The 5th Wave

Novel * Rick Yancey * Oh No Aliens OR ARE THEY * 2013

Synopsis

I don’t read book reviews. Hell, I barely write them. I do read a lot of books, however, and many of them feature a page full of ecstatic excerpts from various outlets. This ain’t a new thing, to the point where it doesn’t even register with me for the most part. That said, sometimes the endless, excessive gushing over a book strikes me as odd. Not because the book itself is bad – The 5th Wave is totally competent – but because I can’t tell how these quotes would look in context.

“Everyone I trust is telling me to read this book” says The Atlantic Wire, whatever that is. “Unfortunately it turns out that everyone I trust is an idiot,” the quote continues. Probably.

“A modern sci-fi masterpiece… should do for aliens what Twilight did for vampires” USAToday.com said. First of all, I don’t trust that ellipsis. Anything could be in there. Like a whole manifesto could be embedded between those two phrases. Also, the following sentence is certainly “and we all saw how that turned out.”

“Step aside, Katniss.” Oh, fuck right off The Cleveland Plain Dealer. Like I’m going to trust any publication with such a 1930’s-ass name as that. Also, just no.

Here’s what The 5th Wave is: a totally acceptable, extremely pulpy, occasionally obnoxious alien invasion story. I read it in two days because: 1. Work was slow and I had a lot of time on my hands. 2. It’s breezy Y.A. fiction that is quickly paced. 3. The story was good enough to keep me engaged throughout. And that last point is super important, because if you’re out there writing genre fiction (young adult or otherwise) that’s what you’re looking for. Get in, tell your story, get out. That’s what Yancey does, and it works.

Here’s what The 5th Wave is not: 1. Better than the fucking Hunger Games. 2. A revelation in science fiction and/or apocalyptic fiction. 3. In any universe comparable to The Road. Jesus Christ, Entertainment Weekly, really? Look, I understand we’re trying to sell books here, but get it together reviewers. Do you get a kickback if you’re featured on the “Praise” page? And if so how do I get in on it? Probably by writing more accessible, punchy, 500 word review blips for a major publisher. Or even better, hyperbolic, gushy praise for absolute trash so I can be the one guy from some website no one’s ever heard of (like this one!) making the cover of the book.

It’s summer now, and you need an easy-breezy book to blast through without thinking too hard. I get it. Dog days, man. Let me suggest The 5th Wave. It’s about a teen girl, because this is Y.A. There’s also a teen boy or two, also because Y.A. This is an alien apocalypse which manifests itself in, wait for it, five waves. The first is an electromagnetic pulse which wipes out humanity’s power grid and electronics. All of it. The second wave is tidal waves? I forget how they pull that off but it eliminates coastal cities worldwide. Then the third wave is a gross plague. After the vast majority of humanity is dead, the aliens send down infiltrators to personally eliminate the rest. The fifth wave is a secret. Why are the aliens doing these things? Who cares!

5th Wave2

Oh no, they tried to make this a thing. I bet this movie is just terrible and I don’t think I want to find out.

Discussion

It turns out that it’s difficult to write about totally competent, mostly unremarkable books. Even when those books are totally in my wheelhouse. The 5th Wave opens with our protagonist, Cassie-for-Cassiopeia, as she navigates a destroyed world. She’s a quirky teen, her thoughts tend to wander and she makes a lot of pithy dad-jokes in her head. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that she’s being written by a middle-aged dad. Again, whatever, all of these internal monologues hustle the pace along and the story keeps moving. Cassie is tonally all over the place, which is usually a bad thing, but here it keeps the book as a whole form bogging down in your typical bad-apocalypse malaise. We get it. The world’s destroyed, humanity is hanging on by a thread and is facing an all-powerful, unknowable enemy. Extinction is all but ensured. But does everyone have to be so dour about it all the time? Lighten up, last remnants of humanity!

I will admit that perhaps my perception of The 5th Wave as an example of a “lighter” apocalypse is unintentional. I mean, humanity really is mostly destroyed. The plague in particular is rather gruesome. There’s the expected noble sacrifices, and almost everyone has experienced traumatic loss. Okay, but for all that Cassie still really seems into the object of her unrequited fifteen-year-old-girl crush. He’s the minor protagonist, “Zombie,” who is quite frankly a jocky douche-turned-survivor. Here’s the thing, though: don’t expect me to take your survival story seriously if you’re spending quality time setting up a motherfucking teen love triangle. Face it, Cassie, you’re going to have to consider broadening the gene pool at some point so maybe don’t get hung up on your prissy notions of monogamy. Nobody’s going to be around to slut-shame you when you’re at risk of being assimilated by creepy ghost-aliens.

The aliens here are, in the end, kind of lame. I was really hoping for a race of big gross Cthulhu monsters to drop down from their mothership and the 5th wave would just be them unleashing Eldritch horror across the flaming ruins of Earth. Alas, no. They’re parasites. Somehow – it’s not really explained too much – they’re incorporeal beings of pure thought or something. Back in 1995 they impregnated a bunch of unknowing humans and left them with random images of owls (screen memories!) and an alien brain-worm. Then, in present day, they activate their alien-ghost-worms and take the human over for the purposes of hunting other humans. That’s the 4th wave. But then it bleeds into the 5th wave, which is using the alien-ghost-people to indoctrinate children into doing the heavy lifting of extermination for them. Personally, I think the whole Invasion of the Body Snatchers aspect of the alien attack should be a single wave and that Yancey is totally cheating. Throw like a temporary Ice Age in there or something. Mix it up.

Usually, in this section, I will attempt to push a little deeper into a given text and examine some undercurrent of theme and/or intent pertaining to notions of the apocalypse. I’m having difficulty doing that today. I’m actually acutely disappointed that my copy of this book doesn’t have a section of book club questions in the back, because those are really helpful when I’m not feeling particularly analytic. That said, I suppose whoever is responsible for writing those questions likely read the book and shrugged, kind of like I did. Like, “that was fun,” and then spent an hour trying to think of something clever to ask the reader. Hold on…. ….Shit. They’re online. Okay, maybe just one.

How is Manifest Destiny similar to The Others’ takeover of Earth? How does the American concept of Manifest Destiny differ?

Damn, getting deep there. First of all, nice reminder of the United States’ foray into genocide that we really don’t like talking about. Secondly, the answer is God. Now, if you’re a cynic like me you look at the attitude surrounding Manifest Destiny as a flimsy smokescreen to grab land from what were assumed to be a less worthy species of human. That’s the bit that The Others have in common with American settlers. They just don’t bother attributing their atrocities to a higher power. They are the higher power.

Oh man, there’s a lot of good ones here. Alas, I’m kind of done writing about this. That said, I’m now seriously considering reading the rest of the trilogy which I pretty much wasn’t before. So good job, question-writer. Well done.

Posted in Books, Y.A.T., Desolation, Aliens | Leave a comment

The Book of the New Sun: The Citadel of the Autarch

Novel * Gene Wolfe * Is Any of This, Like, Even Real, Man? * 1982

There are other books! Book 1 | Book 2 | Book 3

Synopsis

With every additional entry in this series, I feel less and less confident in my ability to grasp just what in the actual fuck is going on. That should probably be the baseline of reading a book, right? To be able to identify incredibly basic things like: Who are these people? Where do they live? What are they doing? And maybe, even: Why are they doing these things? Answering those questions in an artful way is pretty much how you tell a story. At first, The Book of the New Sun seemed to do these things as you’d expect. There is a boy named Severian. He lives in a massive, ancient city named Nessus. He’s a torturer. Eventually he gets kicked out of his home for being nice to a lady (by which I mean he allows her to kill herself rather than continue to torture her). From here he is to travel north and seek his fortune as a traveling executioner (it’s more complicated than that, but we’re talking basics here). His journey is interrupted by weird shit almost immediately, however, and that’s what injects uncertainty into the narrative. This uncertainty continues to ramp up with every page, and by the end of the cycle I barely understand what I’ve just read.

So here’s some pro-tips for folks who are deciding whether or not this series is for you. First of all, maybe don’t skip to an article about the last book in the series. That said, I don’t think it’s possible to actually spoil anything about these books. Anything I’d say about the ending would just be inscrutable to anyone unfamiliar with not only the story, but Wolfe’s delivery of the story. The other tips are pretty straightforward. Read slowly and pay attention. I tend to blast through novels as quickly as possible and sometimes I miss subtleties. Everything in The Book of the New Sun is a subtlety. Try and read them all together. Again, I did not do this, often reading four or five (or more) books in between entries. By the end of each book I felt like I was almost catching on to Wolfe’s rhythms and narrative tricks, and if I had stuck with it I think the following volumes would have been easier to unravel. Instead I’d return to this murky, fascinating world just as confused as I was when I started. Finally, these books probably need to be read more than once to really grasp what’s happening. I read the first novel twice (the first time a couple of years ago, before I wrote about everything I read) and the second time through it made a bit more sense. I’m sure a third time through would be even more enlightening.

This is all to say that if you intend to read The Book of the New Sun, you best bring your fucking A-game as a reader. I understand if you look at the cover art of these things and think to yourself: “Oh, heh, this looks like some pulpy-ass sci-fi/fantasy nonsense” with the intention of enjoying some light summer reading. This is not that. You have to work. Wolfe isn’t trying to make your life easier, he doesn’t care if you like Severian or not, he doesn’t care if you understand when and where this even takes place. The author is obfuscating the narrative to himself, which barely makes sense but that’s what these books are all about. Layers upon layers of obfuscation. Which is fine, because it allows me to use the world “obfuscate” a lot, which I enjoy. Other than that, boy, this was actually exhausting. I’m glad I read them, but I don’t know if I will ever try and read them again. I don’t even know if I can in good conscience recommend them. Yet now that I’ve finished The Citadel of the Autarch, I’m going to try and unravel what I just read. I have assuredly missed things. Like, most of the things. Therefore the following section is going to be more trying to explain to myself what happened, and less identifying and discussing themes. It turns out you have to be able to understand the characters and plot before making grand assumptions of authorial intent.

citadel autarch2

This weird-ass depiction of The Citadel of the Autarch pretty much encapsulates the feel of the novel. It looks rad, is compelling and strange, and makes no damn sense at all.

