Wednesday, September 30, 2009

October 2009 in Open Letters!

It's been a rocky month for Open Letters Monthly this September, what with traffic-jams and site-shutdowns, but the work of assembling another great kept going, firm in the faith that all would turn out well. And it did: the site is up and running, and in October we've got lots and lots of great stuff to offer! This month's star feature is our second annual Bestseller List feature, where our writers take on the most popular fiction titles in the country (from a list we froze before Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol strolled into sight) and sift that list for nuggets of gold. It's the juxtaposition here that's fun, since virtually none of these reviewers typically read the type of books on the list - there's some funny stuff, some irate stuff, and some unexpected stuff waiting for you in the results.

And there's an entire issue besides! Articles on Norman Mailer, Dan Chaon, dating in America, the new iteration of the Halo video game franchise, "It's a Mystery," Canadian poetry, Anthony Trollope, "A Year with the Romans," evolution, and lots, lots more! Make some time today, set aside an hour or two this weekend, and dig in! And, as always, post your thoughts if you feel so inclined! We always like hearing from you!

A Gay Fiction Trio!

A young acquaintance of mine who's not yet a writer recently made a comment about the book of a young acquaintance of mine who is finally a writer, saying "the book is a successful example of gay fiction" - which naturally got me thinking! What is gay fiction? What constitutes a successful example of the sub-genre? If it's just the presence of lots of men in close homoerotic relationships, we'd have to include everything from Gilgamesh to The Lord of the Rings - so it can't be that alone.

It seems to me all gay fiction has one thing in common: consciously or unconsciously, it mirrors some aspect of what it's like to be gay at the time it's written. The challenges, the fears, the pleasures, most often and most effectively the neuroses ... all these things are reflected, distorted, blithely discarded, exaggerated in an attempt to give gay readers someplace to go with the part of the reading desire that wants to identify with some image of themselves.

(That desire - to find a place in a book that comfortably resembles a place inside you - actually animates a great deal of fiction, of course; the genres that cater only to that can rightly be called escapist and gently barred from the highest ranks of literature, since those ranks are reserved for books that attempt - again, successfully or not - to sow discomfort in the reader. The best reading is, after all, telepathy - with all the disruption and self-annihilation that implies)

So it must be admitted - even by those of us who like the sub-genre - that most gay fiction is purely escapist these days: boy meets boy, boys get it on, boys rest for a few minutes, boys get it on again, straight boy tormentors get either tormented or boy-seduced, boys get it on some more, etc. The amazing thing about this deplorable state of affairs, the thing that no scoffers should allow themselves to forget, is what a triumph it is for gay fiction to have reached the point where it can be mindless fun. Twenty years ago, it would have been unthinkable to find a book like Dorm Porn or Cowboy Lovin' (or Beantown Boys) in a mall bookstore; fifty years ago it would have been a crime. Today, a gay boy lucky enough not to live in a bigoted (i.e. rural) area can walk into such a bookstore, hand over the money he earned turning tricks, and buy - over the counter, as it were - a wide selection of books that present him, at long last, with pure gay escapism. Many Bothans died to bring us to such a point - it's not a thing to be lightly dismissed, however silly the actual content is.

The journey to that point - where both escapist titillation and deeper, more thoughtful reflections are possible in the light of day - is a 20th century thing. The twenty-three centuries before that were far too thick with religious prohibitions and social stigmata for any Western writer to risk an open reflection of gay desires or problems. You have to go back to fourth century Athens to find men openly loving men and suffering no bigotry for it (and jumping forward to the 20th century, you could find that same lack of neuroses in the magnificent novels of Mary Renault, which got away with it by being set in that time The Last of the Wine may very well be the most idyllic portrayal of gay love ever written); after that, it's the rack and the stake and psychology and 're-education camps' ... until Stonewall, Tales of the City, and Brokeback Mountain. Until now.

Even as recently as 1970, most gay fiction found it unimaginable that gay relationships could be legal and open - but there was one famous trailblazer who at least imagined they could be happy. Gordon Merrick's exuberantly written, erotically charged novels would look like anomalies no matter when they happened, but coming as they did at the very beginning of the so-called sexual revolution and claiming all the freedoms of that revolution for homosexuality, they often seem nothing short of revelatory. In 1970 Merrick published The Lord Won't Mind, the first of his books to feature his perfect gay couple, Peter and Charlie. The boys first meet in this book, at the leafy, accepting home of an eccentric (Merrick code for 'loves the gays') aunt, and they've no sooner shaken hands than they're up in their bedrooms, stripping off each other's clothes and pounding away. Merrick's endless descriptions of sex are hugely entertaining for their unflagging enthusiasm, but the real appeal of the books - especially in 1970 - was in their free, healthy attitude toward it all, perfectly captured by Peter and Charle's first post-coital conversation:

"Haven't you ever done anything like this before?" he [Charlie] asked. Peter rolled his head on the pillow in negation, his eyes still closed. "My God, I can't believe it. With your looks, I should've thought everybody would be falling all over themselves after you."

Peter opened his eyes. Tears were in them, and a reluctant, ambiguous plea. "Have you done it before?" he asked.

"Well, sure. Hundreds of times."

"How did you know I was - Did you know it was going to happen with us?"

"I didn't know. I thought it might. I hoped it would."

"I guess I did too, from the minute I saw you, but I tried not to think about it. You're going to have to show me. I don't know how to act. You're going to have to teach me everything."

"That won't be any great hardship," Charlie said with a chuckle. "Just do anything you feel like."

To put it mildly, the world of Charlie and Peter was an utterly unattainable dream for most gay men in the 1970, and to be fair to Merrick, things don't stay quite so perfect for our heroes in later chapters and later books. The specter of bigotry isn't entirely absent from Merrick's books, but confronting that spirit directly, dissecting it, simply isn't on his agenda as a writer. He's more concerned with giving his readers great heaping helpings of wish-fulfillment, sunny days and infinite orgasms with hardly a social restriction in sight.

What a different world presents itself only eight years later, in Andrew Holleran's rightly venerated gay fiction classic Dancer From the Dance! This is surely the greatest novel about unfulfilled gay yearning ever written, with Malone, its beautiful, doomed central character standing in for every key frustration of the age. Holleran's book is a quintessential New York novel, and all through its pages, we get glimpses - glimpses of the kind New York endlessly provides, then and now: handsome businessmen on their way to work, whole lives repressed beneath their cookie-cutter features, swaying pretty boys staggering happily home at dawn from a night gyrating away at dance parties in the city's secret corners, perhaps that one young guy with the evocative face, sitting on a park bench as you crane your neck to see him through the window of your crowded passing bus. Holleran takes us inside the hollow, tortured life of one of those glimpsed young men, Malone, as he at first tries desperately to be 'normal' (i.e. straight) and then abandons himself to the downward whirl of the city's sexual underside. Needless to say, Malone himself is full of yearnings - always for something simpler than he is:

"Isn't it beautiful?" Malone would exclaim as we drove past the girl doing handstands on the lawn, a young woman walking a flock of children down a dappled sidewalk. "Why don't we take a house here next summer instead?" But he knew we wouldn't, and he knew he wouldn't, for even now the drums were in our blood, we sat forward almost hearing them across the bay, and the van raced on through the streets so that the driver could hustle back for another load of pleasure-seekers, so bent on pleasure they were driving right through Happiness, it seemed, a quieter brand of existence that flourished under these green elms. We kept driving right through all that dappled domesticity, like prisoners, indeed, being moved from jail to jail imprisoned in our own sophistication. The truth was the town reminded Malone of his days at boarding school in Vermont; the sight of a football arcing across a green wall of woods made him sigh with a passionate regret. He always looked like a student who has just come in off the playing fields, eyes glowing from an afternoon of soccer. He always looked like that, even in the depths of a subway station, on the dingiest street in Manhattan.

There's plenty of light in Dancer from the Dance but no warmth; this is nostalgia without sentiment, the careful, loving remembrance of unpleasant things. In writing the great pre-AIDS gay novel, Holleran was forever memorializing a setting in which empty carnality was the only substitute available for all that dappled domesticity the narrator affects to scorn.

Shift forward nearly forty years, and what do you find in bookstores? A new series from Running Press called "M/M Romance" - historical romance novels set in a wide variety of time periods (but not, so far, fourth century Athens) featuring love between men ... almost Running Press' commentary on the lack of societal challenges facing such love in contemporary American settings (if this is indeed their rationale, they need to spend more time in Anytown, U.S.A., where there's still plenty of challenge in two men openly loving each other). It would have been perversely pointless to publish such books in 1970, or 1950 - why take a cultural impossibility and compound it? But now, when every high school has a GLBT "alliance" and half the states in the country favor legalizing gay marriage, there's a certain element of dramatic excitement derived from setting stories in ages where homosexuality was almost invariably punished with death.

