Review – Roth, “The Human Stain”

Philip Roth, “The Human Stain” (2000) – I started reading Philip Roth in basically the dumbest way: I picked up “The Plot Against America” as a teenager who was interested in alternate history fiction. Needless to say, I didn’t get whatever I was looking for, and wasn’t that interested in what was on offer from the man then enjoying his position atop the American literary heap. Many years later, my second Roth was “American Pastoral.” I didn’t and don’t like that one. I could see the talent. But you’re just not gonna hook me with “did you know that the New Left was an oedpial (or in this case, elektral) rebellion against :checks notes: Philip Roth’s generation, and to an extent, Philip Roth and his friends, personally??” And I’ve studied the New Left enough to not be, as they say, a fan.

But I read more, because I’ve committed myself to reading “important” writers, out of historical/critical interest even if I don’t think I’ll enjoy them. By the time I was reading “Portnoy’s Complaint,” I was pretty glad this commitment (compulsion?) led me back to Roth. There really is no one quite like him in terms of craft. I do think one of the reasons I can appreciate his work more now is because I have spent a number of years thinking about the craft of writing myself, though obviously not to the same effect (or in the same fields). 

“The Human Stain” is about a dude getting cancelled! Except not really. It is funny to see some of the ways the “political correctness”/cancellation discourse has changed, or hasn’t. This was published in 2000 and was written, and is set, during the Clinton/Lewinski impeachment imbroglio. It’s in this background that Roth’s self-stand-in, Zuckerman, relates the story of Coleman Silk, star classicist and academic power-player at Athena University in the Berkshires, brought low by political correctness… or was he? Silk loses his job because of a campaign, a few years before the action of the novel starts, to do him in when he refers to two black students – who had never shown up in his class, he didn’t know who they were or what their race was – as “spooks.” 

This is about a lot more than the hounding of an innocent high-end academic, though. In fact, we see relatively little of Silk’s booting, even as we learn the ins and outs of his life both before and after. It’s even implied that Silk could have fought, and likely won, but chose not to. Zuckerman meets Silk as Silk emerges from years of writing the indictment of the university that slandered him, that he sees as having killed his wife (his wife died during the contretemps)… and as Silk has decided to abandon the writing project. Silk has something else in his life- an affair with one of the cleaning staff at the school, who’s about half his age (note- she’s thirty-seven, Silk is seventy-one). Faunia, his new lover, has her own stuff going on, having lived through a history of abuse, survived the death of her two children, and is currently being stalked by her deranged Vietnam vet ex-husband. 

I guess you could say that the strength of this novel is that everyone “has their own stuff going on,” as I so eloquently put it (with the interesting exception of Zuckerman, Roth’s narrator alter-ego, who we hear less about). We learn all about Faunia, her ex-husband, the French theory-lady who leads Silk’s accusers, various members of Silk’s family, and above all, Coleman Silk himself. In keeping with this book, and with Roth himself, Silk is a complex, fascinating, deeply frustrating character, who has led a brilliant life and done dark, fucked-up things. I don’t know how many spoilers we need to have for a decades-old literary fiction novel, but, just in case, SPOILERS: Coleman Silk, who spent his academic career depicting himself as a kind of Harold Bloom figure, complete with Jewish background, is, in fact, a black man who has spent decades “passing.” We go, unsparingly, into the logic of the decision, the will with which the young, ambitious, light-skinned black boy Silk decides to abandon his family and his beloved mother in order to live his dreams of success and, more than anything, of individuality- to be a him, rather than part of an “us.” 

We get all of this over the course of a novel of average length, and more. It’s easy to describe this novel, and most of its features, in such a way that it sounds like the complaint of an obnoxious mid-twentieth century white American male intellectual, pissed that time is passing him by. These tropes are the sort of thing that a substantial portion of the critical internet, your Toasts and your Booktoks and what have you, were connected to a network in order to pass negative, usually “snarky,” judgment upon: the “political correctness gone mad” scenario that impels the book, the “they were the REAL racists!” angle, the woman depicted as an anti-intellectual “natural” woman-child and everything a seventy-something pedant needs, of course the French theory lady persecuting the old-school intellectual is sexually frustrated, etc. etc. And, in classic Roth fashion, there’s validity to all of that. Roth was an obnoxious midcentury intellectual over-achiever who did not care for any of the moralizing – good, bad, or indifferent – that has, historically, gone with pretty much every politics – left, right, and center – that took hold in America during his lifetime. He couldn’t necessarily have predicted our current situation, but he did have a good hard look at the nineties (a depressingly large portion of the landscape hasn’t changed since), and still dangled all these features out there, like a matador’s cape. 

