Envoy to New Worlds

Envoy to New Worlds

Envoy to New Worlds – K. Laumer; ACE 1973

Envoy to New Worlds by Keith Laumer (1925 – 1993) is the first book in the Retief series. It is also the first item by Laumer that I have read. This collection was published in 1963, but I read the ACE 1973 edition. The cover of my edition is not credited and I find it particularly hideous. Or, it could have been decent, but instead is wretched. The posture or stance or something is totally off. The figure appears to be leaning away…. except his toes are flat on the ground. So its actually that his pants are pulled up over his belly. Its probably just an illusion based on the two colors of green on his legs. In any case, I really hate looking at this cover.

It is, more or less, common knowledge in the vintage science fiction community that Keith Laumer’s Retief series is heavily influenced by Laumer’s time in the United States Foreign Service. I have not researched Laumer to find out what his position was, nor his years of service, etc. In fact, I know very little about the US Foreign Service. I believe they are a department that is in charge of the ground-level interactions in USA foreign policy.

Well, whatever Laumer’s rôle in the Foreign Service, he must have had some diverse and outrageous experiences. He probably had a near limitless supply of stories to tell. The stories collected in Envoy to New Worlds are chock full of sardonic, satirical humor. Clearly, Laumer saw the ridiculousness of many of the situations and scenarios he witnessed/experienced as a member of the Foreign Service.

vintage-sf-badgeThe first story, Protocol, is actually a variant of The Yillian Way, which was a short story originally published in IF magazine in January 1962.  As with all of the stories in this collection, the story is super fast moving.  There is no pondersome droning, no languishing in existential crises, no lengthy blocks of text detailing out the background and history of every aspect of the story.  So, in a way, the only real criticism a reader can have of the writing is that it lacks a certain depth.

On the second page of the book, we are introduced to Jame Retief, Third Secretary in the Corps Diplomatique. We immediately discern that he is just this side of disobedient/insubordinate. Through the rest of the stories, we learn he is a tall, stocky fellow who is great in hand to hand combat and skilled in weapons.  Overall, he is really a space-age James Bond. He is super fun because he comes with loads of initiative, diligence, and wit. My only complaint about this character is that it just is unclear what his motives are. He clearly dislikes the methods and people of the Corps Diplomatique.  Retief is one of those characters that would succeed no matter his career or field. So, really, I want to ask:  why do you do this diplomat stuff?

Introducing himself in the style of the alien culture: (pg. 32)

“Well, let us dine,” the mighty Flapjack said at last, “we can resolve these matters later.  I am called Hoshick of the Mosaic of the Two Dawns.”

“I’m Retief.” Hoshick waited expectantly. “. . . of the Mountain of Red Tape,” Retief added.

I suppose Retief must be, at heart, a good-hearted fellow with the common good truly as his goal, so to speak. In the pursuit of the safety and sanity of the galaxy, he fights both the generally villainous and corrupt people of the galaxy, but also the bureaucratic, ignorant, self-satisfied members of the Terrestrial Diplomatic Mission.  In other words, he’s a hero who has to work alone, getting no credit, resolving galactic disputes into tidy packages of diplomatic prettiness. He does the dirty work and gets all the blame, none of the credit.

“It’s time you knew,” Retief said. “There’s no phonier business in the galaxy than diplomacy.” – pg. 126

Along the way, Retief meets all kinds of Laumer’s creative – really creative – aliens and alien worlds. (Anyone ever wanting to expand on Retief’s galaxy has a virtual infinite sandbox of awesome ideas waiting for them to play with and develop.)  Each culture is particular and individual and of course their self-interest shows through. Overall, Retief’s resolutions are amicable to all parties – and he generally shows due respect and acceptance for the variety of cultures.

“You are not like other Terrestrials, you are a mad dog.”

“We’ll work out a character sketch of me later. Are they fueled up? You know the procedures here. Did those shuttles just get in, or is that the ready line?”

Retief does seem to have a sort of omniscience. Sometimes, as a reader, you have to just chalk it up to Retief being a diligent worker, a good researcher, having a good memory, or whatever. Maybe its just “off screen” when he has the time to ferret out various scenarios. Nevertheless, this keeps the stories super-fast paced and very lively.  In a lot of ways, these stories are just like reading Dr. No etc., just not Fleming’s writing. And, let me say this:  I like Bond. So, of course, I really enjoyed this collection.

I also like how Retief recognizes the absurdity and corruption of the Terrestrial Diplomatic Mission and, more often than not, the people involved in it. Nevertheless, he does not really display any aggressive bitterness, jealousy, or vindictiveness. I mean, even I was vexed by the character Miss Meuhl in the story Policy. (I kept thinking, “Boy, if only Retief had a Miss Lemon, he would rule the galaxy!”)

The humor and ridiculousness of the stories is priceless. It is somewhat “expected,” but that does not lessen its funny-level. This is entertaining stuff and anyone who does not appreciate it probably is stuck in an existential crisis with R. W. Emerson or something.  I liked every minute I was reading these stories. Obviously recommended for people who like fun and James Bond, but also fans of Babylon 5.

