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From Wednesday, 11 March to Sunday, 15 March, I read Elmore Leonard's Bandits (NY: Arbor House Publishing Company, 1987; ISBN: 0-87795-841-6; 345 pps.).
cover to Bandits by Elmore Leonard

Bandits by Elmore Leonard is a semi-humorous crime thriller set in the latter half of the 1980s involving the then-current US foreign policy entanglements with the Nicaraguan contras and their opponents, the Sandinistas (in full, the Sandinista National Liberation Front; in Spanish, Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, or FSLN), and the scheme concocted by three unlikely partners -- Jack Delaney, an assistant at his brother-in-law's funeral home who served time for hotel burglary; Lucy Nichols, an ex-nun who spent nine years at a leper hospital in Nicaragua, whose father is an ex-oilman turned successful helicopter salesman to the oil industry; and Roy Hicks, an ex-cop turned bartender who provided Jack protection in prison -- to rob a contra colonel named Dagoberto ("Bertie") Godoy Diaz, who is in New Orleans with a testimonial letter from President Ronald Reagan (or, as some of us preferred to style him, "Ronnie Ray-Gun") to help him drum up donations to buy military equipment and materiel for the anti-Communist contras to retake the reins of the Nicaraguan government from the Sandinistas. Into this already busy scenario Leonard adds a cynical, déclassé CIA agent named Wally Scales; an even more down-at-the-heels IRA soldier-cum-recruiter named Jerry Boylan, who is interested in siphoning off some of the colonel's guns; a Cuban exile turned Nicaraguan associate of Bertie's, turned Miami-based drug smuggler, named Crispin; and a half-black Miskito Indian (probably a Miskito Sambu or Miskito Zambo: the racial term was immortalized in the late Victorian children's book The Story of Little Black Sambo) named Franklin de Dios, the muscle of Bertie and Crispin, who is treated by them, as the saying goes, like a rented mule, but who has reasons of his own to fight the Sandinistas.

Add to this already complex blend of conflicting motivations and murky politics a few more oddball Leonard characters, unexpected character interactions and character development, and, above all, dialogue, dialogue, dialogue, and you have the makings of a respectable entry in the "Dutch" Leonard oeuvre. (One quibble about that dialogue: every character here, whether from New Orleans or Nicaragua, says "suppose" when they mean to say "supposed.")

Bandits reads, at this remove, as a historical novel, filling in the memories of those readers who perhaps didn't pay quite as much attention to current events in the mid-1980s as they should have (although hopefully more than Jack and Roy do here...), as well as underscoring those memories of the time that did manage to stick with them. The proxy war that the US and the USSR fought in Nicaragua -- with the US backing the contras who fought to restore the deposed regime of Anastasio Somoza Debayle (although it should be stressed that Somoza was assassinated in exile in Paraguay in 1980, and his heir apparent, Anastasio Somoza Portocarrero -- derisively known as El Chigüín ["daddy's kid"] -- was, by the mid-1980s, not as attractive a figurehead to the contras as they might have wished for), and the USSR backing the ruling Sandinistas, either directly or through Cuba -- colored a good deal of political discourse in the US in the 1980s, and, in some circles, the 1990s, especially given the fact that some have pointed to the contras and their supporters as being a proximate cause of the epidemic of crack cocaine that afflicted California in the 1980s. Leonard does not mention the third Boland Amendment as being the reason that financial support for the contras went so far underground in the US from 1984 until October 1986; the actual activities of what would be dubbed the Iran-Contra Affair were winding down by the time Bandits was published, although news of the scandal didn't break until late in 1986. Iran-Contra would have a place at or near the top of the US news cycle from late 1986 until 1992, when Reagan's first Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, was indicted on two counts of perjury and one count of obstruction of justice in relation to congressional investigations into the matter. (Weinberger was pardoned by the outgoing President George H.W. Bush -- "Bush 41" -- on December 24, 1992, before he could be tried on these charges.)

Readers disinclined to pick up a political / foreign policy info-dump masquerading as a thriller need not worry: Bandits only imparts as much background as absolutely necessary for the characters to act. Indeed, Bandits can be seen as a master class in how to deliver highly condensed exposition almost entirely through a series of dialogues; Bandits reads so effortlessly that it's often only when one pauses at chapter breaks -- to grab a refreshing beverage, perhaps -- that one is apt to realize just how many details Leonard has given the reader. (An ancillary pleasure for me, as a fan of the work of John le Carré, is the sub-basement view of the world of espionage, and its frequent collusion with criminals of varying stripes. The entirety of Bandits can be imagined as taking up just about a chapter, no more, of one of le Carré's more celebrated novels.)

