Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Commentaries of Julius Caesar

Our book today is the Commentaries of Julius Caesar, the seven lengthy pieces of breathless historical fiction Julius Caesar had sent back to Rome (allegedly to the Senate whose alleged employee he allegedly was, although lo and behold, copies also found their way to eager publishers in the bookshops at the foot of the Janiculum) during the years of his illegally prolonged tenure making illegal brushwars all over the province of Gaul.

Let us tell you a thing or two about Gaius Julius Caesar, boys and girls. With the possible exception of Jesus of Nazareth, no figure in history has been so monumentally distorted as this one. For proper visualization purposes (and bowing to the Youtube generation), we need to you to cast your imaginations to 'The Office's scheming Dwight - but not Rainn Wilson, the relatively normal-looking guy who only looks ghastly every week because his chief comedic foil, John Krasinski, is so good-looking - no, rather the UK version, Mackenzie Crook - that's the face of Gaius Julius Caesar: ferret-eyed, gaunt-cheeked, explicitly, visibly duplicitous.

His father - an honorable man - died when he was young, more's the pity. His mother was a formidable woman who was entirely preoccupied with the enormous obstacles she faced simply staying alive and keeping her family in political play. This left young Gaius often in the care of his aunt, who was married to a monster named Marius.

In the generation before young Gaius, Marius had allowed all his military victories (which were hard-won and magnificent - Like Grant and Wellington, he was more of a large-scale systematic butcher than a great military genius, but it got the job done) and the acclaim of the Roman people to push him closer and closer to megalomaniacal insanity - and then finally to embrace it, marching his army (a tool he had entirely reshaped and forged in loyalty not to the Republic but to himself personally) on Rome and plunging the City into a week of purges and bloodshed.

From this monster young Gaius soaked up lessons like a sponge: laws mean nothing, the Republic has no purpose other than your own personal enrichment, oaths are made to be foresworn. By making the legions permanently-staffed and funded things addicted to loot and loyal to individuals who could provide it, by flouting the law when it sought to rein in personal ambition, and most of all by ignoring, emasculating, or outright murdering the ruling aristocracy, Marius had laid the groundwork for a future in which these things would be done not just in times of national emergency but always, by everyone who could and felt like it. Gaius Julius Caesar saw this groundwork and surged into that future.

The way things worked in the Roman Republic, a nobleman served some pro forma time in the military and then began his climb up the ladder of civic advancement - quaestor, aedile, praetor, propraetor, consul, and proconsul. Each of these positions carried a wider scope of authority and called for a greater expenditure of money. Roman politicians weren't paid - quite the reverse: they spent to get to the top, to the consulate. Quaestors might get off lightly, only needing appease their private backers. But aediles, now that's where the sheer cost of succeeding in Roman politics began to separate the men from the boys; aediles had to sponsor public events and shows out of their own pocket, and although in the richest families could absorb these expenses with ease, most office-holders had to borrow heavily on their future prospects.

In fact, all Roman positions looked - and borrowed - heavily against the future, for a very good reason: the future could pay off anything. Consuls and proconsuls were assigned the government of each of Rome's many provinces, and while they were there, they controlled not only the lawful supervision of the province but the flow of its taxes and other revenues (and all the bribes that went along with them) - with virtually no Senatorial oversight from Rome. In this way one man could find himself poised directly at the spigot of a great geyser of money. He could, in short, find himself in a position not only to pay off his debts but also to make himself quite wealthy.

None of that was good enough for Gaius Julius Caesar, none of it happened fast enough, for one reason: money. Boys and girls, there has never been a human being in the history of mankind who could borrow money he couldn't pay back like Gaius Julius Caesar. If you were a junior aedile with deep pockets, a slum whore with a heart of gold, or a hognut vendor in the Livestock Forum, it didn't matter: Gaius Julius Caesar gently wanted whatever you didn't absolutely need for catsmeat sausages and your monthly rent. By the time he was a first-year praetor, he was, in modern equivalents, a staggering 2 million dollars in debt. By the time he reached his consulship, he was a mind-numbing three-quarters of a billion dollars in debt. In other words, even a normal run as governor of a province wouldn't come close to covering the debts he'd amassed on his climb to that august position. And even if he positively racked his province to wring from it every last drop it could yield, there was a risk: provinces could and often did petition the Senate to prosecute their governors for abuse when his term was over. Even in Rome, Caesar never lacked for enemies slavering to bring him to court.

There was a temporary protection, but it was absolute: the consulate. Sitting consuls (much like American presidents, although in practice, if not technically in theory) were immune from prosecution.

But we get ahead of ourselves: in 59 b.c. Gaius Julius Caesar was thinking of a lucrative province, a seed-ground from which to pay his debts and maybe even amass a fortune. But his enemies in the Senate tried to stymie him: when the assignment of provinces was handed out, he was given an empty brief, made governor of 'fields and forests' - just that, generally, with no specification. It meant ruin, and Caesar knew it better than anybody.

That's the tormenting thing about his whole career: at every stage, just before every enormous, world-worsening choice, it's possible, just possible, for even his worst detractors to think that horrible squeak-crack of an all-purpose excuse, that he did what he did out of pure self-preservation. Had he lived to write his memoirs, that's certainly what he himself would have maintained. Even absent that unbearable volume, there's evidence aplenty: everyone who knew him in the last decade of his life encountered the same thing: a deeply distasteful caul of self-pity.

