Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Review: Omega the Unknown

Omega the Unknown Omega the Unknown by Jonathan Lethem
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jonathan Lethem has made a career of giving “low brow” material literary attention and, conversely, of bringing seemingly disposable pop cultural references into work that’s as excellent as any literature anyone’s writing. He’s like the kid who wears a tuxedo t-shit to the prom (and pulls it off), and he’s also the guy who, wearing a real tuxedo at a literary soiree, accessorizes with tennis shoes. (That’s a metaphor, by the way – he has done neither to my knowledge.) In other words, the line between silly and profound is surprisingly thin for him. It’s hard to know where his ambitious literary output ends and his see-how-this-shit flies experiments begin.

At some level, he may be saying the line doesn’t matter. If a thing is good, let it be good. He speaks glowingly about how the original Omega the Unknown comic book prepared him for life as a committed reader in an interview appended to this comic book. Phillip K. Dick matters as much as F. Scott Fitzgerald in his world (I don’t immediately remember him mentioning Fitzgerald in this context, but he’s representative), and he doesn’t apologize for that. Anything that makes the mundane into art, whether a superhero, a literary theory, or a rollicking good tale, pushes toward the same end: it helps us see the contours of some of the stories that describe, without containing, our otherwise seemingly small lives.

If that makes any sense at all, let it stand as the frame for my reaction to this comic book. And comic book it is, not graphic novel. A sheltered, nerdy high school kid loses his parents in an auto accident (and they turn out to have been robots all along) and then he manifests a connection to a mute superhero from outer space. There’s something about a cabal of robots trying to take over the world. Something about a pretentious well-marketed crime fighter named the Mink. And something about the Mink’s hand being taken over by nanobots, amputated, and growing into an independent menace or crime fighter of its own.

Parts of this are very funny and, if you squint, postmodern in the sense that they acknowledge the narrative structures of which they’re a part. We get reminded, always cleverly, that this is a comic book, that we’ve seen characters like these before and that our authors intend to use our familiarity with the genre as part of their work with the story before us.

Things get incoherent at times, but that’s part of the genre. I think my own confusion came half from not being sufficiently fan-boy, and half from the story’s deliberate playing with narrative. If it weren’t confusing, it seems to say, it would be too accessible, not enough of a vehicle for an adolescent (or an adult clinging to the residue of adolescence) to take for his – it’s almost always his, isn’t it? – own.

So, I admit I’m split on how to feel about that element of the narrative. I love it when we see the renegade hand following its own agenda – that could be worth the price of admission alone. And I love it when we get the backstory of an earlier Omega champion who, overwhelmed by the expectations that he’ll save the earth from interplanetary robots, dies a disappointing quasi-suicidal death. And I certainly like the core story of Alex as he tries to fit into an inner-city high school that regards nerds the way English hunters regard foxes. I just don’t always like the way those stories come, or don’t quite come, together.

My biggest complaint about the story, however, is with the artwork. Dalrymple’s drawings grew on me a bit as I read, but they seemed the wrong style for this work. I understand that others enjoy it, but it feels generally passive to me. The lines are thin and sometimes shaky, and it undermined the boldness of the concept. Given that, and given that Lethem, conscious of the comic form and conscious of the power of silence in a story about a mute superhero, the artwork is crucial. (The final chapter is actually wordless – a beautiful concept that I’d like more if I enjoyed looking at Dalrymple’s work more.) Pictures carry more emotion here than usual, yet it’s often tough to find that emotion. I’m struck that Omega himself is scrawny, but his scale seems off. He’s carrying the weight of several worlds, and he’s doing so without the capacity to speak. I don’t see that struggle on his face. I see only a persistent confusion, a persistent smallness that never quite reveals the grand showdown the larger story implies.

Still, this one is worth a look, enough so that I may be re-reading it in a year or two. Lethem is as significant an artist as we have right now. He may be in tuxedo t-shirt mode here, but any time he shows up to a party, you’re going to want to sidle over to him and hear what he has to say.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Review: Fight Club

Fight Club Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fifteen years or so ago, it seemed my students were all reading Palahniuk’s work – or at least those students who had the ambition to read on their own. I came to understand him, as someone who didn’t get around to reading him for a very long time (this being only my second) as a kind of Vonnegut for the millennial generation. Whatever he was doing, he’d found a way to talk to the thinking edge of rising young adults.

