Monday, April 25, 2011

Accomplice: Conclusions

I'm breaking the usual format here and just plunging in from the first review on Accomplice        

     For the most part, my impressions on Accomplice remain unchanged. In the final two books, it's still as barely-coherent, insane, and darkly hilarious as the first two. The characters, while they become more aware of the situation going on, still remain just as odd and yet somehow compelling, Barny still remains almost as much out of his depth (the final book has him willingly going into something called a "blood shed" and giving his blood willingly for a levy) and accepting of his circumstances, and overall not much changes. Though that might actually be the point.
          You see, I'm beginning to get the sense that Accomplice is actually a version of The Divine Comedy where no one notices what's going on, or even cares. The secret underground cadre of demons would suggest that Accomplice is some level of hell, as well as things like the Blood Clock in the center of the city, the rather gruesome levy (and there's the chance that some people with that levy might be giving too much, as seen in the final chapters of book four), and the massive barbed-wire sculpture the incumbent mayor's challenger (the mayor being someone who not only acquiesces to the demons, but also serves their wishes) has to give his speeches in. But despite all the insanity and the nightmarish visuals (the Church of Automata in particular fills me with nonspecific dread), you will still find the heroes dining at the Ultimatum Restaurant or preparing for a picnic in the Infernal Realms. 
          Adding to this mess is the list of questions in the back that reference angels, demons, and "people outside Accomplice" that seem to place it as either a hell similar to Jacob's Ladder, or some kind of purgatory. Barny's apparent ascension to a higher state at the end of book four merely adds credence to this assumption. Of course, then the reasoning would lead us to believe that all of these people haven't been particularly good but need to be redeemed somehow. The mechanic, Mike, and Barny would be the prime examples of this-- both of them wind up being redeemed...Mike turns into an angel, sort of , and Barny ascends to the point that even after he implodes due to an over-levy, he is still seen and interacts with the other characters, even providing references for jobs they get (meaning that he can still influence Accomplice). Still, the idea that humans set up their own society regardless of the purgatory brewing beneath is a great one, and Accomplice still ranks highly in terms of original ideas 
          The other thing of note is that the book gets more sinister as it goes along, adhering more to Saknussemm's Progression. For those of you who follow me regularly, Saknussemm's Progression is the process that Kris Saknussemm perfected in which ideas get progressively weirder and the reader gets bombarded by them to the point that they become commonplace, and then weirder, more menacing ideas are introduced so the reader gets even more freaked out. Accomplice is actually doing this, though it doesn't start ramping up until the last two books. While initially it hadn't done this and seemed to be avoiding this kind of thing, it does it simply to change the mood-- yes, everything is still satirical and laughable, but with an increasingly sinister edge. That sinister edge is what changes it. While it's comic fantasy, it makes it more and more difficult to laugh at it, and the environment becomes more and more alien.
           While the world of Accomplice wasn't really that much like ours to begin with, as the demons begin to meddle more and more, it becomes a stranger place, a less hospitable sort of crazy and a more dangerous kind. While before Sweeney still dragged people to hell, it seemed to be played for laughs. Things like the Levy, the Church of Automata, and the like are frightening and sinister, but don't seem to be particularly threatening. As it comes together, it becomes funny much in the way of a darkly comic funhouse-- frightening, but somehow so absurd that you continue laughing at it. I have to admit, this is a manner of dark comedy that actually seems to work, neither light enough to be mistaken for straight comedy, nor so dark that it could actually pass for a horror novel.
            So in conclusion, Accomplice is still everything I thought it would be. Dark, hilarious, freaky, unsettling, weird, and all together enjoyable. While I can't ever recommend it to anyone, if you liked this, if you liked what I put forward in these reviews, if you like something cerebral, but that allows you to switch your brain off, then Accomplice is the book series for you. Buy it, download it, request it from your library, just don't let this one languish in obscurity. It deserves better.

Next up:
- Another strange book, but much more conventionally so with The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks, one of the two "starting" books of the Culture Novels.
- Then, after that, a return to the insanity of Kurt Saknussemm with Enigmatic Pilot, the second book in the Lodemania Testament and the prequel to Zanesville
- Jeffrey Ford's Physiognomy
-  And, in time for the new Pirates film, I finally get around to reviewing On Stranger Tides.