And, like Johnny Cash’s matador, he “killed just one more” (well, probably more than that, if his subsequent novels are any good). Nothing is simple for Roth, even when he says it is, he almost always complicates it with the left hand what he has narrators declare in ignorance about with his right (he actually comes pretty close to uncomplicatedly condemning the internet, but, hell, who can blame him). Things aren’t what they appear- but for Roth, that’s never a reason to ignore the appearances, or soften the aspects of either the depths or the surfaces of the human tragedies we create in order to spare our sensibilities. What this results in, when it works, are gripping narratives, needing little or nothing in the way of formal tricks, verbal pyrotechnics, or genre hooks to sustain the reader’s interest- just prose, polished to diamond clarity and hardness, about the complexities of being alive. I can’t really encapsulate everything that happens here, except to say it is, indisputably, human, in all the messiness that implies. *****

Review – Roth, “The Human Stain”

Review – De La Pava, “A Naked Singularity”

They made a movie of this book, and I’m told it was bad

Sergio De La Pava, “A Naked Singularity” (2008) (read aloud by Luis Moreno) – It’s like “Infinite Jest,” but good! This was recommended me by a friend early on in grad school. I’ve had her copy for most of a decade, as she tends to flit amongst the continents and isn’t anchored by physical belongings (plus this copy is donged up a little and would not sell at the used places). I tried reading it physically but wasn’t in the mood, then, when I started having a “contemporary lit fic” slot in my audiobook rotation, thought this would do the trick.

Sergio De La Pava originally self-published this, but then a publisher picked it up and it won some awards. Gotta say, it does feel a little older than it is, more 2000 than 2008, when it got picked up. A lot of stuff about how weird and off-putting television is, and pretty much none about how weird and off-putting the internet is, for instance. This is one feature, along with its length and discursiveness, that led me to compare it to “Infinite Jest” – Wallace had that weird Gen X fear of/fascination with TV, too. 

That said, the saving grace of “A Naked Singularity” versus “Infinite Jest” is that the former has incident and life, where the latter has pretentious noodling and the stink of death. I don’t use either of those descriptors lightly, for different reasons. I heard the word “pretentious” applied to me a lot, it won’t surprise you to know! And it didn’t help that the best response I could muster would be pointing to the fact that most of the people using it weren’t using the word properly. They couldn’t tell me what I was pretending to be. Well, they didn’t have to, because they meant “annoying” (can’t really disagree with them there, in retrospect) “in an intellectually-themed way.” In any event, that made me have a flinch reaction to the word, not so much because it was hurtful to me and more because it seemed just too easy and underthought. But “Infinite Jest” does pretend, and so did David Foster Wallace- pretend to be avant-garde, pretend to be humanist, pretend that there was anything “new” in whichever version, at least the third, of “new sincerity” it and he were trying. And it reeks of death not just because of the subject matter, but because it’s clear that Wallace’s answer, insofar as he fails in eluding question, is to batten down the hatches from the mean old world and cultivate a set of virtues that sound less New Sincerity and more Second Great Awakening… 

Anyway! There’s my review of “Infinite Jest,” if you’re wondering. I wouldn’t call “A Naked Singularity” an entirely successful novel, but again, has an emphasis on incident (a good idea if you can’t really summon up convincing internal space, which De La Pava sort of can and which Wallace could not) and is, for lack of a better term, lively. This is the story of a few days in the life of Casi, a young Colombian-American lawyer in the New York City public defender’s office (De La Pava is, or at least was, also a public defender). Casi’s a hot shot- takes on too much but always succeeds, has gotten all twelve of the cases he’s taken to trial to a not-guilty verdict (in keeping with judicial reality, the vast majority of his cases are plea deals sans trial). He lives in an apartment with Brooklyn with a variety of white, TV-obsessed Gen-Xer neighbors. He gets into philosophical discussions with them, with his family in New Jersey, and sometimes with other lawyers. These are generally less compelling than his efforts in the legal direction – we get some good sequences of Casi trying to hold back the tide of bullshit drug war prosecutions destroying lives – but they’re not the worst in the genre. 