Discussion

From the very beginning of the series, it has been clear that Severian is writing from a future point of view. Specifically, we know very early on that he is going to become the Autarch, which is like the king/dictator/emperor of the Commonwealth. This kind of narrative framing is not uncommon, but I’ve never been a huge fan, as I feel like it can rob a story of its immediacy. However, The Book of the New Sun ain’t about that. There are action set pieces and moments of dark despair and tense moments fraught with uncertainty, but underlying all of that is the knowledge that Severian, at least, will end up running the place. His life is not in danger. And you know, if it was, whatever. I’ve long since come to the conclusion that Severian kind of sucks, and nothing that happens in this final volume has changed that.

Okay, I’m going to try and walk through the plot as I experienced it here. From the beginning Severian has wandered the land with two constant companions: His sword, Terminus Est and the relic known as the Claw of the Conciliator. Terminus Est was real good at lopping heads off and the Claw seemed to contain the power to heal and at times straight up raise the dead. At the end of the previous book, the sword was destroyed and the Claw was shattered but still vital. Oh, but get this you guys, the power of the Conciliator has been inside Severian all along. Because Severian is the Conciliator? That’s less clear. Anyway, Severian is once again in desperate straits, wandering around a fresh battlefield trying not to dehydrate and/or starve to death. He eventually catches up to the war we’ve been hearing about for three books and resurrects yet another poor bastard with his inherent Claw power. These two stumble into a camp for the wounded where people either die or are rehabilitated. Severian kind of does neither.

While in this camp, Severian listens to stories. They’re probably important, I don’t know. One of them is about a rooster who has a hubris, another is about fratricide over a lady, there was another one I forget. Look, like I said, if you’re here hoping I’m going to elucidate something for you, you’re going to be disappointed. After storytime, Severian decides he would like to try a war out. The combatants are the forces of the Commonwealth, who are ostensibly led by the Autarch. The enemies are a civilization called Ascia, of which Severian knows nothing. Eventually we meet a citizen of Ascia, and it turns out they’re fucking weird too. Like, so weird. Fascinatingly weird, but what in these books isn’t? Now the Ascians seem to operate like some kind of individuated Borg. Their minds are utterly assimilated, and they are only able to speak in pamphlet form. By that I mean they speak in formal paragraphs of propaganda, as if their only education is in the form of social indoctrination. Their entire language seems to be comprised of bullet points from some kind of mysterious manifesto. You can understand the words they use, but there is literally no context which makes them coherent. Of course one of the Ascians tells a story too, which other characters “translate,” but come on now.

citadel autarch3

I may be wrong, but I think fantasy art probably peaked in the ’80s.

Bleep blop bloop, some other things happen. Look, I’ll skip to the important bit. Eventually Severian meets the Autarch, a thing which has been destined to happen the entire time. Severian has to succeed him at some point, right? Now, if you recall, during his adventures Severian participated in a ceremony where he ate his dead girlfriend which was spiked with a drug allowing her consciousness to reside in his mind. As the series has progressed, Thecla’s personality has become a part of Severian. He’s literally two people in one body. So that’s weird, but the Autarch has over a thousand. It turns out that this is a prerequisite of being in charge. Now the Autarch is on his deathbed and bequeaths control of the Commonwealth over to this nutbar young torturer. So Severian kills the Autarch while freebasing his brain juice (I have no idea what this process actually looks like) and now Severian has all the Autarch’s personalities within him.

In the end Severian returns to his home in Nessus, and returns to the Citadel where he grew up. Oh, first he catches up with poor, dead Dorcas and chooses not to speak with her. Okay. Anyway, he goes home then some apparently important things happen which serve to leave me confused, just like every other book in the series. There are aliens who might actually be humans who have left Earth to colonize the stars and are now differentiated from the parent species enough to be beyond our reckoning. Severian takes up the responsibilities of the Autarch – because he has assimilated all of the previous Autarchs – but he’s also the Conciliator maybe but we don’t know for sure. There’s a test? If there is he hasn’t taken it yet or maybe he did and created some kind of temporal time wave that sent this document of the future millions of years into the past – which is where live – and straight into Gene Wolfe’s brain and that’s what this whole “New Sun” thing is.

Nailed it.

I’m really trying not to be overly flip about all of this, and am apparently failing, because the world Wolfe has created here really is fascinating. I totally understand that these books have serious fans who really, really get into it. There’s a ton to uncover and disseminate here, mysteries to unravel and theories to argue over. I’m way into the idea of a late, late, late stage version of humanity still around to witness the very death of the sun. It’s a little unnerving that human nature hasn’t changed all that much, but whatever, it’s a cool thing to imagine. Like of course a society staring down the gun of assured final destruction would get super weird and invent a new religion based on a dream of reversing the heat death of the universe. However – and I’m clearly in the minority of readers here, I think – there’s just not enough to really hold on to which would really ignite that drive to discover more about the world. I need a foothold in this world, a viewpoint I care about to allow me to ease into the setting a little bit. As is, Severian is slippery and quite possible insane, which is a difficult foothold to try and understand such an alien society. In the end, I’m glad I forced myself to finish these. I just wish I liked them more

Posted in Books, Entropy | 4 Comments

The Corner

Nonfiction * David Simon & Ed Burns * Total Social Failure * 1997

Synopsis

I don’t read very much nonfiction. My ratio is somewhere in the realm of ten fiction books for every bit of reality I read. Of course I like learning things, so much of my nonfiction reading tends to be an attempt to fill in knowledge. I’ll read a biography about T.S. Eliot, or about the volcano I work in, or about the punk rock scene in L.A. back in the day. Then I went and picked up this book, which was co-written by the dude who created Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Wire. Now, I’ve never seen the former and have only seen the first season of the latter (yes, I know, shut up), but if you’re even passingly familiar with those things, you get a pretty good understanding of what this is all about. Here’s the thing. The Corner definitely fills in some gaps in my knowledge, because quite frankly I know very little about living in West Baltimore. However, while learning about life on the corner, I’ve had my worldview upended, and that’s always a difficult thing.

The Corner is the result of these two authors, one a former crime journalist the other a former police officer, spending a year with the residents of a single neighborhood in West Baltimore. This neighborhood is the site of a large, open-air drug market, mostly heroin and cocaine. The book is largely written as a narrative following a few primary individuals – not characters, because these are real people using their real names – over a year of their life. While there many people flitting in and out of the narrative, the center of the story told here is the McCullough family. I use the world “family” loosely. There is a father, Gary, who is a heroin addict. The mother is Gary’s ex, Fran, who is also a heroin addict. They have two sons. The oldest is DeAndre, who is fifteen. He goes to school perhaps once a week and otherwise spends his time selling both heroin and coke on the corner. Then there is the younger brother who mostly just keeps his head down. He’s like nine and doesn’t figure much in the narrative. Thank God.

Their stories are terrible. Once upon a time, Gary was successful. Somehow, someway, he managed to transcend his surroundings and actually make something of himself. Then he succumbed to a fatal flaw, which was to stay put in the neighborhood. Eventually, he hooked up with Fran, who was something of a bad girl. One thing leads to another and suddenly Gary is chasing the blast and as he tumbles, all his money and possessions fade away until he’s living in his parent’s basement nodding off to sleep every night and spending his days looking for ways to score a blast. And that’s the story of The Corner. This book is primarily about these lost and forgotten people of West Baltimore, it’s about the overarching situation as a whole.

Every once in a while, the authors will interrupt the narrative and provide context for what we’re reading. These bits are every bit as important as the narrative, because while they’re just as bleak as the narrative, they at least provide a reprieve from the specific tragic suffering the rest of the book is largely comprised of. These segments are an indictment of the War on Drugs, but do an excellent job of pointing out how and why this problem of extreme poverty and open-air drug markets are so intractable. The Corner is a pessimistic book, there are no answers given here. While the narrative is awash in tragedy, and the commentary mostly boils down to throwing up your hands and saying “it’s real fucked up!” there are still moments of redemption here and there. Yes, it’s mostly terrible, but the authors do manage to dig up some moments of quiet inspiration and goodwill. It’s real rough, but considering not much has changed since this was researched and written (the early 90s), The Corner is still a vital document.

corner2

Oh look, there’s a miniseries. I have no intention of ever watching that.

Discussion

Goddammit, DeAndre.

All of the context, the facts and statistics, the conclusions drawn about national policy over poverty and drugs, all of it, pales when compared to the frustration of following the life of DeAndre McCullough. He’s fifteen years old, and as such is a little shit most of the time. He’s smart, but he’s stubborn, and like every other adolescent on earth can swing wildly between boisterous, sullen, aggressive, and giddy. As the book moves along, two things become fairly clear. The first is DeAndre absolutely has the potential to rise up and out of his surroundings. The second is the boy never had a fucking chance. Over and over again, DeAndre finds himself in situations where his potential flashes and it looks like maybe, just maybe he can get over. He never quite all-the-way quits school like his fucked up friends. He never quite all-the-way commits to the corner. Something in him pulls him back from the abyss over and over again, and every time it happens – whether he’s dressing up in a suit and giving a speech for a school competition or supporting his mother in her effort to clean up – I would get my hopes up. And then, over and over again, he would fail.

DeAndre’s failures are a microcosm of the entire system described within The Corner, which is what ultimately shifted how I think about this aspect of the world. Look, I’m not going to hype this book up and say silly things like “it changed my life!” or even “it changed how I look at the world!” Very few books have the power to do that, especially once you’ve grown up and your views have calcified somewhat. That said, the story of DeAndre and his sad, doomed father and the other poor drug-addled bastards of Fayette Street messed me up. It’s one thing to understand intellectually that environment is a major factor in individual development, it’s quite another to feel it. If someone like DeAndre is born into a quiet, suburban community, he thrives. Maybe he doesn’t go to Stanford, probably like UC Santa Cruz or something, but he gets by. He looks back fondly on his Banana Slug days, smoking weed at the beach and chasing girls and getting C’s, then he gets a job as a middle manager somewhere in the Silicon Valley, gets married, has some kids and a dog and a townhouse in San Jose. Good times. The exact same amount of effort on the corner in West Baltimore gets you maybe a year of wavering back and forth between maybe getting out and falling all the way in.

Early on, the authors give us the ground rules for inner-city, open-air drug markets like that found on Fayette Street:

“The rules of the game are a two-step program to nonrecovery, as valid a living credo as anything on those pamphlets that get tossed around at Narcotics Anonymous meetings. First among them is a declaration of intent as all-encompassing as the first commandment to roll down the slopes of Sinai.