See you next time!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

State of the Blog: April, 2011

          As some of you may have noticed, I've been falling off a lot here. The first few entries are really my strongest work, and as I've gone on, the reviews have seesawed in quality. Some have been good, some have been bad. The truth is, the longer it's gone on, the more it's felt like I'm essentially smashing my head into a wall. Keeping this schedule has meant I don't finish books as much as I used to, all my reading is going to this instead of the occasional book or two for pleasure, I sometimes have to scramble or half-ass things, and every time I put up a note like this about how my personal life is getting in the way or apologizing for missing the deadline or whatnot, I feel like crap. First because I'm letting you guys down, and second because I'm essentially coming up short. 

         BUT! I am not going to stop this. I like the blog, I like interacting with you-- all the people I've commented with or talked with have turned out to be really cool people-- and most importantly, I like doing this. It's a nice way to turn people on to stuff that I don't think many have read. Even better, it's a way for me to figure out what I like and don't like, what works and doesn't work for me in writing, so that when I write my own stuff, I have things I can fall back on. Book reviews may be done once every two weeks, or sometimes once a month, but they will be done. As many and as fast as I can get them out. I'll also hold up my promise to you: Every book on this site will be one I read all the way through. I won't stop halfway, I won't give any more impressions on a series I've only finished a little of...I'll just be taking things a little slower until I figure out a schedule that definitely works.

       I hate saying this, because I've tried to keep things on an even and regular schedule, and I'm usually the first person to say that people like me-- that is, people who do this sort of thing with an audience-- are in some way entitled to their readers and fans, but once a week isn't working. Longer books get rushed, my focus tends to be on shorter books that I'm able to read within the time period, and I don't feel like that's fair to anyone. So I hope you'll all keep with me as I welcome in a more relaxed but still just as edgy, quirky, and weird version of Geek Rage!


Sunday, April 10, 2011

Steve Aylett's Accomplice (Part One)

    I should know better than to do a whole omnibus at once. So I'm doing general impressions for the books based on what I've read, and I'll either continue this next week, or some other time. On another note...should I space these out? Perhaps I've bitten off more than I can chew with this one book a week schedule? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.

"Walking out with the awkwardness of a rod-puppet, he felt like a man leaving a bank with a bar of gold in his pants."