4 stars

Untouched by Human Hands

Untouched by Human Hands - Robert Sheckley

Untouched by Human Hands – Robert Sheckley

Untouched by Human Hands by Robert Sheckley is a collection of stories published in 1954. I believe it is his first collection published. I have also read his collections:  Pilgrimage to Earth and Citizen in Space.  Just like in those collections, Sheckley’s stories are witty, wry, unique, and very readable.  These were all published in 1952/53 so they were collected soon afterward.  The stories remain very contemporary and I could pass them off on unsuspecting non-science fiction readers as this month’s best stories.

On the back of the book is a short paragraph of praise comparing Sheckley to John Collier and Shirley Jackson. The blurb calls the stories here “delightfully fresh in concept, development, and writing.”  It is signed H. H. Holmes. Now some trivia:  H. H. Holmes is the assumed name of an infamous pre-1900 killer. It is also the sometimes used penname of Anthony Boucher (1911 – 1968).  Boucher was a well-known editor and reviewer of mystery and science fiction writing.

  • The Monsters – 2 stars – (1953)
  • Cost of Living – 2 stars – (1952)
  • The Altar – 3 stars – (1953)
  • Shape – 3 stars – (1953)
  • The Impacted Man – 4 stars – (1952)
  • Untouched By Human Hands – 3 stars – (1953)
  • The King’s Wishes – 3 stars – (1953)
  • Warm – 4 stars – (1953)
  • The Demons – 4 stars – (1953)
  • Specialist – 4 stars – (1953)
  • Seventh Victim – 4 stars – (1953)
  • Ritual – 3 stars – (1953)
  • Beside Still Waters – 4 stars – (1953)

Several of the stories in this book deal with first contact scenarios – but not the usual “aliens invading earth” story. Therefore, as can be expected, several of the stories also hinge upon the ability or inability to communicate. I like this little problematic. Communication, miscommunication, and knowledge-sharing are key components in The Monsters, Ritual, Beside Still Waters, and Specialist. In each of these, the problem of communication is faced and dealt with differently; in some cases by using ingenuity of the characters’ wit to circumvent the issue.

I have seen that many readers liked The Monsters. I liked it, but it seems too obvious. I guess after you read enough Sheckley you start to expect more and better. It is a rather disturbing first contact environment juxtaposed with cultural habits. Sheckley presents it in a tidy, light amusing way. A good story, but I expect better!

Cost of Living is another story wherein the basic idea is okay as a topic/plot, but I just felt like the story was flat. Maybe a little too heavy on the morality. I am fine with authors using ethics as a skeleton in their work, but this was a little too shoved in the reader’s face. Maybe not pure ethics, but it contains that questioning society/guilt-factor that the reader is supposed to pause and consider. I did not like the ending, either. So I only gave this two stars.

The Altar is good average fare. It is creepy and puzzling and mysterious, which I like in stories. It may not be science fiction, though. It probably fits that other category – speculative fiction. Mr. Slater lives in North Ambrose, which is a small town where the residents find safety, security, and contentment in their very basic “plastic” lives. One morning, en route to work, he runs into a dark stranger looking for an oddly named place: The Altar of Baz-Matain. Obviously, Slater is at a loss and cannot help the man. Later that evening, Slater tells his wife and she says that she does not think the Better Business Bureau or the P.T.A. would allow such things in their town. Slater continues crossing paths with the stranger……… In any case, I enjoyed the story, the ending was a little less than perfect; I actually like everything up until the ending a lot more.

The stories Shape and Ritual are both average stories. They are both from the viewpoint of alien species who meet humans. The gulf in this meeting is pretty vast, so the humans are less characters than plot devices. In Shape, Sheckley gets a little bohemian on us and the main character alien questions the culture and habits of his species upon visiting Earth with his ship and crew. In Ritual, there is a small power struggle among two aliens regarding the proper way to welcome (using dance) the gods (humans) who have landed on their planet. In both cases, the alien race is the point of view and in both there is a questioning of the authority of the species’ traditional norms. Solid stories, but not much wow-factor.

The Impacted Man is my favorite story in this collection. I like that it is told from a “bird’s-eye view” as well as from a human standpoint. The “bird’s-eye” is a construction contractor who builds galaxies and meta-galaxies, which is really cool. He has built one and is demanding payment for it. The controller is refusing payment due to some anomalies and at least one impacted man. The impacted man is Jack Masrin (and by association, his wife and landlord). I really like the usage of parallelities in this story. And I like that this is sort of a lightweight-action story that kept me a lot more engaged than the other stories. This is good writing all-around and I found the resolution sudden and witty. I recommend this one to all readers.

Untouched by Human Hands and The King’s Wishes both deal with two humans facing a strange, difficult scenario. In the first, two rather annoying characters are forced to land on a strange planet in search of food. In the latter, a djinn-type creature appears in the humans’ appliance store and whisks major appliances away with him. In both cases, the humans face the serious damage to their lives/livelihood and seek out solutions. In the former, the two humans find a warehouse, but cannot comprehend the writing on the stores there in order to determine if there is food and potable water. They end up unleashing things that worsen their predicament. In The King’s Wishes, one human tries one method, the other human tries another. The solution is somewhat lame and the story fizzles out. Very readable stories, just nothing outstanding or vibrant.