These "M/M Romances" (an unfortunate series title, not only because it looks weird but also because no male/male passion in the history of the world has ever burned as hot as male/M&M's passion, and what's the point of reminding your readers of that fact, except to make them hungry?) are strongly written and fairly well researched. The one set during the English Civil War has some howlers, but "False Colors," set during the so-called "Georgian Age of Sail" in 1762, has been more soundly fact-checked. It's the story of prim, straitlaced John Cavendish, commander of the HMS Meteor, who begins to have passionate feelings for his Lieutenant "Alfie" Donwell and fights those feelings for convincingly-portrayed cultural reasons. The book's author, Alex Beecroft, lets his nautical metaphors rather sweep him away during some of the stormier interpersonal scenes, but on the whole the characters ring true, especially over-rationalizing Cavendish, who encounters Alfie after the latter has been imprisoned and almost lets his desires overcome his discretion:

Jealousy provided a thousand bitter words. You didn't give me a chance! You were gone before I had time to think. You knocked down the foundations of my world and then disappeared! What did you expect of me? And more base than that - a petty cry of pain of which he was ashamed, but could not silence: Do you know how much I've given up for you? Swallowing, he pushed them back down into the darkness, concerned instead for the man before him. Alfie's every gesture spoke of endurance, empty of joy. He stood patient in the limpid light, quiet, placid as a horse well broken to the bit. Words died on John's tongue, inadequate.

There was no prudence in the way he worked his fingers into Alfie's fists. When they opened, obediently, he lifted them, one after the other, to kiss the palms. Pure folly, a risk to name and fame and life itself, but oh, it felt so right. He hauled down the false colors under which he had been sailing all his life, and exchanged them for true.

As you can see, we've skipped right over Andrew Holleran and circled back to the over-the-top lush confessionals of Gordon Merrick. Only False Colors isn't painting an idyllic picture of what can't happen in the present day (where, in the modern British navy, Cavendish and Alfie could probably have a shipboard wedding) - it's taking us back two hundred years so its story of gay love can feel illicit and dangerous again. It's hard to know whether or not to call that progress, but one thing is noteworthy: when Running Press first distributed these books, they were coded for the normal, sprawling Romance section of retail bookstore chains. Weeks later - no doubt after vocal commentary from customers and bookstore staff - several of those stores moved the books into the expected ghetto for such fare, the dimly-lit recesses of the Gay & Lesbian Section ... but for a while there, the respectable soccer-moms of Columbus and Grosse Point were seeing sultry Commander Cavendish right alongside their ravished heiresses. And that is a kind of progress.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Great Moments in Comics!

I overlooked a comics title last week, but that's just as well, because the comic I'd have written about contains another Great Moment in Comics, and last week I hadn't yet come up with that stellar concept - so the timing is better this way. Fear not: this week's comics will get all the consideration they're due!

In the meantime, the moment in question comes in the 5th issue of the 6-issue limited series of Marvel reprints of the old Stan Lee/Jack Kirby "Tales of Asgard" backup feature that once ran in "Thor." You'll recall that I praised this reprint series not only because it's a damn refreshing odd choice for a reprint series (surely the monthly "Thor" comic can't be selling that well) but also because the reprints fantastically enhance the color, texture, delineation - the entire viewing experience of the originals. These reprints are done on high-quality paper, and the refurbished colors glow on the page; tremendous, picky care was taken in re-crafting these images, and it shows on every page.

Issue #5 contains the highlight of the entire series, the issue I've been waiting for throughout the run. The storyline goes like this: a warlord in Muspelheim, Harokin, has seized the unbeatable Warlock's Eye (it's a gigantic helmet that blasts its wearer's enemies with unstoppable waves of energy) and is threatening to march on Asgard itself. Odin dispatches Thor and the Warriors Three (Hogun the Grim, Fandral the Dashing, and Volstagg the really, really fat) to stop Harokin and retrieve the Warlock's Eye, and while Hogun and Fandral are fighting Harokin's henchmen (Volstagg contrives to be elsewhere, not being much for the unpredictability - not to mention the exertion - of combat), Thor tackles the warlord himself. Since Harokin is only a mortal man, Thor flattens him with one punch, and pretty soon the Warlock's Eye is in his possession and Muspelheim is liberated.

But it turns out Thor doesn't know his own strength - Harokin is dying (Harokin claims it's the result of a lifetime of fighting, but you don't accrue many injuries when your hat's doing your fighting for you). Shortly, Thor and his comrades hear a steady, ominous beat of muffled drums. "What foul infamy is this?" Volstagg asks. "Do they dare summon their forces against us once more?" But grim Hogun knows better: "It summons the great black Stallion of Doom! It means the death of a mighty warrior is near at hand!"

Kirby's artwork is perfect here, full of shadows and frightened faces, as a black horse steadily clop-clop-clops toward Harokin's citadel. The warlord is too weakened to stand; his men dress him in his armor and prop him onto the Stallion of Doom - and just in time, as Volstagg notices first: "Dost thou not see? From out of the mists she hath come, she before whom all who live must one day bow! For she is Hela, the ever-emotionless goddess of death! And behind her ... the silent, unyielding Valkyrie Guard!"

Towering, stolid Hela (who's shown up in these comics-entries before, as you'll recall - and if not, as always, just follow the labels at the bottom and do some catch-up reading!) and her valkyries lead the stricken, slumping Harokin away, until they reach the borders of their destination. "Thus far have we journeyed," Hela says. "No further may Hela venture forth! That which lies ahead may be viewed by none but the valkyrie maidens ... and by him who rides the Stallion of Doom!"

The horse moves forward across a glittering bridge as mists part and Harokin sees the towering hills of Valhalla and hears the enthusiastic calls of the warriors assembled there: "Know thou, Harokin, that death is more than an ending ... 'tis the greatest beginning of all!"

And Harokin lifts his face. "The weariness doth leave my limbs! I feel new strength within me ... vigor, such as I have never known! The sound of battle - the clang of armor - the most joyous music ever heard! To arms, then ... one and all! Let the trumpets blare! Let the flags unfurl! The call to battle fills the air! Now shall a warrior ride!"

And then comes the Great Moment, brought to you with the unabashed Cecil B. DeMille corniness of Stan Lee and the shorthand kinetic brilliance of Jack Kirby: a renewed Harokin, charging over the bridge toward an endless afterlife of battle:

It would be over twenty years before another "Thor" writer captured a similar moment with that kind of happy gusto (the true-blue geeks among you will know who I'm talking about, and perhaps even the precise issue - but if not, again, fear not! It, too, is a Great Moment and so will be featured here eventually), but in 1966, comics had seen nothing like it before. Glorious, dumb stuff, as all the best "Thor" moments invariably are!

I Am Mary Tudor!

Our book today is Hilda Lewis' magnificent 1971 novel I am Mary Tudor, in which the only surviving child of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon narrates her own tempestuous history, from the earliest years she can remember (and since she was a Tudor, that was pretty damn early) to her triumphant entrance into London upon successfully seizing her crown from the usurper Northumberland and his puppet poppet, Jane Grey, the famous nine-days queen.

When Mary's half-brother King Edward VI finally died after a sudden illness (I am Mary Tudor agrees with those suspicious Aloysiuses out there who think the boy was poisoned), Northumberland had everything planned: his son would marry Jane Grey, who had just enough royal blood on her veins to qualify her as a legitimate candidate for the job of queen - and presumably Northumberland would rule through the two young people. Henry VIII's daughter Elizabeth couldn't be seen as standing in the way of this plan; not only was she virtually a prisoner of the state, but her mother, Henry's second wife Anne Boleyn, was no more popular dead than she'd ever been alive. The real fly in the ointment was Mary, the fully-grown daughter of the old king and his Spanish queen - Mary had never backed up one inch from the assumption that the crown should come to her before it ever went to Elizabeth or any other woman (remarkable as she was, even Mary was a creature of her times ... she'd have been willing, though not exactly eager, to see Edward rule). Edward's death gave her what she knew was her only chance.

The really inexplicable thing is that Northumberland must have known it too, yet Mary wasn't immediately taken into custody - instead, she was able to rally the shires and counties to her banner, remind the majority of the nobility where their loyalties lay, and beat Northumberland to all the vital stores of weapons and money outside of London proper. By the time the lords of that city informed Northumberland that they were supporting Mary, he must already have known how badly he'd botched things. His protestations of a hasty conversion to Mary's cause were an insult even to her ordinary counsellors - goodness knows what they must have sounded like to Mary herself, who had all the Tudor scorn for anybody who thought they could out-think the royal brood.

