Tag Archives: novels

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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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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Robinson-Heinlein mix natural in ‘Variable Star’

The idea of one writer picking up the pre-planned novel of an author who has passed doesn’t sit easy with me, and, I would imagine, with most readers. It’s just not going to be the same as it would have been had the original writer run with the concept, and sometimes those gaps or failings are going to be glaring. Plus, it feels disrespectful to the work of the dead artist.

Unless, apparently, you are Spider Robinson taking over a Robert Heinlein project. In which case everything comes up roses.

Heinlein wrote the notes and outline for the book Variable Star in 1955, got distracted by other work and never came back to it. After the death of Heinlein’s wife, the notes were found by Heinlein’s children, Robinson was offered the chance to complete the project, and Variable Star hit bookshelves in 2006.

It’s really a terrific mix of the two authors. Orphaned teen Joel is ready to set out and become a musician, gets his world rocked by his love interest that jump starts a massive identity crisis, and instead jumps on the first spaceship he can find to travel light years away to be a colonist on a previously unsettled planet. If you’ve ever read any Heinlein, you know it isn’t that straightforward. The requisite Heinlein oddities and twists are all there. There were even moments where Robinson truly captured Heinlein’s voice, and those times usually left me laughing.

What’s great about it is that Robinson, while staying very much true to Heinlein’s story and style, is also able to add his own touches that really round out the work. One example that strikes me is when Joel starts to have a mental breakdown and is forced to seek counseling. Heinlein had a more brusque style, I think in part generational and in part the natural outcome of a writer who was trying to crank out product to feed his family. Plus, I think Heinlein tended to get excited about the concept and was less into creating nuanced characters of great depth, because that wasn’t what he was about. Robinson adds a sensitivity that Heinlein probably wouldn’t have, creating sympathy for Joel as he tries to find his way after having his world rocked. In other chapters, where there is less action and more of Joel figuring out who he is and what he is or should be doing, Robinson’s hand is felt similarly, keeping the story interesting as well as letting it move at the leisurely pace someone on a long spacecraft voyage would be operating at.

If you’re a Heinlein fan and you have any doubts, don’t. Yes, it’s not a Heinlein novel in the purest sense. It’s a collaboration, and because of that, it’s a beast all its own. But what a beautiful beast it is.

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‘Bees’ captures hive mentality

Flora is big, ugly, fearful ... and the savior of her hive.

Flora is big, ugly, fearful … and the savior of her hive.

“[A] gripping Cinderella/Arthurian tale with lush Keatsian adjectives.”
– Margaret Atwood, via Twitter

I thought a lot about Margaret Atwood while reading Laline Paull’s The Bees, and not just because Atwood’s quoted on the book cover.

Paull’s story of Flora, a freak who stands out in her hive both for her abilities to transcend the rigid hive caste system (sanitation, nurses, sages, queen, etc.) and her unique size and physical characteristics, has strong touches of The Handmaid’s Tale, at least thematically. The demands of rigid conformity don’t work for Flora, and the more hardships this bee and her hive face, the more willing she becomes to crash through boundaries. Much like Offred, Flora pays for her transgressions. Unlike Offred, Flora has a chance for a happy ending.

I also contemplated Toby’s and Pilar’s relationships with the bees in The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam. It seems like such a small part of the Oryx & Crake trilogy, yet it speaks again to man’s resistance against harmony with nature. Toby and Pilar are intimate with the bees, respectful, loving and even conversational, yet the rest of their world tends to view animals as easily ignored mutants (pigoons and the like) or laboratory-grown meat. Here, an unnamed man has a very direct relationship with the bees, but it seems very minor for the bulk of the novel. The negative impact of humans – when Flora’s kin encounter pesticides during their attempts to forage for pollen or the metallic “trees” that emit signals that confuse the bees natural radar – is a much greater part of the story. Man is destroyer at worst, an enormous obstacle to the natural order at best.

However, while Paull touches many of the same themes as Atwood – the treatment of women by men, conformity, religious fanaticism – the author has created a singularly unique work in The Bees. The Sages, the equivalent of the Queen’s presidential cabinet, rule through fear, doctrine and chemical manipulation. The drones are useless braggarts beyond their breeding potential, consuming the bulk of the resources and contributing little. The nurses are snobs, viewing all but the queen as inferior to them. Security bees enforce the strict demands of the caste system through fear and violence. The foragers are the adventurers, not happy unless they are on the wing in search of new food sources. Sanitation workers are slaves, their development process interfered with in an effort to make sure they can’t talk, only work.

