Late to the Party: Old Filth, by Jane Gardam (2004)

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Old Filth cover

Some long-time readers of this blog may recall my struggle to finish reading Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, a twelve-book long cycle of books taking place mostly in London between the two World Wars. The short review of Dance? Don’t bother. I read six out of the twelve books and was basically bored silly the whole time, as Powell was much more interested in looking at different social strata of England pre-1939 and characterizing them poorly than actually telling any kind of story. Last week I tore through much better book, that in 250-some pages accomplishes what Powell couldn’t in his thousands, Old Filth by Jane Gardam. Old Filth is the first of a trilogy of books set in the declining British Empire that just concluded last year with Last Friends. After this book, I am eagerly awaiting picking up that one and the second, The Man in the Wooden Hat.

The aged Sir Edward Feathers is better known as “Old Filth” to his fellow Queens Counsels of England, FILTH being an acronym that stands for “Failed In London, Try Hong Kong.” Filth began life as a “Raj Orphan”, the son of a colonial administrator sent back to England for his education and safety. This great novel follows Filth from birth through to his tough interaction with the modern day after the death of his beloved wife Betty. Along the way he gets mixed up with public schools, Oxford dons, a brief (and hilarious) Army stint and eventually success in Hong Kong. It recalls the humour of Kingsley Amis and Evelyn Waugh, the exotic colonial locales of Graham Greene and E.M. Forster, and is equal to them all in quality.

As I noted earlier, I really loved this book. It is at turns hilarious, incredibly sad and a fascinating glimpse at a culture I know very little about. Raj Orphans, who I’d never heard about previous to the book, had a pretty tough go of it, as in addition to being taken from their families they were often put in foster homes and often mistreated. Filth forever feels torn between his two nations, as he was happiest in Malaysia (Kotakinakulu) with his native friends, but he never truly belonged due to his status and his race. He goes on to ping pong between social groups and organizations for the rest of his life, in a matter not too different from Jenkins, the ostensible main character of Dance to the Music of Time.

There’s some uproariously funny stuff here; my favourite part was when Filth finds himself a part of Queen Mary’s protection retinue during the Second World War, as his stutter would make it tough for men to understand his orders, and his social standing makes it difficult to use him as a grunt. It’s a fun interlude, and another look at something I’d never even thought about before: of course the Royals had to have been secreted away in case the Germans reached the mainland. This is again tinged with tragedy, though, as it’s while he’s ostensibly protecting the Queen that his first love affair falls apart like skeins from a ball of yarn. He also learns to drive using a tank, the only vehicle around.

I do wish I’d seen more of Filth’s success in the Far East, as his Hong Kong adventures are often alluded to but never fully explained. I’m hoping to see more about this time period in the second novel, The Man in the Wooden Hat, which tells the story of his wife Betty. The third book, Last Friends, is the tale of Filth’s great nemesis of his courtroom days, the delightfully named Terry Veneering, who only appears a couple of times in this one.

Late to the Party: Consider Phlebas, by Iain M. Banks (1987)

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Consider Phlebas cover

Bora Horza Gobuchul is a Changer, a member of a humanoid species with the ability to shape-shift into the identity of another person over the course of a few hours. This unique ability makes him a perfect spy for the race that controls his section of the galaxy, the long-lived, three-legged religious zealots called Idirans. The Idirans are engaged in total war with another galaxy-spanning force known as the Culture: a technocratic, anarchic and hedonistic society whose pervasive acceptance of artificial intelligence is seen as the ultimate insult by Horza’s Idiran spymasters.

When a Mind (one of the immensely powerful AIs that directs the Culture’s policies) is forced to land on the dead planet called Schar’s World, a place that is impassable to both Idirans and Culture, Horza is uniquely placed to capture this valuable new asset with his shape-shifting powers. If he is to do so, however, he must come face to face with everything he hates about the Culture, as well as everything he hates about himself.

