Followup Questions: An Interview with Robert Repino, author of Mort(e)!

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In February, I reviewed Robert Repino’s debut novel Mort(e), which is the story of a simple housecat who has been uplifted into becoming a stronger, taller, sentient soldier for a mad Queen of the Ants and her war against humanity. And that’s only the beginning! The book is a lot of fun, so I suggest you check out my review and pick it up if it sounds up your alley. Repino has been gracious enough to answer a few lingering questions I had about the book, as well as gauging how well he’d do in a war between man and beast, and even hinting at what’s to come in the Mort(e) universe.

Robert-Repino

Robert Repino earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College. His fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize among other awards, and has appeared in The Literary ReviewNight TrainHobartThe Coachella Review, and more. Repino is the pitcher for the Oxford University Press softball team and quarterback for the flag football team, but his business card says that he’s an editor. In addition to Mort(e), Repino is also the author of the forthcoming novella Leap High Yahoo (Amazon Kindle Singles).

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This Nerding Life: So, when you were formulating how the uplift of the animals would work, did you make a taxonomy of which ones would be affected? In the story, we see cats, dogs, a bobcat, a pig, birds (briefly mentioned). We’re told that insects seem to not have been affected, but what about things like dolphins and whales? Reptiles? Apes? (already-tread ground, this…) The sizes of various animals would seem to make integration into society difficult, like if you had to design civic buildings for both cats and elephants. Also, while the book takes place primarily in the continental United States, would there be similar fighting everywhere else? Australia would have a good variety of dangerous animals…

Robert Repino: I suppose calling it a taxonomy would be giving me too much credit. As you note, I eliminated insects from the list of animals that would be affected by the hormone. Instead, they remain loyal allies to the Queen in their present form. Two reasons for this: first, if insects grew to an enormous size, the population would immediately crash because there wouldn’t be enough food for them. Second, the Queen’s decision to uplift the surface animals is intended as a massive experiment to see if the animals will fall prey to the same tendencies that destroyed the humans. In terms of evolution, insects are probably too far removed from humans for them to be a useful component in the experiment.

The animals I work with in my book are restricted by their location, which is hinted at as being a metropolitan area on a river that feeds into the Atlantic, somewhere between New York and DC, both of which have been destroyed. In other words, Philadelphia. So, there are pets, feral animals, and livestock associated with the region.

There is an entire world outside of this region waiting to be discovered, where different species have built (or failed to build) new societies after achieving sentience. This includes not only the other continents, but the territory under the sea. I hint at fighting in other lands; for example, in the backstory for the character Miriam, I mention that most of the apes in Africa have been killed because people mistakenly think that primates are behind the animal uprising. Anyway, I’m working on the sequel, in which the main characters will try to make contact with these other species. And, as you would expect, the results are mixed.

Morte cover

TNL: I had a lot of fun trying to figure out your reference points for events, characters and situations in Mort(e). I think I nailed down a few in my review, like the ’50s atomic ant film Them! and the works of Orwell and possibly Robert C. O’Brien, but were there any others you’re surprised no one’s picked up on? Any that people have been completely off-base in comparing the book to? (As I said in my review, just because someone is investigating a mystery doesn’t mean they’re automatically Sam Spade, cough Slate cough)

RR: You’re definitely right about Them! and Orwell, though I haven’t read O’Brien or the Sam Spade novels referenced in the Slate review. (Slate was very nice to my book, so they can compare it to detective novels all they want.) Publishing this book has reminded me of how poorly read I have been in so many areas. On several occasions, people have said, “Well, you must have read [insert allegory here],” and I’ve had to admit that I didn’t know what they were talking about.

I think the idea of achieving sudden sentience can be found in many bits of pop culture that influenced me. Neo’s discovery of the real world in The Matrix comes to mind. I also worked with the idea of a person sharing another person’s memories; there is, for example, an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called “The Inner Light”—often regarded as the best of the series—in which Picard lives another man’s life while a mere twenty minutes have passed in real time.

I’m still waiting for some reviewer to go into detail about the religious content, which is all over the book. There are biblical passages, hymns, theological debates, blasphemy, holy relics, prophecies, references to the Islamic tradition, references to atheist/humanist thought. People have mentioned in passing that the book discusses religion in general, but that’s about it so far. (Honestly, I think your review was the first to spend more than two sentences on it.) I work in the field of religious studies for Oxford University Press, so I’m immersed in these issues. But I have to remind myself that most people don’t really care, which I suppose may be a good thing.

Poster art for Mort(e) done in Mars Attacks! style, by Jeff Wong

TNL: How do you think you would fare in a genocidal war between humans and uplifted animals? For the record, as soon as I see a giant ant just covered in normal-sized ants, I’m using the Hemingway Solution because that’s just terrifying.

RR: Not good. I don’t know how to use a firearm, I’m not trained in hand-to-hand combat, I’m probably below average in terms of physical strength, I’ve forgotten what little I learned about living in the wild from the Boy Scouts, and I live in New York, which will probably be a big smorgasbord when the ants start to feed.

A couple of years ago, there was a fire in my apartment building, and I had to retrieve my glasses in the smoke. As a result of that, I decided to get the laser surgery on my eyes. I can now see perfectly, which I hope has slightly improved my chances of survival. So, I got that going for me.

TNL: “The Story of Sebastian and Sheba”, which comes early on in the novel and serves as the main reason why Mort(e) fights so hard later on, is a pretty beautiful examination of a marriage falling apart in dangerous times told through the perspective of an unlikely narrator. Did you have any rituals or anything that you used to get so perfectly into the mindset and perspective of a housecat examining these events? I’m reminded of Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage, the writing of which found the author visiting the beach and pretending to use it as his litterbox. Anything like that?

RR: See, there’s another reference I’m not familiar with! I suck.

There was no particular movie or work of literature I read to get into the mindset of the housecat. What dictated both the writing and the direction of the story was, first, the fact that animals would be more in tune with their other senses than we would be. Thus, Sebastian is ruled by his hearing and sense of smell. Second, I wanted to have this constant tension between a feeling of wonder as the cat explores this world, and a feeling of isolation, as the cat realizes, in fleeting moments, that he is not a member of the master’s family, but is instead a mascot, a piece of property. In other words, the cat lives in a state of constant awe and constant fear and loneliness.

Animal Farm cover

TNL: Going back to Orwell and Animal Farm for a moment, did you feel any pressure while writing the book to stay away from this earlier allegorical story using animals, or to kind of lampshade it while telling your bigger tale? Bonaparte the pig is a pretty clear nod to Animal Farm, but he seems more like a knowing aside than a reference. Mort(e) is also a lot more about the interplay between faith and science than the political allegory found in Orwell, but how well do you think a society of animals would function after the war?

RR: I can’t say I felt pressure to steer clear of Animal Farm. I thought that a lot of the ideas in Orwell’s novel serve as the bedrock of my own book: the folly of human exceptionalism, the inevitability of corruption, the manipulation of willing subjects in some political cause.

Whenever the allegory question comes up, I usually say that my book is allegorical, but it’s not really an allegory, if that makes any sense. In other words, the characters don’t represent particular people in the world today, but they do personify certain tendencies, from hubris to compassion to a desire to find meaning. They are supposed to be original creations with their own wants and needs, as best as I could construct them.