But it isn't true. It isn't true, and it must be rejected, although we here at Stevereads are the only ones currently doing the rejecting. At every single crisis of his life, Gaius Julius Caesar had one set of choices, and one only: I can either be true to the traditions of right and rule and law that have given my whole world and the world of all my ancestors its structure and integrity, or I can do everything, conspire everything, arrange everything, and aim everything for myself, only for myself, for my own needs and my own bank account. The past, present, and future, the world and everything in it, v.s. just me, just me alone.

It's not a choice the present modern American world would have even a second's hesitation making, but once upon a time it was more difficult, and Caesar was the first to break faith with it. He chose himself always, in everything, against anything.

He got his 'forests and fields' appointment, and he did what he always did: he immediately thought - and acted - outside the law.

Not outside the law, exactly, but outside the sway of the Senate, which amounted to the same thing in the eyes of the aristocracy. The Senate was the ruling body of Rome, yes, but the actual grotty business of lawmaking often fell to a semi-official individual called a Tribune of the Plebs. This individual wasn't strictly part of the Senate but could, with the support of the popular assemblies, tell that august body what to do. There's no equivalent in American politics, only near equivalents: imagine Oprah or Rush Limbaugh having not just popular but actual political standing on the issues of the day, although that still doesn't really capture the element of danger that was always present whenever the general populace (the plebs) of Rome was involved.

In any case, a Tribune of the Plebs could push through laws and loopholes, and Caesar had a tame one in his pocket. Using this man, Caesar had himself appointed governor of both Nearer Gaul and Illyricum, and a little later he got Further Gaul as well, and his proconsulship was extended for five years.

And what years they were - years of constant aggression against unoffending tribes, years of near-constant warfare everywhere, breaching the Rhine, even famously and ridiculously venturing to Britain. Constant warfare was necessary - not to protect Rome and pacify the province, as Caesar would steadily maintain, but to justify the existence of his command in the first place.

It was towards the end of this period that the Commentaries were probably written, just prior to the crisis that would forever destroy the old world of Rome. Caesar was at the heart of that crisis, of course: in order to stay solvent and continue to stave off his million creditors (not to mention avoiding prosecution by his million enemies), Caesar knew he had to stand for consul in 48. But the law was clear: he had to return to the City in person, without his army. From Gaul he attempted to push through a change in this state of affairs, again using Tribunes of the Plebs to get it done. But they were stopped, largely by the efforts of Lucius and Sextus Domitius Ahenobarbus, and Caesar was commanded to return alone.

In response, he led his legions across the Rubicon onto Italian soil, and civil war began.

And what about the book itself, the Commentaries, we hear you asking? Regardless of what you think of its author, is the book itself any good?

Good might be stretching things, although as the first example in history of the campaign biography, it's certainly interesting. Caesar throughout refers to himself in the third person, and he is always the calm center of wisdom in the midst of chaos. He is never hurried, never mystified, and most of all never wrong. The style is sparse to the point of being epigrammatic, Caesar's conceit being that the work was just a collection of notes for some future historian to use in writing the Gallic War's full history. But sparse or no, the pages brim with euphemisms, evasions, and lies. Take for instance Caesar's dealings with the two rival chieftains of the Treveri, Indutiomarus and Cingetorix. Indutiomarus proposes an alliance with Caesar, and Caesar agrees. Here's the version of events in the Commentaries:

Caesar was well aware of the reason for Indutiomarus' words, and of what was holding him back from the path he'd initially taken. Nevertheless, to avoid being forced to waste the campaigning season among the Treveri when he was eager to go to Britain, he told Indutiomarus to come to him with 200 hostages. Once they arrived, including his son and all his relations (Caesar asked for these by name) he reassured Indutiomarus and urged him to remain loyal. At the same time, he contacted the leaders of the Treveri and one by one convinced them to support Cingetorix. He did this because Cingetorix, whose loyalty to Caesar had always been plain, deserved the favor, but also because he thought it important for Cinegetorix to be as powerful as possible among his own people. Indutiomarus took this reduction of his influence very poorly. Previously he had been hostile in his intentions toward us, but now he was aflame with indignation.

Translation: Caesar betrayed Indutiomarus, after an ostentatious show of good faith, in favor of a lesser rival Caesar knew he could control. One additional reason for the 'indignation' of Indutiomarus, a reason never mentioned by Caesar? He never got his hostages - including his son - back.

And what about the book's climax, the great 'rebellion' (as if that word could possibly apply to resisting invaders in your own country) of Vercingetorix? Even in Caesar's own account, the desperate heroism of the man comes through. True, in the Commentaries he hever had a chance, despite having united almost all the tribes of Gaul and with stirring oratory and personal valiance convinced them that he represented their last and best chance to repell the Romans. In Caesar's version, there are no surprises: Caesar is calmly prescient of everything and always ready with a cunning counter-strategy and overwhelming military force. From this book a reader would never guess how close Vercingetorix came to pulling it off.

Maybe that's just as well - certainly it's the way of the world: the victors write the histories, and they take no pains to besmirch their own reputations. Certainly nobody did this more industriously or more successfully than Caesar, which is why generations of schoolchildren are still being marched through this execrable piece of hypocrisy, while the lays and ballads of the Gauls have fallen to silence.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

In the Penny Press!

As some celebrity chef or other is fond of saying: BAM!

Right out of the starting-gate, before the first month of the year has run its course, the Penny Press has thrown up an article so arresting, so remarkable, that it demands notice here at Stevereads.

Such a piece appears in the February issue of GQ (the one with the, er, stimulating cover photo of Rachel Bilson): it's by John Jeremiah Sullivan, and it's called "Violence of the Lambs."

