Saturday, September 28, 2019

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

I first read Lord of Light, still the only Zelazny novel I’ve read, in 2010. I picked it up because of how highly it was praised by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman had already tuned me into my now favorite writer, Gene Wolfe. Wolfe is an interesting point of comparison here; Lord of Light, like Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun is science fiction disguised as fantasy rendered in prose more often associated with “literary” writers. Zelazny’s prose is nowhere near as dense as Wolfe’s, and the science fiction is more readily apparent. It’s been long enough since I first read this that I can say with certainty that it’s easier to follow on a first pass that the Wolfe. That’s not to say it doesn’t require concentration; I’m pretty sure I didn’t catch everything this time around. It’s the kind of book that rewards rereading.

The novel is set on some colony planet of Earth. The whole planet has become inhabited by the descendants of the original colony. The original colonists are still around because they’ve discovered the technology to create new bodies for themselves as their previous ones. They have assumed the identities of the Hindu pantheon, complete with technologically generated powers. They keep the inhabitants of the world locked into a strict caste system. They have literalized karma and reincarnation and they decide who is worthy to join their ranks and after how many lives. Against this stands Sam, who has taken on the identity and ideology of the Buddha, as well as beings made of energy, the original inhabitants of the planet, rejected as demons by the rulers. He uses Buddhism to undermine the gods. I’m not familiar enough with either Hinduism or Buddhism to know how well he hews to those ideologies, nor how they would play to a practitioner of either religion. I know that he has created a complex and interesting story as the colonists mythologize themselves.

The novel is very smart about how ideologies can be twisted to purposes at odds with their core. There’s a cynicism on the part of the “gods”. To some extent they buy into their own lies, but they are really using a version of the Hindu ideology to subjugate a world. Similarly, Sam uses an ideology in which he doesn’t believe to undermine the others. Blind adherence to ideology is one of the most dangerous things in the world, regardless of the ideology. And the novel raises a question that I think about often in terms I hadn’t considered: can an ideologue be dissuaded from an ideology without replacing it with another that functions in the same way? There’s a paradox here; even taking the stance that ideology is dangerous is an ideology. And everyone has an ideology. I acknowledge that paradox fully. Nonetheless, ideology, when it becomes more important than people and more important than the facts, is dangerous. You don’t have to do a deep dive into history to find examples. Sam could have used other religions as the counterpoint to the faux Hinduism here. He says that he chose Buddhism over Islam because of the the fraught history between the two in his memories of Earth history. He simply needed an ideology that ran counter to the prevailing one. Zelazny’s answer to my question of do you need an ideology to fight an ideology is yes. I’m unable to think of a good counter argument at the moment, and that scares me.

If the book were written today, no doubt the body swapping would lend itself to a more contemporary conversation about gender. But I don’t think the prose or the structure of the story would change much, nor would its commentary on class. It is beautifully written and structured, and has a lot to say about how power is gained and wielded, and how those without power can be manipulated by those who have it. I think its reputation as a classic of science fiction and fantasy is well-earned, even  as I think it deserves more consideration out of the genre. It certainly resonates well with things that I obsess about.

Highly recommended.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Middlemarch kept popping up in different places for me recently. A few people in an online book group I’m in praised it to no end. Then I read Jo Walton’s book on rereading. It was mostly about science fiction and fantasy novels, but she included this. Then I found out it was my sister’s favorite novel (I knew it was Eliot, but I thought it was Silas Marner). So finally I broke down and read it. I don’t claim a book as a favorite until I’ve read it at least twice, but I’d be shocked if this didn’t join my yearly reread list. It’s a masterpiece that deserves its reputation.

Walton said that Middlemarch proved that George Eliot could have invented science fiction. Having now read the book I take her meaning to be that Eliot gradually builds the reader’s understanding of the fictional town of Middlemarch bit by bit without clumsily placed details. You know what you need to know as you need to know it. Eventually the town lives in in your mind, like Vandermeer’s Ambergris. While I would gladly read an Eliot scifi book, I’m hard pressed to think that she could improve on the world building here.

