Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Film Birdman Reviewed

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Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film Birdman relies heavily on a central stylistic conceit: The film unfolds as one continuous uninterrupted shot, the camera unblinking, restlessly moving after Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), a washed-up actor who has put everything he has—financially, physically, mentally—into a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

The shot isn’t really continuous (any savvy viewer will spot the cuts), but the effect is powerful and engaging early on, especially when Keaton shares the lens with Edward Norton, who plays Mike, a wild foil to Keaton’s Riggan. Mike is the artist, the theater actor, the method actor, the real deal; Riggan is just a celebrity—or rather was a celebrity, the star of the Birdman franchise. The nod to Keaton’s Batman films is not even a nod, but one of several meta-crutches that Iñárritu rests all the film’s supposed “weight” on. Birdman wants to be heavy, but it feels hollow. Good thing it’s always in motion.

Birdman suffers by comparison to a handful of other films, notably Aleksandr Sokurov’s masterpiece Russian Ark in particular. Sokurov’s film, also filmed in one continuous take, does a finer job plumbing the mysteries of aesthetics (and any of aesthetics’ supposed nemeses) than Birdman. Sokurov’s film also bewilders, where Birdman’s contours are fairly familiar stuff. Another film that stages (and restages) what Birdman would like to be doing with more force is Charlie Kaufman’s deeply flawed and very brilliant film Synecdoche, New York, an alienating study of art, performance, and audience.

Of course I’ve just done exactly what Keaton’s Riggan howls against late in Birdman’s second act. He confronts the theater critic who has promised to kill his play, screaming that she, as a critic, takes no risks, puts nothing on the line. Her words are just labels; all she does is make weak comparisons. Has Iñárritu built a defense into this scene? Are we to empathize with Keaton’s Riggan? Or with Norton’s Mike? Or with the other characters whom Riggan alternately alienates and draws back in, including his ex-wife, his daughter, his girlfriend, his co-star, and his best friend? Or maybe we empathize with Riggan’s Birdman, the voice that haunts him, the voice that haunts itself into existence?

Anchored by fantastic performances—what a joy to see Keaton carry a movie again—great cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki , and a jazz percussion score, Birdman is an entertaining way to pass two hours, but the profundity it seeks in its final moments simply isn’t there. The film’s formal structuring device, the uninterrupted shot, would like to penetrate its hero’s consciousness, but always seems to fail, necessitating voice-over or dialogue to clumsily underline the main idea. (Should I unfairly contrast this weakness with the far more powerful long-takes in Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void? No? Okay). Birdman strives to explore the tangle between art and entertainment, but at the end we’re left with yet another Hollywood satire of ego and celebrity. Birdman is amusing when it seeks to be penetrating, clever when it seeks to be profound. And it made Raymond Carver’s story look like lurid dinner theater. But these are just labels.

I review my review of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice an hour before seeing PTA’s film adaptation

I’m leaving to (finally) see Paul Thomas Anderson’s film Inherent Vice in a few minutes.

I’m going with my uncle. (I also saw No Country for Old Men with him in the theater. This point seems hardly worth these parentheses).

Below, in block quotes, is my review of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice (which I published here—the review obviously—in 2009). My 2015 comments are interposed.

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Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, Inherent Vice

Oh god I used to bold face key terms jesus christ sorry.

is a detective-fiction genre exercise/parody set in a cartoonish, madcap circa-1970 L.A. redolent with marijuana smoke, patchouli, and paranoia.

“genre exercise”…”madcap”…ugh!

Navigating this druggy haze is private detective Doc Sportello, who, at the behest of his ex-girlfriend, searches for a missing billionaire in a plot tangled up with surfers, junkies, rock bands, New Age cults, the FBI, and a mysterious syndicate known as the Golden Fang–and that’s not even half of it.

Not a bad little summary, bro.