Sullivan is a born storyteller and a marvellously confessional one, and he sidles up very gradually to his odd, unique subject matter. In fact, he introduces us to his expert on that subject, the Virgil who will be his guide, a quirky young man named Marc Livengood, before he's really told us what that subject is. This is because his subject genuinely unnerves him, and he knows it will unnerve his readers, and we must believe him when he says he doesn't want to do that. His subject extends ominously into the future, and he's recently had his belief in the domesticated nature of the future badly rattled:

My surprise at this pretty obvious-seeming realization [that nobody knows the future] showed me the extent to which, thanks to Hollywood or my own paranoia or whatever, I'd unconsciously internalized a belief in the existence of some guy, some prematurely middle-aged guy, either Jewish or Asian (or, in the comedy version I sometimes screen internally, Irish) who sits in a room in the bowels of some governmental building and actually knows what's going to happen in the future...

The future is uncertain, yes, and Sullivan creeps up to it by chronicling all the various ... oddities his research and Livengood's obsession have uncovered. Sea lions chasing swimmers. Chimpanzees using sharpened sticks to spear small monkeys hiding in tree hollows. Male elephants on the African savanna raping rhinos.

Once he broaches the subject, it veritably gushes from him, and the reader gradually gets the impression of what he's getting at:

One example: In Bombay earlier this year, a pack of leopards entered the town - just sauntered out of the forest at the heart of the city - and murdered a total of twenty-two people. J. C. Daniel, an environmentalist who has monitored the wildlife in that forest for forty years, said, 'We have to study why the animal is coming out. It never came out before.'
Because that's his subject: the recently-escalating level of aberrant animal behavior, both animals attacking other animals and, more to the point, animals attacking humans in unprecedented numbers.

(here is the only place where Sullivan's excellent piece goes astray - he lets the oddities of the events he's describing sometimes carry him away. For instance, at one point he suggests something frankly unbelievable:

A pack of 200 dogs descended out of the mountains - this was in Albania - ran straight into the town of Mamurras, and just started going after people - old people, young people, 'dragging them to the ground and inflicting serious wounds.' One witness spoke of a 'clearly identifiable leader.' (Lest we assume this to be a seasonal occurence in Albania, the town's mayor, Anton Frroku, stated that 'even in the movies, I have never seen a horde of 200 stray dogs from the mountains attacking people in the middle of a town.' 'Clearly identifiable leader': Elsewhere, too, there are suggestions of organization, cooperation.'

Obviously this part of his piece is fiction - normally solitary animals like male leopards or adult male elephants accept no hierarchical leader and will only seem to be acting in unison when they each come to the same conclusion about what they want to do. To insinuate otherwise is to hint that such disparate animals as elephants or tigers or dogs or cephalopods might have some kind of separate sovereigns who can override their genetic predispositions and organize them, which is obviously the stuff of fantasy. It's here and only here that Sullivan attributes a growing malevolence to the phenomenon he's describing).

That phenomenon only comes to him gradually, as he does more and more reading in wilder and wilder regions of the Internet. And a similar note keeps sounding in all his reading:

What stuck out above all else, as I clicked through Livengood's dots, was the same tendency that had presented itself when I was still just idly following news items on the Internet, namely, the extraordinary number of 'first time' attacks. That is, not simply unprecedented types of attack, such as leopard packs going forth and killing in a crowded city, but rather, pure cases of: animals that have never shown a desire to kill human beings before, killing them.

For every account that seemed a little far-fetched and made me think a few qualifying facts must have been left out, there'd be another that, while admittedly bizarre, had the instant ring of stuff you wouldn't make up, like the jogger in southeastern North Carolina who witnesses saw get surrounded on the boardwalk by a squadron of oversize male hermit crabs, which approached him, kung fu style, with that one bulging claw forward, and appeared to attempt to drive him off the pier. And as always with cases like these, the quote from the zoologist comes around like a mantra: first recorded ... not known to have occurred previously ... relevant literature was searched but no prior instances retrieved ... experts shocked ... abnormal ... unheard of ...

One of these unheard-of incidents happened in Kenya in 2000, during the worst of a drought, when newly arrived water tankers were welcomed by thirsty villagers - and a well-organized troop of equally-thirsty monkeys, who fought a pitched battle for days over who would drink and live. The human villagers eventually won that battle by resorting to axes, but it was a near-run thing, and several of its smaller corollaries went the other way:

In late February of that year, a herder named Ali Adam Hussein slid down to that puddle, probably not to slake his own thirst but to gather a little water for his cows. He looked up and saw several monkeys looking down at him. Presumably, he went to go for his weapon. The monkeys responded by lifting several stones and hurling them directly at his head. He died hours later of what a nurse back in Mandera, where we'd just come from, described simply as "severe head injuries."

His guide Livengood puts it plainly, as plainly as the case is made in this remarkable piece:

Think about it like this, he said, In the early eighteenth century, there were massive combined populations of enslaved blacks, embattled Indians, and poor-white servants living in North America. If at any moment they had truly woken up to the nature of their plight, which is to say the commonality of their plight, and identified its cause as the agenda of the Colonial ruling class, ours would not now be a mainly European continent, genetically speaking. The animals are making the same discovery. And I don't think they'll squander it.

That's pure Marc Livengood, as Sullivan has presented him to us, and it's only at the piece's very end that we learn the jarring truth, or rather untruth: there is no Livengood - there never was. The article ends on a one-two punch of unsettling notes, delivered like this:

Big parts of this piece I made up. I didn't want to say that, but the editors are making me, because of certain scandals in the past with made-up stories and because they want to distance themselves from me. Fine. I made up Marc Livengood. I made up the trip to Nairobi. But I didn't make up the two incidents in Kenya, the battles of the monkeys and men and the murder [this is Sullivan's word]. I did not fabricate a single one of the animal-related facts or stories, the incidents. There's even a real-life guy on the Internet whom I could have used in place of the made-up one, but that go messy, because he wanted money, and anyway, he was insane.

