Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Brief Thoughts 7

Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard

When I took an online writing workshop from Jordan Krall, one of the things he said was that if you wanted to learn how to write dialogue, read Elmore Leonard. Get Shorty really drove that home.

I had read Glitz before, and while I did enjoy it, it didn't really "click" with me. It was one of those books that entertained me but didn't leave much of an impression. Get Shorty, on the other hand, was both entertaining and got me to look at how to write in a new way.

The story is about a loan shark named Chili Palmer who tracks a customer to Los Angeles to collect one more debt before he quits. While there, he falls in with a producer and an actress and decides to get into the movie business.

I've written things before that are intended to be read like watching a movie, but this is book showed me how it's really done. Leonard's dialogue flows naturally and the action is described simply without being dry. It's like a novel and a screenplay brought together seamlessly.

I can see what Krall was talking about. If I were a creative writing teacher, this is a book I'd use as a case study. Beats the fuck out of John Updike, that's for sure.

Buy Get Shorty by Elmore Leonard here. 

Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock 

Moorcock is an author I've been wanting to read for awhile, but had trouble getting into. Not only is he highly prolific, but a lot of his books are part of a convoluted "multiverse" series. Because of that, it took me some time to figure out where to start. This stand-alone novel seemed like the best place, as well as the collection The Best of  Michael Moorcock.

Karl Glogauer travels back from 1970 to the year 28 AD in Israel, where his time machine immediately breaks and injures him. He's rescued by John the Baptist and his followers who nurse him back to health. Because of his seemingly miraculous arrival, John is convinced that Karl is the messiah they've been waiting for.

Some reviews of this novel have complained that it telegraphs the surprise ending, which is obviously that Karl goes on to be crucified and essentially kick start Christianity. I don't think Moorcock intended this to be a surprise though. This novel doesn't treat it as a twist to my eye.

A few reviews also dismiss this as a juvenile attack on Christianity. It's easy to come to that conclusion, given that when Karl meets Jesus, he turns out to be a drooling, retarded hunchback. I don't think that's a fair characterization of this book though. The portrayal of Jesus is pretty harsh, but Moorcock's depiction of John the Baptist is practically reverent. It also makes a lot of sense from a narrative standpoint that Jesus would be a complete nobody incapable of doing anything in the story.

Moorcock takes for granted that the Jesus story was a myth and treats it as such through retelling. This isn't exactly unusual. Even stories written by Christians that retell the Jesus story take several liberties, such as The Master and Margarita and The Last Temptation of Christ. Ultimately, Behold the Man is a story about where the need for faith comes from. When you try to examine that from an objective standpoint, you're bound to offend someone.

Despite my defense here, I can't deny this a divisive read. Even over 40 years later. But I think that's what makes this worth reading. Christian, atheist or even anyone of any religion raised in the predominantly Christian West should read this. It will make you rethink the story of Christ and what it really means to you.

Buy Behold the Man by Michael Moorcock here.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Book Review: The Self-Esteem Holocaust Comes Home by Sam Pink

Sam Pink's The Self-Esteem Holocaust Comes Home is billed as a book of plays. Most of them however, read more like short film scripts. Even then, how is one supposed to stage an instruction like this one from "Be Nice to Everyone (Version 4)?"
They look at each other quietly. They forget every word that ever existed, even "forget."
To me, it seems best to think of these as short stories in script format. This actually works very well. Both in Person and in the online works I've read by Pink, his prose style is very minimal with a lot of emphasis on dialogue. Both internal and otherwise. The prose I've read by Pink is usually pretty realistic while his poetry tends to be absurd and filled with violent imagery. These "plays" are more like the latter. This book has the most surreal works I've read by him.

For example, in "All the Disciples" we get a look into the lives of passengers on a bus whose destination is "a giant fire that is black, red, and white static."
THE MOTHER: [to his back] You feel free because the thing that encircles you is so big you can't see it.  
I used to ride the bus all time. Not so much anymore since I live much closer to my job than I used to. Still, this piece does a great job of capturing those fleeting connections you make with your fellow passengers. Just before you're all flung into a giant fire. Because let's face it, that's basically where you eventually end up anyway.

Like Person had it's alternative chapters, this book has several variations on its plays. "Be Nice to Everyone" has four versions. Versions one and two are reworkings of the same play, while three and four are radically different in plot and characters. Though all four of them feature a couple engaging in an argument.