At a mere 369 pages, Inherent Vice is considerably shorter than Pynchon’s last novel Against the Day, not to mention his masterpieces Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon, and while it might not weigh in with those novels, it does bear plenty of the same Pynchonian trademarks: a strong picaresque bent, a mix of high and low culture, plenty of pop culture references, random sex, scat jokes, characters with silly names (too many to keep track of, of course), original songs, paranoia, paranoia, paranoia, and a central irreverence that borders on disregard for the reader.

Uh…

And like Pynchon’s other works, Inherent Vice is a parody, a take on detective noir, but also a lovely little rip on the sort of novels that populate beaches and airport bookstores all over the world. It’s also a send-up of L.A. stories and drug novels, and really a hate/love letter to the “psychedelic 60s” (to use Sportello’s term), with much in common with Pynchon’s own Vineland (although comparisons to Elmore Leonard, Raymond Chandler, The Big Lebowski and even Chinatown wouldn’t be out of place either).

When I heard the PTA was adapting Inherent Vice, I thought: Wait, the Coens already did that before Pynchon wrote the book.

While most of Inherent Vice reverberates with zany goofiness and cheap thrills,

Clichés, bro.

Pynchon also uses the novel as a kind of cultural critique, proposing that modern America begins at the end of the sixties (the specter of the Manson family, the ultimate outsiders, haunts the book). The irony, of course–and undoubtedly it is purposeful irony–is that Pynchon has made similar arguments before: Gravity’s Rainbow locates the end of WWII as the beginning of modern America; the misadventures of the eponymous heroes of Mason & Dixon foreground an emerging American mythology; V. situates American place against the rise of a globally interdependent world.

Uh…

If Inherent Vice works in an idiom of nostalgia, it also works to undermine and puncture that nostalgia. Feeling a little melancholy, Doc remarks on the paradox underlying the sixties that “you lived in a climate of unquestioning hippie belief, pretending to trust everybody while always expecting be sold out.” In one of the novel’s most salient passages–one that has nothing to do with the plot, of course–Doc watches a music store where “in every window . . . appeared a hippie freak or a small party of hippie freaks, each listening on headphones to a different rock ‘n’ roll album and moving around at a different rhythm.” Doc’s reaction to this scene is remarkably prescient:

. . . Doc was used to outdoor concerts where thousands of people congregated to listen to music for free, and where it all got sort of blended together into a single public self, because everybody was having the same experience. But here, each person was listening in solitude, confinement and mutual silence, and some of them later at the register would actually be spending money to hear rock ‘n’ roll. It seemed to Doc like some strange kind of dues or payback. More and more lately he’d been brooding about this great collective dream that everybody was being encouraged to stay tripping around in. Only now and then would you get an unplanned glimpse at the other side.

Oh cool you finally quoted from the book. Not a bad little riff.

If Doc’s tone is elegiac, the novel’s discourse works to undercut it, highlighting not so much the “great collective dream” of “a single public self,” but rather pointing out that not only was such a dream inherently false, an inherent vice, but also that this illusion came at a great price–one that people are perhaps paying even today. Doc’s take on the emerging postmodern culture is ironized elsewhere in one of the book’s more interesting subplots involving the earliest version of the internet. When Doc’s tech-savvy former mentor hips him to some info from ARPANET – “I swear it’s like acid,” he claims – Doc responds dubiously that “they outlawed acid as soon as they found out it was a channel to somethin they didn’t want us to see? Why should information be any different?” Doc’s paranoia (and if you smoked a hundred joints a day, you’d be paranoid too) might be a survival trait, but it also sometimes leads to this kind of shortsightedness.

Will PTA’s film convey the ironies I found here? Or were the ironies even there?

Intrinsic ironies aside, Inherent Vice can be read straightforward as a (not-so-straightforward) detective novel, living up to the promise of its cheesy cover. Honoring the genre, Pynchon writes more economically than ever, and injects plenty of action to keep up the pace in his narrative. It’s a page-turner, whatever that means, and while it’s not exactly Pynchon-lite, it’s hardly a heavy-hitter, nor does it aspire to be.

