What Dies in Summer (Book Acquired, 5.02.2013)

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Tom Wright’s What Dies in Summer is new in trade paperback. Pub’s blurb:

A riveting Southern Gothic coming-of-age debut by major new talent.

“I did what I did, and that’s on me.” From that tantalizing first sentence, Tom Wright sweeps us up in a tale of lost innocence. Jim has a touch of the Sight. It’s nothing too spooky and generally useless, at least until the summer his cousin L.A. moves in with him and their grandmother. When Jim and L.A. discover the body of a girl, brutally raped and murdered in a field, an investigation begins that will put both their lives in danger. In the spirit of The Lovely Bones and The Little FriendWhat Dies in Summer is a novel that casts its spell on the very first page and leaves an indelible mark.

And the lede from Julie Myerson’s review last year in the NYT:

Why do teenagers make such ideal protagonists? Maybe it’s because they’re doing just what novels do: struggling to make sense of a troubling and imperfect world. And at first, Jim, called Biscuit, and L. A. (Lee Ann), the teenage cousins at the heart of Tom Wright’s feisty first novel, are ­exactly what you hope they’ll be: funny, frank, mouthy and more than a touch off kilter. Both are forced to live with their grandmother because their mothers aren’t up to the task of child rearing. Their homes are haunted by alcoholism and violence, but Gram takes a simple, affectionate, responsibility for them — though it’s almost inevitable that certain questions, if not the answers, will push their ugly way to the surface sooner or later.

Lizard World (Book Acquired, 9.26.2012)

 

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This one is wonderfully weird stuff. Terry Richard Bazes’s Lizard World. Here’s a blurb from Grove Press founder Barney Rosset:

Lizard World opens with Josiah Fludd, a disenchanted character from the Early Modern World, exhuming a female corpse for a customer, whose interest in the carcass is presumed by the gravedigger to be a sexual one. Fludd’s blasé attitude vanishes when, on delivery of the corpse, he watches its feet sawed off, and he learns that they are meant to replace his patron’s nether claws. From this startling introduction Terry Richard Bazes pushes us into a bizarre world that vacillates between the past and present—and is told by a writer whose imagination seems to have no bounds.

Here’s an excerpt:

I being then in my nineteenth year and little more than a beggar — intent, by hook or by crook, to become a chirurgeon and yet utterly without means to feed and clothe my body (much less to learn the merest rudiments of my profession) — it came about that at  length I did find a way both to earn my bread and pursue my studies by  undertaking to perform a service — a wholly necessary and harmless service albeit one from which my more prosperous school-mates turned away with horror and revulsion.  So it was that I got my sustenance and was suffered to sit with all the paying scholars — provided it was in the very backermost row — and watch whilst our professor  probed the deepest mysteries of a fresh cadaver.
Now just exactly how and whence these cadavers were supplied were questions my finical  colleagues dared not closely entertain, although in gross they knew the truth and shunned me like a leper. But I cared not a fart for their esteem, so long as I could learn, and the short of it was that I advanced quickly in my studies and was oft besought by my professors for a specimen and consequently was upon ever the most constant look-out for the newly dead.
For this purpose it was my practice to put on the clothes and countenance of a mourner and, thus disguised, to frequent the very meanest of country churches in the hope that there I might chance upon some humble obsequies.  If fortune smiled, and some farmer or laundress had departed this life, then I would repair under the cloak of  starlight unto the churchyard,  still in mourning attire  and carrying a fistful of daisies and a Bible, lest I be questioned of my purpose and require a ready pretext.  The great secret of the art was to work with utmost haste and efface the smallest evidence of theft. Therefore, by the light of my lantern, I studied the disposition of each rock, each wreath of flowers — and, thus informed of the state to which the grave must later be restored, now proceeded to violate the soil, but only so much as to permit my shovel to break the very head-piece of the box.  This method, once perfected, allowed me — in a trice — to draw the carcass out, conceal it in a sack, restore the injured earth, and load my stiffened burden on a waiting dung-cart.

For more excerpts, check out Bazes’s site; more to come.