Lewis gets this characteristic down perfectly in I am Mary Tudor. Here's Mary writing about the cozening attempts of one of Edward's uncles to win the boy's favor with handouts of pocket cash (while conniving to marry Elizabeth):

You are the King. Over and over again; nor had Seymour been ashamed to bribe the boy with money. Somerset kept the King with a lean purse. He had everything a boy could wish - horses, hounds, clothes and jewels - but money to make a gift or to reward a service, he had little. So Seymour would put his hand into his pocket and bring out a handful of gold. It is disgraceful to keep a King so short. Say nothing to my brother. There's plenty where this comes from. You have but to ask. I'll not see you go short!

And Yes, the boy would say, Yes, you are my dearest uncle! And never a sign on that pale face of the anger that consumed him; anger that this fool should not only try to fool the King but dare aspire to the King's own sister.

Mary had a largely unhappy life. She was devoted to her mother (and, according to I am Mary Tudor, to her father as well), mourned her deeply, and suffered intentional humiliations at the hands of Anne Boleyn, who made her one of the maids-in-waiting to the infant Elizabeth. Mary's own lady-in-waiting, her beloved Lady Somerset, was shamefully executed by a vengeful Henry in retaliation for her son Reginald Pole publicly denouncing the king's remarriage. Mary herself was often ill and oftener thought she was. We find in her all the steel of her father but none of his mercurial gaiety (which her sister Elizabeth had in full measure); she clung to her rights because she had nothing else to cling to - no poetry, no hunting or hawking, no suitors or illicit lovers, no larger worldview. It's likely she wouldn't be an attractive figure in the roster of England's rulers even if she'd stayed on the throne for twenty years, instead of five.

Still, she was remarkable, and Lewis captures her perfectly, including the unpredictable paroxysms of rage that could come upon her with little provocation. As with Henry her father and both her aunts (and very, very rarely, her grandfather - Henry VII's reputation has come down to us as an ice-ruler, a Lancastrian Vulcan, but it's often the case that a person is exercising such control specifically because their temper is so vast; Americans can look to George Washington for the same phenomenon), she could lose herself completely when such a fit was on her:

And so my thoughts came again to that other prisoner - to Jane Grey, her royal escutcheon torn from the Presence Chamber in this same Tower, by the hands of her own father. For nine nights she had slept in this very chamber, in this my very bed. The thought was sudden, and sudden my anger. I could scarce breathe until reason came to lighten my wrath and give me back my breath again.

I am Mary Tudor is one of the strongest, best, most involving and thought-provoking Tudor novels ever written, mostly because Lewis finds the perfect narrative voice for her central character, but also through the judicious application of a little dirty pool. The book ends just as Mary is entering London in triumph - virtually on the last page of the novel, she's still determined to spare the life of Jane Grey no matter what her Council wants. We, the readers, know that she will not spare Jane Grey - that the girl's execution will be just the first in a long list of moral - and mortal - compromises Mary will make in her reign. Lewis is smart and also tactical to end her book before Mary starts burning accomplished statesmen and village simpletons for their religious beliefs, before she convinces herself that she's pregnant and invites a Spanish lout to rule England in her name. Mary Tudor up until 1553 deserves to be the hero of her own novel, and she couldn't do better than this book. I whole-heartedly recommend it, should you ever come across it (it's out of print, of course).

Saturday, September 26, 2009

tamburlaine must die!

Our book today is Louise Welsh's 2004 novella Tamburlaine Must Die, which takes the form of a frenzied account of Christopher Marlowe's last few days on Earth, as narrated by the famous playwright himself in an easy quasi-modern idiom Welsh has here perfected. The book is as beautiful and intense as a snow-squall, and in that it joins its only two competitors for the title of the best Christopher Marlowe novel of them all - those being Anthony Burgess' A Dead Man in Deptford and George Garrett's Entered from the Sun.

When this novella opens, Marlowe is spending his days at the country estate of his patron, Francis Walsingham (plague has shut the theaters in London and driven away everyone who can get away), when word comes from London that somebody has posted a scurrilous attack on recent Dutch immigrants and signed it with the name of Marlowe's most famous stage-creation, Tamburlaine. Suspicion naturally falls on Marlowe himself, and a messenger is sent to fetch him before Queen Elizabeth's Privy Council. Such a meeting is no minor thing, as Marlowe knows quite well:

This was the Privy Council. Ministers who cared enough for high office to profit from death. Who had committed men they knew well and men they had met only once to torture and death. Dangerous men, each with a ruthless core, who had played chess with their own lives and still lived, though some had sat in prison cells and listened to the hollow sound of nails splitting wood as their own gallows grew in the yard.

They don't arrest him, but they do require that he present himself to them every day while they decide his fate - in the troubled final years of Elizabeth's reign, that was as close as you could come to walking around with a death sentence hanging over you, and Marlowe knows this too. Welsh's Marlowe is made of all the familiar, comfortable conjectures about him, including the two most popular ones: that he was happy to roger men, and that he was from an early age involved in the cloak-and-dagger world of Elizabethan spying and counter-spying. Her Marlowe has seen it all and is no stranger to life and death situations and the odd things they do to your mind:

Death makes the world a brighter place. I've seen the shape danger gives to things, an edge so sharp that if you like your head atop your shoulders and your entrails tucked safe in your belly it's best not to stop and admire the view. Yet the prospect of death renders everything lovely. Colours shine stronger. Strangers' faces fascinate and your sex calls you to business you must not attend.

Tamburlaine Must Die is constructed around the tried and true 'secret memoir' 'I'm writing this down and hiding it away for future generations to find' formula (a formula given its apotheosis in Robert Graves' I, Claudius), and it works perfectly. This skinny little book came and went in 2004 with barely a ripple, but it's vivid and fast-paced and entirely worth your time, should you ever run across it. I ordered a copy from London back then, read it and loved it, then somehow lost track of it (I'm convinced a mysterious stranger periodically enters my apartment, somehow bypasses the razor-sharp vigilance of my basset hound, bags up books at random, and sells them to faraway bookstores). I recently found a copy and re-read it - and I'm glad I did. Marlowe still hasn't had his ultimate novel ... but Tamburlaine Must Die joins the ranks of great partial versions!

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Great Moments in Comics!

A full week of comics from both the big super-hero companies, but sometimes it's fun just to concentrate on the little moments writers and artists work into the bigger stories! I've been reading comics for a long, long time, and I can honestly say most of my best memories of them are scattered shots of just such moments, rather than the bigger stories and crossovers and what-nots I'm supposed to be remembering.

I'll do a few longer postings collecting some of those classic moments from across the decades, but for now I thought I'd start with a Great Moment from this very week, featuring Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner.

The long background: Namor is one of Marvel Comics' oldest, most storied characters (the Human Torch and then later Captain America being the other two marquee-caliber names), the son of a human fisherman and a princess of the undersea kingdom of Atlantis. As this description might hint, Namor is also - quite accidentally - Marvel's very first mutant: he's a hybrid with the pale skin of his father (Atlanteans are deep blue in hue, don't you know) and the water-breathing ability of his mother, but he has traits neither one possesses - mainly, he's got little wing-thingees on his ankles that allow him to fly, and he's preternaturally strong. But Namor has a claim to the affection of Marvelites everywhere that goes beyond his superhero stats: he's a great character, and, miraculously, he always has been. Namor is headstrong, irritable, proud, stubborn, prone to snap-judgements but not always wrong, and he's never been changed from that winning template, the perfect middle-ground between your standard hero and villain. And since his Atlantean physiology gives him a much longer lifespan than that of a normal human, no gimmickry is needed to have him right here, slapping around whoever's pissed him off in 2009. He doesn't currently have his own ongoing monthly title at Marvel, but that's as often as not a good thing - it allows writers to handle him exquisitely and consistently give him great lines, and that's certainly been the case in 2009 during the whole "Dark Reign" story-arc.

(That arc, for those of you joining us en medias res: psychopathic killer Norman Osborn has cleaned himself up and managed to worm his way into control of Marvel's amped-up equivalent of the C.I.A.; he's drafted other psychopathic killers to masquerade as his "Avengers" while hunting the real heroes into hiding; he's conducted clandestine deals with other Marvel super-baddies like Loki and Doctor Doom - and Namor, who just recently turned on Osborn, thereby earning his ire, which is not a good ire to have)

The short background: twenty years ago, a writer took Marinna, one of the dumbass-useless characters John Byrne invented for his dumbass Canadian superhero team Alpha Flight, and made her attractive to Prince Namor (Marinna was a yellow-skinned, fish-eyed amphibious slip of a thing, a uselessly derivative character as was everyone else on Alpha Flight), who, in a decision well-known to other fictional characters (such as Larry King), decided to marry the much, much, much younger girl, even though she had a tendency to turn into a mindless, rampaging sea-monster when stressed.

