Akira

Film * Katsuhiro Otomo * Post-Human Apocalypse * 1988

Synopsis

Hey! Let’s talk about a cool movie! I may not know exactly what the hell just happened, but I’ll be damned if this thing doesn’t have styyyyle. Akira is a film from Japan, and it is animated. It is adapted from a comic series of the same name. Because they are Japanese, I have to call them anime and manga, respectively. I don’t know why Japan gets their own terms, but they do. Anyway, this film has a look. Like, this thing is nearly 30 years old and it still manages to impress on the merits of its art direction and overall vibe. Akira is not unlike other anime legends in this sense. Like Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell, Akira prioritizes style and presentation over plot and character. This is not to say the story isn’t important! The narrative tends to be convoluted, and I’m fairly convinced they’re constructed to facilitate the maximum amount of Cool Shit to happen. In Akira, the plot is a mish-mash of post-apocalyptic urbanism and post-human, semi-mystical musing. But man, it all looks so rad.

Here’s what I could figure out. The story takes place in a place called Neo Tokyo in the fantastically futuristic year of 2019. This is 31 years after a presumed nuclear war destroyed Old Tokyo. I say presumed because it turns out that nuclear warfare is too simple for Akira. That’s not terribly important right now. What’s important is Neo Tokyo itself, which is just a fantastic example of the Asian supercity. It’s massive and bright and expansive and colorful, but it is also filthy and decadent and slowly falling apart. The main group of characters are a bunch of malcontents. They rip around on sick future bikes and fuck with rival gangs and basically wreak havoc on the highways of Neo Tokyo.

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Oh, Kaneda.

One night, while they’re doing this, they get all mixed up with some seriously weird business. As in this green child who appears to suffer from progeria is wandering around and blowing things up with his mind? And the Army is out to catch him, but then these biker kids get all up in the way and now there’s this big mess. So, your principle characters emerge right around this point. You’ve got the leader of the biker gang, Kaneda, and it’s real weird to watch the subtitled version because it sounds like people are just yelling “CANADA!” throughout the entire movie. Anyway, he’s your typical devil-may-care chaotic good character. Rough and tumble but has a heart of gold. Then there’s Tetsuo. He’s the little wiener kid who’s constantly being bailed out by the much cooler Kaneda and is always butt-hurt about it. Tetsuo has a massive inferiority complex and is a little dickhead about it. He basically kicks this entire fiasco off because he was trying to be all badass and steals Kaneda’s sick bike and wrecks it and gets his little girlfriend beat up by a rival gang and he can’t even deal with it because he’s such a little bitch and basically fuck Tetsuo.

Eventually, the green progeria kid is recaptured. However, in all the brouhaha caused in part by Kaneda’s gang, Tetsuo has been claimed by the Army. It’s… more complicated than that, but really the whole point is to get Tetsuo in a position where his fantastical powers are unveiled. Turns out the dorky little shit with no personal agency is in fact very powerful! Except he’s also a vindictive little asshole who should definitely not have telekinetic powers of any kind. It soon becomes clear that Tetsuo is way more than the Army can handle, is more than Kaneda can handle, and definitely more than Tetsuo can handle. He goes on a rampage, the green progeria kids try and stop him, some weird metaphysical nonsense happens, and that’s the movie. That’s what happens, and yet I’m confident I’ve spoiled nothing because this is not a film about plot.

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So. Much. Style.

Discussion

Clearly, the easiest bit of analysis for a film like this is the old chestnut: Japan got nuked and is still fucked up about it. Awesome, we’re done here. See you next time!

Okay, maybe that’s a touch on the glib side. My problem is that I know next to nothing about Japanese culture outside of video games. I have a broad understanding of their history that is summed up in the above sentence. So then I read some things and here we go. Once upon a time Japan was an aggressive nation bordering on a world superpower. Then they picked on the wrong up-and-coming superpower and got themselves nuked. After that they were ashamed and docile and morose. Personally, I think it’s silly to try and psychoanalyze a society. Especially decades after the fact. Yes, Akira begins with the utter decimation of an entire city. However, we’re given exactly zero background on the how or why of the situation. There is an offhand reference to World War III, and then it isn’t mentioned again. Did the United States and Soviet Union off each other? Did China lob a nuke at Tokyo for funsies? Again, not mentioned and therefore not important. As the film unfolds, it becomes fairly clear that Akira isn’t terribly interested in mass destruction at all.

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This movie even manages to make the insufferable wiener kid look cool.

If anything, it seems like the film is a response to the economic and cultural upheavals of the eighties. My first thought watching the introduction was “dang, Tokyo was leveled and in only 30 years here’s a late-stage Asian supercity already to the point where it’s kind of falling apart.” This was quickly followed up by the realization that Japan already did this. After the war, Japan rebounded relatively fast after the utter destruction it had brought on itself. This rapid growth peaked in 1990 (or so) before crashing out. The original manga began in ’82 and the film appeared in ’88. While the shadow of the nuclear bombing might still have been in the back of the citizen’s mind, it makes more sense that something like Akira appeared from this turbulent social era of rapid growth and changing cultural morality.

Akira has more in common with something like Some Do Not… or The Sun Also Rises than it does Godzilla. Those classics of Modernism were written during a time of social chaos and reorganization following a massive cataclysm. Akira is doing the same thing on a different timeframe within a different culture. If anything, Japanese culture was even more entrenched than the social structures of the United Kingdom and Europe. World War II broke down this society even more comprehensively than World War I broke down Europe’s. The recovery period was just as turbulent and just as devastating, and nobody knew how things were going to turn out. Akira has a great many concerns about the future of not only Japanese society, but about humanity in general.

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No one has ever, or will ever again, look this rad wearing a pink polo and khakis.

Over and over again Akira shows us lovingly animated scenes of Neo Tokyo, probably the best example of the futuristic Asian supercity I’ve ever seen. It’s massive and glittering, clearly an achievement of human ambition and intelligence. However, the film spends most of its time with characters of the underclass, and like any good supercity of late-stage capitalism, income inequality is the chief characteristic of the society. Kaneda and his gang live within the gloriously seedy underbelly of Neo Tokyo. While the gleaming towers of the masters soar above them, they are forced to live in the decaying, cast-off areas in urban squalor. They’re forgotten, unimportant. Their school is all graffiti and overturned desks and angry teens. The most important part of their lives is getting into gang fights on their sick motorcycles. On the flip side of this, Akira also shows us the ruling class. These motherfuckers are even worse: fat, corrupt, unscrupulous, greedy dickweeds. Neo Tokyo is not a good place to be.

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Okay, one gif of Neo Tokyo isn’t enough. Dang.

Even worse is the direction the city – and the society – is heading. Tokyo was lost thirty years ago, destroyed by errant technology run amok. The reaction to this apocalypse was to rebuild as quickly as possible, and to double down on the principles that led to the city’s destruction in the first place. The end result was the aforementioned corruption and decay. Beyond this, however, the city’s masters are attempting to exploit post-human technology. This is where the creepy green kids and Tetsuo come in. Turns out, that first city-killing explosion was a result of a kid named Akira losing control of the massive power generated by his own brain. Now Tetsuo has the same kind of power, facilitated by a power elite eager to push technology (and thus their own power and control) further and faster than they can deal with. The predictable result of this is that they’re undone by their own short-sightedness.

Akira is a film about social anxiety, that much is clear. While some of that anxiety may be residue from the original atomic bombings of 1945, it seems that the underlying worry is more about human nature than anything else. Like most other Modern and Postmodern art, Akira is trying to come to terms with the whirlwind of technological advancement pushing society further and faster than it can psychologically handle. Again, I don’t want to put an entire civilization on the therapy couch, but at the very least the creative mind(s) behind Akira have these concerns. I’m just happy they managed to work through their anxiety by producing such a stylish, beautiful film.

All that said, never forget:

animejerks

Posted in Film, Post Modernity, Urbanization | Leave a comment

Station Eleven

Novel * Emily St. John Mandel * Pre/Post Superflu * 2014

Synopsis

Well I’m all pissed off now. No, relax, it’s not like that. I’m just working through a bout of writer-envy, that’s all. This goddamn thing is just so lyrically, evocatively, subtly, seemingly effortlessly written – and probably a bunch of other adverbs I can’t even think of right now because I’m not good enough – that I would read through yet another lovely section and then be all like “well, I totally can’t do that!” But then I’d read a little more and the text is so pleasant and soothing I’d forget about my inferiority complex for a little while. Which is good, because the story of Station Eleven really does deserve your utmost attention.

Station Eleven is ostensibly about a flu epidemic that kills like 99% of the population, pretty much exactly as you see in Stephen King’s The Stand. The only real difference is everything. In Station Eleven, the flu is the fulcrum on which the story balances, but it is not the focus. Throughout the novel, Mandel skips back and forth to before and after the epidemic while spending next to no time worrying about the event itself. In fact one of the central characters, Kirsten Raymonde, doesn’t even remember the year following the flu. It’s the apocalypse, but this narrative isn’t terribly interested in it. Instead, Station Eleven is concerned with its characters, living in both the world before the plague and twenty years after the event. Mandel skips around in time pretty much constantly, flitting from character to character, connecting seemingly disparate people across both space and time.