I was less concerned with mimicking Orwell and more concerned with borrowing too heavily from the pop culture elements that have probably influenced me too much over the years. For example, I wanted to have a scene in which Mort(e)’s commanding officer, a grizzled bobcat named Culdesac, gives the soldiers a pep talk about killing humans. But then I saw Inglourious Basterds, which has a similar scene with Brad Pitt’s character, and I had to drop it. There was no way I could write it without stealing from Tarantino’s script.

TNL: The storytelling mechanic of alternating between individual character’s histories and the events currently at hand was probably my favourite part of Mort(e), apart from the irresistible notion of a hard-bitten cat war veteran. I was particularly struck by how each animal interacted with the humans in their lives, or perhaps the absence of humans in Bonaparte’s case. Was it tough to switch between the pre- and post-uplifted animals when writing?

RR: Thank you—I’m glad that worked for you, because the multiple POV structure was truly the biggest challenge of the book. But it needed to be done. If the whole book was from Mort(e)’s perspective, then the other characters would be props for him to use and discard in his single-minded journey. Wawa, Culdesac, Bonaparte, and the Queen needed their own space so we could see what motivated them, what scared them, whom they loved. I couldn’t do that with Mort(e) simply observing them, or through some clunky informational dialogue.

It was always a letdown to finish one character’s chapter, and then say to myself, “Okay, back to Wawa,” or whoever. In order to start again, I would have to read the last chapter from that person’s POV and think about it for several days, until I realized I was talking to myself in that character’s voice. Only then could I start again. And then I’d love the process of writing until the next POV shift, when I would want to jump off a bridge.

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Thanks again to Robert for taking the time to talk with me. Mort(e) can be found wherever good books are sold, like the Soho Press website.

Review: Humans 3.0, by Peter Nowak

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Humans 3.0 cover

It’s easy to get worried about the future sometimes. Climate change, an unstable economy, terrorist groups, government spying on its citizens, the combined impact of all this can really get you down, especially if you’re an avid consumer of cable news. In the grand scheme of human history, though, we’ve actually got it pretty good right now, especially in the increasingly irrelevantly-named “developed world”. In the “developing world”, said development is occurring at a staggering pace, especially in the fields of infant mortality, tech acceptance, access to services, etc. We now live longer, eat better, kill each other less, have fewer babies and have more access to information than at any other point in human history.

Peter Nowak’s Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species is an excellent wrap-up of where Homo sapiens sapiens sits at this very moment. In taking the temperature of the planet’s inhabitants, he comes to the conclusion that to people of only a few centuries ago, we would appear as gods (or perhaps vampires) with our advancements in longevity, economics, health, knowledge and culture. As we now find ourselves in the Anthropocene epoch, the period in the Earth’s history in which humanity is the biggest determinant of the planet’s future, Nowak posits that we’ve reached the third level of human evolution: the first being cave dwellers and hunter gatherers, the second being pre-Industrial revolution.

With this subject matter, which is undoubtedly interesting on its face but could be a little dry in the wrong hands, Nowak finds a sweet spot between the (often surprising) facts and figures. In a smart move, Nowak tempers his examination of humanity’s advances with pop culture references, knowing winks at well-loved properties like the X-Men, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, MinecraftInterview with the Vampire, and others. One particularly inspired example uses The Joker’s experiment with the two boats from The Dark Knight, itself an example of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and extrapolates it across the planet. Essentially, as humanity becomes more connected across national, racial, religious and ethnic borders, living conditions for everyone will become better all around as our differences fall by the wayside. It’s a very appealing notion, and one that I hope comes to pass.

I came into this book thinking it’d be a little bit different from what I got, a misconception perhaps brought about by the vaguely cyberpunk image used on the book’s cover. I thought that this might be an examination of transhumanism, of what will happen with the Singularity comes, for instance, or when we make more advancements in nanotechnology. As it turns out, though, what we do have in Humans 3.0 is a great summation of what it’ll take to make those futuristic notions happen, and how our current course will hopefully lead to better health, happiness and prosperity for everyone across the globe. Nowak has done an excellent job here, collating the data, talking to futurist luminaries and making a highly readable account of our science fiction present.

Full disclosure: I received a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Review: Mort(e), by Robert Repino (2015)

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Morte cover

Mort(e) opens after most human beings on the planet have died. The Queen of the Ants has spent millennia planning for this eventuality, with her masterstroke coming in the form of a DNA upgrade for the planet’s animals, who gain sentience and strength before attacking their masters in a world-spanning conflict with no name. Mort(e), whose slave name when he was owned by the Martini family was Sebastian, is a grizzled war veteran, a special forces operative who served with a mostly-feline unit called the Red Sphinx. When human resistance to the animals and their insectoid benefactors has slowed to a crawl, Mort(e) and the surviving members of the Red Sphinx find themselves dealing with a legacy of the conflict, the dreaded human bioweapon EMSAH, which drives its hosts mad before they kill themselves.

While most animals seem to have completely abandoned their old lives, content to move into their old masters’ homes and take their new marching orders from the Colony, there exists in Mort(e) one small flicker of his pre-uplifted existence: the beautiful memory of a brief period in his life, where a dog from next door named Sheba would come by and rest with him. When Mort(e) hears word that Sheba still lives, he sets out on a quest that will determine the course of his changed world.

Robert Repino’s debut novel is pretty strange, as the above synopsis would suggest. It recalls the classic ’50s atomic monster movie Them! with a similar fixation on giant ants laying waste to things, as well as recent post-apocalypse stories like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Victor Gischler’s Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse and Brian Francis Slattery’s wonderful Lost Everything. I’ve described it to friends and family over the past week a few ways, like “Milo and Otis meets Starship Troopers“, “Tom Perrotta’s The Secret of NIMH“, or “A Boy and His Dog, but the boy’s also a cat.” The book recalls the Fallout series of video games with the detailed way in which Repino has laid out his altered world history, and there’s also a dash of post World War II narratives where veterans find it difficult to re-integrate into society.

I find that this review at Slate is a little bit out to lunch when it compares the book and its hero to classic detective fiction like Chandler and Hammett, as the tone is much more mournful and yet more bombastic somehow than that would suggest. Sure, there’s an element of mystery, and at one point our protagonist does take part in an investigation, but the book is far more concerned with exploring and subverting war narrative tropes and the guilt that plagues the victors of conflict, rather than any tired detective archetypes.

(Side note: Reviewers, would you cut it out already with referencing Hammett and Chandler when you talk about genre? Seriously, there’s been eighty years or so full of crime fiction since they were on the scene, and bringing those two up when any story is remotely noir makes you look like dilettantes. Find some newer cultural touchstones, please! Can you imagine if every single literary novel needed comparing to Virginia Woolf?)