I’m not sure if I believe any of that, bro. Did I believe it even when I wrote it? It’s a shaggy dog story, and shaggy dogs unravel, or tangle, rather—they don’t weave into a big clear picture. And maybe it is a heavy hitter. (Heavy one-hitter).

At the same time, Pynchon fans are going to find plenty to dissect in this parody, and should not be disappointed with IV‘s more limited scope (don’t worry, there’s no restraint here folks–and who are we kidding, Pynchon is more or less critic-proof at this point in his career, isn’t he?). Inherent Vice is good dirty fun, a book that can be appreciated on any of several different levels, depending on “where you’re at,” as the hippies in the book like to say. Recommended.

Oh geez.

Okay, I should write more but my uncle says it’s time to roll.

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon

[Ed. note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Thomas Pynchon’s novel Mason & Dixon—which I loved. (See also: Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s RainbowGeorge Orwell’s 1984, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, James Joyce’s Ulysses and David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress). I’ve preserved the reviewers’ own styles of punctuation and spelling].

What crap.

A talking dog?

I made a mistake.

Dialogue that is meaningless?

But what is the point of this story?

Pynchon is simply messing around

I can’t believe I read the whole thing.

I guess there’s no accounting for taste.

Rarely have I anticipated a book so hungrily.

Lost me at the talking dog, and never recovered.

I’ve also seen Pynchon praised for his erudition.

You think a talking dog or mechanical duck is funny?

Supposedly it’s a literary adventure through the 18th century

George Washington smoking pot and getting the munchies?

I consider my myself a reader who relishes literary challenges.

I am a reader who enjoys being bluntly told what the author thinks

The only book I’ve ever read that was a complete waste of time !

just an endless series of unconnected and unrelated ramblings…

Yes, it was a different world back then, and people talked funny (to our ear).

The publisher should have left the trees to grow rather than putting this in print.

I had to finish it – but resorted to scanning the text for references to my 7th great grandfather.

Pynchon is like strolling through a garbage dump full of meaningless, forgotten pop culture relics.

Wow, I give up on Mr. Pynchon who apparently has some intergalactic literary insights well above my head.

Regretfully, I’ll need to wait for the english language translation before properly assessing this novel’s merits.

Thomas Pynchon surely must have been smoking something more powerful than plain tobacco when he wrote this debacle…

I admit to approaching this book with a great deal of reverence, along with guilt for never having attempted either “V” or “Gravity’s Rainbow.”

Mr.Pynchon may be considered one of today’s great writers by the cosmopolitan literati, but this provencial reader found his work to be a 773 page morass of archaic vernacular with no particular point.

I would like to assert, however, as one who has read quite deeply in English prose of the last 400 years, that the much-praised “18th-century English” is nothing like, being full of anachronisms and lapses of decorum.

Pynchon doesn’t descibe. He makes lists of objects, as if the acculation of things or people surrounding the characters is enough to create some semblance of reality, or alternate reality, or hyperreality or whatever.

I am in the vast minority, obviously, who “didn’t get it.” Some times I wonder if reviewers, too “didn’t get it” but were afraid to say so, because this conglomeration of words is just that – a pointless, incomprehensible waste of trees.

My Tedium never Ceases, yet have I only Dredged thru half of this Tome. My eyes grow Tir’d and my Thoughts grow more hateful towards this Author. History is barely Reveal’d and the style has Vex’d me thru and thru. Hemp smoking Franklin? Confus’d and Stupid Astronomers? Half the book not spent in the country of interest? Yet I plod on, making a use of this Fantastique tale, to knaw away at the Minutes spent in the loo. Wouldst it be quite the thing, if only the Paper t’was softer, I can then make of it a Cleansing Agent for my Posterior once Finished with each page.

It was evidently written for a limited audience–people who can actually read eighteenth century style prose and who still find jokes about “not inhaling” to be amusing.

Pynchon’s style is clotted, mannered, meretricious and UNpoetic in the extreme. Indeed, I think much of the book, in word and matter, is a stale exercise in collecting academic trivia and faddish modern-day truisms about the period.