         It's already well-documented that I'm a fan of Steve Aylett. Slaughtermatic is a fun deconstruction of the cyberpunk genre where the crime actually undoes the plot instead of the reaction to the crime, Lint is one of my favorite books of all time, and the other works of his I've read range from merely okay to mind-blowingly fantastic. And then there's Accomplice. Oh, god, there's Accomplice. I actually found this when looking for an image to put up for the Lint review and ordered it with some birthday money from Amazon. So far, about halfway through, I am not quite disappointed, but I am sure that I won't be able to recommend this to anyone. Also, I'm positive that Lint was Aylett's response to critics of Accomplice, a sort of twisted self-parody with an expy of himself as the lead.
        Accomplice is not a sane book. It does not work in sane circles, nor should it. Accomplice is, in fact, so gibberingly mad that it pretty much guarantees its own hilarity, provided that you're accepting enough of its madness. I understand this will not be for everyone. I understand that many may not find this book humorous, or assume it's just being (*shudder*) "weird for weirdness's sake" or something equally as shrill and odious. However! This is a brilliant book, an almost completely successful attempt to write something new. Whether it succeeds or not is up for grabs, but hell, at least it tries to go all the way, instead of sticking in "safe" waters like every other book of its type. While that can be said of most bizarro, Aylett's manner of making everything so commonplace and non-threatening even in the most grotesque of circumstances gives him an edge that many of the others in his field don't have.And it works, in its own unsettling, twisted way.
        Only an Alligator tells the story of Barny Juno, a mild-mannered animal collector who is of no threat to anyone. One day, while going through a "creepchannel", a sort of shortcut that heads through the kingdom of demons beneath the island city of Accomplice, Barny finds an alligator. Completely ignorant to the fact that picking up reptiles from ethereal channels to netherworldly areas is a bad thing, Barny names the alligator "Mr. Newton" and takes it to his house, which doubles as an animal sanctuary containing mascara-wearing dogs and a fluctuating number of eels. What he doesn't know is that his "rescue" of the alligator has deprived the king of the demons, a large white cockroach named Sweeney, of a very important meal-- the alligator has picked up all kinds of information, and was destined to be Sweeney's dinner until it was stolen. Sweeney launches a campaign of blackmail and assassination (both character and otherwise) to bring Barny down and recover the alligator before anyone can learn anything from it, utilizing the Mayor's office, and both the incumbent and challenging mayoral candidates. Barny is suddenly the target of a great deal of demonic attention, smear campaigns, and other equally ludicrous events, all of which he is completely oblivious to and tries tirelessly to ignore when he can notice them.
         That I was able to type the last paragraph with a straight face and absolutely no hint of irony or "what the hell did I just write?" is a testament to Accomplice's power, but it's more than just insane set pieces and crazy names. The last sentence is completely accurate-- Barny has no idea he's been targeted by demons until the last third of the book, and proceeds mainly to ignore most of the attention directed his way. The machinations fail completely without his input one way or the other. This makes it unique in another way-- usually, the hero would be either directly responsible, or there would be a team of people around him, fighting to keep things ordinary. Instead, the only one who realizes anything is going on is Barny's best friend, Edgy. And when he reveals that demons are after Barny for his alligator (shortly after punching out all of King Sweeney's teeth in a vicious beatdown that comes almost out of nowhere), no one really cares. They go back to arguing about dinner and the alligator is eventually dealt with in the most innocuous way possible. 
        Which is not to say that any of it is boring. Aylett's vivid imagination keeps it far from that, be it the odd traditions of Accomplice, or the massive and expensive smear campaign against a complete nobody who has no idea what's going on. The book is also gruesomely violent, from the opening that talks of Sweeney dragging a philosopher down to the netherworld and eating his brains while he continues to spout nonsense, to Edgy's backalley brawl, to Barny's unsettling habit of eating baby trolls when he gets nervous. The characters all feel like real people and real friends, too-- they have their own nicknames for each other, help each other with ridiculous schemes, and have long, protracted dinners and conversations with each other. You could know these people, if their circumstances weren't so ridiculously twisted by the place they live in.
        At the same time, though, they're just as insane as their circumstances. GI Bill, one of the characters, spends his time engaged in a blood feud with Barny's sidekick Gregor over Gregor being stuck in a dinosaur during a ball game. Sweeney uses all his influence to smack around a person who doesn't even care if he exists. The challenger to the incumbent mayor is referred to as "doomed Eddie Gallo" and has to give speeches in a torture device. That Aylett makes this relatable and amusing just helps push the book over the edge for me. You come to accept what Accomplice throws at you, and unlike Private Midnight, it doesn't do it to shock you all the more, it does it so you can understand the motivations of the characters and the plots that wind up in play. It does it so you can get Accomplice and all its myriad nuttiness. 
         The book, as you may have noticed, is a dense thing, though, filled with bizarre turns of phrase, irrational characters, and plots that end up going somewhere, though that isn't usually the intended consequence. It's not without its bad points...the plot is heavily involved and dense, but completely inconsequential in places. Everything is handled with the same nonchalance. And overall, the book is barely comprehensible at best.
        But in the end, it's fascinating, though inaccessible. The set pieces are hilarious, and the strange syntax makes even the smallest and most inconsequential sentence suddenly very descriptive. While I can't recommend it to anyone in particular (okay, if you liked Lint, you can probably attempt Accomplice with a degree of ease), it's an essential book to me, one that should be read and, in an era of imitations, possibly be followed to help make something new, something more interesting. Read this book. It'll twist your head into all kinds of interesting shapes and hopefully make you laugh at the same time.

