Fer-de-Lance

Fer-de-Lance - Rex Stout; Pyramid, 1968

Fer-de-Lance – Rex Stout; Pyramid, 1968

Fer-de-Lance by Rex Stout (1886 – 1975) was first published in 1934. It is the first in the Nero Wolfe detective series. I have two copies of this novel:  the 1984 Bantam paperback and the 1968 (3rd printing) of the Pyramid paperback. I read the former.  There were a number of typos in my edition; I did not find this reprehensible, but other readers might hate reading such text.  I think that there is at least one erroneous paragraph in the Bantam versions – beyond the basic typos.

Nero Wolfe is one of the most famous detectives in the genre.  Of course, everyone knows Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, but Nero Wolfe may be the third famous.  The character is even referenced in a James Bond novel by Ian Fleming. He is exceedingly large, sedentary, and fastidious.  We first meet Wolfe as he is tasting beers – this timeline corresponds to the passing of the Cullen-Harrison Act (March 22, 1933) that legalized a low-alcohol (3.2%) beer.  The entire novel, though, is told through the eyes and ears of the main character, Archie Goodwin.

Archie is something like the footman and errand boy for Wolfe.  He does all of the actual legwork in the investigations.  He resides in the NYC brownstone along with Wolfe and Wolfe’s other “servants.”  Of course, it is the 1930s and one doesn’t say “servants,” even though just household crew is meant.  Archie is in his 30s, I think, but from this novel, it is difficult to really say that with any true assurance.  In fact, throughout, one might reasonably guess Archie’s age to be anywhere from 19 – 42 years old.

Archie does all of the grunt work on the investigations and he acts like head-of-household.  But he is not simply the brawn to Wolfe’s brain – Archie also is shown as capable for taking notes, collating stories and documents, and doing research.  I think he also does a good portion of the budgeting in the household. It takes a bit to get used to Archie’s point of view.  The author has a distinctive writing style and it can be jarring.  Also, until the reader gets used to it, the sarcastic banter between Archie and Wolfe, et al. seems really caustic and abrasive.  Overall, Archie is a good-hearted chap, although quite opinionated. He is devoted to his boss – even loyal enough to disagree with Wolfe when the need arises. It is through Archie’s eyes that we meet the other characters in the book.

Fritz giggled.  He’s the only man I’ve ever known who could giggle without giving you doubts about his fundamentals. – pg. 93, chapter 10

Wolfe has a live-in chef named Fritz Brenner.  Fritz acts as the household butler and prepares elaborate meals for the household.  He is also, I believe, in charge of acquiring and serving Wolfe’s vast amount of beer. The biggest issue I had with this entire novel, is that we have a fantastic chef, a spunky American named Archie, and an obese genius who spends his afternoons cultivating orchids and drinking beer – and we do not really get much background at all about these characters.  There is no backstory as to how this crew met, decided to work together, decided what to work on, how they developed their idiosyncrasies, etc.  And frankly, between agoraphobic Wolfe, happy-go-lucky Archie, and a cook named Fritz – one would expect an amazingly thrilling backstory.

The actual crimes in the book to which Wolfe and Archie apply themselves are typical of the genre.  Murder. Two murders, actually.  Plenty of suspects, an inept and obnoxious district attorney and investigator, and a rich, young woman fill out the storyline.  The young woman’s father is murdered on the golf course.  Literally, at the tee.  Nero Wolfe, without leaving his brownstone, solves the crime.  But the twist is that the crime is not what the reader originally thinks.  Instead, this death is also connected to two other deaths – one recent, one many years past.

The key feeling within the novel is that Wolfe and Archie do not solve these cases because of some altruistic belief or some devotion to justice.  Both seem to have a keen sense of truth and prefer monetary reward to the satisfaction of justice served.  They do not always play fair and perhaps cross the line into committing criminal acts themselves.  Definitely, they hinder and obstruct the course of lawful investigation. Regardless, it is interesting to have an agoraphobic genius who is so attached to money.