My sister said that Eliot understood people. I agree fully. In Middlemarch the gap between self and perception of self is rendered as well as anyone I’ve read outside of Nabokov. And she does it without the unreliable narrator device! She goes back and forth between omniscient and limited third person. Each person’s self deception is revealed, oftentimes to hilarious effect. But never cruelly. Eliot manges to be savage (and savagely funny) in her critique of human behavior, while still being kind and forgiving of her characters’ faults. This is an amazing trick to pull off. She never loses sight of human failure and deception. Yet she seems to really believe, in the words of Dorothea towards the end of the book, that “people are almost always better than their neighbors think they are.” This double vision seems the perfect antithesis to current online discourse wherein, to paraphrase Hitchens, when you see your opponent’s worst possible motive, you’re sure you found the only one.

Every page is quotable. The prose is consistent, as is her aforementioned understanding of people. She understood the futility of the prediction game long before Nassim Taleb: "Let him start for the continent then without our pronouncing on his future. Among all forms of mistake, prophecy is the most gratuitous." She understood people’s need to hear what they want to hear: "Dorothea's faith supplied all that Mr. Casaubon's words seemed to leave unsaid. What believer sees a disturbing omission or infelicity? The text, whether of prophet or of poet, expands for whatever we can put into it, and even his bad grammar is sublime." She understood the all too human impulse to be right all the time: "There was occasionally a little fierceness in his demeanor, but it was directed chiefly against false opinion, of which there is so much to correct in the world that a man of some reading and experience necessarily has his patience tried.” She understood the need to blame outside forces for our own faults: "No more was said: Dorothea was too much jarred to recover her temper and to behave so as to show that she admitted any error in herself. She was disposed rather to accuse the intolerable narrowness and the purblind conscience of the society around her." (This is not to say that she doesn’t understand the pressures that society places on the individual. She illustrates well people caught up by events they can’t control. This understanding extended to the effect of class on people’s lives.) She understood the complexities of human motivation: "Our passions do not live apart in locked chambers; but dressed in their small wardrobe of notions bring their provisions to a common table and mess together feeding out of the common store according to their appetite." Yet the book is no mere parade of aphorisms. It is a well knit whole rendered in perfect prose.

Eliot’s dialog is top-notch; hilarious and revealing. Consider this early exchange between Fred and Rosamond Vincy and their mother:
"...rather a prig, I think."
"I can never make out what you mean by a prig," said Rosumund.
"A fellow who wants to show that he has opinions."
"Why, my dear, doctors must have opinions," said Mrs. Vincy, "What are they there for else?"
"Yes, mother their opinions are paid for, but a prig is a fellow who is always making you a present of his opinions."
Later when Fred accuses them of slang:
"There is correct English, that is not slang"
"I beg your pardon, correct English is the slang of prigs who write history and essays. And the strongest slang of all is the slang of poets.”
This is a great character introduction. It’s also hilarious. I was expecting a very good book, but not a book as funny as it is.

Middlemarch is an all around delight, the best book I’ve read for the first time this year (eclipsing The Goldfinch, Generation Loss and (to my surprise) even Wise Children). I will be returning to this often. I don’t make books canon until I’ve read them at least twice; I’m tempted to reread it immediately so that I can go ahead and make it official (though I’ll probably wait until next year).


Tuesday, September 17, 2019

A Collection of Essays by George Orwell

I was primarily aware of George Orwell as the author of 1984 and Animal Farm. I remember enjoying them, but thinking they were much better political philosophy than they were novels. This became a stock sentence for me, and I just didn’t think about the novels much. My impression was that their mood was anti-totalitarianism, and I interpreted that as anti-communist. The anti-totalitarian part was definitely right. The communist bit was a product of growing up in the American south in the 80s and 90s. It would be more proper to say anti-Stalinist.

