Dante’s Peak

 

Film * Rodger Donaldson * What If Volcanoes, Though? * 1997

Synopsis

Dante’s Peak is a film that speaks to me. I have a large compendium of dumb stuff I enjoy, and stupid disaster movies are pretty high on that list, slotted right between Lil’ Jon and The Rock. This particular dumb movie came out the year I graduated high school, which ugh, but also coincided with the one time in my life I was watching a lot of movies. Two of my favorites at the time were the Pierce Brosnan James Bond movies (which are somewhere around DOOM and weird-flavored potato chips on my idiot-list) and the Terminator movies. Now here comes a disaster flick starring actors from both of those things and – and! It is set in the Pacific Northwest. Look, the best thing about disaster movies are watching familiar things get blown up real good. That’s why they’re all set in New York or London or whatever. Back then, I had been living in California for a long time, but I was from the Northwest. I had a family and a history there, and now here comes this movie basically about Mt. St. Helens and I was downright giddy to see the thing.

Was I disappointed? Pff, you wish. Dante’s Peak hits all the right disaster movie notes in all the right places and is therefore great and everyone should love it. The setup is ideal: you have a sleepy town full of quirky-yet-cardboard characters milling around. You’ve got a brilliant scientist with a tragic history who is frustrated that stupid jerk science won’t justify his obviously superior intuition. You’ve got a strong and sturdy lady-mayor (who also owns a trendy Northwest coffee-shop because that was just starting to be a thing) who is totes single and just so over her ex. Also she has a couple precocious kids who get into hijinks. What else? Oh right, the silly-billy science team who are there to perform broad acts of science (which is not as accurate as Pierce Brosnan’s gut, of course) and provide comic relief, because we all know scientists are unsociable goofballs that are in these movies to amuse us. Oh, there’s a dog. I don’t remember if it dies or not. Probably not.

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More like a campy British super-spy, really.

Then of course you’ve got the actual star of the movie, the volcano. Dante’s Peak is not a real volcano. I’m not sure what the advantage of using a fictional mountain to rain havoc upon the unwitting citizens of the PNW is, but if I had to guess it’s because “Dante’s Peak” is a way better name than any of the actual volcanoes in the Cascades. Turns out boring white explorers gave boring white names to landmarks. All our mountains are named after eighteenth and nineteenth century British aristocrats nobody remembers, and it’s lame. Unless they’re just given super generic names, like the three closest to me.

“Hey, there’s three mountains here, what should we call them?”

“Man, I don’t care, just lump them all together and let’s go home, this place is cold.”

“The Three Sisters!”

“Great, whatever, let’s go.”

“The one in the north is North Sister. The one in the south is South Sister.”

“Oh my god shut up. If I ask about the other one can we leave?”

“The one in the middle? You’ll never guess. Guess.”

“I guess I’m leaving you here to be eaten by bears.”

“No! I’m calling it Middle Sister. Because it’s in the middle.”

“I hope everyone here hates those names as much as I hate you right now.”

“And the one with the broken top? I’m calling it Broken Top!”

“You’re the worst and nobody likes you. I’m not telling you this as your friend, I just want you to suffer as I have suffered.”

…and so on in that fashion until all our landmarks have terrible names. It’s a lake, in a crater. Crater Lake! We did it! Anyway, my point is that Dante’s Peak is significantly cooler than the actual names. Not as cool as the names my wife and I use, of course: Pointy, Stumpy, Lumpy, Bumpy, and Humpy. Sometimes I mix the last three up, but still. What the hell was I talking about? Oh right, the movie. I’m of the opinion that you can’t actually spoil a disaster movie, but it’s time for the break anyway.

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“Ker-ploop.”

Discussion

Hey guys, the volcano erupts in spectacular fashion and wrecks everybody’s day all up, vindicating the heroic, superior scientist and making the nay-sayers look like dorks! The end. Rewatching this movie twenty real years after watching it in the theater (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, linear time is a menace and should be destroyed), I think I appreciate this nonsense even more. Part of the reason is that I work for the Forest Service now, on the flanks of (or literally inside of) an actual dormant volcano, and a big part of my job is to help visitors appreciate what is directly under their feet. Dante’s Peak gets a lot of the actual science wrong, because it is a disaster movie and that’s how these things work. Like, Forest Service vehicles don’t actually have magic, lava-resistant tires, as much as I wish they did. Whatever, though, because as dumb as this movie is, it reminds people of the cataclysmic power of the planet. That’s what I do at work, except without the iffy science.