To be sure, there is some real history reported, but there is also much nonsense and fakery–the first pizza, golems–and interminable, leaden dialogues that could never have taken place.

Really Pynchon was just showing off his “imagination” with endless derails, whimsical characters that didn’t figure into the story at all, and stupid jokes bathed in obscure jargon.

If you like rambling verbiage that not only obstructs but obliterates the point, you’ll love this author, whose neurotic word dribblings are gnosticed by critics to be visionary insights.

For all the scribblings in this book’s 800 some pages, 90% of it just feels like hot air lacking any real message or content.

One could read this book from front to back, back to front, or from the middle both ways and not be able to tell the difference..

I love sentimental literature but I couldn’t for the life of me see much connection between Pynchon’s writings and the major works of the 18th century.

I challenge any fan to give even one insight about life or the universe that they gleaned from Mason and Dixon..

Just because the gags are about the hollow earth theory does not make them any more than just gags.

The reader is presented with one choppy chapter after another, often with little or no context.

The book is a mess and sorely needed a large pair of scissors to trim out the inane chatter.

Thers’s an old phrase about good writing: show, don’t tell. Phynchon don’t show nothun’.

For years Pynchon has intrigued me as being one of the “bosses” of modern literature.

There’s no sense of place, no compelling plotline. The characterization is merely O.K.

Pynchon is all over the map willy nilly throwing out anything that diverts his attention.

In what way was this an homage, parody, or imitation of 18th century literature?

If Thomas Pynchon has a plot or a story line, he surely has hidden it very well..

To this day I do not know what the book was about and what was going on.

The overall scheme of the novel is stupid and amateurish.

Too hard to read for this master’s degree English teacher.

Hundreds of unrelated and disconnected characters too..

Some as ridiculous as a talking dog, and a robot duck…

This book is a waste of time and paper.

What is all this supposed to mean?

Honestly, this book is just annoying.

The first pizza made in England?

Clearly, the fault is mine.

Wicks Cherrycoke?

Big @#$%ing deal.

Selections from One-Star Amazon Reviews of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart

[Ed. note: The following citations come from one-star Amazon reviews of Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart. (See also: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s RainbowGeorge Orwell’s 1984, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, James Joyce’s Ulysses and David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress). I’ve preserved the reviewers’ own styles of punctuation and spelling].

There were too many details

no plot, lousy tales, and distant characters.

Gnerally, I am extremely open-minded about other cultures,

Don’t buy this unless you need it for some reason out of your control.

DOES THIS GUY EVEN KNOW WHAT THE FUDGE HE IS TALKING ABOUT!

I read two chapters and quit It was horrible, and I say BAH!!!!!!!!!BAH!!!!!!!and a BOOOOOOOO!!!!!

This is one of those “politically correct” books they force you to read in school, in hope of “broadening our horizons” and “opening our minds.”

The main character had a lot of mental problems, including violence, chauvinism, and overambition to become the ‘model citizen’ of his tribe. I had no sympathy for him, neither should you.

Throught the book the auther keeps bringing in new charecters that have almost the identicle spelling of another and it gets very confusing

While Chinua Achebe claims to be an African freedom activist, her(? I can never figure out these new-fangled names) style of writing is stereotypical of the reactionary Brench and their quest to retain Africa.

The author seems to have some sort of infatuation with yams, because the entire book revolves around idiotic descriptions of yams and characters struggling with their declining yam output.

I found this story went no where, there were no real accomplishments done by the main character, his could have check in to an asylum for a year, dealt with his tribal issues, what he missed out on as a kid, came back to his tribe and really made a difference with his people. Instead, we just see some ones life that just gets worse.

This story could have been told in about 20 pages, but streches out into a full book that finally makes a point in the very last pages. Achebe’s work needs some fine tuning.

Why coudln’t they just at least change the names you could at least pronoucne it, ne ways if you plan on reading it, your want lots of time, so u can understand it.