Mort(e) is an interesting character at first, but I found him to become a little tiresome. While he can be construed as a white knight in the Chandler mould, as Slate notes, he’s also definitely not a detective. Given his background, and his relationship with superior officer Culdesac (a bobcat-turned-general, never tamed by humans before The Change), he’s closer in tone to a character like Snake Plissken, or for that matter Solid Snake or Big Boss (all the talk of genetic manipulation is also very reminiscent of the Metal Gear Solid series, too). What could be construed as hardboiled sangfroid is more like shell shock from a war that defies the imagination. Mort(e), whose name is a very roundabout reference to Le Morte d’Arthur, is single-minded in his quest to find Sheba, who represents a less complicated time, certainly one before he grew in size and started shooting people. While I appreciate the way in which Repino gets you into the mindset of an animal who only wants one thing, this and a later complaint made for some occasionally repetitive reading.

Luckily, Repino provides fantastic backstories to many of the other characters in Mort(e)’s world: in addition to the affectionate tale of Sebastian the housecat and Sheba the neighbour’s dog, we also see multiple millennia through the eyes of the Queen of the Ants; we meet Mort(e)’s former commander Culdesac; the extremely sad tale of Mort(e)’s replacement in the Red Sphinx, Wawa, a dog bred for fighting; and Bonaparte, an alcoholic pig who escaped a somewhat familiar farm filled with animals…

There are a few references to that other book with talking animals who rise up against their masters, but these are mostly winking asides, albeit ones that raise the possibility that Orwell’s story might coincide with the world wide devastation caused by the Nameless War. The main philosophical thrust of the book comes as an argument between theism and atheism, and there lies most of my problem with the story. I loved the histories of this war, and I thought that Repino did an astounding job with the pre-uplift backstories of his animals. The writing has an amazing sense of how a creature that has not yet gained sentience might understand things like marital infidelity, mental illness, and general human cruelty. When the story shifts gears halfway through, when Mort(e) learns the secret of EMSAH, the endless bickering over whether or not God is real derails it for me. It feels like there was a definite axe to grind on this subject, and at times the narrative slows to a crawl as characters debate theology. It was interesting to note ways in which religion changes in a world where your dog probably did try to murder you, but I much preferred other parts of the story.

Still, the sheer imagination on display in Mort(e) definitely makes it worth checking out. While I still had some questions about the scope of the whole thing by the end, the crazy fun action and affecting depiction of our animal friends is definitely worth celebrating. I listened to this book through Audible, and while Bronson Pinchot’s use of different sound effects and voices was pretty great, for general narration it sounded like he was on the verge of tears the entire time. It was a little bit distracting, although there are quite a few moments that made me tear up too. This might not be a book for animal lovers, although it might appeal to those who wonder what their cat gets up to while they’re away.

Media Consumption 2014

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books / comics / film / sitting in the dark with strangers

Here’s a pretty thorough list of all the media I consumed in 2014. We’ll start with Sitting in the Dark With Strangers, my yearly movie list. I’m basically happy with this preferential ranking, although a few things could move around.

1. The Grand Budapest Hotel

2. Under the Skin

3. Inherent Vice

4. The Wind Rises

5. Gunday

6. John Wick

7. Jodorowsky’s Dune

8. Blue Ruin

9. Guardians of the Galaxy 

10. Godzilla

11. A Most Wanted Man

12. 22 Jump Street

13. The Lego Movie 

14. Edge of Tomorrow

15. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

16. Fury

17. A Field in England

18. Noah

19. The Guest

20. Nightcrawler

21. The Lunchbox

22. Gone Girl

23. Why Don’t You Play In Hell?

24. The Raid 2

25. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

26. Life Itself

27. Snowpiercer

28. Neighbors

29. X-Men: Days of Future Past

30. The Fault in Our Stars

31. Big Hero 6

32. Interstellar

33. Anchorman 2

34. 300: Rise of an Empire

35. Journey to the West

36. Dracula Untold

37. Only Lovers Left Alive

38. Muppets Most Wanted

39. How to Train Your Dragon 2

40. Jersey Boys

 

Movies I still need to see:

Boyhood

The Rover

Foxcatcher

The Purge: Anarchy

Birdman

Selma

The Interview

Enemy

The Double

The Final Member

We Are the Best!

Lucy

Frank

The Congress

The Babadook

Unforgiven

The Duke of Burgundy

Citizenfour

 

Next, here’s all the books I read this year in chronological order. Links are to reviews here on the blog. Stars indicate books of exceptional quality.

Two Gentlemen of Lebowski: A Most Excellent Comedie and Tragical Romance, by Adam Bertocci

Low Town, by Daniel Polansky

The Fictional Man, by Al Ewing

*Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carré

The Savage Detectives, by Roberto Bolaño

Shovel Ready, by Adam Sternbergh

Vampires in the Lemon Grove and Other Stories, by Karen Russell

Consider Phlebas, by Iain M. Banks

Old Filth, by Jane Gardam

Anno Dracula, by Kim Newman

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, by Karen Russell

*The Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks

*Cataract City, by Craig Davidson

*The Honourable Schoolboy, by John le Carré

The Weirdness, by Jeremy Bushnell

Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, by Sara Gran

*Smiley’s People, by John le Carré

Declare, by Tim Powers (audiobook)

Economics: The User’s Guide: A Pelican Introduction, by Ha-Joon Chang

*The Martian, by Andy Weir (audiobook)

*The Orenda, by Jospeh Boyden

The Apocalypse Codex, by Charles Stross

The Slynx, by Tatyana Tolstaya

The Trouble With Brunch: Work, Class and the Pursuit of Leisure, by Shawn Micallef

Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer

A Delicate Truth, by John le Carré

Authority, by Jeff VanderMeer

Tokyo Vice, by Jake Adelstein (audiobook)

Glow, by Ned Beauman

Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons and Dragons and the People Who Play It, by David Ewalt (audiobook)

*Augustus, by John Williams

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

*Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, by Rick Perlstein (audiobook)

The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, by Mark Leyner (audiobook)

*Will Starling, by Ian Weir

Perfidia, by James Ellroy

They Came From Within (Second Edition), by Caelum Vatsndal

A Once Crowded Sky, by Tom King

Nice Day For Murder: Poems For James Cagney, by Kimmy Beach

Nineteen Seventy Four, by David Peace (audiobook)

The Gods of Gotham, by Lyndsay Faye

Bollywood: A Guidebook to Popular Hindi Cinema, by Tejaswini Ganti

The Third Reich, by Roberto Bolaño

*The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and The Rise of Reagan, by Rick Perlstein (audiobook)

Acceptance, by Jeff VanderMeer

The Magician’s Land, by Lev Grossman

For comics, books I enjoyed included Fables, Satellite Sam, Saga, The Fade Out, Sex Criminals, Blacksad and others.

I don’t watch too much TV these days, but Game of Thrones was really good, as was Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Archer Vice, Fargo (which I still need to finish), True DetectiveMad Men, naturally, and maybe a couple of others I can’t think of off the top of my head.

For video games, I liked Dragon Age: Inquisition, 80 DaysCrusader Kings II, Saints Row IVEuropa Universalis IV, The Wolf Among Us, and I spent probably an inordinate amount of time playing Dynasty Warriors Gundam III. No regrets. GTA V was a letdown.

For good podcasts, here’s another list, this time alphabetical.