Most of the Leonard hallmarks are present in Bandits: the dry, sometimes off-color, if not out-and-out profane, humor; the quirky, though naturalistic, dialogues that both develop the characters and advance the plot; the unexpected character interactions; the organic behavior stemming from said interactions; and the equally unexpected violence. (Violence in Leonard's books usually doesn't transpire how one might expect, and its scale, whether for good or ill, also frequently surprises.) If Bandits isn't as suspenseful as, say, Killshot, it's certainly a fine entry in the canon, one to be savored as a more serious offering (compare Graham Greene's serious novels such as Brighton Rock, The End of the Affair, or The Quiet American with his self-labeled "entertainments" such as Stamboul Train, A Gun For Sale, or The Ministry of Fear), with a depth and maturity not popularly associated with Leonard's work.

*Cross-posted to LibraryThing.

Saw Inherent Vice last weekend; this is P.T. Anderson's two-and-a-half-hour long adaptation of the eponymous novel by Thomas Pynchon, which is set in So-Cal in 1970, and follows the half-hearted, half-awake ex-cop turned hippie PI Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) as he somnambulantly pursues several different cases that he apparently takes on gratis. This being a Pynchon tale, wouldn'tcha know that all the disparate cases somehow tie together, sort of. The biggest mystery for me, however, was how Doc made his weed money, never mind his rent and operating expenses.

Inherent Vice played like a Bizarro World version of The Big Lebowski, as written by Cormac McCarthy: odd, off-kilter, shaggy, and with an arbitrarily placed ending that doesn't exactly tie up all the loose ends. Then again, those traits are also very much a hallmark of P.T. Anderson's oeuvre (There Will Be Blood, The Master, Magnolia, Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love).

Where The Big Lebowski was the Coen Brothers recasting the first Philip Marlowe novel, The Big Sleep, as a stoner comedy, Inherent Vice is a darkly satirical look, through the fog of constant and casual illicit drug use, at the strange bedfellows that the strange politics in America of the late 1960s / early 1970s created. While there was some truly heavy and scary shit going down in the U.S. in that time period, and there were any number of bad-acting mamma-jammers on all sides of the political spectrum (although those on the right tended to swing the heavier weight), virtually none of that is conveyed in the movie Inherent Vice (or, I suspect, in Pynchon's novel); Doc barely registers any of these bad vibes, and is so dissolute and dissipated that he can barely get off the couch to try to get back with his lost love, even when she marches into his living room at the beginning of the movie, kicking off the overly convoluted proceedings.

Inherent Vice was compelling, sure, if you're in the mood for a high-falutin stoner comic mystery, or kinda like (or want to like) either McCarthy or Pynchon -- or P.T. Anderson, come to think of it. All others might want to take a pass.

A high point (no pun intended...) for me was Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone) relating to Doc her "meet cute" (the air-quotes here are meant to convey the opposite of what the phrase "meet cute" normally does...) story of how she met her missing husband Coy (Owen Wilson), a saxophone player and agent provocateur who appears to be even more detached from reality than Doc is. (It's called type casting, people.) Unfortunately, this appalling tale happens in the first half of the movie, and while the rest isn't exactly all downhill from there, nothing else ever quite matches it, never mind tops it, even when a good-time dentist named Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short) shows up.

Oh, and the soundtrack has not one, but two songs by Can, a weird band who were kind of a 1970s version of Sigur Rós, except they were frequently more upbeat, or at least up-tempo; can't say I can recall offhand another movie that has done the same.

Other standouts in the strong cast are Katherine Waterston as Doc's ex-inamorata, Shasta Fay Hepworth, and Joanna Newsom as Doc's trippy, psychic (and, arguably, entirely hallucinated by Doc) confidante, Sortilège. Josh Brolin's straight-edge LAPD detective, Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen, doesn't appear to have much to offer at first, but keep an eye on his physical shtick, particularly when he's in the car with Doc. O.M.G.

Inherent Vice gave me a vague yearning to go back and finish Against the Day (I stalled out on page 504 of the hardcover edition), or maybe read Inherent Vice or, better, V or Gravity's Rainbow.

Better still, I may reread The Crying of Lot 49, if only to remind myself why I thought that Pynchon was hot stuff in the first place.

From Monday, 12 January 2015 through Sunday, 18 January 2015, I read Mike Resnick's Widowmakers (Science Fiction Book Club omnibus edition of The Widowmaker, The Widowmaker Reborn, and The Widowmaker Unleashed, published by arrangement with Bantam Spectra [a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.], November 1998; ISBN: 1-56865-950-4; 597 pps.).

cover to Widowmakers by Mike Resnick

Widowmakers is the Science Fiction Book Club omnibus edition (complete with a poster of the cover art by Donato as an insert) of the first three books in Mike Resnick's Widowmaker series: The Widowmaker (1996), The Widowmaker Reborn (1997), and The Widowmaker Unleashed. (A fourth book, A Gathering of Widowmakers, was subsequently published in 2005.)

