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He gestured to the fireplace, over which hung a large framed photograph of the billionaire Da Vinci Code author, signed personally to Jean-Noël. “Look at that chin – it is the chin of a genius.” He ran his finger down the cleft of his own and mourned its inadequacy. “Mind you, I thought Digital Fortress was a piece of shit.”
Way back in 2008, when folks asked me why I intended to move to Australia, I would mention an assortment of reasons, such as the good food, sturdy economy, availability of jobs – but also another factor which caused some consternation. Namely Australian television. I am not talking about Neighbours, or Home and Away, but panel shows such as Spicks and Specks, a very funny programme that’s half music trivia quiz, half mad-cap variety hour (half hour!).
It was the good humoured content that surprised me. I grew up with Irish sarcasm and cutting British wit. Satire is the currency of my home’s entertainment, with a fair dollop of black comedy and schadenfreude. Australia seemed to me to have embraced an entirely different comedic ethos, fair dinkum banter and harmless absurdism.
Which was how I first discovered Shaun Micallef. His delivery of lines, whether it be as a comedic player, or host of the show Talking About Your Generation, seems initially quite poised, until you realize he’s speaking utter nonsense. When I discovered he had written a novel, I had to investigate what genteel gonzoism he had served up this time.
So what is the book about? Well our omniscient narrator is attempting to tell us the story of Alexander Pruitt, murdered in 2005, only to be reborn in Cromwellite Britain in 1657. Which, through a series of plot contrivances involving time travel and the etymology of the word ‘twig’, it turns out is the period most suitable to him.
Of course as history itself is warped by the events described, our trusty narrator might not even get to finish the book we are reading, or sell the rights to Hollywood, with the maniacal Tom Cruise playing him in an eventual movie. So we have two races to the finish line here, Alexander Pruitt desperately seeking out the meaning of his existence, while torn between two periods in history (as well as a brief cameo in a third); and our narrator hoping to sell out as quickly as possible before his intellectual property is unwritten.
Throw in some Masonic conspiracies, a nice hefty dig or two at Dan Brown’s expense, badgers and Blade Runner, and we have ourselves a novel. Oh and just to top it off the secret identity of Jack the Ripper is also revealed.
If this book were to suffer the indignity of a high concept, I would describe it as P. G. Wodehouse meets Philip K. Dick. It is fitting that the head of Philip K. Dick has reappeared as an A.I. oracle. Perhaps someone should ask it what it thinks of Micallef’s novel. It is manic, absurdist fare, that doesn’t take itself seriously for even an iota of a second. Conspiracies are revealed to be vapid plots without rhyme, or reason. History itself is a mutable, simultaneous projection without purpose. And Tom Cruise is a very scary individual.
The narrator’s Hollywood adventure feels like a random digression, but by that point you have become used to the editorial spats asterisked at the bottom of pages, as well as parenthetical asides to the reader, assuring them that it will all make sense in the end. I laughed out loud when Cruise himself begins to interrogate the narrator as to his peculiar ‘omniscience’, over the proceedings of the plot. It’s a brilliant moment.
If I go any further I fear this review will collapse into a puddle of sycophantic loquaciousness. Needless to say, I quite liked it.
Recently Stephanie and I have become fans of Escape to the Country. Produced by the BBC it is aired in Australia on the 7 Network. Why have we become addicted to this daytime television show about that most clichéd of yuppie dreams? Because it is incredibly frustrating! The couples never seem to buy a house. Either they are outbid, or they decide not to move after all, whatever the result in many cases beautiful homes nestled in picturesque bucolic towns are left for another buyer and viewer gratification goes unsatisfied once again.
There is something instinctively appealing about buying a home in the countryside though. I find it ironic that I am now on the other side of the world and all of a sudden have discovered a love for country living. Especially given that it is the English countryside (although Stephanie is partial to a move to France), and here we are living outside Sydney with a veritable panoply of exotic wildlife just hanging out in the back garden.