Reading this collection of essays I see that he had a much more complicated view of things and was as anti-fascist and anti-imperialist as anti-Stalinist. He was also clearly some stripe of socialist. Which makes it even funnier that he is often claimed by conservatives. In a 1942 essay on Rudyard Kipling (a “good bad poet”) he said conservatives no longer existed, “Those who now call themselves conservatives are either Liberals, Fascists or the accomplices of Fascists.” That’s not entirely fair, but he wrote that during WWII when it might not have seen as hyperbolic. The idea that because he was anti-Stalinist he was a conservative, which I had absorbed despite having read two of his novels is silly.

I admire his fearlessness. He said, in an essay on Henry Miller and the literary scene in 1940, that “Good novels are not written by orthodoxy sniffers, nor by people who are conscience stricken about their own un-orthodoxy. Good novels are written by people who are not frightened.” The same seems to apply to his essays. Despite being of the left, he criticized the leftists who supported Stalin far past the time that was a defensible position. He was not afraid to call out whoever he saw acting in bad faith. This was bound to make him unpopular in many quarters. "The truth, it is felt, becomes untruth when your enemy utters it,” he said in Looking Back at the Spanish War.”

What I admire most about these essays is that he lets things be complicated; for instance, his attitude towards imperialism. At times he seems to view the colonized very much from the perspective of the colonizers. But he has truly great insight into the ways both the colonized and colonizers are dehumanized by colonialism. This can fall awkwardly on contemporary ears, but he never lets himself off the hook. His attitude towards people, including himself, is likewise complex. In an essay on dirty joke postcards that were popular in his time he said in an extended metaphor from Don Quixote:

“If you look into your own mind, which are you, Don Quixote or Sancho Panza? Almost certainly you are both. There is one part of you that wishes to be a hero or a saint, but another part of you is a little fat man who sees very clearly the advantages of staying alive with a whole skin. He is your unofficial self, the voice of the belly protesting against the soul. His tastes lie towards safety, soft beds, no work, pots of beer and women with ‘voluptuous’ figures. He it is who punctures your fine attitudes and urges you to look after Number One, to be unfaithful to your wife, to bilk your debts, and so on and so forth. Whether you allow yourself to be influenced by him is a different question. But it is simply a lie to say that he is not part of you, just as it is a lie to say that Don Quixote is not part of you either, though most of what is said and written consists of one lie or the other, usually the first.”

In this and in other passages you get the sense that Orwell realizes that ethics and morality are not something that applies to other people, but to one’s self. Not to say you don’t call out things that need calling out; on one level the book is the continual calling out of things. But it can’t only be outward focused. In social media terms that’s performative wokeness or virtue signalling; in evangelical terms that’s practicing your righteousness before men. Orwell calls out the major ideologies of his day with unrivaled clarity, but he never pretends he is not culpable himself. I appreciate that acknowledgement.

That’s not to say I agree with him on everything. I agree with him more than the other British and equally or more quotable essayist I read recently, GK Chesterton. Orwell mentions Chesterton several times, dismissing his (clearly stated, not mischaracterized) medievalist viewpoint. That was in an essay on Dickens. I never thought I’d find myself enthusiastically considering rereading a 50 page essay on Dickens, by whom I’ve only read four or so books. But I’d gladly read it again. Still, I find myself disagreeing with Orwell most often on matters literary. I hold Auden and Isherwood in much higher esteem for instance. Orwell tends to dismiss them as part of a group of young whippersnappers who are all talk (that’s overstating his point, but not grossly). I particularly disagreed with his rejection of the pulps. This is where he might most closely resemble later conservatives. He is not quite clutching his pearls (a phrase he would hate based on his essay on writing), but he does verge on moral panic about what the changes in attitude and content in mystery fiction from the 1890s to the 1940s. Then later he praises the equally lurid Henry Miller. I should probably not comment too much on the particulars; I haven’t read either the pulp novel in question nor Henry Miller. That said, I could tell from that discussion that he’d hate some of my favorite writers. There’s a bit of snobbery there, and a tendency to value, in today's terms, "literary" over "genre." Even in those essays I disagreed most with, though, he had some great insight. These literary essays were often jumping off points for discussions of imperialism and the like.