If all this seems a little vague, it’s okay. I was worried at first too. The first scene takes place the eve of the flu outbreak in a theatre during a production of King Lear. When the story shifts to the post-plague present, all the principal characters are members of a travelling symphony/theatre troupe. My immediate instinct was to pull back, like oh lord this is gonna be a total theatre-dork apocalypse and my time is limited here. I ain’t tryin’ to read about a bunch of drama-nerds vamping across the wasteland, you know? My fears were unfounded, however, and it soon became apparent that the theatrical elements are simply the background of these characters and is not the focus. So if we’re keeping track, Station Eleven is about the apocalypse but not really. It’s also about the theatre, but also not really.

Surely the novel is about something? Well if you must be insistent about an easy, back-of-the-book description, fine. It’s about this travelling symphony which travels the post-apocalypse and keeps art alive. The post-plague sections take place some twenty years after the epidemic and ensuing fall of civilization. What’s left of humanity has reconvened and started to live in small settlements. This is not the kind of book that depicts post-civilization as horrific and barbarous, although those kind of things are definitely alluded to. Things have settled down by the time the story takes place. That said, the world is a more dangerous place, as the symphony finds out when they stumble across a dude who calls himself ‘the prophet.’ Whenever you find a guy who identifies as such, you know he’s going to be a problem, and so he is. Meanwhile, the other half of the book follows the unhappy life of a celebrity actor named Arthur Leander and the people who in one way or another were part of his world. So go ahead and read this thing because I’m going to talk all about everything now.

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While I like a good, sexy redesign, I’m not sure what this deer’s up to.

Discussion

I’m maybe not actually going to talk about everything. Otherwise I’d be here for a while. Also this is the kind of novel that deserves to be reread, and it’ll be quite some time before I circle back to it. For instance, this first time through I was mostly concerned with the characters, with their tenuous connections to one another, and the softer tone of the post-apocalypse. Something I paid very little attention to that I intend to remedy next time: the title. One of the connecting threads Kirsten’s prize possession, which is an indie comic. It’s called, wait for it, Station Eleven. I barely know what any of that’s about, so if you’re waiting for some revelation on that front you’re going to have to come up with it yourself. Clearly it’s important, but whenever Kirsten or Miranda would start talking about it I’d impatiently whip through it because get on with it already.

Instead, I focused on another aspect of the story. This would be the oft-repeated phrase: survival is insufficient. This sentiment is actually tattooed on the body of Kirsten, and is the official slogan of the Travelling Symphony. I especially appreciate the fact that Mandel doesn’t shy away from the Star Trek origin of that phrase. I never got around to watching Voyager, but I may have to remedy that, considering. Anyway, the easy take-away from this is that if survival is insufficient, then art is necessary. Therefore: Hamlet and Beethoven. That point is made right away, with zero subtlety. Yet there’s more to it than just introducing a bunch of travelling musicians and declaring all is well with humanity.

Arthur Leander is a Hollywood guy. At the beginning of the novel, which is the end of his life, he’s washed up. He’s in the midst of divorcing his third wife, his recent movies have all been flops, and now he’s in Toronto playing King Lear in an effort to get back to his acting roots. This is the state of art in the 21st century. As the novel unfolds, we learn a lot about Arthur, as he’s a central character who doesn’t really take part in any of the action. He was raised on a small, isolated island in British Columbia. He escaped and chased his dream and succeeded far beyond his expectations. And Arthur paid the price for success. He learned that not only is art commodified, but so are artists. Eventually, his life became the lifestyle. Arthur leaves his first wife – Miranda, who comes from the same tiny island – for a Hollywood star. He essentially rejects his past for image. The lifestyle then surpasses any semblance of human connection, which is underscored when Miranda attempts to have a human moment with a paparazzo only to have it backfire.

Jeevan, said paparazzo, turns out to be a decent fellow once he ditches the rather odious profession of sneaking candid photographs of vulnerable people. In this instance, Miranda isn’t even the star. Arthur is. However, it’s clear that Miranda is the only actual artist in this entire novel. She created the Station Eleven comic that Kirstin ends up with (through a series of Heart of Gold-level improbabilities), which is by all accounts a work of love and devotion to the creation of art. It’s telling that Arthur never understood why Miranda worked so fervently on her project. For Arthur, art turned into a means to an end. Guys like Jeevan were a nuisance, but a small price to pay for recognition, fame, and money. Now Arthur is a little more complicated than that, and it’s clear that he lived with some regret, but in the end he was only ever a symbol of the 21st century approximation of art and performance.

Meanwhile, in the post-plague future, a minimized humanity has returned to the simpler version of art available to them. I may have taken a shot at the Travelling Symphony when I stated that Miranda is the only true artist of all the presented characters, but that wasn’t intended to be harsh. The thing is, humanity hit the reset button on society. The first thing, insofar as art is concerned, is actually survival. Now the nice thing about a plague is that the works of humanity are by and large left intact (as opposed to, say, a meteor or nuclear war). Outside of isolated disasters caused by lack of supervision, wide swaths of literature and music and the like are still available for use. To allow the active process of art to survive, the things that have gone before must be preserved, appreciated, and understood. That’s what the Travelling Symphony must do. Yes, they act, but they’re performing Shakespeare in order to preserve it. Yes, they play music, but they play symphonies from the 18th century. Nobody is yet at the point where they create original works.

It’s at this point where I realize taking the time to understand Miranda’s comic would have been useful. Whoops! Oh well, next time. For this first reading of Station Eleven, it’s simply enough to enjoy the language, and be at ease with these characters. The tone of this novel is a striking, welcome contrast to the usual tense, violent nature of post-apocalyptic stories. You know that prophet I mentioned early on? Now sure he kills a few members of the Symphony and that’s totes sad or whatever, but the following confrontation ends up feeling like an afterthought. It’s assumed that life is more difficult in the post-apocalypse, but the violence isn’t fetishized here like it is elsewhere in the genre. Instead there is just the rather comforting notion that things will be all right. Hard, but all right. Sometimes that’s enough.

Posted in Books, Plague | Leave a comment

No More Parades (Parade’s End Pt. 2)

Novel * Ford Madox Ford * Social Disintegration * 1925

Synopsis

No More Parades is the second of four novels in Ford’s Modern masterpiece tetralogy Parade’s End. One thing you will notice right away is that while the novels are presented in a rough chronological order, they still jump about in time quite a bit. The other readily apparent thing is that these novels are unconventionally told. Because Modernism. This requires careful reading to fully understand not only whose perspective is currently being explored, but also whether that person is speaking out loud to other people, or internally to themselves. There is a great deal of rambling internal monologue here, and it’s interspersed with all manner of erratic punctuation and abrupt shifts. Personally, I don’t find these things to be negative issues, because I am a goddamn nerd. For new readers, however, the experiments in form that Ford is getting up to here might be a deal breaker. I understand. That said, this is not Ulysses. The narrative is grounded, and there is a definite sense of place.

Still with me? Great. No More Parades picks up an initially indeterminate amount of time after the kinda-conclusion of Some Do Not…. I say ‘initially’ because there is an actual chronology at play, which is available via helpful scholars, which I am not. As the novel opens, we find Captain Tietjens in France. He’s an officer in charge of transportation, and in this instance he’s trying to get a bunch of Canadians to the front. He is partnered with Captain McKechnie, who is a crazy person. Now, the way these books work is to present a very time period in excruciating detail, and in this way cover both the history and future fears of the character whose perspective we share. Most of the first part of No More Parades takes place in a hut where very little is happening, at least until the Germans start shelling them, and then some poor bastard dies. Tietjens takes it pretty well, considering.

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Still symbolic!

No More Parades is concerned with both World War I and Tietjens attempting to deal with his horrible wife, Sylvia. The first few chapters are there to ground Christopher as a Captain in an army with an important job to do for the war effort. He’s actually a good officer, despite his efforts being constantly undermined and countermanded by various external forces. Despite occasional artillery attacks, he’s not in a great deal of physical danger and the men seem to respect his command. McKechnie is a bit of a wild card, as he’s one of these people who immediately dislikes Tietjens. Perhaps he has his reasons – it seems he is the nephew of one Macmaster – but he is also a wackadoo. He’s also really hung up on being the superior Latinist, and is constantly trying to compete with Tietjens over it. For his part, Christopher is mildly annoyed by this dude, but still cracks off a sonnet in two and a half minutes, so you know, bully for him.

Beyond worrying about the state of the war effort, Tietjens also has to contend with his damaged and deeply fucked up home situation. Sylvia, who is in a constant state of war with her husband, has seemingly left him. She won’t divorce, however, because that would a) be conceding the war and b) go against her Catholic upbringing. Since Sylvia won’t divorce, Christopher won’t either, because he’s a fucking gentleman and such things are not done. Meanwhile, Valentine Wannop is totally absent in this book, which is a terrible shame because she’s the best and I love her. While her perspective may be missing in this novel, however, her person still looms large over the narrative. Much mental energy is expended by both Christopher and Sylvia over what Valentine’s very existence even means.

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That guy in the front doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself much.

