Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Great and Secret Show

"What would he write, anyway? I'm killing myself because I didn't get to be King of the World? Ridiculous."

In my line of work, epic novels tend to be a rare thing.

              Well, maybe not rare. But when you don't specifically do high fantasy or space SF, they become a rarer thing than most, and since this blog has more of an urban fantasy/strange horror/modern-day SF bent, they tend to be something I don't run across very often. On this blog alone, I can really only think of two actual epics I've done off the top of my head, those being Fool on the Hill and (in its own way) The Neverending Story. And when I find one, it's usually a book I enjoy more than anything in the world, a book I have to buy and re-read over and over again. Which is a nice segue to The Great and Secret Show.

             I found The Great and Secret Show in the library's fiction section about a month after reading The Thief of Always. The first time I'd tried to read it, I got disgusted by parts of it* and then bored by the rest, and went on to give Weaveworld a try instead, and Imajica, and then others**. However, later on in life, when I had decided maybe reading a chapter and a half of a book and tearing it down was maybe not giving it a fair enough shake*** and picked it up again. And maybe it was because I was reading it at an older age, or maybe because it was the first book in a proposed trilogy that actually had a second part, but I actually got through it and finished it that time. And wondered why I'd ever hated it in the first place. It intrigued me, drew me deeper, and made me wonder where it was all going to end. It was the rare kind of book that actually made me believe it was a question of if the forces of good would succeed, not how the forces of good would succeed. And it held my interest all the way to the end, too.

              The Great and Secret Show starts with a murder and a slow slide into insanity for one Randolph Jaffe, who stumbles upon the true inner workings of the universe while sitting in a dead-letter office at "the crossroads of everywhere". Jaffe becomes obsessed with finding a way to somehow harness these inner workings for himself, being a man of great motivation but little work ethic. After a brutal murder sends him away and off on his quest to harness reality, he meets a drugged-out scientist named Fletcher who, under duress, helps him work on a way to harness "The Art" used to work on the engines that govern our universe. 

And then things get weird.

             And I mean really weird. You see, in no time at all, two characters in the first section of the book are raised to near-divine status and start fighting it out over the United States for control of the forces that govern our reality, becoming Good Man Fletcher, and The Jaff, able to draw power and minions from dreams and reality. What follows is the stuff of myths as the angel and devil figures of our story fight it out in dreams, in the bodies and minds of the people of Palomo Grove, and finally in a realm beyond reality itself. But the forces of The Jaff and Fletcher may only be a small sample of a larger conflict, and as more and more is revealed, their fight may be a simple petty struggle in a war encompassing all of existence itself

           I think what I like most about the book is the fact that when you get through all the modern-day trappings and some of the horror-movie style tropes, the book is in fact an epic myth in its own way. A crazy epic myth, an epic myth that involves love, death, demonic possession-induced impregnation, demigods, a ghost army, incest, and a scene in which a man is forced to run for his life with a Giger-esque parasite clamped to his spine and eating him, but an epic myth nonetheless. It has tragedy, and heroes, and heroic journeys, and somehow never seems to really lose momentum. Barker has created an entire mythology in a single book, from the creation to the eventual final battle between good and evil, and while it's not tight or claustrophobic or fast-paced, it does the job amazingly well. 

         The plot moves along, unfolding new ideas about the world as it goes, and working in more and more characters, all of whom seem like they're supposed to be there, from audience-surrogate Nathan Grillo and his slightly better-connected partner Tesla Bombeck to Harry D'amour, a private detective who seems to find his way into and out of Clive Barker's work almost at will, and seems to be at the center of more and more paranormal events because of it****. Somehow, the plot manages to juggle a staggering amount of characters and plot elements without ever feeling too overstuffed, which is also a major plus. Even in its looser, less-together moments, the story still feels like it's in control and going somewhere, even if it's not clear exactly where somewhere is*****.

         The descriptions are also intensely detailed, but that's not really a surprise to anyone, especially when Clive Barker is known more for the films he directed (Hellraiser and Nightbreed) than his written work. The Jaff's "army", known as "terata", are fiendishly detailed and disgusting, though one wonders exactly what they have to do with the people themselves. Still, the descriptions are fantastic, allowing you to actually see the action and the horrifying monsters...even if they're repulsive beyond what I'd be able to describe here, and even if some of the events are a little unnerving. 