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History

The Dollop

El Diabolik’s World of Psychotronic Soundtracks

NPR: Planet Money

Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men

Shut Up & Sit Down

Trash, Art and the Movies

The Worst Idea of All Time

You Must Remember This

For YouTube channels, I watched a lot of The Dice Tower, Machinima, Oliver Harper, Super Bunnyhop, Filmmaker IQ, Crash Course and CGP Grey.

That about covers it. I occasionally went outside sometimes too.

Did you like anything this last year? Let me know in the comments.

 

 

Review: The Invisible Bridge, by Rick Perlstein (2014)

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Musical Accompaniment: “Underdogs” by Liz, feat. RiFF RAFF

The Invisible Bridge cover

Rick Perlstein’s fantastic Invisible Bridge picks up where his equally excellent Nixonland left off: as the skullduggery and intrigue surrounding Watergate begins to bubble up through the surface of the American imagination, leaving terror in its wake. It ends with an event that I, ignorant Canadian, knew next to nothing about: the 1976 Republican National Convention, which saw the incumbent president Gerald Ford go head to head with the ascendant Ronald Reagan for the leadership role of the Party. In between these two touchstones, Perlstein immerses readers in the fear and loathing of the era, perhaps less in your face than the 1960s, but still troubled times. The OPEC oil embargo, the SALT nuclear missile treaties, stagflation, all of these huge events are presented alongside the day-to-day concerns of the populace through periodic check-ins with newspapers and magazines. Capsule reviews of popular movies like Jaws, The Exorcist, The Parallax View, and Nashville help take the temperature of the American filmgoing audience, and links are made between concerns as they appear on celluloid and how they interact with (and are perhaps shaped by) those found in newspapers. The importance of TV in political discourse is addressed, as many campaign ads are dissected alongside the popular shows of the time.

I was initially a little skeptical of The Invisible Bridge, which is weird considering how much I loved Nixonland. While I’ve been interested in Nixon and his pals for a long time, the only emotion prior to reading this I was really able to rouse for Reagan was a simmering dread, as the changes he’s wrought upon the world are pretty much antithetical to my taste. Nixon was a terrible rogue, this is true, but he’s a fascinating one, a kind of American Richard III whose machinations and petty hatreds are at the very least somewhat entertaining in hindsight. To me, Reagan is a much more benign evil, an evil that wears on its face blithe optimism about the doctrine of American Exceptionalism co-mingled with conservatism and the religious right.

So, imagine to my surprise that I kind of felt for Reagan after reading this book? I found the sections about his life growing up and then working in Hollywood pretty riveting, and I was even on his side on some things, at least until he dropped a dime on some Hollywood fellow travellers to the FBI. I listened to the audiobook of The Invisible Bridge, so perhaps it’s difficult to maintain a loathing for the guy after spending 35-some hours with him? As opposed to Nixonland, which was for the most part told in chronological order, The Invisible Bridge jumps around a lot in time, checking in with Reagan at various points in his life when there’s an interesting connection with events in the 1970s modern day. I don’t know if this is always successful in telling the story of this time period, but it is a good way around rehashing some of the historical happenings that would have also occurred in Nixon’s day. Reagan coming to politics later in life than Nixon also means that less of his story is directly related to the Republican power struggle that is the book’s main focus. We see his difficult upbringing, his time spent as a radio sports announcer, his Hollywood career, and then a really fascinating section where he hosts a TV program sponsored by General Electric. The book has also helped me to gain a newfound appreciation of Gerald Ford. At times, even the audiobook narrator seemed to feel bad for the guy, who inherited some of the most fractious and dangerous times in American history with little to no easy fixes in sight. Still, it is funny to hear about how new media venues like Saturday Night Live parodied the gaffe-prone Ford, who I really only knew from that one episode of The Simpsons (again, ignorant Canadian).

I don’t think Perlstein ever hits upon a central metaphor to Reagan’s life that has the same power as the “Franklins vs. Orthogonians” one found in Nixonland (in short, these two groups of people were originally student organizations at Nixon’s school, but they eventually come to symbolize the method by which Nixon’s politics of division worked so well, basically by inculcating a “snobs vs. slobs” mentality). Perlstein continually brings up Reagan’s wanting to see his best self reflected in the eyes of others, and his perpetual search for strong father figures, which works well enough. The book also shines when talking about the rise of “anti-politics”, post-Watergate suspicion about the democratic process that led to the election of ultimate underdog Jimmy Carter (and a few years later, Reagan).

My favourite moment out of these two books, though, remains Perlstein’s putting readers into the shoes of a person watching the 1968 Democratic Convention on TV, which is found in Nixonland. There, he made sure to mention all of the increasingly incongruous commercials going alongside the bizarre events happening onscreen, in a way that really made me realize the enormity of what was happening in Chicago that week, and how little sense it might have made to the lay person. I don’t know if anything in The Invisible Bridge really reaches that height, apart from maybe the play-by-play of the 1976 Republican Convention, which was by all accounts a nail biter. It’s a little weird, actually; I could easily Google these events and find out what happens, but I’d rather not, as Perlstein has a way of making the driest parliamentary jargon and chicanery seem like a tense thrill ride. He also deserves to be commended for almost never ever “breaking character” and telling the reader what’s going to happen with certain recognizable names, including Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, etc. I can’t recall a single occasion where he winks at the reader about these kinds of guys, or hints at darker undercurrents behind their actions.

Before the Storm, Perlstein’s examination of the 1960s through the lens of Barry Goldwater, has immediately risen to the ranks of books I’d like to read as soon as I can. What Perlstein has given us here is a way for people like myself, who are about as far from cultural conservatism as possible, to understand the allure of the concept and why it has gained so much power. The conservative movement is made much clearer by these tremendous excavations, and the writing actually makes it fun to see how it came about! Perlstein does an amazing job of collating what must have been thousands of newspaper/magazine articles and hundreds of hours of TV broadcasts and interviews into an appealing and monumental work. Definitely seek this book out, as well as its predecessors, if you have any interest in American history.

Review: A Once Crowded Sky, by Tom King

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books / comics

A Once Crowded Sky cover

“Remarkable … the would-be heroes of Watchmen have staggeringly complex psychological profiles.”—New York Times Book Review

Sometimes I think the above quote, which ran on the cover of Watchmen trade paperbacks for years heralding its literary merit, is symptomatic of a movement in the public perception of comics that has done more harm than good. Not to delve too far into this theory of mine, but in the almost thirty years after Watchmen, the signifier of “maturity” in the eyes of the mostly non-comics reading critical establishment remains these “complex psychological profiles” alluded to by the NYT Book Review, instead of more difficult to parse things like visual storytelling, intertextuality and metatextual use of the page. Referring to “complex” in this context, critics inevitably point towards works that to my mind heavy-handedly insert “adult” themes like substance abuse, suicide, and sexual assault without also acknowledging the medium of comics and the attendant weirdness that often goes with it.