Cut to the present: Namor has enraged Norman Osborn with his perceived betrayal, and Osborn, it turns out, was prepared for just such an eventuality. He has stressed poor little Marinna (and pumped her full of shark-hormones), and she's now a gigantic rampaging mindless sea-monster - which Osborn sets loose on Namor's undersea people with instructions straight out of the U.S. Army: take all you want, but eat all you take. When Marinna begins consuming Atlanteans, Namor goes to the X-Men for help (only he's too proud to admit that, and he's too proud to ask for it when he gets there, and he's too proud to accept it when it's offered - this one-shot of "X-Men/Dark Reign/The List" is a great little snapshot of what a royal pain in the ass Namor can be, even to his friends). The plan: lure monster-Marinna in and take her down.

Which brings us to our Great Moment! Namor and the X-Men are gathered on the shore of the X-Men island sanctuary, and they can all see the monster approaching. One of the crowd of young mutants there scans the beast and sadly reports, "There's nothing to her but hunger and rage and ... and hate. There's nothing there but hate."

To which Namor - with the deadpan perfection only an 80-year-old warrior king might muster - replies: "Ex-wives. What can you do?"


So hat's off to writer Matt Fraction (and the always-gorgeous artwork of Alan Davis, of course) for providing us with our inaugural Great Moment!

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Loch!

Our book today is Steve Alten's gripping, spectacular, tentacular thriller The Loch, his 2005 novel about the Loch Ness Monster. Alten, some of you may recall, gained what fame he currently enjoys by chronicling another aquatic beastie entirely: MEG, the gigantic, marauding prehistoric megalodon (and her various offspring and rivals) shark in the numerous MEG books Alten has written over the last ten years (I reviewed the latest of them, the deliciously titled Hell's Aquarium, at epic length over at Open Letters Monthly).

He's still writing those books, God love him, but in 2005 he took a slight detour to the Scottish highlands. Fortunately for all readers of good guilty-pleasure schlock-fiction, he took his well-stuffed bag of tricks with him: The Loch has it all - breathless narration, whole shoals of one-sentence paragraphs, paper-thin characterizations easy to grasp, plenty of narrative fake-outs (Alten is particularly fond of pulling these dipsy-doodles on his readers - there's a doozy in Hell's Aquarium), and even a murder trial, in case some Grisham fans wandered into the book by mistake.

Alten's subject will be familiar to all of you, of course. The Loch Ness Monster has been the subject of endless speculation and mania since eyewitness reports started accumulating fifteen hundred years ago, and for every completely debunked fake photo, there are two completely reliable vacationing Presbyterians who couldn't possibly have any reason to fabricate what they saw surface right in front of them one day while they were eating sandwiches on the lake shore one day in 1959. More and more advanced sonar and imaging technology is imported to the loch every time some TV special is hungry for ratings, but considering how many falsified photos and documents have been enshrined on this subject, the only proof of "Nessie"s existence would be a live specimen, squawking and spitting as it's hauled into captivity, Kong-style.

In the meantime, we have books! There've been countless books of all kinds written about the Loch Ness Monster, and they perforce share quite a bit in common. After all, the tangible parts of this mystery are pretty damn boring: a long, deep trough of a lake bordered on all sides by crumbling ruins and po-dunk economically depressed towns, and - absent a playful plesiosaur - that's it. Any novelist looking to jazz that up will only have so many options to hand, which is why, for instance, Alten's book bears such a strong surface resemblance to Jeffrey Konvitz' 1982 Loch Ness Monster novel Monster. Both have subplots about Scottish history that manage to drag Jacobins and Knights Templar into the proceedings. Both bring in modern-day corruption centering on the Scottish oil industry. Both feature skeptical scientists and colorful natives. And on the question of whether or not a Monster really exists, both come to the same resounding conclusion, as you'd expect. And both sift the modern evidence as thoroughly as they know their readers will demand. Here's Konvitz:

"The group's called the Academy of Applied Sciences, and they hit pay dirt in August '72, after they'd lowered their sonar equipment and an aligned strobe camera into the bay. On the night of August 7, the sonar scope printed out a large trace." He indicated the record. "Excited, the team theorized the camera must have photographed the object, too. They developed the film, and this is what they got." He held up a series of photos, apparently worthless, a melange of lines and shadows. "It doesn't look like much, I know. It didn't look like much to the academy team, either. That is, until the photos were enhanced by a computer. The computer picture looked like this." He pulled another photo. "Now tell me if that's not a goddamn animal's body and a giant flipper!"

Astounded, Reddington and Foster examined the plate.

"What was the reaction?" Reddington asked.

"A team from the Smithsonian concluded the object was probably animate..."

Needless to say, Alten's experts come up with the same evidence and reach the same conclusions, or at least most of them do (and the ones who don't usually don't live very long - it's an ironclad rule of Alten's fiction: doubters die). But lurking in the depths of The Loch is a peril readers won't encounter in Monster: the dreaded beast known as dialect. As any reader of "Star Trek" fiction can tell you, the very worst of this species is Scottish dialect, and Alten lays it on with a trowel:

"Zachary, I ken ye're ashamed o' me, but as far as these charges, I didnae dae it. Johnny C. an' me were pals. Sure, we had words, just as we aye had, but whit happened wis an accident. No matter whit ye may think o' me, son, I'm no' a murderer."

If ye ken tha' - er, I mean, if you think that you can stand page after page of that kind of thing, The Loch will certainly repay your suffering! As far as mindless entertainment goes, it doesn't get more mindlessly entertaining than Steve Alten, and in this book he's at his, um, best - mainly because although a 70-foot-long phosphorescent prehistoric shark is clearly nothing any of his readers will ever encounter in their real-world lives, it's different with Nessie. Sightings continue, photos are constantly put forward as legitimate, and every visitor secretly hopes their trip will feature a moment like this:

In the Penny Press! New Yorker, 28 September 2009

It's an Adam Gopnik double-feature in the 28 September New Yorker! First, in the "Talk of the Town," he adds his voice to the deafening chorus of writers all tackling the same question this month: what IS it about Dan Brown? Since The Da Vinci Code has sold more copies than any other book in the history of the collected worlds of the Federation, writers have tended to shy away from actually bothering to review the book's kinda-sorta sequel, The Lost Symbol (surely this will qualify as the most boring title ever to sell one billion copies?). After all, what tight-prised booby would stand there, reporter's notebook in hand, jotting down "predictable downhill action ... resonant rumbling ... convincingly sweeps away trees ..." while a full-blown avalanche descends upon them?

So instead, critics of all stripes have taken the occasion of The Boring Book's publication to try figuring out what this phenomenon is, what it says about US. Gopnik puts it rather typically:

But what, exactly, is inside the package? What spell does it cast and how does it cast it? Books are not so widely read without a reason. Surely future historians will look to Brown as an index of What We Were Really Thinking, and, turning the dense and loaded pages of his books, they may well ask, This is what they read for fun?

Gopnik eventually decides the heart of the Dan Brown literary mystery is that his books are, indeed, fun: kiddie fun, full of easily-solved puzzles and problems. That conclusion's been reached elsewhere, in similar terms: that Brown's popularity rests on his relentless flattering of his readers, his endless solicitude for their self-esteem. And while it might be true that he feels something like that (I've only met him once, when he was still just an ordinary writer doing bookstore walk-ins to sign copies of Angels and Demons, and he was affable and normal, back then - so there's a hope he's stayed that way), it's immaterial.

There IS a solution to the riddle of Dan Brown, but it isn't literary, and it certainly has nothing at all to do with the actual contents of his books. The solution is cultural, viral: he's the hula-hoop. It isn't that people are buying his books because something in those books answers a gigantic communal need - it's just that everybody is now buying his books, that's all. It's not often you see cultural fads in book-form, but it does happen, and that's all the Dan Brown phenomenon is. The middle 180 pages of The Lost Symbol could be Ikea instructions for cabinet assembly, and there wouldn't be one single documented return at any Barnes & Noble in the country, because the people buying the book aren't buying it to read it - they're buying it because everybody's buying it. This doesn't "say" anything about current American culture - all it says is that Dan Brown is one Hell of a lucky guy, God's blessing upon him.

Gopnik gets one more shot at your attention in this issue (after a scattershot article on the future of bio-engineering and a very, very irritating article on the fad of bored, rich Americans raising chickens at their country properties), with a very entertaining review of the celebrated Dreyfus Affair, about which he writes:

If the beginning of the Dreyfus story is Maupassant, and the middle Kafka, the end is Victor Hugo, a victory of the romantic, progressive imagination: wrongs can be righted; in the long run things work out for the best.