Discussion

While Christopher Tietjens is a very stoic Tory and is thus extremely good at maintaining his composure, he’s a mess. This first night described in No More Parades was undoubtedly rough on the poor bastard. I mean, he finds out that some dipshit civilian is disrupting his work and making the war more difficult on his men than it needs to be. Then a cat with a great name, O Nine Morgan, takes some shrapnel in the face and pretty much dies in Tietjens’ arms. So that sucks. Then there’s McKechnie, who won’t stop being crazy. And then, as if all this wasn’t enough, he finds out that his horrible wife has actually come to France in the middle of a damn war and has insisted upon seeing him. Try as he might, Christopher cannot figure out his wife’s motives.

“For as he saw it, English people of good position consider that the basis of all marital unions or disunions is the maxim: No scenes…. And indeed, with him, the instinct for privacy – as to his relationships, his passions, or even as to his most unimportant motives – was as strong as the instinct of life itself. He would, literally, rather be dead than an open book. And until that afternoon he had imagined that his wife, too, would rather be dead than have her affairs canvassed by the Other Ranks… But that assumption had to be gone over. Revised… Of course he might say she had gone mad.”

Consider how crazy that sentiment is: “he would, literally, rather be dead than an open book”! This is back in the day, so when people used the world “literally,” they literally meant it. So here’s his wife, who could clearly give a shit if people are gossiping about her and her husband, and she’s considered the crazy one. Everyone’s nuts, I don’t know. Sylvia’s sole purpose in coming to France is to make her husband as miserable as possible. To this end, she’s determined to make him crack his façade, to concede – something, anything – to her. Since she is so adept at society, she knows which levers of influence to lean on to achieve her ends, although we see in her viewpoint chapters her actions often have unintended consequences. She wants to fuck his shit up but in the right ways, if you can dig that. Which is something a crazy person would do, so in this instance Christopher is right to question her sanity, although from a modern reader’s perspective the reasoning is different.

Sylvia also has a curious opinion about the war itself, which ends up being both a glib dismissal of the gravity of the conflict as well as an accurate summation of its existence. As she puts it:

“The whole of the affair, the more she saw of it, overwhelmed her with a sense of hatred…. And of depression!… She saw Cristopher buried in this welter of fools, playing a schoolboy’s game of make-believe. But of a make-believe that was infinitely formidable and infinitely sinister…. The crashings of the gun and of all the instruments for making noise seemed to her so atrocious and odious because they were, for her, the silly pomp of a schoolboy-man’s game… Campion or some similar schoolboy said: ‘Hullo! Some German aeroplanes about… That lets us out on the air-gun! Let’s have some pops!”…. As the fire guns in the park on the King’s birthday. It was sheer insolence to have a gun in the garden of a hotel where people of quality might be sleeping or wishing to converse!”

Damn, girl, that’s cold. Yeah, yeah, millions of people are being blown apart in the trenches but a gun at a fancy hotel? This will not stand! I’m trying to have a conversation over here! And yet, the whole bit about the schoolboy games isn’t exactly too far off. We see that exact attitude from the likes of General Campion, who is actually good at his job, but more in scenes concerning Tietjens trying to function properly. Moving his men from one place to another shouldn’t be nearly as difficult as it is. Yet conflicting orders keep coming down, or some civilian businessman with political contacts wants things done in a particular way and now Tietjens has to figure out a way to make that guy happy at the expense of his men. The war, in this instance, is an economic game as well as a political one.

The above passage also underscores Sylvia’s priorities as a Lady of society. The war has not only disrupted the accepted social order, but it’s threatening to do so in the long-term. The constraints of the social order may have pressed Sylvia unwillingly into Tietjens’ life and home, but despite this, she has still mastered her position. She is striking and beautiful and vicious. Yet all around her the guns of war are slowly shaking her world apart. Sylvia hates Christopher, but she also sees him as a worthy adversary and is dismayed at the maroons he’s surrounded by in his wartime situation. The war is also forcing Christopher to change his thinking, which means that he acts in ways that Sylvia isn’t prepared for, and thus is stymied in her own personal war against her husband.

To this point we come to the central plot-point of the book. Sylvia, who was thrown off her game when Christopher did not actually hook up with Valentine, is back with vengeance in mind. She is in France with Perowne, the utterly dull and drab dingleberry she had the affair with at the beginning of Some Do Not…. Sylvia hates this guy, because he sucks. Perowne is an idiot, and doesn’t seem to realize he’s being used. He lets his horny get in the way, and when Sylvia tells him that she’s going to leave her door open that evening, he somehow misses all the sardonic cynicism she’s been dropping on him pretty much constantly. Later that night, Christopher shows up to the hotel she’s staying at. It’s real uncomfortable. Christopher is solving problems, fixing shit like he do and meanwhile Sylvia is telling lies and making things as difficult for her husband as possible, like she do. In the end, the two seemingly decide to separate and Christopher ends up staying in Sylvia’s room. Do they bang? Probably not! Regardless, he’s there when Perowne shows up expecting a booty call and all hell breaks loose and in the end Christopher ends up under arrest.

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If that’s supposed to be Christopher and Valentine, this cover is exceedingly optimistic.

Sylvia overplayed her hand. I’m still not entirely sure what her motives are here, other than to embarrass and otherwise humiliate Christopher. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t want him to die, at the very least because, somehow, she would consider that a victory for him. However, as a result of her machinations, Christopher ends up being sent to the front, which is a real good way to get dead. This is because Christopher knocking Perowne in the head for trying to creep on his wife wasn’t the end of the bad situation. Another general, probably drunk, decided he wanted to peep on Sylvia in her knickers so Christopher took exception to that and, ah, reacted, which landed him in front of General Campion, who, of course, Sylvia had been lying to about Christopher the whole day previous.

Whew! What’s important about all of this is that being sent back to the front to likely die made Christopher finally realize what a hot load of bullshit the entrenched social order is. It’s important to note that to this point Tietjens has been perfectly honorable and has done everything exactly right, ethically speaking. What he refuses to do is play the damn game. While the social structure is rigid and constructed out of strict rules, most people are adept at breaking those rules. The only important thing is looking like you’re following them. Tietjens actually follows the rules because he believes in them, but is terrible at the optics. He allows himself to be seen in compromising situations and has no idea how to deal with other people’s perceptions, which is something that Sylvia excels at. When Campion “promotes” him to the front and likely signs his death warrant, Tietjens finally realizes what a sucker he is.

Well, roughly speaking. Valentine has always been much on his mind, and with the apparent revelation that upholding the social order means nothing, he is now free to pursue her. If he lives, obviously. This is not to say that Tietjens is not conflicted about the concept of having a mistress. I’m pretty sure he’s still in no hurry to flagrantly flaunt social conventions, including his stance on divorce. However, the war has disrupted the social order enough that he’s willing to imagine a future with the woman he loves, the woman who actually loves him back. I am cautiously optimistic that Tietjens can make this work.

Posted in Books, Modernity | Leave a comment

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Novel * Douglas Adams * A Most Improbable Apocalypse * 1979

Synopsis

When I was young and sure that I was going to be a writer when I grew up, I wrote a lot of really terrible fiction. That’s actually a common and good thing. It turns out there are lots of ways to write bad stories. Obviously, there’s simply being a poor craftsman. If you don’t know how to make words and sentences do what you want them to do, your output probably won’t be awesome. Hell, even if you ostensibly know what you’re doing – *glances nervously in mirror* — diction and syntax can always trip you up. Beyond the nuts and bolts of writing, there’s a myriad of other ways to churn out bad stuff. Your ideas can be cliché and boring. You characters can be wooden and stiff and unconvincing. And then there’s the tried-and-true method of failing to achieve your own voice. This is what I mostly did (although I assure you all those other things were present as well) at first. I’d read a book I really liked and suddenly that’s my new writing voice. I wrote quite a few Z-grade Stephen King stories, let me tell you what. Probably the worst trouble I got myself in, however, was right after I read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and thought, I could totally do that!

No. No I couldn’t. You can’t either. And here’s the worst part: I’m not entirely convinced Douglas Adams himself can keep it up for long. That’s because what we’re dealing with here is absurdity for the sake of the absurd. Hitchhiker is extremely silly, like wow, hello, okay. Adams is like novelized Monty Python. Wonderfully silly and delightful in small doses, but it’s difficult to keep up the pace. After a while it gets to be too much and it dawns on you that there’s nothing to really latch onto. Yes, a sperm whale and a bowl of petunias materializing in thin air and plummeting to their demise is actually pretty funny. But it doesn’t mean anything.

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Fun fact: All this nonsense started out as a radio show. The books are essentially novelizations of a ’70s-era dramatic podcast.

First let’s catch up with the story, such as it is. One day a very British man named Arthur Dent is awakened from his hungover sleep by some slightly rude bulldozers who wish to knock his house down and build an expressway. Arthur is rather put out by this. He finds himself lying down in the mud in front of a bulldozer, although he is quickly interrupted by his friend Ford Prefect. This is a very Euro joke, by the way, because they never released Ford Prefects in the United States. Anyway, Ford manages to convince Arthur to accompany him to the pub for exactly four beers and a packet of peanuts. This is because Ford is an alien, and he has just learned that a crew of bureaucratic aliens have arrived to blow up Earth and build an intergalactic expressway. Lucky for Arthur, Ford has the means to bail before this happens.

