Archive for the ‘books’ Category
Christopher Priest, The Inverted World
--An early (1972) almost-straight-science-fiction work by the author of The Prestige. This should be better known, it's exceptional British new wave that is not as glum as J.G. Ballard (although it's pretty glum). For much of its length it seems to be masquerading as a "hard" sf novel a la Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity. Ultimately, though, "inversion" describes both the setting (a world of spatiotemporal distortion) and what the book does to genre expectations.
David Goodis, Black Friday, Cassidy's Girl, The Burglar, Street of No Return
--Goodis is dark without making you want to hang yourself, a la Jim Thompson; these four are the best I've read so far. Library of America included the latter two in its collection of five books in a single volume but I would swap Black and Cassidy for Nightfall and Moon in the Gutter. Another strong contender is Down There, which served as an unlikely basis for Truffaut's film Shoot the Piano Player. Shoot is manic and lighthearted, where most Goodis is lugubrious and fatalistic. Truffaut follows the source novel's arc of a societal rise and fall almost exactly but makes subtle changes of tone and attitude throughout. Down There has humor but it's not as rollicking as Truffaut's "Gallic absurdist" (?) twist on the material. (E.g., the indelible quick shot of an elderly woman clutching her heart and falling down after a gangster says "strike my mother dead if I'm lying.")
Georges Simenon, "Inspector Maigret" novels.
--Penguin is republishing and retranslating all 80-some-odd of these books and that's a smart call -- they are highly addictive and not in the least repetitive. There are a few standard recurring themes, such as a small town with local aristocrats hiding dirty secrets, but Simenon keeps it fresh with unexpected plot developments, keen observations of people, and lush but economical descriptions of French locations ranging from the Atlantic seaside to Paris to the Cote d'Azur. Start at the beginning and read the first thirty (they're short) -- the next translation is due in late November.
Update, September 26: Major rewrite of post.
Drive, the movie, featured disturbing gore, Albert Brooks as a notable villain, and too-long stretches of Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan making cow eyes at each other. It's pretty good but if you backtrack to director Nicolas Winding Refn's "Pusher Trilogy" you can see how the director deliberately, possibly subversively, "went Hollywood." If you want to experience Drive without the sentimental goop, I recommend the Pusher films and also James Sallis' source novel, also titled Drive. (And the book's sequel, Driven.)
Keith Rawson has a good rundown on the Drive book/film differences. Sallis is a writerly writer in the Cormac McCarthy mold who is also a fan of Richard Stark. The Driver character resembles Parker with backstory -- mostly melancholy. Driver is far less zombie-like in the books than Gosling plays him.
One lingering question about Drive, the book, and please email if you have any thoughts. A character is introduced late in the story named "Eric Guzman." There is an earlier character named Standard Guzman (Standard Gabriel in the movie -- Mulligan's creepy husband played by Oscar Isaac.) Who the hell is Eric Guzman supposed to be? Is this Standard back from the dead? A fake name used by mobsters trying to track down Driver? Both? Neither? Very little is said between Driver and another character, "Doc," to explain who "Eric" was and what happened to him. Did Driver "take him out"? The barely-explained reappearance of the Guzman name (and there is a third Guzman mentioned -- Eric's brother Noel, who Doc supposedly fixed up medically) in a novel with a Pulp Fiction-style scrambled chronology throws off the rhythm of the scrambling so the result, for this reader, was confusion as to when events were taking place. Again, would appreciate others' thoughts.
Good English translations of books by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky are starting to become available; I recommend their science-fiction-cum-medieval-swashbuckler Hard to Be a God. Star Trek fans will immediately recognize this as a "prime directive" story ("We must not interfere in this primitive society, however dysfunctional") but Hard to Be a God was published in the Soviet Union in '64, two years before Trek's five year mission. Moreover, the observers walking around on this feudal planet, wearing mini-cams disguised as jewelry, are Communist utopians, not Federation would-be-colonialists. The observers see themselves as historians, nothing more. Plotwise, let's just say this particular planet's habit of torturing and killing its intellectuals sorely tests our protagonist's restraint. The antagonist, Don Reba, was originally named Rebia, an anagram for a certain Stalinist henchman; the Strugatskys changed it because it was a little too obvious.
