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The members of Ramsey’s safari have gained a story they’ll tell for the rest of their lives. It will prompt some of them, years from now, to search for each other on Google and Facebook, unable to resist the wish-fulfillment fantasy these portals offer: What ever happened to…? In a few cases, they’ll meet again to reminisce and marvel at one another’s physical transformations, which will seem to melt away with the minutes.

I have a tendency to avoid literary award nominees (and goodness, I feel sorry for anyone mentioned in Christopher Priest’s rant about the Arthur C. Clarke award!) but this Pulitzer-winner was recommended to me by no less august a figure than Joseph Reich himself. So I figured I’d give it a lash.

If you’re curious what sold me on the book, it was the mention of Egan having written a chapter as a powerpoint presentation. Turns out I’ve already reviewed a book by the author – The Keep – which I enjoyed, so I felt comfortable cracking the spine on this book.

A Visit From The Goon Squad dips into the lives of a series of interrelated characters over a non-linear sequence of time. As such we only briefly get to ‘meet’ these people, but their associations with one another bring them to life. The one constant throughout the book is music. These characters are aspiring punks, record company employees, PR gurus, failed rockstars.

The chapter by chapter hops, skips and jumps through time (Nathalie Sarraute how’re ya!) capture beautifully that sense we have of our lives passing by. Even in the moment itself, the very same moment that in years later becomes a totemic symbol for what came after – or the road not taken – it can feel as if that intangible sense of now is already slipping away.

What also works quite well is how the enthusiasm of youth versus the bitterness of weary experience is captured in Egan’s Venn diagram of lives. That same enthusiasm and disappointment lends itself to a certain pretentious turn of phrase and what I love is how pretension is touched on without the book itself being pretentious.

Yes, even the Power Point presentation chapter.

So thankfully this book did not feel like trudging through Don DeLillo‘s Underworld again. The focus on music is a clever away of providing a linking structure that neatly avoid portentousness, affording even a lightness of touch.

Unfortunately the very concluding chapter of the book lost me. I think it was because for the duration of the book there was this brilliant drawing of parallels between the different time periods linked only by music – characters aging and then suddenly whiplashed back into youth on the page – there was this sense of commonality. This was then oddly subverted by the last section of the book nominally set in what is presumably ‘now’. Here Egan suddenly introduces the idea of language itself changing. Of course the notion of text speak somehow replacing the English language is not a new idea. From those deathless office emails with the subject line ‘Cna Yuo Raed Tihs?’ all the way back to post-Enlightenment era French campaign to preserve the sanctity of the French language itself from mongrel lexical mutations, there’s been this repeated concern that language itself is somehow becoming less.

Which is of course nonsense. I wonder if what was intended was that the textspeak, like the Power Point presentation, becoming meaningful and full of emotion shows that this constancy will remain even as these characters live and die. Their experiences, so flush with significance for them personally, are but passing moments in time. The book’s title is tellingly referenced by the recurring phrase ‘Time is a goon’, cleverly summing up the intangible sense of harshness about mortality. Music is the perfect metaphor for that sense of passing. This is a brilliantly written book and Egan is to be praised for not indulging in po-faced musings on mortality. Sadness and joy ebbs and flows from page to page.

A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

“There was an incident,” he said. “A series of incidents, I guess. A dead guy, another dead guy. Some drugs. It’s kind of a long story. Now we can see things. Sometimes. I have a dead cat that follows me around, wondering why I never feed it. Oh, and I had one hamburger that started mooing when I ate it.” He glanced at me. “You remember that?”

I grunted, said nothing.

It wasn’t mooing, John. It was screaming.

John Dies At The End was originally a story serialised on a website. Then it was published as a book. Now it’s about to be released as a movie, directed by Don Coscarelli who made Phantasm and is therefore a very cool person in my book. Here have a look at the trailer. My high concept for the story is William Burroughs rewrites Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It made me laugh, a lot. More impressive though is that it also managed to disturb me with the implied horrors bubbling along beneath the comic banter between our hero David Wong and his friend John.

As David is telling the story of his adventures – actually during the course of an interview with a reporter named Arnie – we learn that his name has been changed to make him harder to find, presumably by the obsessive fans who follow his adventures online given his growing reputation as a combater of supernatural threats. See one night David and his friend John – also not his real name – were at a concert in the town of Undisclosed (many of the details in the story are redacted for legal reasons) when they encountered a strange fellow pretending to be Jamaican and supplying folks with a drug called Soy sauce. It was a hallucinogen, those who took it experienced visions, heightened senses – as well as death. Overnight almost every person who met the fake Jamaican had died mysteriously, except for John.