Set three millennia in the future, when humans (often, but not always, referred to as "Man") have scattered far and wide across the galaxy and Earth is but a vaguely and inaccurately remembered historical anecdote, Widowmakers is the story of Jefferson Nighthawk, byname "Widowmaker," an enormously skilled combatant and tactician who has served as a lawman and a bounty hunter in dozens, if not hundreds, of settlements on various Frontier worlds.

In The Widowmaker, Nighthawk is a 62-year-old man with an incurable disease called eplasia that rots one's skin from the inside out; one's bones protrude from visibly putrefied flesh, rather in the manner of a pre-Comics Code Authority illustration one might find in EC Comics, with modern coloring techniques. He has placed himself in cryogenic suspension on the governing world of the human-ruled Oligarchy (the Frontier worlds, for various and sundry reasons, reject the Oligarchy, and lie outside the bounds of its authority and control), Deluros VIII, in the hopes of one day being revived and cured of his disease; unfortunately, over a century's time, the ill-advised economic policies of the Oligarchy have sent inflation spiraling out of control, which in turn threatens the principal of Nighthawk's fortune, which is under management by a prominent law firm that he hired before going into Cold Sleep. His attorneys have him briefly revived so that cell samples may be taken from him, for the purpose of creating a clone of him (despite the fact that cloning is a prohibited activity in the Oligarchy, the technology has been continually tweaked by various parties due to the potential financial rewards): even after being out of action for a little over a century, Nighthawk's legend is still so well remembered that there is at least one wealthy party that wishes to hire a cloned version of him as a troubleshooter, no pun intended. Cloning technology has advanced to the point that a 23-year-old model of Nighthawk can be produced, albeit without the original's memories, in a matter of weeks; such are Nighthawk's gifts that he can be trained by a near equal in the various arts of combat within another few weeks, and off he goes.

The Widowmaker Reborn takes place a couple years after The Widowmaker; yet another clone of Nighthawk is created, this time aged to 38 years, as the first clone proved to be a little too young, dumb, and full of come; technology has advanced to the point that the original's memories can be copied wholesale into the second clone, which means that the wait time between this clone's awakening and sallying forth on yet another money-making endeavor is reduced to the time needed for him to warm up to peak condition: no training required.

Finally, in The Widowmaker Unleashed, a cure is found for eplasia, and, after the original Jefferson Nighthawk is revived, cured, and restored to his original sixtysomething appearance, he sets forth as a free man; unfortunately, while the enemies that he accrued during his existence have long since passed on, his two clones have managed to acquire a multitude of enemies of their own, enemies that the original has never seen and has no knowledge of....

Widowmakers is a throwback to the days of a pulp, sci-fi adventure (although there's far more talk than there is action), and shouldn't be regarded as anything more than a decent time-killer. There are hints of deeper meanings here, particularly in the final book, with its nods towards the making of a legend in the manner of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (indeed, passing reference is made, on p. 485 [Chapter 12 of The Widowmaker Unleashed], to two other legendary Resnick characters: Santiago [from Santiago: A Myth of the Far Future, 1986, and The Return of Santiago, 2003] and Conrad Bland [from Walpurgis III, 1982]) and its musings on how difficult it is for someone who has embraced "the Way of the Gun" to finally lay down his weapons; those who have previously read and enjoyed Resnick will likely be frustrated that these hints are not further developed (indeed, even his early paperback original novel Redbeard [1969] managed to be a more profound commentary on action adventure tropes in fantasy and science fiction than Widowmakers does). The questions raised by cloning -- how much debt to the original does a clone reasonably owe? what constitutes a separate identity for a clone, in both the existential and (perhaps more importantly) the legal sense? -- seem rather perfunctorily resolved in the interest of narrative momentum, which is all well and good; nonetheless, one may have a feeling of having been cheated by a deus ex machina at the end of The Widowmaker Unleashed, with its unwelcome whiff of science working as magic. (At minimum, Resnick is guilty of not playing fair, insofar that he didn't adequately lay the groundwork for his ending.)

Of the original trilogy, The Widowmaker is the worst (2.5 out of 5 stars); The Widowmaker Reborn and The Widowmaker Unleashed are both 3 out of 5 stars. That said, Widowmakers as a whole is the least that I've yet read of Resnick; I might pick up a secondhand copy of A Gathering of Widowmakers, but I feel no compelling need to do so.

*Cross-posted to LibraryThing.