Iain M. Banks wrote a similar tale 35 years later, Inversions, with two competing notions of how to go native. Also recommended.
Not necessarily recommended is the 2013 film version of Hard to Be a God, directed by Aleksei German (who died that year). The film mixes Tarkovskian aesthetics with Ubu Roi-ish perversity in a depiction of a completely degraded anti-culture. It's stylistically fascinating but incoherent; the science fiction aspects are subtle to the point of non-existence. For example, the characters are constantly mugging for the camera disguised as a jewel on the protagonist's forehead (which is never explained), yet he is in half the shots, being filmed by we-know-not-what. The book mentions helicopters whisking our agents around the planet; these are not seen in the movie, which is all horses and mud puddles -- like an extended version of the "Bring Out Your Dead" sequence in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Wrote the following post in 2012 after seeing the film version of John Ajvide Lindqvist's book Let the Right One In. After reading the book I'm not so sure of this. More after the blockquote. [Spoilers]
Let the Right One In [the film] is a perfect loop that spins out more even metafiction than the main story contains.
Several mysteries of the clumsy Father, surrogate Father, or captor seen in the first half are explained in the second.
The Father, we learn, is the boy at the end of the next cycle of serving as keeper/guardian for the ageless vampire girl.
What strikes us initially as the Father's slow-witted ineptitude is in fact burn-out and grief after a lifetime of murdering for her and covering up her crimes. He still loves her, because she once seduced him just as convincingly and decisively as she does the Boy in this film. Yet he longs for death, wants to get caught, and disfigures himself horribly when he sees he is about to be replaced, inevitably, by a younger guardian.
All of this will happen to the Boy, as it happened to unknown other boys before. We are seeing the beginning and the end of his life.
One critic complained about the violence of the revenge in the swimming pool at the end -- was it just a cheap thrill for the audience? Perhaps, but the pleasure is hollowed-out by the scenes of the Boy weeping afterwards. Also the extremity of the event further explains the Boy's willingness to give the girl decades of servitude -- he owes her big time. Prior to this we saw him vacillating over her murders, even losing his taste for his serial killer clipping collection. After this incident, he's hooked for life.
I pondered the gender-bending of the vampire Girl. It explains how/why she offers "guy advice" to the Boy about defending himself from bullies. She asks the Boy to "be me" but also wants to be him.
We see hints of how the power dynamic of this very alike couple will play out over years of the Boy's servitude. The girl bosses the Father around and occasionally offers him a stroke on the cheek. The Boy, feeling his oats after shellacking his first bully, plays games with the girl's weakness of not being able to enter a room uninvited. She must give him a bloody demonstration of where such games will lead.
Most the reviews I skimmed talked about the coming of age/romance aspects of the story but not its exposition of the roots of a lifetime co-dependent relationship.
Reading Lindqvist's novel, source of the film, several years later, lowers the above interpretation a few notches. [More spoilers] In the book, the "father" is an alcoholic with a jones for boys, picked up by the vampire late in the alcoholic's life, and the vampire is in fact a boy, missing genitalia since his transformation to bloodsucker instigated by a sadistic vampire aristocrat in centuries past. (The purpose and mechanics of the de-sexing are a bit murky in the book.) Although Lindqvist wrote the script for the film version, the decision was made to downplay the sexual elements. Those changes certainly still leave open the interpretation above -- that in the film, the Father was once a Boy to the vampire, and the story hinges on the acquisition of a new Boy. Nevertheless, this spin was not in the author's mind. I still like my "loop of doom" version but it may have to be reclassified as fan fiction.]
Update: A.V. Club critic Scott Tobias had a take similar to mine:
And then the coda -- which finds Oskar on a train during the daytime, tapping Morse code to Eli, who’s curled up in a box by his side -- feels remarkably bittersweet. Their destinies are now entwined, and they aren’t alone any more, but for how long? Someday, Oskar will also be a middle-aged man, trudging out in the snow with a funnel and a jug, collecting sustenance for his beloved.