After this Arthur is jerked around the galaxy by Ford, and later a charismatic dope named Zaphod Beeblebrox, otherwise known as the president of the galaxy. This cat has stolen a brand new spaceship named the Heart of Gold which is powered by improbability. This is important for a novel based on random nonsense, you see, because Adams can invent pretty much whatever he wants and blame it on the improbability drive. The more unlikely something is, the faster the ship goes. Or something. It’s really not important, as you’re supposed to be giggling to yourself too much to really pay much attention to anything else. And it totally works! For a while.

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Sure these mice look cute, but they’re actually a couple of right bloody wankers.

Discussion

Look, I’m not here to dump on the nearly universally beloved Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. For one thing, most of the jokes still work. Honestly, compared to something like Monty Python – which I love – more jokes land than don’t. Let’s be real: for every Spanish Inquisition or Wink-Wink Nudge-Nudge, there’s like ten sketches where I don’t even know what’s happening. Anyway, Hitchhiker’s has that going for it. Nearly as important as being, you know, funny, the book is super short. Before you even have time to start getting annoyed that there aren’t really any sympathetic characters or stakes to speak of, it’s over. Yeah, there’s like nine more books in the series, but you at least get a breather. These books are the sketch comedy of novels.

The reason I’m even writing about something as slight as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is because, well, I like it and shut up. Oh, and obviously the Earth is destroyed, along with all of humanity save Arthur and Trillian. Arthur is a bit of a sop, and Trillian is a bit full of herself, and probably the best character is Marvin, the clinically depressed robot (although this may because in the movie version Marvin is voiced by Alan Rickman). And he sucks too, although to be fair that’s rather the point of Marvin. Anyway, the human apocalypse is probably the most inconsequential apocalypse imaginable. Literally no one cares, except maybe Arthur and Trillian. And even they seem rather nonplussed about it, although that’s mostly just their Britishness.

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I rarely use fan art around here, but sometimes Google image search really comes through.

Well, to be fair, there are a couple of beings who are invested in the destruction of Earth. Mice care, because their experiment was wrecked up. Uh, it turns out Earth was created in a giant planet-factory and put into place for the sole purpose of discovering the Question. Five minutes before the Question was revealed, the Vogons blew the planet up. The mice, who were running the experiment on humans (get it? Because we thought we were experimenting on them? Bet you didn’t expect that!), are actually pan-dimensional beings who are trying to figure out the Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything.

Perhaps you’ve heard nerds giggle at each other over the number 42? This is where that comes from. Once upon a time there was a giant galactic computer that was asked the vital question: what is the meaning of Life, The Universe and Everything. After millions of years, the computer woke up with the answer, which is 42. They didn’t ask the correct question, you see, and a much smarter computer would be needed to figure it out. Earth was that computer, and now it’s gone. Whoops!

So that’s pretty much The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. There’s more catch-phrases that will turn up as book titles of later entries. Mostly harmless. So long and thanks for all the fish. These tie back into this original story, and despite reading them I don’t really remember them. I’m hoping that’s because I read them a long time ago and

Posted in Aliens, Books, Post-Earth | Leave a comment

The Dark Tower — Trailer

Oh, I don’t know.

Look, don’t worry, I’m not going to do one of these frame-by-frame deals what be all the rage nowadays. Here’s the deal, though: This is going to be super weird. Reactions are going to run the entire gamut of trailer-reaction, from excitement to reservation to meh to hard pass. As for myself, I’m still fully in the ‘guardedly optimistic’ camp.

To restate my credentials, The Dark Tower books were entirely formative. I came in on the series when The Waste Lands came out, when I was like 13 years old. I went on to re-read the books like a billity times and those stories and those characters and that world are ingrained forevermore in my imagination. The Dark Tower is super important to me, in other words. This movie will have no bearing on that. I’m determined to take the film(s) on its own terms.

It seems clear that the filmmakers were at a loss as to how to adapt such a weird bunch of books. The trailer certainly dips into mainstream trailer tropes and that’s fine if a little disappointing. I think my chief worry is less about how well the story translates as opposed to an unwillingness to be weird. The worst thing that can happen here is trying to cram all the strangeness of the novels into a superhero origin story in order to appeal to the summer masses. Luckily, I don’t got too much of that here. Like, I have no idea what is happening, but it does seem like the movie is going to go places.

Most importantly, I see the things this film will need to succeed in this trailer. First and foremost, I think they’ve nailed the casting. Idris Elba is fucking perfect, and now that I’ve seen him in action I can’t picture anyone else pulling this off (unless we’re going to open up a time-portal to extract the Clint Eastwood from A Fistful of Dollars). The kid playing Jake seems legit. I’ve been on the McConaughey train since day one. The casting is vital simply because this movie will live and die by its characters. The relationship and interplay between Roland, Jake, and the Man in Black is the only thing that matters. Everything else is ancillary.

Okay, all that other stuff happening is important, and I think it mostly looks cool. I don’t know who all these other people in Mid-World are, but whatever. Tull? OH SHIT I THINK IT’S TULL. Ahem. After the characters, the other thing the movie needs to do is set atmosphere and tone. The Dark Tower books are moody: specifically they’re lonely and esoteric, and for the film to really nail the feel the books, they need to be less about dope slo-mo revolver reloading and more about desolate, post-apocalyptic landscapes. We shall see. It’s a trailer, after all. Is it August 4th yet?

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Escape from New York

Film * John Carpenter * City Jail * 1981

Synopsis

Escape from New York is reminiscent of the Mad Max movies (well, aside from the first) in that it’s very stylish, very cool, but when it comes time for me to say something about it I’m at a bit of a loss. Like, hmm. Oh! Isaac Hayes has the sickest car in this movie. It has fuckin’ chandeliers on the hood, like what? The main guy’s name is Snake. He has an eyepatch. He runs around shirtless and shoots things and is the namesake for the main guy in Metal Gear Solid. Ernest Borgnine is in this movie and how do you not love Ernest Borgnine? Unless, I suppose, you’re one of his five ex-wives. Well, regardless, he’s super dead. Anyway, Escape from New York is an exceptionally fun time and you should totally watch it. Oh, right. The rest of the article.

This film hails from the era of American history in which crime was actually A Thing. I’m not here to downplay the personal tragedies of contemporary crime victims, but as a trackable statistic, crime is way, way down in this country as a whole. Escape from New York was released in 1981 at a time when the crime rate had been steadily climbing for the entirety of the previous decade, and would continue to rise to a blood-soaked crescendo in the early 1990’s. And I don’t care what the current presidential administration so desperately wants you to believe, the crime rate right now isn’t even close to what it was then. Case in point: the premise of this ridiculous movie.

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Look at this dope ride. This is actually everything you need to know about Escape from New York.

According to a quick exposition card at the onset of the movie, in 1988 the crime rate has risen 400%. That’s a lot of percents! In response to this terrible epidemic of antisocial behavior, the authorities respond in the only rational, humane way possible. They evict everyone from Manhattan, build a massive wall around it, and make all the criminals live there. No guards, no doctors, no nothin. Kill or die, motherfuckers! So now New York is a maximum security prison and the only way out is death. As the movie begins, some Communist terrorists manage to hijack Airforce One. There’s an uncomfortable moment where I was SURE they were going to crash the plane into the World Trade Center, but they don’t. Instead the plane crashes into some neighborhood, whatever, but the President manages to escape. Alas, he’s taken hostage by the baddies.

Meanwhile, Snake is about to be tossed into city-jail because he robbed a bank. He has an eyepatch and is very surly. Also, because it’s an action movie, he has some backstory in which he was special forces/super armyman or whatever. The important thing is, Snake has the skills to extract the president. So a deal is made. Save the president, you get a pardon. Oh, and you have to do it in 24 hours because of the plot. Here’s a giant watch which does nothing but count down from 24 hours, also a blood-drug that will explode your arteries if you’re late. I think? It should be abundantly clear by now to not come to me for accurate plot summaries of films. Anyway, Kurt Russell – I mean Snake – then rides a glider and lands on top of the WTC and begins his search for the president.

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Books are for dorks!

Discussion

We quickly find out that the President Pleasence has been kidnapped by Isaac Hayes. Why? Because he’s the bad guy. Escape from New York is a film of broad strokes. It’s far more about the chandeliers adorning the hood of a ’77 Cadillac than it is social commentary. The Duke is rad. He is, in fact, A-Number One. The Duke’s only agenda is to be awesome. For his part, he would rather be awesome in the outside world than stuck in a bombed-out version of NYC. I don’t even think Snake holds this against him very much, even though he spends most of the film getting beat up by The Duke’s henchmen. After all, Snake’s only there because he was gang-pressed by The Man to do their dirty biz and rescue the president (at the cost of the lives of everyone else on Air Force One).

John Carpenter really outdid himself in depicting New York as a dilapidated, decayed ruin. The setting is my favorite part of the film. After all, in 1981 it wouldn’t have been crazy to assume that’s the way New York was headed. I mean without the walled-off prison bit. That’s dumb. But for the actual city of New York to continue spiraling into chaos and despair? We have an actual, real life example of that in Detroit. It was a distinct possibility. Escape from New York serves as a possible outcome for a city that has grown beyond governance. Since the film isn’t really interested in subtlety or commentary, there is of course no mention of specific politics or even a cause-and-effect statement. No, the crime rate continued going up and based on that alone, here’s a fucked-up New York.

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Oh look, it’s every try-hard goth kid you knew in high school!

