Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Not The Best Book You'll Read All Year

This year, events have conspired to force me to finally, at long last, find out why this George Saunders guy is considered such hot shit. The entirely obnoxious headline to Joel Lovell's January 3 New York Times Magazine profile of the writer, "George Saunders Has Written The Best Book You'll Read All Year," referring to his newest story collection Tenth of December, did not incline me towards generosity, but a couple years ago I actually had read Saunders's story "Sea Oak," considered one of his best, and had, in fact, enjoyed it pretty thoroughly (and in fairness, Lovell's actual piece, when I finally read it, was pretty endearing, if a bit much) (also, while I'm adding parentheticals, more on Tenth of December in a moment), and anyway, all of this amounted to "George Saunders is big news!" and I knew almost nothing of his work. So beginning at the beginning, I pulled CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, his debut collection, off the shelf, and I read it. I can't remember if I saw these comparisons before or after I'd read anything by him, but Saunders' fictions is regularly aligned with that of Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Pynchon (who even blurbed Saunders once), and it turns out this grouping is about as accurate as such things get. More specifically, the stories in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline read to me as if Pynchon had written the funny parts of Vonnegut's books. This is my way of saying that I liked the book, though you shouldn't assume from this that I'm at all well-versed in Pynchon. However, what I have read of Pynchon, Saunders' humor has a similar rhythm, or the rhythm of the Pynchon jokes I remember best, which is to basically suddenly descend from some high-falutin' thought -- either put on or otherwise -- or darkly bizarre situation into a slangy, blunt sort of trailing off that, when done well, I, for whatever reason, find very funny (David Foster Wallace did this, too, although curiously he was also in the habit of beginning high-falutin' thoughts -- rarely put on, in his case -- or darkly bizarre situations this way; I find this also very funny, and quite, in my case, insidiously influential). Pulling an example from Saunders is a lot easier at this particular moment, not to mention far more to the point, so here's something from "The Wavemake Falters," which is about a guy who works at a theme park, and was responsible for an accident on a water ride that killed a young boy:

It gets very awkward and quiet. Me at the controls is a sore subject. Nothing's gone right for us since the day I crushed the boy with the wavemaker. I haven't been able to forget his little white trunks floating out of the inlet port all bloody. Who checks protective-screen mounting screws these days? Not me. Leon does when he wavemakes of course. It's in the protocol. That's how he got to be Subquadrant Manager, attention to detail. Leon's been rising steadily since we went through Orientation together, and all told he's saved three Guests and I've crushed the shit out of one.

So that should give you some idea, maybe. As it happens, "The Wavemaker Falters," along with "The 400-Pound CEO," which is also from CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, is probably my favorite Saunders story I've read so far, yet in my experience neither of those gets talked up too much. From that first book, it's usually the title story or maybe "The Bounty," the closing novella that takes up half the book, that people mention; from his follow-up collection Pastoralia (which I haven't read, save for one story), it's either the title novella or "Sea Oak." But "The Wavemaker Falters" and "The 400-Pound CEO" never seem to get a look in, and I wonder why. In both, Saunders does what he's best at, and what Vonnegut was very good at (Lovell's piece reveals Saunders' first encounter with Vonnegut's fiction to be a life-changer, and this is not exactly a shock), which is to create an entirely absurd version of our own world, just truly and utterly ridiculous, but ridiculous in a way that the reader is immediately aware of the source, and then unspool a story that takes you from comedy into total heartbreak. At his best, Saunders can make this turn on a dime, and it's very impressive. Also like Vonnegut, Saunders is often operating on some hazy plane of science fiction; sometimes the use of genre is explicit, other times a story seems to be taking place today, or even yesterday, but weirder. I very much enjoy this brand of "I'll do whatever I want" inventiveness, and it's what originally drew me to Vonnegut. So basically what I'm saying is, I mostly enjoyed CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, even if, for such a slender book, Saunders apparently had a strange tendency to repeat himself: out of just seven stories, four of them involve theme parks or "edutainment" facilities. Which would be one thing if this was clearly the the thrust of the whole collection, if it seemed to be a group of stories all tackling the same idea, but it's not. Still, I found it strange, as I say, but I also didn't much care. The collection wasn't entirely bereft of variety, in any case.

This is all in the aftermath of Lovell's story, and so I will admit to a certain "I bet I hate this" kind of attitude towards CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. I was pleased that I didn't, not least because this proved to me that I am a man of integrity. But the main point was to have some firm grounding before taking on the new Saunders collection, the one of which the Lovell piece and all the other recent Saunders-based hype, was in aid, Tenth of December. Which I have now read. Now, the other thing about CivilWarLand in Bad Decline is that, had it not been titled after one of its stories, it could have been called Hey Guys? The Economy. The economy of the 1990s, and either way, fine. I begin to object a bit when Tenth of December could be called the same thing. Obviously, 2013 is rather more open to such a collection of stories, but when once again many stories deal with theme parks, or lower-middle-class families whose patriarch makes moral compromises in order to provide, in some typically outlandish way, for his family -- not in terms of basic necessities, either, but in terms of status -- I think I'm allowed to ask "What, again?" Or am I? Because, you know, in the world of films, major directors are expected to thread a small handful of interests or obsessions or what have you throughout their movies, and this is said to tie everything together into a complete body of work. So goes the theory, anyhow, which I think even has a name. So what's good for the film director should be, and is, good for the short story writer, because why not? But this does not open the door for repetition, exactly, though on the surface it would seem to. I would feel better about all this, in short, if "My Chivalric Fiasco" from Tenth of December didn't feel like an exhausted "Why'm I writing this again?" retread of "CivilWarLand in Bad Decline," or if the new book's centerpiece, "The Simplica Girl Diaries" didn't read like half of the stories in that earlier book, but stretched to novella length and not as good, or not very much good at all. Or if Saunders could imagine a lower-middle-class character acquiring something which itself, or the act of acquiring, didn't in some way stomp his morals into the dirt. Not that Saunders is without empathy -- many, many people will assure you that he's positively bursting with it -- but that he believes people only do things one way, and for one reason.

Still, the main point worth making has to do with whether or not these stories are any good. As I've implied, I don't really think so, or not much good, or mostly not much good. Tenth of December's first story -- having nothing at all to do with money, as if to refute three quarters of what I've written so far -- is "Victory Lap," about a teenage boy witnessing his female teenage neighbor being accosted by a potential kidnapper, and trying to figure out if he should do something about it, which would fly in the face of certain rules set by his over-protective parents. And to be blunt, it's kind of appalling. The writing, I mean; the jokes. The boy comes home from school and finds instructions from his dad regarding a new geode he's brought home:

Gar, Dad, do you honestly feel it fair that I should have to slave in the yard until dark after a rigorous cross-country practice that included sixteen 440s, eight 880s, a mile-for-time, a kajillion Drake sprint, and a five-mile Indian relay?

Shoes off, mister.

Yoinks, too late. he was already at the TV. And had left an incriminating trail of microclods. Way verboten.