Warm is easily the most esoteric story of the collection. It is also nihilistic, existential, and psychological. Unlike most of Sheckley’s other stories, this one does not contain any humor – and in places it is quite dark. In fact, if the reader is particularly existential, it has terrifying elements to it. Not for the casual science fiction reader and not for those who prefer action scenes. I found the “story” gripping and disturbing. Sure, there are some (let’s call them…) holes in the “plot,” but the general thing is creepy and metaphysically well-written. I feel like there are a lot of edgy writers who attempt things like this, but either try too hard or make it too heavy handed.

The Demons is a quirky story told from various viewpoints. I really liked the different viewpoints, no matter how brief some of them were, and I really enjoyed how the story just rolls around without seeming disjointed or confusing. It is a super skill of Sheckley’s that I have seen him use before. He combines elements without being plodding or chaotic, which keeps his stories light and fast. This one involves demons conjuring demons; sort of a twist on the rubbing of Aladdin’s lamp. Or “demons.” And the ending is a witty chortle. This is a really original fun story.

Specialist is a very unique story. I really liked it because the characters are so unique and the problem they face is one of those “usual science fiction space problems.” This story is another where the ability to communicate and understand foreign/alien cultures and norms is a key component. For whatever reason, I was drawn in to these bizarre characters who compose their cooperative “ship” and had concern for them. Generally, that means a well-written story. I even liked some of the seemingly sensible (or realistic) reactions the characters have. Definitely four stars.

Seventh Victim is a really unique read, too. It has a lot of things going for it. For one thing, its noir-dirty and not at all science fiction. For another point, it has a dose of resentment and criticism regarding the violent human race. In some sense, it is a partial “study” of drawing this violence out to the absurd. So, here again we have a strange cultural norm that has been established. Now, overall, the female characters in Sheckley’s stories are rather dumb and flat. Or just plain non-existent. However in this story, that changes a lot. And it changes in a wry manner, as well. The female character is just as stupid and simple as one would expect her to be in any vintage story by a male author. But that is not exactly how this one ends. Perfectly written.

Beside Still Waters is a very maudlin piece. It really is sad, although in a contemplative, gentle way. I do not know what to make of this one. The elements of communication are definitely there, albeit in a different way than just alien vs. human miscommunication. And the ending is far more serious than how Sheckley’s stories usually end. I’ve only read one thing comparable: Contraption by Clifford Simak. This is a good story, but only on rainy, introspective, lonely days, I think.

Overall, easily a four star collection. I read this Ballantine edition and I really think the cover is a hoot. Again, expand this cover to poster-size and I surely have a print of it on one of the walls around my home.

4 stars

Night Film

Night Film Paper CoverI just finished Night Film by Marisha Pessl. I received this novel in paperback for Christmas in 2014, and so I was really keen on getting it read by Christmas 2015. I totally succeeded….  Anyway, I read Pessl’s first novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, and decided then that I would read whatever she wrote next. Granted, I read that novel in 2011 and it was originally released in 2006.  So, Night Film‘s release in 2013 was a hefty wait for any Pessl fans.

This novel, like her first, is a weighty thing. Nearly 600 pages, it suffers from the flaw of just dang not knowing when to end. In my review of her first work I wrote that she needed a more stringent editor.  I almost want to say the same thing for this novel. However, I think that a lot less could be edited out of this one. Say, only 100 pages or so. That is a bit of an improvement, then.

Also, Pessl’s use of the metaphor is reduced in this novel, thank heavens. In the first novel, everything was like something and then like something again and then every sentence was a metaphor and that was like….. well, you know. So, if it took seven years for Pessl to write and publish this, I think that she definitely improved. That, my fellow readers, is a very key point not to be overlooked or dismissed. I am usually slightly more lenient with a new author’s first novel. However, for their second, I demand improvement. Pessl meets the measuring stick.

I did not expect a good novel. I am not artsy-fartsy (please, no one get their feathers ruffled with that expression) enough to understand and appreciate film theory. No matter the quality of the first novel, I think Pessl demonstrated she is hardly a bonehead ready to join the ranks pumping out pulpy drivel. In other words, she is a smart one. I like smart people. Still, the topic of this novel was not something that I would read if it was not written by Pessl. I am really leery of film-novels. I really make the effort to avoid gory things, depraved things, suicide-stories, etc. And, well, let’s face it, Pessl was in the NY Times Bestseller’s List. Not a bonus for my preferences of vintage, obscure, and classic choices.  Pessl was starting in the red for me with this one, not her fault, but factually true.

Ultimately, this is a novel about investigative journalist Scott McGrath and his investigations into the suicide of Ashley Cordova, the daughter of very famous cult-filmmaker Stanislaus Cordova. That is the main thread, but just slightly below that line is the work Pessl does to blur, shake, and disrupt the line between reality/fantasy, real/fiction.  It is this subplot that makes the novel fit the category of noir as opposed to some John Grisham-like thriller.