Now, all these years later, I’ve managed to get to Palahniuk’s equivalent to Breakfast of Champions or Slaughterhouse Five. This is the one, by reputation at least, that “blew up” Palahniuk, that made him into a legitimate star, someone who made his name the hard way, by inventing a style that tossed aside most of what passed for accepted aesthetic standards.

The best of this is as deeply impressive as I have heard. The lyric heart of the beginning, when we get the “rules” is eerily brilliant. “The first of fight club is that you don’t talk about fight club.” Palahniuk knows that’s a good one, knows it too well. He makes it the epigraph at the start, he repeats it in each iteration of the list, and he repeats the list. Still, its starkness comes through.

Add to that other stunning lines like “I want to have your abortion,” “On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero,” and a good dozen others, and there’s no question that this is a novel that legitimately packs a punch. Palahniuk isn’t merely throwing words around. He’s exploring a nihilism that connects (or connected, since it’s a generation old now) with a real and otherwise unsatisfied hunger.

Vonnegut’s great lament was that our world, growing ever more banal, had lost sight of what it meant for a community to value individuals. The scientists of his Cat’s Cradle valued cold facts over their children, and they saw no difference between their toys and their weapons of apocalyptic power. The generals of his Slaughterhouse Five wanted to win wars even if it meant destroying their own people. He was cynical because, as he let slip every so often, he remembered a world where we understood the collective as nurturing the individual, whether the artist or the scientist, and not where it looked at him or her as just another demographic fact.

Palahniuk is even darker here. He’s lamenting not so much the loss of community as the loss of purpose. His characters see so little value in their lives that they come to valorize “the miracle of death,” the idea that a living person can, with the intervention of a speeding car or a bullet, turn into nothing more than an object. They want life to matter, so they turn to death, its opposite, for something that might give them meaning.

It’s an often powerful claim, and there are a lot of compelling moments in the novel, but it leads, by necessity and mediocre pun, to a “dead end.” What more is there to say once you say the heart of this novel: rule number one, don’t talk about what fight club is really about. It’s about a hunger for being fully alive, but it’s caught in the contradiction that fleeing life doesn’t tell you that much about what you’re fleeing.

I’ll call it a [SPOILER] even though it’s now a cultural meme, but the eventual revelation that our narrator and Tyler are one and the same strikes me as a retreat from the daring bleakness of the novel’s core. When Tyler becomes a gimmick, a creation within the creation of the novel, we see the cracks that were always in the foundation expand. This novel is an articulate and sometimes brilliant cry of despair, but it lacks a deeper humanism that might hear and respond to that cry. When Tyler becomes a hallucination, when our narrator sets out to extricate himself from the nihilism he’s set in motion, we get what seems a false path toward escape. It’s as if the novel, having given us such a harrowing glimpse at how meaningless life can be, says instead, “Whoa. That was one bad dream I just had.” Even the end, additional SPOILER, with our narrator dead and narrating beyond the grave, seems a betrayal of the novel’s ultimate promise: death is not entirely the opposite of life. It’s not as starkly empty as promised so, by extension, it seems the nihilism of so much of the novel isn’t quite so dire either.

As far as I’m concerned, this feels less like a classic novel than like an artifact of its moment. It may be that the anger, disappointment and nihilism of its moment was a foreshadowing of the Trump mood, but I think it’s more clearly a reflection of that early millennial moment. This is not Gatsby, nor is it Invisible Man. Those are books that take the frustrations of their age and turned them into art that doesn’t blink.

This is more analogous to what Vonnegut accomplished, though. Much as I liked his vision and enjoyed his humor, most of his novels seemed to blink at the end as well. Only the best Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle and maybe God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, seems really to endure. The rest, like this example of Palahniuk’s, makes you say “wow,” but doesn’t quite linger decades later.

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Sunday, September 25, 2016

Review: Off to Be the Wizard

Off to Be the Wizard Off to Be the Wizard by Scott Meyer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is not a well-written book. For the first quarter of it, that’s part of its charm. Meyer is so clever, so warmly funny, that he powers through not quite knowing “the rules” of writing a novel. Our hero, Martin, discovers an obscure data-set on the internet, one that includes his name along with millions of others. He changes his height, out of vanity, from 5’10” to 6’1” and realizes he’s changed his actual height. He realizes, that is, that he’s found the database of existence, and that he can alter his personal statistics as he pleases: his wealth, his location, his place in time.