Belgian writer Georges Simenon penned two types of tales: detective stories featuring police inspector Maigret, and "hard" novels, as Simenon called them, which were less formulaic, such as the grimly existentialist Dirty Snow. There is crossover among these genre types, however. Snow is an oddly inverted form of police procedural, written from the point of view of the criminal, where the "police" comprise a shadowy network of regular cops, military cops, and Occupation cops, all engaged in a bureaucratic warfare of "sections" (as one criminal advises another: "they have several sections, and no matter how good you're in with one, you shouldn't mess with the other one"). Neither the criminal protagonist nor the reader comes close to grasping this power structure, a state of fearful confusion that presumably mirrored the uncertainties of Simenon's life as an author in Vichy France. A slow process of good cop/bad cop interrogation (intentional or just inept? we're never sure) and stalker-like research into the criminal's pre-incarceration activities (what you might expect from a secret police, however sectionalized) gradually turns the wrongdoer's mind inside out and upside down, triggering a defiant ... well, read the book.
My favorite so far of the Maigret novels explores the vanished "barge culture" of the French canal system in the early 1930s, with an attention to politics and class nuance that elevates it above a mere thriller. This was published under several titles, the worst of which, Maigret Meets a Milord (uggh), is the one under which it was reviewed (excellently) by "darragh o'donoghue" in 2002, on on the website of God Emperor Bezos:
This title is an English invention, unhappily signaling a facetiousness absent from a sombre Simenon story about double murder, decadence, broken lives and betrayal. A literal translation from the French is The Carter of the 'Providence', but perhaps that was seen as too leading, even if it was Simenon's choice; another alternative, The Crime At Lock 14, is the most satisfying, centering on the important aspect of the novel: place. Milord is set in that strange, marginal, now obsolete inter-war world of canal barges, perhaps most familiar from contemporary films of the period, such as Boudu Saved From Drowning or L'Atalante. Indeed, the star of those films, Michel Simon, would have been an obvious choice to play the main non-Maigret character in any film of this book, the carter Jean, a taciturn giant whose face and tattooed body are buried in a mass of hirsute overgrowth, a man who sleeps in dumb animal warmth with his horses in the barge stable, and into whose eyes Maigret can't decide whether to read imbecility or the keenest intelligence.
A beautiful, rich, well-dressed woman is found strangled between two sleeping carters in the tavern stable at Dizy, Lock 14. She is the wife of an elderly English aristocrat, disgraced Colonel Lampson, who is sailing along the canal tributary of the Marne on his luxury yacht The Southern Cross with his sleazy but charming companion Willy Marco, and his fat Chilean mistress. Despite his bearing and stiff-upper-lip, the Colonel conducts regular drunken orgies on board his yacht, and tolerated his wife's affair with Marco. The other principal boat in the story is the huge barge The Providence, run by a small, timid skipper, his garrulous, kindly wife and the carter Jean.
Simenon characterises barge-life as a kind of shadow-world adjacent to, but unknown to, normal life around it, with its own codes, customs and language. Although these are floating homes, not tied to any one place and potentially unstable, their slow, regular movements up and down the river, and the rules they must abide by are as rigid, claustrophobic and monotonous as any settler's. But Simenon brilliantly captures the sense of a shifting communal life, competitive (the dense traffic on a small stretch of water means much jostling for pole position), but full of cameraderie and good humour, helping out friends in trouble, carrying messages from relatives, tipping canal-side officials.
For a rooted outsider like Maigret, this world seems enchanted, his inability to crack the case matched by a terrible sense of suspension hanging over the twilit realm -- it is only by breaking out of it, asserting his mobility by bicycle, that he can regain his detective prowess. Before that, he learns many fascinating facts about the mechanics of barge life, as well as its drabness and colour, its hierarchies of boats and petty bendings of the law, the land men, women and buildings who service it (lock-keepers, tavern- and shop-owners); a group world of work and routine in which transgressive individual desire can have the direst consequences.