Part of the deal with this kid is that he's been trained, essentially, to never swear. Okay, but this "way verboten" dogshit sounds like an R. L. Stine take on those sassy teens. Surely there was a middle ground that could have been struck.
Anyway, this story, the collection's worst, made me quite nervous, and while the letter of my nervousness wasn't confirmed, the spirit was. It will behoove me now to focus almost solely on "The Simplica Girl Diaries." There's a kind of spoiler in this one, which I'll spoil, fair warning, and that is that in the world of this novella a sign of suburban (of course) prosperity is the purchasing of women from the Third World, who are hung in people's lawns by a wire that runs through their temples. This is very expensive, but the narrator, or diarist, of "The Simplica Girl Diaries," wins $10,000 in the lottery, and sets about gussying up his home in this way. Now, quality aside, for now, this is a rather interesting story, because as Saunders points out in the New York Time Magazine piece it actually took him over twelve years to write. The idea, the image of the immigrant women dangling over a suburban lawn, came to him in a dream, which he describes this way:

I went to a window that didn’t exist in our house, and I looked into the yard, and I saw a row of what I understood in the dream logic to be third-world women who had a wire through their heads,” he said. “Instead of horror, my reaction was like, ‘Yeah, we did it.’ Just like if you’d gotten a new car or a kid into school or something, that feeling of, I’ve come such a long way, I’m able to give these things to my family. And there was a sense that there was an alleviated shame.

And the horrible block he experienced in writing it came about because:

Early on, a story’s meaning and rationale seem pretty obvious, but then, as I write it, I realize that I know the meaning/rationale too well, which means that the reader will also know it — and so things have to be ramped up. . . . These sorts of thematic challenges are, for me, anyway, only answerable via the line-by-line progress through the story. Trying to figure out what happens next, and in what language. So, in this case, I just started out by trying to get the guy to that window, in his underwear, having that same feeling.

Now I would say, as an outsider viewing his dilemma objectively, this makes a great deal of sense to me. However, the story does not display a successful solution to the problem. For one thing, instead of a trio of immigrant women, it could have been just about anything strange, unpleasant, and surreal, just as long as its presence makes the reader, hopefully, think "Oh he shouldn't want to own that." In actual practice, it is strange, unpleasant, and surreal object with a half-assed "The Third World, am I right?" subtext. Not even subtext, and in fact, not even text. It's just a plot element. Stripped to its altogether, the Third World commentary of "The Simplica Girl Diaries" amounts to simply saying the words "Third World." And so the Third World is, in fact, a Maguffin. As, I must add, it so often is in contemporary "socially conscious" First World literature. Perhaps most importantly, Saunders doesn't actually depict his protagonist "get[ting] that window, in his underwear, having that same feeling." He has the feeling, but the whole "getting there" process is completely absent, because the world of the story, a world that allows for guilt-free Simplica Girls, exists and has existed, and anyone -- which seems to be everyone, save a child or two, who are shown as being capable of moral discomfort over the whole ridiculous thing -- who was going to become morally acclimated to the idea has already become so. So there's no "getting there." He got there long ago. He just needed the money, so Saunders let him win the lottery.

The two best stories in Tenth of December are rather different from the rest, and rather good. "Escape from Spiderhead," really a full-blown science fiction story about prison, crime, guilt, and pharmaceuticals, is actually excellent, somewhat funny, genuinely moving and pretty clear-eyed, too, about its subject. The title story isn't funny at all, not so's I remember anyway, but it confronts Saunders' other big theme, death, far more bluntly and beautifully than probably any other story by him I've read. So this is all actually cause for me to hope, I guess, that Saunders can pull back from whatever it is he has going on here in Tenth of December. No writing produced by someone as talented as he is is effortless, but in CivilWarLand in Bad Decline he sure made it seem like it was, as did Vonnegut before him. The simple hilarity of his prose must have been honed and pored over. By all accounts, that honing is still going on, but frankly the hilarity is gone, at least for now, and it's not because he's not trying. Also gone is his appreciation of the absurdity of the worst things in the world. That's why he was funny, and that's why he was good. Though that use of "was" sounds harsh. I hope it's simply my natural pessimism taking over.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

This Is All I Want to Do Anymore

That's a picture of me reading a book. This is actually me, that's what I look like. I love my outrageous hair! That's my favorite shirt, too. It looks like it says "Over..." something. I don't know, "Over the Moon About Reading?" That's probably what it says, all right! Ha ha ha. Literally!

Because the paucity of content 'round here lately is because I read SO much, you guys. I think that's why. I am focused on it, and it is really all I want to do anymore. I don't eat, I don't sleep. I'm on quite a roll, reading-wise, and I've apparently chosen to not tell you about any of it. But I will say that right now I'm reading Mockingbird by Walter Tevis, because for quite a number of years, and from a variety of people, I've heard it's excellent. So that's what I'm doing. I bet there'll be content here again someday, and in the meantime maybe you could look at pornography. Barring that, you could find a website that encourages you to take an overly literal stance on movie plots and what you perceive to be their failings.


Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Might Hit the Kiddie

Alfred Hitchcock famously told Francois Truffaut that his 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much was the work of a talented amateur, whereas his 1956 remake was the work of a professional.  I'm not sure I'd phrase it quite like that, but I have to say, having just watched the earlier film, which Criterion is releasing today on DVD and Blu-ray, that I can see what he means. This is of course not to say that the 1934 version is anything at all like a bad film, but watching both recently is pretty revealing. The 1956 film, starring Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day in roughly the roles originated by Leslie Banks and Edna Best, has always been one of my favorite Hitchcock films, one I've been watching since I was a kid, and I have a vague memory of being surprised, as I got older and learned more about Hitchcock and what other people thought of him and his work, that it was considered to be not that big a deal, comparatively. I was never clear on why that is, and watching it again last week I'm still stumped. Watching it in conjunction with the '34 film leaves me even more stumped, because it seems to be the thing to prefer the original. I think that's the thing in just about any applicable instance you can name, but I don't understand why it must be that way.

The plots of the two films are surprisingly similar -- I don't know what's surprising about that, really, but I was surprised, for whatever reason -- and it involves a married couple with a child on vacation (Switzerland in '34, Morocco in '56), when a man they meet along the way is murdered in front of them. With his dying breath, he gives them information about an upcoming assassination plot. When the would-be assassins figure out what the couple know, they kidnap their child (a son, played by Christopher Olsen in '56, a daughter in '34, played by Nova Pilbeam, which is a hell of a name) and threaten violence if the couple spills the beans. This leaves the couple with no other choice but to try and save their child on their own, and if they have time maybe swing by and stop the assassination, too, though it's an interesting element of both films that Banks/Best and Stewart/Day are both willing, for a while anyway, to let the assassination go off without a hitch as long as their son/daughter makes it through okay.