From Sunday, 28 December 2014 to Friday, 2 January 2015, I read Max Allan Collins' True Crime (originally published in 1984, but republished by AmazonEncore [Las Vegas, NV] in 2011; ISBN: 978-1-61218-093-9; 481 pps.), on my Kindle.
cover to True Crime by Max Allan Collins

True Crime is the second book in Max Allan Collins' Frank Nitti Trilogy, and the second of his 19-book-and-counting Nathan Heller series, about an ex-Chicago cop (the full details are in True Detective; 1983) turned private eye; the conceit of the Heller series is that Heller somehow gets dragged into various real world mysteries, crimes and conspiracies so that Collins can float his own take on what might've happened without having his work marginalized to the conspiracy theory or crackpot genres. Think of Heller as Forrest Gump in film noir drag.

In this installment, Heller finds that a seemingly straightforward case of investigating marital fidelity pulls him into the orbit of the nationwide manhunt for John Dillinger; after the events of 22 July 1934, Heller takes on another seemingly mundane case of searching for the wayward daughter of a tubercular ex-farmer, only to find himself cheek-by-jowl with a Who's Who of Public Enemies, plotting the proverbial "last big score" to finance their retirement, only this score is a hell of a lot more interesting than your typical bank or jewelry heist.

I liked True Crime slightly better than its predecessor, True Detective, mainly because Collins made a very convincing case for Dillinger's survival; in his afterword ("I Owe Them One"), Collins gives a fairly exhaustive round-up of his main sources, with special recognition given to Jay Robert Nash's "Dillinger's not dead" theories (published in Dillinger -- Dead or Alive [1970], Citizen Hoover [1972], Bloodletters and Badmen [1973], and the revised and expanded edition of the first book, published in 1983 as The Dillinger Dossier), although he takes pains to note: "I do not draw exactly the same conclusions from the evidence at hand as does Nash, so he should not be held accountable for the version of Dillinger's 'death' as told in these pages." My only previous significant exposure to the notion that Dillinger really wasn't gunned down outside Chicago's Biograph Theatre on a hot summer's night in 1934 was in the pages of The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson. While some of the details in True Crime verge on being overwhelming, they're nowhere nearly as head-snapping (if not mind-expanding...) as those crammed into The Illuminatus! Trilogy. (It does help, however, if you're willing to make a few sidebar searches with Google to fill in some of the details for some of the historical persons who appear in the pages of True Crime.)

Nathan Heller is an interesting, mostly congenial shamus: he's tough and persistent without being superhuman or vicious (he rarely goes armed, at least partly because his father committed suicide with a firearm); he's reasonably fair and honest without being a plaster saint (hey, it's Chicago); and he's an intelligent man with several glaring blind spots. Some readers may be put off by the latter, as he makes two ginormous gaffes in True Crime that land him in more hot water than most of us would ever want to be in; then again, without these errors, there would be no story here, just another counterfactual true crime "history."

Collins' prose style is no frills and WYSIWYG (which is exactly what I wanted after John le Carré's A Perfect Spy), and he lards True Crime (and True Detective) with plentiful, mundane period details that are mostly successful at conveying the feeling of the time and place (the Murphy bed in Heller's office is nearly a character in and of itself here); at times, however, he nearly oversells his research, which threatens to turn True Crime into a Nostalgia Illustrated-themed version of the children's game "I Spy." (That said, Heller's dismissal of the song stylings of Guy Lombardo and the Royal Canadians made me smile.) Frank "The Enforcer" Nitti is a more subdued presence in True Crime than he was in True Detective, for obvious, plot-related reasons; Nitti's power and influence over Heller (as, indeed, over all of Cook County, Illinois and, to a lesser extent, a goodly portion of the Midwest) is more interesting and sinister here than in the previous book, at least in part because of Nitti's relative lack of "screen time." Collins convinces the reader that Nitti was at his most dangerous when he was at his most avuncular.

And although it would've had no place in True Crime, trivia-happy readers of a certain (admittedly sophomoric) mindset may feel faintly disappointed by the fact that Collins ignores the rumor that Dillinger's reportedly absurdly large penis ("14 in. flaccid, 20 in. erect," according to The Book of Lists 2 by Irving Wallace, David Wallechinsky, Amy Wallace and Sylvia Wallace [NY: William Morrow and Company, Inc.; 1980; ISBN: 0-688-03574-4; 551 pps.], p. 324) was on display at either the Smithsonian Institution or the Medical Museum of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (subsequently moved to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center). Given that the final chapter of True Crime consists of Heller giving a "Where are they now?" round-up a few decades after the events of the novel, Collins could've easily had Heller raise (ahem) and dismiss this rumor, to the relief of most of his male readers.

*Cross-posted to LibraryThing.