The way Simenon himself, like a narrative elastic band, suspends the tension, allowing us to soak in the character and atmosphere, before accelerating the suspense and action, is so gripping, this must count as an exceptional early Maigret.
The version I read was a recent Penguin reprint under the title The Carter of La Providence. The translation by David Coward uses some modern idioms but seems very attuned to Simenon's sense of humor. Highly recommended.
Jeff VanderMeer, "Southern Reach" trilogy. VanderMeer wrote an intro to a Thomas Ligotti book where he discussed "working through Lovecraft," implying that big boy writers like Ligotti and VanderMeer had done that. VanderMeer's "Southern Reach" books, especially the first two, grab the reader but these are no "Colour Out of Space" because they substitute indecisiveness for ambiguous atmosphere. Is VanderMeer's version of Tarkovsky's "The Zone" evil, or not? With Lovecraft you know what you are dealing with even if the particulars aren't clear. Pardon the cynicism, but you don't get a three book contract with Farrar Straus and Giroux if you believe what lies below is darkness.
John Ajvide Lindqvist, F. Paul Wilson. As an antidote to VanderMeer's "highbrowing" of horror tropes, check out these two authors. Lindqvist wrote Let the Right One In and became that rare writer allowed to script his own property for the film version. The book is good, as is his Handling the Undead. F. Paul Wilson wrote The Keep and dislikes Michael Mann's movie version (one might disagree). Wilson has two series going, "pure" horror stories and a rollicking run of horror-adventure stories featuring the character Repairman Jack. In 2012, the two sets of books came together in an apocalyptic finale titled Nightworld. Both arcs are recommended -- FPW injects Lovecraftian ambiguity by having humanity's "Ally" be as indifferent to our fates as the beasties boiling up out of pits in the earth.
Monte Hellman films. Hellman lensed The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind back-to-back in the Utah desert, in his Corman days (mid-1960s). Jack Nicholson acts in both and wrote the Whirlwind script. Both are masterful films, though Shooting is marred by a confused ending (Wikipedia and Danny Peary's Cult Movies disagree on what happened at the end). This is the bleakest, most beautiful country you will see, populated by hard people doing hard tasks for no apparent reason. Two Lane Blacktop's themes of alienation were well in place in these "lost" films. Even earlier in his Corman period, Hellman handled second-unit chores for Creature from the Haunted Sea, a wild and crazy time capsule starring Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne as a ridiculous secret agent. Hellman's contributions include a gorgeously-shot sequence where the gun moll sings a "lounge"-type song on the deck of a yacht, with the sea heaving dreamily all around her, and incongruously slips the movie's title into the lyrics.
Miracleman is an Alan Moore-penned series of comics riffing on Marvelman, the 1950s British version of the 1940s American Captain Marvel. The series was Moore's first big hit in the comix biz, predating Watchmen. After the latter's success in the US, the Marvelman stories were anthologized (in 1990) under the name Miracleman, for various boring legal reasons.
In the series, Moore makes fun of the lameness of the original concept, which featured a "Marvelman Family" including Young Marvelman and Kid Marvelman. In Moore's re-telling, Mike Moran is a lugubrious middle aged investigative reporter who, late in life, accidentally discovers he can turn into Miracleman by saying the word "Kimota" (atomik backwards). He also inexplicably inherits a full suite of Miracleman's memories, which he relates to his incredulous wife of 15 years:
She kids him about these memories, causing a reaction that stays in your mind long after you've read the comic:
"You're laughing at my life!" and the floor shatters to matchwood. Miracleman has a number of these overreactions throughout the story, including his response, below, to certain revelations about his career-long foe, Dr. Gargunza (which I won't spoil). The evildoer is not present for this mind-blowing news, the discovery of which causes Miracleman to yell out his nemesis' name in another arc of pure fury...