        And finally, the voice is also important. While there is more or less an omniscient narrator, he does keep a consistent voice for each character. Jaffe is terse, snappish, and often nasty prose. Fletcher takes a more unhinged, desperate, slightly clinical tone. Grillo's story sounds like the usual beleaguered reporter narrative, and D'amour (as befits a private detective) has a gritter, bleaker, Chandleresque tone (though delivered in the third-person, as the narrator does). The voice serves the narrative well, and when it starts to break apart, it's sad to see that it all sort of falls down the way it does.

         And that's the issue with the book. It breaks down. Barker does a great job of handling it all, of course, and the breakdown makes sense within the narrative, but when the last third of the book is wrested back by forces beyond the ones we've seen in the book thus far, leading to an ending that, while it makes sense, does kind of fracture the narrative somewhat, as the idea of "a bigger fish" is brought up, but isn't introduced in full force until then, making the entire struggle between the forces of good and evil seem, well, a little trivial, to be honest. Knowing that these titans are small does push the story into a kind of overdrive, but it completely sidelines the story we'd been following for the whole book.

          But that's a trivial point. This is an epic book, and not "epic" in the overused way we use the word now. It's about the forces of Good and Evil clashing over a small California town, it's brilliant in a way books need to be, and it manages to wrap itself up in a way that while having to salvage a breakdown in narrative, manages to tie up as many loose ends as it can while leaving bits here and there open. I own this book, and for a very good reason. Find this book. Read this book. Hell, buy this book. The Great and Secret Show is well worth the price of admission, possibly even more. It outdoes King's epics, it matches Gaiman (it may even outdo him, but that's a matter of opinion), and it's stood the test of the eight years since I've read it. Seriously, read the damn book already.

Next week: 
- The Town that Forgot how to Breathe

And sometime in the near future
- LARP 2012
- Batman Trilogy
- The Demi-Monde: Winter
- A return to Stephen Hunt with Secrets of the Fire Sea
- K.W. Jeter's Noir

And more to come

*In particular, the description of a character's breath as smelling like "a sick man's fart"
**...I'm not sure I actually found a Clive Barker book I could get through until I read Coldheart Canyon, though I could be wrong. His YA books and short stories are a little tighter, usually, from what I know.
***Or maybe I just wanted to read Everville, a mistake I'll get to at some point.
****The Scarlet Gospel, Clive. The Scarlet freaking Gospel! Where the hell is it?! I've only been waiting six bloody years.
*****You will not guess the ending. I'll try to get around it without spoiling it.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Fool on the Hill

"On a windless summer day in an uncertain year, more than a century after the founding of Cornell, a man who told lies for a living climbed to the top of The Hill to fly a kite..."
- Opening lines

              Just so we get the illusion of objectivity dispelled, I typed those above lines almost completely from memory. This, for the few of you who read this blog regularly (all three of you) is one of those books I keep talking about, one of the five books that moved me in a way nothing else seems to. And I discovered it completely by accident. 

              Way back in the dawn of time (okay, so it was more like Sophomore year of high school), we took a trip every summer to Montclair Book Center to get books to read when I went to summer camp. I'd discovered the bookstore the previous year, and it had quickly grown into a favorite of mine. I'd found a copy of a book called Sewer, Gas, and Electric: The Public Works Trilogy by Matt Ruff this time out, and when reading through the science-fiction book ads in the back, I found another book by the same author, a fantasy novel called Fool on the Hill. It wouldn't be until the following winter that I finally remembered the book and ILLed it, settling down to read it that Saturday on the bus to and from the Quiz Bowl tournament I was going to.

              Sweet Hell. That is all.

              The book hit all the right notes, and it hit them so well it was like they'd always been there, just waiting to get out. I laughed, I felt sad, I even whispered "no..." when the story reached its darkest point and things didn't seem like they could go very well for the heroes. Which, as we all know, is something only reserved for the books that really get their hooks in me. It is now, and will probably forever be, my favorite book of all time. It's the book that started me thinking that I could become a writer, of all things, and it will hold a place for me in my head and in my heart.

