Saturday, January 29, 2011

Rumo: His Miraculous Adventures

"...because some miracles can only happen in the dark."
- final page 
        So after two weeks of severely twisted books, I decided to scale it back a little and go with something a little more benign. 

           I first found out about Walter Moers by picking up his book The 13 and 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear, about a blue bear (naturally) whose adventures take him on a whirlwind tour of the mystical land of Zamonia, a massive lost continent existing simply "elsewhere", complete with illustrations. It hooked me from the first few pages and refused to let go...Zamonia is a land of much magic, and much danger, as half the things that aren't benign are lethal to a ludicrous degree. But between the odd yet pleasant prose and the heavily detailed illustrations, I was a fan. A year later, I'd wandered into a bookstore on St. Mark's Place and found Rumo by the same author sitting in the science fiction section. Within moments of flipping through it, I'd found out it was the sequel to Captain Bluebear, and that there were two other works besides. This filled me with much joy, and then disappointment as I realized I was short on cash. That summer, on a trip to a quirky indie bookstore in Tucson called Antigone Books, I found a copy of Rumo and immediately snapped it up, not wanting to lose the opportunity more than once.
          Rumo tells the story of Rumo of Zamonia, a Wolpertinger (they're like bipedal sentient dogs with horns. Yes, I know it's odd, but stay with me) who eventually becomes the greatest warrior in the land. The book follows his adventures, from the time he escapes from carnivorous cyclopses as a pup to his eventual settlilng down in the city of Wolperting. Along the way, he meets a large Shark Grub with a devious tactical mind and a penchant for gambling, is educated by two "Nocturnomaths" (highly intelligent creatures with multiple external brains for storing extra information), contends with murderous yeti, fights a walking carnivorous forest, and must finally rescue an entire city (and his true love, naturally) from the bowels of the Netherworld. All of it illustrated to an almost dizzying degree.
          What I like most about Rumo is the grip it has on its own world. Zamonia is a vibrant place, where everything from the tiniest forest creature to the massively tall Ygg Drasil tree could have its own book written about it. Moers' strong grip on Zamonia is what allows him to drop his readers into the plot, confident that he won't have to explain every little thing-- just the most important ones. What his occasional bits of exposition don't do, the illustrations more than make up for. Zamonia, despite its ludicrously lethal flora and fauna, is a place you feel like you live in. Through this, Moers is able to draw the reader into the plot and get one invested in the plot quite easily. After all, if one feels like they live somewhere, they're more likely to be interested in what goes on in their world. And this is the book's main strength. It hooks you in because it constructs such a feeling of immersion, and doesn't let go until the final pages, when a series of narrow escapes lead to a climax that is ultimately that much more relieving.
          Another major strength of the book is its ability to laugh at itself. It knows it's kind of silly, and while not winking at the audience, it plays that to the hilt. Be it the Non-Existent Teenies, who argue about their name and go on and on about how "we've gotten over (insert human emotion here)"; Dandelion/Krindle, Rumo's dual-bladed knife with a split personality (one part houses the spirit of a homicidal demon, the other's a got the spirit of a pathologically-lying but ultimately pacifist troll); or the self-deprecating "Dead Yeti Army"; Rumo is a book that knows it's flat out insane and just runs with it. It tackles this in the sense that it doesn't stop piling on the absurdities, and in the sense that it slyly pokes fun at itself with a surprisingly matter-of-fact tone. It's a fantasy satire that could very well be a regular fantasy novel-- the magic sword talks, the hero has to contend with all manner of monsters and demons, the fate of the world is at stake, and people ride large, mythical creatures. But with its unique sense of humor and take on its world, it becomes unique
          However, there are a few wrinkles. The book is gratuitously violent, beginning with the Siege of Lindworm Castle (a group of mercenaries attempt to siege a city of dinosaurs, only to be gruesomely repelled time and again), and carrying on like that. Blood is spilt, Rumo rips a cyclops' tongue out with his teeth, people get turned into pincushions and chunky salsa, and in one particularly squirm-inducing sequence, Rumo's love interest is put into an iron maiden whose spikes have been replaced with intravenous needles and tortured with poisons and viruses by one of the main villains. While I was prepared for the book to have its dark touches (Captain Bluebear wasn't without those, either), many of the sequences bordered on wanton violence. Though this might also fit with the darker tone of the heroic quest as it goes along.
          Second, for a while the book stops dead just as Rumo reaches the walled city of Wolperting. While it picks up again, watching Rumo at school and working as a cabinetmaker-- while important to the plot later on-- becomes a bit of a slog. After all, the book had enticed me with points of epic adventure and duels to the death, so turning into a coming-of-age romance about growing up and finding one's place kind of seems out of place. But in the end, it pulls together nicely and gives a reason for Rumo to rescue his damsel, rather than just rescuing her and being done with it after that. 
         So in the end, this is a book well worth reading. It's a satire, a coming-of-age novel, a brutal heroic saga, and a fantastic adventure novel, all in one and with the length and girth to give all of that the time it deserves. The illustrations, while not beautiful, are fantastic, and the story hits all the right notes. It's a fantasy children's book for grownups, it's the book everyone always wanted as a kid but which grew up so it'd meet them on their level. Also, there's a fight scene that takes place in a giant robot. I forgot to mention that. In short, it's a fantastically good read and well worth tracking down and reading from cover to cover.