The two friends quickly realized that Soy sauce is not just a drug. Following their exposure – David accidentally manages to inject himself – they become aware of strange creatures massing on the borders of this dimension. The end of the world is coming and its only hope is two confused video-store clerks who don’t really understand what is going on.

Much like House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, John Dies At The End cleverly embraces the capacity of the internet to spread stories. Through the course of the book we learn that David and John are becoming more famous, a neat parallel for the growing interest in the book itself online.  This is also the source of the story’s greatest strength. By rooting itself in the commonplace weirdness of the internet – every possible combination of aliens, demons, magic and superscience is just a google search way – the book apes an almost convincing plausibility. The seeming personal testimony of Wong, the pseudonym of Cracked.com contributor Jason Pargin, is also a nice gimmick.

However, the story also has a number of poignant moments surrounding death and our awareness of our mortality. It pop-nihilism, stripping away the ponderousness of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu-beasties but retaining the crushing awareness of our cosmic insignificance, is surprisingly compelling. There is a lot of laughter to be found in these pages, but also a creeping sense of dread.

Finally it must be said the ending for this book, a book which is relentless in its foreshadowing of endings, is simply perfect. I cannot wait to see the movie.

John Dies At The End by David Wong

Lint’s first novel was published by Dean Rodence’s Never Never company in New York. The relationship between Rodence and Lint was one of complete mistrust, rage and bloody violence. When submitting work in person, Lint insisted on appearing dressed as some kind of majorette. ‘He was a large man and clearly wasn’t happy at having to do this,’ explains Fleece. ‘He blamed Rodence, was resentful. I still don’t know where he got the idea he had to dress that way when handing his stuff in.’

Some months ago I reviewed a book by Steve Aylett titled Only An Alligator which I reported left my brain melted, as I was reduced to moaning softly on the carpet.

Obviously I had to come back for more.

Lint is the biography of a eccentric science fiction author named Jeff Lint, detailing his career writing for pulp magazines such as ‘Startling, Astounding, Baffling, Useless and Terrible to his abortive animated show Catty and the Major and finally his retreat into reclusiveness, interrupted by the occasional obsessive fan. Steve Aylett describes the circumstances surrounding the conception of novels such as One Less Bastard, The Stupid Conversation and I Blame Ferns, as well as his controversial comic book The Caterer.

Aylett also discusses Lint’s series of failed marriages, including one union which collapsed when a presumed facial scar belonging to the author was revealed to be a sleep-crease and then there’s his fractious rivalry with fellow author Cameo Herzog, who goes out of his way to destroy the career of the bemused Lint. Success came tantalisingly close for the writer. His forays into entertainment produced scripts that eventually became Patton and Funny Girl - although the final screenplays were entirely different (George C. Scott is revealed to have been quite fond of Lint’s original piece Kiss Me, Mister Patton) He had less success with Star Trek, deciding to emphasise the essential boredom of Gene Roddenberry‘s future utopia with an episode titled The Encroaching Threat. While the teleplay was never filmed, Aylett shares with readers some highlights of the script including:

For the duration of ‘The Encroaching Threat’ the new character Chekov is said to be ‘flirting with McCoy’ and Sulu is repeatedly seen ‘lurking’ near a doorway while ‘sinister theramin music’ plays.

As it happens this book has been made into a film, a documentary in fact on the life of the mysterious Lint, with the likes of Stewart Lee, Jeff Vandermeer and Alan Moore appearing to discuss the legacy of the author. Here‘s one of the teaser trailers released.

This is possibly the funniest book I have read in….it’s the funniest book I have read! Jeff Lint is part Philip K. Dick, part L. Ron Hubbard, with a couple of other parodies thrown in to the mix as well. Aylett’s insistence on the writer’s genius, investing great meaning into his every utterance such as this line from his autobiography The Man Who Gave Birth To His Arse: ‘What I wrote then was a surrender to the bathysphere part of the human mind. Despite platitude universes beyond the door, I dealt in squalls of unimaginable intensity. I was in the fully-fledged moment. Happy and volatile, I roared through the labyrinth of bad gems,’ - making for a very amusing, neat satire of academic overanalysis. 

One final story. While I was enjoying Lint on the train home from work one evening this young woman across the aisle started loudly conversing with a friend on the phone. I very quickly knew more than I cared to know about her social life, her education and opinions on said friend’s intelligence – so I, in turn, began to read from Lint, loudly and clearly, declaiming Aylett’s absurdist wonderland to the carriage at large.