A massive volcanic eruption is certainly one of the most powerful, cataclysmic events in nature. If you doubt this, take a trip to Mt. St. Helens one of these days. Thirty-seven years later and the area is still a smoldering wasteland. The thing is, though, even such a powerful eruption didn’t cause the widespread, apocalyptic damage that other disasters manage. This is because, in the United States at least, our volcanoes are out of the way. They’re stationary. We don’t build big cities at their feet. Even the fictional town of Dante’s Peak is way larger than most of the tiny mountain towns that appear at the base of the real mountains. Places like Cougar, WA or Rhododendron, OR are barely places. When Mt. St. Helens erupted, fewer than 60 people died as a result because of the isolation of the mountain itself. The eruption of Dante’s Peak, then, is less an apocalypse than a minor inconvenience, at least on a national scale.

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This is an average Sunday morning at my job.

That said, there is a subtle undercurrent to the story of Dante’s Peak that is easily lost in movie featuring acid lakes and lava-defying Forest Service vehicles. In the build-up to the main event, which is to say the mountain blowing up real good, the movie gives us a quick sketch of a small town in the Northwest. On the surface, it looks like the typical middle-America Ohio town popularized by pretty much all of American media, ever. Quaint people doing quaint things in their quaint town. Sometimes they squabble but really everyone has a heart of gold and are clearly superior to filthy city people. That’s the cliché, anyway. Dante’s Peak manages to subvert that, but only a little bit, and then the film totally forgets about it by the end. A volcano did erupt, after all.

The small town of Dante’s Peak is a town experiencing a resurgence. It is implied that before Sarah Connor took over, the town was like many others across the Northwest in the mid-nineties, which is to say, depressed. The vast majority of small towns across Washington and Oregon were founded as centers of logging. Toward the end of the 20th century, this industry – like those in coal and manufacturing elsewhere in the country – began its long decline. Logging became less profitable, workers were laid off, mills were closed. Obviously, there are many complicated reasons for this. Increased efficiency using the product, fewer things are made from wood, increased competition from a world market, all kinds of things contribute to the loss of logging jobs. However, the industry and many of the locals who were affected by the downturn found a much easier scapegoat: the spotted owl. Look, I don’t want to get into a whole thing here, the point is that in the wake of a shrinking lumber market, small towns in the region started to shrink and become just the saddest places. People are familiar with places like Flint, Michigan but I would have to think Aberdeen or Chehalis, Washington are right up there on the list of depressed, horrible towns in this country.

Dante’s Peak is depicted to be such a town experiencing an uptick in fortune. The mayor runs a trendy coffee shop. A Business Man is in town to open a Business, which is exciting to a town which is likely suffering from chronic unemployment. The difference between Dante’s Peak and like, Tenino, Washington is that Dante’s Peak seems to be getting its act together. There’s hope here. In the film this hope is rooted in the aforementioned Business Man, but is more clearly seen in Mayor Connor (no, I can’t be bothered to look up the character’s actual name. That’s Sarah Connor, I don’t care). It’s her coffee shop, on a street catered towards tourists, because guess what? When one industry leaves, it needs to be replaced. If you live in Winlock, Washington, you’re screwed, because there’s nothing for tourists to look at other than a large egg. If you’re in Newberg, Oregon, you’re better off because rich white people like wine and feeling superior to hillbillies. And Newberg’s got both! Dante’s Peak has a picturesque mountain, and is therefore positioned to make an economic recovery.

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It’s all going to be okay. Unless you’re grandma.

Now I’m not sure what the movie is trying to say about all of this, because obviously the town of Dante’s Peak fails. The town doesn’t fail because the economic model is flawed, of course. It fails because a mountain ker-plodes. I think the conclusion I’m forced to draw is that Dante’s Peak is a bleak, nihilistic commentary on small town America. The lesson here is don’t try because even if you succeed in eclipsing meth production as your primary industry, nature will show up and wipe you out anyway. Everyone dies, there’s no reason for anything, your life is meaningless.