Next week: After this brief respite, we go back into the pile o' crazy with Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves. And yes, the different coloring is manditory.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Crooked Little Vein

 "Let me be the Virgil to your Dante"
-Repeated line

"If you think I'm telling you about having sex with Trix, you're insane"
- Entire text of Chapter 17

           I first came across Warren Ellis through his work on comic books. He had a blackly comic style that I felt really suited where comic books should be, instead of the Saturday morning four-color morality jamboree they seemed to be at the time. Yeah. I was that kind of pretentious. Years later, I'd forgotten about him for the most part when I found Crooked Little Vein on the "Mystery" shelves of a Barnes and Noble in LA (We'll talk about what I was doing in LA another time. Suffice it to say, I haven't been back). The little black book piqued my interest somewhat, but at the time I didn't want to buy anything. I left the store with the book on my mind. When I got to Santa Fe, where I was going to school at the time (at a lovely institution called the College of Santa Fe, which has sadly been corrupted and blighted in recent years), I put in a request for an interlibrary loan and immediately read it cover-to-cover in the space of about a week. And I loved it so much I read it again. The first time I read it, I was laughing like a maniac at the early chapters, up until chapter ten or eleven. You'll know which ones I mean. (Hint: SalineThe book had everything...adventure, suspense, romance...To me, it was perfect. When I went back and read it later, it wasn't as great as the first time, but it's still a book that I'm proud to own.
           Crooked Little Vein is a story centered-- much like last week's offering of Naked Lunch, around control, sex, and violence. Private investigator Michael McGill is a "shit magnet"-- a man who attracts bizarre and often frighteningly grotesque events. Because of this "gift", he is hired by the most decidedly psychotic Chief of Staff of the United States to find the country's secret second constitution. The book was traded from Richard Nixon to a prostitute, and from there descended somewhere into the seamy underbelly of society, from one group of "perverts" to the next. The Chief of Staff wants this book back because inside it are the clues to somehow "reset the country" and save everyone. Mike hooks up with a heavily made-up, tattooed girl by the name of Trix and the two of them set off across the country to find the book. On their path they encounter a bunch of old money Texans who would fit right in with people like the Bushes and the Sawyers, a frightening Las Vegas pimp, and many others.But when they find the book, is it even worth using to reset the country?
           Crooked Little Vein is insane. There is no real way to describe its insanity. What makes it work, though, as opposed to other "gonzo" or "bizarre" mystery stories, is that every element is treated with respect, and with the straight-facedness it deserves. Each time I've read it, I've discovered another story, each one fitting into the first but somehow completely unnoticed. The first time, it was just a comic road novel about encounters with perverts and shadowy Men In Black. The second time, it was a sendup of the private detective genre. Most recently, I found all of that to kind of be secondary, because it's a love story about Mike and Trix and how these crazy events push them apart and eventually back together. But each element fits together as part of the piece. It's all of these things, and more. That I can keep coming back to the book and read the same words over and over again but find something new about them every time I do is a major component of the book's charm.