And then there was a brief, curiously enheartening little squib by Anthony Lane, a "Critic's Notebook" listing of the showing of "The Lord of the Rings" at MOMA. I've been curious to know how "Lord of the Rings" would start to lodge in the collective critical consciousness, and Lane is an early indicator worth quoting at length:

Peter Jackson's Tolkien trilogy is still a novelty of sorts, released in the first years of the new century; has it really earned its place beside the monoliths of the last? If so, it is precisely because the whole saga, for all the newfangled flourishes of C. G. I., harks back so unashamedly to older fanglings. The visual grammar of the assault on Helm's Deep, in the second film, switching from majestic long shots of siege ladders to details of individual defiance, is barely changed from the way in which D. W. Griffith mounted the fall of Babylon in "Intolerance," almost ninety years before. Epic, in short, demands its own style, and sets its own traps. Where the modern film wins is in the marshalling of sound; we need an orchestra to cover Griffith's silent action, but Jackson, requiring a wrathful army for Helm's Deep, bravely ventured onto a cricket pitch, during a break, and asked twenty-five thousand fans to roar in unison. They obliged.

Lane's our second-best working movie critic, and here in embryo is the very highest praise - so I think "Lord of the Rings" will fare pretty well in the century to which it gave an almost unbeatable cinematic high-bar. We shall see.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Decameron!

Our book today is Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron, which some of you may remember as one hell of a tedious 'Great Books' assignment in college, where this 500-year-old 800-page Italian masterpiece is routinely made the mandatory reading assignment of clueless hung-over teenagers who've previously read nothing older or more demanding than Stephen King. It's small wonder that none of these students come away with fond memories of Boccaccio - the few who actually force themselves to read him almost always end up wondering what the big deal is; they've seen endless variations on the plots in The Decameron, after all - there's hardly been a movie or TV show in the last century that hasn't had an element or two of Boccaccio in it.

Oddly enough, Boccaccio's 14th century readers would have had a similar reaction - Boccaccio wholesale invents very little in the way of stories: The Decameron is a vast clearing-house of staple plots, staple characters, staple resolutions and narrative twists, which is why authors have been mining his quarry from the very moment the thing was first written (the most famous of these ... er, fans somewhat churlishly refuses even to mention Boccaccio by name - but then, the English in those days had no manners to speak of). So it's true that Western literature - and movies and TV - owe a debt to Boccaccio of such vast proportions that its full extent can't ever be known. But it's not just that he pulls together so many of the familiar plots floating around the slowly rebounding literature of his day, although he does indeed do that. No, Boccaccio does one central, amazing thing more: he refines into print the idea of telling stories. In The Decameron he revives the constantly-morphing morally-liquid narrator's stance last seen in Ovid's Metamorphoses, but he adds an element Ovid doesn't always - couldn't always (didn't dare always, with Augustus watching) - include: style. Panache. Sprezzatura. In Ovid, the deeper ironies of the various transformation stories are the point; in Boccaccio, the stories themselves - how well they're done, how well they're shaped as stories ... that's the point. The Decameron might be full of monks, abbesses, and holy men, but it's the single most secular book ever written.

The storytelling is the whole point of the story, too. As those poor unfortunate college students may dimly recall, the premise of The Decameron is that a small group of ten young people - three men and seven women - flee the plague-stricken city of Florence and go to a splendid villa outside Naples, where they spend ten days and ten nights telling stories to each other, to pass the time, to flirt, and to forget about the horrors stalking the cities and lanes outside (Boccaccio's pen-portrait of the Bubonic Plague is so vivid that it, too, has been quarried by countless writers on that disaster). Each day has a different judge of the stories, and although the tales themselves range into all kinds of subjects (virtually every occupation, station in life, and social rank is somewhere in this book, and plenty of animals too), they share some stray things in common - and the foremost of these is that our tale-tellers always put talking, tale-telling of some kind, a the heart of the stories they tell.

A few of those other common strands have been pointed out by scholars and appreciative readers over the centuries. It's been correctly observed, for instance, that Boccaccio's book is the first since ancient Rome in which women come across as actual people, rather than paragons and cautionary tales. Another that all readers from Alexander Pope to Randall Jarrell have cherished: this is a book full of laughter - despite the often-gruesome or grim turn several of the stories take, this is a fun, funny book. Harried students can't be expected to see this, but then, harried students shouldn't be forced to read The Decameron in the first place; it's too good for that. It should be approached willingly, eagerly, for the sheer joy it is.

Boccaccio wrote the book in his mid-thirties (probably around 1350), after having spent more than ten years as an assistant to his loving father during their posting with a large banking firm in Naples, and if ever a location perfectly served to incubate a talent, here was such a time. The Naples of 1330s was a paradise of wonder for a good-looking young man with a sharp brain, money in his purse, and an undemanding job, and young Boccaccio took every advantage of his luck. He studied, yes (scholars, being scholars, are always eager emphasize the quality of the Royal Library to which he would have had access), but he also rode horses and drank wine and listened to the thousand tall tales wafting through the streets of that bustling center of trade and travel. When his appointment ended and he returned to Florence, he set about creating a book that would burst at its seams with the sunlight, the warmth, the sheer joy of his time in Naples.

And he succeeded. The Decameron is the happiest of companions, a warm, beautiful afternoon pressed between two covers. Its stories of endlessly clever, articulate shapers and connivers never bore, never drag or wander (not many of those who quarried him can say that) ... they shimmer and burble through a million plot complications, slipping in and out of obscenity, immorality, and downright heresy without once being genuinely indecent.

This is one of my desert-island books, and so naturally I urge all of you - even those who are now or were once harried college students - to pack a bottle of wine and a wedge of cheese into a basket, take a copy of The Decameron to your favorite park (Everyman's Library has a very engaging new translation by J. G. Nichols - it'll set you back $30, but it'll last you your whole life and shrug off any number of wine spills), and make Boccaccio's acquaintance. I think you'll be glad you did.

Comics! Gods and guys on the subway!

A weirdly off-key week in comics, full of issues that were more concerned with setting up other issues than with telling their own stories. The latest issue of "Captain America Reborn" was a place-holding affair, and the summer's standout series, "Blackest Night," featured a big crowd of snarling zombie-esque villains being held at bay by a group of desperate heroes - for page after page, panel after panel, without much else happening (except that we learned what the PURPLE Lanterns specialty is: droning exposition!).

There were some standout moments, however, even though one of them - in the latest "Amazing Spider-Man," still retains the power to irritate. The issue was all about the love-life vicissitudes of our hapless hero Peter Parker, and that's fine, time-honored territory. No, the irritation comes from remembering that none of these great stories fall into normal Spider-Man continuity ... all of this is a weird, retro placidity bought through a deal with the devil. It's tough to enjoy it all - as enjoyable as it undeniably is - when you know, you just know, that some writer is going to come along sometime in the next two years and undo it all.

And then there's the issue's cover! Don't get me wrong, it's a fun picture (done by Mike Mayhew, whom we've met here before), with a chubby Spider-cupid smack dab in the middle. But off to one side, we see a face-shot of someone I can only assume is supposed to be Peter Parker, only there's one problem: the young man in question is a super-hottie. As a lifelong reader (although not always a fond one) of "Spider-Man," I can't help but think this is crucially wrong, despite how often different artists have made the same mistake. Peter Parker was a nerd in high school, a skinny kid who had to be smarter - and incidentally funnier (although Stan Lee had the original genius insight of having him only vent that side of his character when he was in costume fighting bad guys) - than the actual super-hotties (like that dreamy Flash Gordon). In adult life, Peter Parker should be an older version of the same skinny kid - lanky, vaguely schlubby, a slightly sad-sackish young guy who's still the smartest, funniest guy in the room. He shouldn't have the fresh, shiny face Mayhew gives him; instead, he should look like just another face on the train to Brooklyn.

Questions of artwork naturally crop up with the fourth issue of "Batman and Robin," where the wretched, one-note fan favorite artwork of Frank Quitely has been replaced by the vigorous, moody pencils of Philip Tan, so we can all stop geeking out and concentrate on the story itself, which is formulaic but still mighty enjoyable: a charismatic, refreshingly three-dimensional Red Hood (and his sad, pathetic sidekick) taking Gotham's criminal underworld by storm, telling his partner "I guess this is all about one crazy man in a mask taking revenge on another crazy man in a mask." The main problem I had with this issue is the same one I've had with this whole series (and with the high-spirited antics over in "Red Robin"): if these titles keep being written so well, will any of us want the original Caped Crusader back?

To put it mildly, a variation of that same question obtains over in Marvel's "Dark Avengers" series, the central title in its current "Dark Reign" story arc. As you may recall, in that arc the bad guys have won and are running the show: Norman Osborn, formerly the villainous Green Goblin, is now in charge of Nick Fury's old government-funded paramilitary operation S.H.I.E.L.D., now known as H.A.M.M.E.R., and every hero who hasn't agreed to knuckle under to Osborn's dictatorial rule has been outlawed and hunted by Osborn's hand-picked team of villainous Avengers, including Ares, the brutish Greek god of war. Fury himself has returned and is in hiding, training a cadre of new heroes to strike back against Osborn when the time comes, and one of those young heroes is Alex, the young son of Ares, and in the latest issue of "Dark Avengers" (with more knockout artwork by Mike Deodato, whose stuff has never been better), Ares gets wise to this fact, follows Alex as he's taken to Fury's hideout, and breaks down the door, intent on gods know what.