 

Infinite Map Depicts the Geography of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest

 

A description of Infinite Map from artist/creator William Beutler’s site, Infinite Boston:

A geographic infographic poster depicting the “territorially reconfigured North America” of the novel and identifying 250 of the most interesting locations with a color-coded dot and corresponding footnote. As you can see from the acromegalic thumbnail above, the 24”x36” print includes four telescoping map insets: O.N.A.N.’s North America, Northeast U.S. & Canada, Greater Boston and Metro Boston. The red shading represents my own painstaking, overdetermined conclusions about the most probable outline of the Great Concavity. In the upper right corner is the Great Seal of O.N.A.N., based on the description from page 153, and the map labels throughout include sometimes-obscure references to the novel’s the text. This image is the principal result of a long-term collaboration between myself and the Los Angeles-based creative design agency JESS3, whose technical ability and patience with yrstruly knows no bounds.

Biblioklept will run an interview with Beutler about his graphic work with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest next week.

I Review Neal Stephenson’s Zany, Prescient Novel Snow Crash (And Comment on the Impending Film Adaptation)

Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel Snow Crash opens with an extended scene in which the book’s protagonist races to deliver a pizza on time for the mafia. The scene is thrilling and ridiculous, establishing the book’s frenetic, ironic tone and painting a rough outline of Snow Crash’s milieu. Like  many sprawling works of speculative fiction, Snow Crash is more interested in rendering its milieu in vibrant, hyperkinetic color than it is concerned with delivering plot and character development. Snow Crash’s plot is the sort of joyfully convoluted careening mess that makes a reviewer (okay, this reviewer) shudder at the thought of having to successfully paraphrase, so I’m not even going to make an earnest effort. Let’s get to that milieu and the cartoon characters who inhabit it.

Snow Crash is set in the early 21st century, primarily in Los Angeles, which is no longer part of the United States. Actually, there isn’t much of a United States to speak of, really—and not even a municipal Los Angeles, per se. Instead, the terrain is totally privatized. Privatized roads, privatized spaces. People (who can afford to) live in franchised burbclaves protected by hired mercenaries or private militias or robots that keep out the undesirables. (The white folks who live in New South Africa want “racial purity,” while some franchise nations, like Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong are open to anyone who can trade information). Authority is for sale. Conditions are so laissez-faire that the Mafia is truly a Legitimate Business now (complete with their own CosaNostra Pizza University). In fact, all business is legitimate; several times in Snow Crash, a character will refer to “the old days when they had laws.” Without regulation, hyperinflation is the norm; the homeless use trillion-dollar bills to light their campfires.

There’s a hard-edged griminess to the world Stephenson conjures in Snow Crash, but the book is never grim or dour, and instead embraces the anarchic-capitalism it proposes. Perhaps this is because Stephenson’s heroes are such radically exceptional people. The book’s hero is named Hiro Protagonist, the kind of Pynchonian goof that characterizes Snow Crash’s zany tone. Hiro meets the book’s other protagonist, a fifteen year old blonde who goes by Y.T. (“Yours Truly,” although most of the folks tend to hear “whitey”). Y.T. is a Kourier, a skateboarding delivery person who harpoons vehicles to catch a free ride. She helps Hiro deliver that pizza in the opening scene and the two team up after Hiro gives her his business card. It reads: “Last of the Freelance Hackers  / Greatest swordfighter in the world  / Stringer, Central Intelligence Corporation. Specializing in Software related Intel. (Music, Movies & Microcode.)” Did I neglect to mention that Hiro carries two samurai swords with him wherever he goes?

Hiro’s pretty handy with those swords, but his real skill is hacking, and he spends a good deal of time in the Metaverse, a virtual reality-based internet space where avatars go to bars and chat and sell &c. It’s sort of like a mix between Facebook and World of War Craft. In 1992 (earlier, I suppose), Stephenson’s way ahead of the curve. Here, he describes avatars:

Your avatar can look any way you want it to, up to the limitations of your equipment.  If you’re ugly, you can make your avatar beautiful.  If you’ve just gotten out of bed, your avatar can still be wearing beautiful clothes and professionally applied makeup.  You can look like a gorilla or a dragon or a giant talking penis in the Metaverse.  Spend five minutes walking down the Street and you will see all of these.