Next Week: Either more impressions of Accomplice, or The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Nonfiction: Zombie Spaceship Wasteland

        "She cries black tears!"
- Cindy Brady

          I don't normally do essay collections on here, or even nonfiction in general. I figure you lot come here to read reviews of books with amputee bikers, zombies, alien cults, and the like, and part of me feels like I should just stick to that. But this one...this one sorta struck a nerve. You see, the past year, I've had to essentially pack up my past into a variety of cardboard boxes and move it not just out of my childhood home, but to two separate houses in parts of a state I swore I wasn't coming back to. This means that I have had to relive a lot of old memories, picking up parts of my past and remembering everything. And it's painful. So very, very painful. Because it's the past, and it's stuck behind that big iron curtain that separates it from the present. And on one level, it can't hurt you any, but on another, knowing that it's always there and you can't go back, can't address the problems with it...that hurts. So an essay collection about essentially a nerdy guy growing up, sprinkled with caustic anecdotes about the emptiness of an MTV gifting suite and nigh-unprintable "hobo songs" seems to hit the's what I read recently, it involves weird fiction in a very tangential way, and looking back on the past is most of what I'm doing right now.
         I came across this book, however, because I'm a Patton Oswalt fanboy. A roommate of mine wound up playing Werewolves and Lollipops in our dorm room during my second year in New Mexico, and about halfway through, it finally took. I got into his other albums, because his cynical way of looking at the world and the constant references gave me something I could identify with. Also, it wasn't that he was cynical...more like a constantly-disappointed and sort of pessimistic optimist. Yes, he was saying, we're all fucked, but there's hope. We're stupid, but there's a light at the end of the tunnel. And, at the time, I could get behind that. So when he announced his book recently, I had to pick it up. And while it wasn't the greatest thing in the world, it's still a fantastic collection.
        Zombie Spaceship Wasteland bounces back and forth between Oswalt's memoirs and humorous pieces he writes, alternating between bittersweet and really, really strange. The pieces range in quality-- one particular piece about his late uncle seems to drag on forever, and the essay on the gifting suite just seems like an exercise in cynicism, but overall, there are more hits than misses and the book carries through. 
        The title comes from a piece where Oswalt talks about his view on the three types of people in the world, based on the movies they watch when they're younger. Zombies tend to be into zombie movies, more interested in the destruction of things than saving anyone or working with society. They're nihilists, and cynical, and usually believe nothing's really going to get better. The movies they watch deal with having to kill and destroy things, and they're a much angrier group of people. Spaceships are more self-contained. They have their own little unit, and they take care of it. Anything they do, they do their own way. They're not cut off from everyone else, but they have their own path. They have an urge to explore and make their own way. Usually they eventually settle down with families. Spaceships always have the best families. The captain has to take care of the crew, after all. Finally, there are the Wastelands. Wastelands are more about rebuilding than destroying, about taking as many people with them instead of walking alone. The Zombies may scream "We're fucked", but the Wastelands add "but there's hope". There's a certain core goodness in all of it that shines through, a sense that while everything is lawless and destroyed, it can be rebuilt. It can change. It can be made better. Oswalt's theory is that each person has a work of art in them about one of these three topics, and depending on what kind of person they are, they'll produce a work along one of these lines. His was wastelands.
        The other essays in the book are equally as well-written, including a history of topics through the routines of three bad stand-up comedians at a comedy club, the running of a corrupt three-screen movie theater (all jobs you get in high school are corrupt to a certain degree. There are no exceptions.), a crazy uncle who talks about the house down the street having inspired The Exorcist, and other subjects that strike the balance between emotion and cynical observations about the way things are, exploring what made him the way he is and why he thinks the things he does, but never tipping over into frothing depressive vitriol.
       The more fictional parts of the book are severely twisted in content, like a greeting card company whose card descriptions devolve into eldritch cosmic horror and insanity, or hobo songs that tend to be about prostitution with other hoboes. These are equally as well-written, though they kind of tend to unsettle as much as amuse. In particular, the greeting card piece gets dark very quick and very early. 
      But in the end, it's a fantastic collection. Oswalt hits much, much more than he misses, and you can tell the care that went into the pieces. There's a great deal of genuine emotion in the book, and the essays are very accessible and quick-moving. Even the unsettling bits are worth reading for the sheer audacity and the fact that while it doesn't make you laugh, an artist's first two duties are 1) Tell a good story, and 2) make the audience feel something. Something, even if it's anger and outrage at the events. Oswalt makes the reader feel a lot of things, some of them not pleasant but all of them very real. This book is definitely worth a read, and it's going to remain part of my permanent collection. 

Next Week: I will finally get around to the hilarious, barely-coherent, and utterly terrifying Accomplice by Steve Aylett. It's good to be back.