I still maintain that my obnoxious performance was the more entertaining of the two.

Read Lint. It’s good.

Lint by Steve Aylett

‘What’s it like?’ I asked.

‘How do you mean?’

‘Being fictional.’

‘Ah!’ replied Snell slowly. ‘Yes – fictional.’

I realized too late that I had gone too far – it was how I imagined a dog would feel if you brought up the question of distemper in polite conversation.

I have a curious relationship with the writing of Jasper Fforde. So far I have read three of his Thursday Next books and all three of them on planes. Why these books about books, a universe of books navigable by humans, a wonderful mixture of Doctor Who, John Kendrick Bangs‘s A House-Boat on the River Styxx and Douglas Adams – why choose this series in particular to help battle the longeurs and boredom of plane travel?

I have no idea, but it works a treat.

On the run from the monolithic Goliath Corpoation in the real world, Thursday Next has accepted an offer of taking refuge in a terrible novel, all part of the ‘Character Exchange Programme’ requiring only that she fulfil the role of the character she is replacing. The book, Caversham Heights, is an awful crime thriller riddled with clichés and famously unreadable. A perfect hiding place for Thursday, secreted away in the Well of Lost Plots, where fiction itself is alive.

It affords her the chance to recover from the tragedy of losing her husband Landen, wiped from existence by a diabolical fictional loose in the real world, as well as protect her pregnancy (courtesy of aforementioned non-existent partner). She is also studying under her mentor Miss Haversham to become an agent of Jurisfiction, dedicated to maintaining the integrity of book plots. There is also the small matter of two Russian gossips spoiling the plot of Anna Karenina through intrusive footnotes and the strange disappearance of punctuation from Ulysses.

A number of fictional characters are dying in mysterious circumstances. Next is convinced that a murderous conspiracy, somehow relating to the launch of UltraWord™, is responsible. There is also the matter of a mnemomorph, an infection of the mind, eroding her memories of Landen.

The Thursday Next series has a great sense of fun about it, as well as a great sweep of literary references. The footnoterphone takes the ball dropped by Flann O’Brien and Terry Pratchett and runs with it. Fforde is not above parodying the cantina scene from Star Wars, or introducing the cast of Wuthering Heights all taking part in an anger management course. The preening prima donna Heathcliff is a highlight of the novel.

I must confess that for the early half of The Well of Lost Plots Fforde seemed to be overindulging his love of this literary in-jokes and bookworld metaphysics. However, once the actual plot kicks in the meta-critique takes a backseat to the business of advancing the narrative of Next’s adventures. The book is also extremely funny. Below is my favourite exchange of the book, occuring during a deadly trip into an out of print Enid Blyton novel:

‘If you’re exchanging golliwogs for monkeys, you’re in the wrong book,’ he said.

Compulsive reading, with a welcome sense of fun and literary references.

Suppression is the road to harmony, the true way to us all getting along – myth-making the past, forgiving and loving and carrying on, sublimating the truth behind truth. Truth makes a soap opera of relations, manufacturing a hazy warm feeling of womb-like safety. It’s crucial. Truth is what we do to reality. We kill it. Truth is death. It is a prison from which there is no escape. Truth is the most addictive of narcotics. There is no cure from it. Once you are hooked, you die, with it or without it. Try fiction instead.

I remember once reading a, probably aprocryphal, quote attributed to James Joyce stating that all Irishmen secretly want to be the Messiah. I do not care if he never actually said that (he may have done – my google-fu is weak), I just love the notion of the Irish seeing Christ not as a moral example  to follow, but a position to aspire to. Catholicism is a large part of the Irish culture, its trickle-down effect one that Joyce in particular set about investigating and exposing in his work. Perhaps my recollection of this supposed quotation is a confusion of the scene from Ulysses when a group of drunken Irish ignore Bloom, who is of course a Jew, all the while loudly proclaiming that they are looking for the Messiah and would follow him anywhere.

Oran Ryan touches on Joyce in this novel, but thankfully does not feel beholden to him. There are aspects of Finnegans Wake to the proceedings, but cut with hints of Kafka as well.

