Posts from the ‘books’ Category

Kick-Ass: why?

Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl

a rare un-bloodied moment for Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl

“What works on the page doesn’t always work on the screen, asshole.” – Dave Lizewski

Of the two Kick-Ass texts, the comic is far more faithful to the world it depicts (one seemingly defined by a lack of Alan Moore). The fundamental difference is that the graphic novel blatantly loathes its audience – and is therefore able to more accurately and comically present that group’s foibles and masochistic fantasies – while the film abandons this worldview mid-Act 2 in favor of pandering to the demographic.

Dave Lizewski is an Asperger’s-esque teen who suffers from what he describes as “the perfect combination of loneliness and despair,” which drives him to nick an identity from the comics he adores (obsessively, of course – no fictional fan has any other interests). The film and comic diverge pretty quickly, despite a surface similarity. Both present the sudden but natural death of Dave’s mother as both a vague motivation and something to be resented for lacking a good revenge arc. Neither seems to mourn very much, only noting the effect it’s had on Dave’s dad, who would do well to attend a support group hosted by Charlie Swan. Movie-Dave is a lovable loser who tries to make friends with those even more socially outcast than his geek-clique and picks two men who’ve repeatedly mugged him as his first heroic effort. Comic-Dave seethes with resentment that others don’t see how wonderful he is and picks relatively harmless-looking graffiti taggers as his first target. Unexpectedly (for the genre), both Daves fail spectacularly and spend several months recovering in hospital, and both choose to continue putting their bereaved father through financially ruinous hell rather than give up their delusional identity.

Watchmen was one of the first in-universe texts to confront the fact that anyone who chose the vigilante lifestyle would not only be mentally disturbed but probably only make the world a more dangerous place through their efforts. Kick-Ass attempts to update this concept to the 21st century by using cell phone cameras and Myspace as a direct conduit to Coincidental Broadcasts, upping the childish cynicism by half, and lowering expectations of audience IQ by at least as much. One cover announces its mission statement for the slower readers:

Sickening Violence: Just the Way You Like It!

And yet the comic is less insulting than the film, which promises graphic deconstruction and provides Rambo-esque clichés. Dave gets beaten down, but then gets Real Mad and kills bad guys with a Gatling-enhanced jet pack and a rocket launcher (with no fear of the justice system). He gets the assigned most beautiful girl in school, after shamming as a GBF in order to amass the Nice Guy points that will make her owe him a relationship. He rescues one of the city’s only genuine superheroes and becomes he school “protector.”

All this with nary a synapse spark over committing mass murderer.

In a straight popcorn flick, this might be good enough, given that Kick-Ass was the hero of the movie named after him. But he’s not. He’s a mildly irritating prologue glommed onto Big Daddy and Hit-Girl’s star turn. From the moment the appear on screen or paper, , Kick-Ass becomes part of the audience. This works – on its own level – because the father-daughter team is both more competent and far more interesting than the talentless and asocial imitative fanboy. Watching real superheroes do their thing is his natural level. The film demands a suspension of disbelief and basic humanity appropriate to a later Die Hard sequel, then flings an affectless and brainwashed 11-year-old serial killer at us.

She hacks and slashes her way through a room full of stereotypical thugs – and there is something primal and wonderful about that sight familiar to any fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, just as it’s oddly heartwarming that a father would train his daughter to be tough rather than decorative, how not to freeze when faced with the physical threats a small and pretty girl is likely to encounter as she ventures into the world.

Kick-Ass, Big Daddy and Hit-Girl

Father-daughter bonding, Macready-style

But Buffy spent entire seasons mourning her lost potential of becoming someone who didn’t spend her nights killing other sentient beings. Hit-Girl and, more importantly, her father have no such qualms.

The film takes the easy route again by giving Big Daddy the standard Antihero’s Journey – a good cop framed by the Mob he refused to work for, which somehow leads to his wife’s suicide – and a clear mission of revenge. Comicverse Bid Daddy made this story up and picked a target at random. He was just an accountant, and obsessive comic book fan – an adult Dave Lizewski and obvious sociopath – who ran away from his career and wife into fantasy, kidnapping his daughter and raising her to live out his violent daydreams. He never comes near the bad guys, sending his daughter in alone and watching from a safe distance through the scope of a sniper rifle.