The major prop in the novel is a fer-de-lance – a breed of poisonous serpent.  Archie struggles with saying the name:

I tried it again. “Fair-duh-lahnss?”  Wolfe nodded.  “Somewhat better. Still too much n and not enough nose.  You are not a born linguist, Archie.  Your defect is probably not mechanical.  To pronounce French properly you must have within you a deep antipathy, not to say scorn, for some of the most sacred of the Anglo-Saxon prejudices.  In some manner you manage without that scorn, I do not quite know how. – pg. 166, chapter 16

Overall, I really want to find out more about this NYC brownstone and its inhabitants.  After having read Sherlock and Poirot, well, its kind of tough to impress me.  So the “genius” of Wolfe isn’t all that impressive.  However, it is curious and because of that, I have collected a number of Nero Wolfe novels.  This specific novel is quite standard in comparison to the genre and so I can only give it three stars.  I recommend this to those who like pre-1940 American novels and who want more and more and more of the detective genre.

3 stars

The Stardroppers

The Stardroppers - John Brunner; DAW, 1972; cover Jack Gaughan

The Stardroppers – John Brunner; DAW, 1972; cover Jack Gaughan

I finished The Stardroppers this afternoon.  Written by John Brunner and first published in this form (and under this title) in 1972, it was a super fast read for me.  I really like the Jack Gaughan cover art on this novel.  This is the sort of thing I would probably buy a poster of and put somewhere odd – like in the kitchen, or something.   In full disclosure:  the last two novels I read were quite bad, so anything I had read next would probably have gotten at least three stars from me.

In this book we meet the main character, Dan Cross, as he lands in future London, England from the USA.  Dan is proceeding through “customs” with his “stardropper.”  Chapter 1 is fairly interesting; the reader should be drawn into the novel by what is given.  In Chapter 2, we meet another major character, Hugo Samuel Redvers.  From Redvers we learn that our main character is actually Special Agent Cross.  The scene in this chapter is really typical of those scenes in all spy movies. Character is having a meal/drink in fancy hotel restaurant.  Second character surprises him and sits at his table with an arrogant air and a caustic warning.  The reason I mention this is because this first impression of Redvers stuck with me throughout the book – but not so much with Redvers.  As the story went onward, I started to feel that this cocky know-it-all Redvers moves far away from the Redvers in this scene.  By the last chapter, I feel like Redvers is a sniveling, annoying wimp.   There really was not any reason for this change, either.

Anyway, stardroppers are these machines that are something like AM/FM radios.  No one really knows how they truly work, or what they actually work on.  Allegedly, their discovery was accidental – a scientist was experimenting on another project and noticed anomalies.  Throughout the book, I imagined them generally as those old school binoculars that came in carrying cases or something like “ham” radios.  Stardroppers can also refer to the persons who use stardroppers.  The usage of these items is described many times in the story and Brunner works hard to make the reader feel their usage is commonplace and relatively easy.  The results are kept vague.  Basically, you turn on the machine and put earphones in.  After tuning, you “listen.”

The phenomenon/practice of stardropping (Cp. eavesdropping) is treated as if it were a cross-cultural, cross-generational fad or hobby.  There are plenty of suggestions that it is harmful, addictive, and similar to psychotropic usage.  In other cases, it seems the practice is for research and for those persons who would like to investigate UFOs and other kosmic occurrences. Either way, no one really seems to know much about it – and the scientist who “discovered” this phenomenon is taken to be authoritative for no better reason than he discovered it.  This is the bulk of the novel – and it is the sort of thing that would interest readers who like anthropology and sociology.  But readers of space adventure and space opera might find this sort of ruminating a bit dull.

The whole story culminates in the last three chapters – which do seem a bit of a departure from the storyline that came before.  The main character is fun in the sense that he is a “special agent/spy” type.  But he also is not really fantastic at his job.  However, the super cool concepts get tagged onto him.  For example, the Agency uses hypnosis and neo-Freudian personal associations with words to create a specific user-only language.  It’s bulky and, in reality, untenable.  But it sure is fun to think about.   This plays a role in the resolution of the novel, as well, so it’s good to pay attention when you read about it first in chapter 8.