  1. Get the blast.

Get it and live. For whomsoever believeth in good dope shall live forever, or if not forever, at least for that sugar-sweet moment when he chases down a vein, slams it home, and discovers that what they’ve been saying about them Green Tops is true: The shit is right….

If faith and spirituality and mysticism are the hallmarks of any great church, then addiction is close to qualifying as a religion for the American underclass. If it was anything less, if at Fayette and Monroe there was a single shard of unifying thought that could compete with the blast itself, then the first rule would be null and void. But no, the blast is all, and its omnipotence not only affirms the first rule, but requires the second:

2. Never say never.

On the corner, the survivors do what they’ve got to do and they live with it. When mere vice is sufficient to get the blast, it ends there. But eventually, it’s sin that is required, and when sin falls short, absolute evil becomes the standard.”

It, uh, goes on like that for some time, but you get the point. Simon and Burns do an excellent job of illustrating the reasons why society in places like West Baltimore failed, and has been failing for decades. It’s a complicated tableau of social pressures born from various aspects of our civilization. In Baltimore there is an obvious racial component born from the vast migration of former slaves northward after the civil war, in the grim hope of escaping institutionalized racism and Jim Crow. Beyond that, there is a clear decline of good, solid industrial and manufacturing jobs. Globalism and neoliberal deregulation policies shifted those jobs overseas, and vast swaths of the population were left with nothing. There is one booming local economy left, however, and that’s the drug market. When you have a desperate demand for a product like you get with heroin and cocaine addicts, that economy will fill the void. Throw the utterly misguided approach to curtail the drug trade on top of it, and what you get is a scene of destructive chaos that follows the above two rules, and those two rules only.

Once someone like Gary McCullough is addicted, there is very little chance for escape. His entire support system is neck deep in the game with the exception of his poor, overwhelmed, and confused parents. Step one, get the blast. Ain’t no one out there working harder than a junkie trying to come up with ten bucks to get high. The section about the swarm of junkies stripping the city bare of its copper and aluminum is striking because it illustrates an obvious problem as a group of entrepreneurs figuring out a way to get their blast. I actually caught myself almost respecting these thieving addicts for their hard work and ingenuity. Then I shook it off and continued to be sad about it.

There is a success story here, at least. DeAndre’s mother, Fran, finally decides to get clean and get out, and while during the year the story takes place she fails, there’s at least a friendly epilogue to explain that yes, she did finally get clean. Further, DeAndre’s fourteen-year-old baby mama is also able to escape the life on the corner. It turns out that when you follow people around for a year, you get attached to them. So the authors, of course, couldn’t be said to be entirely above their own humanity for the sake of ‘pure’ journalism, and continued to keep tabs on their subjects and friends. Fran got out and stayed clean, Gary is dead from an overdose. Actually, nearly everyone in the narrative is either dead or incarcerated, because the life expectancy of those on the corner is notoriously short. There are many, many ways to die. Either you can overdose, or get some horrible disease from needle-sharing, or you can get shot over a shortage/territory/deal-gone-wrong/total accident.

By the end of the year depicted in The Corner, DeAndre is back on the street, and using as much as he’s selling. Once again, he almost-but-not-quite gets himself out, only to fall back into the rhythms of the street. And really, what chance did he have? Both of his parents are fiends, his only room in the world is the backroom of a shooting gallery. The only people with money in the neighborhood have it from selling dope and coke. The school is an unfunded, mostly empty, chaotic mess, and besides, what the fuck does anything taught there have to do with his day to day life anyhow? There is nothing, nothing, for a kid like DeAndre to hold onto that would look like anything your typical middle-class American takes for granted. So it’s no wonder that DeAndre, despite being smart and sensitive, ends up getting high on his own supply. It’s no wonder that despite having, eventually, a friend that could get him a job in showbiz (DeAndre had a part on The Wire, while his younger brother managed to avoid the corner and got an education, which allowed him to live a better life) didn’t matter much. Back and forth, almost but not quite. DeAndre McCullough died in 2012 of an overdose. Fuck.

Posted in Books, Government, Post Modernity, Urban Decline | Leave a comment

Logan

Film * James Mangold * The Man Comes Around * 2017

Synopsis

This one hurt. No, really, this is a bleak, despairing movie and at no point does it stop punching you right in the feelbasket. Like, I’ll throw the standard disclaimers right up top here. I don’t really care about superhero movies, nor do I have any particular investment in comic books. Of course I’ve seen a bunch of comic book films, if I didn’t there wouldn’t be anything left for me to watch. I’ve seen about two-thirds of the X-Men movies, even. I know I saw the first two in the theater like 15 years ago, so yeah, feel old, because these things have been around for a while. The difference for me and people who really get into this stuff is, I think, that I watch them once and move on. I don’t have any real, ongoing connection to this world or these characters and am therefore by no means an expert on any of this. I have a passing familiarity with who the X-Men are, I obviously know the principal characters and the struggles of mutant-kind. Outside of the very basics though? No idea what’s happening.

And none of that matters. Now that I think about it, only having a hazy understanding of the X-Men oeuvre might actually be an asset when watching Logan. At the very least, coming in blind to this film is not a detriment. I can only imagine the reaction of someone extremely vested in X-Men lore and a Wolverine fanboy/girl watching Logan and having their whole worldview fucked up. That’s because this is some straight-up darkest timeline shit right here. I’d worry about overselling the uncompromising grimness of this film, but I think that might actually be impossible. Going in for the first time, even if you’ve read reviews and watched trailers, I’m not so sure you’d be prepared for what you get. I didn’t do any of that, but I at least had a sense that Logan was going to be a “dark” and “gritty” version of the X-Men with an R rating and that’s cool.

Yes, Logan is dark and gritty. Sure, whatever. The grim, constant violence barely registers as a reason as to why this movie hurts, though. Sometimes Logan has to put his claws through some dope’s face, that happens when you’re Wolverine. It’s incidental to the real story here. Okay, maybe not incidental, the brutal violence underscores the brutality of the world, the unrelenting oppression that is suffocating everyone and everything happening on screen. Logan is a film about what happens when reality catches up with fantasy. Superhero movies are so often about larger-than-life characters who, while flawed, are still able to master their reality in ways us normal jamokes can only fantasize about. Wolverine might be a surly jackass (with a heart of gold) but then snickety-snack! Claws come out and it’s a rad power fantasy. Charles Xavier might be an old guy in wheelchair, but he could end you with a thought. There are obstacles, but the heroes always win, and they always win on their own terms.

Logan is here to rudely remind you that superhero movies are bullshit. Reality, random and harsh, always wins. I absolutely don’t want to talk specifics here. If you haven’t seen the movie, go watch the movie. If you need a plot motivation, here you go. It’s 2029 and the world doesn’t look much different, perhaps just a little more tired. The X-Men are a memory, and unless I’m mistaken there is no serious mention of any other team members. All that’s left is Wolverine, who’s looking rough. He lives in Mexico and makes his living as a chauffeur. He clearly has a drinking problem. Aside from driving frat-douches around, he is taking care of a decrepit Charles Xavier, who seems to be suffering from dementia of some sort. The story is about the discovery of a new mutant (in this future, mutants seem to have had their own Children of Men catastrophe and none have been born in years), the bad mens trying to capture her, and Logan’s attempt to stay ahead of them. And now I’m going to get specific, because there is plenty to talk about here.

logan2

Everything’s just real cool, man. Just real cool.

Discussion

The first scene of Logan immediately sets the tone for the entire film, which is to say dark, grim, and oppressive. We know right away that this is not a Captain America-esque feel-good-fun-time best-friends-will-overcome type of situation. A wise-cracking Spiderman doesn’t show up and start tossing off quips and at no point are we in danger of being in the presence of too much sexy, because despite Hugh Jackman existing, Logan is the least sexy superhero movie ever. It’s weird saying about a major studio release, but nothing about this film feels particularly Hollywood. This first scene? Jesus. Logan’s in his car on the side of the road, trying to sleep it off, when he’s rudely awakened by some cholos stealing his rims. He stumbles out, and is promptly gunned down under the blue glare of a massive video billboard, right alongside a busy highway. Because he’s fucking Wolverine, Logan stands back up and is still cool about it. “Guys, you don’t want to do this.” Of course they do, because they’re clearly suicidal dimwits, and Logan fucks their shit up in bloody, grisly fashion. Again, right alongside a busy Texas highway.

The setting of this scene says more to me about the ambition of the movie than the actual acts of horrific violence. Near-future settings are always difficult to properly execute, since anything you show will easily be debunked in a few years. Logan pulls it off, and that’s because it hardly changes anything about how the world works. Sure, there’s the scene in the middle of the film where Logan is out there trying to corral some horses on a freeway while dodging the automated trucks flying by. Yet automated trucks are going to be a thing, and if that’s as fancy as things are going to get, I believe it. Christ, even the cell phones look largely the same. Visually, there isn’t much to mark Logan as a film about the future, which is the film implying that the present is stagnant, if not getting worse. It’s a future where gangsters can waste a random civilian on the side of a highway without even thinking about it. It’s a future where a few more dead bodies don’t matter to the minivan whipping past as quickly as possible under the protective blue glow of advertising.

logan3

While the breakdown of Charles Xavier is heartbreaking, Patrick Stewart is, as always, fantastic.

Then there’s the whole mutant situation, which is even more dire than that of humanity in general. The X-Men are gone and there’s no real explanation as to where they went. It’s heavily implied that they’re dead. Why? That’s not important, really. (In retrospect, I think Xavier’s nuclear seizures probably had a lot to do with it, but again, the film didn’t bother to spell it all out, so it’s by definition not super important.) It took me about a third of a movie to stop wondering if I had missed something vital by not watching the other stand-alone Wolverine movies (I’m pretty sure I missed nothing, by the way) and take Logan for what it is, which is the last stand of mutant-kind. It’s a mutant post-apocalypse in which the apocalypse is off-screen and the survivors are three broken-down old men just trying to live another day. And let me tell you, even as someone only causally interested in the X-Men in general, seeing Charles Xavier as a 90-year old husk rolling around raving like a lunatic is rough. Although I won’t lie, listening to Patrick Stewart swear makes up for it a little bit. Still, the situation these last three mutants are in is bleak. They’re it, the last of mutant-kind, and they’re only hanging on by a thread.