The one-two punch of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen and Frank Miller’s similarly-themed Batman: The Dark Knight Returns birthed what is known as the the “Grim and Gritty” era of the late ’80s and early ’90s: surface-level readings of the apocalyptic milieus and over the top violence shared by both books led to thousands of copycat stories coming out of DC, Marvel, and newcomer Image Comics. The result was diminishing narrative returns and the puzzling stigma comics carry to this day, as being on the whole too childish for real critical appraisal yet also too violent and sexualized for real children. If you take a look at a large portion of DC Comics’ titles, this emphasis on the grim and gritty remains to this day. It also crops up in DC’s film adaptations, much more so than ones produced by Marvel Studios. To me, anyway, this is why you still see Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, which were highly influenced by Miller’s work, praised to the skies as the best superhero flicks currently going while something like Brad Bird’s overall much more intelligent and layered film The Incredibles is relatively forgotten in the ongoing conversation about comics films, perhaps due to its Disney affiliation. (To be fair, though, for the most part Zack Snyder’s Watchmen adaptation was panned by critics, as was his relentlessly grim Man of Steel, so maybe this state of affairs is changing somewhat.) Still, to the outside world, to the critical establishment who don’t really follow comics closely, it feels like this “darkness” still equals depth to some extent.

This reading of the last few decades of comics history has bled over into the literary world as well, with a plethora of novels purporting to take readers behind the masks and spandex and show us the “real” superhero psyche. Out of the ones I’ve read so far, I’ve found them to be average at best: Austin Grossman’s ersatz riff on superscientists like Lex Luthor and Doctor Doom Soon I Will Be Invincible was easily the worst offender, poorly written, horribly plotted and full of flat-out boring worldbuilding, while Carrie Vaughn’s After the Golden Age read like a creative writing class project on how to insert a superhero narrative into garden-variety late-20s ennui fiction. Minister Faust’s From the Notebooks of Doctor Brain, aka. Shrinking the Heroes, is one of the best examples. You can tell that Faust knows what he’s talking about when it comes to comics history: unlike the other books, the cast he devises isn’t just boring Justice League analogues with the serial numbers filed off. He also finds some fun stuff with the emphasis on psychoanalysis in the story, which to me read as a satire of how much the critical establishment has latched on to this “complex psychological profiles” business. The highest compliment I can give to Faust is that you can easily imagine reading an actual comic about the characters he’s created, which is more than I can say about Grossman and Vaughn. Of course, Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize winner The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is by far the best novel ever written about comics, but it is predominantly about the men who wrote and drew the books and less about the characters themselves. Still, Chabon’s brief origin stories of characters like The Escapist, Luna Moth, etc. are very well done, and the success of the book led to a short comic series in the mid 2000s.

Tom King’s A Once Crowded Sky is another noble attempt at bringing the vivacity of the comics page to the sphere of literary novels, but in the end it falls closer on the spectrum to Grossman and Vaughn than Faust and Chabon. The story begins after the great sacrifice of Ultimate, the Man with the Metal Face, who with his dying actions saved Arcadia City one last time from an apocalyptic event known as “The Blue”. The villains that routinely threatened the city are gone now, and the former heroes, now powerless, have had to find ways to pass the time. There was one hero, though, who didn’t give up his powers for Ultimate to stop the world-shattering threat of The Blue: PenUltimate, the android hero’s own young sidekick. He is reviled by the community of former heroes for his moment of weakness, but when a new foe rears its ugly head, as the sole super-powered hero left he must unravel the mystery behind The Blue and settle things once and for all.

A Once Crowded Sky does quite a few things right. The narrative is backed up by beautiful, Kirby-esque comics pages by Tom Fowler, and individual story sections in chapters are marked off with the clever gimmick of being “issues” of ongoing comics series. PenUltimate’s chapters, presumably carrying on from the adventures of his mentor Ultimate, are heralded as being “Ultimate, The Man with the Metal Face #566″ and so on, while other characters the Soldier of Freedom, reminiscent of Marvel Comics’ The Winter Soldier, also has his own “series” in the book. In a nice touch, PenUltimate’s wife Anna Averies appears to have been the star of a ’60s romance comic at one point before her marriage. King even goes so far as to have some of these sections be “event book” tie-ins, which to me reads like he knows the current comics marketplace, which relies on endless “crises” that coax readers into buying every issue to get the whole story.

I liked Sicko, who used to be able to sprout fire-chains from his wrists and is written essentially as a parody of Grim and Gritty ‘90s-extreme storytelling. His “Vol. 2” stories are much more sedate until he hooks up with PenUltimate for one last shot at glory. Another fun concept is the Prophetier, a former hero whose power essentially consists of his own genre awareness. While this sort of thing is kind of old hat for people who’ve read the comics work of Grant Morrison, a character who knows he’s in a comic is a fun thing to see in one of these literary reworkings of the genre.

As a sop to grim and gritty storytelling, though, we’ve got the aforementioned Soldier of Freedom, who, apart from recounting one entertaining and surprising mission during the Second World War, never rises above the archetype of a suicidal old soldier. The former Doctor Speed has become a full-blown alcoholic with the absence of his superpower, and the Green Lantern-esque Star Knight is a sadly underdeveloped character who seems to consist of money and shadowy plot machination, shades of Ozymandias in Watchmen. There doesn’t seem to be much of a point to putting these kinds of characters in the book apart from attempting a gritty, critic-friendly “realism”. King also never really gives the reader a sense of what it would be like to live in a calamity-prone comics universe. As the story progresses, massive explosions rip through Arcadia City and the surrounding area, but apart from a well-done action sequence where PenUltimate saves some people trapped in a hospital on fire, the human cost of constant violence is never convincingly portrayed.

In the end, I guess I’m still looking for a literary novel that is able to function on the same playing field as a comic series like Invincible or Astro City, a book can that encapsulate the oft-ridiculous medium of superhero books and is able to comment on them intelligently without the superficial trappings of darkness. Perhaps the printed page just isn’t ready yet for the kind of storytelling I’m looking for, although the use of Fowler’s illustrations in A Once Crowded Sky and the more intriguing hero archetypes found in the book are definitely on the right track. Aping the stories of superhero comics just doesn’t seem to work on its own, you need something else to play off of to make the story work. I’m reminded again of Sarah Bruni’s The Night Gwen Stacy Died, which while ostensibly set in the real world, did a great job of amplifying the emotional stakes comics play on, as well as the toll they take on their readers.

Followup Questions: An Interview with Caelum Vatnsdal, author of They Came From Within!

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books / film

Last week I reviewed the ten year anniversary edition of Caelum Vatnsdal’s classic Canadian horror retrospective They Came From Within. It’s an excellent book, well worth checking out if you’re into Canadian film or horror movies in general. I approached Vatnsdal’s publisher, Arbeiter Ring Publishing, about an interview and was lucky enough to ask the talented scribe a few questions about one of his favoured topics. Read on for a fun conversation about the state of Canadian horror flicks!

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Caelum Vatnsdal

This Nerding Life: Going from the assumption that not every remake of a classic horror film is inherently bad (see Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead for an example, at least in my mind), which of the films you profile in your book do you think might benefit from a modern re-imagining? How would you ideally go about doing this?