Partly this is due to the sense of accumulated history that is associated with rural towns and villages in England. My dream would be to find a nice cottage, turn one of the rooms into a study and just stuff it with weird and wonderful books. Head down to the local pub for a pint or two of Old Speckled Hen and buy my groceries from the local farmer.
Alex Hunter unwittingly finds himself in just such a town, a place not even on the map named Strangehaven. After crashing into a tree while travelling out to Cornwall, Alex wakes up in the local B&B being tended to by Doctor Charles and Jane his receptionist, who quickly befriends the injured stranger. He reports to them that he saw a girl in a black dress standing in the middle of the road moments before he crashed, but they assure him no one else was found at the scene of the accident. As soon as he recovers, Jane takes him around the town and introduces him to the casually odd inhabitants of Strangehaven.
There’s Albert Bonneti an Italian mechanic who speaks in pidgin English and an exaggerated accent; Adam who claims to be an alien who insists on wearing shades the entire time for fear of Earth’s ultraviolet rays; Maggie McCreadie the B&B owner who spends her evenings searching for something in the graveyard after midnight; and Meg, an Amazonian shaman who through the course of the series begins to instruct Jane’s brother Jeremy in shamanic initiation rites. Unbeknownst to Alex many of the town worthies including the school head-master, the doctor and the police constable are all members of a Masonic Order known as The Knights of the Golden Light.
Strangehaven is also host to normal village excitements such as romantic affairs and family conflicts. Jeremy’s father John takes exception to Meg’s relationship with his son. The green grocer Peter is sneaking around behind his wife Beverly’s back with Suzie Tang. Even the sweet friendship between Alex and Jane, which she tragically misconstrues, is well-drawn.
The town, however, is not simply inhabited by a collection of eccentrics, but under the influence of eerie supernatural forces. Alex discovers he is unable to leave Strangehaven, finding himself turned around when he tries to drive on to Cornwall (with a series of crop circles visible in the background). Jeremy and Meg successful manage to inhabit the bodies of two birds courtesy of a magical ritual. Also Alex seems to have forgotten that the woman he saw suddenly transform into a tree looked just like Jane. There are frequent cutaways to a naked painting of her, depicting her body floating in a fish tank, being stared at by a mysterious stranger in Strangehaven.
Creator Gary Spencer Millidge has many strings to his bow. Writer and artist of the wonderful Strangehaven, he also self-publishes the series, has written a biography of Alan Moore and despite the irregular release of issues, still insists that number #24 will complete the story. The influence of Twin Peaks, The Prisoner and The Avengers is clear, with innocent seeming English towns revealed to be sites of global importance. Alex’s car accident resembles the opening of Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, a favourite of mine that has the protagonist encounter a woman outside the city of Bellona who transforms into a tree. The art is impressively photorealistic, with creased smiles and angry outbursts perfectly captured.
An excellent series, strongly recommended.
‘I’ve been thinking about our beautiful country! Who gave it to us? I’ve been thinking about how God the Almighty gave us this beautiful sprawling land as a reward for how wonderful we are. We’re big, we’re energetic, we’re generous, which is reflected in all our myths, which are so very populated with large high-energy folks who give away all they have! If we have a National Virtue, it is that we are generous, if we have a National Defect, it is that we are too generous! Is it our fault that these little jerks have such a small crappy land? I think not! God Almighty gave them that small crappy land for reasons of His own. It is not my place to start cross-examining God Almighty, asking why He gave them such a small crappy land, my place is to simply enjoy and protect the big bountiful land God Almighty gave us!’
I think Steve Aylett inoculated me. Like Burroughs, once you read him your brain changes by increments. This is why I always liked Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes. Actually Daniel Dennett gave it much better expression, describing memes as a host of larvae in your brain that grow and develop into new viral ideas. This astonishingly disgusting image nails the idea behind ‘infectious culture’.
Welcome to my long-winded digression! Aylett infected me and now I am ready for George Saunders’ own invocation of manically surreal humour.
My edition is actually features the title novella, as well as a collection of short stories gathered under the banner In Persuasion.
