A Clockwork Orange

- 04/09/17 Books,Reviews

A teenage delinquent is arrested for murder. To avoid a lengthy prison sentence, he submit himself to experimental medical treatment. It quashes all of his violent impulses, along with his ability to enjoy classical music: the thing that gave his life fulfillment and meaning. He emerges from prison a changed man, and perhaps not a man at all. Should the state be allowed to do this?

I think so. I also think Burgess stacks the deck against the state by not asking some obvious and important questions. Here’s one: “if not the Ludovico Technique, what should happen to Alex?”

Should he receive life in prison? The electric chair? Or should he be allowed to resume his crime spree? Jumping out of a plane at 10,000 feet only seems like a bad idea until you notice the smoke spiraling from the engines, and Burgess cheats by not considering the even worse alternatives. Much is made of Alex’s lost ability to enjoy classical music (a metaphor for his humanity), but there are worse things. The woman he murdered is now incapable of enjoying music of any style.

A Clockwork Orange‘s theme is stated within the book itself: Alex is like an orange, once bursting with juice and sweetness, changed by the state into a piece of machinery. The natural, turned into the unnatural. But to what extent was Alex’s behavior ever natural? At the start, he and his gang drink “milk-plus” to fortify themselves for a night of carnage. The inference is that this is stimulant-laced milk. Alex chose to put a mind-altering substance into his body…just like he chose the Ludovico Technique. Why is the first an act of free choice, but the second isn’t? Beyond that, it opens the question as to whether “natural” is even a defensible word, or “free will” a tenable concept.

Oranges are a poor choice of metaphor, because they are clockwork to begin with. No wild oranges exist, and they were presumably bred from some other citrus fruit. That fruit was probably bad tasting, and perhaps inedible or toxic. Through a combination of genetic mutations, planned breeding programs, and hybridization, we have the modern orange. Many kinds, in fact! You can get a Valencia orange, which is sweet with a lot of juice. Or a blood orange, a tarter fruit with an attractive red color. None of this is natural. The orange was guided towards its present forms by mankind’s hand.

In the same way, Alex didn’t sprout from the forehead of Zeus – he was created and shaped by factors beyond his control. Alex’s “free will” is actually the genes of his mother and his father, the prenatal environment in his mother’s womb, and the society he was raised in. Some think that the increase in crime in the latter 20th century was fuelled (literally) by the presence of leaded gasoline in the soil. After gasoline became unleaded, crime rates dropped. Imagine if Alex’s sociopathy came from lead – a mistake by the government. The Ludovico Technique is an attempt to correct that mistake. Why confuse the mistake as Alex’s free will, and the correction as abhuman meddling?

As a novel, the book is very good. I wish it had only tried to be a novel. It moves quickly, except for the prison scenes in the middle part. The depravity is as nasty as it is exciting, and Burgess’s dystopian England is fleshed out just enough to seem realistic, leaving the attention on Alex (as he surely would have wanted.)

Most of Burgess’s other work are comic novels, and there’s lots of humor here: after Alex finally suffers some consequences for his actions, he writes “this is the real weepy and like tragic part of the story beginning.” That was a Good laugh. (Unfortunately, the book also contains a Bad Laugh: at the start, Alex is beating up a stewbum who suddenly launches into a melodramatic speech worthy of Hiawatha.) Burgess’s most brilliant concept here is nadsat, an argot based on Russian, schoolboy talk, and Cockney rhyming slang. It adds an alien, disaffected quality to Alex’s mind, as though we’re seeing the world through a Babelfish translation. It also might have been a tactical move on Burgess’s part. Harder to get outraged over in-out-in-out performed on a devotchka then rape performed on a woman.

Even so, the US version of the book didn’t escape a critical (and notorious) edit, the omission of the final chapter. Alex, having broken through the Ludovico Technique, nonetheless decides that ultra-violence isn’t for him. In other words, he grows up. This chapter was cut over Burgess’s objections by his US publisher, probably for marketing reasons. Readers are used to the storytelling convention of “fall, then rise, then fall”, or “rise, then fall, then rise”. The uncut version of A Clockwork Orange is more like “fall, then rise, then fall, then rise”. For decades, only the 20 chapter version was available in the US. In 1986, the full 21 chapter book was published for the first time.

The extra chapter completely transforms A Clockwork Orange, and I don’t know which version I prefer. The 21 chapter version is didactic, and feels like Burgess tying too neat a bow on the story. “Well, Alex grows up anyway, so that proves it was all for nothing.” At 20 chapters, A Clockwork Orange falls more into line with the film. And I strongly dislike the film.