There are plenty of passages like this, where Stephenson pegs some aspect of internet culture ten years before it actually happens. (I couldn’t help but think about Wikipedia during Hiro’s conversations with a program called Librarian). It’s probably fair to say that the Wachowskis lifted as much from Snow Crash as they did from William Gibson’s cyberpunk trilogies.

While I’m there, I might as well lazily point out that Snow Crash would fit neatly at home on a shelf with Neuromancer or Mona Lisa Overdrive. There’s also a heavy dose of Philip K. Dick weirdness in Snow Crash, particularly when the book settles into its major metaphysical plot about ancient Sumerian gods and goddesses and linguistic viruses and the Tower of Babel. Stephenson’s Snow Crash is zanier than William Gibson’s dark depictions or Dick’s mindmelted milieux, and it would hardly do to call what he does here light—but there is something joyful, playful about his satire. I invoked Pynchon earlier and I’ll do it again; parts of Snow Crash also reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s opus Infinite Jest. Both IJ and SC obsess over the minutest details of speculative technologies and how people might react to such technologies. This is often what sets Snow Crash heads and shoulders above run of the mill cyberpunk. In just one instance, Stephenson parodies the language of bureaucratic speech at length; Y.T.’s mom, who works for what’s left of the Federal Government, is subjected to a memo about toilet paper usage that goes on for pages. The passage is hilarious, and adds absolutely nothing to the plot development—it simply helps to flesh out the contours of the world that Stephenson has imagined.

All of this detailed imagining unfortunately comes at the expense of a plot that only coheres through massive exposition dumps. About a third of the way into the novel, the major conflict is finally established, but only through a dialog between Hiro and the Librarian that reads almost like a catechism. As the book reaches its climax, Hiro actually explains what’s going on to a few of the other major characters—and the reader, of course. It’s a cringe-worthy moment, the sort of rhetorical weakness that smacks of genre fiction; even worse, the plot’s action ultimately hangs on some fairly basic hoary old tropes that wouldn’t be unfamiliar to anyone who’s ever played a video game. The book lags under a juvenile obsession with weapons and badassery in general. And the book’s resolution . . . well, let’s just say that Stephenson sticks the ending, but it all feels too pat and too slight after the dazzling weight of the world that he’s established. Still, at its finest, Stephenson’s prose is zippy, shining, hilarious stuff, and his employment of multiple character perspectives moves the book with an addictive energy. Snow Crash is beach reading for folks who like some humor with their dystopia.

A film adaptation of Snow Crash is supposedly going into production soon, with British director Joe Cornish taking charge. I liked Cornish’s last film Attack the Block, and Snow Crash clearly has a highly-imagistic, cinematic feel to it—but I think a film is not the way to go. Simply put, Snow Crash is too big, too larded with characters and details (so many that I failed to touch on in this review) to translate well onscreen. I think an eight part miniseries on HBO (or a similar network) would be perfect, even if it came at the expense of special effects—-a miniseries would give the filmmakers time to build Stephenson’s nuanced world. I’m afraid otherwise we’ll get a travesty like the adaptation of The Golden Compass, or something like The Hunger Games film, where all but the most basic plot points are elided. But I suppose a miniseries is not as lucrative as a blockbuster film. I hope the filmmakers at least split the book in two. In any case, I’ll be interested to check out the results.

Late to Love: Bret Easton Ellis

In high school I bought American Psycho from Barnes & Noble and read it in a few weeks. I knew it was full of awful, horrible stuff that I would never be able to forget but I did it anyways. I was fascinated, revolted; I laughed out loud. I became that one guy that burst everyone’s bubble by telling them that the movie sucked or at least totally missed the point of the book (whatever point there might have been) and that it also left out every one of the funniest scenes, and, oh that the ending was total bullshit. People would ask me if I “liked” the book and I would evasively respond: “I don’t know if it’s a book one can actually like…” or “I don’t know if like is the right word…”—and just generally avoid making any kind of decision about the book, or its author, that prince of darkness Bret Easton Ellis.