I’m very glad to have finally gotten to some of his nonfiction which I suspect I will always enjoy more than his novels, at least the ones I’ve read. I’m now reading a book about Orwell by Christopher Hitchens. My next Orwell, after a few other books, is likely to be Homage to Catalonia. As for this collection, I heartily recommend it. It is bracing despite its bland title.

Highly Recommended.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Movie Roundup 9/15 (Hustlers, Mission: Impossible - Fallout, American Psycho and The Goldfinch)

Hustlers (2019) directed by Lorene Scafaria- I did not intend to see this movie opening weekend, or really at all until it streams somewhere. I had a vague sense that people were saying that it was Jennifer Lopez’s best performance since Out Of Sight. Then I heard an interview with Scafaria on The Ringer’s Big Picture podcast. It reminded me that I had seen and really enjoyed Scafaria’s debut, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Other than the typical hollywood hard to believe the age gap between the romantic leads, that film was excellent. It played fair with the tropes of both romantic comedies and apocalyptic movies. The ending was the only one that could satisfy both genres without cheating, and I suspect that ending was why it got mixed reviews.

The interview also revealed that Scafaria had written the script, but was not originally slated to direct; it was offered to Scorsese first. This makes a lot of sense as it is essentially telling a story about women in the Goodfellas/Wolf of Wall Street greed is good until it catches up style. I decided to see it, but made the mistake of watching the trailer first. It made it seem like something it wasn’t; more salacious for one. I’m glad I went despite the trailer.

It would have been interesting to see Scorsese’s take on the material, but I’m very glad that Scafaria got to direct. The movie is very much in conversation with his movies. It is similar to them in the sense that it is about predatory capitalism and lives spinning out of control because of their own greed. It also shows how much of that world excludes women. None of this is preachy, though. The central relationship between Lopez’s character and Contance Wu’s is very well done. There are only a handful of 2019 movies I’ve seen (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Us, Deadwood, Ready or Not) that I like as well or more than this.

Highly Recommended.

Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2019) directed by Christopher McQuarrie

This is still the best pure action movie since Mad Max: Fury Road. Better spy stuff than any Bond movie since Casino Royale, and better chase scenes than any of the Fast and Furious movies I’ve seen.

Highly Recommended

American Psycho (2000) directed by Mary Harron - This is an incredibly well executed horror/psychological thriller that doesn’t work for me much more than it did when I saw it several years ago. I like the critique of conformity and the financial world. There are several line deliveries and scenes that really work (“Jean are you fulfilled… I mean in your life?”). I understand that the characterization of the finance guys is supposed to be hollow and inhuman, but it still didn’t work, for me at least. It’s clearly meant to critique the world it portrays and its nihilism, but ultimately seems to slip into that nihilism itself. I understand that to some extent this is the point, and that a lot of people love this movie, but I didn’t.


The Goldfinch (2019) directed by John Crowley

This has gotten terrible reviews and seems to have flopped, but I really loved it. I don’t know how much of that is my affection for the book, which is a masterpiece, or how much of that is going in with low expectations, but it largely worked for me. They didn’t quite convey the importance the titular painting had in the book. Having read the book earlier this year, I was able to fill that in to the point that I almost didn’t notice it. Not sure how that aspect would play to someone who hadn’t read it.

The cinematography is great, but with Roger Deakins, that’s to be expected. The movie also managed to convey the books seediness inside a Fitzgerald-esque world, or at least the feel of it. Having finally read Patricia Highsmith last year, I can say that the book reads like Dickens by way of Highsmith. The basic plot is that a boy whose mother dies in a terrorist attack on a museum, survives that attack. He steals a painting as he’s leaving. That painting becomes a totem to him and provides the impetus for much of the action of the book. There is a huge cast of characters in the book, most of which make it to the screen. The boy grows up, and gets sucked into both crime and high society.

Again, it could be just because the book is so fresh in my head, but I don’t understand the hate this movie has gotten. It’s a very good, if not perfect, adaptation.