That's the setup of that fantastic cover the issue sports, and in tried-and-true Marvel fashion, the cover is what the kids call a total lie. As awesome as it would be to see a well-orchestrated battle between Ares and Nick Fury (who's a pretty damn good god of war in his own right), it doesn't happen, because Brian Michael Bendis' script is far too smart to let things get that far. For this entire series, Bendis' Ares has been very nicely complex - he's not afraid of Osborn, and he's not beguiled by him in the way some of his other Dark Avengers might be ... instead, his vast godlike powers are governed by a weirdly predictable, otherworldly sense of right and wrong, which Osborn cannily uses but can't alter. It's a great funhouse-mirror version of Thor's participation in the Avengers, and it's one of the best parts of Dark Reign's Dark Avengers.

This version of Ares isn't just a villain, and when he confronts Nick Fury at the climax of this issue, he confesses that he's at his wit's end dealing with his little boy. Fury isn't angry, and he isn't fawning - he just tells Ares that he's been training the boy and is impressed by his potential, and that gets to Ares, who utters that rarest of comic book lines: "I don't know what to do."

In the end he decides to leave the boy in Fury's care and simply walks out. It's wonderfully done, entirely believable on all counts, but I can't help but wonder how it'll play out when the whole "Dark Reign" story comes to an end - and as with "Batman and Robin," I'm no longer oh so impatient for that to happen. This is good storytelling, weird unheroic premise or no weird unheroic premise.

Monday, September 14, 2009


Our book today is Timeline, the 1999 time-travel potboiler by Michael Crichton. Now that Crichton is dead, I suppose it's time to start overviewing his total output (and deploring the endless series of 'final manuscripts' that will be making their periodic way to bookstore over the next decade - that hoary old device, "wait wait! We found one more manuscript!" - is finally due to be retired forever, and it'll get its due what-nots in the fullness of time from Stevereads) and assessing just what he meant to the millions of non-readers who read his books as the 20th century's technology blossomed like a time-lapsed mushroom cloud.

He wrote 'science fantasies' in the vein of H. G. Wells, and it's pretty clear that for better or worse he was the Wells of his age: he wrote absolutely dreadful prose, his characters were not only cardboard but low-quality flimsy cardboard, his social commentary varied from ham-fisted to outright-nefarious ... and he regularly came up with plot ideas so slam-bang fantastic, so telegraphically immediate, that some of them entered straight into the public zeitgeist (with some help from the movies, but then, Wells got lots of help from the same source), no muss, no fuss, no waiting around on library shelves for fifty years of critical re-appraisals.

I'm still undecided on whether or not Crichton consciously mimicked the masters - or whether the bedrock fascinations and problems of science have remained the same for a hundred years. Certainly what worked for such old-time mountebanks as Wells, Verne, and Doyle worked equally well for Crichton even in the era of computers and biotechnology, and perhaps somebody once had a talk with him about updating the canon of cautionary tales. The War of the Worlds and The Andromeda Strain are basically the same book. Prey and The Invisible Man both deal with the unseen terror among us. Next is The Island of Doctor Moreau run amok and given grant money. The mega-selling Jurassic Park and its sequel tip their hat directly to Doyle, with that sequel's title.

And then there's Timeline, which Crichton certainly had to consider at least partially an homage to Wells' intensely odd signature work, The Time Machine.

Crichton's book involves his customary team of sexy graduate students (where does he find such contradictory creatures?), specialists in various aspects of medieval culture, all working on an archaeological dig centered at the ruins of the English stronghold Castelgard, in the Dordogne region of France. The team, led by a crusty, charismatic professor, includes the usual Crichton staples: a matching pair of feisty, stupid him-and-bimbos, a nerd, a saint, a strapping he-man, etc., and when irregularities appear in their dig-site, the crusty professor goes off to the headquarters of ITC (International Technology Corporation), the shadowy conglomerate that funds the dig, to get some answers. His students think of this as nothing more than the usual university politics and go about their careful reconstruction of Castelgard, in which one of them unearths a note, written on period parchment but in modern English, saying "HELP ME" (this is what I meant about killer zeitgeist moments, and Crichton had an eye for them).

The note is from their professor, yet it was indisputably written in Castelgard centuries before, and quick as you can say "exposition coming," our students are dealing with ITC themselves and hearing how it all happened: time travel. The professor is back in the past, and ITC wants his students to use their expert knowledge of the period to go back and get him out.

Somebody - I think it was Montaigne! - once said every era imagines the technology of the future in terms of the technology of the present. So in Wells' book, it's an actual machine, with gears and controls, that travels between times. By 1999, that approach clearly wouldn't do (unless you were the Doctor, that is), and so Crichton's characters don't pile into a steam-and-chrome jalopy - they attach themselves like email documents and hit SEND:

"Excuse me," Chris [the himbo] said. "Are you saying you compress a person?"

"No. We compress the information equivalent of a person."

"And how is that done?" Chris said [Dude! Have a brewski and chill!].

"With compression algorithms - methods to pack data on a computer, so they take up less space. Like JPEG and MPEG for visual material. Are you familiar with those?"

"I've got software that uses it, but that's it."

"Okay," Gordon [one of the scheming ITC guys] said. "All compression programs work the same way. They look for similarities in data. Suppose you have a picture of a rose, made up of a million pixels. Each pixel has a location and a color. That's three million pieces of information - a lot of data. But most of those pixels are going to be red, surrounded by other red pixels. So the program scans the pictures line by line, and sees whether adjacent pixels are the same color. If they are, it writes an instruction to the computer that says make this pixel red, and also the next fifty pixels gray. And so on. It doesn't store information for each individual point. It stores instructions for how to re-create the picture. And the data is cut to a tenth of what it was."

"Even so," Stern [the nerd] said, "you're not talking about a two-dimensional picture, you're talking about a three-dimensional living object, and its description requires so much data -"

"That you'd need massive parallel processing," Gordon said, nodding. "That's true."

Chris frowned. "Parallel processing is what?" [dude!]

"You hook several computers together and divide the job up among them, so it gets done faster. A big parallel-processing computer would have sixteen thousand processors hooked together. For a really big one, thirty-two thousand processors. We have thirty-two billion processors hooked together."

It's been ten years since Timeline was published, so probably some kid in Osaka has that much processing power on his phone by now, but the point is, minus a few limitations (and factoring in the wonderfully-named lurking danger Crichton dreamed up, 'transcription errors' - hee), our team can be sent back - almost faxed back - to the Castelgard of centuries ago, and the bulk of Timeline therefore paradoxically takes place in an era where there is no higher technology to speak of - a straight-up historical novel in which a few characters just happen to know what MTV is.

In the past-centered, er, timeline, Crichton uncorks breakneck plot twists, hairsbreadth escapes, vile villainy, lots and lots of derring-do, and even a very well-utilized countdown. Say what you will about the quality of the man's prose (as you can tell even from that brief excerpt, he manages the not inconsiderable feat of making Wells read like a literary giant), but when he stretches his legs on the level field of adventure-writing, you get your money's worth.

Timeline is partially soiled in the zeitgeist, I sometimes fear, by the fact that although the movie made of it was very entertaining in parts, it starred (and I mean relentlessly starred ... he's in virtually every scene) the worst actor in the history of film or theater. Of course I'm talking about that vacant-faced mannequin Paul Walker, who here pulls down the whole movie, even though it also stars Gerard Butler as the group's studly hero. The movie was directed by Richard Donner, so the action-sequences are slickly and perfectly done ... but in his attempt to get his actors to act like 'real people' he only manages to make them act like real boring people, so apart from its stunning visuals, the movie doesn't really duplicate the sordid fascinations of the book.

Or maybe it does - maybe those fascinations are the equivalent (the data equivalent?) of the movie's stunning visuals. The only way we'll know for certain is to get Brian over at Moving Picture Trash good and drunk, then have him review Timeline and sort it out.

But in the meantime, I can attest to the fact that Timeline is at least as entertaining as The Time Machine - so good, in fact, that in writing about it I was hardly tempted at all to go off on a furious tangent about State of Fear.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Big Fat Historical Novels - A Dozen from the 1980s!