              The story goes like this: Stephen George goes up a hill in Ithaca just outside Cornell to fly a kite. Around him, storylines are just starting to emerge...a father in Wisconsin worries about his collegiate daughter missing out on the fun of life, the fairies of The Hill go about their daily life and speak in hushed tones of ancient evils and the cemetery known ominously as "The Boneyard", a dog and a cat set out to find Heaven, the most beautiful woman in the world sets out to find her next target and inspire him, and a colorful group of anarchist artists and non-conformists known as The Bohemians come back to Cornell for another semester to once again circle warily around their enemies-- a fraternity of degenerate preppies known as "The Rat Frat". Slowly, the various threads criscross and interact with each other over the course of the novel, but self-contained. All of it seeming to revolve around Stephen, the central character of the piece.

And then things get weird.

             Because, you see, there's another very important character, a Greek "original" going by the name Mr. Sunshine. And he and his (not quite) infinite army of monkeys with typewriters are hammering out a capital-S Story involving the various plot threads described above. He's been manipulating the Story for longer than anyone could fathom, and it's his job to create something interesting, something worth reading, for his own amusement. While he starts out slow to act, he quickly meddles around with the threads, and soon plot points collide, ancient evils are resurrected, rivalries and tensions start to flare, and the Forces of Good and the Forces of Darkness line up for a final confrontation on the Cornell campus. And if the Story is to have a happy ending, the damsel to be rescued, and the day to be saved, Stephen George (our protagonist and possibly an author avatar) has to unlock a very rare ability and step into the role of a hero-- or everything may be doomed. 

            Which sounds kinda like a stereotypical take on the usual fantasy story. I mean, there's a damsel in distress, a hero, fairies, magic, a group of new-wave knights...not much new-sounding here. But it's the way it's presented that makes it special. Matt Ruff has a clear control of his language and work, and it shows. The various storylines are handled in a very tight way, and when they start to connect and collide, the characters still remain unique enough that the plots are never confusing or off-the-rails. Even in the final climax, everything is kept very tightly-wound, and each subsequent payoff simply drives home the impact and closes the storyline without many loose ends. You're not left feeling particularly unsatisfied or left hanging, there's a definite sense of closure and everyone getting what they deserve, and it's nice to find a book that does that.

          Another good point of the book is the world it takes place in. Ruff's Ithaca and his Cornell are very strange, but well-realized places. The school and The Hill are characters in their own right, and really the centerpiece of the story. And they should be, as the story is just as much about them as it is about any of their various inhabitants. By the time there are blatantly magical elements to the story, they feel organic, like they've occurred naturally. Of course Tolkien House would exist in that form in Ruff's world. It can't possibly  exist in any other form. And that's what makes the book so brilliant. Despite all the contrivances, the world makes sense and follows its own internal logic to the letter. And between that and the descriptions, it creates a world that, actually, I'd want to live in, a vibrant place where anything can happen-- and does. Which does the book a great credit.

             However, in the interest of clinging to my remaining shred of objectivity, I do have to point out a few minor points. First, the book does have certain points which, when taken in a more modern context, would raise small flags. Also, there are some points, like the entire arc with The Rubbermaid (though frightening and creepy she may be), where the contrivance wins out over the genuine emotion in the story.

              And it is that genuine emotion that finally wins me over in the end. Because for all its faults, for all the high-handed language I could throw about why this book is well-written, in the end, it comes down to this: Fool on the Hill is a very sweet book, generous in spirit and genuine in its emotion. It's about love, death, stories, free will, and the nature of what ties our world together. It's one of the sweetest and most optimistic books I've read, it never truly telegraphs the ending, and it has one of the best final lines during its last desperate struggle between Stephen George and the forces of good, and the dark forces that have menaced The Hill throughout the story.

               Everyone should read this book. Some of you will not like it. Some of you will openly mock and deride it. Some of you are just too cynical to accept something like this, or maybe it's got too many characters, or hell, maybe you just think everything's one-note or contrived. But some of you, some of you will find your was into Matt Ruff's world, into what he calls his "Shadow Cornell", and find a place for you waiting there. I certainly hope you do. This book is barely known (and everyone thinks it has something to do with The Beatles because of the title) when it should be lauded, neglected when we let people like this mope climb the bestseller lists. 