Consider Phlebas is a whirlwind tour through the universe the recently departed Iain M. Banks would go on to flesh out in the rest of his Culture novels. Stripped of the evocative and charmingly vulgar language, as well as the well-thought out political and cultural world-building, the book could easily fit in with Star Wars-like pulpy space opera as Horza finds himself in increasingly dangerous and exciting situations throughout the story: he’s shanghaied into joining a pirate attack on a religious fortress, shipwrecked on a living platform that is due for destruction, menaced by a degraded group of cannibalistic cargo cultists, and must effect a daring escape from a gigantic battleship, and that’s all before he even gets to Schar’s World! I did feel the book dragged in some sections though, as it seems like Banks was a man brimming with ideas, and wanted to fit each and every one of them into this story. I could have done with a lot fewer descriptions of Culture weaponry and ships, for instance, even though I know they will become important in later books.

It’s an interesting technique to start off your sequence of books by placing the Culture as the opposing force off the bat, as the rest of them would have you take their side. Over the course of the story Horza, who like his Idiran masters hates everything the Culture stands for, begrudgingly must accept some of their more outre beliefs as his own if he is to survive his mission. Rather than taking the easy route and presenting us the Culture as the idealized version of humanity’s future, we are instead invited, like Horza, to make up our own minds about big topics like AI rights, hedonism and anarchy. There are some pretty heady concepts thrown around in the book, and the outsider’s perspective is useful for readers.

By the time the next book in the cycle rolls around, we are then able to appreciate some parts of the Culture from outside as well as in and immediately have the privilege of not having to accept everything in this far future story at face value. A similar technique is used to great effect in Frank Herbert’s Dune, which presents the adventures of Paul Muad’dib to us in “real time” while simultaneously providing snippets from the “official” histories written by Princess Irulan years after the fact, creating entertaining dramatic irony.

While reading Consider Phlebas, the book I’ve recently that it reminded me of most of was John le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the ColdIn both books we find ourselves delving head-first into a conflict we don’t have all the resources to fully understand right away, alongside a spy gradually becoming disillusioned by his country and increasingly having to rely on his own principles rather than party doctrine. Like Alec Leamas, Horza is an engaging and complicated protagonist, one whose adventure is well worth seeking out.

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

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Vampires in the Lemon Grove cover


While I was on vacation this summer, I had the pleasure of reading Karen Russell’s first novel, Swamplandia! If you haven’t checked that book out yet, I would really recommend it: it’s alternatively hilarious and depressing, has an amazing sense of place and time, and the insistence on using the exclamation point every time the Swamplandia! park is named makes me chuckle even now. So it was with great anticipation I dug into Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Russell’s second book of short stories, and on the whole I was not disappointed in the slightest. It really makes me want to check out her first collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.

The worlds Russell conjures in the eight stories featured here are similar to our own, but each is off-kilter in a specific way that recalls the best works of Stephen King. Of these, my favourites were “Reeling for the Empire”, “Proving Up”, and “The Barn at the End of Our Term”. “Reeling for the Empire” is a creepy, David Cronenberg meets Mike Mignola-inflected story of a group of young women who metamorphose into silk-bearing worm-people for the good of the Empire of Japan in the early Nineteenth Century. Coming after the titular “Vampires in the Lemon Grove”, “Reeling” proves that Russell is capable of working with the inborn ideas readers have about “monsters”, in basically any place or time you can give her.

The haunting “Proving Up” would not look out of place next to Cormac McCarthy’s works, as a young man attempts to formally stake his family’s claim on Western land through the use of a strange bit of legal trickery. It gives us a beautifully stark portrayal of 1800s homesteaders, always walking the razor’s edge, one bad harvest away from failure, or worse, death.