Say what you will about Burgess, but he never tries to make Alex your pal. Never, ever, ever. He’s an evil kid, and you are supposed to dislike him. Stanley Kubrick almost seems to hero-worship Alex, even modifying his crimes so that they’re less awful (instead of raping a pair of ten year old girls, Film-Alex has consensual sex with two adult women). You can go over the film scene by scene, and note the shots Kubrick takes of Malcolm McDowell, making him look dashing, romantic, even darkly Messianic. You can also note the way he portrays Alex’s victims as bug-eyed goons and creeps. Burgess’s book seems to say “Alex is evil, but was it right for the state to alter his brain?” Kubrick’s film seems to say “hey, don’t harsh Alex’s flow, man.”

Films have an annoying habit of colonising the books they’re based on. Now it’s hard to read A Clockwork Orange and not see Kubrick’s milk-plus bar, or Kubrick’s Durango ’95 speeding down the highway. The Ludovico Technique is now the Kubricko Technique. The film amplified the very parts of the story that Burgess had tried so hard to tamp down, and this may have been why he later disowned it. Once, he could have claimed ownership of A Clockwork Orange. But now, in the minds of millions, Burgess’s most famous work is…someone else’s!

On its own, the book is a great story. Very dark. Too bad Burgess also wanted it to be a gedankenexperiment, because it doesn’t have much gedank.

Dean Koontz – Odd Hours

- 30/07/17 Books,Reviews

Some bad books are like buildings, collapsing safely in their own footprint. Cordon off the area, wear protective gear, and you’ll escape the obliteration unscathed.

But other bad books are like trees, falling sideways. They don’t just doom themselves, they also destroy other books that happen to be nearby.

Dean Koontz writes many bad books. If they’re standalone, I don’t have a problem, as they kill nothing but themselves. But this is the fourth book in the Odd Thomas series, and as the first Odd Thomas was very good I’m not impressed that he keeps cheapening it with afterthoughts.

The story is familiar by now. Odd can see ghosts, and he must resolve the lingering conflict that keeps them from moving on. The concept is derivative of Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, Stephen King’s generic “big secret in a small town” conceit, and Art Bell’s radio broadcasts, but back then, it was fun. It no longer is. If Odd Thomas was The Godfather and Forever Odd was the Godfather 3, then Odd Hours is squarely in The Godfather X: Electric Boogaloo territory. It has a terrible, meandering story, a cast of “colorful” characters with no purpose beyond chewing the scenery, and a bone-deep sense of pointlessness. Odd Thomas should resolve the lingering conflict that stops his own series from moving on. I think the author murdered it, midway through book two.

Odd now lives at a place with the alarming title of Magic Beach. He has dreams of a nuclear-red storm coming in with the tide. Some thugs try to kill him. He meets a woman who gets lots of character development until Dean Koontz literally seems to forget that she’s in the story. Is there an intelligent dog? You bet. Does the main character use a gun and is consumed with guilt and regret afterwards? See, these things write themselves!

The plot is insane and nonsensical. It doesn’t have logic, it has a series of events, all occurring without reference to one another.

The sheriff of Magic Beach is plotting a dastardly conspiracy – I don’t buy that a guy running a small-town cop shop would be capable of buying nuclear warheads, but your mileage may vary – and Odd Hours soon enters a familiar rhythm of the hero running away from bad guys and solving problems with author’s convenience. In this case, it doesn’t take too much convenience, because the (six or seven) villains are all bumbling idiots who could be thwarted by a childproof seal. Dean Koontz can’t figure out how to resolve the story, so he has them all shoot each other. Then the book ends.

Dean Koontz is still a good prose stylist, but he’s a heavy-handed good prose stylist. Every sentence aspires to be a lyrical utterance of lapidary beauty. Every page is crammed with wordplay, literary allusions, “clever” character names, and other pukesome shit. Dean, stop trying so hard. No, seriously, stop trying so hard. You are fish and chips. I don’t need fish and chips served on a fine Kensington tea set.

He also does that annoying thing where he writes something clever and then nudges you, to make sure you got it. Early in the book, a character is described as having “hair like wool-of-bat and tongue like fillet of fenny snake”. I’d hoped he’d leave it alone, but of course he has someone point out (for the reader’s benefit) that this is a Shakespeare reference. Thanks. Literary allusions should always be bashed through the reader’s skull with a Louisville slugger.

Koontz’s recycling is now obvious, and impossible to ignore. All the cliches make an appearance. The frequent references to classic Hollywood cinema. The angry old man rants about popular culture and modern music (you can immediately detect a bad egg in Dean Koontz’s novels, because they enjoy gangsta rap or heavy metal). At one point, he writes the character of Dick Halloran from The Shining into the story, except instead of a black man it’s a white woman and instead of “the shine” it’s “the twinge”. I hoped that he’d also borrow the axe murder scene from Kubrick’s film version, but no luck.

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.

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