But those are not the only two threads. There are several other lines running constantly throughout the whole novel. For example:  McGrath and Cordova’s lives have plenty of similarities. Also, there is a heap of film theory and understanding of film work here.  Pessl deserves an “A” for her effort here. She literally created a detailed and vibrant body of work for a fictional filmmaker.

Not only did Pessl create this detailed body of work for a fictional filmmaker, but she remains consistent with it – and, amazingly, builds it into a whole society:  actors and actresses, fans and film critics, etc. Serious “world-building.” This was no easy thing and I can appreciate the effort, though, again, film and I are not really cozy. (I’m about as appreciative of Michael Bay’s work as Alfred Hitchcock’s. I’m a bad person. LOL)

The main thing about Stanislaus Cordova is that he is aloof, mysterious, and his films are completely captivating and disturbing. They are known for having a long-lasting, life-changing effect on his audience.  One of the many characteristics of Cordova’s works is that he manages to constantly upend the viewers by truly twisting reality/fantasy around and seemingly constantly forcing his audiences to seek the “really real.”

Now, some may scoff at Pessl’s use of “background” media. But this is 2013 – and her inclusion of internet work and media forces this novel to be a contemporary force.  This is, perhaps, where novels will go futuristically. So, readers who consider these items as “gimmicks,” might want to think again. The novel begins with a series of these faux-news articles and online snippets. These give a nontraditional feel to the novel, as well as providing a lot of background for the reader – without another 250 pages of droll background history. This is an innovative and interesting method.

McGrath is a little aggravating after awhile. Pessl clearly sees this and buffers his narrative presence with two other characters, young folk who “join” his investigation into Ashely’s death.  These characters develop throughout the novel and are not just stagnant place-holders for McGrath to bounce off of. Like I said, Pessl is not a bad writer.

The novel had me up late into the night reading along. The middle chunk is definitely suspenseful and mysterious and creepy. Yes, it is sometimes a little bit scary.  I love that Pessl was able to develop this slow-building terror. She does not heavy-hand scare the reader, which I appreciate. I do not know exactly how she did it, but Pessl definitely steadily increases the suspense until the reader is swept along with McGrath down whatever rabbit trail he heads – with a pounding heart. Who would have thought film theory and a suicide investigation would be this gripping?

Still, there are a couple elements that Pessl does take too far. She probably does overwork them a little more than necessary, to be honest. And some readers, the very critical, will suggest that she went over-the-top with some of the Voodoo/fantasy elements. I am undecided; an argument could be made either way on this point. But be advised:  the settings and suspense do build into quite a dark and depraved possible picture.

This is a good novel. It is one of those, however, that readers will love to pick apart and sink their claws into. Well, and Pessl knows that they will. But for the majority of things published, this is a very developed novel with a lot going on in it. And, further, separately, each ingredient of the novel (setting, pacing, characters, etc.) can be praised. Maybe the overall is not five-stars, but at its base this is a solid bestselling novel. I would recommend it to people who enjoyed The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest and also Pessl’s first novel.

A hundred pages less and this would be a five star novel, I think. Its not a storyline I love, but the pages kept turning and I must praise the effort. I guess I just hope her next novel is sooner than another seven years………

4 stars

Ghosts (The New York Trilogy part II)

The New York Trilogy - Paul Auster; Penguin, 1990

The New York Trilogy – Paul Auster; Penguin, 1990

Ghosts is the second part of The New York Trilogy.  It was published in 1986.  It runs to a mere seventy pages in length, so I feel we would be better off calling it a novella. To be clear, when it is referred to as the “second part” of the trilogy, the reader must not think that these are interconnected storylines or continuations of plots/characters.

Its been said that these novels are detective story metafiction. That description is even more accurate of this second part than the first. However, calling it detective fiction conjures up examples of all kinds of gumshoes and private investigators. Literary thinking folks might immediately associate “detective fiction” with Poirot, Holmes, Sam Spade, and Henry Merrivale. None of those associations are incorrect, but the pulp/noir style novel wherein the detective traces the clues and catches a criminal are absent in Auster’s novels.

Again, like in City of Glass, the setting and location is very important to the story.  Auster seems to enjoy locating his characters in rooms. A lot of the scenery and storyline are guided by the presence of the four-walled room(s) that the characters inhabit. There is a sense of being enclosed, imprisoned, isolated, and contained.

In this story, Blue is the main character – he is the one that will face the existential crisis and the identity struggles as the story moves along.  Without being told why or being given any background, we are told that Blue is hired by White to watch Black. (The characters have colors for surnames.  And yes, there is plenty of symbolism and playing with words, too.) Black is staying in Brooklyn Heights on Orange Street. White has rented an apartment for Blue to stay in that is directly across from Black’s location. Blue collects his “detective gear” and goes directly to that location.

The story begins on February 3, 1947. Blue is excited about his job – he settles in to do it to the best of his ability. However, after some time, Blue becomes bored, restless, and then frustrated.  The man he has been hired to watch does nothing of interest.  Nothing really happens. In fact, most days, it seems that Black is mirroring what Blue does.  At one point, Black is found reading a book. Naturally, Blue buys a copy as well.  However, it is not until he is thoroughly bored and at wit’s end that Blue decides to read the book.