The differences between the two films can probably be guessed at once you notice that the original film clocks in at 75 minutes, while the remake hits a full two hours. In his otherwise engaging commentary track for the Criterion disc, Philip Kemp states a very strong preference for the '34 film, noting with some disdain that the remake goes on so long that by the time Hitchcock finally gets around to having Stewart and Day's child kidnapped, the '34 film was already halfway over. Mathematically, this might be correct, but I can't imagine what it proves about the quality of either film. The 1956 The Man Who Knew Too Much strikes me as a very rich film that takes the time to depict a marriage and family that is quite at odds with what an audience (an audience today, at least, but my reasons for qualifying that statement would fill a whole post probably, so forget I said anything) would expect from an on-screen pairing of Stewart and Day. The two of them apparently have "monthly fights," and Day has been told by Stewart that she takes "too many pills." It's not a miserable marriage, but it is a delicate one, at least, and you can't build this sort of thing in ten minutes so that the last 65 can be given over to the thriller plot. Plus, Day's character is a famous singer, which is important to the plot ultimately (whether that all adds up to something effective or not I'll leave to you, but I happene to think it does), and her existence as a celebrity, not to mention Stewart's general surliness, gives the whole thing just that extra bit of canvas for the upcoming tension and emotion to really spread itself. Clearly, what interested Hitchcock in 1956 were not always the same things that interested him in 1934, and to see him expand on the people that populated his films is not, I shouldn't think, something to bemoan. The only downside as I understand Kemp's point is that you have, or get, to watch the movie for 45 more minutes.

What I think I'm implying here is that the 1934 film is something of a technical exercise, and I kind of think it is, but what I must make clear is that not only do I not have anything against technical exercises on principle, I would also much rather watch one of Hitchcock's technical exercises than I would the passion project of just about any other filmmaker. And so yes, the original The Man Who Knew Too Much is still a delight, regardless of my preference. It's interesting, given the film's brevity, to see how Hitchcock uses his time -- see the bit with the two police sharpshooters getting into position towards the end, for example. Mainly, though, it's the final shootout between the police and the gang of assassins, led by Peter Lorre, who should have been in most Hitchcock films but somehow managed to only wind up in this one [and The Secret Agent - Ed.]. The violence in this film is just on the light side of brutal, the standards of the time playing their part of course, but it's almost shocking, when the shootout begins, to see so many police officers being slaughtered during the assassins' initial desperate ambush. Then, too, when the assassins themselves begin to take their bullets there is, as Kemp notes in the commentary, an almost surprised reaction by some of them. This is most powerful during the murder scene that kicks the whole thing off. Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay) is dancing with Jill (Best) when a window breaks. Nobody seems sure what happened, and are prepared to carry on with their frivolity when first Bernard, and then Jill, notice the hole in his chest. His realization is actually rather touching, and this sort of thing cuts into the lightness and humor of much of the rest of the film, so that it never seems like a big game. See also the look of genuine terror on Pilbeam's face when she's finally rescued. The 1956 equivalent of that moment is the helpless sound Jimmy Stewart makes when Bernard Miles puts a gun to Stewart's son's head. Once Pilbeam is rescued, the tension is defused, which is the opposite of what's going on in Stewart's head at that moment, but the '56 film does wrap up with an almost ridiculous abruptness that the '34 film is somehow saved from through Pilbeam's terror and confusion.

Plus, of course, Lorre. As is usual with Peter Lorre, his Abbott is an enigma almost entirely by virtue of being played by Peter Lorre. He almost seems like he'd rather be kind than not, but doesn't fully understand why he should be or would want to be or why anybody else is -- he just knows it's desirable. After Leslie Banks has been captured in one of his attempts to save his daughter, Abbott says something about wishing he'd warned Banks to curb his fatherly instincts. The way he says it indicates that this kind of paternal devotion is something he, Abbott, understands exists because he is technically a person sharing a planet with several other persons, but as far as he's concerned it's a thing to be observed in others so that it can potentially factor into later plans, assassination or otherwise. Abbott is not a man free of emotion, as we see over the course of the film, but he is quite apart from most men, and not just due to his chosen profession. He is strange, eerie, charismatic, terrifying, funny, cold, clinical, different, humanely inhuman. He's Peter Lorre, in other words.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Real Life

In the comments section for this excellent post by Glenn Kenny about the “torture debate,” as I suppose I’m forced to call it, surrounding Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty, which was stirred up originally in a piece by Glenn Greenwald that Glenn Kenny is directly refuting, I left this comment (which has been edited for content, length, and clarity), in regards to not Zero Dark Thirty, as I hadn’t seen the film at the time, but rather violence and morality and perhaps, but perhaps not, immorality in films in general, Taxi Driver specifically, and how critics and film lovers approach and process such material:

Cool, the ending of Taxi Driver is not. Horrifying, it certainly is. But I’m very tired of the kneejerk reaction, when faced with one kind of simplification of that film’s climax, to counter with another simplification coming from the opposite direction. For all the blown-apart hands and knife wounds, is it so easily forgotten that Travis Bickle – not a man to be admired or emulated, as the film does make clear – chooses as his victims men who operate and/or patronize a grimy New York whorehouse that offers to its clients 12-year-old girls? To whom they can, and are even expected to, do whatever they please? And the variety of things they might please to do is laid out pretty clearly by Sport at one point. Schrader and Scorsese didn’t do this on a whim.

Glenn says that Zero Dark Thirty makes him uneasy, and I believe it does. The fact that he loves it at least partly for that reason is a rare reaction. Over the years, I’ve noticed that, among the many positive things a film might offer, one that many critics and cinephiles claim to desire most is a film that challenges their core beliefs and received morality. It’s been my experience, however, both as an observer of people who claim to want this and as someone who claims to want this himself, that this is pretty much bullshit. Not all the time, but most of the time, and pretty much. I’ve seen it over and over again – a film presents a discomforting moral ambiguity, and that ambiguity is absorbed in such a way that all the fuzz and haze that held the two or more points of the ambiguity together is sharpened, for the viewer, so that the film is saying either one thing or the other. Whether the thing the viewer has decided is being said means the viewer loves the film for confirming their beliefs, or hates the film for rejecting them, depends a lot on what the person wanted out of the film in the first place.

This is why I hope to never again hear or read anyone talk about Straw Dogs. Peckinpah was one of the most ruthless purveyors of morally uncomfortable films, and he was never more ruthless or aggressive than with Straw Dogs. It’s almost as if he was specifically saying ‘So you think you want to be challenged on these grounds? Okay. Let’s go.’ The reactions to that film over the years, both positive and negative (‘fascist work of art’ my ass) is a strong indicator that this sort of thing isn’t really that desired at all. And not that I think Greenwald would ever want moral ambiguity in whatever the hell he considers good art, but this is precisely the line of thinking he’s following, right off the cliff.