We meet our principal narrator, Arthur Kruger, after his suicide in Heuston Station. This nonlife is a confusion of memories and identity, his past overlapping with alternate worlds. The ‘ten short novels’, of the title represent different levels of this existence. Arthur and his lover Aron reappear again and again throughout the novel, sometimes as ghosts haunting the other, sometimes never having lived at all. Arthur typically appears to be a frustrated writer, with Aron his muse, a free-spirited woman with a far greater degree of confidence. When Arthur discovers her sleeping in an abandoned hospital and insists that she is on top of a bomb he had previously left hidden there, she is more bemused than frightened by this evidently disturbed individual.

Each of the ten sections of the novel bear an individual title, either showing us events from a new perspective, or rewriting the lives of these two characters (think Jerry Cornelius running around inner-city Dublin). In Teaching Religion as a Foreign Language a still notdead Arthur engages in jesuitical debate about the existence of god. Policing the Dead Zone has Aron discover a rotting corpse – Arthur again – in her home that no one else can see. Genuinely Interesting People is a genuinely entertaining satire on the pompousness of the Dublin literary scene. Here Arthur in frustrated writer mode is left unimpressed by the success and pedigree of a vampiric academic.

It feels like a collection of short stories, but there is an overarching plot at work here, the theme of how fiction can sometimes be more real than life itself reoccuring again and again. Perhaps author Ryan is arguing that the Irish are haunted by a literary past difficult to live up to. The neologism ‘endbeginning’, that is used occasionally hints at the suspicion that life for authors begins after death. Much like in Alan Warner‘s Morvern Callar, Arthur’s novel is successful following his suicide. References to literature abound throughout, such as an insurance firm named Kafka & Kafka, or Arthur’s train station suicide blithely being described as an unfortunate Anna Karenin moment.

What emerges is a novel that is not afraid to adopt a quizzical tone, but also has a sense of humour about itself. Whimsy is intertwined with philosophical musings on life and death. Above all the author has pulled off the impressive feat of throwing Palahniuk, Joyce and Will Self into a blender and nevertheless producing something with a voice of its own. The prose carries the onrushing quality of free verse, which once again ties into the thoughtful style of the writing.

Intelligent, whimsically literate and definitively Irish, a fine novel.

With thanks to Seven Towers Publishing for my review copy.

“Most men have no purpose but to exist, Abraham; to pass quietly through history as minor characters upon a stage they cannot even see. To be the playthings of tyrants. But you…you were born to fight tyranny. It is your purpose, Abraham. To free men from the tyranny of vampires.”

When Pride and Prejudice and Zombies came out in 2009 it was an instant hit. I remember picking it up on my way to work, leaving it on my desk while I went to get a coffee and returning to find my boss reading it. After eventually wresting it from his hands, I got to check out this literary ‘mash-up‘, for myself. I was surprised to discover that Jane Austen meets zombies turned out not to be just an off-hand gimick. In fact I thought Grahame-Smith did a great job of reinforcing the themes of the original novel. Throwing in some zombies and ninjas helped, but I detected an incisive intelligence beneath the blood and grue.

This book is Grahame-Smith’s second in the sub-genre of horror mash-ups, although instead of throwing supernatural elements into a classic text he has taken the life of Abraham Lincoln as his ‘source text’.

Born in the wild frontierlands of Kentucky, Lincoln grew up with little formal education, but a burning desire to learn. In contrast to his lackadaisical father, his is physically active and eager to earn his own keep. In fact it is due to his father’s debts that the two most pivotal events in Lincoln’s early life occur. Firstly, at the age of ten, he loses his beloved mother to a mysterious illness. Secondly, he learns of the existence of vampires.

Believing his father responsible for the death of his mother, a consequence of the devilish fiend who murdered her seeking an alternate form of payment, he becomes consumed by anger at both his surviving parent and the entire species of vampires. Faster and stronger than humans, when revealed in their true state their eyes are black as coals and they possess prominent fangs. They hide in cities and roam the countryside looking for their prey. As the teenage Lincoln despairs “How could I worhsip a God who would permit [vampires] to exist? He sets about learning all he can about the vampire, after swearing to kill every last one of them in America.

Of course he is no match for the preternatural creatures. It is only through his unusual friendship with Henry Sturges, a sympathetic vampire and the sole survivor of the ill-fated Roanoke colony, that he acquires the necessary training and knowledge to fight the undead. Over the years Lincoln becomes a more proficient hunter, even recruiting other men to join him on his quest. The vampire is a hidden creature, but in certain circles its presence in America is well-known. Slave-owners and corrupt businessmen who have profited by associating with the monsters aid and abet them in their murders. Lincoln eventually decides to enter politics so that he can effect real change throughout the nation and defeat a second enslavement of humanity.

