Tag Archives: novel

CEO fight clubs and crashing cars to get turned on: The trippy tales of J.G. Ballard

THE FIRST RULE OF CEO FIGHT CLUB is there is no CEO fight club.

While reading J.G. Ballard’s Super-Cannes, I thought a lot about Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Both center themselves on the idea that unrestrained violence and sexuality are healing actions, rather than negative or self-destructive. However, in Fight Club, that violence is directed to cripple a society that has already crippled the clubbers. In Super-Cannes, the anarchy is more controlled, with the idea that these periodic bursts of lunacy will help make the world a better place by allowing elites in their fields – business, engineering, medicine, etc. – to release this pent-up rage and malaise, to unblock their psyche and intellect so that they can focus on their chosen professions and studies with a singularity and fervor that they would have been unable to do before said acts.

Paul, a magazine editor, moves to the elite business park Eden-Olympia after his pediatrician wife, Jane, accepts a position there. David Greenwood, the pediatrician who preceded Jane at Eden-Olympia and an acquaintance of Paul and his wife, is dead after going on a rampage at the business park, shooting a number for fellow co-workers before being gunned down by security. While Jane is immediately immersed in her work, Paul starts to wonder what exactly set David off and gets his Hardy boys on digging into the incident.

What Paul comes to find is that the elites that populate Eden-Olympia are participating on “bowling teams.” These teams periodically go out to areas around the park, in Cannes and the neighboring towns and cities, stealing, committing vandalism, beating up immigrants and more. The staff psychiatrist, Wilder Penrose, encourages this psychopathy. He believes that these elite individuals really don’t understand down time, unable to commit to average hobbies and pastimes that help soothe the souls of normal people. This negatively impacts their health and productivity. But after evenings beating up prostitutes or stealing top-end furs from a commercial shoot, these leaders in their respective fields get physically and mentally healthier and are able to spend even more time working.

Super-Cannes is intriguing and works well, with one exception. On the one hand, Paul seems sucked in by this madness, wanting to stop it but unsure how. On the other, Paul almost seems completely removed from the madness he witnesses or even is involved in personally. When it comes time for him to shit or get off the pot, you can see why he chooses what he chooses to do morally and personally, but Paul seems to lack the rage and passion required for his book-closing move. The journey is interesting and well-executed, but the wrap-up feels like it doesn’t quite fit.

DO MANGLED STEEL, broken plastic, burning wires, spilled gasoline, broken limbs, dripping blood, scarred torsos and metal leg braces turn you on?

Ballard’s Crash confronts the sexual nature of the automobile in ways I never imagined. I saw David Cronenberg’s Crash back in the 1990s (see The 5 Most Disturbing Movies I’ve Ever Seen) and was pretty appalled by what I was witnessing. The idea of intentionally crashing vehicles as well as maiming and killing people in order to achieve some ultimate turn-on – known as symphorphilia – isn’t exactly commonplace stuff, and it was hard to digest. The movie is compelling if you can stomach the perversity, but I didn’t really connect with it.

If it’s possible, Ballard’s book is even more startling, but in a different way. Cronenberg’s flick is really about the relationships that form among the members of this bizarre subculture. And while Ballard’s Crash does that as well, there is one thing that both separate it from the film and make it, to me, at least, the superior work of art.

I’m a man. I’m an American. I get the idea of a hot car and how it appeals on a sexual level. But the intensity and detail that go into Ballard’s description of vehicles here take that to a new level. It’s the one part of the book that, for me, doesn’t feel absolutely bugshit insane. The angles, the chrome, the lights, the shadow, the feel of a leather interior, the cool cleanliness. I’m not saying I’m jumping into the fetishism with both feet, but for brief moments of the book, I gained an understanding of how combining the cold-steel eroticism of the vehicle with an intense, life-altering event like a near-fatal car crash could push a person over the edge and into an obsession with this very dark kink.

That, to me, is the power of Crash. There are plenty of kinks – for example, watching a pretty girl in expensive shoes crush worms on a sidewalk – that I look at and think, “How do you get to the point where that gets you off?” With Crash, I feel like I gain some understanding of how, in a singular instance, one could get to that point. That Ballard could find a way to convey this unique psychological outlier in a way that brought me to greater understanding of it says something about the author’s abilities (or possibly about my own pysche). Quite the feat.

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The Disney-fication of the end of the world

The blandest love story ever told.

The blandest love story ever told.