This is why Logan introduces Laura, and by extension, a new generation of mutants. Otherwise this whole thing would not only be unbearable, but pointless. For a post-apocalypse to mean anything, there has to be an after, otherwise it’s just extinction and it’s hard to feel any way but nihilistic about that. Laura, Logan’s genetic offspring and a gnarly little mini-Wolverine, is then introduced as a way to feel slightly less bad about the abject and total failure of the X-Men. Because guess what? The X-Men were an abject and total failure. Wolverine’s cynicism was proved right, so right that not even Wolverine himself can feel vindicated by it. All those comics, all those movies, all that feel-good heroic posturing, the stirring speeches about equality and the right to live, the villains vanquished and the universal values of humanity defended, all of it dead. Ground out by the unrelenting forces of harsh, uncompromising reality. Wolverine an old drunk. “The World’s Most Dangerous Mind” a desiccated husk prone to seizures. Charles Xavier was fucking wrong about the world and is therefore doomed to live his last moments on the run, with the full knowledge that everything he ever fought for is dust and that he failed. His reward for his lifetime of effort is a shallow grave in the middle of nowhere.

Logan, at least, gets a moment of redemption before he’s relegated to the dustbin of history. He has a daughter, a direct continuation of mutant-kind and an opportunity to redeem the failed X-Men project. Yet how do we suppose this redemption is going to look? Now, comic nerds can correct me here, but my understanding of the main moral crisis of the X-Men was always in the relationship between Xavier and Magneto. Xavier opened his school and tried to make mutants feel and act normally, using their powers for the benefit of society in general. Magneto, on the other hand, believed that mutants were by nature superior and should therefore either run society or have their own separate society (I apologize if I’m fuzzy on the details, like I said, I’m the most casual of casuals) – either way, Magneto was all about embracing power. Xavier’s X-Men apparently won that ideological struggle, and then were in some kind of off-screen apocalyptic event, where they were proved utterly wrong. Clearly, if they had listened to Magneto, they wouldn’t be in this situation. Maybe it would be worse for humanity, but mutants would obviously be better off.

This is the one of two lessons learned by this young batch of new mutants. The whole world’s against you, the very people who created you desire to destroy you, think you less than human. You’ve got all these dope powers and have been trained since birth to use them to vanquish your enemies. The lesson here? Murder everyone before they murder you. Sound familiar? These young mutants have powers that were almost extinct, but are now loose in a hostile world. The only reasonable reaction would be to hide, grow your powers, and then fight back. What else do you have to lose? Look what happened when mutants took the high road, for crying out loud. This is all only somewhat tempered by the second lesson, which is that of Logan’s noble sacrifice. He is at least redeemed. Instead of simply throwing his life away in despair, he uses it to protect these last mutants. To give them an opportunity to see that there’s more to being human than destruction. That final tip of the (almost too symbolic) cross to an ‘X’ seems to be the only spark of hope in the entire film, that maybe there’s a middle ground between the failed approach of Charles Xavier and the madness of Magneto’s power fantasy. Will these wayward, fucked-up young mutants figure it out? Considering how the rest of the film plays out, probably not. But maybe.

Oh, and a quick ‘fuck you’ to James Mangold for using “The Man Comes Around” after that final image. Goddammit, man.

Posted in Film, Superheros | Leave a comment

The Waste Land Project: The Satyricon

Novel Fragment * Petronius * Roman Decay and Corruption * 1st century

This is the third in a series of articles I’m writing about T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” If you’re curious as to how nuts the project is and why I’m a dummy for trying, you can see the first entry here.

Synopsis

If you’re going to write a poem rooted in the existential decay of contemporary society and the accompanying corruption of the modern soul, you are pretty much obligated to consider ancient Rome as your template. The rise and fall of the Roman Empire is the blueprint, the perfect model of expansion and decay that all civilizations follow. This is not to say that Rome was the first – Mesopotamian and Greek civilizations flourished and fell, of course – but boy did the Romans perfect the form. I do not have the time or the education to get real deep about Rome in general. I’m not a Classicist, after all. However, generalities will probably suffice. As this project moves along I think I’ll get better at this stuff, considering that heavyweights like Homer and Virgil are on the docket. In the meantime, I think it would be best to talk about the work itself for a little bit, and then try and figure out why Eliot would use a line from this strange, fragmented, borderline profane document as the epigraph of his masterpiece.

satyricon3

I get this is supposed to be risque, but it kind of looks like a hobbit sex party, which, no thanks.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Satyricon. As I said, I’m no Classicist, the Greek and Roman being so obscure and dense and dull to my snappy modern sensibilities. My biases were born in classes poorly taught, I suppose, somewhere along the line. I’ve read stuff, who says I haven’t! But then it’s all just togas and columns and pontificating and I have just never been all that interested. I watched the first season of Rome, though, and that was pretty good. This is to say that all of my expectations going into reading this have been borne from being a reasonably educated lit student, and the cultural osmosis attendant to that. In other words, what I know about the Roman Empire is pretty much the same as anyone else. They built their empire through technological innovation, vast, disciplined armies, and the reasoned rule of the Republic. Then things went sideways and the Republic fell and the emperors started going crazy and the barbarians started razing and eventually the whole thing fell down. Also vomitoriums.

 

Therefore, when it turns out that The Satyricon is some kind of delirious, fucked up Roman Naked Lunch, I was only marginally surprised. The work itself is comprised of fragments, so there’s no smooth narrative. Much survived, but there are significant gaps and sometimes all that remains is a single sentence which scholars have tried to put in the right place. So things tend to skip around. The subject matter is the fully decadent, crazytown-Rome of Nero. It’s like one big story of a culture falling apart in its own revelry and debauchery. This is to say there’s lots of drinking and boning and things like that. It’s difficult to follow the thread, and of course since I’m not all that well-versed about the culture itself, many of the references are lost on me. It’s all very strange.

satyricon5

Yeah, here’s the thing. The Satyricon sounds like it should be hot, but it ends up being the Classical version of HBO’s Real Sex. 

This strangeness is compounded by my particular translation, which is from the 1950’s. Now, The Satyricon is a work told in various modes of language. Unlike Virgil or elevated writers of his kind, Petronius is satirizing the whole of society here, which means he uses both the elevated speech of the elites as well as the lower speech of the rank and file Romans. The translator, in an effort to emulate this, has rendered a good deal of the text into American 50’s slang, and boy is that weird. Understand, Romans got up to some shit. Boy-love and heavy drinking and orgies and ridiculous eating parties and more boy-love and more heavy drinking and the occasional fight or philosophical argument. All of this was rendered in good-old-boy, down-home 1950’s American English. Maybe read a more contemporary translation, is what I’m saying, because I would read these lewd things going down and then add “golly, Beav, these Romans sure were swell” in my mind.

As for the “plot,” there’s not much to hold on to. The protagonist is a dude named Encolpius, who is the Roman version of an English tutor. He travels the countryside with his 16 year old boyfriend named Giton and they have sexy adventures. These adventures consist of visiting dudes like Trimalchio, a disgustingly wealthy freedman who is basically the epitome of the disintegration of Roman culture. He’s an idiot, he’s incontinent, and he’s an egotistical blowhard who spends all his time and money trying to think of new ways to show off how rich and awesome he is. Let’s be clear though, nobody else here is much better. It’s not like Encolpius is out here as a paragon of virtue. He’s just as compromised and corrupt as everyone else.

satyricon2

Ha, I don’t understand any of that. 

Discussion

When I describe The Satyricon like that, and I do think it’s a fair description, then it seems pretty clear why Eliot chose a line from it to preface his poem about cultural disintegration and individual disaffection in the early 20th century. As I’ve said, Rome is the template when it comes to the cycle of civilization. Eliot was an educated fella, so I don’t think it’s too much of a leap for him to make these connections. He’s looking at London, the “Unreal City” of the poem, and what he’s seeing is the postwar revelry of his peers acting a lot like some of the debauched characters in The Satyricon while Europe is still smoldering from the after-effects of World War I. Eliot has a reputation for being conservative, and while that may or may not be earned (I’m currently reading a new biography which casts him differently, although it’s still early days and Eliot was famously private and anti-biography, so we’ll see where that goes), it’s clear from his work that he suffers the worries and anxieties of an older man. Like, you’ve read “Prufrock,” right? This is to say that while Eliot was a young man when he wrote “The Waste Land,” the themes and overall vibe of the poem is that of a person dismayed at the hollowness of modern civilization and is afraid of the desolation to come.

satyricon4

“Yo, you headin’ down to The Debauch later? It’s gonna be hype!” “Nah man, I’m just gonna stay home and use my imagination and chill.”

I think it’s high time to take a look at the actual epigraph used. I’m going to use the translation found in the explanatory notes of my edition of “The Waste Land,” because Eliot is a show-off and I don’t read Latin.

“For I myself once saw with my own eyes the Sibyl hanging in a cage, and when the boys asked her, ‘Sybil, what do you want?’ she answered ‘I want to die.’”

The point of translation contention seems to be what Sybil is actually hanging in. My 50’s translation says “bottle,” which makes sense in context. Real quick-like, for this to make much sense it helps to know what the hell a “Sybil” is. My rough understanding is that she is a priestess and that there is a Sybil for every Apollonian oracle. Also she’s immortal. However, she still ages normally. This is a huge bummer, obviously, so as she continues to age for hundreds of years she continues to get older and older and smaller and smaller until she can fit inside a small jug or bottle, which is where this dipshit Trimalchio claims to have seen her and asked her what she truly wants. Since she’s hundreds of years old and withered with age and lives in a fucking jug, of course she would like to die.

Sybil’s curse is clear, which is that immortality is not all fun and games. We are meant to be mortal, meant to die. If you’re the spiritual type you might even argue that you are meant to die and be reborn, continuing the cycle of life. Civilizations follow this rough pattern. Rome was born, rose to great power, declined, and fell. It was then reborn into something else entirely. Should you visit Rome now, you’ll find yourself in a modern European nation-state which is markedly different than even the Roman Republic. Same place, same ruins, completely different society. Of course, if “The Waste Land” is any indication, Eliot is pretty sure that Western Civilization has run its course and everything that follows in the 20th century and beyond is the same kind of hollow, debauched downslope that we see illustrated in The Satyricon.

satyricon6

This is by far the most disturbing image I’ve seen of The Satyricon. Oh, Oscar Wilde. Makes sense now.

