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“You are about to see one of Carole Lombard’s best films: Mr and Mrs Smith. It’s the only comedy Hitchcock ever directed.” The angel took a long drink of soda.
“Have some popcorn”
– “No, thank you.”
In the fading light, the angel turned slowly to Ling. For several moments his eyes became enormous, pinwheeling fire everywhere.
“Have some popcorn.”
Well it has been a heavy couple of days here on the blog. Weighty themes, arresting imagery…..teddy bears altered in strange and disturbing ways (seriously, James Ellroy, get help!). So for today I chose Jonathan Carroll’s The Ghost in Love. I am a big fan of his whimsical present-day fables and will mention some more about his writing later, but first off – the plot!
Benjamin Gould is a young man in the prime of his life. He loves to cook, in fact his book shelves are filled with recipe books. His kitchen is his true home and he enjoys many different kinds of tea. He’s good with his hands and rather than sulking when things don’t go his way, he will often begin working on a new table, or chair. He’s also a young man who has already endured tragedy, sadness and loss – but he’s happy now, because he’s met the love of his life. The strangely named German Landis is a ray of sunshine, a beacon of warmth and kindness. She inspires him to be a better man, to leave the bitterness of his past behind. One day she suggests they adopt a dog from the pound, but not just any mutt. They should choose the dog that has languished there the longest. Ben enthusiastically agrees and rushes out. This is what life with German is like, spontaneity and good will as natural as breathing.
Unfortunately for Ben, he dies on the way home. Even more unfortunately for Ben, German, even the dog, Pilot, and the angels in Heaven who run the whole life and death game….he doesn’t notice he has died. And from here, things begin to get strange.
The Angel of Death assigns a ghost named Ling to follow Ben and discover why he has not passed on. Somewhere in his mind is the reason for his strange survival. Maybe somewhere buried deep in his past is the secret of immortality, making Ben very important indeed. Important enough to scare the Angel of Death himself near out of his wits. For if humans can suddenly learn how to master their own mortality, maybe that changes everything. Maybe in this upside-down world angels and ghosts have reason to fear humans!
Jonathan Carroll has a gift for making the mundane seem magical. In a story about life and death, angels and monsters, he makes it seem so easy. This book was a breeze to read, a light confection that felt like an old Hollywood romance. Cinema is something of a passion for Carroll, as well as dogs, so I know he’s good people. It reminded me a little of Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, where air force pilot David Niven refuses to die and accept his heavenly award, as he has just met the love of his life, played by Kim Hunter. In Carroll’s universe dogs and ghosts speak to one another amiably, the Angel of Death is obsessed with Carole Lombard movies and your past literally can catch up with you. Maybe even ball you out for not being more careful.
The very first scene of the novel is just delightful. Ling, Ben’s ghostly ‘caseworker’, is fretting over a sumptuous feast for German, whom she has also fallen in love with. As Pilot the bemused dog and her only friend looks on, she prepares a breakfast smorgasbord of salmon, eggs Benedict, scones, soufflé, even fine coffee. The woman of her dreams arrives in the apartment, sits down at the table and is completely oblivious to the phantom feast laid out before her. It’s a beautifully sustained sequence.
One of my favourite books is Carroll’s The Land of Laughs, his first published novel. It also deals with memory, loss and death. If you read it you may come away with a newfound interest for pit-bull terriers. Seriously the man loves dogs. Whenever I encounter a book of his on a shelf I snap it up. The Ghost in Love is a treat for anyone looking for a story filled with wonder and whimsy. Enjoy.
The Judge tilted his great head. The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.
Blood Meridian is a story about violence and history – the savage underbelly of civilization. McCarthy repeatedly uses ‘meridian’ to describe the divide between day and night, life and death. It is also the border between America and Mexico, the white man and all other races. This is a novel heavy with portentousness and symbolism, but also seeping with horrific images of death.