The initial story describes the rabid assent of the eponymous Phil, a tyrant in waiting whose hatred of the bookish and weak-limbed ‘Inner Hornerites’, leads him to form a border militia of ‘Outer Hornerites’, who enforce an ever shrinking border surrounding their neighbours, demanding more punitive taxes each day. While the number of patriots called to his cause do not outnumber the Inner Hornerites, they are strong and tall, having been raised in the wide open spaces of Outer Horner.
They are also not strictly speaking human. While never fully described the peoples of Inner and Outer Horner are mentioned to have vents, or exhaust shuts, or in the case of the senile President, several moustaches. Phil himself is given to loud, stentorious speeches about patriotism and values and the threat posed by the limp wristed Inner Hornerites, especially when his brain slides down a large rack affixed to his body. What manner of beast is this?
George Saunders is dealing with overt political satire here, but in a refreshingly pretension free, absurdist manner. The story feels like a depressed Terry Gilliam run amok on the Monty Python opening credits. There is anger expressed, but couched in deceptively manic and lurid imagery.
This is a style that Saunders continues to employ in the following short stories in this edition. my flamboyant grandson features an elderly grandfather just trying to give his grandson an entertaining evening on Broadway, but frustrated by run a gauntlet of invasive holographic advertising. I remember Steven Spielberg’s Philip K. Dick adaptation Minority Report featured a similar scene of Tom Cruise finding himself assaulted by images of products and brands. The difference being Spielberg’s depiction seemed almost excited at the prospect of such augmented reality tech. Saunders portrays it as an affliction.
jon also tackles the increasingly dominate role advertising culture plays in our lives, once again depicting a future society ruled by images of comfort and excess. Here two lovers question whether their lives as commercial role models as any future for them as a family, as a part of a system that has no interest in the young life they are hoping to create. brad carrigan, american goes even further again, where television shows feature live action participants, at the mercy of reality altering ‘programmers’.
Throughout the collection there can be found a weary absurdism, a low mocking tone that fails to disguise a growing sense of despair at the future waiting for us.
I recommend a crash course in Burroughs, or Aylett first, however. Make sure you take your memetic shots.
I am becoming a swift fan of Jeff Parker’s writing. Last year I read The Age of the Sentry by him, a miniseries from Marvel Comics about a Superman knock-off. Previous writers had been unable to do much with the character, lumbering the Man of Not-Steel with mental health issues to distinguish him from DC’s ‘Boy Scout’. Parker ignored most of this and spun the Sentry into a series of parodic adventures, even including Truman Capote in the proceedings. Here was a superhero comic brimming with ideas and a deft farcical touch.
Which brings us to Mysterius The Unfathomable. Even had I not known of Parker’s work, I would have had to snap this book off the shelves due to the cover alone. Tom Fowler’s art places an almost undue emphasis on bulging stomachs and shapeless bodies. The hero, Mysterius, even has a drink enflamed proboscis, to hint at his sleazy nature. The actual texture of the graphic novel in my hands feels worn and engrained. There are coffee mug stains over the title and an impression of curling pages on each corner. This is Parker returning us to the era of the pulp magazine, featuring the strange adventures of the paranormal, but with a modern twist.
The story begins with a panicked auctioneer meeting with a representative of Mysterius, who calls herself Delfi. This of course is not her real name – as we soon learn, names have power in the world of magick. Their prospective client, a Mister Ormond, has a rather unusual problem that he hopes the famous magician can help him with. His skin has broken out in a series of highly visible tattoos. Each tattoo represents the name of a prostitute he has slept with.
Mysterius is intrigued and agrees to take the case. This also provides him with an opportunity to give Delfi more instruction into the ways of magic. She is not his first assistant. In fact he has worked with countless young women bearing her name since the turn of the century. Mysterius is quite old and powerful, although his abilities prove to be rather erratic at the best of times. Delfi was originally a reporter who encountered her future partner while covering a séance at a playboy celebrity’s house. Unfortunately the proceedings quickly went out of control – is it not always the ways with séances? – and the young woman found herself introduced to a strange world.