My favourite story in the collection is “The Barn at the End of Our Term”, which posits that a horse farm is actually the final resting place for the spirits of United States presidents, who continue their political machinations even when turned equine. Our viewpoint character is Rutherford B. Hayes, now a “skewbald pinto with a golden cowlick and a cross-eyed stare”, who attempts to stave off the madness that threatens to take over his horsey existence while pining after his wife Lucy, who may have been reincarnated into the body of a sheep. Again Russell’s sense of humour is omnipresent, as the various presidents scheme and assign titles to one another while attempting to parse the motives of their seeming owner Fitzgibbons, and his delightful niece Lucy, who likes to ride the horseys and brush them and give them apples … and you get the point. Delightful.

I was not as enthused about some of the other pieces collected here, especially the title story which I felt was a little too oblique in its use of vampire mythology (although the image of the creatures sustaining themselves off of lemons is pretty indelible). Overall, though, this is a fantastically strange collection of unforgettable stories, well worth checking out.

Review: Shovel Ready by Adam Sternbergh (2014)

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books / film noir

Shovel Ready

In a near-future New York City that has been ravaged by dirty bombs, climate change and massive depopulation, a former garbageman-turned-hired killer named Spademan plies his trade for a modest fee. The philosophically bent Spademan is somewhat understandably leery of learning too much about his clients and their targets as this could lead to complications, and what does it really matter in the end when his boxcutter is up against their throat? Most of the people that matter have either left the city, or retreated into the digital realm known as the “limnosphere”, anyway. But when he’s hired to track down and eliminate the daughter of a wealthy fire and brimstone mega-preacher, Spademan finds himself caught up in a case that will challenge him in every way, even ones he didn’t know were possible.

I’m a little bit torn on the world shown to us by this book. On the one hand, I really appreciated the subtle way that Sternbergh weaved in details about the decrepit state of the city without beating us over the head about it. Things like taxi-mounted Geiger counters, flooded, though still inhabited sections of the city and the complete lack of any dogs whatsoever really add to the creepy, cadaverous vibe he’s crafting here. It really resembles the kipple-strewn streets of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (although in that one people were leaving town for a new life on the off-world colonies) and I found this to be very satisfying. While Spademan prefers to stay across the river in his native New Jersey, most people who remain in the city either live in heavily-guarded fortresses, or in the ruins of palatial apartment buildings, giving the book a very cinematic quality as you can easily imagine these well-realized places in your mind. The reference to Occupy Wall Street in the form of a ragged and ineffective “protest” camp in the middle of Central Park was also a nice touch.

On the other hand, I could have done with a lot more detail about the limnosphere, the Second Life-esque virtual world that is the new haven for the rich, who’ve left their physical bodies behind in high-tech beds, tended by nurses and subsisting on IV bags. The rules of the linmosphere (and how to hack into it) are nowhere near as coherently laid out as Shovel Ready‘s cyberpunk forebears, William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. In fact, with all the religious iconography and powers floating around, I was actually reminded more of Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim books, which concern a badass kicked out of Hell after a lifetime spent in the fighting pits. When a significant chunk of the latter half of the novel takes place in a realm in which we’re not entirely certain how anything works, the effect is not an increased tension or anticipation, it’s just confusion.

Spademan is a great character, a self-proclaimed “psycho” whose moral code is flexible enough for him to kill men and women (“I don’t discriminate”), but not children. Perhaps this is the new Marlowe we deserve these days, in the wake of “good” serial killers like Dexter, Hannibal, et al.? I enjoyed his gallows humour, and his musings about the state of the city being reflected back in terms of garbage. No one else is as fully-realized, though, with the possible exception of Spademan’s former evangelical-turned limnosphere hacker buddy Mark. I must admit I did like the reference to an on the cheap limnosphere den as being “Rick’s Place”, though, and I think I saw a nod to Neuromancer in the person of Mina Machina, recalling Molly Millions? She could have just as easily been a reference to any number of Warren Ellis characters as well, I guess.

As mentioned on the back by Austin Grossman, Ellis’ superb comic series Transmetropolitan is a great comparison to this book, as would his novels Crooked Little Vein and especially Gun Machine. Just make sure you have time to take a shower after reading this one.