I’d also like to plug the book. It's a perfect blend of pretentious literary fiction and pulp. After Middlemarch (I'm only a third of the way through, but I'm calling it) and Wise Children, and maybe Generation Loss, it's the best novel I read for the first time this year).

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard

Teaching a Stone to Talk is a book that evangelicals and agnostics both might read with pleasure, underlining different sentences, neither able to shake the feeling that they might be too certain of their vision. They might have decided hastily. Or at least that’s how it reads to me, who has read it in both capacities. Dillard herself rode that line. She later left the faith. The tension is there throughout her early work. She writes about the world in hymn-like fashion, and while it was never certain which god the hymn praised (she pulled from many religious texts) in this book she clearly lands as some kind of a Christian. Though, by her own account, she was virtually unrecognizable to certain other Christians (see On a Hill Far Away, collected here). I could equally see representatives of both groups rejecting it out of hand.

This is the only book Dillard wrote that she was willing to call an essay collection in the 10 year afterward to Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, despite much of her work seeming to fit that template. And it is a great collection, filled with lines I want to quote to anyone at hand. As in her earlier books, this is written in an ecstatic mode; almost as if they were extended prose poems or psalms. I had a lit professor years ago who hated her writing, and I understand that reaction, even though I couldn’t disagree with it more. Knowing that professor, I suspect he didn’t like the excess of it, or the clear belief in some form of the supernatural that it embodied. I love both of those things. I wouldn’t want every book to do what hers do, but I’m very grateful to have these.

Like her other early books, these essays are meditations on, or close readings of the world and the people she encounters. At least in the three early books I reread this year, she is concerned with seeing the world around her; of concentrating on it and using it as fuel for spiritual practice. I really appreciate this. In An Expedition to the Pole she relates communal spiritual practice in a church with actual expeditions to the poles and ends up with an almost magical realist scene. In Life on the Rocks: Galapagos, she talks about her trip to that island. The final essay, Aces and Eights, is about a vacation with her daughter and functions as a meditation on death and the passage of time. These were the standout essays for me on this pass. Really, though, the whole thing is worth the time.

Highly Recommended.

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Movie Roundup 9/8/19

Here are the movies I’ve watched since the last time I posted about film, in reverse order:

Fast Five (2011) Directed by Justin Lin) - This was the first Fast and Furious movie I saw. I was flummoxed by the fact that I enjoyed it, because I’d avoided them. From a distance, they seemed full of bullshit machismo and goofy sentimentality. Those things are both true after seeing them up close. But somehow Fast Five really works. I don’t think I would have enjoyed the first two films and Fast Four, or indeed even seen them, if I hadn’t stumbled across this on cable one night in grad school while doing homework. Now having seen three of the previous four films, the bullshit machismo is more obvious as I got more of the references to the past films. The dialog is pretty bad. That didn’t ruin the experience of the film for me, though. It’s still a strong action movie. The scene of them dragging a bank vault through the streets of Rio de Janeiro is compelling. Recommended.

It: Chapter Two (2019) Directed by AndrĂ©s Muschietti - This was pretty good. I liked that they left that scene (if you’ve read the book, you know what I mean) out of the screenplay. The ending, though, did lack much of the sadness of the book. The film doesn’t convey the way IT (the creature/clown) plays into societal hatreds as well as the book. It tries, and I appreciate the effort, but it’s a little clumsily handled. That being said, it has some really great moments. I probably liked it a little more than the first chapter, but I’ve been spoiled by the recent spate of great horror movies (The Witch, Annihilation, Hereditary, Ready or Not, Us, Get Out, etc.) that this is still second tier. Recommended