The Giver is about a future civilization that exists on a mesa above the clouds all its own, no one ever going beyond the borders. There are strict rules about the sort of things you’d expect – don’t lie – as well as some more odd demands – don’t talk about the past. Families exist, but they are no longer based on genetics and people are assigned to these units. Everyone takes a daily dose of drugs to essentially neuter them emotionally and sexually. All because of how awful things used to be. Awful how? No one knows. Well, except one guy. He’s about to share the information, possibly with everyone in the settlement. And that may or may not be a good thing.

Not a bad premise. And, according to my daughter and wife, it was a pretty good book. But the movie … not so much.

It’s not that it’s not very good. In its own, clean, superficial way, it’s not bad. But it comes off as apocalypse-lite, a Disney-fied version of what could have been a darker, more interesting film. I kind of kept waiting for Fred MacMurray and the shaggy dog to appear during the black-and-white scenes, it was so pristine, straight-forward and dumbed-down.

I think, in the end, that’s what really ruined it for me, how The Giver insulted my intelligence. At the tail end of the film, our hero – whose name I don’t remember and isn’t worth my time to look up – marches a baby across the desert, feeding the baby with a bottle that seemingly appears from nowhere, and then both dress warmly for the mountain trek with extra clothes that, I don’t know, they picked up at a Dick’s Sporting Goods while we were watching the action back at the settlement. It was egregious and ridiculous, undercutting the seriousness of the moment.

My advice? Skip it. We’re about to get big-screen doses of The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner that will likely far exceed what The Giver has to offer.

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More fun with an ‘Electric’ Serge

There are two things that really make Electric Barracuda worth the read. The first is main character Serge Storms, a one-man hurricane of energy, vitality and mayhem, who – with his stoner pal, Coleman – blazes a trail across Florida, leaving behind broken hearts, dead bodies and signatures in museum visitor logs. Sure, Serge is a serial killer, but he only kills serious douchebags like would-be child molesters, corporate executives who rob their companies and, of course, accountants. How much harm can there be in that?

The second is Serge’s – and apparently Dorsey’s – passion for all thing Florida. In Electric Barracuda, everything is set against the historical background of Al Capone-era Florida and all of the money, corruption, guns and illegal booze that came with it. We get fascinating glimpses at roads that barely exist in harsh swamp environs, out-of-the-way islands where only those who venture far off the beaten path ever end up and even the less-than-criminal blooming of a rare flower found only in the Sunshine State. Electric Barracuda gets to be fun and informative, mixing both in a breakneck pace that only makes you want to read further.

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Revisting ‘Handmaid’s Tale’

I like reading books. I love re-reading books.

The first time through a book, I’m just getting into the story. I’m not looking for clues or symbols, not trying to think ahead. I try hard to be in the moment and let the author guide me through. It’s just me enjoying the journey.

The second time through, that’s when I found out just how legit the story is. I start paying more attention in sections that I think probably dropped clues or at least tipped the hand of the author, where he or she was going with the story. That’s when the details really shine through, or should, and I get a better grasp of the set-up.

After that second reading, any further readings are because I love the tale and I want to revisit it. As years pass, as I change and the world changes, I start to find different things to appreciate. As my collective knowledge base grows, I find connections in stories that I wouldn’t have been able to pick out before. Those further readings are just as much about learning something about myself as it is the text.

I just recently completed my third time through The Handmaid’s Tale. The set-up is this: A terror attack and subsequent war have cause an entire overhaul of the United States’ – now Gilead – political, economic and social structure. Martial law is declared. Those who do not adhere to the new Christian theocracy’s religious strictures – such as Catholics, Quakers, doctors, feminists, etc. – are publicly executed or used as slave labor. Women no longer have the right to read, possess money. work, get an education and more. Because of severe nationwide fertility issues, those woman who can reproduce are forced to become Handmaids, women who attempt to breed with the male heads of powerful households in an attempt to extend the family line. The story is told from the perspective of one of the Handmaids, Offred (or Of Fred, as Handmaids take the names of their new masters) a woman who had been a mother, wife and worker whose life and family are stripped from her as she is shoved into sexual subservience.

This time through, two things really struck me about the story. First is Offred’s hope. She understands what she has lost, the man she loved, the daughter who is now growing up in another master’s home. She has no freedom, not even to kill herself, as great pains have been taken to make sure that can’t happen. And Offred knows that life is bound to get even worse if she can’t produce offspring. She could end up in the dead, polluted lands as a slave laborer or as a whore in one of the few secret brothels that survived the purge. Yet she still finds reasons to continue. Sometimes its simple things, like her walks to and from the market with the Handmaid Offglen, the smells from the garden kept by her master’s wife. Sometimes it’s much more complicated, like when she starts to fall for Nick, the master’s driver. Their secret lovemaking sessions provide her a chance to feel like the woman she was, or as close as she’ll ever get. Even when reality encroaches, when Offred can’t hide from the world she is part of and the situation she’s in, when she admits how awful everything is, she still is able to push that aside and hope for more. It’s both delusional and inspiring, and it makes the story that much more soul crushing.