Review: The Fictional Man, by Al Ewing (2013)

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books / comics / film

The Fictional Man cover

Here’s another fun Hollywood-centred novel to add to my recent reading, alongside ZerovilleBeautiful Ruins and Night Film. In a world just a few steps away from our own, cloning technology has advanced to the point that living, breathing humans can be crafted out of traits culled from a fictional work. Hollywood is eager to jump in on this innovation as it saves them having to think too hard about casting people for roles, and by the present day a significant portion of people living in Los Angeles are “Fictionals”. One of the fun things about this concept is that works that have fallen into the public domain are up for Fictional creation as much as they are for dissemination of the book, so for instance there are many Sherlock Holmes running around attempting to solve crimes.

Niles Golan is a hacky mystery/adventure writer living in L.A. who is contracted with updating an old ’60s spy film, The Delicious Mr. Doll, for a new release. One of the carrots dangled in front of him for this job is that his own creation, Kurt Power, will be made into a Fictional. This would be great for Golan, a depressed alcoholic who could use another friend, especially one who might just hold him in godlike awe. Golan’s only current friend is named Bob Benton, a Fictional created from the old (real-life) Black Terror comics from the 1940s for a mid-’90s TV show. (One of the most entertaining bits of the story is that in this universe, Black Terror is as popular as Batman is in our universe, so there are many variations of that character out there, campy ’60s version, ’90s update, overly serious 2000s reboot, etc…)

Black Terror issue 8 cover

When Niles starts to dig in to the Mr. Doll adaptation, he soon finds out that the movie is itself adapted from a previous work, a rabbit hole which will eventually lead him on a merry, boozy chase through the lesser-known works of the Twentieth Century.

Al Ewing’s novel is a hilariously meta take on the search for authenticity and craftsmanship in modern day media, like Charlie Kaufman meeting Philip K. Dick in a bar and reading each other snippets from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Through the use of the Fictionals, Ewing is able to skewer arguments about Hollywood seeming to lack innovation and new ideas these days, reflecting instead on the fact that they never had any to begin with. It’s also a fun lens to look at certain quarters of the Internet’s obsession with the ideas of fictional characters, like fanfiction, “shipping” and the like. If you’ve never been privy to this sort of thing, try looking up Avengers villain “Loki” on tumblr and see what madness you find there.

One of the strangest features of the story is the idea that for a human to have a romantic relationship with a Fictional is the biggest taboo out there. I don’t know if Ewing quite nailed the Uncanny Valley feeling that meeting a Fictional must have on a human for this to work, as this never really made complete sense to me. Better, though, is the idea that racism against Fictional people is called “realism”, as in “they’re not real people so why should I treat them like it?” In a culture so increasingly virtual, so exceedingly segregated by what sort of media you choose to enjoy rather than, say, real experiences, to what extent is anybody “real” anyway? If you want to stick to the online communities, the identities that you feel most comfortable with, why not? The ontological crises raised by this concept really reminded me of Philip K. Dick’s work, with the growing sense of paranoia that characters are steeped in when they’re not quite sure as to what extent people around them are “real”, or they themselves are.

I also enjoyed the existence of a counterpart to the “no sleeping with Fictionals” taboo, a subset of people who’s favourite fetish is to be treated like they are Fictional, like they have no real agency in their lives whatsoever. This seems spot on with some sorts of kinky types, think of the way that Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character in the movie Secretary would rather have James Spader make the smallest decisions for her. It seems like something that must be happening now, somewhere, even without the existence of Fictionals to spur it on.

I would definitely recommend The Fictional Man to readers who enjoy the high concepts and identity questions raised by Philip K. Dick, the interrogation of fictional creations found in the work of Grant Morrison (especially Supergods and Flex Mentallo), or to people who liked the meta wackiness of films like Being John Malkovich or Adaptation.