Contrast this moment from version one.
MALE: Yeah, I wrote "YOU'RE DEAD" on the lightbulb. It took me a few lightbulbs to get it eligible. I mean, I didn't really have anything to do this afternoon.
With this moment from version two.
MAN: Yeah, I wrote "I like you" on the lightbulb. I had to use two markers. At first I was using one marker but it like, died halfway through. And I wanted the letters to legible. I thought about doing x's and o's but I didn't for some reason [seems to think for a second, then focuses again] I'm pretty satisfied with the results. I mean I didn't really have anything else to do this afternoon. Plus, I was worried about just saying it to you. "I like you" is a stupid thing to say to someone. That was another one of my worries. But I figured you knew. Please don't hold it against me.
Whether you love someone or hate them, conveying it them properly is really hard.

There are a trio of characters that star in four of the "plays" called The Bastards. They're three men in car identified only as the driver, the passenger and the one in the backseat (except in one play, where they're a male and female ghost and a child). The passenger is either introduced as suffering severe injuries, or eventually ends up with them. These are probably the most violent pieces in the book.
The driver laughs. They all laugh. The driver puts his fingers into the passenger's ripped face and touches the bloody teeth. He keeps laughing. 
The flat, script voice only serves to make the imagery more vivid. Another moment from this same play, "The Bastards [They Erase a Weakling]," has the driver and man from the backseat stuff the passenger face first into a portable toilet hoping the shit water will infect his torn up face. This is probably due to my completely rational hatred of portable toilets, but this image haunts me.

One of my favorite pieces was "Cancer Kills [1]" where an obviously very lonely man begs a pizza man to hang out with him.
MAN: [clears his throat] Isn't there anything I can do to get you to please please please stay even for ten minutes. It's so bad in there.
No matter how lonely you feel (he said typing this alone in his apartment on a Friday night), just thank Christ you're not this desperately lonely.

My other favorite in the book was "The Pedophile (and His Menses)" where a pedophile comes across a boy playing alone in the forest. Rather than trying to molest the boy, he taunts him with a bloody tampon.
THE PEDOPHILE: [laughing] Do you smell something nice? Do you smell something you remember? [evenly] You should've been that. You should've been blood. I have you all over my fingers. You are still with me.
This piece is foul and disturbing, but very funny in a dark way. The pedophile projects his self-hatred onto the boy, aware that he's incapable of really "loving" the child. Rather than doing direct harm, he taunts the boy in some kind of perverted attempt at self-exorcism. Needless to say it doesn't work. Like the lice on his head, they are still with him.

The biggest problem I could find with the book is in "Everyone Wants to Work at the Cloud Factory," seems like it has a major editorial oversight. There is a part where the main character throws everything in his pocket, including his driver's license, into a sewer drain. Yet a couple pages later, he's showing his license to a checkout clerk at a grocery store. To buy a can of tomato juice and orange.

The "plays" are all absurd, but this doesn't seem like it was intentional. Lazy Fascist books are usually edited pretty well, so it's surprising to see an oversight like this. It doesn't detract from the book at all really. This is probably just nitpicking.

The Self-Esteem Holocaust Comes Home is a unique and hilarious collection full of vivid and surreal imagery. While I want to say I like this better than Person, they're two very different types of works, so I can't really compare them like that. Yet they're both recognizable as Pink's voice. I say get both. The more Sam Pink you have in your life, the better.

Buy The Self-Esteem Holocaust Comes Home by Sam Pink here.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Book Review: Raping the Gods by Brian Whitney

How many ways can one write about an asshole?
I first heard about Brian Whitney from a review of his book 37 Stories About 37 Women at I Read Odd Books. I had intended to pick it, but just never got around to it. So when Whitney offered a review copy of his new novella Raping the Gods, I had to take a look at it.

The narrator, named Brian Whitney, is a down-and-out author who has written some books under his own name and ghostwritten memoirs for others, former porn star Summer Starr being the most famous.
So now I write books. After I got divorced the last time I wrote this book that I thought was this overwrought view into my soul. I sent it out to hundreds of different publishers. An erotica publisher picked it up. My pain is another guy's orgasm, I suppose.
He finds out that a rich man by the name of Dylan Porter is looking for a ghostwriter to help him write a book about his spiritual journey. Dylan wants to share the story of how, during a "vision quest" in Samoa, he met and raped God. Brian takes him up on the deal, knowing it could be very lucrative. Dylan has some conditions though.
So here is the deal, you can come out here and hang out with me for a couple of weeks and we can do this shit. I like the fact that Brad is on board with you because that will make my family feel safe with it. Also I would like a photo of Summer Starr passed out, naked and wearing a moose hat.
Dylan is very stringent on these conditions.