           Another element that makes the book work is how it goes about parody. Many people think parody is an easy genre to work in. I certainly used to. But as I got older, I began to realize the secret of parody-- No matter how outrageous it is, you have to commit to the premise and go at it with a straight face. You can't giggle, and you can't wink at the audience. That's what makes it funny-- everyone acting like what they're doing is normal even though it's the height of absurdity. With Crooked Little Vein, it takes things one step further. Instead of simply parodying the genre, we have a parody acted by straight-faced people who talk about Godzilla fetishism and "roulette parties" while we inhabit the head of the only sane, innocent person in the entire cast. Mike, while not a complete audience surrogate, is enough of one to draw us in. By reacting as any sane, vanilla person would, he gives us someone in a mass of mildly unsympathetic characters (even one of the heroes isn't exempt, given her stances on bestiality) to anchor ourselves to. Also, his reactions to slowly being driven insane by the things he's forced to uncover offers a nice comic counterpoint to the characters who treat most of this stuff as normal. 
              Yes, it is Mike who guides us through this, whether it be his casual observations at the start of the book that a super-rat has peed in his coffee, or his horrified reaction to Junior Roanoke's "womb thing" in the Texas section. Mike is a much more noble hero than past private eyes that have been featured here, mainly because he has to be an innocent for the book to work the way it's supposed to. Because he's mostly an innocent and a nice guy, his eventual stand at the end of the book has that much more meaning to it-- he's sick of being pushed around and told he's out of his element or that he's too nice. For the last few chapters, he takes control of his situation, and we believe it and root for him because for the whole book, he's been floundering around out of his depth. We empathize and sympathize with Mike because in the same situation, we'd be Mike...scared and offended and freaked out by half the things we'd be seeing. So having him as the main character works wonders.
              There are rough patches, though. Some of the foreshadowing goes absolutely nowhere, as if there were plotlines that were discarded straight off instead of kept, or things to keep the ending from its initial outcome. Mike and Trix have a series of arguments in the final sections of the book that are pretty much just there to drive a wedge between them, and while part of me can see Mike arguing about it, it just seems like a way to get him out of the apartment. The book recovers wonderfully by the next two chapters or so, though, and keeps clicking right along.
              In the end, this is a book that should be read and enjoyed. People may find it "offensive" or "crude", or "shocking for shocking's sake", and while I acknowledge that this is not a book for children, it is the duty of mature human beings to face this sort of thing diplomatically, not with outrage, and accept that filth exists. And as for the people who say "shocking for shocking's sake" or other such things, and think they're being profound, nothing-- nothing in the written word that didn't have "by Howard Stern" written on it has been written purely to shock. No, not even bizarro or the works of Garth Ennis. You ought to be ashamed of yourselv-- I'm drifitng. Point being, this is a fantastic book, less dirty and more coherent than Naked Lunch and still completely enjoyable. The main character is someone whom you can really identify with, and the cast plays their roles masterfully well, be it the tiny, freaky Chief of Staff or the massive bodybuilder from Cleveland whose friends want Mike to "party" with them. This is a book that should have a much bigger audience than it does, and it annoys me that barely anyone has heard of it. Read this, if you feel the same way I do then buy it, otherwise take it out of the library. No matter how you feel, it'll be a trip you won't soon forget, and one that will elicit some kind of emotional response. It is a part of my private collection, and I am proud to keep it there for as long as I live.

Next Week: A direct one-eighty from this perversion, insanity, sex, and violence with Rumo and His Miraculous Adventures by Walter Moers.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Naked Lunch