And then this, from GQ's apparently craven editors:

Editor's note: Gay Bradshaw, Christina Holzapfel, and everyone at the Institute for the Future and the at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University are serious scholars and researchers who had nothing to do with this story and have never discussed animal violence with the author, much less endorsed any of his assertions, nor would they, presumably.

This weird and outstanding declaration comes at the end of a piece that is weird and outstanding enough as it is. So what are we supposed to take from it? That there really is such a topic as is euphemistically called 'animal violence' but we aren't to talk about it in the hallowed pages of GQ? Or maybe that the mention of 'serious scholars and researchers' is meant to denigrate Sullivan's character and work habits, when he himself has been at great pains throughout his piece to stress his own doubts and his own fallible humanity?

The magazine is obviously haunted by the ghost of Stephen Glass, who famously fabricated stories while working at the New Republic. Many magazines are, and we here at Stevereads will admit to feeling a little leaden sensation upon first reading that Marc Livengood is a fictional character. Part of the reason is because Sullivan doesn't just use him as conduit for exposition: he invests Livengood with a wide range of totally believable character quirks.

And ultimately, it doesn't matter. When Glass wrote about the Wild West nature of the brand-new Internet, or the odd stress of being a telephone psychic, or the crazy excesses political conventions, he was telling truths, regardless of the lies he clothed them in - and he was turning out some fantastic prose in the process. Sullivan hasn't transgressed quite so far - he immediately admits to his fabrications, and he's right (we had an intern check): every instance he cites of increased or unprecedented animal violence is concretely documentable. And he's crafted a fantastic piece of prose in the process.

The men among our readers will already own a copy of this issue, for, er, other reasons. But for the sake of "Violence of the Lambs," we urge all the rest of you - men, women, manatees, Elmo - to give it a look.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Oscar predictions! 2008!

Our literary endeavors here at Stevereads must wait a bit, while we present to you that annual matter of mystery and magic, our Infallible Oscar Predictions.

Our old friend Locke issues dire prognostications about this year's Oscars: the writers strike, he says, will deprive us all of the red carpet, the demented gibberings of Joan Rivers, the rambling two-hour acceptances speeches, the glitter and the glitz. This would be a bit sad, but even if it happens, the Academy will still make its choices and hand out its awards, and so our Infallible Predictions still have a place in the world. So without further ado, here's how the next Oscar race will break down:

Best Supporting Actress: Well, there are a few applicable names here - Ruby Dee, for instance, turned in a fairly credible performance in American Gangster, and of course poor little Amy Ryan will get a nod for her poor little turn as a poor little character in Gone Baby Gone. It's possible that the eerily Dakota Fanningesque Saoirse Ronan from Atonement will get a mention, or even Tilda Swinton for her entirely commonplace turn in Michael Clayton. But every other name is mere ballast; the winner will be Cate Blanchett for her weirdly evocative impersonation of a young drug-addled Bob Dylan in I'm Not There.

Best Supporting Actor: Again, there's ballast - Javier Bardem has, against all reason, been bruited as a candidate on the strength of his entirely one-dimensional, boring performance as a killer in No Country for Old Men, and likewise the great Philip Seymour Hoffman is mentioned for his disappointingly cartoonish comedy-act in Charlie Wilson's War, but really this category comes down to a slug-fest between Youth and Old Age. On the side of Youth, there's roasting tobacco addict Casey Affleck, who pretty badly embarrassed himself in Gone Baby Gone but who turned in a genuinely creepy, nuanced, and fantastic performance in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. On the side of Old Age, there's Hal Holbrook, who's purely, delicately brilliant in Into the Wild. Of course we here at Stevereads believe that in such a contest Old Age should win, if only for decorum's sake - after all, even though every performance Hal Holbrook gives these days is great (his two appearances in The West Wing absolutely shine, even in a series full of bright lights), simple actuarial reality denies him many more, so the award should go to him. But we learned our lesson on this point last year, when we sentimentally hoped Peter O'Toole would win Best Actor for Venus over Forrest Wittaker for The Last King of Scotland. O'Toole's performance had strength, sadness, command, and presence, just as Wittaker's did - but O'Toole also added a masterly subtlety that no actor half his age could bring. The Last King of Scotland is an intelligent, powerful movie, one you'll watch four or five times. But Venus is so much more than that, so much more brilliant and personal, a movie you paradoxically don't need to rewatch often, because it strikes right inside you on the first viewing, mainly due to O'Toole's brilliantly unsparing performance. In Lawrence of Arabia he gave us an indelible portrayal of vigorous YOUTH; in The Lion in Winter he gave us an indelible portrayal of middle age; in My Favorite Year he gives us an indelible portrayal of that flickering-quick period in any man's life when he's no longer middle aged but he's not yet old, and in Venus he gives us an indelible portrayal of male old age - naturally, we hoped he'd win his first Oscar for his trouble. And we were disappointed. Perhaps overly chastened by this, we're going to err on the side of error and say Casey Affleck will win here.

Best Actress: Again, it wasn't a particularly promising year - certainly there was nothing whatsoever to rival much less equal Helen Mirren's beautiful performance as Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen. But there are nevertheless some worthy efforts, including the always-reliable Laura Linney in The Savages and the quirky Julie Christie for her quirky performance in Away from Her. If there is no Gawd, Ellen Page will be nominated for her insidious work in Juno, and it's possible Angelina Jolie will be nominated for her genuinely affecting work in A Mighty Heart - but the simple truth is that thanks to the fanatically unrelenting omniprescense of the papparazzi, Jolie will never again endure serious consideration as an actress. Fortunately, there's Marion Cortillard as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose - a miniature performance, but still a effective miniature performance.