The most consequential, for the plot anyway, philosophical discussions Casi gets into are with Dane, an older public defender. Dane plays the sort of devil/archon figure I’ve been increasingly thinking plays an important role in early twenty-first century literature. Dane foists a sort of perfectionist Nietzscheanism on Casi over Italian lunches. First telling a story of how he shit his pants during a trial, then telling a story of how he dedicated himself to a philosophically perfect defense only to blow it in the end, Dane slowly convinces Casi, over Casi’s own philosophical takes and good sense, to do a heist. How much Casi is convinced by Dane’s philosophy, and how much he’s inspired by some bad turns in his own life – losing his first case, coming up against some limitations in both legal, personal, and family life – is hard to tell, but Casi does tell Dane about a client who is moving a lot of money in the drug trade, and eventually agrees to take the score down. With swords.

This is a shaggy, lumbering work, sometimes agreeably and sometimes annoyingly so. The heist is a bit silly – swords! – but not badly done for all that. The sequences involving the criminal justice system are good, very human in an unsentimental but deeply felt way. The heist has some bad consequences, but not as bad a sudden cold snap that shuts down New York for a few days and gives the TV-obsessed neighbors some good scenes. The attempts at futurism – the rise of “video vigilantes,” jokes about media consolidation – are both somewhat prescient but still don’t quite land. He also intersperses a narrative of the great boxer Wilfredo Benitez, which is cool and all and kind of goes along with “Latino wiz kid knocked around by life” theme, but, you know… it’s kind of funny, the ways in which contemporary literature did, and did not, follow the path De La Pava laid out here, making this book feel both very current and like something of a time capsule simultaneously. ****

Review – De La Pava, “A Naked Singularity”

Review – Tubb, “The Winds of Gath”

E.C. Tubb, “The Winds of Gath” (1967) – I picked this up, one half of an Ace Double, a “flipper” which features two novels in one volume- you flip the book over when you finish and you’ve got another scifi novel. It’s also the first of a thirty-odd volume space opera series by Edward Charles Tubb, an English scribbler from mid-twentieth century. The series stars Earl Dumarest, a space wanderer from Earth, considered a lost planet by the interstellar human diaspora. Presumably, him trying to find Earth again, and the circumstances of his leaving in the first place, will unspool as the B-plot across series, which usually have some planetary adventure, it seems, as their main thing.

The first outing for Dumarest isn’t bad, but is a tad derivative. The beginning is probably the best part. Dumarest is basically an interstellar hitchhiker, part of a subculture who wander from planet to planet, staying on a given planet only long enough to save up enough cash to get into spaceship-steerage again to see the next place. Someone outbids the ship Dumarest is on, so it doesn’t go to the destination he thought it would, but rather, to a weird backwater called Gath. In the grand space opera tradition, Gath is a whole planet defined by a small set of characteristics. It’s positioned such that at certain times of the year, you can hear “the music of the spheres,” the interstellar wind, or something. Other than that, it’s a barely-inhabitable dump. Getting stranded there sucks, because it’s basically a planet for very rich, very bored tourists, and it’s hard to get your stake to leave. 

Dumarest, of course, being a scifi protagonist and only Earthman around, is resourceful and independent. It’s interstellar wind season, so a lot of tourists are around, and he tries to make some money and/or connections with them. The depictions of being down and out in space are kind of cool, well-conveyed- I wonder if Tubb maybe hadn’t been a stranded hitchhiker before. But the rest of the world-building Tubb does here really borrows a lot, a lot, from then-recent scifi hit “Dune.” Among the tourists are a matriarchal clan of kind-of-ok people and a clan of evil sadists. There turns out to be a resource on the planet that could break the monopoly on necessary scifi business held by creepy interstellar humanoid mutants. Single combat proves important. There’s dudes whose brains are computers and wouldn’t you know it, they have agendas. Along with the Dune derivations, the interstellar winds of Gath turn out to be kind of lame, not even up to Frank Herbert level trippiness- you just wind up seeing your past and it freaks you out, also, it rains real hard. The depictions of the rain were more interesting than the depictions of the more psychical phenomena. I’ll probably give this series a second try if I find the next book somewhere in my wanderings, as this one wasn’t wholly without interest, but a somewhat uninspired first out. ***’

Review – Tubb, “The Winds of Gath”

Review – Lewis, “The Rabbi Who Prayed With Fire”

Rachel Sharona Lewis, “The Rabbi Who Prayed With Fire” (2021) – This was a pretty fun crime novel about a mystery-solving rabbi! Inspired by a mystery series from the mid-20th century starring a rabbi, we have Vivian Green, who just started at Providence’s Beth Abraham congregation (I think it’s Conservative but not certain). It’s a fairly typical staid Jewish congregation, losing members out of an aging demographic, unsure what to do about it all. Vivian wants her congregants to get more involved in local social justice causes. Her boss, senior rabbi Joseph, supports her in theory but much less so in practice. For instance, it looks like most of the congregation will back the establishment Dem candidate in the next election for mayor, despite there being alternatives in the form of a smart, vaguely Warren-esque policy lady and a firebrand young Dominican-American man out to fight police injustice.