Overall, this was an okay read.  I feel like a lot of time was spent making stardropping seem murky and like LSD-usage.  It is at the root of social-disorder.  Stardroppers seem to run the gamut between hopeful dreamers, childish addicts, and physics students.  Either way the usage has become so pervasive that the governments have become involved in monitoring this situation.  So, beyond just a personal-level of intrigue, the novel contextualizes stardropping in terms of global politics.  And in the end, the world is saved…. by what was first presented as a fringe, drug-like culture.  I wonder what Brunner really wanted our take-away to be………

3 stars

Matrix

Matrix - Douglas R. Mason; Ballantine, 1970; cover: Paul Lehr

Matrix – Douglas R. Mason; Ballantine, 1970; cover: Paul Lehr

Matrix by Douglas R. Mason was published in 1970.  I read the Ballantine January 1970 edition with the cover by Paul Lehr.  This is the second book by Mason that I have read.  I have one more currently in my collection that I have not yet read.

Truth be told, this novel is, more or less, a re-write of Eight Against Utopia.  It has enough differences to say that it is a different novel, but let’s not buy into that too far.  Like in the earlier novel, an executive of the city questions the structure and command of the city.  He tinkers secretly in a makeshift storeroom with “forbidden” mechanics.  Like the main character in the earlier novel, this executive is reduced to apoplexia whenever a girl is around and has a libido that is out of control.  Just as in the earlier novel, the city is encased in a dome-structure and a good amount of the novel takes place in survival-mode outside of the domed city.

There are a whole lot more similarities between the novels, but I think those present a fair estimation of the comparison.  Don’t get me wrong – I think Mason should have re-worked Eight Against Utopia, because that was really bad.  However, I do not think Matrix is any better of an effort. I completely follow the storyline and I think that this could have been decent.  It could have been a readable, entertaining novel.  But somehow Mason just cannot write well-enough.  I’m somewhat embarrassed for him, I guess.

Joe Dill is an executive in the system.  He finds housing for the citizens.  He starts to believe something is happening within the domed city that does not sit right. So, of course, he decides to involve his secretary (Barbara Rowe) and they leave the dome and explore another domed city nearby:  Egremont City.  He returns home after a harrowing experience and discovers that the Matrix (the computer that governs the city) has found out about his rebellious thoughts and actions.

Part of the storyline involves the biomechs – these are people who have had their lifespan expanded exponentially because of mechanical and/or cybernetic modifications. Throughout the novel, Mason wants us to consider how an extended lifespan (near immortality) is actually ruination for humanity because it has bred a lethargic, incurious, stagnant humanity.  Mason talks at the reader about this (via Joe Dill), but it is not really fleshed out. A better author could have really explored this topic interestingly.  In some convoluted way, Mason ties this into the motives for Joe Dill’s escape, evasion, and battle against the Matrix.  I find it difficult to believe Joe is that concerned about humanity qua humanity.  I feel he just wants more freedom – and more freedom with women.

This is what had given the military idea such a long currency on the human scene.  There was a fierce and consuming satisfaction in it.  Outlet for aggression, that homed precisely on a basic strand of the psychological spectrum and had it vibrating. – pg. 95

Anyway, the book is sporadic.  The majority is filled with action-scenes.  To Mason’s credit, these are better than in the previous novel, but still not great.  In between are boring parts where the story rather stalls and sputters.  The chauvinism is still there, but maybe just slightly less than in the previous book. Not much less. Here’s a line with Dill addressing Barbara, who has joined their ragtag crew of rebels outside of the domed city:

Dill said, “You can make yourself useful right now and bring up some coffee.” – pg. 74

Anytime there is a female in the scene with Dill there are these sorts of comments or he has to pause to drool over her. It’s pathetic and ridiculous, most of the time.