Best Actor: Several worthy performances this time around, and oh, so few of them will get mentioned or nominated! Instead, we here at Stevereads are morbidly certain that instead the ferociously talentless Johnny Depp will be nominated for his bathetic, embarrassing performance in Tim Burton's execrable Sweeney Todd. The excellent Ryan Gosling might get nominated for his boring work in the thoroughly insulting movie Lars and the Real Girl, but is there much hope George Clooney will get a nod for his thrilling work in Michael Clayton, or has he done one too many Danny Ocean movies? Denzel Washington deserves at least a nomination for his amazing work in American Gangster, but there isn't any real doubt who'll win this category: it'll be Daniel Day-Lewis for There Will Be Blood. Hell, the Academy would be afraid to give it to anybody else.

Best Director: Oddities and longshots abound in this category, which is surely a good sign for the vigor of the industry as a whole. True, Sidney Lumet might get nominated - his Before the Devil Knows You're Dead is a fine piece of work - and he's an industry dinosaur. But there's also Julian Schnabel, who might get nominated for is hyper-manipulative Diving Bell and Butterfly. The Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, will certainly be noticed for No Country for Old Men, but Sean Penn will likely also get a nomination for Into the Wild. There Will Be Blood can't help but bring a nod to weirdo-talented director Paul Thomas Anderson. But like we said, it's a category for wildcards, and it's a wildcard who will win this time around: Ben Affleck, for his astounding debut Gone Baby Gone.

Best Picture: Well, this is it, isn't it? All the other categories are only consolation prizes for this one, and the field is clogged with potential winners. Charlie Wilson's War is a possibility, as is the aforementioned Diving Bell and Butterfly. We hope Michael Clayton will get a mention, but what about Lions for Lambs, or Into the Wild, or even (gakk) Sweeney Todd? It seems certain No Country For Old Men will get nominated, and There Will Be Blood is equally likely. Ridley Scott's jarring American Gangster might get nominated, and currently Atonement (a brilliant, indelible piece of work) is the odds-on favorite to win, well ahead of any other potential contender. But we here at Stevereads will have none of any of that. The 2008 Best Picture will go to Gone Baby Gone, and that's just as it should be.

So there you have it! The winners and losers of 2008's ill-fated Oscar Night! For those of you who need a recap, we thoughtfully provide one:

Best Picture: Gone Baby Gone
Best Director: Ben Affleck
Best Actor: Daniel Day-Lewis
Best Actress: Marion Cortillard
Best Supporting Actor: Casey Affleck
Best Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett

And as always, no need to thank us.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Paris Trout

Our book today is Pete Dexter's 1988 novel Paris Trout, as brutal and vivid a piece of Southern fiction as only one of America's greatest writers could produce. It's a dark and sordid tale of mania and murder, as you'd expect from this particular sub-genre.

It's an odd self-genre, one in which we here at Stevereads have always enjoyed but never understood. Its darkness, its weird obsessions, its reflexive fetishization of mania, its sweaty violence ... the whole sub-genre seems revel in the culture of Southern self-hatred, which is a damn odd place for a sub-genre to be born.

Still, we can't argue with results. With the notable exception of William Faulkner, virtually every writer of 'Southern fiction' (be they themselves from the South or not) has displayed startling, gorgeous abilities.

Those abilities are on full display in Paris Trout, a story that begins with the eponymous main character - as thoroughgoing and hissable a villain as anything you'll find in Dickens or Shakespeare, a petty, usurious bigot of unrepentant vileness - shooting a little Black girl, Rosie Sayers, during a violent attempt to repossess a car.

Even though this is small-town Georgia, and even though Paris Trout is a prominent local businessman, the shooting of a little girl quickly becomes something nobody in town can ignore.

The town's celebrated lawyer, Harry Seagraves (a vain local celebrity who's had babies named after him), has had Paris Trout as his client for years, and he senses immediately the trouble in store for both of them:

Paris Trout will refuse to see it, that it was wrong to shoot a girl and a woman. There was a contract he'd made with himself a long time ago that overrode the law, and being the only interested party, he lived by it. He was principled in the truest way. His right and wrong were completely private. Harry Seagraves had been around the law long enough to hold a certain affection for those who did not respect it, but his affection, as a rule, was in proportion to the distance they kept from his practice. A man like Paris Trout could rub his right and wrong up against the written law for ten minutes and occupy half a year of Harry Seagraves's time straightening it out.

Paris Trout himself is invulnerable to the kind of introspection the killing of a little girl might invoke in other people, and by a weird process of transference, it's hapless Harry Seagraves who's put through all the costs of what Paris Trout did. When he goes to the hospital to check on the progress of Rosie Sayers, he and the doctor interrupt a sleeping orderly who's failed to notice something very important:

Seagraves said, 'I never asked to see this.' Braver took off his glasses again and cleaned them against the corner of his coat. He put them back on and then pulled the sheet back over the girl. It fell half across her still, narrow face, covering half her mouth, part of her cheek. It fell like the first shovel of dirt. Seagraves felt a panic loose somewhere inside himself. 'All I asked for was a prognosis, Dr. Braver,' he said, and the sound of his own voice quieted the feeling. Braver looked at the orderly, who still hadn't washed himself of sleep. 'The orderly here excepted, Mr. Seagraves, I believe that you will find an agreement among the medical community that Miss Rosie Sayers is dead.' He pulled up the edge of the sheet and dropped it over the rest of her face, covering everything but the fuzz on top of her head.