...followed by destruction of everything in the room. This is at the end of Book One -- I haven't read Books Two or Three (recently reissued by Miracle, I mean, Marvel). Grant Morrison's excellent writing on comics in the book Supergods reminded me of this series -- I haven't gotten to the part yet where he discusses Miracleman but am looking forward to what he writes.
This book will be available in the US in late June:
Social Media Abyss: Critical Internet Culture and the Force of Negation, by Geert Lovink
In this fifth volume of his ongoing investigations, Dutch media theorist and internet critic Geert Lovink plunges into the paradoxical condition of the new digital normal versus a lived state of emergency. There is a heightened, post-Snowden awareness; we know we are under surveillance but we* click, share, rank and remix with a perverse indifference to technologies of capture and cultures of fear. Despite the incursion into privacy by companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon, social media use continues to be a daily habit with shrinking gadgets now an integral part of our busy lives. We are thrown between addiction anxiety and subliminal, obsessive use. Where does art, culture and criticism venture when the digital vanishes into the background?
Geert Lovink examines the symbiotic yet problematic relation between networks and social movements, and further develops the notion of organized networks. Lovink doesn’t just submit to the empty soul of 24/7 communication but rather provides the reader with radical alternatives.
Selfie culture is one of many Lovink’s topics, along with the internet obsession of American writer Jonathan Franzen, the internet in Uganda, the aesthetics of Anonymous and an anatomy of the Bitcoin religion. Will monetization through cybercurrencies and crowdfunding contribute to a redistribution of wealth or further widen the gap between rich and poor? In this age of the free, how can a revenue model of the 99% be collectively designed? Welcome back to the Social Question.
*What do you mean "we," social media man?
Another snippet from Curtis Roads' book Composing Electronic Music: A New Aesthetic, on the topic of the conventionality of Western melodic forms:
Conventional classical and popular styles exhibit a great deal of redundancy in melodic patterns (i.e., parts of many melodies are identical). The tendency of composers to borrow or reinvent an existing tune has been long studied by musicologists. As Thomas Alva Edison (1917) once observed: "I had an examination made of the themes of 2700 waltzes. In the final analysis, they consisted of 43 themes, worked over in various ways." [citations omitted]
You gotta love that hubris of the dilettante one-percenter: "I had an examination made..." What are servants for, after all. If only Bill Gates would examine 2700 waltzes instead of mucking about in charter schools; the world might be a better place. He could even have interns doing it.
Am continuing to read Curtis Roads' book Composing Electronic Music: A New Aesthetic. He has this to say about conventional Western harmony:
A formidable advantage of 12-note ET [equal temperament] over its predecessors was the equality of its intervals. For example, an ET “perfect” fifth interval will sound equivalent no matter which pitches are used to form it; this is not generally true of non-ET tuning systems. Such flexibility means that a composer can write functionally equivalent melodies and chord progressions in any key. It also enables harmonic modulation (i.e., a transition from one key to another by means of a chord common to both). The same flexibility fostered the rise of atonal and serial music and the promulgation of increasingly abstract operations on pitch class sets.
The mother lode of 12-note ET has been mined for 500 years by millions of musicians in innumerable compositions. The tuning is so ingrained that it is virtually impossible to musically express anything new about it. Consider a work for piano; it is constrained by its tuning and timbre from the start. If it is to find novelty, it must seek them not in tuning or timbre, but in other aspects of the composition. This is not to say that it is impossible to express anything new with 12-note ET. However, the new thing is not about the tuning. Rather, the novelty lies elsewhere, for example, in a new interpolation between existing genres, an unusual rhythmic organization, an atypical formal structure, a fresh combination of timbres, a philosophical message, etc.
The pop music industry sometimes manufactures songs that are attractive despite the use of 12-note ET in worn-out harmonic and rhythmic formulas. Yet some combination of elements in the voice, lyrics, audio production, fashion, face, camera angle, lens, setting, hairstyle, body language, stage show, animation, or attitude spawns mass fascination. The familiar melodic and harmonic formula—like the formulaic beat—serves as a comfortable backdrop.