Meyer gets through all of that background quickly and without pretension. Martin realizes his powers, gets into trouble, and flees to what he thinks is the security of medieval England, in only 50 pages or so. Meyer is so inventive and brings so much joy to his task, that it’s hard not to get caught up in the fun.

The second and third quarters slow down considerably, though, and the final quarter more or less hits a wall. A couple chapters of Martin training with another “wizard” might be nice, but more than half the book on that is overkill. And, as all that unwinds, there’s no real plot left. The final part means exaggerating a minor conflict into the central one, and there’s really little at stake.

Still, reading this hasn’t been a disappointment. I’ve enjoyed it, in substantial part, because its what-the-hell approach makes me appreciate the art of several other books all the more.

1) Claire Norths’s The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is really a gem, one of my favorite surprises of last year. It too tells the story of characters who play with time lines, but it takes its potential contradictions more seriously and answers them with deeper wisdom and care. When I find myself wondering here, for instance, why no changes in the past affect the future, I admire North’s subtler answer to that, where individual choices in the past can slightly alter the future – changing an individual’s wealth maybe – but not dramatically: no forestalling Hitler’s rise. North’s is a joy of a book, one that rises well above this one, and it’s rewarding to be reminded of it.

2) Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is actually about something. Where Meyer’s book sets out to entertain, or maybe to make a kind of revenge-of-the-nerds claim, Twain uses almost the exact same setting to make an argument about the nature of modernity. As far back as 1889 Twain saw some of the dehumanizing aspects of technology. His hero shows up some of the foolishness of chivalry, but, in the end, he shows all the more clearly the Holocaust potential of the industrial world. It’s an argument about human nature, one that’s far more deeply funny than this book, and one that’s simultaneously disturbingly predictive.

3) Any number of genre novels I’ve read recently do what they set out to do. The hero saves people, the heroine falls in love with him. Meyer tries to subvert the formula, his love story never gets off the ground and his Gandalf/Dumbledore figure is decidedly silly, and he gets some legit laughs out of it. Still, he’s clearly playing against expectation. When Charlie Huston or Jason Starr tells a good story, one where character types walk in the door in the opening pages, it’s all the more impressive to realize they’ve held my interest while obeying the demands of genre.

I have no plans to read any more Meyer, and I can’t recommend this one in good conscience, but I feel oddly good about having read it. This writing business is tough. It’s hard to get it right, and Meyer, in getting a lot wrong, reminds me of the joy and optimism I feel any time I sit down in front of a brand new blank page.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Review: Night Life

Night Life Night Life by David C. Taylor
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I like the ambition here, and I like a good slice of the accomplishment. This is James Ellroy territory: a tough cop, ambiguously moral enough to toss a fellow cop out a window, finds himself caught up in a McCarthy-era plot to blackmail high-level government people with gay sex photos. Things move generally well and the characters have some legitimately interesting motives and dilemmas.

The strongest parts here are its pace (especially early as Taylor gets a lot of balls in the air) and its evocation of its Cold-War world. Taylor seems to know his setting very well. A lesser writer might well show that research off, going into digressions about forgotten details of the period. Taylor goes the Ellroy route, though; if we don’t follow the implications of his scenes, it’s our fault. As a result, there’s no condescension. It’s a solid writer telling a solid story.

And I enjoyed most of the story. Michael Cassidy is tough and clever. Yeah, it gets a little clich├ęd when he seems to be a step ahead of the FBI, CIA, and Russians all by his lonesome, but he gets nicked up along the way, and he makes enough mistakes not to feel like superman. That’s the nature of genre: a tough guy in this sort of situation is always going to seem a little larger than life.

This falls short of the great bleakness of Ellroy (though just about everything does) when it shows Cassidy conveniently being able to help his father at the same time as he supports American interests and gets to give the metaphorical middle finger to those great villains of 20th Century America: Roy Cohn and J. Edgar Hoover. That is, however tough his early choices are, his eventual ones all line up. All the bad guys are on side of the equation (even if they’re at odds with each other) and all the good guys on the other. There’s a loose end we get tied up in a final, short chapter, but there too he gets to fight different bad guys at the same time as defending his sister.

