start to wonder at the end whether the whole thing isn’t a bunch of crazy fantasies.

The main character grows up (I forget if he has a name), and goes to school. He’s pretty different. Is he even a he? The art style forces androgyny on everyone. Soon he gets to partake in a few crimes, both as onlooker and participant, and sort of falls into the habit of killing people. It’s like scratching an itch.

He attracts followers, all of which are sorta-maybe-pseudoboys, and they start their own little Manson family. There’s a homoerotic subtext at first, and soon it’s more of a supertext – tons of gay sex decorates the margins of the mass murders. The final few chapters of Kami no Kodomo are consumed by a tragic love arc worthy of a yaoi fanfic: I’d complain that it was out of place in the story, but that would require me to specify exactly what would be in place…

The manga is fascinatingly dark, and carries a real sense of shock and revulsion. Serial killers are usually boring, both in fiction and real life. This one isn’t, and not through any obvious gimmicks except the oldest one in the book: unity of effect. You can make a Golem from mud, but in case you don’t have the time or inclination, Nishioka Brosis have provided one ready-made.


Black Hole – Charles Burns

- 27/06/16 Books,Reviews

250px-BlackholecoverIf western culture is a woman, the 60s counterculture is a tramp stamp tattooed on her ass. It was exciting at the time. As she ages, she’s regretting it more and more.

She wanted to expand her mind. She got a drug problem that exists today, dissolving America’s inner cities like psychotropic acid. She wanted an alternative to the sexual mores of Leave it to Beaver. She got a sky-high divorce rate and a generation of kids raised in dysfunctional “all you need is love” relationships. She wanted new ways of seeing the world. She got Charles Manson and Jonestown. As Peter Fonda said, “We blew it.”

Black Hole is a graphic novel about a bunch of flower power children who are going through changes. Ch-ch-changes. As they immanentize the eschaton with acoustic guitars and reefer, their bodies are starting to transform, their skin melting like congealed fat before a blowtorch.

Sometimes the physical deformities are mild, even photogenic. One girl grows a cute demonic tail. Others look like the Elephant Man. One has pustules erupting on his face like the Yellowstone supervolcano. You’d call him pizza-face, but real pizzerias are never so generous with their toppings. Some have deformities that seem to change with unknowable and perhaps eldritch patterns.

Kid after kid comes down with the “bug”. They all become social outcasts, living on the fringes and stealing from convenience stores. One thing the graphic novel hammers home: being an outcast is overrated. Yeah, disconnecting yourself from the normies sounds great and romantic. In practice, it usually just means a lonelier cage.

Charles Burns art and writing is sparse, and leaves much unsaid. Sometimes it seems like there’s unwritten pages (or perhaps unwritten novels) hiding between his panels. That too seems to evoke a period where revelation was meant to come from within.

It’s confusing and not exactly accessible, partly because of its tone and content and partly because it draws a cultural aesthetic that sunk like Atlantis. The one slight umbilicus to the present (or at least the less distant part) is the character construction. It reminds me a little of that 90s style of cartooning: think Daria, or maybe the work of Mike Diana.

Despite its difficulty, Burns has created a comic about a subject that cannot be explained: the non-religious religions and thoughtless thought-processes of the 60s. It’s an absorbing read, though a hard one. We never find out what it was that caused the deformities: my perspective is that this is something that doesn’t need to be explained. All you need to do is witness it, or at least its aftereffects. Compare and contrast with the medieval plague. Was it cats? Rats? A cesspool of  sin rising to the nose of a vengeful God? None of its victims came close to understanding it. But it didn’t matter. In the end, they still died from it.


The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

- 19/06/16 Books,Reviews

865The Alchemist is about a shepherd who receives a dream from God. It’s always a shepherd. If you’re a pig herder in a fable, then aren’t you just shit out of luck.

Have you ever installed a sound system in a cheap car? The panels shake. The floorboards hum. Each bass hit is accompanied by a dying asthmatic rattle from your car, because the chassis is thin and nothing is spec’d to exact tolerances. It doesn’t matter how expensive the amplifier, speakers, and subwoofer is: you also need a good, solid car to put them in.

I was constantly aware of rattles and hums while reading the Alchemist. I think Coelho is a cheap car – or perhaps he had a poor translator.

Santiago, a young shepherd in Andalusian Spain, begins a journey to find his Personal Legend (portentously capitalized). He gets around a lot. He goes to Morocco, the Sahara desert, and Egypt, while meeting people such as a crystal merchant, an Englishman, and the king of Jerusalem. These were the strongest parts of the book – going places and doing things. The book has a simplicity and directness when relating day to day events that made me wish it had been about someone else, someone unburdened by a dream from God.

But all through the book there’s a falseness to it. It’s partly undone by its need to be a fable, and partly undone by the fact that Coelho never got me to buy into the story. Santiago rides through the desert on a horse named Author’s Convenience. You soon adapt to the book’s approach, and feel no worry or alarm at anything happening: there’s always an amazing stroke of luck around the corner. A fortuitous meeting. A freak meteorological event. Hard to care about Santiago’s fate when you know Paulo Coelho has a skyhook ready to yank him to safety.

Is this the point? That when you trust your life to fate things work out? Who gives a shit? It’s a fictional book – there’s an author operating the gears here. When Santiago receives a pair of stones that allow him to predict the future, you’re not awed by the wonder and whimsy of the universe. You’re aware that this is a MacGuffin in a preconceived plot and that it’s going to be used by Coelho to cheat.

Perhaps the book cleverly (or unintentionally) breaks the fourth wall. Santiago becomes aware he’s a fictional character, and that his author has teleological ends. I think we’d all be a lot bolder if we knew there was a sympathetic author writing our story. But this isn’t compelling reading.

Descriptions are thin and perfunctory. He journeys through the Sahara, but we don’t hear about grit under his fingernails and the agony of climbing shifting sand dunes. Somewhere in the book he meets an Arab girl called Fatima, who he vows to marry once he fulfills his Personal Legend. I don’t recall the part where they discussed the fact that he’d have to convert: Muslim women cannot marry unbelievers.

The book is based off an old Yiddish fable, about a Jew who has a dream about a fortune buried somewhere in Venice. He travels there, digs fruitlessly, until eventually he meets a man who scorns him for his foolishness. “Why, for years I’ve been dreaming of some nonsense about Jew with massive fortune under the basement of his house!”

It’s an interesting premise for a book: a treasure right under one’s nose that you’d have to go around the world to find. Maybe someone is actually searching for treasure right now. If you’re that person, put this book down. It isn’t it.


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