And then some of the temple burns down! No one is hurt but everyone is scared. Among other things, it encourages the congregation to withdraw further into the defensive shell that Vivian (and, one suspects, the author) sees as the characteristic issue in American Jewish life today. Assuming anti-semites are out to get them — knowing, in fact, that some are, despite a lack of evidence that they had anything to do with the fire — the congregation gets closer to the police. This is the same police that brutalized the son of the temple groundskeeper, and who Rabbi Joseph refused to say anything about when they did. The groundskeeper, pretty much the only black person involved with the Beth Abraham community in any capacity, was also the last person seen at the site of the blaze before it went up. To pay for the damage, the congregation eyes selling off some of its real estate to luxury developers, making even worse the gentrification issues that, in turn, enable further police abuses.

It’s a mess! Vivian tries to figure out what’s going on while also fulfilling her clerical duties, and as someone who has known a fair number of people in similar roles, Lewis accurately depicts the endless round of the conscientious mediator between mundane and divine. In the course of trying to figure stuff out, Vivian does have time for the occasional brunch with fellow lady clerics (a Unitarian and an Episcopalian, if anyone is keeping score), and strikes up a romance with the lady who runs the establishment candidate’s establishment-ass, “smart growth” mayoral campaign. Eventually, her poking around gets noticed, and she has to deal with some tense situations before any kind of resolution comes together.

It’s pretty good! Especially considering this is a first novel. The pacing and plotting works well, and while the book wears its politics on its sleeve, it’s never didactic. I will say that for me, one of the most important elements of any crime fiction is compelling villains, and in this one, the villains are not very well fleshed out. I wonder if the author preferred to dwell with more savory characters- other than a few out and out bad guys, most of the characters, even when they’re wrong, are very much human, acting out of credible motivations, and are very much distinguishable. The bad guys here act out of the most credible, as in believable if you know anything about the world, motives imaginable, but don’t have a ton of character or distinguishing features to them. But maybe we can get more of that on Vivian’s next outing, which I hope Lewis will write soon! ****

Review – Lewis, “The Rabbi Who Prayed With Fire”

Review – Scalzi, “Redshirts”

John Scalzi, “Redshirts” (2012) – Fun (?) fact: John Scalzi is one of the last white men to have a work nominated for the Hugo Award for best novel! This was in 2018, and he shares this distinction with Kim Stanley Robinson. From a cynical perspective, you can say the two men represent the two “acceptable” faces a white male writer can present to the SFF world, at least if you want awards. Robinson has the wonk face, the thoughtful digester of papers and reports about space technology and climate change, a leftist but a thoughtful (read: not especially revolutionary) one. You can also call it “the far face” – it almost certainly helps that he’s been in the field since the eighties, hasn’t thrown racial slurs or weird sex stuff around in his books, and is not on twitter. Scalzi has the nerd face, a sort of Joss Whedon figure (but, doing scifi novels instead of TV and films, does not squat atop our culture in quite the same way Whedon does), lots of quips, lots of genre self-awareness, you can map his work, bit by bit, on TVTropes. His is the near face- he’s on twitter, a lot, and seems to have a well-considered idea of where to stick the knife in, on there- into anybody who kicks against the idea that current scifi (that is, the scifi scene that has made him at least somewhat rich and famous) is the best scifi we could hope for, at least those with the temerity to kick on Al Gore’s Internet. I shouldn’t have to say this, but seeing as this is going out notionally public: I don’t think white men are oppressed, or have bad chances in contemporary SFF, I think the SFF scene as it exists now has prescribed roles for everyone, including women, PoC, etc., and for in-the-club white dudes, the above seems to describe the workable roles. Not my fault!

I’m probably making this more about internal SFF scene politics because A. I’m trying to figure what, if anything, it all means myself, as a pretty outside observer and B. the book itself does not bear that much interest. It’s not a bad book, but it suffers in comparison to an earlier work with similar ideas and energy, namely, the movie “Galaxy Quest.” Like in “Galaxy Quest,” a cheesy scifi space-exploration show – like Star Trek at its most pro-forma – intrudes on the real world. In “Galaxy Quest,” there’s a pretty clever explanation as to why: an alien civilization gets our TV signals, sees the cheesy show, and bases its space exploration on it. “Redshirts” starts out with a somewhat more ambitious premise: the characters lives are being written, as they live, on Earth, as a cheesy scifi serial. So the characters – who are the sort of disposable lower-ranking officers who can be disposed of by scifi writers to show the danger of a given planet or other away team mission, the titular “redshirts” – go through some sort of wormhole and wind up in Hollywood, begging a bunch of low-rent network producers for their lives. 