One of the concepts that Mason kept from the earlier novel is the brain-connection between the overseeing system and the human individual.  Though hardly as present in this novel as in the other, this concept does play a role and is still the most interesting part of the storyline.  I have to share that there is a scene “straight out of a comic book” wherein Dill and Rowe are captured and the Matrix has robots hook the prisoners up to “porcupine-like electrodes” in order to establish links to their brains.  These links are where Mason’s development of the concept fails; he doesn’t know how to utilize this concept interestingly and solidly.

Well, overall another skippable novel.  It is just like Eight Against Utopia with a different cast.  Some minor differences. Still written poorly (so many people and things move “pneumatically” that it must have been Mason’s favorite word).  Once again, a better author could have done something with this landscape.  All I can say is that it does not require any brain power whatsoever to read.

2 stars

Eight Against Utopia

Eight Against Utopia - Douglas R. Mason; Paperback Library, 1970

Eight Against Utopia – Douglas R. Mason; Paperback Library, 1970

Eight Against Utopia is the first (I am reasonably certain) novel by Douglas R. Mason.  It was published in 1967 under this title.  A year prior, this novel was published under the title From Carthage Then I Came.  The cover art for my 1970 edition is by Dean Ellis.

This is not a well-written novel.  I mean this in several ways.  At the most basic – it’s not always coherent.  It is like an editor just hacked at it randomly – an editor who has not even read a chapter, but had some quota/word count and so he just chopped wherever.  The story suffers for this.  I do not need every detail written out for me, but there are times where I swear the pages must have stuck together and I missed something.  Besides that, the dialogue is horrendous.  Now, dialogue is one of the things I think are the most difficult to write.  But the work here is awful.  The few points where Mason attempts to use sarcasm or wit fall flat – because one actually thinks he might be serious.  Sometimes his “humor” is actually offensive and inappropriate. Most of the dialogue is written as if it were a bold sketch suggestion for actors who would then ad lib at their own discretion – no one would actually speak like this.

This is a very misogynistic/chauvinistic piece.  I grew up watching Archie Bunker and thinking hockey is the greatest sport on earth – so if the chauvinism is subtle and mild, I might miss it.  No worries here with this novel – it is big as day and bright and flashing in neon.  This is quite surprising because I did not expect this level.  I would expect this in any of those pulp 1940s/1950s “men’s novels.”  Sure, it’s common as water in those.  But I had assumed in Mason’s science fiction, the misogyny would not be at that level. Surprise.  And sure, we can say the novel is a bit dated (it’s not that old) and even so, a little chauvinism is a far cry from outright rude and barbaric thinking.  Much of this comes into play in the story when the male characters – in the middle of risking their lives, completing dangerous physical exertions, being sleep deprived, being chased, or applying themselves to intense intellectual scenarios – have to pause every time a skirt walks in the room.  And the “way” Mason describes these moments is just creepy and icky.  I’ll be honest:   at several points I would not have been surprised if suddenly Mason turned the storyline into some erotic fiction orgy.  Thankfully, that did not happen. Whew.

Finally, in terms of terrible writing, the most interesting part of the story is the situation in Carthage (the domed false-utopia).  But instead of developing this further, Mason’s storyline spends most of the book after the escape from the dome.  So, then it becomes a survival story. A wilderness chase.  And all of this is implausible and poorly written.  I wish that Mason had stuck with events in Carthage.  Having left Carthage, characters act like they have the physical and mental stamina of heroes of the Iliad.  It’s just not thought out.  And when Mason writes action scenes, it is sometimes difficult to imagine what is going on.  Even The Executioner series of men’s adventure/pulp manages to make action clear.  Mason fails spectacularly at all of these things.