From Sunday, 19 October 2014 through Sunday, 28 December 2014, I read A Perfect Spy by John le Carré (NY: Scribner [a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.], 2008 [copyright 1986; author introduction copyright 2000]; ISBN: 978-0-7434-5792-7; 600 pps.).
cover to A Perfect Spy by John le Carre

A Perfect Spy is an exhaustive and exhausting look at the titular character, Magnus Pym, a double agent for both the British secret service (MI6, or the British equivalent of the CIA) and the Czechoslovakian secret service; when Magnus absconds with a "burnbox" (a portable, fortified case designed to contain sensitive documents that can incinerate them with the press of a button) and goes to ground in parts unknown, his employers, both British and Czech, as well as the CIA and his wife, Mary, scramble to "walk the cat back," as the saying goes, to try to locate him, discover what he's done, and deduce what he intends to do. Magnus, for his part, attempts to probe his intentions through the act of writing his memoirs, which he frequently addresses to both his teenaged son, Tom, and his friend, mentor, and immediate superior in MI6, Jack Brotherhood (who had a sexual relationship with Mary before Magnus married her; Mary, who hails from a family with a long and distinguished career of military service, was at that time also employed by MI6 as part of the support staff). In the course of writing his memoirs, Magnus also recapitulates the career of his father, Rick, a skiver, spiv, failed politician and con artist extraordinaire, going back to Rick's adolescence, before Magnus was even a gleam in his father's lying eyes.

While A Perfect Spy (the title, much as with Mikhail Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time, is meant to be heavily, ostentatiously ironic) contains some very fine writing, as one may reasonably expect of a work by le Carré, its structure leaves a lot to be desired: alternating between "tight third person omniscient" (for the POVs of Jack and Mary, as well as the rather sketchy CIA liaison to MI6 in Vienna, Craig Lederer; "der Lederer" is German for "tanner," which may be significant: "skive" is a term used in leatherworking, as well as denoting the main activity of an Ally Sloper type) and Magnus' interminable memoir-cum-apologia, one cannot escape the feeling that A Perfect Spy is more about the novel's structure -- as well as le Carré's need to come to grips with his own con man father's (Ronnie Cornwell; John le Carré ["le Carré" is French for "square"] is the penname of David Cornwell) influence on his life -- than it is about its nominal subject. The constant interruption of any forward movement in the contemporary narrative by interpolations of Magnus' family history (which themselves don't unfold in chronological order) ultimately killed for me any involvement in or interest with the story or the main character. The fact that the novel takes place in the mid-1980s, during the waning days of the Cold War, also means that the stakes seem laughably minuscule, as does the revelation that Magnus is two-timing MI6 with arguably the most progressive of the Warsaw Pact member nations, Czechoslovakia.

Magnus' magnum opus shifts, jarringly, from first to third person, sometimes in the same sentence; he also alternately addresses his son and his boss/friend/mentor within the same paragraph, although it is suggested, at least in the early excerpts, that he initially intended to compose two different narratives for these two different people. This is probably meant to convey Magnus' confused and divided mental state, but all it really did, for me, was distance and flatten the narrative into irrelevance. (Possibly le Carré needed to distance himself from his memories of and discoveries about his father in order to write this book; his introduction to the edition that I read sheds a bit of light on this, but his statement that "writing A Perfect Spy is probably what a very wise shrink would have advised me to do anyway" is even more illuminating.) While parts of Magnus' memoir struck me as vaguely reminiscent in tone of Thackeray, I suspect that A Perfect Spy as a whole bears greater similarities to Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy; certainly A Perfect Spy could've -- and probably should've -- been subtitled "A Cock and Bull Story".

*Cross-posted to LibraryThing.

A perfect spy -- or a perfect bore?

I've been intermittently reading John le Carré's 1986 novel A Perfect Spy since October; I'm up to p. 458 (almost to the end of Chapter 13) in the trade paperback edition (which has eighteen chapters and 590 pgs.), and I am more than ready to be finished with it.

Despite the big-love blurbs from the New York Times and Philip Roth (whose work I've yet to read, astonishingly enough) declaring A Perfect Spy to be either "perhaps [le Carré's] best" or "The best English novel since the war," respectively, I'm far from being besotted with it. Oh, there is some very nice writing in it, but it's not always, or mostly, contiguous; it reads like nothing so much as a 19th century novelist's take on a mild satire of the business of espionage (or, laughably, "intelligence gathering") in the Cold War era of the 1950s through the mid-1980s. (I'm almost reminded of Thackeray in parts.)