The Sybil, who has lived too long, wishes for death. As we see throughout “The Waste Land,” modern civilization is in the same throes of having outlived itself. The machinations of living are all there, and citizens go through the motions living out their lives in a played out, unbearable autumn of the soul. The city itself is degraded and decrepit, Sybil in a bottle spread out against the horizon of a modern city. The Satyricon is a book full of decadent hedonism which leads to corruption and decay, which inevitably leads to the final fall of Rome. Eliot looks around cities like Paris and London and sees the same kind of excess and the inherent decline attached to that behavior, and laments the time in which he finds himself. Western Civilization has lost its moorings, eschewed its own past, and as such has lived too long and yearns for death.

Oh what, did you think a poem called “The Waste Land” was going to be an upper?

Posted in Books, Urban Decline, Waste Land Project | Leave a comment

The Full Monty

Film * Peter Cattaneo * English Post-Industrial * 1997

Synopsis

I am a ridiculous Anglophile. It’s to the point where I have to constantly remind myself how to spell “theater” as opposed to “theatre.” And I straight up will not spell the word “grey” with an “ay” like some kind of braying donkey. I tend to prefer English literature as opposed to their American counterparts, although lets be real: America does music better, The Beatles notwithstanding. I’m always going to take The Ramones over the Sex Pistols, and I have arguments to make about the Dead Kennedys and X over The Clash and The Damned. Don’t even get me started on hip-hop. Stormzy? Okay, sure, Britain. That said, I like soccer now, so it’s only so long before I start saying “cheers” to everyone like the sad American poseur I am. Actually, no, pet peeve there. Don’t come at me with a flat American accent saying shit like “cheers, love” and “bollocks.” You sound dumb when you do that. Take it from a professional Anglophile: appreciate the U.K. without trying to emulate them, unless you mean to spell “grey” properly.

This is all to say The Full Monty is one of my favorite movies ever, despite being so unremittingly North English that to this day there’s still bits of dialogue I don’t understand. It’s one of the few movies that I remember seeing in the theatre, mostly because it was the first time I ventured inside my town’s little arthouse theater. San Luis Obispo’s The Palm, to be specific. And do they spell it with a “-re?” You know it! Now, I don’t remember the exact reason I went to see this thing. I was all of 18 and while the seeds of Anglophilia were there in a literary sense, I don’t think I even knew much of Monty Python, let alone some indie flick set in Sheffield. I assume it was some kind of peer-pressure situation. That should let you know what kind of party animal I was (am). Instead of getting pressured to score coke and steal a car I’m over here feeling obligated to go to ramshackle movie theaters and see art films.

Not that The Full Monty is an art film, let’s be real clear about that. It was definitely indie, you can see that in the production and the distribution. However, it did go on to wide release and was received well. It made quite a bit of money, especially considering its budget. The Full Monty is a Comedy with Heart. The humor (note: putting superfluous ‘U’s in things is terrible, like in the word “superfluous”) is in the absurdity of otherwise real, down-to-earth people doing incredibly silly things. None of this works, however, unless you’re vested in the characters. Because this is a great movie, the writing and arc is there for each and every one of these people, who are just a bunch of unemployed steel workers looking to get their lives back on track.

I should probably mention what this movie is for those who may have forgotten the plot or (gasp!) have never seen it. It’s about a laid-off industrial worker with just the perfect blue-collar North English name, Gaz. He’s my second-favorite Gaz in fiction, even! Gaz is a low-key dude, always up for a caper and ready to crack a joke. Also he has a kid, Nathan, who seems to be a little more uptight. Of course he’s like twelve, so he’s allowed to be a little taciturn and easy to embarrass, and happens often when Gaz and his best bro Dave get up to shenanigans. After an encounter with a Chippendale’s show, Gaz gets the light bulb to put on a strip show of his own, with his unemployed buddies. What starts as a lark to make a few quid turns into serious business when it becomes clear that Gaz won’t be able to make child support payments unless he’s able to pull this caper off.

full monty3

Well why didn’t you just say so?

Discussion

Look, they do it and it’s great. This is a feel-good-ass feel-good movie. Each member of the Full Monty crew has their own issues to deal with, and the film takes them seriously and somehow, someway, comes up with a reasonable path for that character to find redemption by dancing nude in front of strangers. The emotional heart of the film is Gaz’s strained relationship with his son. Gaz, the unemployed manchild, obviously loves his kid and Robert Carlyle plays it perfect. He’s a goof, but his pain is clear when his son is taken away from him. Beyond this you get Dave’s body-image issues, which strains his relationship with his wife (who, rewatching this for like the fiftieth time, has a fashion sense that never ceases to amaze). There’s Gerald, the former foreman to these gomers, who’s been lying to his wife about being laid off. Even the minor characters, Lomper and Horse, have their hang-ups and issues. The only one who doesn’t is Guy, and that’s okay because he has a big wanger and ends up making Lomper happy.

Hold on, I still can’t get over the fact one of the characters is named Lomper. Hee hee!

All of these flawed, and in most cases failed, characters are tied directly to the setting of the film, which is post-industrial Sheffield, England. The movie starts with a short film, one of these civic promotional shorts designed to drum up interest in a particular locale (Puerto Rico!). The intro is breathlessly optimistic about the future of Sheffield, all based on a strong industrial economy. Well, we all know how that story ends. The industrial economy shifted to places with cheap labor and the bottom fell out of industrial cities across the U.K. and U.S. What, you didn’t think the United States has the only rust belt in the world, did you? Now, obviously, The Full Monty is taking a light approach to the subject of the consequences of neoliberal policies, but at its heart that’s what the movie is. It’s an examination of a group of men with good hearts marginalized by economic forces beyond their reckoning. These good, hard-working men are forced to a life in a strip club because their country failed them.

Wait, hold on, not quite. Relax. First of all, it’s clear that the stripping is a one-time deal. Secondly, this is not a situation where the stripping is a last resort and these poor exploited characters have no other viable option than the sex trade. No, not at all. For these unemployed steel workers, this is an entrepreneurial opportunity. It’s embarrassing, sure, but as Gaz says, “folks don’t laugh so loud when you’ve got a grand in your back pocket.” This is the blue collar making good as best they can. It’s a vindication of English pluck and fortitude. And all that would be kind of gross and exploitative in its own right if everything wasn’t just so dang charming.

All things considered, however, The Full Monty still comes from a place of bleak hopelessness and an oppressive sense of loss. “Job Club” is the most depressing thing I’ve ever seen, just a bunch of sad sacks who once had purpose and vitality and some small amount of personal wealth milling around an austere cafeteria-lookin’ room playing cards and lamenting their past. There are options for these men, but they’re demeaning and kind of dire, which is to say earning three quid an hour being a security guy for British Wal-Mart. That’s a belittling situation for a group of people who made good money doing productive work, to the point where it’s clearly less degrading to live on the dole. Of course there’s a simmering resentment here. Of course over time that resentment, mingled with frustration and jealousy and fear, will grow into a massive lashing-out against the status quo which took it all away. Gaz and Dave and the rest found an outlet. Something which allowed them to feel like the capable men they once were, before the way of the world turned against them. Of course, they may not be any better off after the big show, but then again maybe the getting on stage and showing the full monty was the jump start they needed for a better life.

full monty2

Who needs anti-fat-bastard cream anyhow?

I guess I’m saying if more dudes channeled their frustrations into being strippers, Brexit and Trump may not have happened.

Posted in Film, Urban Decline | Leave a comment

The Wind through the Keyhole

Novel * Stephen King * Dark Tower Throwback * 2012

Synopsis

The Dark Tower series has always been something of an enigma. Every entry seems like its own thing, a different style, a different voice, all telling the same epic story. The last three, written in a rush after King’s near-death experience, represent the most stylistically cohesive grouping of novels, but that trio is a long haul from the first iteration of The Gunslinger. Meanwhile, around the edges of King’s fiction, the Tower drifts through narratives like a ghost, showing up in odd places and serving as a reminder to us hardcore Tower people that Roland and his ka-tet are always in the background, always on the move, their quest more important than anything else happening in the worlds created by Stephen King. Even beyond this, the Tower stories continue apace. There’s a whole series of comics and graphic novels dedicated to Roland and Mid-World, most of which I haven’t read. The new movie on the horizon is going to be a whole other thing, which I await with some trepidation. This is all to say, there are endless stories waiting to be told about this world, and some of those are going to be from King himself.

The Wind through the Keyhole is not really a mainline Dark Tower book, even though the introduction refers to it as Dark Tower 4.5. True, the events of the novel take place between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla, but the things the ka-tet get up to in this story aren’t of any great importance. That’s because The Wind through the Keyhole is actually three stories, each nested within each other, and the very beginning and the very end consist of the frame in which the other two stories are told. If you’re picking up this book hoping for more adventures with Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and Oy, you’re going to be disappointed. They’re only here to give some context to Roland telling his stories, which, as I said, is actually two stories.

windhole3

Ooh, there’s official art! That dragon just looks confused as to why there’s a boy on her head.

It’s an odd structure, but it turns out to be effective. Once I accepted that the book wasn’t some side adventure featuring the last gunslingers, I settled into what is actually here. Once the ka-tet is settled in, Roland begins his tale. The first is a story from Roland’s youth, not long after the horrible, upsetting, tragic events of Wizard and Glass. Young Roland is sent out with another young apprentice gunslinger, Jamie, who didn’t make the ill-fated trip out to Mejis in the fourth book. Jamie doesn’t talk much, so it’s a little hard to get a handle on his personality (not unlike Alain from Wizard and Glass, actually). Roland’s mission here is to travel out to the hinterlands and investigate a series of grisly murders. Locals are claiming that it’s the world of a “skin-man,” which is a shape-shifter situation. Since this is still Stephen King, there is totally a shape-shifter, and he does some messed up stuff, I tell you what.

This story of Young Roland is actually pretty engaging, and the mystery ramps up well, and of course even the minor characters are well drawn because King is a wizard with character building. So it’s a little abrupt when King shifts gears yet again and drops us into a third, entirely different story right as the action is ramping up toward a conclusion. The third story is something of a fairy tale as told to Roland by his mother when he was but a wee gunslinger-to-be. This story is about a child named Tim who lives in the deep, dark woods with his loving mother and father. Then some bad shit goes down and young Tim has to go on a quest. As the story goes on, it turns out to be engaging as well so by the time it wraps up there’s a strange moment where I was satisfied with the story I had just read only to realize that, oh yeah, there’s this other story to wrap up as well. It’s an odd way to structure what amounts to a couple of novellas, but King has never been afraid to experiment with from and structure, and in this case, it works pretty well, even if it’s a little jarring at first.

windhole2

Here there be tygers. 