Now, I would regard it as just swell if I could leave it at that, as far as the aforementioned torture debate is concerned, but now that I have seen Zero Dark Thirty I feel like I’m compelled to address it again, with the weight of experience now upon me. And frankly, I resent that. I resent that some myopic pinheaded dope with a massive forum like Glenn Greenwald can set the tone of the conversation about Zero Dark Thirty before he’d ever even seen it (that’s what Greenwald did, though his stance didn’t shift a millimeter after he did finally see it, which as plot twists go is about as shocking as the guy who’s a werewolf in a werewolf movie turning out to be a werewolf), so that now any time somebody wants to throw in their two cents – which is what I’m trying to do in this post, not prolong this asinine debate – they might appear chickenshit if they decided to hop over that particular landmine, even if the avoidance is born out of a total lack of interest. Which is just about where I find myself. But if Greenwald can, after he’d seen Zero Dark Thirty, stand the ground he staked out before he’d done so, then I should be able to do the same. Because make no mistake, I believe what I said in the above-quoted comment now more than ever. As far as I’m concerned, Bigelow and Boal’s approach to the torture scenes (the torture of captured terrorists by American military and CIA operatives, just in case I need to be clear, which, if the Greenwald side of this whole thing has taught me anything, I just might) in Zero Dark Thirty is an, if anything, on-the-nose illustration of my point. I believe the moral ambiguity at play here was entirely intentional on their part (without believing that either of them condones torture; this is neither counterintuitive nor hypocritical, by the way), and was meant to be absorbed as an ambiguous moral point. Greenwald and others are quite right when they point out that beginning Zero Dark Thirty with real audio clips of 911 calls made by those who died and nearly died in the September 11 terrorist attacks, and then segueing directly into the film’s first of many torture scenes, sets a certain tone, but where they’re wrong is what that tone is. That tone can perhaps be best illustrated through a kind of dumbass equation: this happened because that happened. Furthermore, over the course of the film it turns out that torture techniques (ironically enough, the very deliberate not torturing of a detainee, but why should we let that cloud the issue?) do yield a key piece of evidence that gets the ball rolling towards the location and execution of Osama bin Laden (oh incidentally, that’s what Zero Dark Thirty is about). But even further if you have eyes in your head and can figure out what happens in movies while you watch them you’ll see that the film’s primary CIA torturer (played by Jason Clarke) begins to not like doing it. I myself, as someone who found it pretty easy to admit the detainee at the beginning of the film was a confessed terrorist, can hardly blame him.
I swear to God. I cannot believe anybody has to tell other people, grown people, what was in the movie they just saw in order to get them to put away the goddamn picket signs and consider for five seconds that art, even art about current events, might have other goals in mind than simply parroting back at the audience the moral viewpoint they walked in with. And really, not even parroting back at the audience – parroting back at you. Al Pacino’s “You fuckin’ child in Glengarry Glen Ross springs to mind unbidden. As I say, I’ve become resentful.

The mild irony of all this is that, unlike Glenn Kenny and others, like Tom Carson, who have written well in defense of Zero Dark Thirty against Greenwald’s slack-jawed self-righteousness, I didn’t love the film. Don’t worry, I liked it – I may have even Liked It Very Much. But quite unexpectedly, the film has about it more than a whiff of the true story as classically told by Hollywood, which, depending on which era is the one being classical, can mean a wonderful display of craft or a schematic, button-pushing exercise. Zero Dark Thirty feels like both, and can’t sail over the rough spots on the strength of its central performance by Jessica Chastain as Maya, the young CIA agent who has spent her entire career, which began fresh out of high school, doing nothing but hunt for Osama bin Laden. Chastain is a terrific actress, what they call “luminous” in Malick’s The Tree of Life and other films – there’s a good reason why she’s been everywhere lately -- and seems like a good and potentially fascinating to lead Zero Dark Thirty, but I think a mixture of Boal and Bigelow’s falling back on Hollywood shorthand and bullet points (see, for instance, the moment where Kyle Chandler as Joseph Bradley, Maya’s CIA chief in Islamabad, drops off a file for her and asks her if she even knows what he wants back from her, and she rattles off with a smirk all the procedures she’s memorized, calling them after Bradley as he walks away with a “Oh boy these precocious young people!” sigh) and perhaps either bad direction or just plain not being seated for this kind of role (in this case, watch Chastain during a scene about halfway through the film where she freaks out on Chandler after he makes clear that his priorities have shifted away from bin Laden, and note all of the what I call “weird actor things” she does with her head) combine to make her appear to be very much playing a role – move my head here for this effect, add a lilt on this syllable to play up the humor…it’s all very mechanical, surprisingly so.
But maybe the problem is Mark Boal, and his script. Or rather, Mark Boal under the tutelage of Bigelow. This is only Boal’s second script after 2008’s The Hurt Locker (he also has a story credit on Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah), but more so than in that earlier Bigelow film I could feel Bigelow’s long history working within a particular form of Hollywood genre filmmaking come through. It’s right about now that I suppose I should say that outside of her recent work, I’ve never been much of a fan of Bigelow. I’m not overly keen on 1980s action movies in general, which is the kind of thing on which Bigelow built her name, and my admittedly meager experience of her work up until The Hurt Locker (only Strange Days and Near Dark, if you’re going to push me on the issue) did nothing for me. I don’t like the “This is cool, right? This is the 1980s/1990s, so this is cool” tone of it all, nor do I like the way such films manufacture the ragtag crew of shaggy fringe professionals who bust each other’s ass and have put lizards on their shoulders and eat from giant sacks of popcorn while explaining complex computer systems to the new guy in the suit. Now mind you, Zero Dark Thirty is not that kind of movie. But bits of that kind of movie seep in, and I can picture Bigelow sitting Mark Boal down and screening a series of her own films and those of her ex-husband, James Cameron, for whom such films are not just everything but the only ting, and telling him to chart Zero Dark Thirty somewhat along those lines. This results in Chastain’s first scene with her first Islamabad crew, and the news-reader spilling out of information from one after another of them – exposition as straining small talk -- so that we know they all have voices, but also allowing Chastain’s New Kid to question their analysis and make them begrudgingly say “Hey she’s not so bad!” with their faces. It also leads to a moment near the end when Chris Pratt’s Seal Team Six soldier telling his buddies, while they’re in the helicopter on the way to storm bin Laden’s compound, that he’s listening to a Tony Robbins self-help tape so his buddies can laugh because what a character, but he’s like no, these are really helpful, ha ha ha but he’s a Navy Seal! This bit has the virtue of being blissfully shorter than the eyeholes sketch in Django Unchained, but if anything it feels even more out of place. Tarantino at least sets things up in such a way that it seems like he can do just about anything he wants, only proving otherwise when he tries something that falls on its face and breaks its nose. Zero Dark Thirty is supposed to be much more rigidly structured and composed. This doesn’t preclude the existence of any humor, and the film does have some genuine, earned laughs, but the Tony Robbins scene is the most blatant example of Bigelow’s predilection for the kind of film I described above blowing a hole in Zero Dark Thirty and tumbling through.