Hit-Girl, the only real superhero (and innocent), is the only comic character who catches a break in the end.  She avenges her father’s completely deserved death and gives up mass murder in favour of a relatively normal (if bully-proof) life with her mother. Actually, Dave’s father, whom the comic never marginalises as much as the film does, also breaks even. His son gives up getting beat up and running up hospital bills, and he even begins to move on from his paralysing grief to begin dating again. Big Daddy and the local Mob branch all die badly, and Dave (thank god) is roundly rejected by the object of his obsession when he confesses his deception and “love.” He tries to comfort himself that he’s changed the world by inspiring a legion of mentally unbalances poseurs, but the last frame goes to one of these deluded souls, the Armenian about to become pavement pizza when his homemade wings fail twenty floors up.

The uncompromising comic is a far superior story…but neither is worth the time it takes to see – or review – them.

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Silo of traumatic kernels: Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland

Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland"

The Nostalgia Critic’s Bum Review of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland sums up this film (and much of Tim Burton’s oeuvre) so well almost no other review is necessary: Seriously, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ looked great, but GOD was it stupid.

The overarching plot is pretty dire and derivative, even among the  ‘adolescent from the real world stumbles into fantasyland where he becomes Messiah-with-a-sword for the land’s darling anthropomorphic inhabitants’ genre. There are, however, a lot of nice touches underneath that made the film intermittently fascinating. For instance, Alice brings the fearsome bandersnatch over to her side by simply returning the eye taken from it in an earlier battle, one in which they’d been on opposite sides and the bandersnatch had given her a bad injury just beginning to fester. There’s no bargaining, no ‘I’ll return this if you let me get at that magic sword you’re guarding,’ only simple decency toward a dangerous enemy. After a night’s contemplation, the beast comes to the decision to disinfect her wound and hand over the key to the swordcase, and later helps her escape and partners up in battle. It wasn’t Hollywood ‘clever’ of Alice to make that gesture rather than using it as leverage, but it was quietly genuine and made for a real connection between the two.

This film also aces the Bechdel test, offering a variety of female characters who usually interact with each other in arguing about the right way to rescue Underland from the sociopathic Red Queen. Many of them are fairly complicated characters, as well, particularly the nominal white hats (some of them literally in white hats). The White Queen, for instance, has taken a mysterious but seemingly regretted vow to never hurt a living thing and swans about in an exaggerated Disney Princess posture – but she takes great glee in mixing up embiggening and ensmallening potions out of noxious or dead ingredients (which Alice, good sheltered daughter that she is, drinks down without hesitation even after seeking how they’re made). There’s a lingering worry that Underland will not fare much better under this differently-insane ruler, beautiful white dress or no.

Speaking of dress, Burton does a wonderful and almost subtle thing with the progression of Alice’s clothing. It is first a mark of her inability to truly fit into heteronormative standards, when her mother remarks in horror that she’s sneakily refused to wear her corset or stockings, items that make running or sweating difficult and uncomfortable.  She must improvise as she shrinks and grows, her pretty dress always an impractical inconvenience, progressing from a child’s pastel frills to a more punk-style red dress, to a tunic and trousers reminiscent of 1970s’ Maude, and finally into a suit of armor, coming to literally wear the pants in a gesture toward her future as a merchant businesswoman.

Still, that particular ending managed to be both anachronistic and out of date. A young woman choosing to guide her own future via a high-flying career hasn’t been cutting-edge feminism in generations, and no 19th-century lord would have taken on a female apprentice, no matter how much guilt he felt for not supporting her recently deceased father. And no person of any time period would choose a business heir immediately after she’d humiliated his son by publicly refusing his marriage proposal, alienated his bitter and domineering wife, and demonstrated a level head by literally running away from a decision, falling down a hole and knocking herself unconscious, and performing a pee-pee dance as dramatic punctuation to several condescending pronouncements to her various elders.

There’s also the awkward and quickly dumped romantic element with Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter, something that was initially almost sweetly rueful despite its perfunctory arrival: “You’re always either too small or too tall for me” nicely encapsulates the difficult adjustments of a first serious love affair. Once they are the same size, however, I was quickly reminded of Alan Kirby‘s tenants of digimodernist aesthetics in terms of modern ‘epic’ films, the “foregrounding of children’s experiences” and specifically “an elision of the question of reproduction; sexualized love may be permitted, but in sublimated form”. (Digimodernism, 2009, p 127; I’d really hoped to find something more on this in his blog to link to specifically, as I’d love it if he’d expand on this idea more…particularly if he had any ideas where the re-sexualisation of these works in online fandom would fit in to this aesthetic, or as resistance against the aesthetic, or what have you…but there ya go.)