The interplay of images in that little passage - the delicate counterbalance between the edge of the doctor's coat and the edge of the winding-sheet, the gruesome tenderness the prose shows towards the little body at the center of the scene - is so finely done as to become invisible. Likewise the pretty little turns the narrative takes on every page. Dexter has a seamy story to tell, but he has a beautiful way with the English language just the same:

The clinic sat across the street from the campus of Georgia Officer Academy, and the girl saw soldier boys in their uniforms over there, some of them younger than herself, hurrying to cross directions into the gray buildings. It seemed to her that the soldier boys were always hurrying - that the same time that belonged to white people crawled all over them. She thought she would rather not know anything about time than have it crawling all over her.

Pete Dexter has written many strong novels (Train, for instance, is as penetrating an examination of racism as American literature has fielded in many decades), but Paris Trout to our mind stands out as very likely the best novel he's ever written - and one of the best novels American literature has produced in the 20th century. We whole-heartedly recommend it to all of you.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Star Trek Excelsior: Forged in Fire

Our book today is Star Trek Excelsior: Forged in Fire by Michael Martin and Andy Mangels, and it's devilish hard going, truth be told.

Star Trek fiction has fallen on hard times just in general, and there's little can be done to remedy it. Paramount is gearing up for a rervivification of the entire franchise through a new movie (plans are already afoot for a new ongoing TV series, starring pretty much everbody it should never star but promising guest-appearances by what is now a sizeable population of Star Trek veterans), and so sanitization efforts are at a near-Lucas level of least-common-denominatoring.

Which is probably as good a reason as any why novels as relentlessly dumb as Forged in Fire so regularly appear. The fault can't lie elsewhere: the material - that unexplored era between the retirement of Captain James T. Kirk and the heyday of the Enterprise-B under the lily-livered command of Captain Baldy and his wimpy crew - is first-rate, essentially one protracted treatise on the lingering after-effects of the Age of Kirk. And at least part of the writing itself can't be faulted - Michael Martin is a stranger to us, but Andy Mangels we know from of old, and a smarter and more capable writer you could hardly find. The restrictions placed on the writing team by the corporate powers that be cannot be known but must be reckoned severe, if only because otherwise a writer like Andy Mangels wouldn't write a boring word to save his life.

As it is, Forged in Fire is an impossibly wooden affair, so ridiculously dependent on Trekker insider knowledge that no non-Star Trek fan could possibly derive a scintilla of enjoyment from it. And lest there be any non-Trekkers out there wondering about that sentence, let us assure you: there was once a time when Star Trek novels were written not only for fans but for general science fiction readers as well.

That time, in a book like Forged in Fire, seems very distant indeed. This book not only makes heavy-handed references to major and miniscule events in dozens of episodes of four different incarnations of Star Trek, it does so without contextualizing them at all (we defy a non-Trekker to read this book and have the first idea who 'Emony' is, for instance - we know, and Star Trek fans will know, but if nobody else knows, what kind of book can this possibly be?), and it goes even further: it also makes heavy-handed and uncontextualized references to Star Trek books. In other words, unless you've been assidulously keeping up with all things Star Trek, you don't have a targ's chance in Sto-Vo-Kor of understanding this novel.

Perhaps it's an awareness of this state of affairs that's led our two authors to endlessly explain and re-explain literally everything their characters say or do or are, as if to apologize for how egregiously they've left those readers out in the dark. But as a result, the average reader will find himself shuttling between saying 'I don't have any idea what you're talking about' and 'you've already told me that, many times.' It's like our authors - or their corporate overseers -don't think the average reader can retain any information at all for more than five or six pages. When Vulcan ambassador Sarek is first introduced, we're told all those things: he's Vulcan, he's an ambassador, and his name is Sarek. Even non-Trekkers who don't know that this is the Sarek, father of Mr. Spock, still have brains - and yet despite this, every single time Sarek reappears, we're helpfully told that he's a) the Vulcan b) ambassador c) Sarek. Every single time.

And what about Captain Sulu, that entirely spotlight-worthy figure who must necessarily be at the heart of any 'Star Trek - Lost Years' venture? Well, there's a scene in the book where he's wished a Happy New Year. Here's the finisher:

Sulu smiled gently. 'Ganjitsu,' he said, using the Japanese word for 'New Year's Day,' which never failed to make him think of the namesake border world he and his parents had lived for a few short years during his childhood.

Which might sound charming and picturesque, except that by the time that passage happens, we've already been told all of its ingredients - Ganjitsu, its Japanese meaning, the fact that it was the name of a colony world on which Sulu and his parents lived - five times. Let's clarify: Every time we're told anything about the childhood of Captain Sulu, we're told everything about the childhood of Captain Sulu. It's an impossibly tedious bind in which to put a reader, but then, our authors have a complicated story to tell.

The first matter of vital importance on which readers need to be briefed is Klingon knobs (hello Beepy! Thanks for joining us, but alas, it's not what you were hoping for). You see, in the original Star Trek series back in the '60s, the Klingons were for the most part made to look like a suburban bigot's caricature of Chinese Communists - they all dressed the same, and they were swarthy with bushy eyebrows. In the original series, Captain Kirk crossed swords with three main Klingons: Koloth, played by William Campbell, Kang, played by Michael Ansara, and Kor, played with malevolent fun by the great John Colicos.