Of course, there’s much in the film that is excellent. Pratt’s verbal, not-fat equivalent of “fat guy falls down” aside, the raid on bin Laden’s compound, which lasts about a half hour or so, is pretty phenomenal. In fact I’d say that at around the point Maya tells James Gandolfini’a “CIA director” (Leon Panetta, I’m assuming) “I’m the motherfucker who found this place,” Zero Dark Thirty was just about on rails – just about – and that counts for a good hour (for one thing, the expository dialogue becomes a lot cleaner in this stretch). Also in that chunk of time we get Mark Strong, as one of Maya’s supervisors confronting the National Security Advisor (Stephen Dillane) in a White House hallway, angry that the intelligence indicating bin Laden’s presence in an Abottobad, Pakistan compound is not being followed up on more vigorously by the President. In this scene, two men on different sides of the aisle are shown spitting nails at each other in the pursuit of doing their respective jobs well, with each job moving towards the same end result. This is a unique scene in modern American films, I think you'll agree. On top of this you had to add Jason Clarke as Dan, the operative who walks Maya through the CIA’s detainee program, and who is the man who does most of the film’s torturing. This is an outstanding performance, and for about half the film it seems like Clarke is Chastain’s co-lead. The reason he isn’t is the part of Zero Dark Thirty during which Glenn Greenwald must have got up to pee, but anyway Clarke plays Dan as a smart, good man who believes his job is incredibly vital, and he’s correct. In the course of his job he does things that a lot of people vehemently disapprove of, and maybe by the end he does too, so he shifts focus to do another kind of job. Bigelow and Boal’s absolute refusal to comment on him or judge him is perhaps Zero Dark Thirty’s greatest achievement, and Clarke moves through it all as a man we think we can see completely even though we don’t know a thing about him.
However, if Zero Dark Thirty has anything truly fascinating to communicate, the most fascinating message might well be that David Fincher’s Zodiac is possibly going to be quite the influential film for some time to come. Just this year we have two major releases that owe some pretty clear debts to Fincher’s masterpiece, the other one being Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s Lincoln, of all things. From Zodiac, Lincoln borrowed the idea of the procedural structure as a means to depict both a historical epic and a historical snapshot, as well as its use of a large cast of instantly recognizable actors as the solution to a narrative problem (although these days Spielberg casts his movies like that anyway). The link between Zodiac and Zero Dark Thirty is rather more direct, as through the swirl of politics and history Bigelow and Boal’s film is, like Fincher’s, finally about obsession, and finding answers, and closure, and an end to things. Chastain’s Maya is Zodiac’s Paul Avery, David Toschi, and Robert Graysmith all wrapped up into one person, with everybody else in Zodiac transported over as everybody else in Zero Dark Thirty at the junction where it looks like Maya should move on. Not that I thinks she should, but it’s not hard to take their point. Hunting bin Laden, like the hunt for the Zodiac Killer, after a while comes to look like at worst a wild goose chase, and at best no longer as urgent as it once was. Agree to disagree, I guess, and thank God Maya felt the same way, because she achieves the payoff that eluded, and continues to elude, Graysmith. The film goes to great pains to imply – though not to unambiguously state – that they agree with James Ellroy’s claim that “closure is bullshit,” if not on a national scale than at least for Maya. Zero Dark Thirty’s goal, ultimately, is to be intimate, something Zodiac was after too, in its way. Procedures are followed by people, after all. That’s maybe the whole idea, but in the case of Zero Dark Thirty that idea feels like just a way to close out and go to credits, but it’s the lifeblood of Zodiac.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

210 Has a Good Attitude

I don’t watch documentaries as much as I used to. It used to be a form of much greater interest for me, but nowadays if I choose to watch a documentary it will more than likely be something like The King of Kong, about people who are great at playing Donkey Kong, or Best Worst Movie director Michael Stephenson’s recent The American Scream, which chronicles one season in the lives of three families who, every Halloween, turn their homes into massively complex haunted houses. I liked that one. It was funny and nice. More crucial to my current point, perhaps, is that the stakes were also very low. If Stephenson was in some way being appallingly dishonest about his subjects in The American Scream, then that would mean, what? They don’t really like Halloween as much as the film lets on? What I’m getting at, is I became very distrustful of documentaries right around the time the format, or genre, or whatever, started enjoying a relative burst in popularity. And before you think you’ve guessed the reason, no, it wasn’t Michael Moore that did me in. I naively considered his brand of condescending, phony, cowardly, dogshit ambush lie-mongering villainy to be a fluke, of sorts. No, what really did me in was Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s The Staircase, a six-hour documentary about the murder trial of Michael Peterson, a writer who was charged with murdering his wife, Kathleen. If you view Peterson’s case only through the lens of Lestrade’s film, it appears to be a clear-cut case of a man being railroaded by a Southern court due to poor police work and the fact that Peterson’s free-living ways really got under the skin of the local bigots. However, and briefly, the prosecution’s story was that while alone with his wife one night, Peterson beat her to death with a blowpoke, leaving her body where it lay at the bottom of a staircase. The defense argued, and Peterson insisted, that she fell down the stairs. Apparently, the injuries she suffered were not entirely at odds with that story. But after being shown the crime scene photos of the woman’s body, one question nagged at me throughout, and was never addressed in the film, which was how Peterson could have entered the house from the patio, as he claimed, seen his wife in that horrible, bloody sprawl shown in the photos, after having last seen her only fifteen minutes before, and thought “Oh my God, my wife has just fallen down the stairs!” No one would have thought that, upon seeing her body in that state, they would think she’d been attacked, but that was Peterson’s story. So with this in mind, I looked online for reports of the trial given as it was happening, and found just some of the evidence the prosecution introduced that Lestrade didn’t think needed to be included at any point in his six-hour film, primarily forensic results that showed that Peterson’s wife had been bleeding out for a far longer period of time than he claimed, the time between finding her body and calling 911 being a key element in the case. In short, The Staircase, a film that is still spoken of with great respect, is a complete sham, and Michael Peterson’s prison cell is exactly where he belongs. May he remain there until the shades are drawn on him, far more peacefully, of course, than he pulled them on his wife.
So The Staircase left me feeling rather angry, and I remain angry, and generally distrustful of any issue or advocacy documentary. My distancing of myself from the genre has been helped along by the fact that documentaries, on the whole, are not especially artful. Meaning, the information and the personalities contained within them are almost always the draw, but if you suspect you're being given the runaround in that area, it might at least be nice to see some interesting filmmaking. But outside of Errol Morris, a documentary filmmaker I still admire and whose career I still follow, and the documentary work of Werner Herzog, what's left? Michael Glawogger, supposedly. Glawogger is the director behind, among other films, Whore's Glory, a 2011 documentary about prostitution as practiced in Thailand, Bangladesh, and Mexico, which was released on DVD yesterday by Kino Lorber. This film is part of Glawogger's "globalization trilogy," which, okay, but at the same time, oh shit. Although if the film has some point to make beyond "Prostitution is something else, isn't it?" then it fails to make it. Whore's Glory is subtitled "A Triptych," and it is broken up into three separate sections: first, a relatively clean, but somehow eerie, brothel in Bangkok, which gives way to an enclosed, self-contained city-in-miniature of prostitutes in Bangladesh called "The City of Joy," which itself gives way a hideous stretch of poverty and dirt and awfulness in Mexico. The order and presentation of these three locations, and the mode of prostitution on display in each, is obviously not accidental, but I'm not sure what Glawogger is on about, exactly. In Bangkok, the prostitutes are shown to potential clients sitting, basically, in a glass case. Each girl wears a numbered pin, and when she is picked, their number is called through a microphone. The prostitutes in each section are desperate for clients, because of course this is how they earn their living, but the Thai women are depicted as nothing much different from your ordinary young giggly office-workers. There is a safety and some kind of cold support system in place here, due in no small part, I'm sure, to the fact that, according to the multinational johns who frequent this particular place, the women are expensive. The place pulls in a lot of money, and employs a lot of people. When they go home at night, they talk about their work as work, and nothing more horrifying than that, or they talk about which kind of foreign client they like the least (a couple of them have very specific views on this). Their brothel has a time clock. And so the structure of Whore's Glory begins to take shape when we move to Bangladesh, and Glawogger chooses now, for some reason, to include much more footage of direct interviews with the prostitutes, rather than the ostensibly "overheard" chatter in Bangkok. And the Bangladeshi prostitutes are, get this, miserable, and are treated miserably. They're poor, they're mocked, the older women who take in younger women as prostitutes on a one-year contract -- the pimps, in other words -- are callous and abusive. These women, the young prostitutes, are very sad. When being instructed on what's expected of her as her year begins, one young woman, named Ruma -- and she appears to be very young indeed -- keeps her head down during the whole process with the older woman, and when she goes out to solicit johns she stands as still as a tree, barely trying because she doesn't want to, because who would want to?
The structure becomes this: Bangkok - interesting; Bangladesh - what's left for Mexico? Grotesque horror, or nearly that. In this particular stretch of Reynosa, Mexico, the prostitutes work for themselves. They rent little rooms and beckon to men from their doorways. Garbage and mud and nothing else surrounds them. The johns get a bit more camera time here (why?) and in comparison to these guys, the Thai and Bangladeshi clientele are a bunch of sweethearts. Sure, some of the Bangkok guys may chat with no self-awareness or shame whatsoever about their wives while they wait for the human girl body they've ordered, but you don't get a sense from any of them that perhaps they could possible tip over into becoming a serial killer should one girl on one night look at them the wrong way, as you do with one of the Mexican johns who we see driving around, waving to the girls in their doorways, alternately talking about how this one is very good at sex, and how "some of these girls' are such sluts," or just muttering "fucking whores" to himself, for the hell of it. He, and the cars full of young men who brag about what they get to do to the prostitutes in Reynosa, are basically terrifying. And I don't know if Glawogger's intention was to lull you into this world by presenting the comparatively antiseptic Bangkok brothel and then say "Oh yeah well it's not so great!" by the time we reach Mexico, but if so he's being dishonest. I know without asking that he could have found the conditions of the Reynosa prostitutes replicated quite closely in Bangkok if he'd wanted to, and quite possibly could have found the abuse in the Bangladeshi bazaar in the Thai brothel he did choose. So what's the point? What's the angle? Does Glawogger have one, or does he know? Very early into the film, while still in the middle of Bangkok, I became suspicious of the idea that Glawogger, "globalization trilogy" or no "globalization trilogy," is any kind of deep thinker when he chose to leave his camera trained on a group of stray dogs rutting outside of the brothel for so long that I began to think perhaps this bit could have been shaved down by thirty seconds or a minute. And also we're like animals, what with sex and everything. Later, in Mexico, at the end of the film, we see one prostitute actually having sex with a man. Whore's Glory has been relatively chaste up to this point, though it gets progressively more carnal, or maybe "frank," or more likely "blunt," as it goes along (curiously, the nearly sexless talk of the prostitutes in the Bangkok section is followed by the Bangladeshi women being very blunt indeed, in their openness about what they do, but more directly about what they won't do for religious reasons), but then in Mexico everyone's nude, or flashing the camera, and relating their long, drunken sexual histories, all suddenly very graphic. I'm forced to ask "Why Mexico?" but also, when the actual sex begins, I'm left wondering if this is, to Glawogger, the big reveal, as if perhaps he thought we might not realize this moment is what he's been talking around this whole time. Furthermore, and I don't want to be paranoid, but something about this encounter felt staged to me. The not-especially-talkative young man having sex with the prostitute suddenly starts pestering her -- mid- and post-act -- to tell him what her name is. The poignancy of her refusal to do so may come from a genuine policy of this particular woman, but I have a hard time believing this kid was dying to know.