Once Alice and the Hatter are the same size, their connection fizzes into flat lemonade, becoming generic, sexless Wuv. Any remotely realistic complexity is immediately jettisoned, despite it being exactly the messy aspect of adulthood a 19-year-old first defined as a marriage-ready almost-woman should thematically be facing and beginning to control. The somewhat positive adult-becoming of beginning a career instead becomes a retreat from Underland’s potential for adult sexuality (and the mixed blessing of a devoted and creative paramour with the face of Johnny Depp but mercury-warped sanity and gametes) to the safe protection of a substitute father-figure standing between her and the big dangerous world – even after she’s slain a skyscraper-sized monster!

Midichlorian-free: The Men Who Stare At Goats

ewan mcgregor tries to make his skull pop out his eye sockets

As a kid I was a sucker for the patriotic or counterculture fist-pump, the humanised enemy representative who receives a grand rescue by White America Man, who is raging against the machine of Evil White Men Who Won’t Listen To Humanistic Reason And Probably Smirk A Lot, thus signifying that White America in the audience was ok after all – because they’re certainly represented by the good guy, not the suits, right?  Didn’t our soulful proxy just save the doe-eyed enemy, making us realise we’re really One World, Together?

Unfortunately, I grew out of that happy fuzziness into retching at smug self-effacement and wishing we were following the enemy’s story instead, getting into their head.  And I can’t help but wonder that these portrayals aren’t salt in the wounds of real individuals represented, first abused and then symbolically rescued by the dominant culture attempting to wipe out theirs.  So, based solely on a triumphant rescue scene that liberates starving, tortured, orange jumpsuit-clad Iraqi prisoners to the desert with no supplies, I can’t entirely recommend The Men Who Stare At Goats, despite this being what supposedly happened to journalist Jon Ronson in the course of investigating the US military’s experiments with New Age techniques well after the most credulous hippies had abandoned them.

Aside from this problematic thread, The Men Who Stare At Goats is an often fascinating black comedy exploring a (somewhat true) recent iteration of humanity’s continual need for mythic superhumans, those whose mental and physical abilities breech – just slightly – the limits of human possibility.  It’s satisfying to hear of warriors and sages who can, after years of esoteric study, leap great distances or see beyond the range of their eyes.  This superman defines the human by providing both a clear dividing line and the inspiration to achieve full potential by trying to leap beyond it.

The needful human relationship to myths officially goes skew-wiff, though, when people start believing they’ve achieved magic abilities themselves.

Goats brings together people of two modern eras when Americans en masse felt they’d lost the national narrative and were susceptible to magical thinking, the beginnings of the 1980s and 2000s.  Based on the real-life First Earth Battalion and the Stargate Project, which ultimately only contributed to the psychological warfare tactics of the US military, the film follows a man rocked primarily by divorce and obligatorily by the cultural turmoil following the 2001 terrorist attacks who connects with a former Jedi Warrior / test subject who believes he’s been reactivated.  Like many young adults in September’s immediate aftermath, Bob feels his personal problems should be taking a back seat to those in the larger world he’s suddenly aware of.  Unlike most of them, who attended protests and blogged furiously and ultimately realised that horrific world events went on whether they paid attention or not, Bob went to Kuwait and tried to get imbedded with troops in Iraq.

Instead, he meets Lyn – a name he knows from interviewing a local crazy / former First-Earther who claimed to have psychic abilities – and plunges into two decades of flashbacks detailing a Vietnam War vet’s immersion in post-sixties counterculture and his attempt to forge “Jedi Warriors” out of soldiers.  The soldiers themselves are mostly the typical waifs and strays that drift into military life, looking for connection, discipline, and meaning, and one spoon-bending huckster.  It’s an obvious train wreck waiting to happen, with surprising moments of sweetness along the way.  Bob tags along, unsure whether he’s uncovering a tale of classified governmental insanity or true superhumans, but sure either will establish him as a serious journalist and impress his ex-wife.