Caelum Vatnsdal: Some of my favourite movies are remakes: The ThingThe Fly, a few others. (I’m not as wild about the Dawn of the Dead one, myself, though it wasn’t bad.) There are a few candidates for remakes in the Canadian horror world. I myself wrote a remake of Cannibal Girls, and though the treatment apparently met with the approval of Ivan Reitman’s company, I’m not sure it’ll ever get made. The original, of course, was made on a shoestring; the ad-hoc plotting means it doesn’t make all that much sense, and there are a lot of things left hanging. This seemed like an ideal launching point for a remake, and so I made up a whole, epic story for how and why this little Ontario town got into cannibalism. It would be one of those remakes that are barely recognizable as such, but it would also require a budget somewhat heftier than the name recognition of the title would attract, even with Ivan Reitman’s name on it.

It would be interesting to see some Bill Fruet pictures get the remake treatment, particularly Spasms and Killer Party. He’s a director I like, but those two movies were both heavily interfered with, and probably didn’t have the most coherent screenplays to start with, so with the right approach they could certainly be improved upon.

But please, movie remakers: stay away from Cronenberg!

They Came From Within cover

TNL: The films you go into detail on in They Came From Within straddle quite a few horror genres, like body horror, fear of nature/survival, mystical occurrences, and hauntings, to name a few examples. Is there a horror subset that in your recollection has not been tapped in any real way by Canadian filmmakers? If so, why do you think that is?

CV: Well, I complain a lot in the book about there being no great Canadian Sasquatch movie, which would seem a natural subgenre for us to tackle and do very well at. Rituals is of course an excellent example of survival horror, but I’m surprised we haven’t had more of that kind of thing. Gothic horror, on the other hand, is a natural genre for us to suck at, and the few examples of it in Canadian horror history tend to confirm that. But as for the Sasquatch, again, I have a treatment (this one co-authored with a friend) for what could be the definitive Canadian bigfoot picture, were it ever to get made.

TNL: What are the top 5 Canadian horror films featured in They Came From Within that you’d point uninitiated but interested viewers towards? Bottom 5?

CV: The top five I’d point people towards are probably the same ones anybody would point people towards: Black ChristmasThe Brood (though almost any early Cronenberg would do), My Bloody Valentine, maybe Pontypool, and probably The Mask for its historical value, or maybe Playgirl Killer just because it’s so unusual and exotic.

The bottom five – well, when thinking of bad Canadian horror movies one thinks of Things, but ultimately it’s too bizarre to be on that list. (“Bizarre” is a quality I cherish in movies.) The real stinkers are the boring ones made mainly as cynical cash grabs. Now I can’t say that movies like Ripper: Letter From HellReaperBelieveWitchboard: The Possession or that remake of Black Christmas were made for purely mercenary reasons, but I can report I had a tough time getting through each of them. There are lots of pretty bad movies on the Canadian horror landscape though, and that’s what makes the good ones so special.

TNL: One thing I’ve noticed, which also crops up in the new chapter at the end of the book, is that Canadian horror right now is kind of looking back to the past. Films like Hobo With a ShotgunThe EditorWolfCop, all of these point to a grindhouse-type aesthetic that was prevalent during the tax shelter years and before. How long do you think Canadian horror filmmakers are going to stay in this mode? What do you think lies in the future for Canadian horror film?

CV: It’s hard to say how long this will be the Canadian house style, but it’s got a few years left in it yet, I think. The Editor, the new Astron 6 film, should be out pretty soon, and WolfCop 2 is shooting in the spring, and I’m sure there are other examples on the horizon. It’s understandable that current filmmakers would look back this way, as the tax shelter era was kind of our glory days, or what stands in for our glory days.

Predicting the future is a mug’s game of course, but I’m hoping for at least six real superstar filmmakers to come up: people who have a devotion to the genre and whose next movie you’ll be able to count on being good. That would be a great core from which to build an unimpeachable Canadian horror identity and, though I hate to use the word, a brand. On top of that, it would be great to see David Cronenberg return to the genre in a big way, once or twice more at least. I feel like he will. And of course we’d all like to see Guy Maddin finally raise the money for his game-changing horror epic The Necro-Pants.

TNL: Let’s say you had Doctor Who’s TARDIS and were able to assemble any Canadian horror filmmaking team you wanted and get them to make a movie together. What would be your ultimate CanHorror dream team?

CV: I think if you had someone like Julian Roffman, the Canadian horror pioneer who hated horror movies, producing this hypothetical movie, you might have an interesting dynamic right off the bat. It would be nice to have a David Cronenberg script, but have somebody else direct it, just to see what would happen – to see if the old Cronenbergian voice rang through. Of course Mark Irwin should shoot the movie, and I think a big makeup effects crew, with all the current Canadian makeup stars heading up their own sub-departments and working on different sequences, the way they used to do it on movies like From Beyond, would be pretty cool.

As for the director of this project, it would be nice to bring Bob Clark back from the grave, or maybe the famously irascible Peter Carter; or else hand it to currently living directors like Bruce McDonald or Vincenzo Natali; but you know what? I’ve always thought Lawrence Zazelenchuck, the auteur behind The Corpse Eaters, got a pretty raw deal, and I’d like to see what he might do with a big budget and a real crew. It would probably be a disaster, but Canadian cinema almost always plays it safe, and with a few exceptions has been virtually disaster-free since 1931 At this point in our moviemaking history, I think maybe we could use a disaster or two.

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Thanks again to Caelum and the publicity staff at Arbeiter Ring for agreeing to talk with me. They Came From Within can be found wherever good books are sold.

Review: They Came From Within (Second Edition), by Caelum Vatnsdal

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books / film

They Came From Within cover

When you think of a quintessentially “Canadian” film, what is the very first thing that comes to mind? Maybe a windswept Prairie scene, a dilapidated old farmhouse and a family tragedy somehow involving land exchanging hands? An NFB documentary, perhaps, about our country’s vast Northern wilderness, spiced up with some bear, moose or mountain goat action shots? Young men forced from their homes to look for work after economic collapse, headed towards either Toronto in the ’70s, or my home province of Alberta these days? Some kitchen sink drama on a French TV station that might have a topless woman in it? The Toast recently posted a very funny list of “Every Canadian Novel Ever“, and I think many of these could easily be applied to the common conception of Canadian film as well. (My absolute favourite of these is “Magical Realism But It’s Just Gothic Southern Ontario Having, Like, Two Magical Elements”, by the way.)

If you’re a fan of exploitation movies on the other hand, especially horror, you are privy to a much different side of Canuck cinema. If not, that’s where Winnipeg native Caelum Vatnsdal’s They Came From Within would really be of assistance. The book has recently received a second edition, and I think it should be an essential piece of every Canadian film lover’s library.

Vatnsdal takes readers all the way from cinema’s infancy in the 1910s to movies that have just come out this year for a grand overview of Canadian horror, which he refers to amusingly throughout as “Tundra Terror”. Far from a dry academic treatise, the book instead has a slightly snarky tone, like the patter you’d get from a video store owner who’s seen it all, but isn’t jaded. Vatnsdal is to my mind appropriately reverent towards horror movies that deserve close attention, like the early works of David Cronenberg, the Cape Breton slasher film My Bloody Valentine, the Ginger Snaps trilogy, and the amazingly intriguing Rituals (which I’ve not seen, but now I really want to), which reads as a Canadian equivalent to Deliverance. When faced with a bad movie though, like Things, or the later entries in the Prom Night series, Vatsndal pulls no punches with his commentary, delivering hilarious takedowns. There’s also a helpful guide at the back of the book, featuring cast lists and synopses of all the movies referenced in the text. I’m going to be referring to this often in the future as I bulk up my own knowledge in this area.