The second thing that struck me was the prescience of Margaret Atwood’s vision from her 1985 novel. Sexual control is taken completely from women. Abortion is a capital crime. Women are forced to dressed modestly. They are always under the strict supervision of men, be they their masters or the soldiers/cops who roam the streets. All of this reeks of the Christian, conservative agenda. The Duggars and the Quiverfull movement are the template here, and a lot of what’s being shown in The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t that much different from what’s advocated by political leaders such as Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal and others from the right with regards to women’s rights and reproductive freedom. The slow erosion of abortion rights, particularly in states run by Republican governors and lawmakers, is another example. I also thought the idea of enacting martial law in the wake of a supposed terror attack just stunk of the George W. Bush administration. Every time an election approached, the terror alerts rose. Every time the Bush administration start to face lower approval ratings, the threat of an “imminent terror attack” was raised in the media. Fear is used frequently and with enthusiasm, because when there is no hope to offer, fear of sexuality, foreigners, some nasty other is the only way to cling to power.

My third reading of The Handmaid’s Tale was just as rewarding as the first two. I now get to look forward to my fourth reading, and what new insights it will bring me about the world. And myself.

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Double shot of Locke Lamora isn’t enough

20130906162408!Locke_Lamora“I can’t wait to have words with the Gray King when this shit is all finished. There’s a few things I want to ask him. Philosophical questions. Like, ‘How does it feel to be dangled out a window by a rope tied around your balls, motherfucker?’ ” Locke Lamora, The Lies of Locke Lamora

I’ve previously written about a conversation with a pal, who, after I said I had some issues with Game of Thrones (while enjoying it overall), went on a rant about the quality of fantasy tomes for adult readers. After he spewed forth his wrath against the genre in general, he then pointed me toward Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard series and said, “Read this.”

So I did. The Lies of Locke Lamora, the first book in the Gentleman Bastard series, is a combination of Ocean’s 11-esque heist movie and Game of Thrones level violence. The backstabbing is metaphorical, literal and frequent. Lamora and his gang of confidence men violate the peace between the old money of the city of Camorr and its criminal underworld, going after the elite targets while generally being rewarded for their efforts. Until the Grey King shows up and it all goes to shit. The twists are marvelous, the characters are many and varied, the world that Lynch has created is broad, unique and detailed. I can’t recommend the Lies of Locke Lamora enough.

887877Book two of the Gentleman Bastard series, Red Seas Under Red Skies, is … effective. Some of the fun of the first book is gone, as Locke has lost too much to continue to be nothing but a light-hearted rogue. But some of what we lose in Locke is just as much about the story as the evolution of character, a tale which takes Locke out of the con too frequently. It isn’t that Lamora’s time on the high seas isn’t rewarding, but what gives these books their vitality is the thrill of the crime. Don’t get me wrong: Red Seas Under Red Skies is still a great read. But my hope is as I delve deeper into this series, Lynch is able to find the fun a bit more. With the dark ending of the second book, however, that may be difficult to do.

But I have faith in Locke, Jean, Scott Lynch and the Crooked Warden. So bring on book three and whatever violence, chicanery and humor it holds.

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An end in sight?

I don’t write a lot about my novel-in-progress, precisely because this blog is more my opportunity to both get away from it for a bit, as well as take a critical look at the work of others to see what I can learn from what others have done. Plus, I don’t know about you, but I think it’s pretty boring to listen to people gripe about their works-in-progress.

But this isn’t a gripe. I sat down today and looked at my notes, trying to figure out just what exactly I needed to do. And that list is a lot smaller than I expected. I have about a half-dozen chapters to write, and another 3 or 4 – including the end – that will need some re-writing.

Twenty nine chapters in total. It’s right in front of me that beautiful, terrifying finish. I can hardly believe it.

Of course, maybe I shouldn’t be too excited. I’m sure there will be much re-writing to be done after I’ve received some notes on this draft.

Maybe it’s more like the beginning of the end. Still, it feels pretty good.

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Ellis and Hemingway, tellers of manly tales

Sometimes, you don’t want to put a book down, while on the other hand dreading the eventual conclusion because the story just has you so damn hooked. Yes, Warren Ellis’ Gun Machine, I’m looking at you.

The short review is this: Imagine CSI (and CSI Miami, CSI New York, CSI Denver, CSI Terre Haute, CSI NCIS THEGOODWIFE, etc.) didn’t suck.