Blue ends up reading the book twice.  Mainly because the first time he felt ripped off and annoyed by it so he decided to re-read it in an effort to see what he had missed.  Frankly, I hate the book, so I totally understand Blue’s reaction.  The book is Walden by Henry David Thoreau.  Most folk have read the book and therefore know it is about a hermit-like existence. Thoreau wrote about his attempt to return to a simple life wherein he could contemplate society, ethics, and the nature of man.  It is full of introspection and reverence for nature.

Some vague parallels can be drawn from all of this.  As time progresses, Blue loses most of his “life,” thereby returning to a simple existence – contained within the apartment.  He loses contact with his girlfriend, his former employer, his personal aspirations, etc.  He turns into a brooding, empty shell of his former self.

Now, suddenly, with the world as it were removed from him, with nothing much to see but a vague shadow by the name of Black, he finds himself thinking about things that have never occurred to him before, and this, too, has begun to trouble him.  If thinking is perhaps too strong a word at this point, a slightly more modest term – speculation, for example – would not be far from the mark. To speculate, from the Latin speculatus, meaning to spy out, to observe, and linked to the word speculum, meaning mirror or looking glass.  For looking out at Black across the street, it is as though Blue were looking into a mirror, and instead of merely watching another, he finds that he is also watching himself. – pg. 171

This is really quite insightful and skillful of Auster.  The subtle layering and connections between Walden and mirrors and spying and speculating are well done.  An excellent example of metafiction’s capacity to layer reality and characters.

Obviously, there are questions of identity here.  Auster really lays these on heavily for the entire piece.  Along with Blue, the reader is questioning just WHO IS Black, White, etc.  Is this a wild goose chase? WHO IS the one who started this whole circle of identity confusion?  These questions are particularly poignant when Blue uses disguises to interact with Black.

Secondly, but quieter, is the process of transference that also runs through the work. Blue kills time by creating possible backstories to the case. Blue also finds that eventually he does not need to constantly watch Black because they have gotten so “close” that he knows (instinctively? internally?) what Black is feeling, doing, thinking.

Well, like most metafiction, the reader is not given detailed and specific answers. The case falls apart (as do the characters) a la PKD.  In fact, since PKD, I doubt I have read anything besides Ghosts in which the characters have such an existential crisis which so disassembles them. The lack of information is frustrating because one does want closure and resolution.  However, because there are so many questions and layers, the interpretations are endless. For example, I feel like if one were to write a Reader’s Guide to this piece, it would be one possible interpretation after another after another….  After finishing it, one ought to ask:  and then what? what was the point?

This novelette can be boring. I mean, ultimately, nothing really happens. We sit alongside the main character in a small apartment for about a year and a half, during which he reads Walden, sometimes paces Black around the city, and otherwise lives a droll and dull routine. In order to appreciate this work, the reader must have some care and interest in the concepts of identity/transference/isolation.

In many ways, Auster took the section of City of Glass wherein Quinn becomes an alley-dwelling ascetic outside of the apartment he was originally hired to conduct surveillance upon, and magnified those elements.  It seems as if Auster really wanted to explore just that particular chunk of the first story.  And so, in a much shorter fashion, we have this layered noir tale that deconstructs another couple of characters.

Not to say that there are not moments of suspense and eerie weirdness.  Nevertheless, those are not breath-taking enough or sustained for this to engender being anything thrilling or exciting.  And maybe those feelings of suspense/eeriness are just more transference from reader to character/scene?

4 stars

City of Glass (The New York Trilogy Part I)

The New York Trilogy - Paul Auster; Penguin, 1990

The New York Trilogy – Paul Auster; Penguin, 1990

I was uncertain if it would be best for me to write a review on each individual part of Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy or if I should just write one big glopping whole. I decided to write individual reviews because a single review would probably be too long for a blog post and it remains true to the manner in which Auster originally published these works. City of Glass was originally published in 1985 and there has been a great deal of critical work regarding it proliferated. Everyone from Derrida-fans to Lacan-fans to Raymond Chandler-fans has felt the need to dig into the text. Deconstruct the text. Analyze the text. Etc. You know what I mean. I do not know that I have much in the way of original theory to add to all that has been said, but I can still share my thoughts.

This work is metafiction, I guess. Or postmodern. Or post-postmodern. It has been interpreted a hundred different ways. There are Freudian interpretations and ones that rely on Maurice Blanchot, etc. What is this book about? Is it a metafictional account exploring identity? Literature? Intertextual relationships? Cityscape architecture? Can one remain thoroughly neutral regarding this work and just comment on it – without, that is, seeming simple?  Well, sure, I guess it is all of the aforementioned. One of my biggest complaints about works that are so-called metafiction is that they always seem forced. Always, these works seem exaggeratedly wrangled to fit into a category dubbed “edgy” or “counter-cultural” by the intellectual debutantes or the created media industry.  If you force a work to match some presupposed concept, how can you then tell me that it escapes the boundaries that are supposedly “artificial” and imposed by the Establishment? Etc. Anyway, this story, while slightly forced into being metafiction, isn’t terrible. It is obvious and rather experimental-feeling, but I have read worse examples of the pseudo-genre.