Either that, or Dante’s Peak is an incredibly silly, absurdly fun wisp of a movie that nobody should think much about thirty seconds after having watched it. Either way it’s time well spent.

Posted in Disaster, Film | Leave a comment

Ancillary Justice

Novel * Ann Leckie * Galactic Imperial Oppression * 2013

Synopsis

Humans are terrible and never actually change all that much. This is the lesson that I’ve learned by reading a lot of post-Earth and/or distant future science fiction. While that lesson may or may not be a fair assessment of humanity going forward, it’s hard to argue that we’ve changed much looking backward. If you read a lot of literature, people thousands of years ago were basically dealing with the exact same nonsense we’re dealing with now, just with less technology. Far-future fiction like Ancillary Justice reflects on that history of not changing spiritually while continuing to advance technologically and then tell fascinating and horrifying stories based on this truism. This of course belies the existence of nice, wholesome, and optimistic sci-fi like Star Trek and, uh, well I’m sure there are others. I suppose the compelling thing about darker stories is, other than familiarity, the chance at redemption and growth.

Ancillary Justice is really, really cool, and resonates because it manages to weave familiar sci-fi tropes together in new and unusual ways, while still examining the underlying humanity of its world and characters. This is especially compelling considering the protagonist isn’t even human. Rather, it’s a massive starship artificial intelligence which resides in the reanimated body of a human. Look, it gets a little complicated, and that’s what makes it fun. Leckie introduces a lot of concepts and structures right away, which is good because the best part about imaginative fiction (which is a terrible genre term, because all fiction is by definition imaginative, but I guess that’s the term we use now) it getting thrust into an alien world and trying to figure out just what the hell is going on. Sometimes authors go too far. This is not one of those times, because despite being an A.I., Breq/One Esk/Justice of Toren is a solid anchor to ground us in this world.

Since the story is being told from the perspective of a fragmented artificial intelligence, the narrative tends to feel a little detached. This is actually a skillful act of writing on Leckie’s part. Somehow, she manages to emotionally invest the reader in a protagonist who can only process emotion intellectually. And it feels natural and right, even if it takes a little while to figure out why much of the prose feels a little formal and almost-but-not-quite stiff. This is a first-person narrative in which the person isn’t a person, so the tone and pacing make sense. There’s a good deal of flashing back in time, as we learn about Breq’s history as an actual ship A.I. and what led her to being shut off from the rest of her being and abandoned in a single body.

I realize I should probably sketch a brief picture of this society. I don’t want to get too detailed above the break because figuring some of this out is part of the fun, but most of this you learn pretty quickly. Breq, the artificial intelligence, belongs to the human galactic empire known as the Radch. The Radch kind of suck. They’re strangely retrograde in their structure in that they rely heavily on religion and caste, also they are big into subjugation. One of the things they do when they’re out there conquering colonies is harvest bodies. They don’t kill them, but they push the personality out of the brain until all that’s left is a husk. Then they are frozen. Eventually, they’re reanimated and the ship’s A.I. is inserted so that one A.I. can control a bunch of these meat puppets (as well as the ship) to do the Radch’s imperial bidding. In Breq’s case, her entire existence ended up in a single one of these husks: One Esk. This may be some high-concept kind of stuff, but seriously don’t let this deter you if you’re down with dope sci-fi stories. Ancillary Justice is very cool. Now it’s time to ruin everything.

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The problem with newer books is that there are way fewer alternate covers. Yet there is still so much fan art. So very much. Too much, maybe.

Discussion

There are a lot of issues up in the air during the course of reading Ancillary Justice, and Leckie isn’t terribly interested in answering any of them for you. In just thinking about it briefly, there’s questions of gender identity, social class, religion, colonialism, what it means to be human, and the power of song. Obviously, these kind of heavy themes can drag a narrative down pretty quickly if you let it. There’s a certain amount of grace and skill needed to navigate these things while still entertaining, which fortunately Leckie has. Most of the heavy lifting is done by Breq, who spends a good deal of time trying to figure out how to live as an autonomous being well outside her comfort zone with vastly fewer resources than she’s ever had. Oh, and did I mention she’s like 2,000 years old? The entire time scale of Ancillary Justice is straight up crazy, and it’s hard to remember that the events told in this novel span huge amounts of time and space.