A lot of this book is very funny. For example, before Brian even arrives in Samoa, Dylan sends him a few surreal e-mails that suggests he may be completely insane. He also sends a diary that he claims is from his high school days. Given the stories the diary is full of, it's likely a pack of lies.
Just in time too, I'm totally broke, my business took a mad hit. I was selling these kids in junior high school Oxycontin. Well really they were Flintstones Chewables I painted white. I'd be playing "Animals" by Pink Floyd really fucking loud and I'd be swaying back and forth a little to make them feel like they were tripping their balls off. It was all good until Tad's brother told him that oxys weren't chewable.
When we finally meet Dylan, it's a bit surprising how lucid he actually seems. It's clear he just likes to mess with people. The way he treats the "slave girls" who live with him makes it even more apparent. This is the kind of thing I don't like reading in public, because people walking by tend to wonder what the asshole with the book is giggling at.

Eventually Dylan starts to open up truthfully about his life and his past. Here the book starts to become more "serious" in tone, but the change in tone is handed masterfully. Dylan's stories about his first marriage, his time in rehab and his past relationships gradually slide from hilarious, to hilariously pathetic, to just pathetic and sad. This is a pretty short book, so that Whitney managed to change the tone this quick while having it feel as natural as it did is impressive.

It fits well with the main theme really. Everyone in this story, Dylan, Brian, the slave girls, are all undone by pursuing their own desires to the point of compulsion. Sex especially. It's far too easy to show the bottom of the barrel. In all those damn after school specials and Lifetime movies, you wonder why people get into the shit in the first place. It doesn't look fun at all. The problem is, it is. The slide from a good time into self-destructive compulsion is a gradual slide, and you can't tell when the healthy fun ended until you don't care anymore.
I stopped reading. I heard myself sigh heavily. I sounded like a tire with the air leaking out of me. I felt that way, too. This was my life. Nothing but crazy people as far as the eye could see. 
I'd already gone in expecting to like this from the summary of the story and that fact it bills itself as "A Tale of Sex and Madness," but the book was even better than I expected. I highly recommend this and I'm bumping 37 Stories About 37 Women up the wishlist.

Buy Raping the Gods by Brian Whitney here. 

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Book Review: In the Sky by Octave Mirbeau

Earlier this year I read The Torture Garden by Octave Mirbeau. Part satire of European imperialism and part Sadean fantasy, it's a great read. By coincidence, Nine-Banded Books ended up releasing Ann Sterzinger's translation of Mirbeau's earlier book In the Sky this year.

In the Sky seems to have been a very passed over work of Mirbeau's. While it was originally published in installments in a French literary journal from 1892 to 1893, it wasn't published as a whole until 1989 in its home country France. This translation by Sterzinger is the first English edition.

In the Sky begins with a prologue of an unnamed narrator visiting a friend he takes delight in abusing, referred to only as X, at a mountain cabin where he's been staying. X seems to have lost his mind from the solitude. He had gone to the mountain to write in seclusion, but has given up and instead spends his time contemplating the sky and getting drunk. He sends his friend off with what writing he was able to accomplish, which makes up the remainder of the novel.

X begins by recounting his unhappy childhood with his bourgeois family.
I was born with the fatal gift of acute feeling, of sensitivity to the point of suffering, to the point of being ridiculous. 
He finds himself crying at the drop of a hat and incapable of putting his feelings aside long enough to learn anything. Were this character born in the latter half of the 20th century, he would probably be medicated for depression.

X holds nothing but contempt for his family. He views them as a bunch of selfish assholes who don't care about anything but money and status. They treat him like he's retarded because his talent for observation does nothing for their status in the community. At one point, he learns the drum and the family supports him only because he's asked to lead a church parade, which makes them look good in front of the rest of the town.

X finds his days at school even worse.
And I can't describe the intolerable boredom that emanates from the pack of absurdities, lies, and ridiculous diplomas that is a teacher. Instead of piquing your interest in the lessons he assigns by giving them some life and zest, the teacher makes you feel disgust, as you would for something ugly. He fills everything with his stiff, fake gravitas, a proudly stupid dogmatism that kills the curiosity in a child's soul instead of developing it.
It's 120 years later and shit hasn't changed at all.

His sisters' marriages are likewise more like economic transactions than anything else, and after his parents die they care more about swiping his inheritance than consoling him. He allows them to take almost everything just to have them out of his hair.
My sisters were cautious and orderly women. They wanted to rob me, but they wanted to do it legally and respectably.
Mirbeau's contempt for bourgeois society is on full display here. It's no surprise that he was an anarchist. It's also clear that Mirbeau believed that this society held back individual creativity. When X is finally free of his family, he goes to live with his friend Lucien in Paris, who encourages him to take up writing. After all, his gift for feeling and observation makes him perfect for art. It's the first time he has any real direction.