I know, it’s hard to get past the way-too-stylish-for-cops clothes and hair, the over-lit outdoor shots and moody indoor lighting, the fact that the dialogue seems to have been written by a junior-high dropout nursing a 700-mg-a-day Thorazine habit, and realize that police procedurals work because the science of crime, evidence and death is fascinating and many times odd. Part of the brilliance of Gun Machine is that Ellis captures the interesting points of fact-finding without being bogged down by the heavier aspects of the science or resorting to talking down to the reader as if they are a two-year-old, a lobotomized howler monkey or a U.S. congressman.

The other part of the brilliance is the heavy, numbing noir world in which Gun Machine is set. While N.Y. Detective John Tallow drives, he eschews music or talk radio for the police band. Over the course of the novel, the reader begins to roll with him to the beat of  reported rapes, murders and mindless violence that the city’s residents wreak upon each other. The image that has stuck with me since I finished Gun Machine is that of Tallow sitting in the basement of One Police Plaza, in a room covered floor-to-ceiling with photographs of patterns made of guns – big guns, small guns, new guns, damn-near ancient guns – the smell of tobacco faint in the air and the omnipresent pressure to fail or disappear (or at the very least go fuck off for the rest of his life ) pushing down on his shoulders. The final chapters of this book even got my heart racing a bit. I’m a huge fan of Transmetropolitan (comic series) and Freakangels (online comic series), and I liked Ellis’ first novel, Crooked Little Vein. (Most people probably know him from Red, his graphic novel about retired CIA agents that was turned in to a 2010 film starring Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman and Hellen Mirren.) But he hit it out of the park on this one. Gun Machine is a novel I’m looking forward to reading again.

Sometimes, you can’t help but put a book down, hoping it will end just so you can return it to the library. That’s what happened to me during my time with Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Hemingway does a terrific job – too well in fact – of mimicking the “hurry up and wait” military life. It was mind numbing. To be fair, it was also a busy time for me, so it made it harder to sit down and get into it, but Hemingway certainly didn’t make it easy. I had no such problem with the last 270 pages, when the isolation recedes and the war starts to close in on Robert Jordan and his band of Spanish rebels. It took me more than a month to finish the first half of the book, less than a week to finish the rest.

The set-up is just too slow. Many of the rebels kind of run together when it comes to personalities and roles, and the romance with Jordan and “Rabbit” seems forced and childish, especially when compared to the affair of Frederic and Catherine in A Farewell to Arms. It’s B action flick bad, like a studio exec said to Hemingway, “We need romance so we can get a hot piece of ass in the picture, sell it to teenage boys.” I think the set-up and romance might have worked better spliced into flashbacks. In media res would have been a better way to handle this story, throwing readers into the action and then looking back to see how Jordan, Rabbit, Pablo and the rest ended up where they did.

What I thought may have been Hemingway’s greatest accomplishment, to give some credit to the set-up, was the character Pablo. When Robert Jordan arrives at the rebel camp, Pablo is the undisputed – if often drunken – leader. His fall from that position and subsequent reveal of him as a pure opportunist was easily the most interesting subplot that surrounded the attack of a key bridge.

I also like the end. Jordan completes his mission, blowing the bridge, but is fatally wounded in the escape. He orders his compatriots to leave him behind, armed, so that he can hopefully slow any pursuit. For Whom the Bell Tolls ends with the image of the dying Jordan, his gun trained on a Fascist officer, preparing to drop the unknowing soldier. An American’s final gasp against the tide of authoritarianism.

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Figuring it out

I haven’t written about writing or my novel-in-progress for a while, for good reason. I was starting to think things were a bit too … straightforward. This meant stopping to re-examine what I’m doing.

To refresh, my main male character is not exactly who he seems, and my main female character sort of stumbles on to this fact. In addition, there is a shadowy figure – whose identity is not revealed until late in the game – that is on the tail of the main male character. I’d been working with two suspects, the sheriff and a local pastor. But I decided that isn’t quite enough. I needed a third.

But who? This is supposed to be a small town. I have a main street with a few businesses, a grain processing plant, the grade, middle and high school, a couple of churches, a golf course, a mechanic … and that’s about it. Pretty limiting. Plus, this is a student who is somewhat new to the area, so that’s going to limit the places she goes, the people she bumps into on a regular basis even more. Not only that, she has plenty of relatives in town. I didn’t think a relation would work as a straw man/potential threat in this instance, so that limited the pool of potential new suspects even more.