This, if you’re me, begs all sorts of questions about how the wider world operates. And of course, the movie has no interest in answering any of them. That would distract from Snake doing cool-guy shit. Or that creepy weirdo who hisses at people instead of using his big-boy words. Or that one chick’s huge knockers. Or Ernest Borgnine being wacky. Still. Is the rest of America a crime-free wonderland? Or is it an authoritarian nightmare locked in eternal warfare with Russia and China? Because that’s what it seems like, based on the political situation the president is supposed to be saving. That’s the McGuffin, by the way, some hot banger of a mixtape that’s going to end the war and bring peace and prosperity to the American people. The same tape that Snake steals and destroys because fuck the police, am I right?

One of the problems with ignoring depth or commentary is that Escape from New York ends up not making a lick of sense. From what I can gather, Snake used to work for The Man. Then things went bad for him, and he turned to a life of crime in order to live/feel like a functioning member of society/everyone else is doing it/register disgust with the ruling powers. So he gets tossed into city jail, which he is clearly not a fan of. That said, it’s not like he’s out here protesting his innocence. This is definitely not a ‘our actually pure of heart hero was wrongfully imprisoned’ situation. The only reason Snake helps is to save his own life. Once that’s assured, fuck everyone else in the world. Since we have no real grasp of the McGuffin mixtape – what’s on it, what does it mean, why is it important – all we get a clear sense of is that President Pleasence is a douchebag and fuck him. I suppose, all told, that’s all that’s important. Snake is a cool guy. He knows best.

Posted in Film, Urban Decline | Leave a comment

The Book of the New Sun: The Sword of the Lictor

Novel * Gene Wolf * Man, I Don’t Even Know Anymore * 1981

Synopsis

But first! Book One. Book Two.

So far, these novels have been equal parts wonder, confusion, and frustration. At this point, I know I’m going to finish them. What I don’t know is if I’m actually enjoying them. After skimming the articles I wrote following the last two books, it occurs to me that when I talk about the Book of the New Sun, I spend most of my time trying to work out the details of what I just read. I don’t expect that to change. Further, these are the kind of books that require a second time through to fully understand what is happening, and boy I don’t think I have that in me. I also have no real desire to poke around the internet and figure it out that way, because that’s no fun and also the internet wasn’t a thing in 1981, when this was published. I guess if you’re a fan of the series you can read these and laugh at me for misunderstanding everything that’s happening while I muddle around and feel stupid. I mean, that’s something I would enjoy doing, probably. I’m not proud of that.

The last book, The Claw of the Conciliator, ended on a scene of chaos which I still don’t quite understand. Part of the reason is that by the end of these fucking things I lose some steam and am just trying to get on with my life already. The other part is that so far, all of these books have ended on a chaotic scene which is purposefully obscure to the reader. This third volume begins like the second, in which the ending of the previous book is very nearly ignored and we begin after a time-skip of indeterminate length. That’s frustrating, but it’s also just how these books work. I may not know what the hell is going on, but I’ve figured out the pattern at least.

Another pattern: each successive volume of this series undermines assumptions made in the previous installment. Sometimes this obfuscation occurs because Severian tends to skip certain details of the narrative, sometimes it happens because Wolfe as a writer muddies the water with meaningless details and borderline incomprehensible archaic diction. Last time out, one of the things Severian did that bugged me was having a brief boat-affair with Jolenta, a sexy actress who is also an ugly ancient witch (???) and always just seems kind of detached and bored. This was bothersome because the story would have us believe that Severian and Dorcas were an item, kind of maybe. Now in this third book, Severian makes an offhand mention that Jolenta and Dorcas were an item, and that Severian hooking up with Jolenta was kind of a revenge-fuck situation, but what-even-ever, who cares! None of this matters! All of this is just me as a reader trying to invent some kind of romantic subplot so that I have some kind of humanity to latch on to.

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Cool.

Discussion

So Dorcas is dead I guess. Not, like, she died and Severian is sad about it. I mean, Severian isn’t sad about anything ever from what I can see. Anyway, Dorcas is dead as in she’s a reanimated corpse. This is not a gross zombie situation, at least I hope it isn’t because while Severian has an intimate relationship with death I doubt he gets his jollies by plowing a cold field, if you get me. Early in Sword of the Lictor she figures this out, and is bummed about it. Dorcas has vague memories of a husband and child, but also has no way of knowing how much time has passed between her death and resurrection. She then makes a decision to leave Severian, which is honestly for the best considering how fucked up that guy is, and to find her lost past down in Nessus. Exeunt Dorcas, for now.

Meanwhile, Severian has a new job, which seems to be the administrator of justice for the fortress-city of Thrax. In typical Severian fashion, he fucks this up pretty much right away. Like he did with Thecla back in the day, he gets hung up on a girl he’s supposed to kill and lets her go. Well, this time the lady actually lives, but you get what I mean. This scene is also described in such a way that I was utterly confused by events until he explains to Dorcas a little later before absconding into the mountains. Like, all he seemed to do was chat some bored housewife up, fuck her, and now he’s running for his life apparently. Also there’s a flame monster. And then I’m thinking, well that husband sure works quickly, but then he finds Dorcas and explains and it’s like, oooh, I get it, that’s a typical Severian move.

While I have specifically avoided places which would explicitly explain the plot, the timeline, the character motivations, and all that other stuff which makes a novel a novel, I have skimmed a few non-spoilery reviews of these books. After my experience with these books so far, I’m very curious about the critical reception. For the most part, it seems overwhelmingly positive. However, here and there I’ve found sentiments that echo mine. Wolfe writes in such a way, with such a dense and layered style, that the first instinct of the reader is to assume that something is up. That the author is holding all the cards and knows secrets that, despite writing all these words, he is unwilling to give up. The very style of the prose and the sheer density of the material here is like catnip to people looking for literary meaning. The worry is that, despite appearances, there’s nothing underneath the layers of text, and subtext, and sub-subtext. Like a bad magician, once you get to the moment of truth, poof! It’s fucking nothing.

We shall see. After all, there’s one more book left. In the meantime, Severian has a few more adventures which will eventually lead him back, I imagine, to the House Absolute. On the run from the Thrax authorities who want to murder him for not murdering the lady, he escapes into the towering Andes Mountains. I think. With the advanced aged of the world, it’s difficult to make assumptions. There are details here and there which allude that the Earth is now tectonically dead, which means that either a vast amount of time has passed or something cataclysmic happened. The answer is probably a combination of the two, although if enough time has passed for the Earth to geologically die naturally, humans should have long since evolved, right? Or maybe our sentience prevents further mutations and natural evolution? I don’t know science. Anyway, it seems like this all takes place in South America.

In the mountains Severian finds shelter in a small hut where it seems Agia from the first novel is still all pissed off and trying to kill him. Unfortunately for her, an Alzabo shows up and interrupts her revenge-murder. If you recall, an Alzabo is a creature which has the super-creepy power of retaining the memories of the ingested. Like, it’ll eat your face and then run around speaking in your own voice to lure out your loved ones so that it can eat them too. The small hut was home to a rustic family, who all end up dying horribly. The Alzabo rolls up speaking in the eaten husband’s voice, and the kid (with the unlikely name of Severian) is all ‘daddy daddy!’ and the monster goes ‘I’ll eat your face and we’ll be together forever’ or at least until the Alzebo poops. I’m not really sure how this all works. The outcome of this encounter is that Agia runs away and everyone else dies except the two Severians. And the big Severian kind of lets the slaughter happen because he was pissed off this terrified housewife didn’t help him out in a fight.

Moving on from this, Severian goes back up into the mountains, which oh by the way are carved to look like huge dudes. Here he finds some fabulous technology because right, this is the distant future. Little Severian dies horribly, fried to a crisp by defensive lasers or something, and big Severian is ostensibly upset by this. Shortly after this, he meets a future-man who I guess has a spaceship and fancies himself Lord of Space and Time and the Whole of the Known Galaxy. He offers Severian mastership of Urth, so long as he pays fealty to him. Instead, Severian kills him. This whole scene is actually a lot cooler than I seem to be giving it credit for. And here’s why these books are such an enigma. As you can probably infer, they frustrate me with their murkiness. Yet Wolfe is capable of writing scenes of fantastic weirdness that just, for lack of a graceful literary term, feel fucking awesome.

Like the others, The Sword of the Lictor ends on a baffling scene of chaos that will almost certainly go unexplained in the next book. There are aliens, and a strange, primitive people that make their home on living islands in a vast lake, and another unlikely encounter with characters from the first novel. Baldanders and Dr. Talos are holed up in a big old castle on the shores of this lake. They seem to be exploiting the locals for their own mysterious ends. Aliens show up. Baldanders… is bad? The aliens peace out, the lake-natives raid the place, Baldanders is kerplunked in the lake and presumed dead even though, come on, he’ll be back. Also the mystical Claw of the Conciliator is broken, save for some weird little bit that Severian makes off with. Considering Severian’s quest has been to return this thing to whence it came, that’s a bit of a bummer. But really, who even knows.

That’s your subtitle for the last book. The Book of the New Sun: Who Even Knows.