It is a fast read, though. I read it quickly and it was still better than a few other terrible, horrible, awful novels I have been forced to read. (e.g. The Great Gatsby)  Also, I like some of the original concept of the storyline.  This is a copy of Big Brother in 1984, surely.  But I do not mind reading about this topic.  However, Mason has Big Brother (in this case, The President) somehow monitoring citizen’s emotions, vocal tones, inflections, and thoughts.  Well, this is interesting.  Or, it could be if it were fleshed out and developed and done by an author who actually understands anything about writing (including character development and dialogue).  I actually really want to take this kernel of idea and hand it to any other capable author and see what they can do with this concept.

Also, I do not think Mason has a concept of how long 7,000 years is and how much can happen in such a long time.  He needed to get with some historians and some sociologists et al.  Some items in the story seem plausible, others not at all. 7,000 years is significant. Anyway, don’t bother reading this slog.  It would only be good for those who have already read everything else and who can look past a whole lot of bad.

2 stars

The Brain Stealers

The Brain-Stealers by Murray Leinster; ACE, 1954

The Brain-Stealers by Murray Leinster; ACE, 1954

The Brain-Stealers by Murray Leinster (1896 – 1975)  was published as such in 1954.  It appeared much earlier in 1947 as a novella in Startling Stories. I read the 1954 novel in the ACE edition (1977?) with cover done by Stephen Hickman.  This is the first Leinster novel I have read, though I have read a couple of his short stories.  Mainly, I read it because I enjoy plowing through these 1950s novels.

I read the first chapter once before.  At that time I put the book down because I just did not feel that it was something I could get into.  However, this reading, I read that chapter and forced myself to keep on reading.  I mention this because I think this novel starts at the right place, but it is quite unfamiliar and jarring.  Weird stuff.

And then the rest of the novel is built on a lot of coincidence.  Readers who are irritated by authors who set up such helpful coincidences for the characters or plot will probably give this novel much lower marks based on this.  I, however, don’t really mind.  I want to be entertained. I’ll overlook major, obvious coincidences if you have a story to tell.  So, the main character, James Hunt, just happens to be precisely the person we need:  the only one on Earth capable of dealing with this particular alien invasion. Remarkable coincidence.

Well, it is the future – and finally it has happened:  Security Police control the world.  Everything is overseen and regulated by Security.  Of course this is yet another iteration of the fear of Big Brother.

The people of Earth were very secure, to be sure.  They were protected against everything that Security could imagine as happening to them.  But they weren’t free any longer.  And the tragedy was that many of the guiding minds of Security were utterly sincere, though there were self-seekers and politicians merely seeking soft jobs and importance among Security officials. –  pg. 25, Chapter 5

The main character was a young scientist who is under arrest by Security for not obeying their regulations regarding scientific experiment.  We meet him as he is making a daring (read:  outlandish) escape.  Anyway, out of the frying pan and into the fire…. Jim Hunt finds himself in the middle of a rural community which is under the control of vampiric aliens.  Of course Jim recognizes what is going on and can fight against it – he was a scientist who worked specifically in the area of thought-transmission. How convenient.

Leinster does a pretty blunt job of showing how man can be enslaved/hampered by others, by himself, etc.  Leinster compares the concept of safety with the concept of freedom.  This is a good novel for readers who want yet another story of thought-control and Big Brother.  Granted, this Big Brother seems less aggressive than other iterations – it is still willing to hand out Life Sentences for anyone who disobeys.  And disobedience to the aliens who are enslaving mankind is tantamount to death.  Still, obedience to the aliens generally results in death as well.