I ended up going with a guidance counselor. My female lead, being new to the area and probably considered at-risk (father died at an early age, living with her grandparents a state away from her mother, etc.), would likely be a regular in the guidance office early in the school year, out of legitimate concern she’d adjust and thrive. Plus, a guidance counselor is going to be privy to private, personal information and be able to ask questions that most people couldn’t ask a teenage girl, without seeming like creepy stalker pervs.

I’m also making Marcia Miller (it’s a good, eastern Indiana name) a woman. The sheriff and pastor are both men, so their interaction will be different with my female lead than will Marcia’s. Again, because she’s a woman, it’s should be easier for the female lead to divulge certain personal information, the kind of things someone collecting information can use to her advantage. It’s a bond my FL is going to lack elsewhere in her new hometown and school. With her mom at a distance, both physically and emotionally, this gives the counselor an in, as well.

I’m going to make Ms. Miller consistently behind the game. As is obvious on this blog, my political leaning is to the left. However, sometimes I have just a little patience with the people I share common ground with as those that I don’t. Ms. Miller will by a symbol of those people, who often don’t seem to see the right’s attacks coming, a step slow despite possessing great intelligence. She’ll react, not act. My hope is that this won’t be taken as an attack on her gender, especially because the pastor is a bit of a nervous nelly and the sheriff is on the wrong track for a considerable portion of the novel. Nobody gets to be a super-genius evil villain. They all have blind spots.

On a more personal note, my high school counselor was a bit like this, slow to react. There were certain things she did well, but often seemed surprised at the behavior and reactions of teenagers and unsure of how to proceed once encountering said behavior. Maybe it’s just me, but those seem like the kind of things one should be prepared for as a high school counselor. But I guess it’s working out in the end. She gave me a model to work with. This ever sells, I may owe her a beer.

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Finished up four courses of Phillip K. Dick: Ubik, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich and The Man in the High Castle. Wrote a bit about The Man in the High Castle earlier, but Ubik is what’s on my mind right now.

There’s a lot to like about Ubik. In this future Earth, death isn’t the end. You have some time left after your body dies, and for the right price, you can be kept in storage so your friends, family and business associates can continue to consult you for years to come. It’s not immortality; your essence will eventually move on to whatever is beyond. It is also a time of mutants, people with special mental powers, both to act on the minds of other unsuspecting people and to block the mental powers of those who would prey on the unprepared. So you can see the potential for darkness, to alter the reality of anyone or prevent such reality-bending trickery … for a price.

What Dick does that’s really impresses me – in this bleak landscape of wavering reality – is to turn it on its head with two extreme absurdities: outrageous outfits of the characters and the fact that everything is coin-operated.

The fashion of this future Earth is a mixture of all of the fashion that preceded it … usually on one person’s body … all at the same time. Want to wear penny loafers, leg warmers, a poodle skirt, a Michael Jackson zipper jacket and a football helmet? You can, but that’s what your neighbor’s wearing today. How about six-inch stiletto heals, bell bottom jeans, a tube top, a bow tie and a top hat? Sure, but when you see your dental hygienist in the same outfit, it’s going to be awkward. No matter how formidable the character or how much power they have, they dress like doofuses. It’s a goofier Dick than I’m used to, and provides for great visuals.

When I say everything is coin-operated, I mean everything. Want to go to the bathroom? That’ll be a quarter. You’ll need a roll of nickels if you plan on drinking a bunch of coffee in the morning. Time to go to work? Don’t forget your dime to get out the door. Not kidding. It’s hilarious and occasionally creates tension, particularly for one of the main characters who is consistently short on money. One of the more fun aspects of reading sci-fi is seeing how writers get the future right or veer off into something altogether its own. In this case, Dick missed … but just by a bit. We don’t pay for everything coin by coin as he envisioned. But he wasn’t far off in that everything costs something. It’s just in 2011, we usually pay for everything by putting up with the over-saturation of advertising displayed everywhere and beamed out to multiple platforms, instead of payment coming directly from our own pockets.

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The solution was right there. I’m surprised it didn’t crawl up off my keyboard, rap me on the forehead with its grimy little knuckle and say, “Moron, do I have to spell this out for you?” …

I had a “duh” moment recently while working on the novel. I’d come to a point where the two main characters are going to have a parting of ways, at least temporarily. I’d always thought that the woman would initiate the separation. Until the other day. When I realized that the only thing that made sense was for the man to push her away.

Because that’s what the male character, in this case, would do. He’s skittish, for good reason, and he wants to protect her. The female character … that’s not her. She moves toward. He moves away.

I’m not sure why it took me so long to get to this point. The reason it finally came to me, I think, was because everything else I had planned after it never quite worked. It always started to get … uncomfortable … at that point. With this change, the rest of the plan works as it should and makes sense, both for the overall plot and for who these characters are.

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