It wouldn't surprise me if le Carré wrote this, the most autobiographical of his novels (I suppose some readers heaved a sigh of relief that this distinction didn't belong to The Naïve and Sentimental Lover....), partly as an intellectual exercise, seeking to emulate some belletrist of the past century, to provide some necessary emotional distance between himself and his dodgy-sounding father (who serves as the model for A Perfect Spy's protagonist's father, Rick; the protagonist is saddled with the vainglorious, to an English speaker, first name of Magnus). However, to someone less erudite than le Carré, at a certain point, all the to'ing and fro'ing in the service of a plot of no particular importance eventually palls, and the references to Thomas Mann and Simplicissimus (the latter of which was referred to in at least one of the books of le Carré's Karla trilogy) lose their assurances of a deeper and more profound meaning to be gleaned by the attentive and diligent reader. Slogging through the increasingly diminished joys to be had in A Perfect Spy, one should perhaps be forgiven if the rather unkind phrase "whiskey-dick" comes to mind.

Meh. I'm willing to treat A Perfect Spy as a one-off, but I think I'll take a break from le Carré for a while after I've finally finished it. Haven't read Len Deighton in a few years; I've got the other two Bernard Samson trilogies (the Hook, Line and Sinker and Faith, Hope, and Charity trilogies; the first one is the Game, Set and Match trilogy, followed by the stand-alone prequel novel Winter) to work through, as well as some Harry Palmer books.

Technical difficulties.

My laptop went down in late June / early July; haven't been able to resurrect it, have no access to another computer. Don't really want to post to LJ from my Kindle, pecking away at the electronic keyboard one character at a time with a gooshy stylus.

Still active on Twitter ("@uvula_fr_b4"), if anyone is interested. Will try to McGyver something together so I can resume my intermittent LJ posts. (Bonus question: ever try updating your LibraryThing account from your Kindle? DON'T.)

Really not feelin' the love for Jerry Cornelius.

I've an ambivalent relationship with Michael Moorcock's work: yes, I recognize how fraggin' seminal it is to science fiction and fantasy, I realize that he's a prime exponent of the British New Wave in science fiction, and any self-respecting, self-described geek, especially one with even a casual interest in these two genres, is almost contractually obligated to read at least some of Moorcock's stuff; however, I can't help but feel that Moorcock rarely writes to the limit of his ability. (Maybe that's just wishful thinking?) Too often it feels like he's phoning it in.

As much as I loved the original Hawkmoon series (The Jewel in the Skull, The Mad God's Amulet, The Sword of the Dawn, and The Runestaff), I've yet to make it all the way through the sequel trilogy (Count Brass, The Champion of Garathorm and The Quest for Tanelorn; finally read The Champion of Garathorm after two tries, but still haven't finished The Quest for Tanelorn); while I liked the first Corum trilogy (The Knight of the Swords, The Queen of the Swords, The King of the Swords), I was less impressed with the second trilogy (The Bull and the Spear, The Oak and the Ram, The Sword and the Stallion) and, at this remove, I can remember demmed little of either series. Kane of Old Mars was a mindlessly fun swords and planets pastiche, originally published under a pseudonym (Edward P. Bradbury). And Elric -- ah, Elric, Elric, how many different versions of the Elric books have been published; how confusing it is to try to suss out which book to read, and in which order. I love the concept of Elric, but ofttimes the execution leaves much to be desired.

My hands-down favorite book by Moorcock thus far is The War Hound and the World's Pain; I liked that one so much that I dread reading the rest of the Von Bek series, for fear of finding that the quality drops off a cliff.

But Jerry Cornelius: how often others have riffed on the character, if not out-and-out ripped him off, not always with Moorcock's blessing. Whither Grant Morrison without a Jerry Cornelius to steal refer to? JC, JC (the initials are surely not coincidental, given his occasional messianic "Jesus Christ pose"), the "adult film" version of the Mad Mod, a being of no determinate gender, sexual orientation, or "race," he shifts back and forth from life and death as quickly and, to this reader, as nonsensically, as he changes other aspects of his being. Indeed, Jerry Cornelius's particulars are so much in flux, moreso than with even Moorcock's other Eternal Champions, that one has to question whether there even is a Jerry Cornelius: surely the notion that one may usefully describe a single being as possessing the characteristics (one dare not call them "personality traits," given that Jerry Cornelius effectively has no personality, only a constantly shifting series of wants and hungers, forever in the present tense) of Jerry Cornelius is a laughable one; Moorcock here attempts to out-Brecht Bertolt Brecht.

Jerry Cornelius: a pan-sexual (if not omni-sexual), pan-gendered, pan-racial scientist, rock star, surgeon, secret agent, connoisseur, revolutionary, religious icon, trickster god, and lover par excellence; Buckaroo Banzai is a more rational imagining of Jerry Cornelius, filtered through Doc Savage.

In theory, Jerry Cornelius sounds like the type of character I should take to like a duck to water; in practice....