As a side note on the structure of the book, Lucien is really the main character of the story. Yet we don't even meet him until over halfway into the book. Mirbeau did this in The Torture Garden as well. We don't meet the main driving force in the narrative, Clara, until several pages in and don't arrive at the titular Garden until almost halfway through. This doesn't hurt either book, however. There's a clear purpose to the structures that serves the themes in them.

Lucien, who is clearly based on Vincent van Gogh, is a painter whose art wasn't supported by his family until he achieved some degree of fame. Like X, he's a very sensitive person but channels most of his energy into his art. It doesn't help though.

Lucien works harder and harder to improve his art, yet he can't seem to capture ineffable beauty on his canvas. At one point he leaves X in Paris to try to work at a remote mountain cabin (the same that X was staying in during the prologue) but it only hastens his spiral into insanity. He comes back to Paris in a sorry state.
"Do you remember, I told you about that dog who bays endlessly, a dog you can't see, and whose voice rises toward the sky, like the very voice of the earth? That's what I want to do! A vast sky...and the cry of that dog!"
I was a bit taken aback. "But you're insane, Lucien! You want to paint the bark of a dog?"
Lucien wants to convey things that can't be directly portrayed visually, but just can't find a way to do it. He starts to believe that he's a fraud who can't paint at all.
"Do you you know why I drive myself to find out all these complicated things, what others call "rarefied sensations," and which aren't anything but children's games, and lies...Do you know why? It's because I'm incapable of painting what's simple! Because I don't know how to draw, and I don't know how to renders the shadows and the light!"
Lucien persists in trying to improve his art, but his madness finally gets the best of him. Like van Gogh cut off his ear and then eventually shot himself, Lucien cuts off his own hand and bleeds to death. X's final fate is never given, but we can only assume he won't end up much differently.

Some of the themes in this book remind me a lot of Yukio Mishima's Sun and Steel. Mishima argued in that book that the biggest problem with the art of writing is that it's an attempt to wrangle the chaotic and ever-moving real world into a still and ordered manner. In body versus mind, the body always wins and an author, for whom the mind is primary, needs to make peace with this and find a way to reconcile the two. Mishima did so through weight-training and other exercises to "befriend" his body, hence the "sun and steel" of the title.

In another bit of synchronicity with my reading, I happened to start this book as I was finishing up Sexual Personae by Camille Paglia. Her main thesis in that book is that the whole of western art is based on conflict of the masculine (synonymous with order, civilization and the Apollonian) and the female (synonymous with chaos, nature and the Dionysian) and the attempts of artists to synthesize the two into an "androgyne."

Considering how Mishima ended up, he's probably the most relevant of the two. Neither X nor Lucien are ever able to reconcile the chaos of the world around them into something bearable through the order of their art. They're both destroyed by their attempts.

A great example of this is a romance that X begins with a concierge named Julia while Lucien is away. At first he's head over heels for her.
How I loved her, the first time that gaze rested upon me, like a bird perching on a dead branch!
Yet after he has sex with her, he finds his feelings for her completely drained.
She really did touch my heart, but that emotion couldn't overcome the disgust, the pitiful and painful disgust for her, that I suffered after the physical act that drowned my love, and all the poetry of my love.
X is incapable of reconciling his idealized love for her with the physical act of sex with her. Sleeping with her brought her from being a goddess to being no different from the whores at the brothels he and Lucien visit.

Mirbeau, who was also a supporter of van Gogh's work, creates an insightful look at how an artist like him could collapse under the weight of their own ambition. This was originally written only 2 years after van Gogh died. Even the title and the sky motif come from van Gogh's most famous painting, The Starry Night. With this perspective and the popularity of van Gogh, an artist who even people who know nothing about art know, I'm surprised that this novel was so overlooked.

As you can see, there's a lot going on in this short book (under 200 pages even including the preface and the translator's note). It's an engaging story with excellent prose with a lot to chew on. This story of artists working in the 19th century avant-garde remains as relevant as ever with its mockery of middle-class values, its portrayal of the frustrations of the artist, and the search for one's place in the vast, hostile sky. It's great that this book was brought to the English language, and I hope it receives the attention it deserves. I highly recommend this. Be sure to check out The Torture Garden as well.

Buy In the Sky by Octave Mirbeau here.