Posted in Books, Entropy | 7 Comments

Some Do Not… (Parade’s End Pt. 1)

Novel * Ford Madox Ford * The Final Decline of the 18th Century * 1924

Synopsis

This truly remarkable novel is, somehow, only the first installment of a four-part series that I have somehow failed to read until now. This fact is simply more evidence in the case I’m prosecuting which states that are simply too many books. I assume I will be vindicated on my deathbed when I can present my final list of shit I didn’t get to because there just wasn’t enough time. Seriously, I’ve taken countless numbers of courses on Modern literature and Parade’s End never came up. Not even when I read another Ford Ford classic, The Good Soldier. That book was fine, but I’ll be goddamned if Some Do Not… isn’t one of the best works I’ve read from this period. I would wax enthusiastic some more, but then I’d end up overselling this thing, and I should make this very clear: Some Do Not… isn’t going to work for everyone. It’s very Modern. It’s also very British. Ford is experimenting with form, and although he’s by no means as extreme as, say, James Joyce, this book isn’t an easy read. And the story itself is troublesome in that it works best if you have some background knowledge about the time and place.

That said! There are characters worth latching onto here, which is not always the case with Modernist lit. Some Do Not… is not a case like The Sun Also Rises were everyone sucks most of the time. The novel’s primary character is a man named Christopher Tietjens. He is a landed gentleman, and is very much a Tory. If you’re not British, the short explanation is that Tietjens is very conservative, in that he upholds the ancient social order and believes in its supremacy as the basis for civilization. In Downton Abbey terms, he’s the upstairs guy. As a protagonist, Christopher is not a sexy action man. He’s large, clumsy, conservative, and outwardly dull. However, he also has an exceptional math brain and is considered something of a genius. He also has a bad habit for a Tory, which is bluntly speaking his mind about unpopular and divisive things.

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The classy first edition.

Tietjens is a gentleman with troubles. First of all, there is his querulous, vindictive wife Sylvia. When the novel opens, we learn that Sylvia has run off with another man, which would be deeply embarrassing if such a thing were generally known. There is a child, and it may not be his. So that’s a bummer for him. Sylvia quite clearly hates her husband, and while her spite seems to have no real basis there is an argument to be made that she is lashing out against the confines of the social order. Sylvia is a socialite and a beauty, and as we’ve seen Christopher is something of a lump. There’s also Sylvia’s Catholicism to consider when pondering why Sylvia is so awful.

Meanwhile, in addition to Tietjens and his marital troubles, we’re introduced to Christopher’s bestie, a man with the excellent name Macmaster. This dude is a social climber, and it is fairly obvious he’s riding Tietjens’ connections pretty hard to make a name for himself socially. Eventually he hooks up with a lady with another excellent name, Edith Ethel. She also kind of sucks. The other major character we meet in a chance run-in on a golf course. This is Valentine Wannop, a feisty young suffragette who accosts Tietjens while he is playing golf (against his will, because he thinks the game is stupid). She launches all sorts of accusations at him, and poor Tietjens is all like what is even happening. Well, as we learn later on, what is happening is fate, because eventually these two fall in love. This is… problematic.

It is difficult to write up a brief synopsis of Some Do Not… because the novel is not conventionally constructed or paced. Also, it’s the first book in series of four, and I’ve not read the other three yet. As a stand-alone novel, it actually still works. The various relationships these people have is the foundation of the book, all of which are set against a backdrop of significant social changes. The novel itself only features a few scenes, and the action and point of view don’t change all that often. Yet there is a major depth to each different scene, and Ford delves deep into whichever character’s POV at any given time. This means that even within a particular time and place, the action described can jump backward in time if that character suddenly remembers a thing that happened. Also, as the title might imply, there is an overabundance of ellipsis, which, whatever. They were experimenting. There is also a major time-shift which happens right in the middle of the novel, and there is no real warning that it is coming. Like, the first half of the book takes place before World War I, and then all of a sudden we’re in the middle of the war and Tietjens has already been injured and has returned to England. All of this is a longwinded way of saying that a lot happens in this novel in which very little happens. Modernism!

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It’s symbolic. You guys. Symbolism.

Discussion

While I quite like Christopher Tietjens as a character, he’s also immensely frustrating to my 21st century sensibilities. As we see again and again with Modern literature, the early 20th century was a time of catastrophic technological and industrial change, which of course culminated in a brutal world war. While technology and science are advancing at such a rapid clip, human social structures are struggling to keep up. This is especially true in Europe, where most of the major players are still functioning under 18th century social structures, all of which were medieval holdovers to begin with. Modernity is chipping away at this, aided by industrialism and the technology boom. Suddenly people are getting wealth and influence who are not landed aristocrats and of course these folks don’t play by the same rules. Tietjens, however, does. And it makes his life a self-imposed hell.

Tietjens is a polarizing kind of guy, and not many people like him right away. Some folks come around, and other people just irrationally hate him. His own wife is one of these, and it’s easy to see that she blames her circumstance, which is really just a life bound by Byzantine social constraints, on her husband. As mentioned above, Christopher in his Toryism is to be held accountable for his situation. After all, all he needs to do is divorce his wife and hook up with Valentine. Bingo-bango, easy-peasy. This is not that kind of story, however. What Some Do Not… is doing is a total deconstruction of Tietjens’ world-view in order to, hopefully, reveal what the new world order will be in the future.

The breakdown of Teitjens happens within the society he wishes to uphold. Sylvia had herself an affair. She ran off with some dude and made for the Continent. While this probably sucks for him on a personal level, it also reflects poorly upon Christopher’s social standing. Luckily, Sylvia’s family is willing to cover up the affair so that the socialite gossipers can’t ruin anyone’s reputation. Unfortunately, Christopher is terrible at playing this game. When he begins a relationship with Valentine Wannop – and to be perfectly clear, by “relationship” I mean a proper social one. Perfectly polite, and most of the time Tietjens is conversing with Valentine’s mother anyway. That doesn’t matter, however, because all it takes is someone seeing Christopher speaking with Valentine unchaperoned and suddenly in the eyes of society she’s his mistress. Oh, and Macmaster’s now-wife Edith Ethel is also rumored to be his second side-piece, even though she fucking hates Tietjens. It’s all very strange.

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Is that supposed to be Valentine Wannop? Because if so, someone clearly didn’t read the book.

Things are further complicated by the fact that Tietjens would actually very much like Valentine to be his mistress. It actually seems like the novel is building up to his inevitability, but then we’re suddenly reminded there’s three more books to get through. The obvious answer is to divorce the horrible wife and marry the woman who actually likes you. Right? Tietjens is not to that point yet. As Ford points out (repeatedly): some do, and some do not. Tietjens does not. Yet. The entire final scene of the novel is an exercise in frustration. Christopher is on his way back to the war and has finally made up his mind to go ahead and have a night with the woman he loves. Likewise, Valentine is ready to just say fuck it and go after the man she loves. It’s all very touching. Then all kinds of realistic nonsense gets in the way. First, Christopher’s brother shows up and lets him know just how fucked socially Christopher really is. His own father figured Tietjens for a useless, skirt-chasing disgrace who spends his wife’s money on his mistress. Meanwhile, Valentine’s idiot drunk brother shows up, and instead of having a romantic final evening they have escort this hammered socialist jackass home. Then, finally, they’re alone. Tietjens very formally asks if Valentine will be his mistress, to which she replies: “I’ve arranged the cushions.” But it’s too late, and Christopher has to go to the war. Like, they don’t even kiss. It’s terrible.

Of course, the frustrating romantic aspect of Some Do Not… isn’t even the most important part. It’s engaging, obviously, but really the relationship of the would-be lovers is emblematic of the larger conflict waging across the social order. As noted above, Tietjens is about to head to the war for a second time. Because he is a landed aristocrat, this is entirely unnecessary. At one point in his career, Christopher was a rising star in the government bureaucracy, a genius with figures. Then came the war, and the home office suddenly wants Christopher to start faking numbers in order to essentially make certain people look good at the expense of the soldiers on the ground. He runs the figures, but refuses to hand over the work because Tietjens thinks this practice fucking sucks. However, his buddy Macmaster is happy to take credit for Christopher’s work. This move doesn’t exactly endear Tietjens to the powers-that-be.

By this point, it’s clear what Ford is doing with this novel, and what is likely going to continue going forward. These are novels of disillusionment. Tietjens is a conservative who is beaten and battered by the very system he’s spent his life championing. Playing by the rules, he has set himself up to be a victim of the rules. By the end of the novel, Tietjens is very nearly ruined, his name and reputation tarnished even though he’s done nothing. He’s broke and heading off to a war that he can’t begin to figure out. Tietjens says:

“I can’t reconcile it with my conscience,” he said. “In this affair there is nothing that any man can reconcile with his conscience. I don’t mean that we oughtn’t to be in this affair and on the side we’re on. We ought. But I’ll put to you things I have put to no other soul.”

This is followed by:

“He described the disillusionment it had cost him personally as soon as this country had come into the war…. Now there was nothing straightforward: for him or for any man. One could have fought with a clean heart for a civilization: if you like the eighteenth century against the twentieth, since that was fighting for France against the enemy countries meant. But our coming in had changed the aspect at once. It was one part of the twentieth century using the eighteenth as a cat’s paw to bash the other half of the twentieth. It was true there was nothing else for it. And as long as we did it in a decent spirit it was just bearable. One could keep one’s job – which was faking statistics against the other fellow – until you were sick and tired of faking and your brain reeled. And then some!”