Scalzi’s not a bad storyteller, structurally speaking, does decent action scenes, brings the “mystery” of why the ship is so strange and so many people die along pretty well, and obviously knows his tropes. The problem is, he has too many indistinct characters and none of them really land. There are more redshirts in “Redshirts” than are necessary, except maybe insofar as to give them analogs in the real world and therefore cross-dimensional storylines- this one gets swapped out for a producer’s dying son, that one falls (platonically?) in love with the actor who plays him in our world, etc. I suppose it makes sense that only a few of the characters on the ship have any character – the main characters on the show, who survive numerous terrible incidents while the redshirts die all around them. But it’s a bit of a problem when the less fleshed-out characters are the characters in your book! And there’s seemingly at least one, upwards of three too many! 

Those dorky little aliens in “Galaxy Quest” weren’t, like, Ibsen characters or something, but they had characteristics. The washed-up TV stars they drafted into helping them were pretty cliche, but they were well-written and funny. This is more than Scalzi manages for any of his characters in “Redshirts.” I’m probably making it sound worse than it is. Like I said, it wasn’t utterly without good characteristics. But if you’re going to work in a story groove that’s already been pretty well-worn – especially by one, well-loved work like “Galaxy Quest” – you really need to distinguish yourself, and “Redshirts” doesn’t do much to do that. But I guess that’s what the SFF public – or anyway, the SFF scene loudmouths who edit, publish, review, and give awards to books – want! ***

Review – Scalzi, “Redshirts”

Review – Thiel, “Zero to One”

I tried to get Dall-E to make the Angel of death greeting Peter Thiel, but this was the best it could do

Peter Thiel, “Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future” (2014) – This is the last book I read of a series of seven unconventional right-wing books, books that in some sense were off the beaten path of conservatism, but reflected or were influential or parallel in some way… or anyway, a projected series. There doesn’t seem to be a good English translation of alleged Chinese state authoritarianism apologist Wang Huning out there, and the Unabomber Manifesto is really more of a pamphlet than a book, no more within my ambit of reviews than any single article.

I say all that to say this: Peter Thiel is probably the slimiest motherfucker out of those seven with which I started, which include a slavery apologist in the person of Thaddeus Russell and an actual murderer in the person of Ted Kaczynski. The depths to which Thiel would sink to accomplish his ends reach far below what a middling scribbler like Russell could manage, and his capacity for destruction is much more real than anything Kaczynski could have dreamt. And yet, I was probably the most on board with Thiel as I was with any of the writers I read in this series… for the first, maybe, quarter of “Zero to One,” his business manifesto, assembled out of notes his catamite and potential Arizona Senator Blake Masters took when Masters sat Thiel’s tech business class at Stanford. 

At this point, contrarianism-posturers – and there is arguably no bigger or more historically important claimant to the throne of contrarian-philosopher than Peter Thiel – have to overcome reflexive skepticism from anyone who has noticed how contrived their postures and goofy their claims often are. But Thiel did manage some actually good and, in some ways, genuinely contrarian, in a good way, points, early in the book. The big one is that competition is not the boon to innovation that people think it is. Market competition does not lead to the best products- it leads to the products that can beat others at market, which is not the same thing. “He overstates his case,” I thought, reading it, “I know a lot of nerds and that’s just how they talk,” I reasoned, going over his pro-monopoly arguments. Monopolies can focus on their task, not on competition, and therefore prevent themselves from either pursuing illusory goals or simply competing away their whole profit margin. “If he could get that profit in and of itself is in large part the problem, we’d really be getting somewhere!” I figured. 

