Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Kind of Face You Slash - Day 22: The Blood on These Pages is Mine

It took me a long time to read Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf. My other reading eventually played a part in that, but I first ran into obstacles when it became clear that Duncan's ambitions were largely theoretical, when his insistence that his book was not trashy like other books or films became some unpleasant mixture of OCD tic and fetish, and when the lead character came to be viewed by Duncan as heroic in his world-weariness and big dumb heart, regardless of the horrific things we see him do from page one until the end. After a while, and especially towards the end, The Last Werewolf changes from a well-written, stylish, deeply intriguing literary horror novel into something that is actually quite hateable. Oh, "changes", because of werewolves and transforming. I get it.

When I picked up The Last Werewolf, the last thing I expected it to be was a stylistic knock-off of Martin Amis. Because make no mistake: Glen Duncan wants desperately to be Martin Amis. I imagine he sometimes sleeps very poorly and sits over his breakfast the next morning, staring into his cereal and thinking everything tastes like paste, so unobtainable does his goal occasionally seem. These days, Martin Amis's star has fallen sufficiently so that choosing him as the writer to emulate would seem to many to be laughably quaint, but not to Glen Duncan, and not, for that matter, to me. I have read quite a lot of Amis and think very highly of him still. I know Amis's work well enough to know that Glen Duncan is not merely mimicking him, but explicitly placing him within The Last Werewolf (and throughout his other seven novels, for all I know). He actually names Amis once, when he refers to clichés as "Amis's mouldering novelties", a reference to Amis's book The War Against Cliché.

Later, but not much, Duncan is either paying homage to Amis or ripping him off, or rather ripping off someone Amis quoted, when he writes, prefatory to one of a few bouts of anal sex in the novel:

A pornographer in Los Angeles said to me not long ago: The asshole's finished. Everything gets finished. You keep coming up with crazy shit you can't believe you'll find the girls for, that'll finally finish the girls. But the girls just keep turning up and finishing it. It's depressing.

Back in 2001, Amis wrote an article about the porn industry called "A Rough Trade" which begins:

Pussies are bullshit. Don't let them tell you any different. "Answer me something," I said to John Stagliano..."How do you account for the emphasis, not just in your . . . work but in the industry in general, how do you account for the truly incredible emphasis on anal sex?"

After a minimal shrug and a minimal pause Stagliano said, "Pussies are bullshit." Now John was being obedient to the dictionary definition of "bullshit" which is nonsense intended to deceive.

It goes on from there, but you can either imagine what Stagliano's on about or click on the link and remove all doubt. The point is: "Pussies are bullshit." "Assholes are finished." Amis was writing about porn, at least. Duncan isn't, and even in context the passage stands out as being a more abstractly scatological way to announce "I am the next Martin Amis. I am. I really, really am."

What Duncan is actually writing about is werewolves, the last one to be specific, whose name is Jake Marlowe, which is the kind of casually macho name, with its winking hints of noir and whatever it is that guys named "Jake" do, that you'd expect to find in either a pastiche, or a tough-guy novel written with no self-awareness whatsoever. The Last Werewolf manages to be both of these at once. The story of the novel may not be notably derivative, but it's certainly not unique -- Jake Marlowe, 200 years old, going on 201, wealthy from years of smart money moves, learns from his personal assistant and caretaker, Harley, that the penultimate werewolf has been killed. This makes him, Jake, the ultimate werewolf. The killing was done by the World Organization for the Control of Occult Phenomena, or WOCOP, specifically by Ellis, one of two top WOCOP operatives, the other one being Grainer who is the Head Guy of that shadowy government entity, and whose entire existence revolves around not only wiping out occult creatures with a concentration on werewolves, but on killing Marlowe personally, because Marlowe killed Grainer's father. For his part, Marlowe would rather just die -- some years ago, a virus began running through his kind that made it impossible to make new werewolves, and beyond that female werewolves had always been scarce, even when there was more than one werewolf on the planet, and beyond that werewolves can't even breed sexually, so...why bother? What's left?