The story begins when Breq rescues a rather surly human named Seivarden. This character gave me some problems because every time I see that name in print I immediately see the name “Severian” which is a whole other deal. Anyway, Seivarden was frozen for a very, very long time. Like centuries. Nevertheless, Breq remembers her because ship A.I.’s are all thousands of years old and don’t forget anything. Once upon a time, Seivarden was on officer aboard Breq when Breq was the Justice of Toren. Breq remembers not really liking her very much. Once she was unfrozen, it turns out that Seivarden didn’t really fit into society anymore, so she turned into a hardcore drug addict and nearly died before Breq saved her. Their relationship is essentially the backbone of the novel, and keeps the rest of the narrative grounded as it sweeps across the galaxy.

If not for this weird, often unsettling relationship, the even stranger plot is in danger of unravelling pretty much the entire time. Breq, you see, is on a personal mission of revenge, looking to murder the galactic emperor of the Radch. Thing is, Anaander Mianaai (yeah, the names are a little much) isn’t just a single person. Because of the fucked up technology that allows for artificial hive-minds and injecting personalities and whatnot into husks and cloning and who knows what else, the emperor is actually dozens of individuals which are all connected. Or rather, they were. Turns out, there’s a crisis unfolding which rather inadvertently consumed Breq/Justice of Toren. The overarching personality of Anaander Mianaai has split, and are at war with one another. All of this is over questions of empire, and how best to deal with a true alien threat.

The Radch have oppressing human societies down to a science. The all-knowing slave A.I.’s probably help with this, as does the almost omnipotent technology. The Lord of the Radch is certainly ruthless, and there are various demonstrations of cold, calculated slaughter orchestrated by both sides of her split personality. Meanwhile, Breq is out to murder her despite knowing full well the futility of the endeavor, because like almost every other story about artificial intelligence, Breq has learned the meaning of being human is being irrational. That’s not a slam, by the way. The construct and execution of the novel is fresh and original, even if the themes here are all well-trod territory for science fiction.

I haven’t even got to the disorienting gender stuff yet! The Radch don’t differentiate between genders, everyone is simply referred to as “she,” which is confusing at first until we realize that in this world and setting, it doesn’t matter at all. Seivarden is probably a dude, but that’s irrelevant. What matters is social status, which Seivarden used to have but has lost with the passage of time while she was out of the game, frozen. Now her House has lost influence and where she used to be a big wheel down at the cracker factory, now she’s nothing but a curiosity from a bygone era. Now, the Radch don’t have gender, but other human societies do, and when the Radch cultures meet the non-Radch barbarians, shit gets weird. Weird-er.

The hell of it all is, I’m not convinced Leckie has any particular point to make about any of this. Which is totally fine! The entirely of this book is Breq uncovering all this weird crazy nonsense and attempting to contextualize both her own intelligence and the state of the world with the situation at hand. In the end, she’s pulled along by Seivarden to the command of her own A.I.-powered starship while the Empire of the Radch starts to crumble around them. Breq allows this to happen because of her slow humanization, but also because logically there’s not much else for her to do. Her motivation isn’t necessarily revenge, but a desire to do better by those humans who would do better for her. If the Empire should crumble and collapse as a result of her doing the right thing, so be it.

Posted in Books, Colonialism, Dystopia, Post-Earth | Leave a comment

The Return of the Soldier

Novella * Rebecca West * World War I, For the Ladies * 1918

Synopsis

The literature of the early 20th century is dominated by the events of World War I. We see this time and again, whether the war is specifically referenced or not. The apocalyptic conflict is everywhere, affects everything, and in one way or another, changes the life of everyone living at the time. I would specify “living in the West,” but of course such a convulsive, large-scale conflict has unintended consequences across the world. That said, these effects begin in the trenches and work their way out into the world at large. The most horrific and traumatic effects of the war were those suffered by the actual soldiers. Obviously if you’re sawed in half by machine gun fire or blown out of your mud-hole to hang by your entrails in some barbed wire, your experience is about as bad as it can get. The trauma works its way out; that poor bastard likely has a family, who of course are suffering loss as well. Magnify this tragedy by many millions and the sense of apocalypse truly begins to set in.