  "Did I ever tell you about the man who taught his asshole how to talk?"
- Doctor Benway
           Long ago (okay, only about eight years ago), when I lived in a much more repressed set of circumstances, Naked Lunch came on the Sci-Fi channel. To me, it was that film that kept getting referenced on Farscape and had all the cool makeup effects. To my parents, it was an R-rated movie about a ton of disgusting sex, spousal homicide, psychotic episodes, and drug use. Yeah. We had those sort of cultural differences a lot. But my dad, after the umpteenth time I asked him if I could watch it, made a deal with me. If I read the book, I would be allowed to see the movie. He thought that would stop me. Instead, I exhausted every possible resource I had to find the book and read it. And boy, was I happy with what I read. While this wasn't the first book I'd ever read with nonlinearity and surrealism, it was the first book that felt like an experience. It was nasty, hilarious, dark, and scary all at once. It was dirty, sure, but the dirty nature of the book felt justified. It had its own style; a mix of tough-guy junkie slang, science-fiction dystopia, sex scenes by and for people completely detached from reality, and monsters that shouldn't even exist in the darkest corners of the mind. William S. Burroughs is quite literally H.P. Lovecraft on acid. 
                    Naked Lunch tells the story of Bill Lee...sort of. Bill is a junkie who is about to get pinched in New York City. The cops have put an undercover officer in a white trench coat on him, as well as tracking him with a man named The Disk who sniffs out the junk in peoples' systems and pounces on them. So Bill flees, first to Mexico and then to countries that may be imaginary-- such as Interzone, Annexia, and Upper Baboonasshole. Throughout the book, though, the story becomes a guide to these rather nightmarish places through Bill's eyes (as there is really only one narrative voice, and it never tends to change), with such characters as psychotic cowboy A.J. (one of the few heroes in a sense), the memorable and incurably insane Doctor Benway, and the disgustingly hedonistic Hassan sometimes taking center stage. The various characters vie for control through a series of violent, shocking, and sometimes even explicitly sexual maneuvers that eventually (literally) rip the world apart to make sure they're the ones who're able to feed their addiction to power, while Lee seeks only to feed his own habits for drugs and company.
                   While seemingly easy to explain like this, the plot is all mostly implied and inferences from the book's structure. Things move in weird, rambling sketches from place to place, the ellipses in the text being the main way of telling when a scene's shifted mid-chapter. Despite this, the book is incredibly descriptive, each scene playing out in vivid, vivid detail. The details actually help immerse one in the book, and at the same time, help the book work its way inside your head. Naked Lunch is an experience, and that experience is mutual. Every time I read the book, I find different things, things I've missed, or things I hadn't thought of the same way as when I last read it. The thing unspools in insane, almost non-Euclidian ways, moving towards a cataclysm that, while not quite changing everything, does change quite a bit. 
                   But despite all of this, the book is fantastic. It creates an atmosphere with a twisted sense of humor and a satirical look at what humanity will do if their addiction to control goes too far. It's crude and vile in certain aspects, but brilliant in others. While it's offensive, it's necessary, and when viewed with a sense of humor and a certain detachment, it's hilarious. Lee's tough-guy film noir tones give an interesting view of the vicious world he inhabits, and each of the characters lends their voice, creating a nasty but altogether amusing and interesting world. It's a book that's about the atmosphere as much as the plot or any characters, and overall it's brilliant. There's literally a whole world in there to explore, and every bit of it is actually worth spending time with.
                  While the insanity and grotesquerie aren't for everyone, and the hanging/sex scenes (supposedly an indictment of capital punishment) are a particular example of this, it's a book I'd wholly recommend. While many people who will take the book seriously may have difficulty seeing the humor, and while it would be very easy to get offended by this book, I'm proud to make it part of my personal collection, and one I'd read over and over again. Also, you'll learn what the words "Steely Dan" actually refer to, among a great many other quotes and references that have permeated the world's cultures. Every time I read it I discover something new, and it's meant different things at different times in my life. It's easily a classic in my book, and I am more than happy to recommend it to my audience and my friends alike. Read this book. You may not like it, but it's something everyone should at least try.

Next Week: Yet another dose of perversion and insanity (though in a more linear form) with Warren Ellis' Crooked Little Vein. It's good to see you all again, by the way.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Steampunk Trilogy