Flora is born into this at a time of great upheaval in the hive. Urbanization, pesticides, non-native species, wasps, spiders and more keep the hive on the precarious edge between survival and desolation. Flora herself keeps finding that she, unlike most bees, has multiple talents, including the ability to reproduce. That singular ability is, by divine right, that only of the queen, and should the Sages unveil Flora’s egg-laying talents, she will be killed. However, in the end, Flora’s fertility may be the only thing that can save the hive, if it’s not too late.

I don’t, by any means, think my little screed here has done Paull’s work justice. I can’t recommend it enough, and judging from the buzz, I’m not the only one.

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‘Quantum Thief’: Is the juice worth the squeeze?

In any heist situation, it helps if you have wings.

In any heist situation, it helps if you have wings.

In The Girl Next Door, when Kelly asks Matthew if the juice is worth the squeeze, he wants to know if Matthew is ready to face the repercussions of his actions, and if those repercussions are worth the end result.

With regards to The Quantum Thief, I ask the same question with a slightly different meaning. Is the juice – the reward of finishing the complex, fast-paced novel – worth the squeeze – the fact that the complexity is almost mind-boggling in the early chapters of the book?

Part of the brilliance of The Quantum Thief is its speed. The Mars-based heist perpetrated by scoundrel/thief Jean Le Flambeur at the behest of the Oori warrior Mieli is grand, fun and brilliant. It’s hard not to get swept up in it.

Actually, I take that back. It is kind of hard to get caught up in it. Know what a gevulot is? Tzaddikim? Sobornost? You won’t, at least at first. And author Hannu Rajaniemi isn’t big with the explanations, instead expecting you to go along for the ride and figure it out as the novel unfolds.

An appendix, glossary or something would have been nice, akin to what was added to the end of A Clockwork Orange. A reviewer over at the Speculative Scotsman admits that while normally he hates that sort of thing, he’d have been consulting it throughout the entirety of the book.

In the end, the juice was worth it for me. I found it to a be a simultaneously confusing and fun experience, and I look forward to reading Rajaniemi’s next tale of Jean’s exploits.

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Another pair of classics: “Catch-22” and “Great Expectations”

I am a man of two minds when it comes to Charles Dickens. On the one hand, I see why the word “journalistic” is used often in critiques of his work. He has an eye for detail and does a nice job of laying out the political, economic and social justice issues of the day. He has a knack for undercutting corruption and outing false, self-important people. There is a straightforward quality to his work that is to be admired. And there is no doubt about the importance of his novels and their relationship to the Victorian Period.

However … I might argue that all of those terrific things don’t necessarily make Dickens a great writer of fiction. I know, heresy. But let’s think about this … If Darth Vader had virtually disappeared after A New Hope and not even shown up at the end of Return of the Jedi, would anyone care about the Star Wars series? If Voldemort had dropped out sight pretty much after The Prisoner of Azkaban and Harry Potter had fought Crabbe and Goyle at the end of Deathly Hallows instead, J.K. Rowling would be a significantly less wealthy woman. Imagine a Big Lebowski where Walter damn near quits showing up after his run-in with “the Jesus” and the Dude is left to battle the nihilists and bury Donnie alone.

Maybe I’m stretching it with the last one, but you get my point. Miss Havisham is the interesting personality in Great Expectations. Not Pip, who the novel is about. Not Estella, who gets less interesting the more the novel progresses and eventually just fizzles out. Certainly not Joe, the people of the town or London, even the notorious lawyer, Mr. Jaggers. And most of those characters stick it out through the end of Great Expectations. But Havisham is outed as the fraud mentor at the end of the first third of the book and is relegated to minor character status for the rest of the novel. Easily the most interesting personality in the novel, Havisham is gone well before the end. The second two-thirds of Dickens’ fairy tale drag without her presence. And for some reason, both Dickens and Great Expectations are celebrated for it.

No similar problem plagues Catch-22. It’s madmen wall to wall: Yossarian, Doc Daneeka, Captain Black, Major Major Major Major and, of course, Milo Mindbender, who I may be elevating to my personal great literary characters pantheon. Each character – great and small – has their way of contributing to the madness of Joseph Heller’s WWII bombing unit. And despite each character’s unique foibles, each in his own way is locked into the catch-22 that plagues all of them. Every time you think Heller can’t take it any farther, he does. It takes a focused mindset to pull that off, almost an author’s form of method acting. To consistently immerse yourself and your work in the same logical fallacy and find new, more extreme ways of expressing it as the novel unfolds … it’s astounding. I couldn’t recommend this novel enough.

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