It's a damn lonely business, writing a novel, and that loneliness only increases the longer the novel is - this (and the ironclad guarantee of poverty) is the best-known deterrent to the writing life. But there's one kind of novel that's even lonelier than all the rest, one kind where the length is virtually required, the subject matter is virtually certain to be obscure, and the attendant research is even more crushingly isolating than the act of writing itself. Underneath their brittle bon vivant mannerisms, all novelists are wretched outcasts from normal human society (because you can't 100 percent enjoy something if you're watching yourself enjoy it)(and because the very idea of attempting to write a novel is pretty much inherently delusional, like deciding one morning that you were going to lay out a gridwork in your back yard and actually count every blade of grass in it ... anyone hearing the plan would first ask 'why' and then immediately ask 'what the hell is wrong with you for even thinking it?'), but can there be a more wretched wretch than the writer of an 800-page historical novel? Their research has made them incomprehensible to their fellow novelists, most of whom are content to do coke, stare at their navels, and write about that. But they're also incomprehensible to the actual historians of their period, who, being historians, have never even considered making their learning accessible to the public. It's no wonder Margaret Mitchell was as crazy as a March hare.

There are exceptions, of course. Writers of Tudor historical novels are enjoying a vogue right now - a vogue that's lasted 400 years and shows no signs of ending. They can get invited to parties, and they've had enough predecessors so that the burden of their necessary research is comparatively light. And certainly the same holds true for writers of Roman historical novels - hell, you can buy a kit at Walco that'll let you slap one of those together in about a week, with no muss, no agony, and a decent shot at attaching Willem Dafoe to the finished product. These kinds of products are exceptions because, due to unpredictable quirks of the American educational system (and thanks to all those predecessors), most Americans believe they know something about the time periods involved, and the familiar is always more acceptable (this also applies to novels set in the Old West, naturally).

But oh, the poor writer of the fat historical novel set in some less-paddled historical backwater! These books appear in their serried legions, some burn brightly for a season, most fade into obscurity almost instantly, and all the work, care, and bitter isolation that went into creating them goes for nothing at all. You can find these fat old novels moldering in boxes at flea markets and on the shelves of the more lowbrow used bookstores, but without a knowing heads-up to distinguish the good ones from the dross, what reader can't be forgiven for ignoring them all, life being short and reading time even shorter?

So here's a dozen good ones! To emphasize just how many of these worthy items are published and then forgotten every year, we'll concentrate this time around only one books from one decade, the best damn decade of the 20th century, the glorious '80s. If you should happen to spot one of these titles cobwebbing away somewhere and the time period at all interests you, spend the $1 and buy the book! In each case, I can guarantee you three things: 1) the research is sound and pleasantly presented, 2) the atmosphere of the work will work on you, carrying you away, at least temporarily, from your debit-card world, and 3) like so many books mentioned here at Stevereads, none of these books actually deserves the obscurity to which merciless bookstore economics and lack of library shelf-space have consigned them.

So! In no particular order, first up is Malcolm Bosse's 1983 novel The War Lord, a panoramic view of dramatization of 1927 China, with bloodthirsty warlords ramping the country from end to end. Bosse's story has a huge cast, although we see a great deal of the action through the viewpoint of feckless everyman missionary (from Connecticut!) Philip Embree (most of these books sport at least one feckless everyman - it's a characteristic of the breed), not that this is a necessarily a bad thing. Bosse's prose can be very gripping, aided by his decision to tell the whole story in the immediate present tense:

Next morning the monsoon intensifies. Thunder squalls alternate with steady downpours that either lash the countryside brutally or monotonously hammer water into every depression of the land. Gray silt spreads like mush across the leachy soil and oozes into every hollow of it, making eroded meadows as smooth as butter. Tang drives the men without rest and for good reason: another few days of such flooding will mire the horses belly-deep in the muck of Shansi, like flies caught in amber.

Real historical figures like Chiang Kai-Shek mingle freely with Bosse's avatars, and the many reviewers who liked the book all agreed that it would cost you time to read - not just because of how big it is, but because it would absorb you - and the same holds true today.

Next is John Barchilon's 1984 novel The Crown Prince, which has as its central character a happy (though not quite feckless) young man named Paul Wittgenstein, a piano prodigy in Vienna on the eve of the First World War. He's a happy young man, sure of his own talent and vigorously attracted to - and attractive to - the opposite sex (indeed, the book's most interesting character is his lover Countess Marlene von Hess), but his world is shattered when he loses his right arm in the war (Barchilon archly assures his readers that while his book is based on authentic characters, it's not meant to be an authorized biography)(hee), and he has to figure out all over again how to live - and perhaps embrace his talent again. The book is very good at portraying its cast of historical figures (Ravel is a standout there), and its musical passages are among the best ever written on the virtuosity of performance.

Rosalind Laker's 1989 To Dance with Kings is next, a gay and playful fat novel about a lovely and lusty peasant girl in 17th century Versailles who manages to sleep, laugh, intrigue, and yes, dance her way into the world of nobles and kings at the Royal Court. The book follows the tempestuous lives and love affairs of three generations of these women, and Laker - a practiced hand at the meatier, brainier historical romances have have all but vanished from bookstore shelves these days (although not entirely! I'm happy to report that To Dance with Kings is now available at your local Barnes & Noble in a very pretty trade paperback) - keeps things simmering with her opulently borderline-purple prose, so joyous to read in long stretches:

"Did you set a spy on my in your absence?"

"No!" He leapt out of the chair with such abruptness that it toppled and fell backwards. "I was told in my father's house by someone who came to me there from the highest motives."

Putting her fingers to her temples, she rocked in her anguish. There was only one person who would have gone running to him. Hadn't Susanne warned that she would take up cudgels on his behalf? "It's true that I spent a night away from my bed when you were away and Stefane brought me home. But nothing is as it must have appeared. I had met him shortly before in the Court Royale when he was going for a morning ride."

"In the Court Royale? Where had you been there?"

"Lost in the corridors of Versailles. After I had spurned the King!"


For a far more somber turn we have Jessie Ford's The Burning Woman from 1985, the story of 1687 Venetian foundling Cathryn Godwyne and Father Vittorio, whose mutual love of the glorious music that fills the city eventually leads them to love of each other (although Cathryn will in the course of the novel come to love another far more disastrously). The book is essentially the story of Cathryn's awakening - as an independent person and as a sexual being - and it's also got a bit of the feminist political tract about it (you'd expect nothing less, what with it sporting both an acknowledgment to Erica Jong and a good deal of her poetry at the beginning of chapters), since Cathryn is eventually accused of being a witch and put on trial in one of the book's most harrowing scenes. It can be preachy, yes, but it can also be powerful stuff.

A Pride of Royals is next, Justin Scott's hyperactive 1983 novel, a two-fisted non-stop action-packed blockbuster of a novel set in ... well, the whole world just on the brink of the First World War. With unapologetic gusto, Scott puts the welfare of that entire world in the hands of one man: American naval officer Kenneth Ash, who's a crack shot, a dab hand with mechanics, a gifted linguist, a fiery lover, and a "secret courier for presidents and kings." He takes on a mission on behalf of the British and the Americans to whisk Czar Nicholas out of Russia, and along the way he must face hostile borders, bloodthirsty assassins, and, of course, uppity women:

"Commander," she said with a quick smile, "the Irish side of my family bequeathed to me red hair and a fine ear for blarney."

"I have a drop or two of French blood on my mother's side," Ash said. "It left me with a taste for claret and an eye for beauty."

Lady Exeter turned to her butler. "Graham, bring this gentleman a whiskey. And please tell His Lordship that I am growing impatient."

"Have I offended you?" Ash asked her when the butler had left.

"I imagine you can't help yourself, but I find your proprietary attitude toward women not overly flattering - one feels like a candidate for a very large club with an undiscriminating membership committee."

"I'm sorry - "

"Good God, you meant it ... forgive me, a friend was killed in France today. I'm in no mood to entertain. I was against the war in the beginning and now I find myself praying for total victory ... Where the hell are the Americans?"

They sat in stiff silence until the whiskey came.

A Pride of Royals is one of the best-researched books in our present dozen and certainly the one with the fastest pace, if you're in the mood for that sort of thing.

Next is 1979's Sacajawea by Anna Lee Waldo, and if A Pride of Royals is the highest octane offering on our list this time around, Sacajawea is the most absorbing book here, an enormous novel telling the story of Lewis and Clark's fabled young Shoshoni guide and interpreter. She's been the subject of many novels (including one published recently with the single worst title any book has ever had, in any age, in any language), but this one beats them all hands-down for its engrossing portraits of all involved - especially stalwart Lewis and pathetic Charbonneau - but it's her well-researched glimpses into the American Indian world (a world whose destruction came at the end of the road Lewis and Clark paved) that form the book's many highlights:

"Are you something special to these white men that they cannot powwow without a woman sitting among them?" asked Willow Bud. Again the squaws tittered.