The bulk of the book takes place during the “Tax Shelter Years” of the late ’70s and early ’80s, when financial incentives drove production of hundreds of horror films in the Great White North. These ranged from knockoffs of popular U.S. fare to completely bonkers passion projects, and it’s a lot of fun to read about the shoe-string budgets and directorial crises faced by a lot of these movies. Less so is the decline of Canadian horror in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but the new version of the book ends on a hopeful note with filmmakers like Jason Eisener (Hobo With a Shotgun), the Soska sisters (American Mary) and the Astron-6 collective (Father’s Day, The Editor) reclaiming Canada’s blood-soaked and economically-priced horror legacy. While I would have liked Vatnsdal to go into a little bit more detail about what themes differentiate Canadian flicks from other countries, I feel like that kind of editorializing might not have fit into the scope of the project.

With his new edition of They Came From Within, Caelum Vatnsdal has done a great job of putting the entirety of Canadian horror film production back on display, in all its gory glory. With a snarky sense of humour and an encyclopedic memory, Vatnsdal has made a highly readable and highly valuable contribution to this country’s library of film criticism. Highly recommended.

Followup Questions: An Interview with Ian Weir, author of Will Starling!

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books

Last week I reviewed Langley, B.C. author Ian Weir’s new novel Will Starling, and as you can see from the post I enjoyed it quite a bit! After reaching out to his publisher, Goose Lane Editions, I was very lucky to able to ask Weir a few questions about the book, the thought process and research that went into putting it together. Read on for a sneak peek into how one of my favourite Canadian books this year was sewn together…

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Ian Weir author photo

This Nerding Life: While the back section of the book shows some of the sources you consulted when working on Will Starling, how much time would you say you spent on this part of the process? Were there any facts you learned during your research that you didn’t have room to put in the novel that you’d have liked to?

Ian Weir: As a matter of fact, I spent a solid two years researching Will Starling before I started writing, and continued alternating between writing and research for the next three years (the novel took about five years, all told). By the end of it I had a bookcase pretty much full of books with some connection to the material, and I’d taken three separate research trips to England.

Partly this has to do with my own writing process. I can’t get untracked until the characters and the setting feel absolutely real to me — what the characters are wearing, what they’re thinking, what they had for breakfast, where they’re coming from and where they’re going and what they’re likely to encounter en route — all those countless little details that we take for granted as we go about our daily business. And I think there’s also a kind of implicit contract that exists between writer and reader, when it comes to historical fiction — i.e. if you’ll agree to come along with me, then I’ll promise to give you a sense of what it was actually like, to walk down that street in 1816 (or whenever).

So yes, there’s a whole lot of research material that never made it into the finished novel, since there’s nothing worse than detail that’s shoe-horned in just for the sake of proving that the writer did his homework. It’s kind of the iceberg principle. Only the tip is visible, but the rest of the iceberg is nonetheless in place.

daniel o thunder cover

TNL: Both of your novels to date, Will Starling and Daniel O’Thunder, take place in England before the Twentieth Century, in the Regency and Victorian periods respectively. Could you see yourself ever writing a book that takes place in the modern day? What is it about England that has such a hold on your imagination?

IW: Martin Amis has a great theory that we all have a “second country” — a kind of homeland of the imagination that serves as a repository for our romanticized impulses. For me, that’s always been England — and London in particular. Why? Good question. I have a hunch that part of it was falling in love with the Paddington Bear books when I was seven or eight years old, and forming the conviction that life in London was somehow more heightened and magical than the version of life that was on offer anywhere else. When I was in my mid-twenties I had a chance to live in London as a graduate student, and I’ve managed to get back every couple of years since then.

And as for the Nineteenth Century? Well, in very many ways it holds up a remarkable mirror to our own era; it’s the beginning of the modern world, and as a story-teller I’m strongly drawn to that. And nineteenth century London is still very much present and vital within the modern metropolis — vestiges of the Victorian and Regency periods still exist, essentially unchanged. There’s something really captivating in that, turning a corner and discovering that you’ve as it were stepped back centuries in time.

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TNL: Many reviewers, including myself, have remarked upon Will Starling‘s resemblance to the “sensation novels” of the late Nineteenth Century. What does this style of writing offer to an author when crafting a story? Are there any other authors operating in this mode now that you enjoy?

IW: Ah, the sensation novel — yes, I’m delighted you picked up on that. Basically, the sensation novel as a form is a direct descendent of the gothic thriller, and I love gothic tropes. (One of my favourite novels of all time is Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It’s a perfectly constructed thriller, and a stylistic gem, and it evokes nightmare archetypes that are rooted way down deep in the psyche.)

For me, part of the joy of the gothic narrative tradition is that it offers up so much scope and energy in terms of twists and turns. Anything goes, as it were, and the stakes are never short of life-and-death. Gothic narrative also tends to have a keen sense of its own baroque style, which means it’s ripe for sly, gleam-in-the-eye parody. And of course gothic narrative is all about the clear-cut distinction between right and wrong, good and evil. That can constitute a great a gift to a twenty-first century author with subversive intentions.

As a reader, I’ve always been deeply partial to contemporary novelists who turn traditional modes and styles to their own purposes. Michael Chabon springs immediately to mind. Sarah Waters is another example of a tremendously gifted literary novelist who is keenly aware of gothic tropes and conventions.

TNL: When reading Will Starling, I was struck that while many, many gory details about grave-robbing, surgery and the Napoleonic Wars are detailed to the reader, the writing never seems ghoulish or overly gross. Was this a tricky path to walk given the novel’s subject material?

IW: Well, I’m pleased and relieved that you felt I succeeded in threading that particular needle — and I have a confession to make. I’m a surgeon’s son, but I’m also about as squeamish as it’s possible to be, when it comes to blood and other people’s suffering. So that was basically my litmus test while writing Will Starling. Quite simply: if I can write this paragraph without sending myself fleeing from the room, then I can feel fairly confident that I haven’t grossed out my readers.

TNL: With Will Starling done and reaching great critical acclaim, what are you working on at the moment?

IW: I’ve been really pleased by the critical reception — and thanks so much for the very kind words. And as a matter of fact I’ve begun working on a new novel. I won’t say too much about it — I’m a bit superstitious about these things, and besides it’s still in a somewhat inchoate state — but I will say that it’s a bit of a departure, in some ways (though not in others). It’s historical fiction, but there’s also a framing narrative that takes place in our own era. And it’s western-themed. In fact, it’s set almost entirely in Nineteenth Century North America (though one of the central characters is from London).

At least, that’s how it’s shaping up so far. A novel for me is always a voyage of discovery — I don’t work from an outline. And while I usually start with a notion about where I think the story may end up, I almost invariably discover that I’m mistaken about this.