Since the soldier experience is the most dramatic, it usually gets written about the most. This is not always a direct account, of course, for every All Quiet on the Western Front we get a book that skirts the aftermath like The Sun Also Rises. Both those examples, and the many other novels like them, are of course written by men with direct contact with actual combat. World War I did most of its direct damage to young men; many millions never made it home and many millions more came home grievously wounded. It makes sense for most of the literature about the war to be about these men. Yet literature casts a wide net and is more than capable of presenting different perspectives on the same thing. The war did direct damage to young men, but it also dealt a massive amount of collateral damage to the women who waited back home for them to return. Or not.

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This cover just screams ‘apocalypse,’ no?

The Return of the Soldier is a slight work which speaks to the experience of the millions of women waiting in their quiet homes for news of the war. The entire story takes place over a short amount of time, in a peaceful home, where absolutely nothing dramatic happens. Every action is understated, and all of the conflict is expressed as a building, unavoidable dread as we wait for the only thing that can happen to actually happen. This book, in its 90 fleeting pages, manages to tackle an entire suite of issues of the day. Written in the midst of the war, there is no closure here. Until Armistice Day itself, there was no clear indication that the war would ever end. Rebecca West (who was a badass, by the way) was writing from a place of deep uncertainty and was expressing a viewpoint we don’t often see in war literature.

The story itself is fairly straightforward. It’s a tale about three women and one man. The narrator is Jenny, Christopher’s cousin. They’ve been friends since childhood, although the conspiratorial intimacy of childhood has since been lost and Jenny is a little sad about that. Meanwhile, Christopher has married a fancy lady named – ugh – Kitty. Then the war happened and Christopher set off to the Front. The story picks up with Kitty lamenting the fact that Christopher hasn’t written for a fortnight and is obviously worried that her husband is dead. As it happens, he’s not. He is, however, suffering from shell shock. In this instance it has caused a weird form of amnesia, and now Chris thinks that the year is 1901 and that not only is he not married, he’s in love with some girl neither Jenny nor Kitty have ever heard of named Margaret. Now Christopher has returned from the war, but he’s living in the past and doesn’t recognize his wife, and still pines for a girl of his youth.

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This cover covers the overall tone of the novel. I kind of feel like this a lot.

Discussion

The Return of the Soldier does a lot of heavy lifting for such a short book. West’s attention moves from issues with social class, to the torment of waiting for a loved one to return from war, to a weird love triangle, to the very concept of reality. Kitty, Jenny, and Chris are all very upper class while Margaret is very much not. Although – and this is still an alien concept to me – Margaret is lower class, but like, upper-lower class, so she totally has a servant but not a fancy servant. And only one. When we first meet her, Jenny and Kitty have nothing but disdain for this poor lady, and West portrays both women as insufferable arrogant bitches. Seriously, Kitty and Jenny’s depictions and treatment of Margaret are gross. This is intentional, of course. Rebecca West, feminist and socialist in the early 20th century, is definitely not on the side of the landed aristocracy.

No, really, you need to see this. The book begins with Margaret bringing news of Christopher’s affliction to Jenny and Kitty in their fancy home. The entire time Jenny is narrating, it’s filled with faux-pity and derisive asides, and disgusting assumptions about the (not really poor, but upper-middle-lower-class, you know) lower classes of society. In this instance, both Jenny and Kitty have the unspoken assumption that Margaret is there to scam them. Margaret claims to have news of Christopher’s shell shock, which Jenny and Kitty think she cannot have because why would this random lady have such information? That’s a fair thing to think, because obviously such news should go directly to the wife and family and not some middle-aged lady apparently unconnected to the man. I’m not sure that excuses the following passage, however:

“I hoped that Kitty would let her go without scaring her too much with words and would not mind if I gave her a little money. There was no doubt in my mind but that this was a queer ugly episode, in which this woman butted like a clumsy animal at a gate she was not intelligent enough to open, would dissolve and be replaced by some more pleasing composition in which we would take our proper parts; in which, that is, she should turn from our rightness ashamed.”

Yet she cried, “But Chris is ill!”

It took a second for the compact insolence of the moment to penetrate: the amazing impertinence of the use of his name, the accusation of callousness she brought against us, whose passion for Chris was our point of honour, because we would not shriek at her false news, the impudently bright indignant gaze she flung at us, the lift of her voice that pretended she could not understand our coolness and irrelevance.