Discussion

This is the space where I usually talk about theme and the larger considerations of the work being discussed. Roland’s world is very old and is clearly in the last stages of decay and decline, and that’s mostly what I’ve focused on with the various Dark Tower books. I’m less inclined to do so with The Wind through the Keyhole, because, well, those themes don’t come up all that much. The first story – the frame which holds the other two – isn’t really a story on its own. We pick up with Roland and his ka-tet in the middle of a journey we kind of skipped before. That’s fine, there’s a lot of time unaccounted for in the grand adventure, and there are probably many stories which haven’t (and won’t) ever be told. In this instance we get a brief episode, a single interesting thing that happens, which is the starkblast. Of course we know the group will escape no worse for wear, so basically it’s a narrative excuse to get Roland to tell his stories.

It’s in this way that the entire novel is an exercise in storytelling, is in fact a book about the value of the act of storytelling. The larger story that the audience presumably cares about, that of Roland and his fellow gunslingers, has been told. I then see this on the shelf some eight years later and my reaction was “the hell is this?” I wasn’t expecting it to exist, so I had nothing to look forward to, no expectations. Obviously I bought it as soon as I saw the thing. That’s probably for the best, since if I had taken to the time to wonder about what The Wind through the Keyhole would be, I would have had expectations of the ka-tet getting up to some adventures. Instead, it’s more Roland storytelling time, which is fine, but maybe not what Tower fans would be clamoring for if they knew King was writing Tower stories again.

windhole4

Well, good to see Flagg still being a creep.

So what is King’s intention here? Who’s to say, but it seems clear that he had some Mid-World stories in mind and needed a vehicle in which to tell them. The first is a short story about Roland’s youth. Taken alone, not a whole lot goes down in this particular episode. That is, until the very end, where young Roland receives a small amount of absolution from his actions in Wizard and Glass. The young gunslinger is afforded contact with his mother, who of course died by his own hand, and it seems like she knew what was in the cards for her. And a mother can forgive. In all, it’s a rather grisly horror story with a nice little ending, which marks a closure to young Roland’s emotional arc from the nightmare he suffered in Wizard and Glass. Rancher-munching-skin-monster? No probs. First love getting burned alive and shooting your mom a few days later? Slightly more difficult to parse. Telling the story helps adult Roland assimilate some of these things a bajillion years later.

We see the power of the story to soothe in the middle of young Roland’s story, when he uses the fable of Tim to calm young Bill after his dad gets slaughtered by the monster. The story, of course, not only soothes but teaches. Obviously there’s the whole dead father aspect of Tim’s story that Bill can identify with. There’s also the implicit meaning: be brave. If young Tim can brave a scary forest by night and face a dragon and hang out with a tiger, young Bill can try and identify a were-bear. Stories also pass the time, they bond people over the tale. They offer insight into how others live. Most importantly, stories beget new stories. Like, the Covenant Man is Flagg, right? And like in The Gunslinger he says he was never Maerlyn, and that’s true! But is this a whole Arthuriana thing now? Connections! And really, that’s all I’m getting at here. This is all fun. Aside from Roland’s bit of emotional closure, there’s nothing to worry about here other than enjoying a couple of stories from a world I still love.

Posted in Books, Dark Tower | Leave a comment

Bioshock

Game * Irrational Games * Objectivism Dystopia * 2007

Synopsis

This game is totally ten years old and who feels old now? Everyone does. Hooray! Bioshock is one of the few games that I can associate with a distinct time and place. First of all, the game was a revelation when it came out, and still holds up pretty well. However, playing this also coincides with an important life moment. My wife and I had moved from the relatively sleepy, small town-oriented Central Coast of California the year prior. This involved a brief period of living with my parents, which is of course not ideal when you’re in your mid-20s. Whatever, though, because we eventually found an apartment in what amounts to the closest thing Portland has to a ghetto, which is to say the grimy no-man’s-land between Portland and Gresham, otherwise known as Rockwood. We lived right on the MAX line and there was occasional gunfire! Still, come on, it’s Portland. Not exactly The Wire over here. Anyway, we stuck it out for the duration of the lease before we found a much better place in Portland’s other kinda ghetto, the Boise-Eliot neighborhood in Northeast Portland. The house was a split-level situation and we rented the top, which had two small bedrooms. Downstairs, a group of young Christian woman lived quietly and all in all, the neighborhood was legit. Now, of course, it’s been gentrified beyond recognition and you probably have to put a ‘1’ in front of the $730 we were paying a month for that place. When Bioshock came out I was beyond excited for it. I don’t read too much in the way of preview material, but I knew this was going to be exactly for me. Since we had just moved in, the not-bedroom was a mess of boxes and nonsense. Whatever, though, because I hooked up my Xbox 360 and set up a TV on the single flat surface I could find.

And it was great. For like four hours, and then my 360 red-ringed on me. Motherfucker. Like, I had never been blue-balled by a console before and I was upset. Here’s my most anticipated game of the year, I get just far enough in to be super intrigued and eager to press on, and then pfft. RROD. Fine, fine! I’m an adult, I can deal with this. So I called Microsoft up, and as anyone who dealt with customer service during these dark days knows, they were pretty on the ball. They sent my little cardboard coffin and I sent the dead console back. Like a week or so later my new 360 shows up. We’re back! I load up my save and okay, this game is still fucking great. For another six hours, and then the new machine red-rings. I’ve never been prone to temper tantrums, but I was close to one that day. I eventually finished, and the 360 breaking my heart made the experience of playing Bioshock one I doubt I’ll forget. So, thanks Microsoft? Oh, and for the record, I ended up with seven different Xbox 360’s over the first year or so. The seventh one still works. And, to Microsoft’s credit, I only ever paid the first.

bioshock3

It’s a dramatic, iconic opening for sure.

I should probably talk about the actual game, although I feel like pretty much anyone with an interest in video games knows what’s up with Bioshock. The game begins with a plane crash which leaves you thrashing around a dark ocean with the tail of the plane slowly sinking into the sea and the rest of the wreckage slowly burning itself out on the surface. Nearby is an unlikely lighthouse, its Art Deco façade jutting into the moonlit sky. The moment is impressive, but not nearly as impressive as when you make your way inside and find a little round submarine. You get in and descend and oh, huh, okay. Someone built a massive city beneath the ocean. A city called Rapture. Oh, and there’s the delayed title card. Awesome.

As the game progresses, we come to understand just what the hell is going on. Once upon a time, a man named Andrew Ryan read Atlas Shrugged one too many times and decided he was going to secede from the world and build a libertarian utopia beneath the sea. Job creators are real humans, everyone else is a parasite. For a while, Ryan’s vision worked a treat. Rapture is a clear achievement, and those who lived there managed to create great things and push science and technology forward in great leaps. Then, somewhere along the line, rot and decay set in and Rapture declined and is now teetering on total collapse. The ways and hows of that decline are uncovered as you move through the game, but right away it’s apparent that Rapture is a hellhole. Everything is in ruin, and the city seems inhabited solely of crazy people who try to kill you on sight. The atmosphere is oppressive and claustrophobic, but the art direction is some of the best in games. Bioshock has a vision and executes extremely well. But then you knew that.

bioshock2

I know in my heart it’s just underwater New York, but Rapture is still a brilliant design.

Discussion

I don’t want to just unceremoniously declare Bioshock the greatest game to exist across space and time throughout the multiverse, because there are some flaws. Of course there are. From a storytelling standpoint, there are issues with the structure. First, the game relies far too heavily on audio logs which are littered all over hell and gone. The logical disconnect with these should be clear. Rapture – a city built beneath the ocean – is falling apart from the inside out. There is literally nowhere to escape the effects of decay and decline and things are turning violent. Hold on, let me record my thoughts on a sixties-ass tape recorder and leave them in random places around the city. Fine, it’s an imperfect approach which I guess is a better use of player time than a raft of cut scenes. However, the other problem with this method of storytelling is more practical, which is the fact that the player probably isn’t going to find them all. So you better make sure you find the ones which make the story make sense. The other structural issue is another use of the old silent protagonist trope. Of course, this time out Irrational at least makes this a valid choice. I’ll circle back to this.

Bioshock’s story is about the inevitability of social decline and the decay that is built into every human endeavor. We build, we destroy. It’s what we have always done, and every current trend indicate it’s what we’ll always do. This is a very pessimistic view of human nature, but it fits the data. On the optimistic side of the equation, the rise of a civilization can be a breathtaking achievement, and we are capable of great and beautiful things. That these achievements are doomed to decline and fall are almost beside the point when they’re being built. Rapture is an example of the rise and collapse of a civilization in an enclosed space. Sealed off under the ocean, Andrew Ryan’s vision of a society begins with a flourish and ends with a damp thud in a comparatively small amount of time. From beginning to end, Rapture lasts about a decade. If you listen to the audio logs – I got 93% of them according to the achievement tracker – you can trace where and why things went wrong. Turns out, it’s the same kind of shit that undermines every civilization, time and time again.

bioshock4

The art direction of the game, as seen in the Arcadia level here, is forever on point.

Andrew Ryan is an adherent to Objectivism, although not necessarily in name. Atlas Shrugged doesn’t exist in the world of Bioshock, but the worldview does. Also, “Andrew Ryan” is an unsubtle allusion to Ayn Rand, so, I mean, yeah. Rapture is a self-contained society comprised entirely of lassiez-faire, libertarian Objectivists. If you’re not familiar, allow me to define some terms real quick. Essentially, the core belief is that society should be founded in absolute freedom. This means the economy should be entirely governed by a market totally free of regulation. Further, government is inherently evil, in that it is a structure which people create to use violence to compel other people to follow regulations. This violates the rule of absolute individual freedom, therefore it should not exist. A less extreme form of this view is that government should be incredibly limited to a very few, nominal functions. Ideally, though, no government. Objectivism is the name applied to Rand’s worldview, which she illustrated in her novels. Founded on the above principles, Objectivism basically states that a person is the sum of their own effort, ingenuity, intelligence, and tenacity. Anyone claiming that outside factors affect an individual’s lot in life is a subhuman parasite.