Review: Low Town, by Daniel Polansky (2010)

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books / film noir

Low Town cover

In Rigus, capital city of the Thirteen Lands, the detritus, down-and-outers and addicts all live in the old part of the city, Low Town. It’s a place where you can satisfy whatever craving you have, as long as you’re willing to deal with the constant risk of violence, plague and corruption. The enigmatic rogue and war vet known only as “The Warden” has made Low Town the seat of his narcotics empire, having rose to the position after working for the city’s secret police, the Black House, before an unceremonious dismissal. When he comes across the body of a murdered girl on his turf, the Warden finds that he’ll need to draw upon every one of his old skills as a soldier and detective to survive long enough to piece together what happened and possibly even save the city in the process. Along the way, he’ll alienate himself from all his friends and get mixed up with even worse enemies, in the classic noir style.

Low Town comes from a relatively recent branch of fantasy literature that seeks to blend classic swords and sorcery with noir tropes and hardboiled storytelling. It sits well among works like Richard Morgan’s excellent returning veterans saga The Steel Remains, Glen Cook’s Garrett P.I. books, Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, and perhaps the granddaddy of them all, Terry Pratchett’s Captain Vimes cycle of the Discworld books, which started with Guards! Guards! in 1989.

Low Town stands out from Cook and Pratchett’s Philip Marlowe-influenced white knight detectives, though, with the composition of its drug-abusing, quick to violence hero, who more closely resembles someone out of James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet, or the works of Jim Thompson. The Warden is a very intriguing character, and I very much enjoyed the flashbacks to his life growing up alone on the streets of Low Town, and also to his disastrous service during the war against the Dren Commonwealth. I was also pleasantly surprised to see that the war was based on the First World War rather than the Second, the latter being the impetus for the noir style to develop. It did raise a few technical concerns for me, though, as trench warfare was based around machine guns and barbed wire, both of which being seemingly absent from the setting. Still, the description of what went down during the horrifying raid on Donknacht made up for any cognitive dissonance I got from the mixing of genres and eras.

While the storyline was engaging and full of entertaining douchebags for the Warden to butt heads with, alongside the war stuff I found some of the world-building behind Rigus to be a little lacking. The setting is low fantasy, with minimal use of magic and no races alien to human other than a Lovecraftian pantheon of demons; the streets of Low Town are instead filled with people of different races, seemingly equivalent to people in our world. While I don’t think I need a whole Dungeons and Dragons campaign setting-style rundown of what it means to be from each of the Thirteen Lands, some more differentiation would be extremely useful. A bit more insight into what marks a Rouender from a Kiren, for instance, apart from differences in religion. I guess this might stem from the first-person narration from the Warden, who assumes we are up to speed on everything he’s talking about.

All in all, though, I’d definitely recommend Low Town to readers looking for fantasy with an edge, or fans of films like Chinatown or The Third Man. There are two more in the series, which has unfortunately not been picked up in North America but continues in the U.K.

Sitting in the Dark With Strangers 2013 REVISED AND UPDATED

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sitting in the dark with strangers

Here’s a list of all the new movies I watched in theatres (for the most part) this year, ranked from 1-47. It was a very good year!

  1. Upstream Color
  2. Spring Breakers
  3. Inside Llewyn Davis
  4. The Act of Killing
  5. The World’s End
  6. 12 Years a Slave
  7. Stoker
  8. The Broken Circle Breakdown
  9. Pain and Gain
  10. Gravity
  11. From Up on Poppy Hill
  12. Sightseers
  13. This is the End
  14. Pacific Rim
  15. The Wolf of Wall Street
  16. Rush
  17. The Grandmaster (HK Cut)
  18. American Hustle
  19. The Great Gatsby
  20. The Conjuring
  21. Room 237
  22. Anchorman 2
  23. Captain Phillips
  24. Computer Chess
  25. The Angels’ Share
  26. The Wolverine
  27. She Wolf
  28. The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology
  29. The Bling Ring
  30. Prisoners
  31. Warm Bodies
  32. Captain Phillips
  33. White House Down
  34. Pieta
  35. Side Effects
  36. Space Battleship Yamato
  37. Bounty Killer
  38. Thor: The Dark World
  39. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
  40. Ginger and Rosa
  41. Ender’s Game
  42. Elysium
  43. Iron Man 3
  44. Man of Steel
  45. Star Trek Into Darkness
  46. Closed Circuit
  47. The End of Time

There’s still a few more movies I’d still like to see from this year, as they haven’t played here in town yet, or I missed them when I did:

The Lords of Salem
Berberian Sound Studio
You’re Next
Blue is the Warmest Colour
The Wind Rises
How I Live Now
Why Don’t You Play in Hell?