I've read a baker's dozen of William S. Burroughs's books, and, honestly, thus far, the Jerry Cornelius books (I've finished The Final Programme and I'm between a third and a half of the way through A Cure For Cancer) read to me like Burroughs-lite, with maybe a soupçon of John Dos Passos for flavoring.

As little as I think of The Final Programme, I think that A Cure For Cancer is even more of a failed experiment. A Cure For Cancer is, thus far, almost wholly empty calories: a series of trite expressions and by now meaningless clichés intermingled with advertising copy, tabloid headlines, the occasional high-brow quotation, and a minimalist outline of an utterly meaningless, irrational espionage thriller parody. Israel has annexed Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey? How? Why? Who knows? Who cares?

I really disagree with Brecht's premise that the dramatist (and, by extension, the novelist) has to constantly remind the audience that it's watching a performance; to my mind, the real trick for any self-respecting dramatist or writer of fiction is to make the audience forget that it's watching a performance, it's reading a work of fiction. Damned few creators are good enough to do that for more than brief sections, and a depressingly large amount of them aren't able to accomplish even that much.

Moorcock might as well have scribed A Cure For Cancer with a dog turd on a Franklin Mint commemorative plate, then smashed said plate over the head of a random passerby; it's that pointless and that puerile.

Yes, I can read it with greater ease than, say, Burroughs' The Soft Machine or The Ticket That Exploded; but that's a pretty goddamned low bar.

If Moorcock was really trying to advocate the position that "Nothin' matters, and what if it did?," why did he even bother writing these bloody books? (A more compelling question, perhaps, is, how in the hell did he ever get them published in the first place?)

I suppose I should grit my teeth and finish at least A Cure For Cancer and, ideally, the other two books in the first quartet (The Chronicles of Cornelius); I just can't guarantee that I'm going to read them right away.

From Saturday, 10 May through Thursday, 14 May, I read W. Somerset Maugham's The Magician (originally published in 1908 by Heinemann (London) and in 1909 by Duffield and Company; but I read it in a Project Gutenberg edition in OverDrive Media Console on my Kindle Fire [the Project Gutenberg edition included Maugham's introductory "A Fragment of Autobiography," which, as far as I can tell, first appeared in the Penguin edition published in 1967, in association w/ Heinemann]; 199 pps.).

cover to The Magician by W Somerset Maugham

The Magician is apparently an exception that proves the rule to Somerset Maugham's usual oeuvre: a sensational, proto-pulp (or a neo-gothic) thriller that, after a deliberate build-up, actually delivers in its hellzapoppin payoff.

Stuffy and unimaginative English surgeon Arthur Burdon travels to Paris to visit his one-time ward, current fiancée, Margaret Dauncey, as well as renew his friendship with the retired Breton physician and autodidactic occultist Dr. Porhoët; while there he makes two new acquaintances: Margaret's roommate, Susie Boyd (who is a vacationing teacher at least a decade older than Margaret), and the repulsively corpulent, alarmingly charismatic Oliver Haddo, a wealthy squire and a casual acquaintance of Porhoët, who met while they were each studying the occult in the Bibliothèque de l'Arsenal. Haddo is deliberately provocative, even rude, but has a wealth of worldly anecdotes (he is a keen lion-hunter, for example) and a recondite erudition to entertain and silence any would-be critics, over and above his slightly mesmeric stare.

Due to a contretemps with Burdon -- Haddo kicks Margaret's dog while visiting her and Susie in the company of Porhoët and Burdon, in consequence of which Burdon physically attacks Haddo, who fails to defend himself -- Haddo conceives a terrible hatred for Burdon, and plots a convoluted, wholly improbable, but nonetheless awful, vengeance against him. Haddo woos and wins Margaret away from him, acting less the passionate and sentimental lover than a Svengali (who debuted in George du Maurier's 1895 novel Trilby; his fame far outshone that of the novel's titular character, notwithstanding the fact that she had a type of hat named after her) who clouds her mind and breaks her will. Burdon, though spiritually wounded nigh unto the breaking point himself, nonetheless doesn't contest the marriage, believing Margaret to be in full possession of her faculties, and honestly in love with Haddo. Eventually Susie, who has fallen in love with Burdon, convinces him otherwise, and he calls upon Porhoët's expertise to assist him in bearding Haddo in his ancestral home of Skene, in Staffordshire, in the West Midlands, England.

Interest is added to The Magician by the knowledge, which Maugham confirmed in his "Fragment of Autobiography" some fifty years after The Magician's initial publication, that Haddo is a caricature of Aleister Crowley, the self-described "Great Beast," whom Maugham knew in passing. Crowley was so incensed by this mocking and unflattering portrait of him that he undertook to review The Magician in the pages of Vanity Fair, signing himself "Oliver Haddo;" Maugham claimed to have never read the review.