Sacajawea folded the precious robe over her arm and tried to explain. "It is not because I am a squaw and they are braves. It is because I can speak the Shoshoni tongue and the white men cannot. I can speak for you to them."

The women slowly nodded. "Ai, ai, we understand that." And with a clucking noise made with their teeth and tongue they showed that they approved of this and she should go at once.

Willow Bud followed at a distance, then, getting up the courage, asked, "May I care for him?" She held her arms out for Pomp.

Sacajawea handed the sleeping baby to her girlhood friend, kissing him first.

"What is that?" asked Willow Bud, making a smacking noise with her lips.

"It is a sign for love," Sacajawea crossed her arms over her breast in the manner of a woman greeting her man when he returns from a hunt or war. "See?" And then Sacajawea kissed the startled Willow Bud on her cheek.

That slim glint of humor flickers throughout Sacajawea, but it's entirely absent from Larry Collins' Fall From Grace, written in 1985. Instead, this is an intelligent and somber espionage story, as you'd expect from one-half of the century's finest reporting team - and if you'd also expect lots of snappy dialogue and a penchant for pith, you'd find lots of that here too. The book is chock-full of spies and counter-spies and spy-masters, and one of them at one point says, "There's a fundamental rule to apply when you are appraising a double-agent situation: Who is getting more out of him, you or the other side? If the answer is you, keep him going. If it's them, kill him." - and virtually every character talks like that; it becomes a very naughty delight. The plot revolves around all sorts of feverish backstabbings in the days leading up to Operation Overlord (which, we're amusingly told, was originally going to be called "Operation Mothball" because, in true British fashion, that was 'the only name left' - an enraged Winston Churchill renames it), and things culminate in one of the most satisfying triple-crosses ever put on paper. Collins, needless to say, packs his novel with accurately-researched historical data, and that keeps things moving briskly even when his newsman's ear for human drama (i.e. tone deaf) momentarily lets things flag a little.

We follow this one with The Court of the Lion, written in 1989 by Eleanor Cooney and Daniel Altieri. It's a whopping thousand-page novel about the 8th Century T'ang dynasty (yep, we're back in China), and despite its length and requisite enormous cast, it's a nimble dance of a book, as smart and funny and sharp as any historical fiction you'll ever read (Cooney and Altieri also collaborated on a much slimmer - and almost equally good - historical novel called Deception, also well worth your time to hunt down and read). The story centers on the revered emperor Hsuan-tsung, a strong and mostly good man surrounded by scheming viziers, power-mad generals, obsequious eunuchs, and beautiful courtesans, and our authors pepper their narrative with the fabled poetry of the era, extracts from the fabled philosophy of the era, and their own easy natural feel for the flow of a scene:

Love. It brings them back from the edge of death, from what I have heard. It makes them whole again. Songs and poetry were rife with testimonials to its healing power. But the Emperor seems to be beyond its reach; he has no interest at all in any of the harem women - says his "old man" is as limp as a drowned snake. Who, then? What woman is going to come and work this miracle and wake him up before it is too late? Kao Li-shih was interrupted by Lu Pei quietly opening the door and entering the room. In the moment that his eyes met the apprentice's, inspiration hit.

"Grand Verity," he said aloud.

"Pardon me?" said Lu Pei politely as he shut the door behind him.

"That is her name."

"Her name?"

"It has been two years. I had nearly forgotten!" Kao Li-shih leaned forward as the apprentice lifted his eyebrows appreciatively. "Lu Pei, we are going to try to wake the dead."

I can't recommend The Court of the Lion enthusiastically enough - it's got everything a great big fat historical novel should have, in even greater helpings than most of these dozen books are lucky enough to have.

We follow it with Emily Hanlon's 1988 Petersburg, a tightly-woven family novel set in Russia on the eve of the revolution that toppled the Czar. The plot turns around the family of self-made businessman Alexei Kalinin, whose various children and their various friends and lovers manage to find themselves at the center of all the action in that sprawling, troubled land. The author writes, "Historical fiction, I discovered, is a rather amazing mix of reality and fiction, so much so that I soon found myself slipping around corners into turn-of-the-century Russia, hardly feeling the time warp. Imagination was reality for so long; yet, oddly, now that I read what I have written, like a traveler recalling a trip, scenes have become remembrances of the people I met along the way." And judging from Petersburg, this familiar mixing certainly happened to Hanlon - you'll put down her book feeling like you've actually met the Kalinin family.

Then we have Judith Merkle Riley's A Vision of Light from 1989, which tells the life story of Margaret Ashbury as she makes her way through the pitfalls and glories of 14th century England. She marries a couple of times, she gets accused of witchcraft (she fares rather better with it than poor Cathryn), loves two very different men, and in the process shows Riley's readers the time and its beliefs more congenially and thoroughly than half a dozen textbooks could have done. Riley has a distinct knack for making the archeological and sociological data of the period come alive - when she describes a humble cottage's single room in winter, you feel the description, as you do her evocations of clerical life. There's a love story woven throughout the proceedings, but it's almost touching how thoroughly it gets shoved into the background by Riley's boisterous portrait of her chosen age.

Such things achieve a better balance - but only slightly better - in Graham Masterson's 1984 novel Maiden Voyage, which tells the story of the maiden 1924 launch of the luxury liner Arcadia, which Masterson populates with the usual assortment of characters from all walks - and classes - of life. There's the main character, Catriona Keys, who life goes through seven or eight upheavals during the voyage across the ocean to New York, and there's the brutal George Welterman (if the Arcadia had gone the way of the Titanic, he'd have been first in line for a very poetic-justice style drowning; this book climaxes instead in fire), and a haughty countess (I'm pretty sure she's meant to be that weird anti-anatomical alien creature on the paperback's cover, but it could just be a space monster), and even, in the best tradition of Herman Melville, a confidence man:

Mark looked up at him for a moment or two, and then pointed a finger at him. "I know you, don't I?" he said.

Maurice shrugged. "No reason why you should."

"I've seen you before, I'm sure of it. Did you ever travel on the Melusine, of the American TransAtlantic line?"

"I know the Melusine," said Maurice ambiguously.

"Well, I think I know you," replied Mark. "You're a gambling man, aren't you? One of our professional passengers, to put it politely."

"You're not obliged to bet with me, Mr. Beeney," said Maurice affably.

"I'm sure I saw you aboard the Melusine the last time I sailed on her to Rio de Janeiro," Mark told him. "A great many of our passengers lost a great deal of money on the gaming tables on that trip; and it wouldn't surprise me at all if most of it as lost on your account."

"You know how it is," Maurice smiled. "Memory sometimes plays odd tricks on you."

"Not half so odd as some of the tricks that you play, I'll bet."

By the time Maiden Voyage reaches Coney Island, you'll be rooting for Catriona - and, most winningly of all, for the ship's captain, whose quiet personal drama very nearly steals the show and entirely commands it in the climactic final scenes. You'll find this book in the library of virtually every cruise ship in the world, but you don't need to sink the $10,000 and risk the food poisoning to enjoy it yourself - a library card should get the job done.

Last but not least (since we're not, remember, ranking these dozen books), Noel Barber's 1983 novel A Farewell to France, a leisurely and lavishly detailed World War Two narrative starring two war-tossed young lovers, the heir to the fabulous Chateau Douzy champagne vineyards, and his fiery Italian heiress girlfriend. The novel opens in 1931, when the sleepy paradise of their French valley is hardly troubled by the sight of German tanks filing along the road at the edge of the horizon. But the war grows closer and closer, and Barber does a very good job of intertwining that approach with the deepening of our young lovers' feelings for each other. By the time you're 200 pages in, you're thoroughly invested in all the characters (her Nazis start off curiously indifferent, but they work themselves up to some fine moments of evil as things heat up) - and thoroughly steeped in the feel and nuance of the German occupation of France. That occupation is also a much-storied subject, but A Farewell to France manages it with singular and memorable intensity.

But then, all of these dozen titles are richly memorable, and they're just the tip of the iceberg! There are roughly a dozen more big fat historical novels from the 1980s that could just as easily be assembled and praised (I'm sure I've given more than one of you a copy of Flanagan's Run, for instance)(it would have been on this list, but a certain basset hound got in the way)(sigh), and the same thing is true for every decade (although all the others must limp along without Ronnie Reagan in the Oval Office). Somewhere out there right now, there are dozens of hopeful writers scribbling away, stack of note cards by their legal pads, laboring to get every detail of weather and topography just right for 10th century Byzantium, or 15th century Provencal, or 2nd century Britain, and plenty of those writers, if you asked them, would tell you that yes, they know that all the great parts of any novel - including any historical novel - aren't connected with accurate meteorology or metallurgy. But these same writers, toiling on the next crop of big fat historical novels, would immediately add that it's still important to get all those details right anyway.

And we shouldn't complain! They're doing a lot of work on our behalf, after all.