They had exactly one desire, to be warm and comfortable and fed.  That happy estate called for the enslavement of other creatures intelligent enough to provide warmth and comfort and food.  Actually, the Things had only one technique and one trick, but the combination was deadly. . . . . When desire to serve the Things became a passion as sincere and unreasoning as patriotism, their victims set joyously about the enslavement of their fellow men.  They schemed for it.  They planned for it.  They devised far-reaching and beautifully planned campaigns to bring it about. . . . . But of course a man in a state of inner exaltation is not so good a workman, and there is a find edge gone from his perceptions because he is lost in his contentment.  – pg. 74, Chapter 11

This sort of narrative gets repetitive.  Leinster re-explains the situation over and over again throughout the novel.  Readers will not miss what is happening.  It gets tedious.  However, to his credit, Leinster does attempt to provide some background and expansion of the “science” in the story.  I am not saying that the science is always true and valid, nor am I saying that he follows it all the way to its conclusion.  But it is nice to know he makes an attempt to make some of these things “realistic.”  Still, the reader will get really tired of being told how the aliens just want to eat and be warm.

Of course, epistemologically there is trouble.  How is immaterial thought affected by material substance (iron, in particular).  Are thoughts “fields”? Electrical waves/fields?  As I said, Leinster’s “science” is best read lightly and kindly.  At least he doesn’t just ignore it.

Also, it is worth mentioning that Leinster clearly wants us to see that mankind requires a restlessness and drive in order to succeed and make progress.  Challenge, struggle, and striving are key components to mankind’s advance.  When mankind is content he is lethargic and stagnant. Good moral lesson there.

3 stars

Clans of the Alphane Moon

Clans of the Alphane Moon - PKD; Mariner Books

Clans of the Alphane Moon – PKD; Mariner Books

Clans of the Alphane Moon is the seventh novel that I have read by Philip K. Dick.  The first I read was Valis – and I was totally unsure what to make of it, except a strong inclination that it was quite good.  It stuck with me for awhile after I finished it.  The next five books were a bit easier to digest, but they challenged me as to rating them.  They are very good, but also had some not good elements to them.  I gave most of them three stars for a rating.  PKD has become, for me, a very difficult author to rate.  His novels are not like any other novels.  PKD novels stand on their own, so I do not think I can compare them with anything else.  However, after I finished this novel, I immediately knew what I would rate it. It is definitely five stars.

There are three main points I want to state in this review and that readers of this review should take away from my commentary.  First:  this novel was the most science fiction-y of all the 7 PKD novels I’ve read.  Second (and perhaps very related to the first):   this novel was the most exciting and adventurous as well.  Third:  this novel really seems like it contains more PKD than the others.  More honest, open, and present PKD than in the other novels.  That’s rather impressive considering how close some of the later novels come to being semi-autobiographical. I think that while Valis is very revealing, it is also far darker and somber.  This novel gives us a lighter PKD with hope still in his heart.

The novel started off a little blah for me – interpersonal marital relationship dispute is not of interest to me.  And very quickly I decided I disliked the main character’s ex-wife.  She really is a harridan.  She really got my goat, as the saying goes.  But then, too, Chuck was toxic.  He seemed so spineless and droll.  His misery was just as bad as his ex-wife’s hostility.

But then things got quickly complex.  And then there were aliens – intriguing and interesting aliens.  Psi-aliens.  Aliens with neat “powers.”  But of course, there was this jerk in the TV entertainment industry who was involved in the storyline and was mucking things up for Chuck and his already wretched life. Luckily, Chuck has this police officer friend who can turn back time – but no more than fifteen minutes.

Be sensitive to the scenes and situations in this novel and you can practically feel what PKD was thinking or feeling as he was writing them…. or as he lived them.  It is slightly creepy, very intriguing, and shockingly real feeling.

I particularly appreciate the ethical questions that roll through the story.  There is not a heavy-handed pounding on the reader – the morality story is just there and the reader may participate or not as they choose.  I like that PKD does not feel the need to preach or argue – he presents unique and sometimes convoluted scenarios and then merely asks:  now what?

It was first published in 1964.  In June of 2014, a contributor to The Guardian wrote an article which mentions this novel by PKD.  The author of the article (Sandra Newman) seems to think she is praising the slack, hackneyed, works of the era.  She lumps this novel by PKD in with a few others, commenting that these novels are quick and dirty and certainly not high literature – but that they are really satisfying and unbeatable.  Frankly, I think her comments backfire on her. I do not think her so-called classification is valid.  I do not think this is just “typical of the times” in which it was written.  Also, I think her article bespeaks a very superficial read.