OK, so far so good. The original series gets cancelled (despite some vigorous letter-writing campaigns), bleak times pass, and lo, 'Star Trek - The Motion Picture' debuted in theaters and opened with a scene featuring Klingons - only hold the phone! These Klingon had long manes of hair and knobs all over their foreheads! In taking advantage of the lavish special effects budget Paramount provided to make the Klingons look like aliens, the creators of the first Star Trek movie opened up a shit-can of problems for all the nerds to follow. Because, nerds being what they are, their first question would of course be: why did the first batch of Klingons we saw look different from the second? What happened in their society, or their genetics, to account for the change? The answer 'because the movie had a huge budget and the TV series didn't' is beyond the pale even to mention to such people - you must provide answers.

For a blissful period, the official world of Star Trek - that is, the movies and the TV shows - just blithely refused to do this. The third (and greatest) of the Star Trek movies, 'The Search for Spock,' featured loads of Klingons, including a very droll performance as the villain of the piece by Christopher Lloyd. The sixth movie also feature loads of Klingons, including a bonny villain-turn by Christopher Plummer ... but still no mention of the knobs. And by that point there was a Klingon showing up every week on the bridge of the Enterprise, no less (Lieutenant Worf, redoubtably played by Michael Dorn), all with no words spent on knobs.

But when knobgate broke, it was nerdishly bound to break big, and so it did: on 'Deep Space Nine,' Worf confronted the question directly, when the classic episode 'Trials and Tribble-lations' brought him and his comrades literally (well, digitally anyway) face to face with those old-style Klingons with their bushy eyebrows and sweaty faces. When faced with the confusions of his comrades, Worf clammed up, so fans had to wait a bit. Star Trek Voyager, in the meantime, made things ever so much worse.

In a very good episode called "Flashback," Voyager's security officer, 100-something-year old Vulcan Tuvok begins experiencing, you guessed it, flashbacks to his days as a callow youth serving aboard - to come full circle - the Excelsior of Captain Sulu. The show's producers scored a casting coup by getting the wonderful George Takei to reprise his role as Sulu, and as an added bonus, they got Michael Ansara, who played the Klingon Kang in the original series, to reprise that role as well. So there the two Star Trek veterans were, face to face again after all these years. Fan heaven, you'd think.

But you'd be wrong! And why? Because right there on Kang's head were knobs! So now not only did nerdy fans have to explain why post-original Klingons had knobs on their heads, they had to explain how it could be that one of those knobless Klingons subsequently managed to acquire them.

Early Star Trek novels had come up with a perfectly simple explanation: the Klingon Empire was large and encompassed many worlds - and many species. It made sense that soldiers would be volunteer - or be drafted - from many of those worlds - hence the difference in appearance. But that explanation goes right out the nearest airlock if the same guy first doesn't have knobs and then later does.

In other words, somebody now had a ripe, redolent job of explaining to do. And that task was made three times harder when the Star Trek series Deep Space Nine came out with a first-rate episode called 'Blood Oath.' The premise of the episode was pure gold: one of the crew of Deep Space Nine was Jadzia Dax (played with wooden incompetence by the unbelievably gorgeous Terry Farrell), a Trill whose sentient internal parasite (like everything else Star Trek, it's a long story) had been alive a century ago and shared a blood oath with - full circle again - Kang, Kor, and Koloth. The show's producers scored another casting coup - they got all three actors to reprise their Klingon roles (Colicos in particular is having a whale of time and acting everybody else under the table in the process) - all with knobs. So now it wasn't just Kang, it was everybody, and something needed to be done.

The writers of Star Trek Enterprise finally stepped into the breach; they fielded a two-part episode that struck the question head-on (so to speak): something about a genetic retro-virus, biological terrorism, et-cetera, et-cetera. As is customary in extended melodramas like this one, the eventual solution was tedium itself compared to the ruckus that originally caused it.

That was the root explanation Star Trek Enterprise came up with: somebody had created a retro-virus in a lab that had smoothed the knobs of every Klingon exposed to it (and of course, as is the way with retro-viruses, their children). That would account for why Kang, Kor, and Koloth would have looked the way they did when Captain Kirk first encountered them. The only question it would leave unanswered was how the dickens Klingons like Kor, Kang and Koloth got their knobs back.

That's where Forged in Fire comes in, and that's why it ought to work so much better than it does. This book tells the detailed story of the taking of that blood oath - by young Curzon Dax and the three Klingon commanders, Kang, Kor, and Koloth, in the heyday of Captain Sulu of the Excelsior.

Three great Klingon captains, a timeless blood-oath, a piecemeal-immortal Starfleet officer, one of Captain Kirk's legendary crew, the topicality of biological weapons and cosmetic bioengineering ... all the ingredients were assembled for great drama. And the really frustrating part of all this is that somebody like Andy Mangels, if given time and a free hand, could have made a great Star Trek novel out of this raw material (this isn't to put blame on Michel Martin at all, who might, for all we know, be just as clever as Mangels).

We believe what got in the way was corporate influence, probably with a touch of nerdy fan anality thrown in. Every single thing in the book is explained at length, which is fine if you're talking about warp-core dynamics but infuriating if you're talking about, say, the act of eating, or walking. Sulu is made to be the soul of geniality because Takei is the soul of geniality - but with the possible exception of Tom Jones, souls of geniality seldom make compelling central heroes. An older and wiser Doctor Christine Chapel provides some ersatz sass as a kind of Doctor McCoy stand-in (the Excelsior's own medical officer, Doctor Klass, is tantalizingly unrealized). We're told that Sulu's old comrade Pavel Chekhov will be joining the crew, but he doesn't show up for this novel (nor does Tuvok himself, also promised for later). Most of the new characters are water-weak cardboard-cutouts who couldn't maintain the interest of a small child. No, the salvation of the book, given its central plot, would have to be the three Klingons and Curzon Dax, a character so often mentioned on Deep Space Nine as a memorable curmudgeon that the reader of Forged in Fire might hope his presence would enliven proceedings. But no - despite a couple of verbal posturings, he's as wooden as the rest.