Review: Zeroville, by Steve Erickson (2007)

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books / film

Musical Accompaniment: “The Right Profile”, by The Clash:

Zeroville cover

I feel like I’ve been reading a lot of novels about the movies and Hollywood lately, and with the exception of Marisha Pessl’s Night Film they’ve all been pretty stellar. I even re-read Theodore Roszak’s Flicker after being so disappointed by Pessl’s book, and was pretty pleased to see that it still held up after all these years. Based on a recommendation I picked up Steve Erickson’s Zeroville, which is equally as great as Roszak’s book, with a lot of thematic similarities that are buoyed by an intriguing, unorthodox story layout and a great number of film references.

Vikar is an exceedingly strange young man who washes up on the shores of Hollywood just after Sharon Tate’s murder at the hands of the Manson Family, which is about as good of an indication of the end of an era for the movies as the death of Gwen Stacy was for the comics. A man with seemingly no past, Vikar’s defining traits are a propensity towards violence, a tattoo on his shaved head of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in a scene from A Place in the Sun (1951), and a preternatural sense of movie logic and facts. He soon falls in with a group of young men and women who will make up the “Film School Generation” of Hollywood history, and is dubbed “cineautistic” by one of them, Viking Man. This section is very entertaining for film buffs, as for the most part the young guns just making their bones in the movies at this time are not explicitly named, so a canny reader can pick up on details through inference. (Viking Man is John Milius, btw) With an amazing sense for how movie scenes can interact with one another, regardless of continuity, Vikar becomes an editor, eventually winning an Academy Award.

In addition to the fun Easter eggs for people who are caught up on their Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Vikar also allows readers “vicarious” close readings of many films of the time, including a special favourite of mine, Seijun Suzuki’s Branded to Kill (1967), as well as the amazing feat of imagery that is Carl Theodore Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Again, like the numerous cameos, these references are not clearly drawn, so interested readers might have to do some digging to figure out exactly which movie is being called up each time. I was not surprised in the least to find out that Erickson is a film critic in addition to being a novelist, as the knowledge and insight he brings to each of the films he highlights is excellent. I was also taken by the hilarious relationship that Vikar develops with a man who tries to rob his house, as they share jabs about film history, John Wayne and the way certain lines of dialogue stick with you. The way Vikar’s cineautism plays out kind of reminds me of the way language is used in The Big Lebowski (1998), where main character The Dude keeps repeating things he’s heard over and over again. In Vikar’s case, his blunt takes on film make him sound almost like a Jean-Luc Godard-style provocateur artist, although instead of Godard’s intense feelings about art and history we’re just getting hilariously to-the-point movie reviews that could easily be taken for that aloof sensibility.

As our viewpoint character for this seminal moment in Hollywood history, Vikar also plays a dual role of burgeoning punk music fanatic, falling in with the “Sound” developing in ’70s New York and later on back in L.A. This aspect of the story is especially interesting to me coming off Flicker, as the older book took a very dim view of the punk aesthetic, even speculating that it might represent an actual end of the world scenario. Zeroville depicts punk as, yes, grimy and gross at times, but also as a medium for pure, unfiltered expression. This is very attractive for a man like Vikar, whose inner life is composed entirely of living through media factoids and references, at least initially. Vikar even becomes a trend-setter among the punk set, with his tattoo proving especially popular.