This whirlwind of a not-quite-speech sums up the problem of World War I for many citizens. I suspect will get deeper with this stuff in the following novel, No More Parades, but this scene is witnessed from Valentine’s point of view. She is admiring the moral fortitude of her man, but she’s also like, maybe don’t go back to the war because I love you and don’t want you to die, you great idiot. Yet Tietjens has some more breaking down to do. He can watch the disintegration of the old social order and the rise of twentieth century bureaucracy – which we all know is terrible – but is still yet unable to disentangle himself from his own Toryism. Hopefully by the end of all this he figures out that no social order, no civilization, gives a shit about his own personal happiness.

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End of Days

Film * Peter Hyams * Y2Satan * 1999

Synopsis

Remember the Millennium? I suppose there are teenagers now who do not, which is upsetting. But for the rest of you, surely you remember how anticlimactic the whole thing was. Maybe it was just me. I was twenty, impatient for life to start happening, and all I wanted was the complete and utter collapse of Western Civilization. Really, was that too much to ask? Even then I knew the turning of the calendar from 1999 to 2000 was a meaningless gesture (save alerting you to which of your friends were irritating pedants who couldn’t wait to tell you the real millennium didn’t start until 2001). The global situation in 1999 was (outside of some far-flung local unrest in places that were definitely not California) incredibly, annoyingly stable. As a society, the best we could come up with to worry about was Y2K, which was stupid.

On the off chance that you’re a teenager, or an adult with a poor memory, Y2K was the lame-at-the-time apocalyptic scenario in which older computers wouldn’t be able to figure out how to roll the date over to the new millennium. The idea was that all the old mainframes which ran the government and big businesses and whatnot were programmed to only account for two digits of any given year. So when the year ticked over to 2000 all these computers would think it was 1900 and would stop working or explode or create a time-portal to send everyone back to the year 1900. I don’t actually remember the particulars because again, it was dumb. But it was what we had. There wasn’t any real crazy religious fervor, Jesus totally didn’t ride down on the back of a dragon to burn the agents of secular humanism to a righteous crisp, and the Anti-Christ wouldn’t be elected until eight years later according to Fox News.

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I get it, the devil is attractive. Jeez.

Basically, what we as a society had going for us heading into the distant future of the year 2000 was an utterly unlikely computer apocalypse and the movie End of Days. This film stars Arnold Schwarzenegger in his post-True Lies/pre-governor phase, and while I like this movie, it is clear that many people do not. I suppose I understand, but on the other hand anyone who doesn’t like End of Days is a joyless buzzkill who hates fun. I mean, come on. It has Arnold trying to actually act, which is fun. It has Kevin Pollak in the Tom-Arnold-from-True Lies sidekick role, which is fun. It has Gabriel Byrne as Satan, who according to my wife is the hottest thing this side of Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and is also something I’ve been hearing for fifteen years but whatever), which I guess is fun. There are many pointless explosions and a gratuitous action sequence featuring a helicopter. Also, speaking of gratuitous nonsense, if you’re in the mood for some rockin’ tits, End of Days will hook up you up with that too.

I suppose the problem is that End of Days seems to take itself seriously, which it probably shouldn’t. I can imagine Schwarzenegger looking over his previous work and wanting to prove to the world that he can actually act. He cannot and it was a mistake to try. In this film he plays a morose, suicidal, alcoholic ex-cop. He’s playing it straight and trying to be gritty and it’s like, nah man, this ain’t you. Arnie isn’t supposed be all busted up over the loss of his family and finding solace in the bottom of a bottle of cheap whisky. But here we are, so we may as well make the most of it. Meanwhile, Satan is back on the eve of the new millennium to wreak havoc and fulfill some arcane Biblical prophecy something something The Omen. In order to begin this new era of Satanic rule, he must knock up some girl. This girl, Christine York, has no idea she’s supposed to bang the devil, and is thus surprised when renegade Catholics show up to murder her to prevent the apocalypse. Lucky for her she reminds Arnold of his dead daughter. Or something.

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There is some excellent imagery in this film.

Discussion

Look, just because I like this movie doesn’t mean I’m going to go through much trouble to defend it. There’s elements of classic Schwarzenegger action mixed with gritty street scenes reminiscent of (better) movies like Se7en mixed with weird religious thrillers like Stigmata and The Prophecy, and none of it quite hangs together. But whatever because then Arnold fights Christine’s nanny and it looks like he’s beating up a hobbit and that’s pretty excellent. Then he murders some priests and that’s cool too. Of course this can only end in one way: Arnold must redeem his life by fighting Satan and saving the girl. In order to do this he must find his faith and pit his strength against the Dark Lord. In order to do this he must sacrifice himself, which he does. Satan explodes in a flurry of late-90’s, Buffy caliber CGI, and all is well. The end!

Okay, I just checked my word count and that’s not even close to my average. This means that I have to think of something else to talk about which is invoked by this film. It would probably help if I had any kind of religious background whatsoever, considering that this movie is mostly about Satan. Maybe that’s one of the reasons this works for me. I don’t have the background knowledge to worry about Biblical passages not being used correctly, or fuss over the depiction of Catholic apocrypha-as-canon or whatever it is religious people get up to when watching movies like this. On the other hand, when writing about the kind of events that can destroy/reinvent/supplant existing society, a pissed off fallen angel ushering in a new millennium of bloodshed and hell-on-earth is pretty low on my list of possibilities. Like, right after zombies pretty much.

That said, I do enjoy the vast amount of, for lack of a better term, lore involved with world religions. Look, I play a lot of video games and my favorite kind of game involves exploration and digging up weird, random bits of information about the world. Depending on the game, this mechanic can be the entire experience, or it can be a sort of meta-game for when I get bored of shooting aliens. If the developers are on their game, this lore can be well written and woven into the overall narrative to excellent effect. Some games go real deep. More often, it’s a half-assed attempt at padding out the game’s length. I bring this up because religious stories work in the same way. The source material is so old that countless people who are long dead and undocumented in history have had their hand in the process of transmission. You’ve got the Bible as your go-to source, obviously, but surrounding that thing? There’s commentary and scraps of information buried in ancient libraries and untranslated tablets and shit like that all over the place. It’s the real world equivalent of finding notes all over the environment for no reason. All told, it’s fertile ground for mythology and storytelling.

 

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Arnie is your God now.

On a personal level, I don’t understand faith and belief. Those synapses were never formed when I was young, and now I look at people praying and I’m just kind of confused. Like, those folks sure look like they’re feeling something, and there’s this whole human history thing where religions have dominated social progression and whatnot. Then I try and read the Bible, and it never goes well. A favorite line of atheists is “the Bible is a good book and nothing more,” but come on, it’s not even a good book. It’s uneven and dull and there is very little continuity. I prefer the side stories. Dante’s Inferno is an excellent example, as is Milton’s Paradise Lost. Both authors were of course intimately versed in the Bible and likely all the rituals, stories, and history that was available to them at the time. They use all this knowledge to create richly detailed, logical extrapolations of the supernatural. Lore, in other words.

End of Days relies on various religious tropes to evoke the threat of a demonic apocalypse. Catholicism, sure, but also secret commando Catholics who are sworn to defend the Lord… with extreme prejudice! The film juxtaposes lots of religious imagery and idolatry with gritty street scenes, which amplifies the idea of faith pervading human existence. Even in the postmodern grime of a modern American city one can find salvation if you know where to dig. In its own way, End of Days is working with your action movie comfort zone in order to make you more comfortable with our faith. Milton did the same thing when extrapolating lore from Biblical stories in an attempt to make faith more relatable and human. And now I’ve just compared End of Days to Paradise Lost. That probably won’t happen ever again.

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Maus

Graphic Novel * Art Spiegelman * The Holocaust * 1986/1991

Synopsis

The Holocaust is too large to really comprehend. In the abstract, you can look at the raw numbers and come to an intellectual understanding about what happened. No, what the Nazis did. Language is important here, because this far into the post-apocalypse it is easy to refer to the actions of the Nazis as some passive disaster, something that ‘just happened.’ This is not accurate. The Holocaust was the result of cold, calculated, bureaucratic planning. It was executed by a system of presumably rational, feeling human beings who knew exactly what they were doing. And yet, because the Holocaust was so vast, it is easy to look past this aspect of it. To allow the abstraction necessary for even a basic understanding of the scope of the genocide is to obfuscate the true nature of this apocalypse.

Six million is a number that your brain can’t handle in a concrete sense. For instance, you can discern individual grains of sand. One grain, two grains, ten, twenty, a hundred, a thousand. You can count them and place them into little piles of ten and keep track of them fairly easily. Then you go to the beach and try and do the same thing and eventually your brain goes from a concrete image of a true number of items to the abstract. Your internal counter just rolls from a number to ‘lots.’ This happens with pretty much anything, even people. This is why estimating crowd size is difficult (which is why it is useful to compare images in a known space, like just for instance how Obama’s inauguration was so obviously better attended than that other guy). Again, think of your friends. Individual faces attached to individual personalities each with their own unique history and families and quirks. Put them all in a room and you can still discern them, even if you’re some ridiculous social butterfly with like ten friends. Now take those friends and shove them onto a field where six million other people are milling around and try and find them.