But Bret Easton Ellis intrigued me. Later, when the film Rules of Attraction came out I saw it in the theater by myself and purchased the DVD. It was a much better film than AP, and that was satisfying to me in some way. I didn’t read the book, nor was I moved to seek out Less Than Zero, although at some point I found Glamorama at a used store and bought it for the heck of it, but I don’t think I ever even tried to read it. I was interested in BEE but only from afar. He had definitely scarred me with AP. It was a singular experience at the time and (to this day has maybe been matched only by Jerzy Kosinski with my combined readings of Steps and The Painted Bird). I wasn’t really looking to be haunted in that way any time soon.

I can still remember where I was when I heard about Lunar Park. I read about it at The New York Times, on the family computer at a friend’s parents’ house in Rutland Vermont. I saw that Ellis had a new book, skimmed the article, and saw mention of “meta” elements, the use of a character named “Bret Ellis” who was decidedly not intended to be the actual author of the book, but rather a sort of parallel dimension version of BEE who had settled down in the suburbs and had kids. This was all interesting to me and I made the mental note, “Read Lunar Park.” That was in August 2005.

Fast forward to May 2010. In the five years since Lunar Park came out everything about my life has changed. I am living in Los Angeles pursuing a career in screenwriting. I have been married for a year and I have an apartment and two cats. And it is in this apartment that I come across a VICE interview with the man himself, on the eve of the publication of his new novel Imperial Bedrooms. I find myself reading the interview and it dawns on me that I have never read or heard this man speak, I’ve barely seen photographs of him, and that basically everything I think I know about him has been pure conjecture derived from conversations over the years.

My idea of Bret Ellis as this detached, cynical, deviant creature is immediately thrown out the window by seeing pictures of him wearing a hooded sweatshirt and sitting at a desk. In some of the photos green palm trees can be seen behind him and it becomes clear very quickly in the interview that he now lives in Los Angeles as well. I end up reading the entire article and thinking that Ellis is just a guy like anyone else, not especially pretentious or malevolent, as he had been accused of being by people I had spoken with at times. And what’s more he made reference to “the Stephen King part” of Lunar Park.

My mind exploded.

What Stephen King part? I remembered and reinstated my mental note: “Read Lunar Park.”

And a few weeks later, as though on cue a beautiful hardback first edition copy of LP appeared at the used book stand at my neighborhood farmer’s market. I bought it on a Saturday morning and opened as I was cooking lunch, expecting to get a taste and maybe read a page or two while the food cooked. I ended up sitting on the couch for the entire day reading. That night I couldn’t wait for my wife to fall asleep so I could sit up late and maybe finish, and I started to do just that until I became so frightened by the story that I literally had to put it away until it was light outside. I had a little trouble sleeping that night but ultimately it was okay, and the next day I finished the book. Immediately I was on the phone telling friends to read it. I made several of my local friends borrow my copy and one-by-one everyone came back to me with the same positive report, and regardless of their previous experience or lack-there-of with Ellis’s writing, everyone who read it adored it.

My admiration extended past just the book or my experience reading it. It reconciled the past and my memories and suddenly I found myself saying “I like Bret Easton Ellis” or even going so far as to thinking of myself as a fan of his. I slowly started keeping up with his online presence, (going so far as even joining Twitter just to follow him) and I find the experience genuinely rewarding. Don’t get me wrong: he’s obviously a weird guy sometimes (anyone who could write the habitrail scene in AP would have to be I guess) and I don’t always agree with his randomly asserted opinions about books and movies (I disagree in particular with him about music: our tastes are just simply different). But overall, I think he has a valid and useful perspective on culture and entertainment. Perhaps some of the detractors still see him as the austere, decadent, nihilistic provocateur that I feared and resented in high school, but I have an impossible time jiving that notion with the man who tweeted recently that he had been talked into getting really stoned and going to see The Lorax.

And I guess this all ties in with his recent series of tweets that he is considering a pseudosequel to American Psycho. Suddenly, this proposition seemed so appealing. It’s been twelve years since I read AP, and in that time I don’t think I’ve ever opened it again, and now suddenly I find myself wanting more, hoping that Ellis decides to go through with it.

So yesterday in excited anticipation I went down to the farmer’s market and this time the used book guy had two beautiful paperback copies of Rules of Attraction and Less Than Zero. I bought them both. Even if Ellis does convince himself to write the Los Angeles Patrick Bateman story, it will be years before it will be published and in my hands, so I guess I need to relax and catch up on everything I missed out on so far.