           So I beseech you: Read this book. Buy this book. Even if you don't like it, this is a book to be experienced. It's my favorite book of all time, for Gan's sake! It even warms through to a cynical bastard like me. I can't force you, of course. But I can strongly suggest it's a good idea.

Next Week: Another all-time favorite with The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker. And in two weeks: The Town that Forgot How to Breathe, as well as articles on seeing The Batman Trilogy, and when I can work out a good angle, my ANEXT 2012 article!


Saturday, July 14, 2012

Broken Piano For President

Hi, welcome to Broken Piano for President. Turn down the lights and fix yourself a stiff drink. Better yet, pour yourself a couple of cocktails and fix yourself a hangover
- The Narrator

           Bizarro, like retro-futurism, is a hit-or-miss field. When it's done right, you have a unique book that almost no major publishing house would ever touch, as the lit-fic that skirts the edges of bizarro is hard enough to market as it is. When it's done wrong, you have someone's book about zombie tentacle rape with grotesque descriptions for no other reason than to push the entire book further out past the boundaries of acceptable taste. For some reason, I've had a lot more luck with bizarro than retro-futurism, possibly because it's harder to classify, or possibly because it's less constrained by the genre it's set in, and can spread its wings a little. 

         In either case, I love the bizarro genre a little too much, and so when I randomly found a link to Broken Piano for President out of the blue, I was intrigued. And then I read the plot description, and I was even more intrigued. Sadly, at the time, I was too stressed and had to spend all my money on food, not books, but eventually, when I had a moment, I picked up the e-book version* of Broken Piano and sat down to read it. And it blew me away.
        Broken Piano for President is the story of Deshler Dean. Dean is a musician with a band called Lothario Speedwagon, a group with lofty (and fairly dubious) ambitions of being the next Butthole Surfers, a task which they continue to fail at. Dean wakes up in an expensive sportscar with a broken screwdriver and a blonde woman who may be unconscious, or possibly dead. He doesn't remember how he got there, and he's not sure of much of anything save that he will get picked up by the cops for this, and he has a massive hangover. His band; comprised of himself, a meth-head drummer who never seems to run out of income, and a sugar-addicted bassist with a nebulous job description; are always on the verge of breaking up. And to complicate things, Dean isn't sure how much time has gone by between getting drunk and waking up in the car. This kind of thing happens to him a lot.

And then things get weird.

         I would tell you exactly how and why, but uncovering all of the various twists, turns, and factions Dean gets mixed up in is most of the fun. Books don't usually blow me away. There have only been a few, ever, that have completely knocked me on my ass, and only a handful more that have made me get emotionally invested in them**. Watching the pieces click together in Broken Piano for President is actually surprising, and many of the twists are set up chapters in advance, but only truly revealed when they bring in a plot element or a particular verbal tic unique to a character. One of the most major twists in the plot doesn't fully get revealed until the end, letting you believe for a long time that you know exactly what was going on and then pulling the rug out from underneath you. The most I can tell you is this: Fast-food corporations. It's about fast food corporations.

        The rest of the book is a dizzying combination of thriller and satire as Dean has to pretend he knows what's going on and at the same time fill in the blanks to figure out how he got there. The plot is the real gem of the book here, and really carries the book as much as anything else. The dialogue pulls a similar duty, giving each character a distinct voice so that they can be recalled later and woven into the plot. Wensink is clearly very good at plotting, and the time he took to put together the various elements and how they hang together shows in every chapter. 

         The descriptions also pull their weight in the novel. I've heard before about how fantasy authors overload their books with descriptions of food. Personally, I never really saw it. However, Wensink's descriptions of the various fast-food monstrosities make me crave junk food. A lot of junk food. I know it's supposed to be satire, but his descriptive powers do him too much justice, and the food actually sounds pretty good***. Similarly, the description of Juan Pandemic, the meth-addict drummer for Lothario Speedwagon, is pretty nauseating. Especially the scenes where he has a cold, or the ones where he has to be disguised. Wensink knows his way around a sentence, hell, he's had intimate knowledge of sentences, and this makes Broken Piano for President easily one of the best books I've read all year.