There’s a core of sadness running through the dark comedy, and the film itself would fail if it was merely a Dr Strangelove-style satire.  Only the awareness that this is based on real madness, that the potential for paranormal warfare was embraced by two presidents – one enamoured with astrology and the Star Wars movies, the other drawing strength from a mystical evangelic tradition – provides the stranger-than-fiction hilarity.  Underneath the self-delusions, however, are lonely people looking for an explanation that forces some sense onto the randomness of life.  Bill Django, severely wounded by a single foe his troop of green soldiers fail to hit, has the revelation that even trained soldiers, new to the battlefield, will avoid killing another human being.  Revering this ‘gentleness,’ he doesn’t leave the army but instead counter-intuitively seeks to bring it into the military paradigm as a combat advantage.  It’s as if being part of that system is imperative to his identity, even as his values move in direct opposition to the business of killing.

The soldiers brought into the program embrace the warmfuzzy self-actualisation exercises, despite the divergence from their military training.  They also prove to be mentally flexible enough to encompass both the military setting that has given them a recognised niche in life and the silly activities that feel good and garner them praise from authority.  There’s a snake in this doomed garden, of course, the huckster mentioned above who might believe in his own advertised powers but is far better at cynically manipulating his superiors using real-world leverage.  After a series of embarrassments, he stages a coup and pushes the old guard out of the program, which he changes to focus on practical methods of undermining and killing the enemy.

Here lies the film’s most simple and genuine journey – the mildly brainwashed Lyn, leaving the military, is ‘cursed’ by his enemy.  He feels he left himself open to that by impulsively using his powers to kill an innocent being (the stared-at goat of the title), thus perverting the life-affirming philosophies on which his new identity of a Jedi Warrior are based.  Years later, dying of exposure in the Iraqi desert, he’s saved by a goat who leads him first to an oasis, then to rescue.  He repays this implied forgiveness by rescuing a flock of military goats destined for painful experimentation (and, in the process, the tortured prisoners mentioned above, but they are a conceptual afterthought), and is able to face the end of his life in peace, with his mentor at his side.

These are men sifting through their lives for a core, heroic narrative, as evidenced by unironically taking on the identity of fictional space samurai.  They attempt to take the occasional flashes of brilliance that make mundane life interesting or just bearable and force them to become something controllable and permanent.  The constant tease of the movie is whether they’ve managed to do so, in any way, or if their belief that they have supernatural powers merely allows them to sometimes pull off impressive stunts attainable by meat and nerves.  Perhaps Lyn and Bill have, taking the long way, attained a sort of wu wei, accepting that where they are is where they are meant to be at that moment, and accomplish what anyone could without the cloud of pointless anxiety fogging their decisions (instead of a massive dose of psychotomimetics, which apparently fixes all ills).

The film ends anticlimactically, with Bob’s exposé of cruel and unusual prisoner torture and military experimentation receiving only the smallest, pettiest media coverage (that prisoners were forced to listen to Barney the Dinosaur).  Inspired by the First Earth principles, however, Bob vows to soldier on and achieves the trick all others had failed, phasing through an office wall.  Or, retreats into a hallucination of doing so while he actually smacks himself unconscious.  (Why, exactly, must they keep attempting this at work, with witnesses?)  Whether they actually succeed is a moot point; only that the potential they might have becomes a fantasy-sustaining myth for the rest.

the men who stare at goats

portents and blowflies

And the Ass Saw the Angel
Nick Cave
1989

In his only novel, Australian Nick Cave out-Southern Gothics William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor with his ur-swamp tale of total corruption, the degradation of all life and complexity into unthinking muck. The primal swamp lies in Ukulore Valley, which travellers and the march of history avoid even before the apocalyptic three-year rain. Despite spanning the 1930s through the 50s (arguably beginning even earlier, when Euchrist’s father is born in 1890), the valley is untouched by wars and social progression.

This rift in the land nurtures both sugar cane and the most repellent consanguineous tribes of people on earth. One is the Ukulites, the minority ruling class population in the valley who follow the 1861 bible written by an excommunicated Baptist. The other is the Morton clan, sometimes cannibalistic inbred hillfolk who prey on travellers, and are nearly wiped out by lawmen in the novel’s early chapters. One, Ezra Eucrow, whose tangled genes are revelled only in his shuddering light blue eyes, escapes before the slaughter and settles with the town’s outcast moonshiner, Crow Jane. Jane gives birth in the burnt corpse of a Chevy to twin boys, badly damaged by their tangled genetic code, fetal alcohol syndrome, and congenital disease. The firstborn, luckier twin dies soon after; the second, Eucrid, grows into a twisted and desperate young man who lacks the power of speech.