Naturally one sets oneself challenges -- Sanskrit, Kant, advanced calculus, t'ai chi -- but that only address the problem of Time. The bigger problem, of Being, just keeps getting bigger...One by one I've exhausted the modes: hedonism, asceticism, spontaneity, reflection, everything from miserable Socrates to the happy pig. My mechanism's worn out. I don't have what it takes. I still have feelings but I'm sick of having them. Which is another feeling I'm sick of having. I just...I just don't want any more life.

I'm by no means claiming this is bad writing. I was, in fact, quite excited by the book in the early going. A real horror novel by a real writer, one who gave a shit and understood language and cared about it! You take a bit like this next passage, though, and maybe you can see not only what excited me, but what frustrated me. This is basically a restating of the above -- which will become a huge problem as the novel goes on, and persists in its restatements -- but with jokes. It should be noted here that there are vampires in The Last Werewolf:

All motivation derives from the primary fact of mortality. Take mortality away and motivation loses its...motivation. Thus vampires spend a lot of time lounging around and staring out of the window and finding they can't be arsed.

I like the vampire joke, but that thing about motivation losing its motivation -- that's very Amisian. The difference is that Amis would not have used the ellipsis. He would have been more confident about what he was writing and less coy about it. This is one of the problems of mimicking a great writer: if you're not great, you will pale next to he who you are mimicking. And if you were great, you wouldn't be mimicking in the first place.

Anyway, Marlowe will come to change his tune, taking as his oft-repeated mantra "You love life because life's all there is," and the plot carries along as a quite gory, globe-, or at least US and UK-hopping, thriller that is broken up by long passages about how hard it is to be a werewolf. None of this bothers me so much. What bothers me is stuff like this:

In the movie version I'd go in and sneak out of a toilet window...

One wants clean, 007ish reactions at times like these.

In Buffy there'd be a howlers' singles bar or dating agency. Not in the real world.

In my view, there is no more desperate or obnoxious or phony way to place your novel, and therefore you, amidst the world of Things That Know How It Is and Things That Tell It Straight then to claim, within your fictional construct, that this ain't exactly the movies here, Sunshine. No indeed, this story about werewolves being hunted by a violent X-Files rip-off agency and also vampires, is not like all that made up shit. And those three passages are pulled from the novel's first 40 pages, and Duncan never stops! Every ten pages or so is another reminder that movies, now they tell stories like this, but you know my novel, its story gets told like this! Because nothing in The Last Werewolf, with all its romantic cynicism finally shattered by true love (because of course in movies "last" never actually means "last"), and its characters being saved at the last second before the villain pulls the trigger by some other return of a forgotten character who happens to be a Deadeye Dick, and also there's a fucking baby, motherfucker...every bit of this would be angrily turned away from the Gates of Hollywood on the grounds that it's all too scandalously new.

On top of this, it becomes apparent that as you read along, Glen Duncan has been slowly and shyly disappearing up his own ass the whole time. From the beginning, The Last Werewolf has been taking pains to place itself in the World of Today (Obama is mentioned, for the first time, on page seven), but this was all just stage-setting for the likes of this:

I changed channels. American Idol.

Wait, wait, don't leave, I know you're already pissed off, I was too, but just let me see this through. Please? So:

I changed channels. American Idol. Transformation again, this time from Nobody into Superstar. Perhaps Jacqueline was right: Humanity's getting its metamorphic kicks elsewhere these days. When you can watch the alchemy that turns morons into millionaires and gimps into global icons, where's the thrill in men who turn into wolves?

Where to begin, for Chrissake? First off, your really don't see which of the two would be more alarming? Second, Jake Marlowe has been alive for 200 years, and with all he's seen and done and experienced in that time, all he's learned and read and quietly pondered for generation after generation, and he's still not only bothering to notice that American Idol even exists, but he's wasting what must, or should, be a brain positively saturated with historical and philosophical questions with thoughts like "Oh hey, that show's kinda like me, but with singing." Jake Marlowe, there are dozens of reasons why I want you to die by the end of this book, and you just added another. Go take that shit to Salon or Slate or something, you dumbass. Is the kind of thought I had when I first read the American Idol thing.