In following up on the Ormond case, however, the pair quickly come up against larger problems than they had been anticipating. For one there is the little matter of the disastrous séance yet to clear up. What’s more Mysterius suspects Ormond’s strange affliction is due to a witch, whom he has slighted in some way. It turns out the witch belongs to a coven that worships an old and familiar evil.
Then there are the demonic Doctor Seuss books. I always knew that damn Cat in the Hat was evil!
Mysterius The Unfathomable is a delightful story. The main character is an absolute louse, his distended stomach a testament to his wasted long life and poor habits. He is also cowardly, at one point suggesting that they distract a demonic creature from another dimension by letting it eat a baby, so that he and Delfi can make their escape. In certain respects his relationship with his assistant is similar to that of The Doctor to his many ‘companions’. I am thinking in particular of the madcap Tom Baker incarnation. He will do the right thing – eventually – but usually only after a series of puckish stunts. Mysterius is the anti-Thomas Carnacki, whose only rule is to always get paid (although as a matter of principle, he refuses to exchange money for anything).
This is more than a parody of the pulp magazine era, it is a rueful love letter to madcap adventures and paranormal absurdity. Lovecraft-esque, but with a sense of fun and whimsy that eluded the grim New Englander. If you were to say the word ‘squamous’, to Mysterius, he would probably snort with laughter. There’s even a dig at Lovecraft and the pulp era’s more racialist tendencies, with Delfi’s ethnicity raising the main character’s eyebrows briefly.
Tom Fowler matches the manic proceedings with a grotesque bestiary of humans, only to let loose with the Seussian demon dimension. He captures the sleazy vibe of Mysterius’ world perfectly.
I have read so many books…And yet, like most autodidacts, I am never quite sure of what I have gained from them. There are days when I feel I have been able to grasp all there is to know in one single gaze, as if invisible branches suddenly spring out of nowhere, weaving together all the disparate strands of my reading – and then suddenly the meaning escapes, the essence evaporates, and no matter how often I reread the same lines, they seem to flee ever further with each subsequent reading, and I see myself as some mad old fool who thinks her stomach is full because she’s been attentively reading the menu.
This novel about intelligence hiding behind an ordinary mask in a Paris apartment building, the necessity of having to disguise one’s interests for fear of being exposed as someone with ambitions beyond the norm, posed an interesting problem for me. Francophiles the world over know the average French person is just moments from a marvelous quip, or a stunning observation. They all have impeccable taste, wearing gorgeous fashions all year round and eat without gaining an ounce! They live and breathe beauty, do they not? So what makes Madame Michel and the precocious child Paloma Josse so special? It would appear our French teachers and those insipid travelogues on television have been lying to us friends. The French are just like us. Lonely, tired of having to pretend to fit in all the time, depressed at the thought of what life is all about.
Oh did I mention this is a delightful book? Sorry, perhaps I’m leading you astray.
Madame Michel is the concierge for number 7, Rue de Grenelle. She is a widow and has few friends in this world, besides a Portuguese cleaning lady who meets her for tea after cleaning the soiled underwear of the building’s tenants. The residents of number 7 are very wealthy, very cultured members of the upper class. To them Renée Michel and her friend Manuela Lopes are invisible, members of the lower classes whose sole purpose is to open their doors, check their mail and clean up their mess. Our story begins with Renée accidentally admitting to knowledge of Marx to one of the residents of the building, a pretentious student who has just declared himself enlightened after a brush with Communist theory. Before she can stop herself, Renée mentions that The German Ideology is an essential text for students of Marxism. Cursing herself, she quickly retreats into her concierge’s lodge. The role of the concierge is not to be seen, or acknowledged by her betters. She is not meant to admit to her love of literature, her dismissive assessment of modern philosophy and appreciation of Japanese cinema. If Renée were to mention Edmund Husserl, or Ozu to her employers, they would assume she was babbling nonsense. So she hides herself in her duties and lives a secret life of quiet contemplation.