So far, I’m finding the voyage challenging and stimulating, which is about the best I can realistically hope for. In other words…so far, so good!

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Thanks again to Ian and the publicity staff at Goose Lane for allowing me to put this interview together. Will Starling and Daniel O’Thunder are available wherever good books are sold, and they’re both well worth checking out. You can find Weir on Twitter at @Ian_Weir, and stay up to date on his books over at ianweir.net.

Review: Perfidia, by James Ellroy (2014)

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books / film / film noir

Musical Accompaniment: “Life During Wartime” by the Talking Heads

In retrospect, I probably wasn’t ready to fully appreciate Perfidia. For background, about five years ago, I tore through James Ellroy’s First L.A. Quartet over the course of a summer. I first got into them by way of Curtis Hanson’s film adaptation of L.A. Confidential, which remains one of my favourite movies ever, and also through Brian de Palma’s ill-fated adaptation of The Black Dahlia, which I still don’t think is quite as bad as everyone says. I wanted to follow up by immediately reading the Underworld U.S.A. trilogy, which was just finishing up right around that time with the publication of Blood’s a Rover, but for whatever reason I couldn’t get ahold of the first two books, American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand. So I moved on to other things.

Perfidia cover

Perfidia makes me want to dive right back into Ellroy’s dark imaginings from the very beginning, and to finally follow up and track down the Underworld U.S.A. books. For those of you that haven’t had the pleasure, Ellroy’s (now) First L.A. Quartet charts the twisted, film noir-enfused world of the L.A.P.D. from right after the Second World War till the mid-1950s. Ellroy mixes real life events and personages from the era with the larger-than-life antics of a crew of ne’er do well bagmen, hoodlums and cronies who make up the benighted city’s police force, and also their opposite numbers in the city’s underworld. The Black Dahlia centres around the grisly real-life killing of Elizabeth Short, while The Big Nowhere (my favourite of the bunch) finds the city’s newly-formed Red Squad attempting to quash a Hollywood Communist cell. The aforementioned epic L.A. Confidential features three cops with nothing in common thrown together after a gangland slaying at an all-night diner while White Jazz is a stream-of-consciousness ride into hell with a cop-sanctioned assassin. Characters running through all four of these novels include Mickey Cohen, the real-life mob boss of L.A. (whose story can also be found in the fantastic non-fiction book L.A. Noir by John Buntin) and Dudley Smith, the crookedest goddamned cop in the city, memorably played in the film version of L.A. Confidential by the kindly-looking James Cromwell.

With Perfidia, Ellroy kicks off his Second L.A. Quartet, which will focus on the Second World War years in Los Angeles. The Ellroy universe is essentially kicked off by the discovery of a Japanese family horribly murdered in a relatively swank part of the city on December 6th, 1941. The condition of the bodies seems to indicate seppuku, the traditional suicide practice, but all semblance of normality in the admittedly unusual investigation flies off the handle the next day as the Japanese military attacks Pearl Harbor. Now, with war on everyone’s mind and internment for the city’s Japanese population on the horizon, the case takes on a whole new dimension as the police department’s useful cover for the racist anti-Japanese sentiment that sweeps the city. “Obviously the city cares about its Japanese citizens, look at the time and effort being put in to solve this horrible murder of their number!”, or at least that’s the idea anyway. The truth is a hell of a lot more complicated.

The story is related to us by four narrators: Hideo Ashida, a brilliant young American-born forensics expert, who finds himself in extremely dire straits once the war begins; Kay Lake, a dilettante artist who’s escaped from a hellish prostitution racket and shacked up with a crooked cop; Captain William “Whiskey Bill” Parker, ripped from real life as the alcoholic heir apparent to the L.A.P.D. chief, currently stuck managing the Traffic section; and last but not least, Dudley Smith, the mastermind behind many of the schemes that crop up later on in the First Quartet, at once charming with an Irish brogue and possessed of the most devious mind imaginable.

“That lad shouting racial slurs may be offending Dr. Ashida. Please take him somewhere secluded and kick the shit out of him.” – Dudley Smith

The impact of having Dudley Smith as a viewpoint character cannot be overstated. For readers like me who followed along with the hapless dupes who fall into his web throughout the First Quartet, this is essentially peeling back the curtain on things that were only rumored and briefly glimpsed across two books. If you’re familiar with George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, imagine if the next book featured Lord Petyr Baelish, Littlefinger, as a main character, taking you step by step through his schemes against the Iron Throne. It’s kind of intense. He’s a Benzedrine-fuelled, super-cool Hollywood monster, a brilliant detective who on the one hand exists to fulfill Punisher-esque fantasies of instant justice for the worst people in the world, but on the other hand, cooks up plots of his own which are equally if not ten times as vile.

I do think that the Dudley-centric nature of the plot is potentially a bit of a downfall for Perfidia. You can tell that Ellroy loves the character, and he essentially plays on a whole different level than the other four narrators. For me, Dudley overshadows the rest of the cast, but this might also be dependent on whether or not you’ve read his later adventures, I’m not sure. His, and everyone else’s approach to the racism question is one of the most fascinating parts of the book. The attitude Dudley takes towards someone like Dr. Ashida is one of convenience, of further pawns to be manipulated and cruelly dispatched as need be, with no thought given beyond what’s my next move. Sometimes he takes care of minorities, like his association with Ace Kwan, restauranteur and Tong chief, or in the above paragraph, but other times he threatens and cajoles until he gets what he wants.

Ellroy’s writing moves along at a fever pitch. Consider this scene, where Buzz Meeks, later to star in The Big Nowhere, shows a crowd of gawkers why they shouldn’t mess with a police investigation:

“He ran straight at the mob. He tore down cordon ropes. The blues stood back and supplied room. He hit a knot of sailors, low.

He pulled his belt sap and arced backhands. He came in low and stayed low. He went for their faces. He hit noses, he hit mouths, he hit skulls. The sailors froze. Their gawker comrades stood and watched.

Ashida watched. Meeks was a legendary sap man. His sap featured raised stitching and leather-laced lead.”

The fights and other action scenes are relayed through this calm yet completely descriptive narration. It’s tough to read sometimes, sure, but absolutely addictive and satisfying.

So when I said earlier that I probably wasn’t ready for Perfidia, I think that calls to mind to me the most challenging part of the book. The ideal reader will either be coming in completely cold on Ellroy, or be fully up to date on the events of the First Quartet and the Underworld U.S.A. trilogy, as characters and events from these books are flung at you constantly throughout this narrative. I was neither of these things, sadly. Things that might be huge revelations come to light, but you might not understand the enormity of the situation without this prior knowledge. When various news sources were opining early this year that David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks might be a bit much continuity for some to handle, I can’t imagine people who had trouble with that being able to keep Perfidia straight in their heads. Ellroy’s imagination is vast and dark, easily comparable to someone like George R.R. Martin, or a David Foster Wallace, and I think this could make Perfidia a little difficult to fully appreciate, at least it did for me.

Still, I am so happy to be back in the squalor and horror that is Ellroy’s Los Angeles. His bebop-lean writing and titanic plotting make Perfidia an instant classic and addictively readable. I can’t wait to see what’s coming up next in the Second Quartet.