Alice Fraser: The Resistance (2018?) - This is a great standup special/one woman show. It’s part two of her Trilogy (the first and third entries are Savage and Empire). The Resistance is available on Amazon Prime and also part of the Trilogy podcast. I can’t recommend these enough. I’ve come to really appreciate Fraser as the best of the very good rotation of co-hosts for The Bugle Podcast. She’s the only one (possibly excepting Nish Kumar)  who is as funny as and whose dynamic with Andy Zaltzman is as good as the original co-host, John Oliver. Watching this, and listening to the other two parts of the Trilogy, this weekend was my first exposure to her standup. These are stories about her family and how to react ethically to specific situations, and there is a progression between her reactions to the key scenes in each special. She delves into some very dark material, and often will undercut that tension with a funny song. The songs are good, but I was occasionally distracted by them. I think, though, that they work for her purpose. What I love the most about them is that, unlike so many commentators, she allows morality to be a complex thing. She draws a distinction (largely absent in most discourse that I see) between being actually good, and being good on social media. I love these so much that I’m tempted to make them canon having only seen them once. I’m going to stick to the rules, though, and say Canon Worthy.

Life of Crime (2014) directed by Daniel Schechter- Probably my favorite movie of 2014. It’s a really good Elmore Leonard adaptation that suffers from a generic title. The novel it’s based on is called The Switch, but because this features Jennifer Aniston (in my favorite performance I’ve seen by her) and she had just starred in a raunchy comedy called The Switch, they couldn'tuse that name. It’s a shame, because the bland title may have held this back from wider awareness. Two bumbling criminals kidnap a rich businessman’s wife, only to find that he’s trying to divorce her and is out of the country with his mistress. Everything unfolds Leonard Style, with good dialog (“You’re a hunk, but you’re a piss poor extortionist, if you don’t mind my saying.”), believable motivations, great performances and a masterful final shot. Canon Worthy.

Fast and Furious (2009) directed by Justin Lin - my screening of this film was interrupted by a hurricane evacuation. I got to the climactic chase scene and had to drive overnight to avoid hurricane Dorian. I found the first couple acts pretty dull in comparison to the the first two, and especially Fast Five. When I finished it the next day, though, the final act, when they’re being chased back into the States from Mexico was very good. Recommended, but only as background for future films. On its own it’s a definite Pass.

Den of Thieves (2018) directed by Christian Gudegast- Speaking of movies that have a lot of bullshit machismo, but are nonetheless really good. This first hit my radar when I saw, in an online movie group, a European director (whose name escapes me), quoted as calling it one of the best films of the decade. I’m a huge crime movie fan (Miller’s Crossing, The Third Man, LA Confidential and Out of Sight are all on my all time top ten list), so that made me pay attention. I finally got around to it last week, and while I’m not ready to praise it as highly as that director did, it is really great. A gang of bank robbers and a gang of nearly-rogue cops clash around a really well executed heist. It’s grim and has a low opinion of people. The key line is when one of the cops says to one of the heist crew, “You’re not the bad guys, we are.” Really they’re all bad guys. It’s very good, and I suspect I’ll only like it more with rewatches. Highly Recommended.

Norm Macdonald: Hitler’s Dog, Gossip and Trickery - Norm is a great comedian, and this is a great special! Highly Recommended.

Stop Making Sense (1984) directed by Jonathan Demme- I’ve loved this Talking Heads concert film since I first saw it. I caught it on the big screen as part of a double feature with True Stories. They played Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club videos, interviews with Demme and Byrne and a performance by Byrne in between. This is often called the greatest concert film of all time. I haven’t seen enough of them to weigh in on that question, but it’s certainly the best I’ve seen. The big screen is the best way to see it, if the opportunity presents itself. It was a long screening by the time you consider the first film and all the other stuff, and I was a little bleary eyed at the end, but it was totally worth it. A great film, and a great moviegoing experience. Canon.

True Stories (1986) directed by David Byrne- This was great, and I’m glad I saw it on the big screen first. A surreal look at the changing landscape of Texas. It’s a meditation on change and how capitalism swallows culture. It’s a musical of sorts. David Byrne and John Goodman are great as the main characters. As is the woman who constantly inflates her accomplishments (so funny!). This is the kind of film that will grow on me, and I’ll understand more on subsequent viewings, but on first viewing was a really good first half of probably my best theater-going experience this year.

Little Shop of Horrors (1960) directed by Roger Corman- I love the 80’s musical version of this, and I’ve always meant to catch this original. It’s weird, but good. The characters never act like people, they’re all tics and malapropisms, But the malapropisms are really fun. Good, though I’m more likely to revisit the remake. Recommended.