If this was the only PKD novel I had read, I might still give it four stars.  I would not appreciate it like I do or feel that I have as good of an understanding of PKD qua PKD if I had not read six other of his novels.  I was never a rabid PKD fan.  I just know there’s more going on here than a “wild west / beam-me-up” science fiction adventure.  If you don’t think a moon colony composed of former groups of mentally ill people has anything considerable to offer, well, you probably don’t have much of an imagination.

Yes.  The key location in this novel is a moon in the Alpha Centuri system.  An alphane moon, if you will.  At one time it was a mental institution of Terrans (Earth-folk), but for the last 25+ years it has become an autonomous, individual “colony” with each mental illness group forming their own society.  These clans then work together (tentatively, but still necessarily) to govern the planet.  And now Terra wants her moon back.  But there’s more politics in the mix.  The aliens with which Terra recently fought a war want this moon, too.  PKD’s playing with the concepts of mental illness is fascinating.  He clearly has an interest in the topic and he uses this concept in his novel without disdain or babble. He handles it perfectly – a seamless element in the novel.

PKD is also at his funniest.  For example:  the slime mold Lord Running Clam (who possesses St. Paul’s caritas).  In chapter 12 when Hentman and Chuck mix up Paraclete and parakeet – I laughed out loud.  Its really funny. And its really PKD.

5 stars

The Journey to The End of The Night

The Journey to the End of the Night - L-F Céline.

The Journey to the End of the Night – L-F Céline.

Finally I finished reading this infamous novel by Louis-Ferdinand Céline (1894 – 1961).   The Journey to the End of the Night was first published in 1932 in French.  I think I got this book sometime in the spring/early-summer of 2013.  I started reading it then, but I just completed it now.  I think, though I’m uncertain about this, that I actually re-started it from the beginning somewhere in that timeline.  Needless to say, this was a long slog through murky waters.

A bit about L-F Céline:  this is his penname, derived from his grandmother’s name.  His real name is Louis Ferdinand Auguste Destouches.  There’s plenty of photos of him as a handsome young fellow who turns into a smirking middle-aged chap, and finally a cantankerous looking old man. He had a diverse life, working in jewelry shops, as a sergeant in the military, as a writer, and a physician.  He traveled extensively.  In fact, one wishes that Céline just wrote an honest autobiography instead of hiding behind characters.  But one cannot trust Céline – he embellishes and he clearly knows how to slip away, around, and under.  He is world-wise and absolutely not simple.  On the other hand, of all the things I would think of as compatible employment for his personality, medicine is not one of them.  Oddly incongruous.

Céline has this bizarre fascination, though, with the worst and/or lowest of society.  Not, please, like Mother Teresa or St Francis of Assisi; but in some morbid, weird way he is drawn to them.  This novel is supposedly semi-autobiographical.  I feel like that statement is misleading. It seems somewhat difficult to tell where the autobiography stops and the fiction begins and vice versa.  The main character, Ferdinand Bardamu, follows a timeline very much like Céline’s own.  The locations and some of the stories change a bit, I think, but overall, this is Céline ripping loose through the guise of a fictional character – loosely fictional.

Any possibility of cowardice becomes a glowing hope if you’re not a fool. That’s my opinion.  Never be picky and choosy about means of escaping disembowelment, or waste your time trying to find reasons for the persecution you’re a victim of.  Escape is good enough for the wise. – pg. 102

The first half of this novel is actually quite engaging and well-written.  It is a bit grumpy, let’s say, but it still contains that flavor of gullibility or goofiness in the narrator.  Bardamu really seems to go wherever the current takes him and does not seem to do a lot to help himself.  Generally, the situations and places in which he finds himself are coincidence and fate, but he never seems surprised about it.  He makes bad choices and from the start of the novel we learn that his vices control him.  Nevertheless, there is an adventurous and almost exciting thrill to following Baradmu’s overseas adventures.