           However, it isn't without its flaws. In creating a world that gets as cartoonishly nasty as Broken Piano's does, all the characters have to be pretty loathsome, and by the end, even the heroes rank up there with the worst of them. Dean's more or less allowed to get away with what he does because he's a blank slate, but the behavior of his bandmates, friends, and colleagues is all pretty nasty. I understand that this is necessary in a satire, and he pulls enough sympathy out of them to not make it a total loss, but I just don't like having to watch terrible people for hours on end.

           But is the book good? Yes. I highly recommend it. I'm actually a little envious, because Broken Piano for President is the kind of book I'd want to write if I could get off my ass and actually stay on target for once. It's nine bucks, you're supporting a publisher who genuinely enjoys unique voices in fiction. Buy this book. Get this book for a friend and get them to read it first if you're unsure. Do whatever you have to. I wish I could tell you more, but if I spoil any part of the experience for you (Aside from posting half the first chapter up there as I did), you won't be as surprised and amused as you could be. Go in blind, and tell him I sent you.

 Next Week: I return to a book I should have owned a long time ago with Fool On The Hill.          

*Because when money's tight, the option that means you don't have to pay shipping wins. 
**Stephen King's monster of a novel It ranks among those due to the fact that I was afraid of bathrooms and sewers until the monster was freaking dead at the end of the book
***I ran into a similar problem when working on my friend's play, also a fast food satire. He declared that if I went to Wendy's and ordered a Baconator after the whole thing was over, he would kill me myself. 

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Empire State

"You're late."
"No, actually, you're early." He rechecked his watch. "Actually, I am late, I think my watch is busted."
"Like your lip."
- Rad Bradley and Kane Fortuna
        I found this book in a very conventional way, for once. It was on the shelves of the local Barnes & Noble not far from my house. Now, I don't normally support big bookstores, but they've never steered me wrong much. In fact, a lot of the ones I visit inexplicably have smaller and mid-range press genre titles sitting on the shelves without the slightest provocation*. I'd had a bad day, and some money burning a hole in my pocket, so I pointed myself towards the bookstore. And there the book was, its cover done in a very stark red-black-white-green Art Deco-style design, and its back promising a story of private detectives, film-noir backdrops, and masked villains. I was intrigued, and by the time it started to compare itself to Boardwalk Empire and Batman, I knew it would make the trip home with me. 
           And at first, it was brilliant. That was at first. As the book continued, it started to cool off a little, turning into something more and And eventually, I found myself realizing the thing I always realize...a lot of the modern retro-future writing aims high...and then promptly ducks under the bar. There are exceptions, of course...Stephen Hunt's lightly retro-themed fantasies are a delight, Larklight is a great book with an interesting atmosphere, and the seminal works of the genre-- like K.W. Jeter's Infernal Devices-- are, while flawed, classics in their own right. But it seems now that every pen jockey with something to prove has to say it with pneumatic tubes and an over-gross of airships. 

But that's enough of that. 

             Empire State is the story of private detective Rad Bradley, a man who doesn't seem terribly in his element. Rad lives in the Empire State, a fog-enshrouded version of New York City, and is given a case to find Samantha Saturn, a woman who has gone missing after an encounter with the quietly-sinister Pastor of Lost Souls. Rad is also menaced by two men in gas masks asking him about "Nineteen Fifty" and hounded by a long-dead superhero named The Skyguard. Rad must decipher the clues about the city and keep one step ahead of his enemies if he ever hopes to unravel exactly what is going on in his city and indeed why it even exists. As things ramp up, he will encounter cyborgs, doppelgangers, alternate universes, and the possibility that his own friends may know more than they let on. Much more than one could ever think of. In the end, he may have to contend with the end of the world if he hopes to solve the case and save his own universe from destruction at the unwitting hands of our own world.
            And I would like to tell you it's the book that revived my faith in the genre. I'd like to tell you it's the book that I could hold aloft as proof that the retro-future genre isn't a complete wash. 