Paloma is an equally intelligent and fiercely proud individual who simply wants to hide away. Her father is a government minister who likes to pretend to be an ordinary bourgeois at home, with a bottle of beer in hand as he watches the football. Her mother has been in therapy for ten years, although in actuality this translates as having been medicated for ten years. She embarrasses Paloma with her insipid observations and interfering manner. Colombe, the eldest Josse child, is a student at the École normale supérieure and enjoys looking down on anyone she deems inferior. She’s a philistine in philosophy drag. Unwilling to spend the rest of her life hiding from the world like Renée has, Paloma decides that on her thirteenth birthday she will kill herself. Until then she keeps a journal of thoughts, on the offchance that something she observes will convince her to continue living.
This is a wonderful book. Each of the two main characters narrate their respective chapters to the reader. Renée speaks of her past, her love of literature and Ridley Scott films. Paloma writes haikus at the start of each journal entry and professes her love for Manga, in between suicidal digressions. Their shared appreciation of Japanese culture leads to a fateful encounter with a new tenant at number 7, who changes their lives.
Read the book, watch the film and fall in love with the delicate story of two lost souls finding something worth living for.
Irena told me once that she went into the woods by herself with the dog to think. About literature and politics and I don’t know what all. And I felt secretly embarrassed when she told me that, because when I’m alone usually all I ever think about is girls, and I felt inferior compared to her.
Right now I am fascinated with the sudden interest in translated fiction from Europe and eastward towards the nations of the former Soviet Union. Perhaps the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson got things started, but even before the English translation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, there were books by the likes of Pelevin appearing in Waterstones.
What’s more we are in the enviable position to be able to enjoy works that were censored under Soviet rule, such as Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Not only did the Russian novelist fall victim to censure, he even earned special attention from Stalin by demanding to be allowed defect if his book could not be published. Josef Škvorecký’s novel was also banned and this edition opens with an Author’s Preface were he pleads for understanding and clemency. It’s a strangely pathetic plea, defending the work while simultaneously apologizing for it. In the regard the events of the book seem prophetic.
Danny and his friends are waiting for the end of the war in the small Czech town of Kostelec. It is May 1945. Hitler is dead and the Germans are said to be retreating, with the Russian army on their tails and the western allied forces waiting in Berlin. Danny doesn’t care, he just wants to play jazz and sweet-talk some of the local girls. Of course he loves Irena most of all, but she is going out with Zdenek the thick-bodied Alpinist.
Of course, one thing that really impresses girls is a hero, so when the opportunity arrives to teach the defeated Nazis a lesson, Danny, Haryk, Benno and Lexa sign up to join the official paramilitary force. They are shocked when the town elders demand they hand over the weapons they had managed to scrounge during the war and then ordered to march around Kostelec unarmed. Quickly deciding this was nothing like the revolution promised, Danny tries to think of way to avoid further boredom. He concentrates on trying to woo Irena, even as the occupying German force becomes increasingly nervous, with the growing danger of a massacre caused by an angry local trying his luck robbing a submachine gun. Despite not seeming to care a whit for the course of the war, he seems to repeatedly find himself in the centre of events, attracting the anger of a frightened German soldier and even later becoming an unofficial translator and guide for bewildered prisoners of war escapees.
This is a blackly comic novel, with a wry note of suspicion towards authority. While Danny appears to care about nothing more than music, girls and American movies (nursing an enormous crush for Judy Garland), he is aware that all the folk of Kostelec are witnessing is a changing of the guard, despite the Soviets’ claims that they are a liberating force. Local boy Berty has even taken to photographing everything, with a view to selling the photos of the ‘revolution’, in years to come. There’s a significant scene between Danny and a soldier from Liverpool who asks if he would prefer if the British were in charge. Of course, he replies, but this is the situation.