The Kid is born in Tennessee. At age fourteen he sets out to find his fortune. He finds work where he can and travels when he has some money to his name. He takes to drinking and fighting in bars. He has two fateful early encounters with men that will later become important in his life. The first is a fellow wanderer named Toadvine. The second is known to most as the Judge. The Kid witnesses him falsely accusing a preacher of sodomy and inciting a lynch mob.
Living by his wits only gets the Kid so far and eventually his aimless life leads him to join a company of soldiers on an ill-advised sortie across the Mexican border. Once across the border, the Kid is catapulted into a life of violence and death. Apache prowl the Mexican desert and wolves track men during the night. Then the Judge finds him once again. He has taken command of a group of hired killers and they have a contract for Indian scalps.
This is the first Cormac McCarthy book I have ever read. I have very little knowledge of him, apart from Owen Wilson’s mocking caricature in The Royal Tenenbaums. Wes Anderson was a bit on the nose there. This is compelling writing, with the Judge leading his men across the Mexican landscape like Captain Ahab. Is he really a man, or the devil himself? The book is written in a quasi-Biblical language, ripe with hellish imagery and Jacobean excess. The campaign of violence waged by the Americans is unrelenting, slaughtering peaceful villages and rampaging through unsuspecting townships. One scene in particular has a bar-room fight spill out into the street, encountering a funeral procession and resulting in a massacre. For long passages of the book the Kid himself drops out of sight and we are left in the company of the Judge and his right-hand man Glanton, or Toadvine the Kid’s sometime ally. There is also an ex-priest named Tobin, who does not shirk from killing.
However, the story promises a final confrontation between the Kid and the Judge, the two of them continually meeting despite all odds. Here, McCarthy sets up a further contrast, another meridian, this time the divide between a man who thinks he is free and one who knows he is master. The Kid is quick to anger, surly and not given to speak much. The Judge on the other hand waxes lyrical constantly, can be charming and kind in action, capable of speaking many different languages. He is also given to lectures on religion and the law, which he uses to confound those who investigate the crimes committed by his men. Beneath all of his culture and wit beats the heart of a monster, unrelenting and cruel. McCarthy has created a truly diabolical villain, one who would destroy anything he cannot control and wipe away all trace of it.
I can see why Hollywood tries to adapt McCarthy to the screen so often. The imagery of Blood Meridian often feels intensely cinematic. I would argue though that this is more due to the author’s use of language, which flows and ebbs on the page, a quality that would be very difficult to replicate on screen. However, this is bloody and intense plotting, certainly not making for a nice evening’s entertainment. In terms of a masterclass though, as an opportunity to observe a writer in full command of his craft, I thoroughly recommend it.
What could I do? Lamentation wouldn’t bring my lovely girls back to life. I bit my tongue. It’s a wonder I had any tongue left, so frequently had I bitten it over the years.
The Penelopiad is Margaret Atwood’s retelling of The Odyssey from the point of view of the hero’s long suffering wife Penelope. Left on the island kingdom of Ithaca to fend for herself while her husband contends with a Cyclops, vengeful gods and witches, Penelope tells of her efforts to confound the many suitors who seek to usurp Odysseus during his ten year voyage. This, after having already waited ten years for the costly Trojan War, fought to secure the return of her stunningly beautiful cousin Helen, to end.
This is also the story of Penelope’s twelve maids and their murder by Telemachus and Odysseus upon his return. The myth describes them as having caroused with the suitors besieging the palace of Ithaca, indirectly making them responsible for the long hours of cavorting and rutting within its halls. Penelope reveals that her maids were in fact spying on the men, delaying their attempts to kill her son Telemachus and forcibly marry her, seizing her husband’s kingdom in the process. The ‘carousing’, the maids died for was in fact rape.
All of this is narrated by the long dead Penelope, now a spectre wandering through Hades. She has been observing the progress of human history and has developed over time a certain arch sense of humour, picking up a few idiomatic phrases over the years. I was startled to see this figure from Ancient Greek myth use the word ‘factoid’ just three sentences in, but there you are. This is Atwood using the character of Penelope as her mouthpiece, with The Penelopiad intended as a corrective to the chauvinism of Homer’s epic.