As I noted above, the way the story in Zeroville is presented to the reader is a little unorthodox. Instead of chapter headings, each section of the story is numbered, going up to 227 and back down again to 1 by the end. The effect is like a list of shots you’d see in a film, with the sections ranging in length from a few words to a few pages. This conceit forces Erickson to pare down his language to the very bones, and makes for a quick and cinematic read. My only complaint here is that occasionally the passage of time is a little diluted by these scene changes, which might in one instance be only a few seconds and in the next represent a couple of years. I’m sure this is done entirely intentionally as a commentary on how we process events in our own lives and the way we do it while watching films, but I was confused on the timeframe at a few junctures. Overall, I highly recommend Zeroville, especially to film fans and Class of ’77 punk types.

Review: Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter

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books / film

Beautiful Ruins cover

The gods returned to Rome one last time in the summer of 1962, as filming began on the 20th Century Fox film Cleopatra. The production is now mostly known for being legendarily troubled and over-budget, the primary reason being the tempestuous romance between megastars Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Their frequent lovers’ quarrels, combined with Taylor’s myriad health issues and Burton’s gargantuan drinking habit, made Cleopatra run way over schedule and even threatened to destroy the studio itself. The tumultuous courtship between these two filmic demigods had reverberations all around the world, with some even calling the media frenzy that surrounded the couple (and overshadowed the rest of the film) the birth of modern obsessive celebrity culture.

Jess Walter’s wonderful novel Beautiful Ruins uses the pre- and post-Cleopatra landscape to tell a poignant and layered story about love, loss and the relentless passage of time. The story begins when an ailing ingenue named Dee Moray makes her way from the set of the film to the tiny fishing village of Porto Vergogna just down the coast, where a chance encounter between her and a local hotel owner named Pasquale Tursi sparks a series of love affairs, artistic endeavours and deaths that continues to echo all the way to the present day. The hotel is pretty much deserted, with the only other guest being an alcoholic American WWII vet named Alvis Bender, who comes to the “Hotel Adequate View” each year to try and finish his memoir. Meanwhile in the modern day, the now aged Pasquale journeys to Hollywood seeking a legendary producer named Michael Deane, who he’d originally met in 1962 when Deane was parachuted into Italy to save Cleopatra at any cost.

The story of Beautiful Ruins is presented to readers through a variety of viewpoints and writing styles. In addition to the nostalgia and wonder conjured up by the 1962 story, we also find a chapter from a Joseph Heller-esque World War II chronicle, a picaresque look at performing at the modern-day Edinburgh Fringe Festival, a pitch for a movie about the Donner Party, a chapter from a Robert Evans-style movie mogul’s memoirs, and much more. The author proves himself to be a master at switching between these disparate styles, with each section having callbacks and in-jokes to other parts of the story creating an enclosed universe. The fonts and formatting even change within the book itself, to reflect things like a typewritten manuscript, or scenes from a play, which is a nice touch. The overall effect reminded me a little of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which also jumps around in timeframe and narrative makeup, and similarly presents a world in which seemingly innocuous decisions in the moment can have life-changing consequences over the years. The final sequence of Beautiful Ruins is a lovely, bravura setpiece that rivals the end of the last episode of Six Feet Under, or perhaps the long paragraph where the parrot flies around town checking in on all the characters in Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue.

Walter is very canny with his treatment of how the world of the movies can mould and otherwise affect peoples’ lives. For mega stars like the hilariously, constantly inebriated quixotic adventurer Burton and the only heard about in whispers Taylor, the power afforded to them by the movie world allows them to bestride like colossi, leaving mere mortals twirling in their wakes as they go about fulfilling their slightest whims. For the more bit players like Dee and Pasquale, movies are instead a mirror by which the equally important trials and tribulations of their own existence are reflected, just bigger than life and twice as colourful. While the insights about the moral and creative bankruptcy that have always afflicted Hollywood are by no means original, they serve to further reinforce the fact that life is circular, themes come and go but the grand important things like love and art are always present.