But what's Glawogger like as an artist? Well, he's not nothing, and he at least doesn't take the route Jeff Prosserman took in Chasing Madoff, which was to basically do a shitty job of ripping off Errol Morris. There are several nice shots in the film, unquestionably helped along by the exoticism, to most of the people who will see Whore's Glory, of the locations. Even if you've been to Bangladesh, I'll just bet you haven't been to this part of Bangladesh. I do think his creative side is a bit illusory, though, because a great deal of the strange, almost ghostly tone the film occasionally achieves is propped up almost entirely by the series of songs by P. J. Harvey and others that Glawogger pours over everything. Not ineffectively, but when a film relies this heavily on the music of others to creat a certain effect, is the filmmaker doing his job, or is P. J. Harvey doing hers? On the plus side, Glawogger gets a lot of mileage out of the religious lives of the women in his film (I strongly suspect Glawogger is a big fan of William T. Vollmann), and he does so without ever making a show of it (until the end, anyway, when he indulges in a shot that is, if I'm correct in my assumptions about the scene, possibly unforgivable, but which you kind of have to allow was a shot he was understandably craving the whole time he was in Reynosa). Anyway, this aspect of the film hits its peak in Mexico, where some of the girls worship a kind of voodoo add-on to their Catholicism, named Lady Death. There are skull statutes and Grim Reaper statues and tattoos and everything, all over, and one of the prostitutes, one of the most interesting people in the film, worships this figure because of its promise of a "good death." That's the dream.