By having the narration itself take place in the present day, Atwood mocks the pretensions of Homer’s characters, all of whom are still wandering around the underworld. She jokes that the gods have vanished ever since a much more spectacular establishment down the road – fiery pits, wailing and gnashing of teeth, gnawing worms, demons with pitchforks – a great many special effects opened up. Penelope herself never really believed in the gods, as all she observed in her life was random misfortune and callous violence.
Her life was spent in a state of passivity, a quality that is lauded within Homer’s tale, her patience and forgiveness of her husband’s indiscretions elevated as virtues. Atwood reverses this by showing how Odysseus won her hand and took her to Ithaca as his bride in order to weaken her father in any future conflict between Sparta and its neighbours. That she could always see through her husband’s lies and omissions, but chose not to speak up as she knew he enjoyed fooling everyone. In fact, most of her dignified silences from Homer’s epic are retold by Atwood as Penelope furiously trying to repress her laughter at the foolishness of people around her.
Three women rule Penelope’s life. Her mother-in-law, Anticleia, is stern and unloving, treating her son’s wife at all times as a necessary inconvenience. Eurycleia, the palace wet-nurse, replaces her as mother to her own son Telemachus. And finally there is Helen, her cousin, who ruined her life, having ignited the conflict that took her husband away for twenty years and set in motion the events that would lead to the occupation of her home and the murder of the twelve maids. Atwood uses these three women to represent the clichéd archetypes of female identity in mythology – the matriarch, the crone and the whore. By doing so she exports any of these traits from Penelope herself. However, I’m not sure what character her heroine actually possesses, beyond the arch present-day voice we are offered in the narration, as Atwood-manqué. I feel this is an error on the author’s part, as Penelope is reduced to a mere cipher as a result.
There is anger here, with the twelve maids acting as a chorus throughout the book. They speak in verse initially, but later resort to a parody of a mock-feminist academic paper and even a ‘video-trial’ in the style of Judge Judy. Overall I feel the story should have been told solely from their point of view, as Penelope’s sheltered upbringing and passivity made her an aloof narrator (never mind a sarcastic ghost).
The people I talked to were mostly barflies, day-time juicers eager to suck up to authority or gab with someone other than the usual boon acquaintances they found in gin mills.Pressing for facts, I got sincere fantasy – virtually every person had Betty Short giving them a long spiel taken from the papers and radio when she was really down in Dago with Red Manley or somewhere getting tortured to death. The longer I listened the more they talked about themselves, interweaving their sad tales with the story of the Black Dahlia, who they actually believed to be a glamorous siren headed for Hollywood stardom. It was as if they would have traded their own lives for a juicy front-page death.
I have never been happier to finish something and walk away. Consider this review an exculpation of self-disgust for not throwing this book out of a train window when I had the chance. Problem is it’s a library book. And librarians frown on such conduct…
Ellroy introduces us to two former boxers, Lee Blanchardt and Bucky Bleichert, both rising through the ranks of LA’s police force after the Second World War. Eager to win the public relations war, a corrupt wannabe DA arranges a boxing match pitting the officers against each other. The fight bonds the two men in a firm friendship and wins them a ticket out of uniform duty to work as plain clothes police in Warrants. Deputy District Attorney Ellis Loew has two star officers the papers love and his ascendancy is assured.
On 15 January 1947, the body of Elizabeth Short was discovered in Leimart Park near 39th Street and Norton Avenue, Los Angeles. This is not fiction. The newsies gave her the nickname, the Black Dahlia, riffing on a popular movie at the time starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake (the actress who inspired the character of Lynn Bracken in Ellroy’s LA Confidential). From here on in, the author continues to blur the lines between fact and fiction by having Blanchardt and Bleichert investigate Elizabeth Short’s murder.