While Maugham claimed, in his "Fragment," to have spent "days and days reading in the library of the British Museum" to research The Magician, he still produced such idiocies as Porhoët declaring that Haddo "'had studied the Kabbalah in the original'" (Chapter 1) -- as though there was an "original," ur-text of the Kabbalah. Nonetheless, Maugham manages to reward the reader's suspension of disbelief with a slow-burn building up of tension and suspense that is magnificently rewarded with a climax that is at least the equal of most of the sensational works that were of a time with The Magician; the conclusion of The Magician is more thrilling and eerie, for example, than that of the first two Fu Manchu novels or, come to that, than Dracula's (or Alraune's). Maugham very wisely limits Haddo's time on-stage, and, more importantly, limits his tirades about his esoteric activities, so that the reader is nearly as ignorant and impressionable as Burdon and Susie (and, for all his time spent at the Arsenal, Porhoët), and so can react with the appropriate levels of horror and revulsion when they slink through Haddo's attic workshops at Skene.

The Magician was much more enjoyable, on the whole, than the only other work I've read by Maugham thus far, the short story collection The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Seas Islands (1921); I'm somewhat apprehensive of reading more Maugham due to the glum feeling that I'll probably not enjoy his other work as much.

*Cross-posted to LibraryThing.

I've written previously about my ambivalence for the writing of Garth Ennis: while I mostly enjoy his superhero satire / takedown, The Boys, he managed to make his "Boys-verse" nearly as convoluted and contradictory as any decades-long superhero continuity from Marvel and DC, which pretty much defeats the purpose of his satire; and, while I think he's the definitive writer for that randy scouse git John Constantine, and I've warmed up to the hellbilly stylings of his DC Vertigo horror series Preacher a bit more from the first hardbound volume, I've no real desire to read more of his occasional sort-of zombie series Crossed.

But I think that Ennis's true métier is writing war comics (I've enjoyed the first four non-related arcs of his World War II meta-series Battlefields, from Dynamite Entertainment, as well as the 12-issue Marvel MAX series Fury MAX: My War Gone By, which is a retcon of the career of Marvel's longest-running military character turned elite secret agent, Nick Fury; I remain ambivalent about Ennis's first Fury MAX mini-series, with spectacularly gory artwork by Transmetropolitan and The Boys co-creator Darick Robertson), or at least writing paramilitary-type action comics such as Punisher MAX.

Ennis is quite outspoken in his disdain for superheroes (perhaps most especially WWII-based heroes such as Captain America, which he feels detract from the true heroism exhibited by the ordinary grunts who actually fought the war), but he will deign to write the occasional non-superpowered (or low superpowered, such as his character Tommy Monaghan, Hitman, who was a low-level telepath and had x-ray vision that he used to aid him in his relatively modest -- and wholly illegal -- occupation) character, as long as he can peel him off from said character's usual superhero continuity.

His take on the former Spider-Man frienemy, The Punisher, for Marvel's The Punisher series (part of Marvel's adult line of MAX titles), was a joy to behold: it started out like Mack Bolan on crank and just amped up from there. It's a testament to Ennis's skill that the series wasn't merely mindless mayhem; Ennis managed to introduce a few poignant, downbeat moments, as well as several moments of pitch-black humor, if you're of a certain, doubtlessly sick, mindset.

Following is a prime example of the latter: a splash page (pg. 4) fr The Punisher MAX, Vol. 1, #53 (Feb. 2008), written by Garth Ennis, art by Goran Parlov (who also did stellar work on Fury MAX: My War Gone By), colours by Lee Loughridge; this is part 4 of 5 of "Long Cold Dark," which is collected in Punisher MAX Vol. 9: Long Cold Dark.

Punisher MAX v 1 no 53 p 4 -- Goran Parlov art(1)

The poor bound bastard getting tortured is Barracuda, but really, he kinda deserved it. He kidnapped the Punisher's (just introduced) toddler daughter and strapped a claymore mine to the side of her car seat.

The biggest jarring note for me in "Long Cold Dark"? Barracuda singing along in his car to Nick Cave's version of "Stagger Lee." Yes, yes, a great song with hilariously over-the-top lyrics ("I'd crawl over fifty good pussies just to get to one fat boy's asshole" -- REALLY?!), but that sequence pulled me out of the story, even more than Barracuda's absurd, Paul Morrissey-esque / Monty Python-esque near indestructibility.

Nick Fury has a run-in with Barracuda in #10-12 of Fury MAX: My War Gone By; Barracuda also starred in his own 5-issue mini-series, Punisher Presents: Barracuda, which I've yet to read. Hello, inter-library lending service..?


The supreme space lord who will now DEST
The Feckless Wonder

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