First point:  I believe that this novel being situated in NYC is significant. Readers who are familiar with NYC (I am from NY) will have a better relationship with the context than readers who live in Iowa and have never left Iowa.  If I am asked why I believe this, I know I ought to be able to support my claim, but like many things in NYC, I can only say that “it is simply an understanding that is earned through experience.” Auster’s writing is spare and even. The fact that he spends several paragraphs just describing routes through the City, naming streets, pinpointing directions, is a fact that should not be dismissed.

Second point:  The plot, as in most metafiction, is secondary to all of the other elements of the story.  So, readers who are enthused to read this novel need to understand that this is not a plot-driven story like most traditional fiction.  The plot is vague and unimportant. There isn’t a set up, climax, resolution. There isn’t, really, an “ah-hah!” moment. Any details given are not about the plot. Therefore, there are a whole heap of readers out there who will dislike this novel and/or misunderstand it.

Those points being stated, I want to assure readers that if you like metafiction, you will probably enjoy this novel. Just like the best examples of the pseudo-genre, it has that noticeable ouroboros structure. Or, if you like, it feels like it is devolving and evolving – being deconstructed and then reconstructed throughout. This is what turns off most of the general readership; the layered, self-referential style that the novel uses.

In the first paragraph we read:  “In the beginning, there was simply the event and its consequences.”  And this is largely how this novel will operate.  Backstory and careful development of the background are absent – because they are not the important part of this style of writing. We meet the main character (and even calling him that is arguable, I realize) in the second paragraph:

As for Quinn, there is little that need detain us. Who he was, where he came from, and what he did are of no great importance. We know, for example, that he was thirty-five years old. We know that he had once been married, had once been a father, and that both his wife and son were now dead.  We also know that he wrote books.  To be precise, we know that he wrote mystery novels.” – pg. 12

Basically, this is information will remain the extent of our knowledge of Quinn. Quinn writes mystery novels (think serial/house name style detective novels) under the pseudonym William Wilson. By page 12, Quinn adopts another persona (but mainly the name), viz. Paul Auster [sic].  To keep it clear at the start:  Daniel Quinn is a mystery novelist. He writes under the name William Wilson. In the first chapter of Paul Auster’s work City of Glass, the main character, Quinn, assumes the name Paul Auster.   There are several other name-changes and references that occur, but I do not want to spoil the book for readers. Needless to say, this is partially why it is so often said that this book’s theme is one of identity.

Auster [real author] wants to shake the reader’s reality up. So, like PKD and Italo Calvino, the linear and the standard are tossed out. Auster wants you on unsteady ground and wants the reader to question WHO is the character, WHO is the author, WHO is real, WHO is just a nickname?  The everlasting job of postmodernism:  to deconstruct, shatter, and disturb conceptions of reality/identity.

It was a woman who opened the apartment door.  For some reason, Quinn had not been expecting this, and it threw him off track.  Already, things were happening too fast.  Before he had a chance to absorb the woman’s presence, to describe her to himself and form his impressions, she was talking to him, forcing him to respond.  Therefore, even in those first moments, he had lost ground, was starting to fall behind himself.  Later, when he had time to reflect on these events, he would manage to piece together his encounter with the woman.  But that was the work of memory, and remembered things, he knew, had a tendency to subvert the things remembered. As a consequence, he could never be sure of any of it. – pg. 15

This paragraph, early in the book, is my favorite paragraph.  It is magnificent, really. I could talk about it for a long time. It is totally packed with concepts and ideas, feelings and memories, etc. If the writing of the whole novel was on this level, I would have unreservedly given it five-stars. This paragraph resonated with me on a personal level as-well-as on an intellectual, conceptual level. I love the phrases: “he had lost ground” and “was starting to fall behind himself.”  I really like the comments on memory versus things remembered. And above all, I appreciate “Already, things were happening too fast” – because this refers to both the plot and the actual structure of Auster’s novel.

This novel is also, heavily, about language/linguistics.  The whole “detective story” revolves around the theory of a pure, pre-Tower of Babel language. A divine language, so to speak. The chapters that elucidate this part of the story are interesting and creepy, and definitely show us another layer of this wrap-around novel.  For those who like word play (who doesn’t?), I particularly enjoyed a quote on page 90 wherein another character is speaking to Quinn:

“Hmmm. Very interesting. I see many possibilities for this word, this Quinn, this . . . quintessence. . .  of quiddity. Quick, for example. And quill. And quack. And quirk. Hmmm. Rhymes with grin. Not to speak of kin. Hmmm. Very interesting. And win. And fin. And din. And gin. And pin. And tin. And bin. Hmmmm. Even rhymes with djinn.  Hmmm. And if you say it right, with been.  Hmmm. Yes, very interesting. I like your name enormously, Mr. Quinn.  It flies off in so many little directions at once.” – pg. 90

There is also a very famous deconstruction/re-construction involving the classic novel (and character) Don Quixote. It is worthwhile and interesting reading, but it is also one of the more frequently commented on parts of Auster’s novel. I was able to appreciate it, but I am not sure I was thoroughly impressed. Interested readers, though, should probably pay it more mind than I did.