In general, this is solid noir work, and I’ll be open to more of Taylor’s work down the road. I ding it an additional star for some clumsy narration – scenes unnecessarily from the perspective of one of the CIA thugs – and for an annoying late tick where he withholds information from us. (When he gets “an address” in one chapter, do we really need to wait the two pages to be told, once he’s on the scene, that it’s Hoover’s house? Just tell us up front.)

Still, most of this works pretty well. There are still some gems to mine in a 1950s noir setting, and Taylor digs them up.

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Review: Kill My Mother: A Graphic Novel

Kill My Mother: A Graphic Novel Kill My Mother: A Graphic Novel by Jules Feiffer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Nobody draws like Jules Feiffer. I offer that, initially, as simple fact rather than evaluation. You can recognize his drawings instantly, the loose, flying lines and the sense of movement distinguish his work from every other “political cartoonist” (he was never quite that), humorist (again, not quite his bag), or illustrator I can think of. When he gives us a drawing, he does something no one else seems quite to be doing.

I know his work best, like most people I imagine, from his Village Voice years, and I think of his quintessential work as the “dance for spring” strips, where a girl moves from one dancer’s pose to another talking about some of the good and troubling things of the moment. They’re great to look at, and they seem perfectly representative of their moments.

So here is Feiffer trying something different. Like Will Eisner – or less impressively Joe Kubert – he’s a life-long cartoonist moving to a late-life graphic novel statement, one drawn from the world of his childhood. (Maybe not entirely by coincidence as well, all three of those are Jewish cartoonists.)

This story is tangled and dark. We get a dead husband and a woman who has to take a job as secretary and sometime-date to a boozy, thuggish private eye. We get a girl so angry at her mother that she determines to “kill” her by shoplifting and shocking her propriety. We get a mysterious older woman who shows up and is often unable to speak. And then, after a break, we resume the stories in the Pacific front of World War II.

Individual strands of the story are compelling. In impressive noir fashion, none of these characters is innocent or pure. Each has reasons for us to criticize her, and each is motivated by dark impulses.

The big trouble is that it’s hard to keep the story lines separate. Because Feiffer is so good at movement, his characterization suffers. I confess, I still can’t tell two of the main characters apart: one is intent on shocking her mother, and another is worried that the hit radio show she’s produced – based loosely on her friendship with Artie as a boy – may get undone if the now grown-up Artie tries to sue. Still another is determined to see that her lover, dancing ex-boxer Eddie Longo, makes it big in Hollywood. Of those three, two are the same. I think it’s the first two, but I can’t be sure because Feiffer’s lines move so dramatically that all of his young women look like one another.

There’s a lot to admire here, and I think I will likely take a stab at the sequel, Cousin Joseph, since it seems to venture into the Jewish gangster world, but it’s also frustrating to find so little editorial help in distinguishing the characters. This is Feiffer’s art, and I admire it enough to want it as he thinks he ought to deliver it, but how hard would it have been to include a “cast of characters” page, one where we could see clear drawings of the characters and get capsule descriptions of each?

I suspect it’s easier to get through this without my confusion if you read it straight through. This has been my several pages a night bedside reading, though, so I’ve had to get reacquainted with characters over a more extended time. My bad, perhaps, but the work seems as if it ought to be accessible even spread out.

Anyway, there’s enough going on here, enough to make it stand out from what so many others are doing, that I urge you at least to pick it up at a bookstore and see how different the look and feel is. If Feiffer can manage to slow things down just a little – if he can more effectively distinguish one character from another – then I think the second and third parts of the promised trilogy could really be something.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Review: The Accidental Alchemist

The Accidental Alchemist The Accidental Alchemist by Gigi Pandian
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

J.K. Rowling makes it look so easy: come up with a nice, broad premise, people it with intriguing characters, and let the narrative carry you away.

Pandian starts out with a fun-sounding premise – this time it’s a world of secret alchemists living among the rest of us – and has a nice start with characters when she invents a French-inflected gourmet-cooking gargoyle who’s slowly turning back to stone. She even writes well at times; the opening chapters open with a nice crispness and get us into the story without any tedious description of background. It moves.