“THINGS FALL APART” IS LIKE ABOUT A GUY WHO GROWS YAMS AND BEATS HIS FAMILY, AND IT JUST TALKS ABOUT THAT THE WHOLE TIME ITS A TERRIBLE HORRIBLE BOOK!

Almost nothing happens for the first 100 pages except we find out that he has three wives and he beats his kids. GREAT, That took 100 pages to say!!

If your looking for a good novel about African people by an African writer, it’s not here. Try Toni Morrison.

Anyone with sense would be rooting for the imperialists by the end of this book.

the writer is only famous because he is a minority.

the story have no point at all.

It draged on and on.

It was like reading a quick obituary.

the names are way too hard to pronounce.

All you never wanted to know about yams… and other such things

This book is way too confusing for the average reader (I am an honors student) and even the more advanced reader would find difficulty reading this book.

Better by far to have young atudents enjoy ayn rand tom woods and john allison milton friedman and peter schiff adn be poastive free neterpirse and successful.

the only thing you’ll enjoy is saying Okwonko over and over again

This makes Africa look worse, not better….

No one cared about Okonkwo’s yams!

How DARE we let children read this book.

it just SUXED

In retrospect, the story lived up to it’s name.

A Very Short Review of Denis Johnson’s New Novel, The Laughing Monsters

Denis Johnson’s new novel The Laughing Monsters is excellent.

Okay: Too short a review? Well. Look, I read it over the weekend, and got a copy of the audiobook version to listen to this week, and then I’ll write a proper review, but here’s publisher FS&G’s blurb, followed by a few quick impressions:

Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters is a high-suspense tale of kaleidoscoping loyalties in the post-9/11 world that shows one of our great novelists at the top of his game.
Roland Nair calls himself Scandinavian but travels on a U.S. passport. After ten years’ absence, he returns to Freetown, Sierra Leone, to reunite with his friend Michael Adriko. They once made a lot of money here during the country’s civil war, and, curious to see whether good luck will strike twice in the same place, Nair has allowed himself to be drawn back to a region he considers hopeless.
Adriko is an African who styles himself a soldier of fortune and who claims to have served, at various times, the Ghanaian army, the Kuwaiti Emiri Guard, and the American Green Berets. He’s probably broke now, but he remains, at thirty-six, as stirred by his own doubtful schemes as he was a decade ago.
Although Nair believes some kind of money-making plan lies at the back of it all, Adriko’s stated reason for inviting his friend to Freetown is for Nair to meet Adriko’s fiancée, a grad student from Colorado named Davidia. Together the three set out to visit Adriko’s clan in the Uganda-Congo borderland—but each of these travelers is keeping secrets from the others. Their journey through a land abandoned by the future leads Nair, Adriko, and Davidia to meet themselves not in a new light, but rather in a new darkness.

The Laughing Monsters is not the plot-driven spy novel it pretends to be. The novel’s plot is a shaggy dog story, an excuse for Johnson to riff on how adventure tips into madness, how conflicting identities jam up against loyalties.

Johnson is clearly following Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, sure, but there are also heavy hints of Moby-Dick here, and even Blood Meridian (McCarthy clearly is the descendant of Melville and Conrad, of course). But mostly Denis Johnson is following Denis Johnson in The Laughing Monsters.

The Laughing Monsters is also very-much about writing itself: Nair is a writer, and much of the novel takes the form of emails he sends (or writes without sending), notes he scratches on lined paper in dull pencil, and half-mad confessions. Ultimately, the voice that narrates the novel is Nair’s internal composer. The driving force of the story though is Michael Adriko, the charismatic trickster who seems to be creating the plot as he goes along.

More to come, but again, short version: Great stuff.

Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage Reviewed

I should probably start with a confession: I’m not a big Haruki Murakami fan.

I’ve tried.

