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.


  1. Man, where do you find these books. I'm so curious.

  2. They find me, more or less. I go looking for odd things, but it'll be a mention in the summation pages of Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, or a link on Wikipedia, or some random recommendation or source page or any number of things. Sometimes, like the one I'm reading now (which will probably be up for review in two weeks), I just wind up finding it somewhere like a Halloween display at a local library.