The street was like a dismal gash, endless, with us at the bottom of it, filling it from side to side, advancing from sorrow to sorrow, toward an end that is never in sight, the end of all the streets in the world. – pg. 166

Nothing in the first half of the novel is worthy of the shock and raving that people heap on this novel.  It’s pessimistic and there is sex and violence.  But it is all relatively literary.

The second half of the novel is where all the misanthropic, nihilistic, savage criticism, and shock appear at full strength.  Even so, this is 2014 where there exist TV shows like True Blood, Dexter, and Spartacus.  The 50 Shades of whatever also has been dumped into society like a burst-sewer.  So, it is actually a case of society outgrowing even Céline’s vicious writing.  It is somewhat shocking to read how extreme Céline/Bardamu think and act, however it is not special or unique to someone in 2014 who lives with the extremes we find in contemporary media. That fact makes me a bit dismayed.

It was true what she’d said about my having changed, I couldn’t deny it.  Life twists you and squashes your face.  It had squashed her face too, but less so.  It’s no joke being poor.  Poverty is a giant, it uses your face like a mop to clear away the world’s garbage.  There’s plenty left. – pg. 187

What makes Céline’s style of ribald nihilism so fascinating (even this many years later) is that he writes it with such literary style and double-edged wit.  Céline, himself, and therefore Bardamu, are not dumb.  These are not bumbling idiots writing out strings of vulgarities just because they want to zap us.  Céline actually writes with skill and the vulgarities are just part and parcel of it.

The thing is, roughly around page 300 (around La Garenne-Rancy scenes), I felt the novel change.  Not only did Bardamu stop having international adventures, but the tone became much more vicious and dark.  There seemed to be more vulgarity and more despondency.  To put it bluntly:  Bardamu wasn’t very entertaining anymore and any interest or sympathy I had as a reader was now gone.  The storyline and the characters had become tedious. Dare I say, before the events at the insane asylum, I was even bored with the storyline. It was a struggle to get through the last 150 pages of this novel.  The famous “ellipses” one hears about Céline’s writing are present in this novel – though less so in the first half.  The second half ramps up those – another sign of how the novel degrades.

Since we are nothing but packages of tepid, half-rotted viscera, we shall always have trouble with sentiment.  Being in love is nothing, it’s sticking together that’s difficult.  Feces on the other hand make no attempt to endure or to grow.  On this score we are far more unfortunate than shit; our frenzy to persist in our present state – that’s the unconscionable torture. – 291

I really don’t know what to say about most of the characters in this novel – especially Robinson.  I feel like all the characters in this novel are immature and juvenile – as if they really never ever “grew up.”  And so, the last 25 pages or so, which heavily involve Robinson, were tedious and droll.  Yeah, yeah, we could read this existentially, or in terms of the nihilism, or in any other sorts of filters – but if we are being honest and not just trying to impress others – the novel is good, but it isn’t great. And its just not that shocking anymore. Or maybe I am just as miserable and jaded as Céline.

Interiors are no good.  As soon as a door closes on a man, he begins to smell and everything he has on him smells too.  Body and soul, he deteriorates.  He rots.  It serves us right if people stink.  We should have looked after them.  We should have taken them out, evicted them, exposed them to the air.  All things that stink are indoors, they preen themselves, but they stink all the same. – 308

Overall, I am between a 3-star rating and a 4-star rating for this novel.  Nothing else is like it – and if there might be something like it, it is not as good as this.  And it probably owes a debt to this.  Nevertheless, I cannot lie and say that the second half of the novel was on par with the first.  That’s tricky, because is that like saying Céline’s second half of life was not as “entertaining” as the first part? Hence the difficulty with this so-called semi-autobiographical label.  I’m going to give it 4-stars, though, because I do think it will remain in my brain for quite some time for mulling and pondering and comparison.  Plus, Céline is so quotable!

4 stars

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