I’ve probably abandoned The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle more than any other book (save maybe Proust). I lost interest somewhere in the first 100 pages of Kafka on the Shore, despite finding the premise intriguing. I’ve enjoyed a few of Murakami’s short stories over the years—or maybe found them technically impressive—but none more than the first one I read back in 2001 or 2002 in an issue of Harper’s (I was living in Tokyo at the time, and the main character took the same train I did everyday, the Marunouchi Line).

want—or rather at one point I really tried—to like Murakami’s fiction, but I just don’t. It leaves me cold.

Which is odd, I think, because the themes and tones—dark ambiguity, strange disappearances, unresolved mysteries, etc.—these are the themes I enjoy most in fiction.

9780804166744When the kind folks at Audible offered me a review opportunity, I thought I’d take another shot at Murakami. His new novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is short enough, I reasoned, for me to, y’know, not abandon it. So I listened to Random House Audio’s production (10 hours, unabridged), reading sections against a copy of the book I checked out from the library. (English translation is by frequent Muarkami translator Philip Gabriel).

There were some fine, creepy moments, but on the whole, I was left cold. The novel is technically impressive (did I already use that term?—What I mean is that Murakami is masterful at activating the sensuous strokes that make the words real for the reader—the book is stuffed with the tiny details that are, y’know, mimetic, and these mimetic details bring vitality to Murakami’s frequent metaphysical digressions—when Tsukuru feels a pain in his back, for instance, this physical sensation is not merely a placeholder for a psychological or spiritual hurt, but the very locus of metaphysical disjunction that Murakami wants to explore in the novel—but hang on, I seem to be riffing unfocused in a parenthetical aside, before I have even addressed that basic question review readers want satisfied up front: What is the book about?).

What is the book about?

Before I get to that, I have to address the performance in the audiobook by Bruce Locke, who reads the dialogue (and Tsukuru’s inner-monologues) with a mild Japanese accent. This accent clashes with the affectless intonation that Locke uses to read the exposition. It makes no logical sense at all why Japanese characters would speak to each other in this way. The audience is smart enough to realize that they are reading a book in translation—why make the characters speak to each other in stereotypical accents? The choice is unfortunate, problematic and distracting.

Okay, but:

What is the book about?

Reader, in the acme of laziness—a laziness I will attribute to my lack of enthusiasm to the novel—here is a synopsis of Colorless Tsukuru that I jacked from Wikipedia:

In this Bildungsroman of the realist kind (hints of the author’s magical realism are left to dreams and tales), the third-person narrative follows the past and present of Tsukuru Tazaki, a man who wants to understand why his life was derailed sixteen years ago.

In the early 1990s in his home town of Nagoya, the young Tsukuru was a fan of train stations. In high school, the two boys and two girls that were his four best friends all had a color as part of their surnames, leaving him the “colorless” one of their “orderly, harmonious community”. But one day in 1995, during his second year in college, his friends abruptly cut all relationships with him. That never-explained, Kafkaesque ostracism left him feeling suicidal then guilty “as an empty person, lacking in color and identity”; and when his only college friend vanished the next semester, he felt “fated to always be alone”.

Now in 2011’s Tokyo, the 36-year-old engineer Tazaki works for a railroad company and builds stations. His new girlfriend Sara spurs him “to come face-to-face with the past, not as some naive, easily wounded boy, but as a grown-up” and seek his former friends to mend the relationships and find out why they rejected him, because she won’t commit to him unless he can move past that issue. And so he will visit them one by one, first back in Nagoya, then in rural Finland, on a quest for truth and a pilgrimage for happiness.

That’s actually a pretty nice little summary—hey, there’s even some analytic commentary! Kafkaesque indeed!

What’s missing from the summary—besides the seemingly-endless metaphorically-overdetermined scenes of Tsukuru swimming that Murakami insists on inserting—what’s missing from the summary is what I take to be a key scene, a story-within-a-story that Tsukuru’s college friend tells him about a pianist who travels around with a bag (which may or may not contain human fingers). The pianist explains to his audience-of-one (Tsukuru’s college friend’s father, if that matters) that he has chosen to die in the place of another person. This metaphysical conceit haunts the rest of the novel, but remains unresolved. (The theme of death and the specter of severed fingers returns again in the novel’s most compelling passage, an extended grotesque vignette featuring fingers floating in formaldehyde).