Despite its religious focus, Cave insists And the Ass Saw the Angel is not an allegory. Nevertheless, it is packed with possible thematic markers and symbols that blend to ultimately form little more than a message of abject wretchedness. Breaks in this despair are rare and exist sole as lights to be snuffed out by the next horror and leave the darkness that much deeper.

Euchrid’s insane parents avenge his terrible beating by throwing his persecutors into a patch of nasty thorns, where he later hides from his pursuers. Before her own mob assault, the town’s heroin-addicted whore treats Eucrid kindly, establishing an internal heaven in his mind made up of her perfumes and soft breasts. From this safe mental haven come his worst heavenly commands to build himself a fort of horrors and plan the murder of the town’s young Virgin Mary. The town’s disgraced minister adopts and sincerely loves this foundling girl, but allows the parishioners to “prime Beth for sainthood” in return for their care and cooking.

In Ukulore Valley, individual yearnings toward the spark of divinity lead only to mass abuse and profanity. God’s plans figure heavily in every character’s thoughts, albeit in twisted and self-serving fanaticisms. For Euchrid in particular it shapes his formless need for acceptance into a targeted and devastating vengeance on his small world. The Ukulites scramble to keep hold of their faith in the face of a hard rain that for three years destroys their cane crops and keeps them inside. They briefly fall under the sway of wayward preacher Abie Poe, who moves them to symbolically destroy the corruption in the community by brutally beating the whore Cosey Mo and to clense themselves in the fetid swamp. They reject him after the aborted mass baptism—crippling an innocent is fine, but humiliating the parishioners is right out.

Euchrist and the townspeople descend separately into mad religiosity after the discovery of Cosey’s abandoned infant coincides with the return of the sun. Euchrist lurks on the fringes, abused by all who spy him there, escaping into dreams of his angel that cover and entwine with masturbation (he notes the “ectoplasm” left on his hand from the angel as proof of her presence). He thinks of himself as “a Voyeur to the Lord.” Meanwhile the townspeople venerate Beth as the womb of Christ’s return, medically verifying her virginity and impatiently waiting for her to conceive. Beth retreats into the same staring fits that marked Ezra’s mountain lineage and pathetic religious visions similar to Euchrist’s, implying Ezra had a progenitive relationship with Cosey, whose body he secretly buried with tenderness.

These two insanities come together as Beth misapprehends the mute and wild Euchrist as the Holy Spirit come to enact the Big Plan the townswomen have groomed her for. Euchrist, in a very concrete Freudian slip, comes to kill the teenaged Beth (as a false prophet and devil) and instead has sex with her, an act lost in the delusional muck of his perceptions. As the Ukulites hunt him down and destroy his hideaway of horrors on the suspicion he’s assaulted Beth, he succeeds in plunging his scythe into her in the town square (this time, not metaphorically). As the townspeople kill Euchrist in revenge, the rain once again begins to fall.

The final image is of the core fundamentalist women gathering around their newborn Christ. The labor has killed Beth, who narrowly survived Euchrist’s attack. With Ezra’s “shivering, pale blue eyes,” Beth’s son is the consanguineous grandchild of the despised town rejects brought to the very heart of the community. Euchrist has proved not a cancer to be removed from the town’s body (in which his mother’s moonshine is shown repeatedly to be the blood) but a testicle, the literal distillation of their shared nature producing the next generational evolution.

The fanatic Ukulites and the twisted, dying clans will descend into fruitless entropy together.

the truth of what happened

Nick Walker
Black Box (2002) and Helloland (2003)

Today’s quandary: to review a Nick Walker novel is to spoil the pleasure of reading one. In fact, it’s difficult to enjoy even a second read, compared to chewing over the vivid complete picture it has left in your mind. I was lucky, picking up Black Box and Helloland together with a handful of other secondhand books, and in the weeks they sat on my to-read pile I forgot their spoilery blurbs.

Thus: the short version: worth reading, just not on a flight. Trust me on that caveat.

Walker has a consistent style, presenting snippets of a disparate group of people, grounded in one method of information dispersal. In Black Box, the method is a series of audio and videotapes, and in Helloland, calls through a hotel switchboard. The stories move through one story in “real time”—a transatlantic flight or one morning shift in reception—interspersed with flashbacks. The effect is playful even when the subject matter is grim, a winking reference to the flashback episodes of slight tv sitcoms, and reflects an internal discipline that imposes artificial frameworks for the challenge of solving them in prose.