    "And they never did have any children after that."
- Hottentots

             If there is anyone keeping the 50s mad scientist aesthetic alive, that man is probably Paul DiFilippo. From the beginning of The Steampunk Trilogy, we have Jacob's Ladders crackling and experiments that destroy large parts of the populace by accident. This is nothing new for DiFilippo, whose excellent short story collections, Ribofunk and Fractal Paisleys, were less Science Fiction and more SCIENCE!!! Fiction. And yes, the three exclamation points are necessary. While not quite a pioneer in the steampunk field (I swear, I will shoot the next person who uses famed Industrial Revolution engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel as a plot point or minor character. I will shoot them execution style.), Paul DiFilippo is an important author for bringing another movement into play in the steampunk genre: Biopunk. Biopunk was first started by Mary Shelley in her novel Frankenstein, and can be defined as mixing biological themes into science fiction in the established "punk" style-- no one has to explain it, etc. By mixing a myriad number of biological elements into his stories (Two in this book, at least), DiFilippo took the genre where up to that point it had concerned itself with either hard-science stories taking place a steampunk atmosphere, or odd historical fantasies. While my history may be off, based on what I've read, I think this was the first book to really push the limits of what steampunk could do.
            The Steampunk Trilogy falls over three novellas. In the first, Victoria, a mad scientist has replaced the actual Queen Victoria with a rather lifelike and deceptive clone made from the DNA of a Hellbender Newt, which they use while the real Victoria has disappeared to god knows where. Cosmo Cowperthwait, the mad scientist and protagonist of the story, must find a way to maintain the clone while tracking down the real Victoria, matching wits with an evil silver-nosed nobleman (the nose is purported to cause swoons in women), and his large associate, who exudes such an air of danger that our hero carries around a .50 caliber shell inside a gun-cane for the sole purpose of ending him. This is a great little novelette, with mystery and suspense abound as Cowperthwait and his Texan manservant Nails McGroaty track Victoria through the underbelly of Victorian society in the hopes that they can restore the monarch before the clone gives herself away by eating more bugs in public or something like that. It sets the tone quite well with the freaky lab of Cowperthwait and the one man satire of Americans that is Nails McGroaty. While at times it gets muddled as to who exactly we're supposed to be rooting for, and occasionally what's going on, but by the time it gets to that point, you'll probably be having just enough fun that it won't matter nearly as much as it should. Overall, it's a strong beginning and a good pulp story.
           Which brings us to the second novella, or more of a really short novel, given the page length: Hottentots. In this, a champion of the creationist theory battles dinosaurs, Dagon the lord of the deep, and the titular figures to stop the apocalypse before it happens and save the world. To do so, he must obtain an artifact so mysterious that-- okay, I'm going to stop right there. After all, revealing what it is isn't any great loss or anything. They're fighting over a pickled vagina. With a caul over it. Said organ has mystical abilities and significance, but that still doesn't excuse or deny the fact that it is a fight, no, a battle over a pickled vagina with a caul over it. Between a creationist and dinosaurs. Honestly, it's stories like this that are the reason I love the book. It's linear, it moves at a decent pace, and the ending involves a sea battle against savages and dinosaurs. The whole business is so macabrely funny that I wish I could be making it up. I honestly wish I could write a book this insane, but sadly, it's already been written. The postlude that mentions "But little did he know, Charles Darwin was writing a book that would blow his theories out of the water..." in strangely ominous tones, and a final line that is the absurd capstone on a well of absurdity just take the cake. While it is slow to start off, Hottentots is a fantastic read.
              And that it is a fantastic read gives me pause and a little bit of sadness, because the last entry doesn't live up to the first two. Walt and Emily is about Walt Whitman and Emily Dickenson, casting them in a romantic story where they time travel and experience all kinds of emotion for each other, but it doesn't really get beyond the premise. There are wonderful moments, but they have nothing to do with the two characters involved, who are kinda the point. I mean, the book should turn on these two characters specifically, but instead it spends so much more time doing other things. Thankfully, this is the shortest of the three pieces, and the sense of play from earlier is still very much intact. So it definitely isn't all bad, just weak and kind of disappointing. 
                To finish, though, there is a reason this book is part of my personal collection, rubbing space on the shelves with The Talisman, Pretty Monsters, and of course the all-time top five (or six, depending). It's because it's fun, involves ideas that no one would really broach until later (possibly because of Mr. DiFilippo), and overall is just so freaking cool that it would be a travesty to pass up. Hopefully, you'll enjoy this one as much as I did, and it's a fitting end to steampunk month. 

Next Week: Now that normal service has resumed, I will pick up with the insane rantings of Mr. William S. Burroughs. That's right, friends and neighbors. We're doing Naked Lunch

Monday, January 3, 2011

Maintenance for the site

Due to some mishaps, a snowstorm, and the recent holiday season (where I was trying to match Howard "I never take a break ever" Tayler and power right the hell through), I have recently undergone severe schedule deviation and wound up behind in many things. This kind of happens occasionally, and I would like it to stop, but I'm not omnipotent. Normal service will resume either this Friday or next, with the review of The Steampunk Trilogy and then Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs after that. See you then!