Much of Colorless Tsukuru remains unresolved. I’d be fine with that if it worked, but I don’t think it does here. (I’m reminded of a joke I read on Twitter years ago: That we know it’s literary fiction if at the end the character is waiting for something). The prose, while brilliant at times in its mimesis, is often clunky and almost always repetitive. This is a repetitive novel. This novel repeats its scenes repetitively. There’s a lot of repetition here.

But you just don’t get Murakami, man, you may reply, dear reader, and that may be true. (Although I do have a penchant for ambiguous, morbid, sinister fiction in translation). I try to assess a novel on what the writer is trying to do, and Murakami—here and elsewhere—feels like a writer supremely adept at creating what Jonathan Lethem called the “furniture” of the novel, the mimetic space in which the characters can come to life. And yet the life force of the characters—their spirit, if I may—seems tepid, clichéd—boring. In the end, I just don’t care. I guess I just don’t get Murakami, man.

Stephen Collins’s Allegorical Fable The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil Reviewed

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Stephen Collins’s début graphic novel The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil tells the story of Dave, an especially average (forgive the oxymoron) guy in the neat-and-tidy island of Here, a place where conformity rules and difference is unthinkable. Dave fits like a cog into his tidy world until a beard erupts from his face, severing him from society.

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Despite its neat and tidy contours, an omnipresent dread of otherness gestates in the egg-shaped isle of Here. That dread manifests in the fabled land of There. Dave’s psyche is haunted by There; its very existence threatens both body and mind. Collins renders this anxiety in a remarkable series of panels that concretize Dave’s nightmare of otherness:

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Dave’s nightmare highlights his subconscious realization that there cannot be a Here without a There. The realization leaves him abject, torn, and destabilized, even before his beard appears. When the first hairs do arrive, Dave’s interior existential crisis spills outward, his messy difference oozing out to disrupt and upset the tidy normalcy of Here.

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Poor Dave.

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The beard quickly becomes a national emergency requiring enormous resources. Police, military, the media, and eventually the entire society become entangled in the crisis. United against a common foe, the citizens of Here are nevertheless distracted, letting their grooming habits slip. Things become less tidy. In their battle against the beard, they overlook the greater war on weird.

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The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil is an allegorical fable. Collins attacks conformity and fear of otherness, but also depicts just how complex and horrifying otherness can be. While the island of Here is clearly a stand-in for England, Collins’s satire of xenophobia and the dangers of groupthink will resonate pretty much everywhere. All kinds of 21st-century anxieties writhe under the text: fear of immigration, the collapse of cultural homogeneity, ecological devastation—the end of a particular way of life. The angry mob castigating poor Dave call him a terrorist, but they are the authors of their own terror.

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In an unexpected and rewarding fourth act, Collins examines the aftermath of what comes to be known as “The Beard Event.” The Untidiness that happened while the citizens of Here were distracted dealing with Dave becomes the new normal. Fits of nonconformity inevitably become trends, then commodities.

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The Beard Event eventually becomes “A story many times retold and resold,” complete with its own museum (enter through the gift shop). Collins offers a clear depiction of difference—how it’s first feared, then resisted and attacked, and eventually absorbed and recycled.

I’ve tried to offer enough of Collin’s words and art to convey a sense of his simple but refined style. His lines are often gentle and always precise, his subtle shading all the color this tale needs. The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil succeeds visually on the strength of Collins’s pacing and panel design. Collins seamlessly integrates his prose into the panels, moving the story along in a lilt of rhymes and non-rhymes evocative of Edward Gorey or Roald Dahl. Collins nimbly avoids the potential pitfalls of preachiness or meaningless absurdity here, leading to a confident and convincing début. I look forward to more. Great stuff.

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil is now available in the United States in hardback and ebook from Picador.