The experience of reading is similar to putting together a massive puzzle on a rickety card table. Opening the book dumps a mess of unrelated colors and shapes in your lap. The spare wording offers a few clues to latch onto and set aside. Then, a flashback puts together a corner and two borders begin to stretch along the table’s north and east borders. Characters form just enough to fill the bulk in ourselves. The final chunks fall into place more quickly than hands can put grooves and protuberances together and the full picture becomes obvious—shocking and unintuitive, but obvious once complete.

This archly postmodern style will enthral or repel the reader within five pages.

Both novels thematically centre on the temporary escape of travelling, specifically travelling in climate-controlled technological wonders that create an artificial world—one that could seem like slipping into heaven compared to the chaos of the natural world below. Each also offers the hidden threat, or enticement, of death in the hostile airless vacuum that surrounds it. What brings people to escape or die, indifferent chance or the malicious actions of others? In all situations, others are blamed for the work of fate and vice versa, while those affected stagnant in obsession with their traumatic moment.

Those who focus on the past, demanding remittance or trying to make amends, are doomed; escape is only possible for those who forget and choose to live without past or future.

One glaring flaw in both novels: relationships fall apart in grandly realised detail, but characters come together because one has nursed a resentful crush and sufficient wacky, offputting events have passed between them—which the object of affection ignores without explanation rather than quickly changing her address and routines. All of these objects would be played by Natalie Portman—unbelievably pretty and blandly quirky, with no awareness of her attractiveness or potential solo success: the educated boy’s fantasy girl.

This affect, however, is potentially balanced by the choking cynicism of both books. All lives begin as compressed and plagued by unsatisfying human connections—palpable pain of life ticking away unlived—and most pathetically focus on the magic bullet of a new relationship or affair with someone they barely know, more fantasy than reality. Other people’s wants and thoughts don’t exist in their plans.

The connections that do form—if weakly made—are meant to contract that futility. Does it matter more that the relationships won’t last beyond the final page or first honest conversation, or that in connecting at all, both partners have stepped out of their solipsistic malaise? Only outside the navelgazing of one’s past and current needs lies any hope for a future.

Darkly Dreaming Dexter: blood and ethical sociopathy

Dexter Season One

Darkly Dreaming Dexter, Jeff Lindsay
2004

Dexter, Season One
2006

Dear Dexter is a single white male in his thirties who lives alone and works peripherally in law enforcement, and is generally considered to be a quietly well mannered and quirky guy.  He is, of course, an insane serial killer preying on the residents of Miami.

However: that “prey” is only those who he can prove to his own high threshold of satisfaction are like him: serial predators who have escaped the law’s prosecution who will continue to kill innocents.  The undisturbed lives of those innocents, unfortunately, are an incidental by-product of scratching his itch to main and kill.

The novel upon which Dexter’s first season is based calls this urge the “Dark Passenger”.  It’s worth experiencing this introduction in all its purple glory:

Moon.  Glorious moon. Full, fat, reddish moon, the night as light as day, the moonlight flooding down across the land and bringing joy, joy, joy. Bringing too the full-throated call of the tropical night, the soft and wild voice of the wind roaring through the hairs on your arm, the hollow wail of starlight, the teeth-grinding bellow of the moonlight off the water.

All calling to the Need. Oh, the symphonic shriek of the thousand hiding voices, the cry of the Need inside, the entity, the silent watcher, the cold quiet thing, the one that laughs, the Moondancer. The me that was not-me, the thing that mocked and laughed and came calling with its hunger. With the Need. And the Need was very strong now, very careful cold coiled creeping crackly cocked and ready, very strong, very much ready now—and still it waited and watched, and it made me wait and watch.

Urgh.  Take a moment—that was a thick chunk of corrugated prose to force down an unsuspecting reader’s throat.  The series, fortunately, lacks the Dark Passenger.  The Dexter who partially garrottes a secret paedophile, forcing him to confront the bodies of the boys he’s murdered, before antiseptically dismembering him, is the same Dexter that greets his girlfriend’s children warmly and patiently guides the career of his impatient sister.