But…there’s a next wave of challenges that emerge when you’re trying to do this stuff. Rowling’s real genius comes in her ability to invent such a world and then fully people it. That is, she doesn’t just give us characters; she gives us characters who pursue their own stories off stage. As Harry grows and experiences things, they do too. The others aren’t props. They’re characters living their own stories in this magical world and then finding those stories intersecting with Harry’s.

That’s the part that proves tougher for Pandian. Our protagonist, Zoe, is 300 years old and a past-mistress of alchemy. She’s discovered the secret of eternal life and, well, we mostly just fast-forward 250 years. There’s a back story that emerges slowly – a dead brother, a dead lover – but it’s tangential and feels like a glimpse of coming attractions more than especially relevant to this story.

And this story seems mostly superimposed on the magical world beneath it. A handyman is murdered when he arrives to do work on Zoe’s new house. This is generally a sweet, cozy, toned story. A murder! On her doorstep! Yeah, it’s just sort of there. A darker novel might get away with that, but this is a woman who takes in a 14 year old neighbor. The fact of a murder ought to matter more, but it’s mostly just a convenience of the plot. It doesn’t fit with the tone, and it doesn’t seem necessary.

As the novel moves forward, the fantasy elements of the story lose their technicolor and turn to gray. They become useful facts in the quest to solve this “cozy” murder mystery rather than a real and meaningful change to the way we ought to see existence. We get suspects, and then our alchemist, gargoyle, and teenager use their respective talents to clear or convict them. It deteriorates from a glimpse at a brand new way of thinking about the world (as one where hidden knowledge has produced a caste of near-eternal humans and exotic creatures) to a Miss-Marple-with-mercury.

This is the first in a series of such “mysteries, and, while I certainly envy Pandian that sort of a contract and security as a writer, I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for her, too. She’s a better writer than this concept; I can feel that. She must have learned a lot from writing this – which has its occasional charms – but now, rather than develop a whole new story that might allow her to avoid the pitfalls she’s hardwired into her world (a world where we need fresh crimes to move the story forward but where the tone doesn’t accommodate them) she has to keep working in it.

There’s something here, but not enough. It’s too bad Pandian won’t get the chance for a long time to start over with a blank canvas, and maybe a new narrative that can carry us away rather than take us back in circles to where we started.

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Sunday, September 11, 2016

Review: Criminal, Vol. 2: Lawless

Criminal, Vol. 2: Lawless Criminal, Vol. 2: Lawless by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was so pleased with Brubaker and Phillips’s Coward that I rushed out to get this one. I liked the idea of a bed-time “classic noir film” told entirely in comic book form.

If not for that enthusiasm, I might be gushing about this one. It does have a solid story, and Philips’s illustrations work just as well. In fact, when Leo, Coward’s protagonist, makes a cameo here, it feels a bit like seeing a favorite actor in a new movie.

This story is a little thinner than the last, though. Lawless is simply too tough, too canny, and his hunger for revenge is fairly one-dimensional next to what he might have been.

It’s not a put-down to say this reminds me a little of the Marvin chapters of Frank Miller’s Sin City, but Criminal (this series) feels as it should be more nuanced, less over-the-top than Marv or Sin City. (And, perhaps by coincidence, Miller writes the introduction to this volume.) Sin City is a comic book brilliantly blown up to the big screen. Criminal is old school noir rendered in pen and ink.

Anyway, it’s interesting to see the web of interconnection grew here, and I imagine future Criminal stories will call on some of these same stories and have at least a scene or two in the Undertow Bar.

I imagine the third of these is still pretty solid – as this one is – but I think it’s become less likely that this will turn out to be a whole succession of riveting stories. Solid and good is not bad; it’s just a bit of a let-down after such a strong first volume.

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Friday, September 9, 2016

Review: Call of Cthulhu and Other Stories

Call of Cthulhu and Other Stories Call of Cthulhu and Other Stories by H.P. Lovecraft
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I understand that, in some quarters, these works have become canonical. Lovecraft stands like a kind of Raymond Chandler or J.R.R. Tolkien, an inventor of a genre, what we now call ‘horror.’ And I understand as well that Chandler and Tolkien are also highly stylized, that a lot of readers come to them and say, “Is this all there is?”

But, seriously, is this all there is?

These stories are laughably bad. This is, at best, second-rate Poe, and I have a lower opinion of the original, first-rate Poe than most.