Again and again the theme of the novel comes back to impotence. The title is inspired by the characters failing to live up to the heroic ideal of patriotic warriors repelling the invaders with guerrilla tactics and bravery. Yet Danny and his friends know that they are caught up in events they cannot control, any more than they can get a girl to notice them. In his head winning over Irena should be easily achieved by imitating the Hollywood lovers he is obsessed with, even affecting an American accent every now and then. It never seems to work out in real life though.
This story was written before the author was twenty-four years old. It is a young man’s book, but with an incisive degree of self-awareness and a mocking tone throughout. An excellent novel.
Leonard started the car as the brothers came out of the café, stood on the sidewalk and looked at us. Leonard watched them a moment, backed out and drove off.
‘Trouble?’ he asked.
‘No. But I will say this. It’s not every day you can actually step into a science-fiction episode of The Andy Griffith Show by way of Deliverance.’
Joe R. Lansdale has written dozens of books, contributed to a number of short story collections, comic book anthologies and even had some film adaptations of his work. So why is it so damned hard for me to track down his Hap and Leonard series. I have evolved a habit of snatching his books off the shelf as soon as I see them. I read the fourth book Bad Chilli first, then the second Mucho Mojo and this morning on the train to Sydney finished the third. Consequently I have a very confusing understanding of this pair of righteous country boys’ adventures, kicking ass and righting wrongs across Texas. And I don’t care.
Hap Collins is still blue after having been dumped by his lover Florida for the local police lieutenant in the last book. The only interruptions in his moping are provided by his best friend Leonard’s habit of burning the local crackhouse to the ground. This being the third experiment with arson, Lieutenant Marvin Hanson has them brought to the station and offers the pair a deal. He agrees to look the other way one more time, if they run a little errand for him. Florida has vanished. Last Marvin heard she was chasing down a lead on a story involving a possible wrongful death in police custody and voodoo rites in a place called Grovetown. If Hap and Leonard have a look around and see if Florida is okay, he’ll let bygones be bygones and drop the arson charges.
Leonard agrees to the deal, despite the Kmart-loving police sergeant Charlie’s warnings of the dangers a black man would likely face in Grovetown. Apparently the clocks stopped there some time back in the sixties. Civil rights are seen as a liberal conspiracy and an offshoot of the Klan holds great sway in the town. Hap and Leonard march into Grovetown ready to bust heads, but find themselves up against bigger odds than they expected. The local sheriff has a ruptured testicle and a permanent bad mood. He welcomes the pair with a death threat. There is no sign of Florida anywhere and the ‘victim’, who’s memory she was trying to defend was a hateful son of a blues legend who enticed a record company rep with the promise of undiscovered music tapes and murdered him for his wallet. Everywhere the pair go, it seems they have big, fat targets scrawled on their backs. Maybe they should have just agreed to do time for burning down the crackhouse?
Lansdale has a filthy sense of humour, a love of confounding expectations and inverting traditional notions of machismo. Hap and Leonard often find themselves beaten and bloody after a fight, but are always ready with another quip to aggravate their opponents. They just don’t know when to stop. Split down the middle they are a very opposite duo. Hap is white, votes Democrat, hates guns and tries to see the best in folks. Leonard is black, gay, Republican and just loves cracking heads. Also he plain distrusts most people and often seems to be correct in his assessments.
There is a great moment when Leonard tries to explain to his boyfriend Raul that what he and Hap have is a bit like love. It reminded me of a speech I saw Sean Connery give once at the 2005 Edinburgh Film Festival. There were sniggers when he referred to Brokeback Mountain as an example of male friendship, but jokes aside, I think he knew exactly what he was saying. Lansdale is interested in what makes a man, a man. Leonard is homosexual, but tough as nails and macho as they come. Hap is ruled by his emotions, but acts according to firm principles of honour. The pair also are skilled in Korean martial arts, something of a hobby of Lansdale himself. Whenever I try to describe these books, I often say try to imagine Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch, as played by Chuck Norris.
Blackly comic, offensive, filthy and laugh out loud funny, if you haven’t been in Hap and Leonard’s company yet, I’d advise you to look them up some day.