Both men become obsessed with the gruesome details of the young woman’s death, trying to fill in the details of her missing week of drunken flings with offshore navy servicemen and bent cops that preceded it. An acquaintance of the victim is found with a can of film that reveals Short involved in a stag picture. Her own father gleefully sells childhood photos of her to the press to make a quick buck. Loew’s efforts to pin the murder on a convenient stooge repeatedly fail and eventually he is unable to prevent the media from turning his carefully managed spin of a young innocent girl murdered in her prime, into a grotty tragedy, the inevitable fate for a down-at-luck call girl in Hollywood, who cruised lesbian bars for free drinks and lied to everyone she met.
As the story progresses Blanchardt and Bleichert seem less and less like partners on a murder case and more like split personalities sharing the same obsession. The papers call them Fire and Ice, in remembrance of their boxing days, and the two see-saw in their respective morbid fascination with the Black Dahlia. Bleichert is our narrator and initially he only wants to get back to his career in Warrants. He is disgusted by the grandstanding of the Assistant DA and hasn’t the stomach for homicide cases. We take his word that his partner Lee is the one obsessed with the case. Then he meets a doppelgänger for Elizabeth Short, an heiress who frequents lesbian bars. Slowly the narration takes on Blanchardt’s obsessiveness, just as he mysteriously drops out of the book.
This is an ugly story, about people committing ugly acts. It purports to realism by featuring actual persons involved in the case – the newsman Bevo Means and the primary suspect for a time ‘Red’ Manley – but this is a world painted black, with not a glimmer of hope, nor a spark of humour. It is a turgid dirge that apes moralism but offers no narrative conclusion for any of its events. Had I spent today’s train journey just staring out the window at the houses and towns as they passed in a blur, it would have been time better spent than on this sledgehammer subtle tale of corruption, misery and a lost dead girl from 1947.
He passes it and I rapidly read what he’s looking at. Domestic duties: the people of the dark ages, when living together, apparently divided up work depending on gender. Males held paid vocations; females were expected to clean and maintain the household, buy and prepare food, buy clothing, clean the clothing, and operate domestic machinery while their male worked. ‘This is crap! ‘ I say.
Robin is a warrior-historian in a post-human civilisation. Our planet is a dimly remembered historical footnote referred to as ‘Urth’. All time is measured in seconds. Key periods of human history have been erased due to censorship wars and a disease known as Curious Yellow. Humans have evolved beyond physical mortality itself, replicating themselves with multiple back-up bodies, and even customizing their own alien forms.
Robin has just been downloaded into a new body and has been warned by his former self that his life is in danger. Yet he flirts with death by engaging in duels and refusing to ‘back-up’ into a new body. His lover, Kay, has four arms, suffers from body dismorphia and enjoys having very public sex with him.
Got all that? Okay, now forget it.
Robin is Reeve, a petite housewife trapped in a loveless marriage to the monosyllabic Sam. Her friends are insufferably happy with their home lives while she is slowly going mad from the boredom of staying in the house all day waiting for her husband to return. Every Sunday the couples in the neighbourhood flock to their local church and are lectured on morality by the unctuous priest, Fiore.
Reeve begins to suspect that everyone is plotting against her. She suffers memory lapses and nightmares in which she is a man dueling with assassins in narrow streets, or is an armoured warrior slaughtering innocent civilians during a civil war. Is she Reeve, or is she Robin? What is real?
With Glasshouse, Stross mixes satire, simultaneously riffing on Ira Levin‘s classic The Stepford Wives and Patrick McGoohan‘s cult television series The Prisoner, with cutting edge futurism. The opening section of the novel can seem like obtuse technobabble, but once the nature of this future society becomes clear the book is transformed into a fascinating outsider perspective on contemporary morality and gender roles.
The futuristic society resembles a contemporary online video game, with humans able to heal themselves of any injury instantly, or live out a personal fantasy. The recreation of 20th century life is to Reeve, and the others trapped within the glasshouse, a dark age fantasy with confusing gender role-play, religious fanaticism and physical frailty. In the glasshouse Reeve is the ultimate inversion of the overly confident male Robin. Having to rely on her husband Sam to provide for and support her is frustrating. She is trapped in a body she didn’t choose, and forced through a combination of peer pressure and constant surveillance to live a life that disgusts her.