For starters, Lovecraft is a lazy craftsman. These sentences are larded with adjectives. Take away his favorite obscure ones – eldritch, stygian, cyclopedian – and replace them with their essential synonym, “scary,” and you have very little.

Then the plots themselves are clumsy and unfinished. I do like the idea of getting to see Cthulu from the perspective of several different dreamers. Maybe there’d have been something to it if Lovecraft had foreseen the postmodern narrative and managed to make a consciousness of storytelling part of the narrative itself. Instead, as with most of the others here, we have a narrator who, conveniently, goes mad or kills himself just after finishing. Cthulu is out there, tentacle-faced and fearsome (or should I say tentacle-faced and eldritch) and we’re supposed to close the book, go to sleep, and have nightmares about him.

The whole effect comes down to a cheap horror movie stunt: let us catch only a glimpse, only a sense of the shadow of what’s out there. Then let us live in fear of what it might be. I find it a cynical form of narration, and a cynical aesthetic move.

Anyway, all that has made me wonder about the parallels between the horror genre in general and heavy metal music. Each is probably the genre I least appreciate – one in literature and one in music. Friends tell me Metallica is great, and I do recognize the sophistication of their work. Still, I hear mostly just noise and anger, a noise that seems intended to bully me into submission, and an anger that seems to want to enlist me in causes I don’t share.

And maybe it’s true that Stephen King is the analogue of Led Zeppelin, each the most successful out of the genre. Each supposedly competent in ways I can only distantly see. And each spawning admirers who fall far short.

If all that’s true, if horror is a genre predicated on an aesthetic that troubles me from the start, fine. I’ll leave it to others without judgement.

Except, Lovecraft. Really? I think his analogue may be Slade.

I have gone with two stars, the second coming to acknowledge the influence and for the sheer stupid ambition of the work.

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Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Review: Criminal, Vol. 1: Coward

Criminal, Vol. 1: Coward Criminal, Vol. 1: Coward by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have sometimes wondered why, in an era when it ought to be inexpensive to make classic B-movie style films, we don’t have serious film-makers doing riffs on classic 1950s noir films. If any cinema was ever cheaply made but artistically fulfilling, that was it.

I do know, of course, that a lot of our best film-makers began their careers in similar ways. Scorsese started with Mean Streets. The Coen Brothers started with Blood Simple. Tarantino, if always bending the rules, started with Reservoir Dogs. All those are films that riff on classic noir. So why aren’t there more?

I can’t answer that question, but I think Brubaker and Edwards are asking it too. They want to know where the good, taut stories, the stories that happen in the shadows of noir, have gone. And, not finding an answer, they’ve written their own. This is a classic noir film. It just happens to be a comic book.

Leo is called a “coward” because, though he grew up in a world of grifters and heist-men, he famously runs away from conflict. He knows his way around a “score” better than anyone, but he plays it all modestly. He’d rather take care of his foster father Ivan, a guy whose onset dementia doesn’t keep him from picking pockets whenever they go out together, than try to hit it big. He lives by a careful set of rules: always have a second way out, never work with someone you don’t already trust.

Of course, he breaks those rules for a big job that goes sour. You can see that conflict coming from the start, but that doesn’t diminish the skill of the story-telling. What’s striking is that Leo emerges as a character with real depth. He feels, in Phillips’s illustrations, like a legit actor working through a range of fears. Something similar happens with Greta, the could-be stereotype sidekick beauty, who’s more interesting for the conflict she feels as a recovering junkie and the mother of a young girl.

The twists are real throughout, almost never forced. [Minor SPOILER ALERT: The eventual revelation that Leo isn’t scared of getting hurt but rather scared of the capacity he has for hurting others come across as a real payoff, and it sets up the inevitable bloody shoot-out at the end.]

I have to take one star off for the late and gratuitous introduction of the old friend who just happens to work in Internal Affairs and is in the perfect position to help him with the corrupt cops he’s encountered, but that’s a small blemish.

I got the next in the series even before I’d quite finished this one. If the others in the Criminal book are as good as this one (and the Brubaker and Phillips of Fatale – another series of theirs I have very much enjoyed) then I’ve got a whole film festival to look forward to, and it’s all done in pen and ink.