The point of all this is fairly simple: after a certain point the numbers become to too big to care about. While their very size is impressive, they don’t actually mean anything by themselves. The numbers, even with names attached to them, become abstract and thus there can be no emotional attachment. This is part of the reason the Holocaust was allowed to happen in the first place. Hitler was evil, but it’s not like the dude killed six million people by himself. No, in order to make something of this magnitude happen, you need most of an entire nation to be complicit in your scheme. You need to hijack modern technology and the surrounding bureaucracy to further your aims. A high-functioning office structure was essential to the proceedings. The people processing that paperwork may not have been as evil as the people shooting Jews for fun in the camps, but there was certainly a mental disassociation needed to perform their function. The very abstraction of numbers and names made this possible.

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A key takeaway from Vladek’s story: Nazism was a slow creep. Everyday life goes on like it always does, but suddenly there’s a swastika in the middle of town.

By the same token, it is difficult to look back into history and really understand what the Holocaust was and what it meant for the people involved. This is especially true now, considering that most of the survivors and veterans are gone. If humans are good at anything, it’s forgetting. Once the living reminders of the worst human-caused apocalypse in history are gone, it will be easier to forget the massive scale of death and suffering caused by an evil, irrational philosophy aided by the industrial scale of a modern nation-state. Humans are, after all, terminally short-sighted. Years tick by and inevitably the same ideas will start kicking back up with apparently no self-awareness by people who are ‘just asking questions.’ Then those people get into power and now it’s ‘just give them a chance.’ Cool. Well, while we’re doing that let’s pull this discussion out of the abstract and into the concrete.

Maus is a graphic novel featuring cute little cartoon creatures that happen to represent various nationalities and ethnicities and is subtitled “A survivor’s tale.” It is the story of a Polish Jew named Vladek. He was a captured Polish soldier who was returned to his family from a German work camp before the purges that followed the capitulation of Poland and the Nazi advancement of aggression that would follow. Vladek and his wife Anja were able to elude the Nazis for a long time, due to both luck and the ingenuity and industry of Vladek. Eventually, however, their luck ran out and they were both sent to Auschwitz towards the end of the war. Again, through a combination of luck and ingenuity, Vladek and Anja survived. Vladek’s story is recorded and written down by his son, Art, who then turned it into the graphic novel.

Maus is an important work for a multitude of reasons, but the most obvious is that by focusing on an individual in detail, the work is able to convey the true horror of the Holocaust. Vladek’s story distills life from the abstract numbers, but it also contextualizes death. Instead of faceless numbers, Vladek sees smoke churning out of a chimney. Further, this story isn’t told by the survivor himself. Rather, it is told from the point of view of the son, who is hearing these stories and writing them down. This in itself is an act of abstraction, as the son has no way of truly understanding the horror his father lived through. There’s also the matter of filtering the story through Art’s personal relationship with his dad. It’s clear that Vladek kind of sucks. That said, despite the cute little mice and kitties and whatnot, Maus is affecting and impactful. In other words, it’ll wreck your shit.

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It took Spiegelman five years to publish the second volume. This is one of those works of art that took a significant toll on the creator.

Discussion

While Maus is mostly concerned with Vladek’s story of survival in Poland during the war, it’s important to remember that Maus is actually a post-apocalyptic story. The apocalypse in this case is obviously the Holocaust, and everything about the creation and consumption of this work is a means of dealing with the post-apocalypse. Okay, fair warning, I might get a little scholarly for a hot second, so bear with me. There is a way of thinking about apocalypse that likens the massive social event to a personal trauma. This would be the point where I would bring up Freud and Lacan and other impressive names to bolster my case if I were trying to put forward an actual argument here. I’m not. I think it is helpful with a complicated work like Maus to think of things in less abstract terms, however.

The apocalypse-as-trauma idea is fairly simple. At some point during your life, something bad happened to you. Either you suffered a severe physical injury, or you lost someone you love, or some other trauma occurred. That event was a moment of pain, distress, and/or calamity. Bad times. Whatever happened leaves its mark on who you are as a person. It takes a lot of time to process and work through that life-changing event. If you suffered a disfiguring injury, well now you have to learn to live without that arm. If you lost a loved one, now you have to figure out how to live without them. It’s difficult, and depending on the severity of the trauma, the process may never actually end. After the traumatic event, as you learn how to cope and deal with the changes in your life, you will be a different person. In the best case scenario, you’ll grow and become a better and stronger person because you dealt with the trauma with grace and perseverance. In the worst case scenario, you’ll barely be able to deal with your life after the traumatic event at all, and will spiral into depression and despair, perhaps turning to external means of coping. More likely is that any post-traumatic effort will be a mix of both things, again, depending on the actual trauma.

The apocalyptic event (and again this is a gross oversimplification of a complicated mesh of critical theory, something something Derrida) can then be considered as traumatic event applied to an entire society. Instead of an individual processing the aftereffects of a personal disaster, now we’re dealing with a group of people suffering their own individual traumas caused by this one, overarching event. So, let’s say San Andreas comes true and you’re The Rock flying over Bakersfield and you’re looking down at a bunch of screaming Bakos scurrying over their busted-up, smoldering giant strip-mall of a city. The same apocalyptic event happened to each of those people, namely an unlikely massive earthquake. Being individuals, they will all have different methods of dealing with what happened to them. Yet Bakersfield as a social group will also have to cope with the trauma that The Rock didn’t even stop to help out. In addition to this, long after the traumatic event, the repercussions will resonate throughout the social fabric of the town. The children of those spurned by The Rock will grow up refusing to watch Fast and the Furious movies, strip malls will be proudly rebuilt, and life will go on. However, it will be without the obvious joy and comfort of Dwayne Johnson.

Art Spiegelman, the creator of Maus, created and published this work as part of an endless, ongoing process of an entire civilization coming to terms with the Holocaust. His perspective is what we’re reading about as we work our way through the horrifying experience of his father, Vladek. Art, the son, did not have these experiences. Rather, his own childhood was marked by the post-traumatic processing of his parents. His mother failed, and committed suicide when he was a child. Vladek also has trouble coping – and to be entirely fair, his experiences are so horrible as to be borderline unbelievable. Yet from Art’s point of view, he’s had to grow up with an unfair weight on his shoulders due to the experiences of his parents. The very opening panels of Maus depict how difficult this must have been for a child with no tangible experience with the horrors of the ghetto or concentration camps. He’s ten or eleven, and Art is bummed out because he was skating with his friends and they ditched him. He’s sad and explains to his father what happened. His father’s response? “Friends? Your friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week… then you could see what it is, friends!” What is a ten year old boy supposed to do with a statement like that?

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Obviously the focus of Maus is the story of Vladek, but it is important to remember who the story is for. Which is to say, those of us who didn’t have to go through something like this.

Maus if a framed narrative, with the framing taking place as an adult Art follows his father around trying to collect the stories he’ll use in the finished comic. Vladek is an older man now, and still kind of sucks. He’s cheap, racist, bitter, and otherwise a passive-aggressive asshole. Most of Art and Vladek’s interactions are fraught with tension and extracting the stories of the Holocaust are difficult. That said, it is clear that Art has a deeply ingrained respect and even reverence for his father. There is no romanticizing of Vladek’s actions, but it is clear that he survived by the fruits of his own ingenuity as much as by sheer luck. Vladek was a shrewd man, and was able to work many terrible situations to his favor, thus aiding in not only his own survival, but that of his wife. Now, since we’re dealing with two degrees of testimony, the actual events may have played out differently than they are depicted. It’s possible that Vladek might be making himself sound a lot cooler than he was. It’s also possible that Art wants to think better of his father and thus makes him look better than even the story Vladek told would suggest.

The notion of testimony and narrative transmission becomes a problem, then. Here we are, way down the line of storytelling, far outside the actual events that transpired, so now what do we do with the story? We’re still in a post-apocalyptic civilization, all these years later we’re still processing the trauma of not only the Holocaust, but World War II in general. Narratives such as those in Maus are still important for an understanding of the human cost involved in modern, industrial-scale wars of genocide and aggression. After all, civilization now has the power to destroy itself entirely, which was not the case even at the end of World War II. The Nazis demonstrated then that it was possible – and even easy given the right set of circumstances – to engineer a totalitarian state aimed at the eradication of an entire race of people. This, of course, gets us back to the abstraction problem, which is something a work like Maus seeks to mitigate by rooting the Holocaust in an individual’s story. The bickering of post-structuralist theorists aside, these stories are now of the utmost importance.

Once again, humans are terminally short-sighted. The ideas lurking within the Third Reich still fritter around the edges of human thought, in spite of (or even because of) the unprecedented scale of the Holocaust. The further away from the traumatic event we get, the easier it becomes to willfully ignore what happens when the ideas of unilateral hatred and racial superiority are put into practice. We imagine ourselves healed as a civilization, ready to move on with lessons learned. Yet the worse the trauma, the longer it takes to process. World War II and the Holocaust was the worst thing humanity has ever inflicted upon itself, and it will be long time yet before we find out whether or not we’ve succeeded in growing stronger as a civilization, or if we repeat the same pattern and end up killing ourselves in the bathtub. The continued understanding and transmissions of stories like those found in Maus can only help bring along the former. One can still hope, at least.

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