ANNH! Buzzer noise, around a third or a quarter of the way in. It turns out that market competition is a bad way of assigning value not because of the warping effects of profit-taking, but because it involves the preferences of everybody, i.e., the stupid little people who don’t care enough about space travel and life extension technology. What you need are small, dedicated, elite bodies – like the founding core of a tech startup, Thiel tells us – willing to flout rules and conventions, truly “think different” (about things like “the diversity myth,” the title of another Thiel book, or obeying safety regulations), and achieve monopoly power. Only such people can get us out of our current demoralizing state, with ever-improving gadgetry and entertainment options, but basic needs failing to be met… that is, the basic needs of Peter Thiel. Peter Thiel needs space travel, because he’s a nerd, and he needs life extension, because he’s one of those chickenshit, profoundly hard to respect nerds who are terrified of natural death. What’s the matter, Pete? Death will eliminate the source of all your problems, the irritation you can’t be rid of despite your billions of dollars- it will eliminate you. Once it takes that turn, the book is useless, except as a guide to the thought of a man our society, in its wisdom, has imbued with absurd amounts of power and money. As far as I’m concerned, the closer the day he meets that big fear of his, the better. It certainly won’t leave the written word any poorer. *’

Review – Thiel, “Zero to One”

Review – Davidson, “The Mirror and the Phoenix”

Virgil has a Spin Doctors look here

Avram Davidson, “The Mirror and the Phoenix” (1969) – This was fun. Apparently, during what I’m told I’m not supposed to call “The Dark Ages” (though honestly, considering all the shit people say about the twentieth century, which say what you want about it, but cured a lot of diseases and put a man on the moon…), many Europeans believed that Virgil, the poet of the Aeneid, was a wizard of some renown! Old SFF hand Avram Davidson took that idea and made this story around it. Not only does he depict Vergil (he uses that spelling, apparently it’s gone back and forth) as a wizard, he depicts the world as a whole as having the confusion and geographical/historical inconsistency that a half-literate scribe scratching away in tenth-century Thuringia might give to it.

Vergil gets a job from a high-end lady: find her daughter, who went missing on the way to becoming an imperial concubine. To sweeten the pot, the lady steals Vergil’s potency! He doesn’t like that. He’s motivated. He has to create a mirror, and not just any mirror- a “virgin speculum.” This bronze mirror needs to be made in such a way that in the very instant of its ability to reflect light, Vergil can cast a spell and see where the daughter went. Mirrors were tricky enough for the ancients, I’m told, but a virgin speculum! That’s a whole thing. Vergil needs to secure tin and copper because normal bronze won’t do it, he needs his own bronze. Tin is a monopoly of Cornish chieftains, copper only comes from weird degenerated Aphrodite-worshiping Cypriots, the “Sea Huns” have given up their horses and taken to terrorizing the Mediterranean, so it’s pretty hard to get all that stuff. Meanwhile, there’s all kinds of mysterious hints as to where the daughter might be, and Vergil’s Phoenician friend who sails him around acts increasingly weird.

This is an agreeably shaggy, ponderous work, especially for a fairly short novel. It’s not hard to tell what’s going on but there’s also not the kind of handholding one gets used to in secondary world fantasies, especially contemporary ones. The world feels not just like there’s magic, but that it runs according to a magical logic. All too many stories with magic – and I can’t help but notice how the turn in this dynamic seems to have come with the popularization of games with magic systems, like Dungeons and Dragons – make magic seem like technology, a set of tools to use like any other, possibly dangerous but not really irrational, the world still works according to rules a Galileo or a Descartes could describe. It’s fun to see a world that isn’t like that, especially based on history. ****’

Review – Davidson, “The Mirror and the Phoenix”

Review – Acker, “Empire of the Senseless”

Kathy Acker, “Empire of the Senseless” (1988) – No less a figure than Sarah Schulman praised Kathy Acker big-time as the sort of transgressive, innovative figure you don’t get in the arts these days, as both cities like New York and San Francisco and the minds of their inhabitants take on capitalist bourgeois values. Schulman depicts Acker’s death in the late nineties as a great tragedy for American letters, the cutting off of a great young voice… It says something that you can still be “young” in literature at fifty, about the age Acker was at the time (she was vague about when exactly she was born), but Acker could be said to have “written young” – energetic, transgressive. 

Certainly “transgressive,” if by that we mean “depicts things people would rather not have depicted, generally in less-than-easy-to-scan prose.” We come out the gate with pedophilia, incest, apocalypse. Thivai and Abhor, outlaws, cyborgs, sometimes-lovers, wander semi-post-apocalyptic Paris. We’re not sure exactly what they’re doing – that would be sensible, and that’s not the empire we’re in, as the title reminds us – but they’re after something and meet all kinds of characters whilst they’re after it. 