Initially my hackles were raised by the prospect of American slavery being portrayed here as entirely the invention of vampires. “So long as this country is cursed with slavery, so too will it be cursed with vampires.” This seemed to me one fictionalisation of history too many. Thankfully Grahame-Smith anticipates this in the plot.

There is real fun to be had here with its mixture of history and fantasy. Some of the author’s inventions are quite amusing. I especially loved the introduction of Edgar Allan Poe into the narrative, who expresses a ghoulish fascination with vampires, quite unlike Lincoln’s determined drive to eliminate their race. The book also has a canny sense of its own ridiculousness. Chapters have a tendency to end with a clever quip and there is some great banter between Lincoln and his vampire hunting colleagues. Of course, seeing as this is a horror novel, there are scenes of graphic violence, cleverly married to the excesses of war. The American Civil War is not only the backdrop to the climax of the novel, but a staging ground for a final battle between humans and vampires.

The novel’s framing device is that Grahame-Smith himself has been approached by a vampire with a collection of aged diaries belonging to Lincoln, revealing the existence of the undead. It is an entertaining conceit, one that allows for extensive artistic licence.

Well executed and very amusing.

In a couple of hours I am off to Armageddon in Sydney’s Olympic Park. Nerd nivana. Will I ask John Rhys Davies to say ‘bad dates‘? Will I convince Lance Henriksen to do the knife trick from Aliens? Will I manage to stop myself from geeking out when I meet Gail Simone for the first time?

All of these things are doubtful.

So for today’s review I have chosen a comic book – but given the day that is in it, with Armageddon no doubt featuring plenty of promotions of upcoming superhero comics, movies, toys, it occured to me that if I must review a ‘graphic novel’, I see no reason why I should restrict myself to the caped brigade. Comics are a medium just like any other, a method of story-telling that combines text and image.

Why on earth are there so many comics are people punching one another really hard?

While Gene Luen Yang does introduce several fantastical elements into this tale of growing up Asian American, at its heart it is a story about a kid not able to fit in, who chooses to reject and hide from his culture in order to become more ‘normal’.

However, to get back to magic and fantasy, our story begins with a summary of the traditional Chinese myth, Journey to the West. The minor god Monkey wants to join the other deities in Heaven at a lavish banquet, but is rejected because he is just a monkey. In a rage the little god attacks and defeats his social betters. Over the years he becomes even more capricious, inventing new titles for himself and daring to antagonise the Almighty, Tze-Yo-Tzuh. For his hubris, Monkey is punished and buried beneath a mountain.

Jin Wang’s mother told him the tale of Monkey. To him though it is just another story from China, another thing that sets him apart. Bullied by the other children at school, he is desperate to be accepted, even tolerating the ‘friendship’, of a boy who physically abuses him. One day another student, Wei Chen Sun, arrives from Taiwan. Jin seizes his chance to finally become the bullier, raise himself up through the social pyramid by belittling another student. Instead, he finds himself becoming Wei’s best friend. Now if only he could work up the confidence to ask the beautiful and blond Amelia Harris out on a date.

A third story thread mixes the realism of Jin’s adolescent angst and the fantastical excesses of Monkey’s tale, involving an all-American boy named Danny, who is embarrassed when his distant cousin, Chin-Kee, arrives to visit. Followed everywhere by his cousin, who spouts stereotypical racist dialogue, can grow in size and insists on drawing attention to Danny’s relationship with him in a humiliating fashion, any hope he has of being popular quickly vanishes.

Chin-Kee is a monstrous manifestation of the contempt Jin sees directed to him by the other children at his school. As the three stories continue we discover how they are inter-related, how Monkey, Jin and Danny are in fact all connected.

When I was a kid growing up in Co. Dublin, I was obsessed with the Japanese show Monkey Magic which shares the same mythological source material as this book. Emmet at age five just saw it as an entertaining program and used to swing from the bicycle railings outside of school singing the theme song. So I am familiar, albeit in a distant fashion, with some of the fantastical elements Yang employs in American Born Chinese. I also, however, grew up an outsider, bullied in school, not able to fit in and reading this book brought all of that back to me.

I love how Yang links these autobiographical elements of growing up in America with the more supernatural and religious aspects of the story, representing an overall metaphor for the cultural differences thrown up before a young Chinese boy. The story is also wickedly funny, quite sweet at times and well paced.

This is an excellent book, well told by a confident and imaginative story-teller. Fantastic.

Right, now I’m off to geek it up.

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