All of this uselessness, this inane claim towards relevance that begins to pull The Last Werewolf apart at the seams, finds a slack-jawed companion in a variety of jabs at America that increasingly reveal Duncan as someone who has been told some things that he's decided sound pretty good to him. At one point, the female werewolf who eventually comes in to Change Everything, is recounting the night when she was turned into a werewolf. It involved her being stranded by the side of the road in an American desert -- she's American -- with no cars driving by in the last hour, causing her to reflect "in any case this is America so the last thing you should be hoping for is another car to com along." Right, this reminds me of the time my wife and I found ourselves stranded on the freeway at night, and a car stopped next to us, and the couple inside, two adopted (we would learn) children in the back seat, offered to take us to a gas station. We accepted, they drove us back as well, and made sure we were up and running again before driving off! It was like a waking nightmare!

Later, this American lady werewolf is being driven by some villains to a secret WOCOP base in Wales, and she thinks "My European geography's the standard American shambles..." So the fact that she doesn't know precisely where this tucked away bit of Wales is is proof of Americans' shoddy grasp of geography? Okay, Glen Duncan, let's you and I meet. I'll bring a map of the US. You point out Carson City. Being British, I imagine you learned that when you were six. And as if all that wasn't enough, during a sex scene between our two werewolves, Duncan writes "When she'd touched her clit, with healthy deft modern American entitlement..." Entitlement?? What the hell, man, it's hers!

This jaw-dropping smugness is most clearly represented by the book's diseased morality, which seems to boil down to the idea that the cool must survive. To Duncan's mild credit, he doesn't attempt to portray all of Marlowe's victims as hateful jerks who we're happy to see die. The great tragedy of Marlowe's life is his inability to stop himself from killing his 19th century bride, and he tries to be charitable in his life and some feeble way of making amends for all the innocent blood he's shed. But with all the moralizing Duncan does in this novel, and his portrayal of the WOCOP agents as evil, violent madmen, I'm forced to wonder if Duncan is even aware of what he's writing. What's in it for me to root for Marlowe's survival over the WOCOP agents? Or the vampires, even? Marlowe makes it clear that if he continues to live, he will not stop killing and eating people. Back when he wanted to die, he was going to let Grainer simply take him out, because as Marlowe also makes clear he's not going to commit suicide. Because you love life because life's all there is, don't you know, and after a while he even tosses away the plan to let Grainer pull the shutters. He found love, and we are actually supposed to give a shit. Marlowe and his lady slaughter a man and then have sex amid his guts, and Ellis and Grainer are somehow worse? No, they're not worse. They're the Man, is the problem. They don't live off the grid, they don't drink whiskey all the time and smoke all the time (it can't hurt werewolves, yet drowning can. Drowning can. Regular lead bullets can't destory their brain, but water can fill their lungs with fatal consequences. This is the kind of detail Duncan has worked out) and fuck prostitutes in opulent hotel rooms. They are not, most importantly, in love.

I'm reminded, of all things, of something James Ellroy said about O. J. Simpson. This might seem a rather extreme and perhaps even tacky comparison, but you're reminded of the things you're reminded of, so Ellroy wrote an article where he laid out the three choices Simpson had before he committed double murder. Ellroy wrote:

Beating up women is a young man's game. Attrition narrows your choices down to changing your life or ending it.

Change takes time. It's not as instantaneous as a few lines of coke or some fresh pussy.

Suicide takes imagination. You've got to be able to conjure up an afterlife or visions of rest -- or be in such unreachable pain that anything is preferable to your suffering.

O. J. went out behind a chickenshit end run. He didn't have the soul or the balls to utilize his first two options.

What I've been led to believe is that in our approach to art, we should not be so crass as to carry our same morals with us into the movie theater -- oh, excuse me, into the pages. I don't understand why I should regard a fictional immoral act with a philosophy different from the one I would apply to its real world equivalent, simply because the stakes only matter in the latter case. The philosophy is the same. Therefore, The Last Werewolf expects us to swoon over its romantic figures as they slip their way through our entrails. But no thank you. I'll root for the silver bullets instead.

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