Here’s the deal: it’s hard to shock people who grew up with the internet, or anyway, hard to shock them with –content–. You can sometimes get a content-tone combo, some disjunction, that can do the trick. I don’t claim to be unshockable. But writers like Ackerman at the tail end of the twentieth century who wanted to be shocking and relied on weirdness, edginess, or just randomness to do so… that doesn’t age well. As the back blurb of “Empire of the Senseless” puts it, “Navigating the chaotic city, they encounter mad doctors, prisoners, bikers, sailors, tattooists, terrorists, and prostitutes…” Terrorists, sure, you might not want to encounter. Mad doctors… well, depends how mad. The rest of them? Who sees tattooists as especially edgy or noteworthy these days, anymore than any other craft worker, like a chef or a bricklayer? I imagine you could drop this book in a high school library in many parts of this country, and if you alerted the school committee to its presence, they might put it on the list to ban… but they might not bother, either. 

There’s also the way the first few chapters include basically part of the plot of “Neuromancer.” The characters join with youth gangs of “Panthers” to do a cyber-heist to aid an AI with a name based on “Winter-something.” Pretty blatant! Supposedly, this is the sort of thing Kathy Acker just did, a sort of “intertextual” practice, and there’s interviews with both William Gibson and Acker and Gibson doesn’t seem to mind. Still and all… kind of seems like New York artsy writers ripping off genre writers and getting high-class plaudits for it. Granted, this was a period where some from the critical establishment were trying to take on board the existence, and effervescence, of science fiction, especially cyberpunk. Both cyberpunk as a literary movement, and the sort of theory-inflected cool-kid vibe the cyberpunk-theorists were trying to pull off, dissipated into the general cultural churn soon after, but it was definitely a thing…

All told, not sure what to make of this. Acker definitely is doing something and she definitely had chops. But it’s hard to react to this as much other than a time capsule. I’m a historian- I like a good time capsule. But I don’t think that’s what Acker was trying for, and there’s limits to how much time capsule qua time capsule can hold my attention. I’ll try some more Acker sometime, especially as I don’t think I’m letting go of fin de siecle literature and history as a topic any time too soon. ***

Review – Acker, “Empire of the Senseless”

Review – Mann and Gardiner, “Heat 2”

Michael Mann and Meg Gardiner, “Heat 2” (2022) – I yield to few in my admiration for Michael Mann, my favorite director, and like most Mann fans my age, I first got into him from seeing “Heat.” I don’t look for perfection in artists and works I admire (stupid I have to say that but there it is)- Mann isn’t “perfect” and “Heat” is no longer my favorite Mann movie. I see it as being great, in the sense of having a lot going for it and some huge flaws. “Heat” adds and forgets at least one major plotline (serial killer Waingro) to an already over-stuffed script, the characters are needlessly wordy to the extent that Pacino especially almost becomes farcical, and it’s the nadir of Mann’s uneven ability to depict women. But it’s still compelling- the actors, the action, the pathos Mann never sneers or winks at. In a time when we’re all encouraged to be either shitty little stand-up comics inflicting our not-so-tight-fives about everything to everyone, or else woofing, yawping nincompoops, Mann’s deadly serious, but not self-serious, stories of connection and tragedy constitute signals from a better world. This is as true for his misses (like “The Keep”) as much as it is for checkered successes (“Heat,” “Public Enemies,” “Miami Vice”) and indisputable masterpieces (“Thief,” “Manhunter,” “Last of the Mohicans”) (note- I actually –like– some of the “checkered” works better than the masterpieces- enjoyment is more subjective, to me, than mastery).

So, on the one hand, I get the jokes that rise to the mind when one hears that Michael Mann, with help from bestselling thriller writer Meg Gardiner, wrote and published a book called “Heat 2,” both a prequel and a sequel to his 1996 film. Chris Fleming, a comedian who almost fills the role in comedy that Mann does for me in film, described it as a government program to get adult men to read (considering the last book that you could make that joke for would be “American Sniper,” I think we can agree this is an improvement). Moreover, being a follower of Michael Mann’s work, I know this is part of a “comeback.” His last film, “Blackhat,” was a massive, almost inconceivable flop (I think it’s kind of good), and for years the studios wouldn’t let Mann near another movie. I think now they realize enough dads out there will buy stuff with “the guy who brought you Heat” on it, especially if it’s a sequel, to let him out of the doghouse a little- he got this book out, and now they’re letting him make the Enzo Ferrari biopic he’s been talking about forever. 

So, I do think there’s some calculation here. But I also know Mann’s work well enough to know, from the first page, that this stuff was going to be cask-strength Mann, an immersion into the Manniverse, if you will. He’s known for writing extensive biographies for his characters, most of which don’t come up in the movies, and you know he’s just been dying to get all of that, and the research he does for locations and criminal dynamics, out there somewhere, too. 