I would highly recommend Beautiful Ruins to someone who is interested in the periods of post-war Italy and 1960s/nowadays Hollywood, or to readers who enjoy a degree of fun intertextuality in their stories.

Review: The Night Gwen Stacy Died, by Sarah Bruni

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books / comics

The Night Gwen Stacy Died cover

A superhero whose adventures are written in the classic Marvel Comics style lives in a world so fraught with tragedy that mere mortals could not bear it. Each month, friends and family are put in deadly peril, allies are mind-controlled, replaced with robot or alien doubles, and countless civilians are hurt by battle debris. At their best, monthly comics are essentially four-colour soap operas, and no hero’s saga exemplifies this best than that of Spider-Man, Peter Parker, from the 1960s to the 1970s. Long before the Sam Raimi films, Spider-Man was the most relatable hero around, as his running battles with villains like the Green Goblin and Doctor Octopus shared almost equal page counts with rent payments, girl troubles and the constant worries of his beloved Aunt May.

Gwen Stacy

This fundamental similarity between the world of Marvel Comics and the real world is one of the secrets to the company’s continued dominance against the more mythic-focused DC Comics even to this day, and it also forms the backbone for The Night Gwen Stacy Died, the debut novel from Sarah Bruni. To add a little background, Gwen Stacy was Peter Parker’s first love, and her death was so important that it’s used as one of the touchstones for the end of comics’ Silver Age. That is to say, Gwen’s death and the resulting loss of innocence for the industry marks the turn from the relatively light-hearted stories that began the Marvel Renaissance to the process of deconstruction and violence that would find its apotheosis in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen.

Synopsis: Sheila Gower is a frustrated teenager growing up in a nowhere Iowa town, with her main goal in life simply to leave and never come back. She’s got a half-hearted plan to move to Paris, but when a cab driver who calls himself “Peter Parker” offers her a way out, she jumps at the chance. The duo move to Chicago, and a complicated psycho-sexual relationship develops, where both lovers start to take on aspects of comic characters and identities become fluid. Peter wears glasses with no prescription and cultivates a sort of “spider sense”, while Sheila dyes her hair bright blonde, wears dresses that recall Gwen Stacy’s modish look and begins to take charge of her existence. The question remains, though: Will this pair of star-crossed lovers go the same way as their fictional predecessors?

This was a very accomplished and assured first novel, one that I immediately found interesting due to its unorthodox use of the comics material. I liked the way that Bruni used the simple, unabashed love between Peter and Gwen as a jumping off point for the more complicated relationship of “Peter” and “Gwen”. She presents a very nuanced look at how the sort of emotions the comics characters embodied might present themselves in the much more complicated real world, and the effect made me recall Doris Lessing, specifically the latter half of The Golden Notebook. Neither of the characters know what is in the process of becoming as they spend more and more time together, and both are at equal turns repelled and attracted to the chaos and unease this brings to their lives.

The situation that kickstarts the story also brought to mind Terrence Malick’s classic film Badlands, as a young woman recounts her adventures with the man who took her out of her boring existence (to be fair, Sheila Gower’s potentially got more going on upstairs than Sissy Spacek’s baffling character in that film). Luckily, the two runaways in Bruni’s novel are able to solve their problems with much less violence.

Bruni also does an excellent job showing how a lonely young man might turn to the concrete and easily understood world of comic books when the real world proves itself unreasonable. Comics provide many examples for how to deal with nigh-constant trauma and pain, and could easily take the place of a way out in a slightly warped person’s mind. While I cringed a little bit at a sequence in which Sheila frantically bargains with comic book store employees for a copy of Amazing Spider-Man #121, overall I think Bruni’s approach to the material was very well-handled. Less so, though, was the way the natural world started to intrude on the human realm, predominantly as animals start moving into cities. The book’s cover shows a coyote with silhouettes of human lovers for eyes, and there’s a nice metaphor involving coyotes and water later on, but overall I didn’t really get what the author was going for with this idea. Overall, though, The Night Gwen Stacy Died provides delights for both comics fans and literary types.