Mikey and Nicky (1976) directed by Elaine May -  I followed along with the Filmspotting Elaine May marathon a few years ago (except I still need to see Ishtar). This was my favorite of the three I watched at the time. I still liked it a lot, but it's a tough movie. The way the two leads treat the women, particularly Nicky's "girlfriend" is tough. The way the sexual assault scene was staged, though, make it clear it was intentional and commenting on the two leads. The movie doesn't let them off as mere lovable rapscallions. They are truly awful in the way they treat each other, and even more so in their complete disregard for everyone else, particularly women. It's a tough sit, but a great movie. Canon Worthy.

The Bank Job (2008) directed by Roger Donaldson- Probably my favorite Jason Statham vehicle. It’s a great heist movie in the vein of Sexy Beast or Le Cercle Rouge. It’s not as slick as the Ocean’s movies; there’s a griminess to it that is accentuated by the fact it’s loosely based on real events. Canon-Worthy.

The Transporter (2002) directed by Louis Leterrier and Corey Yuen- This is a fun martial arts/car chase thriller. A very good B-movie and among Statham’s better efforts. Recommended.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Expiration Date by Tim Powers

The first Tim Powers novel I read was Last Call. It is my favorite of his. While I’ve gone on to read most of his books in the decade since I read that one, somehow I had never gotten to the other two books in a loose trilogy with it. Expiration Date has one shared character with Last Call, and Earthquake Weather is apparently a sequel to both. Powers is a master of making weird mythologies and systems that when described seem like they shouldn’t make sense at all, but in the context of the story work perfectly. I’m looking forward to finally reading Earthquake Weather to see how he manages to merge the mythologies of the two previous books.

Expiration Date has a runaway kid nick-named Kootie who is possessed by the ghost of Thomas Edison. There is the survivor of a set of twins (his sister kills herself near the beginning of the book) who uses a mask incorporating the ghost of Houdini to disguise himself from his former employer. She, and many of the other antagonists in the book, eat ghosts as a way of extending their lives. There’s a psychiatrist who is a materialist, but used the trappings of seances in therapy to good effect, until a dead man and several ghosts showed up to one session. This is not the weirdest stuff that happens in the book. Powers creates horror/fantasy thrillers by doing extensive research on a person or time period and fills the cracks in with very strange things.

Powers tends to spell everything out, and in that way he contrasts with some of my other favorite writers, Gene Wolfe, say, or Caitlin Kiernan. They leave more ambiguity in the events of their stories for the reader to suss out. With Powers he will tell you how it sorted out, and it will make internal logical sense, even when it seems impossible in the early going given everything in includes. He is not an ideological writer, though. He focuses on the story, plot and characters and lets the ideology sort itself out. I appreciate this. His explanations do not extend to sermonizing.

He is a Catholic, and if you read closely, you can see those themes in his books, but they are never didactic. In this case the major theme seems to be the need and search for forgiveness and characters coming to terms with the fact that they have done some pretty awful things in their pasts. I appreciate that. What I had a hard time with, is that I think they often feel bad for the wrong things. I particularly have a hard time buying some of the specific guilt of the psychiatrist character. She is seeking forgiveness from the ghost of someone who she did wrong in one sense; he died in a session she was conducting. But she’s written as if she feels badly for not dating him. Or at least it could be read that way. There are a couple other examples, but that is the one that I had the hardest time with. This didn’t ruin the book for me, but it sat oddly.

I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the way some horror is out to actually disturb (the movie Hereditary, Caitlin Kiernan’s fiction) and some takes you on a horrifying ride, but ultimately has a comforting conclusion. Powers tends towards the latter. Truly terrible things happen, but at least some of the characters survive, learning and growing through the process. And the ride goes by some of the most creatively horrifying things I’ve read. Quibbles about the motivations of some of the characters aside, I really loved this book. I still prefer Last Call, but this is an excellent dark fantasy/horror/thriller.