Here's a case in point: there's one scene two-thirds of the way through Forged in Fire where Curzon Dax is alone with these three great Klingon captains whose respect - even friendship - he's only just begun to win. While all four of them were being tortured by the bad guy (in a deliciously vicious scene we think was entirely the creation of Mangels), these big, gruff Klingons learned that the young man they were coming to like was a walking host to a sentient parasite centuries old. In this scene where they're all alone again for the first time, the Klingons reluctantly and awkwardly raise the question, and Kurzon tries to explain, and the scene falls flat. The scene falls flat. Give us a cup of dry red wine and one hour, and we could craft that scene in a way that would make it a song of embarrassment and culture clash and dry humor. And not just us alone: hundreds of Star Trek fans could write that scene with equal aplomb; Hell, Mangels could do it with ease. The fact that it doesn't happen - and that none of its counterpart scenes ever happen - is the singular strangulation of fanboy novels such as this. They not only rely entirely on nerdy minutiae, on virginal computer-dwellers who just want pieces of information there on the page, not drama, but they're also hampered by corporate 'suits' who've never read a science fiction novel and are only protecting a franchise.

There can't be any other explanation for why Star Trek fiction stinks so bad these days, why it's so wooden and self-referential. Forged in Fire feels very much like a trial balloon: it's possible there'll be other installments in the adventures of Captain Sulu. We can only hope they'll shake off their explanatory duties and breathe free, but the prospects are slim.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Ghosts of Vesuvius

Our book today is Ghosts of Vesuvius by Charles Pellegrino, perhaps the most remarkable - and certainly the finest - book to emerge from the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11th.

Pellegrino is one of the world's true polymaths - a game expert in entomology, paleontology, forensic physics, marine archeology, and half a dozen other things. He epitomizes Leonardo daVinci's belief that specialization is a harbor for shallow minds rather than what it's viewed today, as the province of experts. Like Leonardo, Pellegrino acquires entire disciplines the way most men acquire facts, and he writes a delightful prose.

For the purposes of Ghosts of Vesuvius, Pellegrino isn't precisely entomologist or paleontologist or archeologist but rather something broader and darker - a cataclysmologist, if you will, studying the physics of disaster.

His organizing focus is on the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in a.d. 79, the disaster which consumed - and entombed -the thriving cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. On the second-by-second reconstruction of the events of those days, there has never been a better book than Ghosts of Vesuvius, and although work continues apace on the excavation of those buried towns, a better book is unlikely to follow, by virtue of Pellegrino's vivid writing. His exhaustive grasp of detail is perfectly wed to a very personal understanding:

As others in the Herculaneum boathouses attempted to shelter themselves against the back walls or hide their faces from the approaching surge cloud, a fourteen-year-old slave girl cradled another woman's child under her chin. The posture of her bones suggests an attempt to soothe - until, all in two-tenths of a second, their soft tissues were converted to incandescent gas and their skulls were exploded from the inside, by the pressure of vaporizing brain tissue and boiling blood.

Like all true polymaths, Pellegrino is perfectly at ease admitting the limits of his own knowledge, although he's obviously frustrated with the limits of everybody's knowledge. One of these little mysteries is something called a 'shock coccoon'- a weird product of apocalyptic physics wherein certain items will be preserved in perfect tranquility even while everything around them is being ripped apart.

Pellegrino studies anomalies like shock coccoons in three horrible places where they can be found in abundance: the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the wreckage of the Titanic (the result of her thunderous impact on the sea floor), and, inevitably, Manhattan's Ground Zero.

Shock coccoons seem to work on his imagination, perhaps because they seem to taunt survivors and investigators by a vision of serenity in the midst of depredation - almost like there was a way for everything to survive its own destruction:

No one knows for certain how shock coccoons occur. In a neighborhood where houses were blasted out to sea in pieces, no one in Herculaneum would have believed, in the predawn hours of August 25, a.d. 79, that a container of walnuts would be so perfectly coccooned that the nut meats (albeit just barely) would still be edible more than 1,900 years later.

Pellegrino is at his most touching when his expertise is enlisted not to examine relics from danger zones safely dead but to probe something much closer to home. In addition to all the other weighty things it was, the fall of the Twin Towers was an epicenter for cataclysm physics.

What he finds at Ground Zero is eerily similar to everything he'd seen in Herculaneum and or the Grand Banks, but infinitely more heart-breaking, because these are people he might have known, people who might still be alive if their own personal Vesuvius hadn't overtaken them.

In a weird and touching way - in a way that suggests so much it doesn't have the heart to say - the similarities abound. At Ground Zero he finds all the things he'd found in those older disaster grounds, including shock coccoons which left chunks of law libraries intact - and in alphabetical order - on the fire escape outside a bar far from their place of origin high up in the stricken towers.

Thankfully, he finds at Ground Zero other echoes, no less profound. True, there's equal destruction and tragedy, but there's also a heroism equal to that poor slave girl protecting somebody else's child:

One of the last groups of firefighter and police officers to evacuate alive, down the stairwells of the North Tower, met two civilians running up, the 'civvies' were carrying flashlights and walkie-talkies. They identified themselves as building security and announced that they had made contact with people trapped in an office on the sixty-second floor. The security guards acknowledged a warning that the building would soon collapse, but they refused to leave. The last time anyone saw them, they were climbing toward Floor 62. No one knows their names, and no one ever will. The North Tower's security guards suffered 100 percent mortality.