Yeah. I'd like to. But you already know how this review is gonna go. 

              Empire State is above all a book with serious commitment issues. It wants very badly to be a golden-age superhero story. It also wants very badly to be an alternate-world story (spoilers be damned, it's right there on the back of the freaking book), a noir detective story, a retro-future sci-fi novel, and a pulp adventure story. It wants to be all these things and it tries really, really hard to be all of them. The problem is, since it can't make up its mind and it cannot be all of these things, it really just falls short of all of it. The book ends up a jangling, confused mess where people swap allegiances almost with the flip of a coin and a major character is named "Nimrod" for seemingly no purpose than to hold up the naming conventions. The ending makes no sense, as not even the main character can tell whose side he's on and what he's doing in the overall conflict. 
              That sense of not really knowing what's going on permeates the entire book, too. Perhaps it's just that I failed to connect with the plot on any level, but it just didn't seem like there was any reason for me to. The initial chapters did much to try and draw me in, but once I was there; the story got bored, puttered around the house, checked its email, and then promptly looked back into the living room where I was sitting and asked, "Oh, you're still here?" When the few historical characters used (there are two of them at the very least, I know, shocker) appear, they're given some brief context as to who they are, but not really much to why they're there. The main villain of the piece is one of those, further driving any investment in the plot towards apathy.
               Speaking of the characters that drive the main plot, there are four of them. None of them are the main character. Not a single one. And this is the problem. There are books where the protagonists have had no effect on the plot. Gravity's Rainbow is a good example of a book where the main character has no real effect on the plot, and Gravity's Rainbow, despite being the most incoherent and cack-handed book ever written, is a fantastic read**. But to have us follow a single character from cohesive beginnings to an incoherent climax that involves Rad, his alternate universe double (spoilers be damned, if there's an alternate universe, there is always an alternate universe double. This is a scientific fact), his introduced-as-untrustworthy ballroom-dancer friend, and just about every other high-powered character in the story. It eventually rockets towards a climax that, somehow, The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack handled better***.
                However, after all of that, I do have to say this: The book has its good points. A fair number of them. The bits in the Empire State reveal a pulp dystopia**** that sounds like a lot of fun to play around in, and there is an excellent control over setting. At the beginning, the mystery is gripping and reads very well, unfolding with just the right amount of information to keep you guessing. I admit that this is one of the very few works of fiction that had me stumped: I had no idea where they were going with the story (I would later learn this is because the story went nowhere), and I liked that. And the dialogue, on top of all those things, is very well-done. Maybe not to Locke Lamora levels, but very well done nonetheless.
                But in conclusion, it is the plot that keeps the book down, and the plot that damns it. Despite having a great many cool concepts in it, the book isn't actually about anything, and without any kind of driving force behind it, the machinery breaks down, and that big, beautiful box of a plot unfolds into a depressing Christmas present, much like an ugly sweater but with more robots and gunplay.The issue Mr. Christopher has in his book is the same one I have with my own writing-- you can invent as many cool concepts and characters and lines as your mind can dream of, but it doesn't mean a thing if you can't give them anything to do.
                And so my final verdict would be this: While I don't recommend this book, it's certainly not terrible enough to warn you away from it (Hello to Ghosts of Manhattan!). I'd suggest taking it out from the library if you're curious, and seeing how you fare. It's certainly an interesting novel, if not a particularly well-plotted one. 

Next Week: A new classic of literature with Broken Piano for President

*It's weird, but then again I live in New Jersey. Weird kinds of things (like, f'rinstance, Eraserhead Press books sitting on the shelves of Barnes & Noble) just sort of happen statewide. My unofficial state motto is "Over sixteen portals to hell and counting!"

**As a sidenote, I hate this book even more for making me use up a Pynchon reference before I did a review of an actual Pynchon book.

***Actually, in hindsight, I may have been a little too hard on Burton & Swinburne. Despite the stupid time-travel bits, it's actually quite well-constructed compared to other books in the retro-future genre.

****This word is not recognized by my spellcheck, but somehow "Quidditch" is. Why is it not recognized by my spellcheck?!