With his deserving victims, Dexter is a more honest version of himself, ironically closer to connecting, but he stalks and kills on his own impulse rather than obeying a voice in his head.  Unlike the common perception of a sociopath, Dexter does want to connect, and with some logic seeks an understanding from monsters like himself as much as he tries to force upon them an understanding of their own crimes.

Blood

“Blood. Sometimes it sets my teeth on edge. Other times it helps me control the chaos.”

Dexter works as a blood splatter technician with the Miami police department.  Early on, he tells the viewers (or the inside of his own echoing head) that he chose this position and city to monitor his own criminal activity, and feels Miami, with its law enforcement’s 20% solved murder rate, is the best setting for a journeyman killer.

Blood is the one indulgent memento he keeps from victims, single beads dried onto slides and tucked away in his ac unit.  He enjoys flicking through his collection and remembering his work, fingering the dry red ovals.

He reveals in later episodes a great antipathy toward blood, despite making it his life’s work.  His plastic sealing of his killing scenes turns out to be not only a practical method for hiding DNA but a way of containing the splash and gush of sticky blood.  His job, as well, while it requires he confront and contemplate his personal bugaboo, allows him to explain and contain it as well, like his kills, tidying away his corner of the world.

Dexter begins to realise why he has such an intense connection to such an abstract bit of life, eventually unearthing a long-repressed memory of not only witnessing his mother’s brutal murder at the age of three but also spending over two days in a drying pool of the victims’ blood.  He was discovered and rescued by Harry Morgan, then an ordinary policeman, who fostered and then adopted the young boy, but his fixation with blood and murder was already set.

Sociopath

Harry recognises in dear dark Dexter (to follow the book’s alliterative nomenclature) the signs of a budding sociopath, specifically the torture of animals and lack of normal emotional responses.  When he pushes young Dexter into admitting his need to hurt and kill, the boy clings to his foster father for comfort.

Harry, by now a detective and growing jaded with the justice system, becomes a more sophisticated Pa Kent.  He teaches Dexter how to fake normal with the rest of the world, encouraging a dual identity.  One side he makes into the perfect son, helpful, happy and obedient, and shows him how to feed the other side with socially acceptable murderous acts, like hunting.  This doesn’t totally satisfy Dexter, and perhaps doesn’t totally satisfy his mentor, either.  Dexter’s high intelligence and physical strength, combined with his need to ritualistically murder, are wasted on deer when there is a city full of dangerous men outside the hunting range.

Dexter voiceovers that he can’t connect with people, and to the degree that someone without remorse can be bothered, he is bothered by that.  Here is where the book and series diverge most sharply; book-Dexter ends up breaking from the Code of Harry, killing LaGuerta and planning to kill Doakes to remain undetected.  Deb has learned the truth about him but he’s sure she’ll come around to approving what he does, like their father.

Series-Dexter comes to care for Rita, becomes frantic that Deb will be tortured and killed, and mourns after killing his truly sociopathic brother.  He is helped by talk therapy (even if he does later murder the therapist).  He leaves a session that has begun to bring up memories of his Traumatic Event to finally have sex with a girlfriend without creeping her out.  He also seeks out a connection with a young serial murderer, intending to be the mentor to the teenager that Harry had been to him.  In the end he imagines himself surrounded by normal Miami residents who would cheer him on, even love him, if they knew what he did, and smiles.  The saving of innocents is no longer purely a byproduct.

His way of life is only possible because of his bond with Harry, whose approval and comfort he needed as much as understanding and protection.  Young Dexter really really really wants to kill people, especially a bullying jerk at school, but he doesn’t because of Harry—not because he doesn’t want to be punished or imprisoned, but because Harry would be disappointed and hurt.  The 1 sociopath in 25 individuals one encounters any day wouldn’t have that connection to prevent his or her destructive actions.

Brian deliberately brings Dexter to the realisation of his past, in the hopes he’ll be free to join him in the ritualistic killing they share.  They’re both the children of criminals, and may possess the faulty mental wiring in their shared DNA.  Harry thought that Dexter might be young enough to remain unaffected by his gruesome experience, leaving Brian to mental institutions, but when proved wrong labelled the boy a sociopath and trained him like an attack dog.  But, while he’s a deeply disturbed man with a compulsion to kill, Dexter’s emotional growth suggests he’s something less than that.  More pathetically, he may have spent over thirty years with the emotional acuity of a three-year-old.