Honestly, I don't want to make baseless assumptions about Glawogger -- I don't think I really believe that he meant for his Bangkok footage to be in any way enticing, for instance, because it clearly isn't -- or his intentions. I'm too aware of my own prejudices regarding this kind of film, and that I might be treating Glawogger unfairly, and beating him up with someone else's movies. But then again, rutting dogs as a metaphor in a documentary about prostitutes is simply, as alarm bells go, too loud to ignore.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Best Books I Read in 2012's you. So I guess you want to know about the seventeen best books I read in 2012, is that it? The absolute nerve of you. I don't, I can't even, how do you...okay fine. Here it is, below, the list. As always, while I do actually include on this list one novel that was published in 2012, most of these books were published whenever the fuck, and I just happened to read them over the past twelve months. Convention is no mistress of mine. Plus, there's really not much going on here by way of ranking, until you get to the last couple, which are close to being tied as my favorite novel of the year. Anyway, this is shaping up to take me a while (you'll no doubt breeze right through) so I'd best get started.
The Brave by Gregory McDonald - This one is something of a grower, or perhaps a sticker. Before the almost verbatimly-named Pixar film, this title, about a young, illiterate, impoverished American Indian man who decides to provide for his family by agreeing to be murdered in a snuff film, was possibly best known, and even then just barely, as the basis for the notoriously hooted-at film directed by Johnny Depp (his only such effort so far) back in 1997. That film is indeed something of a howling mess, but the novel, written by Fletch author McDonald, ultimately has, while imperfect, the force of a clawhammer to the kneecap, or perhaps the skull, or more than likely one, then the other. McDonald makes the mistake of painting the world around Rafael, his hero, and his homeless community as one full of unspeakably vile people, but I'll be damned if that strategy -- born of a very palpable anger -- doesn't manage to place Rafael in the middle of a silently shrieking vortex that the reader is powerless to escape. Most of the novel chronicles Rafael's experiences after agreeing to be murdered and accepting from McCarthy, the "filmmaker," a meager down payment. It ends with an occasion of unstated uncertainty, and one of the most hideous and unbearable and pathetically funny final pages I have ever read.
Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis - Amis is one of my favorite writers, but this is the first of his novels I've read since 2003's Yellow Dog. Explaining why (it's not because I didn't like the mostly disliked Yellow Dog) would take too long and bore you too thoroughly, but I was determined to jump back on the train with this new one because I thought the plot -- about Asbo, one of Amis's long string of frighteningly stupid British thugs, winning a massive lottery jackpot -- seemed like a good opportunity for Amis to crank up his particular style of nastily erudite, even smug, humor, and I was right. This is one of his most casually entertaining novels in years, blunt in its satire, open about its sleaziness, occasionally moving, and once or twice something close to spooky. If this is minor Amis, then okay, I'll take it.
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill - I was inspired to finally read this classic ghost story by the then-pending release of the new film version starring Daniel Radcliffe. Long-time fans of Hill's book were not best pleased with that movie, but apart from some reservations I thought it wasn't half bad. However, apart from my inclination to bask in Hill's brand of very precisely eerie prose, the novel boasts an ending that, while the film doesn't entirely discard it, it is nevertheless shied away from. The Brave isn't the only grower on this list -- when I finished reading The Woman in Black I thought it was perfectly good, and I admired its final paragraphs, particularly the last two lines, but as I've gotten some distance from that reading experience I've come to believe that those two lines, and especially the novel's final word, is about as perfect and horrible a capper as you're likely to find in a story like this. Chillingly brilliant.
A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin - Perhaps you've heard of this one. I somehow doubt that I can add a great deal to the discussion about, or the phenomenon of, this now-massively successful fantasy series, not least because I've only read the first two books, this volume being the one that kicked it all off (in 1996!). But suffice it to say, where I am now in the whole deal, it's quite easy to understand why this all started happening for and to Martin, a rather interesting writer of horror and science fiction before one day being struck by the idea to meld J. R. R. Tolkien with The War of the Roses (the history thing, not the Danny DeVito thing). These books are long, and Martin has a ton of information to dump on you, but he knows, at least back then he did, exactly how to write it, with a clarity that is just lightly touched with bits here and there of antiquary. His world is massive, and his characters are very specific. The tragedy of this first novel is both enormous and, in its way, very quiet. The blood and thunder is mostly on the edge. This first novel is roughly 800 pages of something overwhelming just busting to get loose. I know that as the series goes on, past book three, a lot of people began to feel let down by Martin's sprawl, but I find it very hard to not feel confident, and anyway, at the very least, to appreciate the astonishingly ambitious task he's set for himself.
The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hadayet - I wrote about this novel very briefly in this throwaway post earlier in the year, when I hadn't even finished reading it. So I don't even really know why I just linked to it now, but anyway Hadayet's most famous work is the kind of thing that people should be reserving the phrase "fever dream" to describe, instead of pasting it to something Fight Club that just acts like it's crazy. The Blind Owl really is, though, morbidly so. It's a novel about a man who has quite possibly committed murder -- but who really knows for sure? -- and whose mind and life has transformed into a phantasmagoria as a result. Hadayet's life ended in a suicide. In The Blind Owl he writes that "it is death that beckons us from the depths of life." Most other fiction seems pitifully fraudulent in comparison.
The Man With the Black Feather by Gaston Leroux - Next to The Blind Owl, this novel by the author of The Phantom of the Opera is possibly the strangest novel I read all year. Something of a spiritual thriller about Theophastus Longuet, "the timidest man in Paris," who one day discovers that he harbors within himself the thieving, murderous spirit of Cartouche, the famous French criminal. He and his loved ones struggle to keep his kind soul from being lost to the monster Cartouche, and for a while Leroux's story follows a fairly conventional narrative. But along the way, Leroux first makes room to insert a little self-contained locked-room mystery (a favorite form of his) before plunging two characters into Paris's Catacombs, a move that turns out to be thrillingly unconcerned with ordinary payoffs or plot satisfactions. Meanwhile, I've learned from Tim Lucas that the novel also exists in another form, the one Leroux reportedly preferred, that bears the less interesting title The Double Life, but which, according to Tim, expands on the Catacombs sequence to jaw-dropping effect. I'm gonna read that version too, one day.
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith - I wrote about this pretty extensively here. You can go read that, if you'd like.
Julius Winsome by Gerard Donovan - Worryingly, er, winsome title aside, this 2006 novel is a both heartbreaking and hard-edged story about a hermit who lives in a cabin in the woods with his dog. One day, the dog is shot and killed, and Winsome, hunting rifle at the ready, decides to take revenge on whoever did it. "Whoever" being the key word here, because Winsome is cracked not just by despair and grief, but also by having existed mostly outside the rest of the world for years. So when he finds a hunter in his woods near where his dog was killed, he will mortally wound the man and then try to find out if he might be the culprit. This is a brutal, deeply disturbing, and splendidly written novel of revenge with which it is easy to sympathize but impossible to ever justify. It goes beyond that, though, to create a man whose simple life it might be easy to envy, but Donovan sketches out the damage it can do, taking its toll like a kind of second, and simultaneous, aging.
The Black House by Paul Theroux - It's been a little while since I've read this one, another classical ghost story set in England, and more than most of these books it's not exactly fresh in my mind, but in essence it's about a quite off-puttingly arrogant academic who, with his wife, moves to a quiet rural English village, where he dislikes and is disliked by the locals in about equal measure. Shades of both Straw Dogs and The Wicker Man, perhaps, but it's not really much like either. It's a fascinating book whose horror element is slow to take shape, and even slower to assert itself -- when it does, it's of a decidedly sexual nature -- but once it's all over and the exquisitely tragic implications are clear, the unnatural seems to have seeped into the lives of the characters in the most natural way. It's a supernatural horror story with the sting of the inevitable.