Anyway, guess I should say what happens in the book, a little! We first catch up with Chris Shiherlis (the only place I’ve seen that surname outside of the universe of Heat is actually here in Watertown- wonder if it’s Greek or Armenian), Val Kilmer’s character, hours after the botched robbery that formed the pivot of the movie. He’s been shot, his wife is working with the cops (but no so much she doesn’t find a way to warn him out of a cop trap), his best friends have all been killed. Jon Voight’s character smuggles him out of the US and gets him a job in Ciudad del Este, Paraguay. Real Mann heads know that Mann loves places like that, weird nether zones exposing both capitalism’s darkness and it’s potential for adventures for Mann to dramatize. Ciudad del Este is more or less openly run by smuggler clans, and Chris gets in with one of them. 

Zap back to 1988! Neil McCauley, Robert DeNiro’s character, is still alive, and something like the crew is still intact, and in Chicago. They take a big score there, but also pick up an enemy in the form of the leader of a crew of home invasion robbers. Those of you who know Michael Mann, or really who read/watch a lot of crime stories, know that home invaders are bad news. Neil, Chris and crew are criminals, sometimes violent, but never do crime to sate their violent desires- they’re professionals. Otis, the leader of the home invaders, on the other hand, makes his already violent crimes more violent intentionally. He’s a creepy sadist on top of everything else. Meanwhile, Al Pacino’s detective character, Vincent Hanna, is in the mix- he was canonically a Chicago cop before moving to LA, so he’s trying to find Otis (he’s not on Neil’s tail yet- Neil’s Chicago score didn’t involve violence). 

The score they do in Chicago leads the crew to taking down a cartel stash house in Mexicali, on the border. This was probably my favorite part of the book, the best heist of the bunch (and there’s a few, enough for pretty much any heist-head). But Otis, despite not being a “professional” in the sense of Neil et al, is dogged and lucky, and he finds them. Specifically, he finds Neil’s love interest, a Mexican smuggler lady who helps out with the crimes (over time, Mann has gotten better about having women who aren’t victims or shrews in his stuff, and one imagines Meg Gardiner probably helped here too). Tragedy ensues, one of the things that helps lead Neil to his “have no attachments you can’t walk out on in 30 seconds” credo from the movie. 

Back to the future! By 2000, Chris is in with a Taiwanese-Paraguayan smuggler clan. Despite still having his wife, Ashley Judd, back in the States (they can’t talk much because Chris is extremely wanted), he gets together with the business-minded daughter of the clan, who sees the transnational criminal entrepreneurial possibilities of the future. This takes them back to LA, where a concatenation of weird Chinese-Paraguayan dynastic politics, and our old friend Otis, somehow combine to create big time problems that Chris and Vincent Hanna, still on the force, need to navigate/shoot their way out of.

Those of you who know Michael Mann’s stuff (and even more so those of you know his stuff and then lick the boom up) will recognize the story, it’s themes, and much of its background as a melange of elements Mann used in any and all of his crime movies. It’s not just “Heat,” but especially “Miami Vice” and “Blackhat” with their emphases on interconnected global crime, “Public Enemies,” “Thief” (especially in the Chicago parts), even “Manhunter” given how much pivots on sociopath Otis, whose motivations aren’t all that different from the Tooth Fairy in that move… all present and accounted for. 

It’s not so much fan service for fans of Heat — you get more of Kelso, Tom Noonan’s wheelchair-bound hacker, but kind of more a plot device, and not people you’d rather see like Tom Sizemore’s Cerrito, Wes Studi’s Casals, or Danny Trejo’s character, named after the actor — as fan service for fans of Michael Mann as a whole. It won’t surprise you to know that I follow Michael Mann’s Facebook page, and his fans are now talking about a “Michael Mann extended universe,” which you gotta figure is exactly what the publishers/studios want. I try not to do this in reviews, but it’s a very strong case of “this is the kind of thing you’ll like, if that’s the kind of thing you like.” Michael Mann’s work is so stuck in my brain it’s hard to tell if other people will respond to it. There’s definitely enjoyable crime material, here, and it’s also encouraged me to check out Meg Gardiner- while the vision is definitely Mann’s, I could see her doing a lot to make a real novel out of it. Anyway… I’d call this middle-rank Mann, which means it’s better than high-ranked stuff from lesser mortals. ****

Review – Mann and Gardiner, “Heat 2”