Well, there is a lot more to this novel and not, all at once. I mean to say, there are usages/re-usages of names and elements and so forth. Found objects, red notebooks, baseball. Subtle twists and turns and even quite a dose of existential angst (Cp. chapter 12).  A lot more could be extrapolated from the text and commented on.  However, I find the work lacking the heart and soul needed to make this sort of entry fully established. Done correctly (Nabokov and Calvino) these works are unbelievably masterful.  Done poorly, they end up like parlor tricks (e.g. S. King’s The Colorado Kid).  Luckily, Auster does not kill the work, so I would rank it between the two groups I just mentioned. And then, in his defense, we haven’t quite finished the story – it is The New York Trilogy, so there may be a re-evaluation needed. But fragmentary deconstruction is not illicit in this case, I think.

4 stars

Southern Bastards #1

Southern Bastards #1 - Image Comics; Aaron & Latour

Southern Bastards #1 – Image Comics; Aaron & Latour (2014)

I used to read comic books as a wee one. I had a bunch of 1970s issues that I read and then re-read until they burned into my skull. If I concentrate I can still picture the frames and stories in my mind. I feverishly collected G.I. Joe and Ghost Rider comics through the 80s and early 90s. I let comics fall out of my life for awhile for a variety of reasons. But in 2005 I picked up a copy of Ghost Rider. Thus started the avalanche… again.  Well, this is good and bad. And I like different comics for different reasons. Mostly, its pure entertainment and fun, which is good. But the best thing about picking up comics again is comic book creator Jason Aaron.

I think this guy has loads of talent and I have tried to buy the titles/volumes that he has been associated with. He’s become a lot more popular and recognized in the last few years and he is well-deserving of this. But even in his earlier works, he was a great creator. One of the reasons that I know Aaron is good at this stuff is that a number of his titles are in settings I actually dislike. He has characters that I hate. And he also has storylines that I would normally avoid. But time after time I am drawn to his stuff and I enjoy the heck out of it.

I have thoroughly enjoyed Aaron’s work:  Ghost Rider, Scalped, Wolverine, etc. All of these titles are infused with a deep Alabama understanding. Setting is a major component to what Aaron writes. And he consistently authentically portrays that “Southern” (for lack of a better word) culture, counter-culture, stereotype, and worldview. I’ve been meaning to read his newest title, Southern Bastards, for some time. Finally, I picked up a copy of issue #1. And it was entirely as expected:  settings and characters and storylines that I grimace and cringe at – meanwhile seeing the depth and awesomeness to the whole thing. And now I am craving issue #2.

This title has artwork by Jason Latour, who is also a born Southerner. I think the two creators work very well together – the art and the story are presented really well. Sometimes I feel there is a disconnect between writer and artist. Whenever that happens, I know because I find myself focusing solely on the art or the words. In this issue, I think the two parts are basically seamless.

This “sequentially-published graphic novel” is not for everyone. Definitely R-rated. Definitely not for the squeamish or for the superhero fan. Like many of Aaron’s stories, this title seems to pierce the heart of a deeply-southern small town. This isn’t pseud-refined antebellum English colonial stuff. This is backwoods, BBQ-loving, isolated country. The kind of place that has more churches than commercial businesses and focuses on high school football. The opening page artwork has a dog relieving itself on the outskirts of town.

But if you can get past the gritty and grisly stuff, the story seems very realistic.  And there is a depth and substance to the story beyond the frames of violence. Aaron always produces stories about people who are conflicted, stubborn, and while sometimes simple, are never simpletons. After you read the first issue you do not know where Aaron will go with the story, but you suspect it will involve baseball bats, pick-up trucks, town corruption, and characters taking a good hard look at their inner man.

Earl Tubb (Image Comics)

Earl Tubb (Image Comics)

We meet Earl Tubb in the cab of a U-Haul style truck as he drives into what seems to be his hometown – where he grew up. Immediately, we are given to understand he has not been there in a long, long time. Earl has conflicts right after eating his BBQ lunch. He runs into an old “acquaintance” who recognizes him. He stops that scraggly character from being beaten to death. Throughout, we are shown that Earl has issues with his deceased father, who’s grave he visits.  Earl has a USMC tattoo and he is a big, towering sort of chap. After finishing this issue, yeah, I want to know more about Earl – Aaron has made me care about Earl. Even if I hate his putrid little southern town…

4 stars

Level 7

Level 7 - Mordecai Roshwald; Signet

Level 7 – Mordecai Roshwald; Signet

I read Level 7 by Mordecai Roshwald (1921 – 2015) because the author died earlier this year and I have heard good things about this novel. I do not think Roshwald was a prolific writer, and based on this novel, that is a sad fact. Nevertheless, I am glad I read this, even if it is a bit sobering for a summertime read. The novel was first published in 1959. I read the Signet 5th printing with 143 pages.