Stross’ take on post-human technology is fascinating, with the outsider perspective on contemporary life at times chilling but other times humourous. Brave the technobabble and you’ll discover a biting satire where a church service begins to the tune of Brecht’s Mack the Knife and participants in the dark ages experiment are rewarded with points for bearing children. The plot twists and turns, Stross exploiting the possibilities with identity crises and rampant paranoia making for a dizzying, dense read. I almost felt bad submitting it for this challenge.
There are six thousand New Men on Earth, ruling with the help, such as it is, from four thousand Unusuals. Ten thousand in a Civil Service hierarchy that cuts everyone else out…five billion Old Men with no way – He lapsed into silence and then he did a surprising thing: he raised his hand, and a plastic cup of water floated directly to him, depositing itself in the grip of his hand.
It is the 22nd century and mankind has been divided into three distinct strains. The New Men are an intellectual race of humans, capable of advanced computation and extremely arrogant towards the others. The Unusuals are gifted with psychic abilities and maintain an uneasy peace with the New Men overseeing the administration of the world. Finally, the Old Men, so named for their lack of notable advantages, trapped in dead-end jobs and prevented from entering the Civil Service, which is designed to exclude all applicants from their caste.
Nick Appleton is a law-abiding Old Man whose last hope is that his son Bobby passes the test and is accepted into an administrative role. When his son is rejected, Appleton finally snaps and sets out on a course of action that unwittingly leads to a revolution.
Our Friends from Frolix 8 reads like a mash-up of Aldous Huxley and Orson Welles, with Philip K. Dick‘s own recurring themes setting the pace of the novel. Characters pop pills in order to experience emotion, but drinking alcohol is a criminal offense. Television is strictly controlled by the New Man/Unusual government, but viewers are fooled into thinking the media is interactive as when they speak out loud the news anchor replies. There’s even a revolutionary saviour, Thors Provoni, an Old Man who fled into space to find a solution to the tyrannical oppression of his people. After Appleton’s son is rejected by the Civil Service, the long-vanished rebel leader sends a communique to the Under Men revolutionary movement from deep space. He is returning and he is bringing help.
Dick’s novels always manage to impress. The science fiction genre is employed as a vehicle for his own musings on religion, identity and morality. There is a poignant moment in this novel when a character states that the ‘aging disease’ was cured in 1985. Dick died in 1982, shortly before the release of Blade Runner based on his Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.
Often when reading Dick’s novels I feel he was attempting a personal dialogue with his readers, even going so far as to insert his fictionalised self into the narrative. In engaging with his stories on such a personal level, Dick sought to export his personal problems onto the typed pages of manuscript. His own personal therapy released to the world.
Dick was married five times and his protagonists are often themselves unhappily married. Shortly after their story begins they encounter a younger, more attractive woman, although disenchantment soon follows the initial attraction. Our Friends from Frolix 8 is no different. Appleton meets a young seller of revolutionary pamphlets named Charlotte, then leaves his wife to live a life of adventure with her. Dick was also known to experiment with hallucinogenic drugs and it’s amusing to read his take on a society that has repealed anti-drug legislation, but has then arbitrarily ruled against alcohol.
Our Friends from Frolix 8 is a book inspired by professional and romantic frustrations. I describes a world controlled by forces that can see into people’s minds and manipulate their thoughts. The New Men/Unusuals oligarchy is callous in its treatment of the human population under its control, imprisoning and executing anyone who dares to read the contraband of Thors Provoni. Yet when the are faced with a force more powerful than they, Dick elicits a surprising degree of compassion for the bewildered one-time oppressors.
I would recommend this, or in fact almost any book by Dick to readers. Just get started! This is why I chose one of his novels at such an early stage of this blog. I knew that I could fly through the clipped prose and terse dialogue in a single day, then sit back and enjoy the exhilarating thoughts of his extraordinary imagination. Give him a go.