Okay, so I tried my best to retain a neutral tone up there. I may have slipped a little in the end, but to be fair that kind of rhetoric is used by Rand (and in the game, Ryan) all the time. True Objectivists have nothing but contempt for people who suggest that there other possible factors which contribute to the state of a society, or to an individual’s place in said society. Anyway, that is my understanding of the ideas on which Rapture was built. Here’s my commentary: those ideas are all fatally flawed. This is obvious in the fictional world of Rapture, that’s one of the things Bioshock is saying. However, the concept of absolute individual freedom is fatally flawed in the real world too, and unlike Bioshock, it’s a problem of scale.

Look, have you met people? Most of them are totally fine, a few are truly great, but some of them really, really suck. In what universe do we want to leave those in the latter category to just do whatever they want? Because what they want to do is steal your shit and murder you. If you’re an Andrew Ryan type, someone who can be considered truly great by virtue of intelligence and hard work, what are you going to do when someone rolls in with a gun with no other motive than to wreck your shit? If you build your operation out big enough, now you have other people working in harmony with your vision, and you don’t necessarily want them robbed or dead either, if only because you need their ideas and labor. Also! Even if you’re Captain of Industry, you can’t do every damn thing yourself. You ain’t got time to grow your own food or do your own plumbing. Well shit, other people will do that for a price, and that’s a free market and that’s well and good, until one of the baddies uses violence to usurp the market. You could hire someone to protect your assets, unless you’re lower on the chain and now you’ve got to choose between paying rent, buying materials, or hiring a security force to protect your ass.

bioshock5

I mean, Bioshock isn’t always subtle.

Gets complicated fast, doesn’t it? You also need infrastructure and utilities and protection and every other damn thing you can think of that a government does. Rapture is small. It’s self-contained and is pretty much an ideal test case for the desire for absolute individual freedom, and already it’s doomed to fail because the society gets too big. Multiply that out to over 300 million and now you’ve got the United States. I don’t know about you, but I have zero desire to keep track of every single service the government provides so I can pay for them piecemeal, according to need. I have enough bills, thank you. Every road is a toll road paid to a different company? Every city park is a different fee paid to a recreation company? The cops only come if I remember to pay my bill? This all falls apart from a convenience standpoint alone.

Let’s get away from the macro and return to the micro, in this case Rapture. I could go on about the need for civilization to use neutral abstract constructs (governments, corporations) to organize high-level social interactions, but that’s kind of beyond the scope of Bioshock’s self-contained world. Rapture falls apart because competing human interests tear it apart from within. Ryan is trying to prove the validity of his beliefs through achievement. Rapture attracts like-minded people in various fields, and they all succeed together for a time. One builds a forest under the sea to create sweeping parklands that also make necessary oxygen (and my favorite level in the game), another creates an entertainment wonderland. A brilliant scientist unlocks the secrets of the human genome and creates a system of psychic superpowers based on a system of goo called Adam and Eve. Rapture also attracts another kind of self-made man. A con man named Fontaine.

Fontaine is a piece of shit, and is the avatar of the bad human I mentioned above. He’s the wildcard who uses his individual talent not to create, but to destroy and steal. He’s subtle, and when Rapture inevitably creates a society of haves and have-nots, he creates a populist persona to capitalize on the anger of the have-nots. Atlas sows discontent not in an effort to make things better, but to enrich himself. That said, that discontent is very real and is there to be exploited. Again, all very human reactions which again and again undermine a civilization to the point of collapse. Usually this takes a long time, but again, Rapture is self-contained. Throw in the weird genetic mutations, and when the end comes Rapture falls hard.

bioshock6

Red Big Daddy: He is mess you up.

Enter Jack, the nonspeaking player. Now, I don’t like silent protagonists. I’m never going to feel like “oh hey, it’s me shooting all these fucked up mutants under the sea!” I don’t really want to immerse myself like that. I prefer if the player character is an actual character most of the time (even if I prefer to retain the right to decide what that character looks like or how they generally act – like in Mass Effect). However, there’s a reason Jack doesn’t speak throughout the deeply fucked up proceedings of Bioshock, and that’s so the game can enjoy its twist. Turns out, you were brainwashed and programmed to do the bidding of Fontaine the entire time. When you finally find Andrew Ryan, the game takes away all player control and all you can do is watch while you murder Ryan with a golf club. This moment wouldn’t work is Jack were chatting it up the entire game, so I guess the silent protagonist thing gets a pass. The twist is a bit of meta-commentary that questions the actual player’s assumptions about choice in games, but also ties in with the larger themes of individual choice, how those choices affect the entire society, and the inevitability of that society collapsing.

Damn, this is getting too long and I haven’t even touched on a few important elements. The Art Deco styling of Rapture and the art direction as a whole are perfect for the game. They line up exactly with the industrial foundation of Rapture and Objectivism in general. Every room is crafted with care and things make sense as you move through the space. I also realize I haven’t mentioned the Little Sisters or Big Daddies yet, which is a major part of the experience. Bioshock is personally important because it’s one of the first times a game made me feel actively uncomfortable. That scene where you first encounter a Little Sister? And you approach her and you’re huge and she’s tiny and freaking out and you just scoop her up and she’s all “No! No no no!” I’m sitting here trying to visualize the human monster who “harvests” the child. To this day I’ve never seen the animation in which the player does this. Not even out of morbid curiosity. And I don’t even like kids that much!

The sudden shifts in scale are important here. You’re this big hulking dude with a gun lurking over this tiny little girl who is terrified of you. Really? You’re going to hurt her? You’re a goddamn pyschopath?

There’s more to talk about, of course, because this is one of those few video games with a strong point of view, and something to say about it. The moment-to-moment gameplay is fine, but isn’t really the point. The player is here to discover the world of Rapture, to figure out what went wrong and why. To this end, Bioshock succeeds as much as Rapture itself failed.

Posted in Dystopia, Games, Post Modernity, Urban Decline | Leave a comment

It Can’t Happen Here

Novel * Sinclair Lewis * OR CAN IT?! * 1935

Synopsis

Fascism. That’s what can’t happen here. “Here” being the United States. The title should probably be Fascism Can’t Happen in the United States for ultimate clarity, but that’s not quite as snappy. Clickbait was a thing in 1935, it seems. That’s it! Throw this book in the trash, fake news. I can tell already that this does not conform to my always-already worldview, which is the only true and proper way to assimilate and disseminate information, and therefore I am correct and right to dismiss this novel out of hand without a second thought. Fake. Fucking. News.

Okay, that was gross. Sorry, but if you’re going to read this book get ready to feel all squiggly like that a lot. There’s “oh, that’s a bit on the nose” and then there’s something like It Can’t Happen Here, which is uncomfortable and upsetting in that the first act of the novel might as well take place in 2016. The story, written by a pissed-off Sinclair Lewis in 1934, documents the career of the first American dictator, who has just the best, most perfect name ever: Buzz Windrip. Buzz is the most American. It’s his brand. He appeals directly to the those marginalized by corporate hegemony and localized economic despair and rallies their support by having huge grandstanding rallies where he spews folksy, relatable rhetoric that disparages minorities and props up a flawed worldview while making wild, grandiose promises that he clearly has no intention of keeping.

Right?

it cant happen here2

Workers of the world maybe don’t unite because Fascists hate that.

Most of the story is told from the viewpoint of a guy named Doremus Jessup. He’s a small-town newspaper editor who is watching all this hot fascist bullshit unfold in front of him and can’t even believe it. Doremus is an older man and isn’t really down to fight the power. He just wants to chill with his family and maybe his side-piece every once in a while. Okay, that sounds gross but in the context of the story Doremus’ long-time affair is a less a mark against his character than it is an acceptance of changing social mores. Look, whatever, the point is Doremus eventually realizing that he needs to #resist, and while the rest of his family is down to clown, his wife is absolutely not. One nice surprise is that there is a wealth of strong female characters here. The girlfriend, Lorinda, is a rebel and ends up running an underground railroad for political refugees. Sissy, one of two daughters, is a sassy young woman who likes to drive fast and take chances. She’s down for whatever. There’s also an older daughter who straight-up assassinates a dude, so she’s pretty badass herself.

It Can’t Happen Here is, then, a story about a fascist dictator who ascends to power in the United States and those who would fight against him. The pattern follows very closely that which unfolded in Germany and Italy, because obviously that’s what was happening in the mid-1930’s over in Europe. The title of the book is simply what many Americans would tell themselves while watching Hitler clamping down in real-time. Most of what happens in the novel occured in reality in Germany. Windrip wins power democratically before assuming direct control over the government. He maintains power by amassing a large militia group to protect him and his nascent dictatorship. He assumes control of the press and purges anyone with a dissenting voice. Eventually there’s concentration camps and checkpoints and executions and all the other nice things one associates with an authoritarian dystopia.

it cant happen here3

I still can’t get over the fact the evil dictator’s name is Buzz Windrip.

Discussion

Once It Can’t Happen Here moves past the actual election of Buzz Windrip, it gets easier to read. I mean, there’s no getting past the fact that the character of Windrip is Trumpy as hell, and it can be uncomfortable. There are many alarming/unbelievable/terminally embarrassing things happening in our country right now, but there are some key things which are not happening. Most importantly, Trump does not have an organized militia at his beck and call. Further, Trump has not managed to disband the Supreme Court and Congress. Oh, he clearly wants to, but he’s nowhere near the kind of popularity he would need to pull that shit off. That kind of near-universal popularity is incredibly hard to come by, and lucky for us here in 2017 there’s a key ingredient missing.

Most people don’t want a fascist dictator. They don’t really want a king, or a czar, or an emperor. Most people just want to live their lives in peace and safety and ease. However, sometimes the world can be dangerous and threatening, and when that happens people will turn to someone who will promise peace, and safety, and ease. Of course, the price for those promises is quite high, constituting the complete and total surrender of personal freedom. Usually, the dangerous threat must be extremely severe to convince most people to appeal to the strong authority figure to ‘save’ them, at the price of utter loyalty. In the case of Hitler and Mussolini, it was the chaos and ruin left over from World War I that drove the populations of those countries to choose them over personal freedom.