Fowlers End by Gerald Kersh - Fowlers End is about Daniel Laverock, the ugliest man in England, getting a job at a movie theater. Along the way, it provides a very blackly comic look at alcoholism, terrorism, amorality, immorality, intellect and its absence, cruelty, self-deception, and suffering. It's very, very funny. Kersh (proclaimed by Harlan Ellison to be his favorite writer and this Kersh's best book) is an odd duck who I've thus far, through my only meager reading of his work, been unable to really pin down, but there's an undeniable genius at work here, especially in the character of Sam Yudenow, the theater manager, and possessor of most of the books amorality. Great big long stretches of Fowlers End is given over to his long, delusional, barely-educated Cockney rants. On page two, Yudenow offers up what might function as something of a life philosophy, or maybe a wisely defeatist approach to existence: "You need edyacation in show biz. You'd be surprised the idears you pick up reading. Only don't put on no airs. You'd be surprised what they'd do to you rahnd Fowlers End if you put on airs."
Plunder Squad by Richard Stark (Donald E. Westlake) - I continue to be fascinated by the weird structuring Westlake loved to play around with in his Parker novels. For instance, in this one a couple of characters last seen in The Green Eagle Score reappear, not because Plunder Squad has anything to do with that earlier novel, but because they're a couple of guys Parker wants for this story's central heist. But Westlake's done that before. No, the really unusual thing here is the return of yet another character from The Sour Lemon Score, a loose end of sorts, and the way Westlake approaches this material is so ingeniously off-hand that it doesn't even count as a subplot. That aspect of Plunder Squad is dealt with as if it carried no more significance than Parker's stealing of a car to use on the job. Which, to Parker, it doesn't. Once more easily brutal in its violence, this is also the Parker novel that made me finally realize that one of the keys to the whole series is that Westlake allows, or forces, the reader to share Parker's very low opinion of his victims. That is to say, of us.
"Remember You're a One-Ball!" by Quentin S. Crisp - I talked about this bizarre novel a little bit in this post about Crisp's novella "Ynys-y-Plag," and in all honesty it's hard to know, in the space I'm providing myself here, what else I can add. But I don't think I mentioned that at it's heart, this novel is about the sometimes, for some, unbearable cruelty of childhood, which in this case is exaggerated to a grotesque horror parable of sorts, or experiment, or conspiracy theory, and how that cruelty can transform a child into a hopelessly unhappy adult. It's about a schoolteacher who takes a job at a school where he learns that child abuse of an especially horrifying sort is not just institutionalized, but the grease that keeps the wheels turning. And I'm not even sure that's right. I am sure that it's a terrible oversimplification of Crisp's indescribable first novel. I don't know what it is, exactly. That is a recommendation.
The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns - Speaking of cruelty and child abuse, this very slender novel is soaking in it, too. Thinking back on the book now, it's very unhappy title character strikes me as not at all dissimilar to the heroine of Elizabeth Jane Howard's short story "Mr. Wrong," which I wrote about here, one of the major differences being one of genre. Which is not meant to imply that The Vet's Daughter is some piece of kitchen-sink realism -- it is, in fact, quite strange, even fantastical, though in this case that element doesn't manifest itself as supernatural horror, but as pure fantasy. It's just that the outcome is horrific. It's about a terrible father and his terrible lack of heart and the terrible ways this affects his daughter. I believe that's the novel in a nutshell. It's short, otherworldly, great, and painful. In other news, I should probably try to lighten up.
Kramer's War by Derek Robinson - Well, at least this one's funny. Robinson is the author of one of my all-time favorite novels, the magnificent World War II comic epic Piece of Cake; that novel, like a lot of Robinson's novels, chronicles some aspect of the lives of British fighter pilots (either World War II or World War I), but Kramer's War puts his airman -- an American bombardier named Earl Kramer -- on the ground, after he crash lands on the British island of Jersey, which is the one portion of WWII England that has been occupied by the Germans. Kramer embarks on a haphazard mission of sabotage across the island, but that's just part of the story. A good chunk of the book is given over to the lives of those who have lived their whole lives on the island, and who have existed under Nazi occupation for several years. Robinson casts his typically jaundiced eye on, among many other things, Kramer's sabotage, and while he never sneers at Kramer, and he seems to even like him, the true hero of the book is Daniel de Wilde, the man who has the responsibility of maintaining order and lawfulness in Jersey without ever selling his soul to the Germans. Kramer makes it quite clear how impossible de Wilde's job is, and he's in full, or nearly full, support of the desire for one's resistance in this situation to be much more aggressive. And as is typical of Robinson, being the hero doesn't do anybody a damn bit of good. If good comes in and sweeps away the bad, it will probably sweep away some of the good with it.
The Small Back Room by Nigel Balchin - Boy I read a lot of books by British people this year! Good God! So this is another one of those, best known now as the source for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1949 film starring David Farrar. That's a fine film, but there are a couple of crucial differences: this is a novel about a civil service/research and development official in England, whose specialty, with his team, is inventing and testing various explosive devices (it's a good deal more complicated than that, but moving on), and it's quite witheringly cynical, but Balchin's cynicism poured itself into a novel published in 1943 -- in other words, right in the middle of the shit. More to the point, the Powell and Pressburger movie significantly alters the ending, draining it of all despair. Balchin was very inventive when it came to unhappy endings, and the ending of The Small Back Room is unhappy in such an unexpected way that the gut punch it delivered really kind of doubled me over, metaphorically speaking. A hint of what I'm talking about is in that front cover shown above. Also, Nigel Balchin was a key figure in the invention of the Kit Kat bar.
A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In by Magnus Mills - David Foster Wallace once wrote that people often misunderstood how funny Franz Kafka was, and that the fact that Kafka rarely generated any laughs from his readers didn't disprove this thesis. I'm able to take his point (obviously, Wallace elucidates further) while still finding the actual laughter actually generated by the Kafkaesque fiction of Magnus Mills to be entirely welcome. Another British novelist, Mills's career kicked off with a wonderfully black working-class novel about accidental death called The Restraint of Beasts. This was nominated for a Booker Prize, and was talked up, from the other side of a door, by Thomas Pynchon. The result was that for the span of his first five novels, Mills was an "international writer." For one reason or another, this has since ended, and Mills no longer has an American publisher. Part of it might have to do with the sense, voiced by some, that Mills was hammering on the blue-collar-job milieu a bit too relentlessly, but it unquestionably has more to do with the fact that Mills's novels are very strange and nobody buys them. Besides, the aforementioned sense ignores the strain of non-fantastical fantasy that regularly appears and even takes over whole novels, from Three to See the King, his third, and Explorers of the New Century, his fifth, a novel that very nearly isn't ambivalent about its fantasy elements, but finally is. I'm describing this badly. Anyhow, his most recent novel, A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In might well be his masterpiece. And, to add some clarity to all this, Mills's version of fantasy here is to create a kingdom called Greater Fallowfields, where the rulers are politically useless, but, in their station as cultural and scientific guardians, totally ignorant, so that when, near the beginning of the novel, all the political positions of our main characters -- Postmaster, Comptroller of the Admiralty, Principal Composer of the Imperial Court, and so on -- are reshuffled, the first task of the newly appointed Astronomer is to figure out how the big telescope works. Further, Greater Fallowfields is a kingdom where political and cultural stature brings you not one ounce of privilege, so that the money that is paid only to these cabinet members -- not that no one else in the kingdom is paid, just that only these cabinet members get paid in this particular coin -- can't purchase a goddamn thing. It's like trying to spend Disney Dollars outside of Disneyworld, except you are in Disneyworld. Except it's not any fun to be there. There's more going on, and there's some of that political allegory going on here, but it's the kind of allegory where the real world thing that is being allegorized is a grown man throwing up his hands and saying "Fuck it."
The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley - Once again, I wrote a little bit about this novel here, where I said: "[The Go-Between is] one of the finest novels of any kind I've read this year. It's about a twelve-year-old boy, whose middle-aged self is narrating the events, and the summer he spent at the impressive country home among the family of one of his school friends, falls in love with his friend's older sister, who, along with her lover, use the boy as a pawn/messenger to facilitate their affair. This is ultimately disastrous, and while the sister (who is engaged to a viscount) and her lover (a farmer who lives nearby) do have a great deal of affection for the boy, but they're also selfish and a bit stupid. As is the boy, seeing as he's twelve. Anyway, it's a wonderful, suspenseful, funny, devastating novel, superbly controlled and about as sharp about childhood emotions, and childhood in general, as anything I've read outside of Dickens." I do not hesitate to stand by that. It's one of those novels you sometimes read that makes you want to do nothing more with your life than read, one book after another, until it's lights out. Not a bad way to go.