This novel was a very quick read. I was surprised by this because I was expecting a much worse novel. I think I somewhat expected a preaching, moralizing tale full of vagueness and woe.  Instead, this novel is a super tightly written piece that manages to examine dozens of aspects of atomic warfare within less than 150 pages.  That is really the thing that impressed me the most about this book; the skilled argumentation and presentation without endless stuffing.  The contemporary equivalent – though I warn you from taking that word too seriously – is probably Hugh Howey’s Wool (2012).  To compare these two novels is entirely unfair – and I’m gonna do it anyway!

These novels are hardly the same, but they are similar. Both involve underground living – because of a catastrophic event on the surface. Wool is driven by interpersonal actions, relationships, and emotions.  Character-driven and dramatic.  Level 7 is, in comparison, clinical and scientific.  The story plays out rather predictably, though. In Wool, I did not know what was going to happen next. In Level 7, yeah, there is only one place for this story to go. But it goes there without bulked up chapters and heaps of extraneous detours and words and subplots.

The main character in Level 7 is simply known as X-127.  We are actually reading his diary. He is quickly promoted to the rank of Major and deployed into the deep underground military installation. My first impression of X-127 is that he is naive and rather passive. That continues throughout the novel. X-127 arrives at “Level 7,” which is the deepest level of the facility – 4,000 feet below the surface. This level is self-sufficient in that it provides its own clean air, potable water, and food.  The entirety of the level is for the purpose of X-127 and his task.  So, all of the other personnel on the level are subsidiary to the purpose of X-127 (and his crew).  His crew are those “button-pushers” who will release the military’s offensive weaponry of mass destruction.

This is the novel that happens after all the faux-conundrums get asked. You know like the one:  “If you got paid a trillion dollars if you just pressed a button – but that button destroys so many people… would you do it?” This is that novel.

No, no fooling on Level 7.  This is a serious place.  No tricks, no jokes, no April fools.  We are all wise down here even on April 1.  Or are we? Perhaps we are April fools all round the year.  We are deceiving each other.  We are doing it all the time. X-107 is deceiving me and I am deceiving him. And the soft-voiced lady on the loudspeaker is deceiving both of us. We all pretend not to feel what we do feel – and know that we feel.  We are doing it all the time.

We do not deceive just other people; we deceive ourselves.  Each of us is making a perpetual April fool of himself, the biggest one imaginable.  Each tells himself lies which he pretends to believe, though he knows they are lies. – April 1 (pg. 34)

Well, Roshwald really made this a tightly-written novel. Throughout the work, he examines and explains the situation and looks at dozens of aspects that would come up as potential issues with such a situation.  And there is one element that I want to point out that Roshwald uses early in the novel.  He has a philosopher on Level 7.  Now, all of the personnel on Level 7 are functional and practical.  We are told that space and resources are extremely close and therefore there cannot be waste or extra.  Each human is only referred to with letter/number designation.  The letter designates their job – which really does define their whole lives – and the number, which differentiates them from others with that same letter. Even so, there is at least one philosopher. Now, I’m an Aristotelian.  I know full well that philosophers are “useless.”  They do not serve a particular task-oriented result. But deep in Level 7, the philosopher’s job is to convince the people of the level that they are in the best of all possible situations.  His first speeches are on the topics of democracy and freedom.

However, in my opinion, Ph-107 isn’t the true philosopher of the level. Instead, I think X-127’s roommate, X-107, is the true philosopher.  The discussions that X-127 has with his roommate regarding all of the various aspects of the underground installation are fascinating because Roshwald worked to make them logical or at least reasonable.  And that is the real part that convinces the reader that this is a very possible scenario.  It isn’t the fears and the dramas, it is rather how easily X-127 is convinced by the very logical argumentation of his roommate.  And once convinced, he can commit to his job of being at the ready to press the buttons.

Why did I have such a long and intensive training?  Was it really necessary? Or was it really training?  What skill had I acquired?  Enough to push the buttons!  And I had learnt all sorts of technical things seemingly unrelated to this imbecile function.  My guess was that the training staff introduced them to make me feel that I had an intricate and important job to do, and to camouflage the simplicity of my basic task. This sort of ‘training’ must have been the crafty invention of my wife’s colleagues – psychologists.  They studied monkeys to learn about men, and then turned men into monkeys. – June 12 (pg. 102)

The trajectory of the storyline is obvious from the start.  But though it is obvious, it remains horrifying. Or at least it should – if not, you may be a psychopath. It is chilling to the bone to even imagine these sorts of things. But do not pass over this novel because of its obvious storyline.  And don’t ignore it because it seems like we have read it/watched it before. There are a few twists, which serve to further dehumanize the characters and their actions.

This is a good novel because it balances on a fine line between totally sanitized and clinical and yet extremely shocking psychologically. Only one element is really “dated” (that of the tape recordings), but everything else in this novel survives the test of time and that in itself is one scary fact.  It is eerie and fundamentally disturbing that this novel was written in 1959, but yet is still so relevant/applicable in 2015. This is the success of keeping many of the main story components general, but focusing on a few very specific characters and their insanely specific tasks.

Recommended for philosophers, soldiers, dystopia-readers, students of the Cold War, and those who liked Zamyatin’s We.

4 stars

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