Ethics

To come: Bats and Supes In Tropical Bowling Shirts

hope and shovels

US!
Chris Bachelder
2006

upton-sinclair.jpg

Early in Chris Bachelder’s latest novel, US!, the often-resurrected Upton Sinclair tells his reluctant secretary-cum-protector of an early job writing for the funny pages:

“I will tell you the secret of joke writing,” he said. “Jokes are made up hind end forward, so to speak.”

Beginning with a subject—the great Socialist chooses tramps, in this case, and their distaste for bathing—he comes up with a joke clever enough to amuse the secretary, who is occupied in scanning the road for assassins, and then stumps him with a classic joke from “aught-three”:

Mrs. Jones goes into her grocer’s and asks for a dozen boxes of matches. Says the grocer: “Why Mrs. Jones, you had a dozen boxes of matches yesterday!” Says Mrs Jones, “Oh yes, but you see, my husband is deaf and dumb, and he talks in his sleep!”

“It’s a little mind-puzzle,” Sinclair tells the scared young man, refusing to explain the punch line. Much later, when the answer comes to him, at the same time obvious and impossible, he finds himself once again stepping up to save and follow the stubborn, naive old man in his quixotic cause to bring Socialist utopia to the United States.

Both a political novel and an exploration of the value, if any, of political novels, Bachelder avoids the literary criticisms levied on Sinclair’s own prodigious output—namely a general bludgeoning of characters and plotlines in the service of his political manifesto. Bachelder’s Sinclair, who continually returns to a nation that needs his ideas as much as it violently rejects him, is a tragic would-be hero whose political plans are as hind-end-forward as his jokes. The end of his revolution is clear, and clearly necessary: a society in which citizens are voters and workers rather than consumers and disposable labor, and a government that both regulates big business harshly and provides an adequate safety net for individuals. Sinclair preaches—or tries to preach—the evils of unbridled capitalism and the better life for all under a Socialist system without providing a real-world plan for implementing it. When people are convinced of their own best interest, they’ll rise up. Obvious—and impossible.

In fact, a combination of corporate and government pressure (and hired assassins), along with individuals’ knee-jerk hatred of Communism and love of a celebrity spectacle, prevents Sinclair from speaking in public or publishing his books in anything but small batches. His body carries the semi-healed scars of bullets, knives, even a harpoon. His presence galvanises the opposition, providing them with a figurehead of evil that whips the working-class masses into ill-informed frenzy even as it distracts them from the universality of their setbacks. His continual returns from the dead, which one would expect to generate shock at least, are instead condemned merely as unseemly; it’s his beliefs that are unnatural.

What is Socialism? It is Un-American. It is Communists who want to come into your house and take away your tv, your Cuisinart, the SUV in your driveway, leaving you with lower pay and higher taxes, with less food in your children’s mouths and no hope for their future. It wants to take away your American Dream of success through hard work.

The Socialists, many of whom have a small red shovel tattooed on some hidden bit of skin, meet in secret, drinking hot coffee, to watch a film of Sinclair spontaneously preaching, thinking that it’s bad fiction like the reviewers say, but it’s also their lives, and they are moved. The Anti-Socialist Leagues meet in elementary school cafeterias, drinking coffee and organising volunteers to pick up litter, teach parenting classes, and raise funds for public services. The multiple Sinclair assassins are national heroes, nominally punished with jail terms and easily paroled, celebrated in the corporate-owned media and as individually sponsored as Nascar drivers. The content generated about them is based in their skill and personalities, with glancing references to them protecting American society in some abstract fashion. There is no mention of what place debate has in a free society, or what a society has become when threats and murder are acceptably used to stifle dissenting voices.

The people are too tied up in their own problems—layoffs, uninsured health problems, the growing threat of outsourcing—to consider such abstract concepts, like what this ‘America’ is that needs to be protected at all costs. They’re happy to be distracted by an exciting performance, or a good old-fashioned book burning.

US! doesn’t end particularly happily or hopefully for Upton Sinclair or the United States, as one would expect given the current state of the Murrican Left. There’s a moment of shared plenty and happiness, of community and family wellbeing, in a destructive spectacle. The moment for Sinclair’s peaceful revolution has passed, if indeed it ever existed even in the depths of the Great Depression. The human impulse toward community action is safely tucked into bed with the system that erodes it.

As a political novel, however, perhaps US! can motivate readers where Sinclair’s stridently upbeat endings fail. It’s satire, yes, but it’s my life, and I am moved.