I pushed the purse away from me with my toe and hated her as the rich hate the poor, as insect things that will struggle out of the crannies which are their decent home, and introduce ugliness to the light of day.”

Holy shit lady, maybe lay off a little bit! In just a short time, Jenny thinks of Margaret as both a clumsy idiot animal and a gross bug. And when it turns out that Margaret is genuine and not trying to scam anyone? Pff, whatever, she’s still a peasant with disgusting, calloused hands. This little episode, and the cool, casual condescension Jenny emits here is of course Rebecca West venting her spleen at the upper classes. It’s yet another reminder in Modern literature as to how completely reified European (and specifically British) society is collapsing in slow motion. As the trauma of the war grows and spreads, the social structures of the era simply cannot keep up. Here are two women – Jenny and Kitty – who are suffering the absence of this dude they claim to love so much, but spend way more effort being disgusted at the mere presence of a shabby poor than exhibiting concern for their loved one.

Soon after the above episode, Christopher returns and yep, he thinks it’s 1901 and everyone is crazy except for him. Well, that’s not completely fair. Intellectually Chris knows that it’s much later and that he’s a soldier in a war he can’t remember and that this presumably adult human woman who calls herself ‘Kitty’ is his wife, but none of that makes any difference because his heart keeps telling him that he’s a young man in love with a pretty young woman he met while visiting a quaint little inn. This, of course, sucks quite a bit for Kitty, although it’s hard to feel sorry for her because of how terrible a person she is. This is also the aspect of the story where all these themes start to blend.

Christopher and Margaret’s love affair is representative of the erosion of social strata which is beginning to happen even before the war breaks out. Unfortunately, it’s also not real. Chris returns home from the war physically undamaged, which should be a moment of triumph for the women waiting upon his return. However, Chris is still fundamentally damaged by the apocalyptic conflict and his mind has retreated to an idyllic past which, by its very nature, is still a symptom of a rapidly changing society. Even in his shell shock induced fantasy, he cannot possibly ever be happy. Yes, middle-aged Margaret shows up and they’re both clearly still into it, but their cross-class love cannot last. Not because the classes can’t mix – obviously the war is forever changing that – but because what they have isn’t a true thing.

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Any cover of this book that actually has a soldier on it kind of misses the point. I mean, I know it’s in the title and all, but still.

Since Christopher and Margaret can’t actually hold onto their happiness, because reality is war and struggle and strife, they must eventually embrace what is real. Margaret is the one who makes this happen. This is the early 20th century and so a psychologist shows up because that’s the new hotness, and he decides he can cure Christopher’s amnesia with a sufficient shock. Chris is then forcibly reminded that before he went off to war he had a son who died. Bummer. This of course snaps Christopher back to reality, which is terrible. For him, for Margaret, even for Jenny. It’s bad for everyone except, of course, Kitty, who is the worst.

Kitty is barely a real character and reads most of the time as an insufferable caricature that Rebecca West invented so she could make fun of rich people. I’m fine with that because I love Rebecca West and rich people are gross. Kitty’s entire source of sadness throughout The Return of the Soldier is not the thought of her husband dying a horrible death, it’s the thought of losing her husband to a woman of the unspeakable lower classes. When Chris is cured, she’s ecstatic. Never mind the fact that Christopher’s recovery means that he must return to the Front and probably die or get wounded. Who cares?! He may leave, he may die, but at least when he does Chris will belong to his proper class and his proper wife. Jenny, watching from a distance, at least seems to understand the gravity of the situation. She has come to her senses regarding Margaret, and appears to be saddened by the loss of the idyllic dream in which Chris could be a happy young man and not a grim solider.

The Return of the Soldier ends on this note of final uncertainty, in which the soldier must return to a war still in progress. Kitty, the rather obvious impersonation of a failing aristocratic society (not at all unlike Sylvia from Parade’s End), is joyous at the return of the status quo. Jenny, who seems able to shift with the times, is devastated. Despite not knowing the outcome of the war (because the book was written and published before the war was over), Jenny can see where things are going. Not only is Christopher lost – even if he isn’t killed he’s been through a trauma that will forever mark him), but what the young Christopher represented will be lost as well. World War I. It was a hell of a thing.

Posted in Books, Modernity | Leave a comment

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!

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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 Aliens, Books, Desolation, Y.A.T. | 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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