The dangerous threat in the United States during the mid-1930’s was, of course, the Great Depression. The U.S. had the good fortune to not have an apocalyptic war on their own soil, and so the industrial infrastructure was spared decimation. While the U.S. lost many good soldiers during the war, the casualties suffered were nowhere near those of the European combatants. However, the Depression wrecked shit all the way up. The fear was that the Depression would never end, that capitalism just ate the country and the vast majority of Americans would never again know prosperity. Conditions were far riper for an American Hitler to sweep in and make promises, and then take over. The “great recession” of 2008 was a big deal, and the slow recovery has been painful for many, but it still lacks the immediate threat to a majority of citizens to truly usher in another era of totalitarians.

it cant happen here4

A true thing: There was a film version made in the 30’s which was cancelled because the studio didn’t want to alienate German audiences. Gross, huh? They wrote a stage adaptation instead.

I hope. What It Can’t Happen Here does best is illustrate how people react to certain situations. As Windrip’s campaign gains popularity, you see the type of person he attracts in the form of Shad Ledue. This fuckin’ guy is Doremus Jessup’s handyman, and he sucks. He’s dumb, vindictive, and petty. He also represents a great swath of the population that Lewis is rather ruthlessly making fun of. You know, a real basket of deplorables. Guess what happens when Windrip sweeps into power? All the smarty smart-asses who ran the government are run out on rails, their positions given to dudes like Shad who make excellent toadies. Guys who are all about being a petty tyrant in their local area and who know how to really get down and lick boot when it comes to the bigger fish. And meanwhile the general population keeps repeating “well let’s just see how this all plays out, after all, it can’t happen here.”

For all the easily made correlations to the current political situation in the United States, It Can’t Happen Here is a direct product of its time. Lewis was writing a topical satire, and it was meant to be consumed and thought about in the mid 1930’s. Buzz Windrip is based on a Louisiana Senator who was apparently assassinated before the publication of the novel. Many of the characters within are either real people of the time or are based on them. Other than F.D.R. and William Randolph Hearst, I don’t know my political history well enough to recognize them. This is all to the good, because otherwise it would be really easy to read It Can’t Happen Here and panic, like the thing fell through a temporal wormhole and delivered an alternate-reality United States into 2017. But relax. While it totally can happen here, it hasn’t. Yet.

Posted in Books, Historical, Totalitarian | Leave a comment

Last Post (Parade’s End, Pt. 4)

Novel * Ford Madox Ford * The End of the Whole Mess * 1928

Synopsis

Welcome to the final installment of Parade’s End. The previous novels in this four-part series were Some Do Not…, No More Parades, and A Man Could Stand Up. If you’re down with Modernism and literature, I cannot possibly recommend these books highly enough. If Modernism ain’t your thing, which I totally understand, then I also recommend the BBC miniseries featuring Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s the same story told in a more linear, conventional fashion and is cast exceptionally well.

After finishing the previous volume, A Man Could Stand Up, I thought the overall story of Parade’s End was pretty much complete. Turns out I was right. Last Post is the shortest of the four novels, takes place over a single afternoon, does not feature Christopher Tietjens directly, and all in all acts as a denouement rather than a climatic finish. The third novel ends with Christopher and Valentine finally casting off social expectations and embracing each other and in effect the new world order. As it happens, this touching final scene was but the first moment in a long, arduous, rather terrible evening that we only learn about as we work through Last Post.

It takes some time before we begin learning any details about the time which has passed since the end of A Man Could Stand Up and the beginning of Last Post, because ol’ Ford Ford is up to some serious Modern nonsense in this final book. As I mentioned, the entire novel takes place over a single afternoon, and while it begins with the viewpoint of a Tietjens, it is not Christopher whose mind we occupy. Rather, it is his brother Mark, who is unable to talk or move much, and seems to be getting ready to die. We’ve never been exposed to Mark’s point of view before, and up until now he has been an ancillary character. Even here he literally can’t speak to people. So when Christopher’s son rolls up with some American lady in tow, he can’t answer their frivolous nonsense with words. It’s all pretty funny, really. Last Post is basically a comic dirge.

last post2

Jazzy!

We also get to spend some time with Mark’s longtime live-in girlfriend, who is French. She’s a very sensible woman and is happy to speak endlessly to Mark, who rarely speaks even when he is able. Ford commits to a very long bit early on, in which Marie indulges in an extremely long monologue but – and here’s the bit – she always comes back to the subject from which she began. In this case it is Parisian turnips. It’s a like a ten page long joke, which, you know, I respect. Anyway, once it becomes apparent that Mark is going to die, Christopher insists he marries the woman who has been living with him pretty much his whole life. Mark, despite being stringently anti-marriage, agrees. If only to keep Groby out of the hands of “that bitch Sylvia.” Mark really, really hates Sylvia.

Speaking of my now-favorite villain, she’s still terrible and amazing. Remember how nicely A Man Could Stand Up ended? Christopher coming back from the front to find his house stripped of furniture and his wife seemingly, finally, and at long last, gone. Then Valentine shows up and it’s almost too much, so he bails, excusing this breach of decorum because he needs some cash to begin his new life. Eventually both of these goofs realize that they’re free to love each other now and that’s nice. Well, there’s more to it. After Christopher and Valentine get their nice moment of realization, Tietjens’ army buddies insist on an Armistice Day party, after which Christopher’s ex-colonel keels over and dies. The loving couple finally deals with the unpleasant mess this presents, and end up back at Christopher’s house late at night. And guess who’s there? Why, Sylvia, of course. She announces she has cancer, and falls down the stairs, spraining her ankle. Valentine, who has quite clearly had enough of this bullshit, insists Christopher just leave her there and go. Which he does, because Valentine isn’t the only one sick of Sylvia’s narcissistic insistence of being the center of Christopher’s world. Their long-deferred union was a mess, but it’s all the more iron-clad for that.

last post3

Oh, I don’t know. This last book isn’t as bleak as all that. It’s comparatively light in tone, actually.

Discussion

Last Post does not deliver a “happily ever after” ending, because this is still Modernism and that’s not how they roll. Ford does, however, offer a “they live” ending, which is as much as anyone could hope for in a post-apocalyptic world. World War I happened and knocked civilization crooked. The foundation of civil society in Europe was permanently unmoored and as a result the rather staid and concrete code of ethics and morality were forever altered. For those who survived the war, it took a while for this new reality to sink in. We see this as Christopher and Valentine’s situation becomes clear toward the end of Parade’s End.

The four novels of Parade’s End together form a nice cross-section of World War I as a catalyst for drastic change. The war is the apocalyptic event, the revelation, after which definite change is the only possible outcome. Some Do Not… provides the background, and depicts a society on the cusp of change, the eve of war. In Christopher Tietjens, Ford introduces the most conservative personality he can conceive of. At the beginning of the tetralogy, Tietjens is the last Tory, the last True Believer in the English Aristocratic Tradition, the upholder of the 18th century. However, we quickly see that his worldview is under considerable attack, even before the outbreak of war. The social standards by which Tietjens lives are coming undone, and the more he digs his heels in to uphold his standards, the more society casts him in shameful shadow. By doing things the right way, he sets himself up to be perceived as a hypocrite and a liar.

When the apocalypse arrives in No More Parades and is concluded in A Man Could Stand Up, Tietjens is utterly debased in social terms. His reputation is completely destroyed because Tietjens was determined to be the ideal Tory instead of managing his image. The corruption of the decaying social structure was set in direct opposition to how Christopher was determined to conduct himself as a gentleman, and in the end this determination to be loyal to his ideals unmade him. World War I was a violent disaster that killed millions and destroyed vast swaths of land, but it was also a social disaster for those who lived according to an outmoded code. The war was abjectly amoral. Things blew up and people died and those involved in the war (such as General Campion and the shadowy beings mentioned in the various government ministries) treated the apocalypse as an abstract game to be won. Those in charge lost sight of the scope of the war, and vastly underestimated the repercussions such willful negligence for the society they were destroying sowed in the populace.

last post4

MAKE ALL THE VALENTINE BABIES! ❤ ❤ ❤

As a result of these apocalyptic conditions, Christopher Tietjens was absolutely and irrevocably disillusioned. He has been upholding these archaic Tory standards alone and to his detriment. No more. He loves Valentine Wannop and fuck every other thing in the world. He’s done. He’s done with Toryism, he’s done with being a Tietjens of Groby, he’s done with his terrible wife, he’s done with the 18th century. All that said, simply being able to have and hold the true love of his life will not and could never be enough to exist in a post-apocalyptic world. Much of the social order may have knocked off its foundation, but there are still certain truths to living in a civilization. In other words, Tietjens still needs a job.

Since Christopher Tietjens is so goddamn inflexible when it comes to taking money from his brother and/or staking his claim on his ancestral holdings – which are still quite valuable – he finds himself making a meager living as an antique furniture salesman. This occupation, while totally respectable, is further hampered by Christopher’s inability to say no to people, and so he’s ruthlessly taken advantage of and is therefore generally short on money and reputation. Meanwhile, he’s still being attacked by Sylvia because she’s all the more pushed to distraction by the mere thought of her husband being anything but miserable. Toward the end of Last Post, we discover that she’s finally pulled the right trigger, and has Groby Great Tree cut down. Burn it all, motherfuckers.

If anything in Parade’s End is a true literary symbol, it’s that tree. It represents the final destruction of the 18th century, you see. It’s the last post. Oh, and you know Ford continues to use his title throughout the text of his novel. It’s a fun game at this point. Anyway, the felling of that damn tree is the final nail in the coffin of the old social order. Christopher – who again is totally absent from this final novel – is hurt by its destruction, but at the same time it’s understood that this was inevitable. He willingly gives up his ancestral birthright in order to pursue happiness in the name of Valentine Wannop.

My feelings about Valentine Wannop are clear. Tietjens made the right choice, and he should have made it three books ago. That might have mitigated the impact of Parade’s End somewhat, but then I come from a very different society than Christopher. In the end, Valentine is well and truly pregnant with Christopher’s child, and it’s this revelation that causes Sylvia to finally lay the fuck off. It seems apparent that what she’s been doing this entire time was violently fighting against the changing of the social world. That social structure is the only reason she’s of any note, by virtue of her own upbringing and more importantly, the status of her aristocrat husband. Now that he’s cast all that aside and is determined to make his life his own, she has no real reason to continue her personal war. Instead it’s assumed that she’ll move to India, where Sylvia can at least entertain the notion that the 18th century has never ended.

Posted in Books, Modernity | Leave a comment