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Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Review: All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this one as a kind of expiation for my having read Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August last week. There were parts I admired about that book – above all her clean prose and her ability to recover a lost socio-political context – but something troubled me. I knew that stories of kings’ or emperors’ piques, or generals’ ‘wheels’ and ‘advances,’ didn’t tell all the war – certainly not the important parts of the war – and I felt I owed something to that vast sea of suffering we call World War I.

Now that I’ve read this – which is every bit the masterpiece its reputation gives it – I’m ready to declare Tuchman’s book flat-out immoral. Paul’s war in this book is so much more (and, from Tuchman’s vantage, so much less) than that story, that the experiences seem to wrestle which each other to wear the stamp of truth.

And, if only one version of World War I can go down as the truth, I’ll insist on this one over hers any time. To do otherwise is to let slip an implicit lie: that war is, as Clausewitz said, “politics by other means.”

There is nothing political about All Quiet on the Western Front. It is human in the deepest sense. Our narrator’s suffering and endurance earn our admiration regardless of the side he’s fighting for.

In one of the most harrowing scenes, he has managed to kill a French soldier who’s jumped into the same crater in which he’s taken shelter. He’s killed to keep from dying himself, but he’s seized with a sudden sense of the wrong he’s committed. He then carries on a long soliloquy with the dying/dead man. He allows himself to glimpse the other man’s life, looking at the letters he’s received and the pictures of the family he’s left behind. Then, even as he does so, he feels himself hardening his heart, feels himself withdrawing the sympathy that came so naturally.

It’s a scene that feels as authentic as any I can imagine about the horrors we subject our soldiers to. Tuchman’s generals and kings make the decisions, but you can’t say, after reading this, that they make the war. The war happens instead through the character, the bravery, the fear, the decency, and inhumanity, of the individual soldiers who suffer through it.

I’m tempted to compare this as well to Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises as competing masterpieces of the moment. The trouble is that much of Hemingway’s genius comes in the style he developed for insinuating his story more than for the indirect way in which he tells it. This is a direct account, one more naturalistic (and therefore less Modern), but one that’s equally devastating.

I can’t know the quality of the translation here, but a couple lines do stand out. He writes early, “We are 18 and have begun to love life. Then we have to shoot it to pieces.” And at the end, when he is wrapping up a visit to the medics, “A hospital alone shows we are warriors,” asserting that there is no grandeur to their bravery, only a bodily suffering.

This is remarkable from its tight, direct beginning to its final sentences. If you get the chance, read it. More importantly, if you hear too much in our politics or our history celebrating the possibility of war, read it again.

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Friday, September 2, 2016

Review: The Invisibles, Vol. 7: The Invisible Kingdom

The Invisibles, Vol. 7: The Invisible Kingdom The Invisibles, Vol. 7: The Invisible Kingdom by Grant Morrison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I made it through the extended hallucination that is Grant Morrison’s collected Invisibles, and I’m still boggled. One of the few things I know, though, is that the first six volumes have a coherence (if that’s the right word) that isn’t quite here for the seventh.

There’s a continuity of style in the earlier works, but The Invisible Kingdom feels like a sequel, as if Morrison, having once decided he’d reached the end, saddled up for another go-round.

Some of the best elements remain. I love, for instance, this sentence – uttered near the end by a character I still can’t identify, “What do people do when they know they’re on camera? They act! That’s why the world’s turning into a science fiction movie. Surveillance makes us all into stars.” If I heard the schizophrenic guy on the park bench next to me, I’d keep listening. I might not introduce myself, but I’d keep listening.

Still, the work to get to such good stuff is even harder than before.

Most notably, the art is thicker and less subtle. Morrison relies on a regularly changing crew of artists, and that both changes the tone and adds to the confusion. Sometimes old characters come forward, but they look different enough that you can’t be certain they’re who you think they are. Is that the “wealthy playboy” Mason Lang? Or is it another black-haired guy who’s put on weight?

And, if it was often bewildering when there was one team of Invisibles supported by key players (like Jolly Roger and Jim Crow) now there’s a whole rolodex of seeming allies. I’m still not sure how Division X ties into the crew.

So, while I liked this, I’d have been OK with stopping after the sixth collected volume. I’d like to get to more Morrison, but next time I’ll try to start at the beginning of something rather than get deeper and deeper into a rabbit hole he’s already dug out.

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