Posts tagged ‘secondhand books’

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.

Advertisements

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.

he did and he didn’t

fatty_novel.jpg
I, Fatty
Jerry Stahl
2004
Found: Soho Original Books

 

Is there anything more popcorn-ready than old Hollywood gossip? All those geriatrics, well back in the fog of boredom and conformity that ruled before those Boomers changed society with their long hair and their Beatles albums, getting Lifetime Achievement Awards months before dying in unfashionable Hollywood neighborhoods…the sanitary images giving way to the bold whispers that Hearst shot Ince, thinking his was murdering Chaplin for sleeping with his teenage mistress. Drugs, promiscuity, and hard-hearted scheming, all even before cracking open the encyclopaedia of paranoid malevolence written on Howard Hughes.

Perhaps even better are the speculations you can draw from the period details; perhaps your great-grandmother soothed your infant grandfather with Bayer’s heroin but was wary of their strange new pill, aspirin?

Out of this hidden morass Jerry Stahl, himself a late-era Hollywood horror show, pulls the fictional biography of Roscoe Arbuckle, the sacrificial victim that conjured up the modern tabloid cycle. Better known as “Fatty,” Arbuckle was the highest-paid actor of his time, the first to make a million dollars per year, but today is mostly remembered for the three trials he underwent for the alleged murder of a starlet named Virginia Rappe. Although cleared of all charges, he never quite escaped the moral indignation, or the American public’s appetite for it, whipped up by Hearst’s papers against Arbuckle and Hollywood itself.

In the introduction, Stahl calls Arbuckle “the OJ of his day…aside from niggling matters of race, guilt, and innocence,” and, one could argue, talent, but also argues that the public condemnation was a logical and not entirely unexpected shift for “Fatty.” Mack Sennett anachronistically cribs from Mel Brooks: What I think, comedy is you fall in a ditch and die. Tragedy is I get a hangnail…people just naturally love watching bad go to worse.

Stahl makes an effort to distinguish his tone as presenter in the introduction from Roscoe-the-narrator. His fictionalised self speaks in something approaching early Chuck Palaniuk, but Roscoe’s tone too often drifts. Roscoe is recording this, we are told, near the end of his life while desperately in need of a fix, which his manservant refuses to provide until he’s worked through another chapter of his past. Given this state, he’s quite patient in describing his earlier years, unexpectedly in the moments he describes as a young child rejected by his father for “breaking Mama’s little flower.”

He seems to be talking from a stage to a larger audience, speaking dismissively of his servant, in the third person, rather than “you.” The one who controls the heroin Roscoe desperately needs isn’t flattered, isn’t coaxed. This man with a second-grade education peppers his narrative with Freudian observations and complex sentence structures that sit uneasily next to his childish worldview.

This opens up a distance between the narrative and the reader’s expectation that allows in the wrong kind of doubt. I should be looking for the clues of the unreliable narrator, the gaps in the verbal wallpaper that let through the truth he won’t admit; instead, I see places where the author isn’t in control of the flow. This leaves Fatty’s story feeling like a penultimate draft rather than the final novel, a work that needs one more rewrite to strip out egotistical turns of phrase that fit the writer rather than the character and adjust the flow to fit the frame.

Still, it’s impossible not to be drawn into the main subject, who may have been a poor conflicted sap set up by his studio owners and used to assure a titillated public that Hollywood was cleaning house of all immoral dangers.

Roscoe himself is so emotively fleshed in that even the flawed voice can’t prevent an instant bonding with the character. Stahl effectively uses a classic screenwriters crutch—the Freudian biopic backdrop—with a bit of a twist: his difficult, unassisted birth physically traumatises his mother, who “stopped being a wife” to his father. He had partially fulfilled the Oedipal complex before emerging completely into the world, and his father despised him and his girth, believing he took her from him sexually. His size, his fat, his identity as “Fatty” were the focal point of his father’s abuse, and later, that of his audience’s adoration—and still later, again, that audience’s abhorrence.

Unique among the fat-narrator genus of novels, Roscoe never loses or considers losing weight. As much as he may be feel unhappy or limited, his fat is him, not a separate element that could be shed. He often thinks of keeping up his weight as he polishes off extra food, his third milkshake. The weight is his paycheck, and his identity.

As an aside, how fat is fat, this elephantine beast? Five foot seven and 260 pounds at the height of his fame—today, the size of the charming IT guy, the one who gets a lot of interest in his Match.com profile.

Nevertheless, at the turn of the last century, that was tall and that was wide. Many were fascinated by his round childish body and wholesome face, the eternal energetic child. However, it seems that as “obesity serves as a cue for pathogen infection,” along with the more popular “people are borderline sociopathic jerks in general” theory, his audience was also primed to reject him as a morally depraved glutton. And much like the later—if less legally fraught—scandal surrounding Paul Reubens, it provoked extreme reactions on the part of the audience and studios, which agreed to pull all of Arbuckle’s movies from theatres and prevent him from working even after his aquittal. The childlike image (that one could fairly expect an audience of adults to conceptualise as an act) juxtaposed with the realisation of the adult person made Fatty and Pee-Wee horrifying, monsters capable of any imagined horror. It’s possible to continue the Freudian metaphor that, having identifying a performer as a child, their growth into sexual maturity provokes a different Oedipal fear, of being the parent who is deposed or erotically taken.

More simply, however, Stahl and his version of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle take us to the place where we struggle to remember what we believe of ourselves against the dark carnival of scandal, but grotesque gossip is what becomes history. Stahl has continued to muddy the Arbuckle/Rappe waters with his potluck of fiction and history, but in doing so may be a gifting the entire cast with one humane remembrance among thousands of pantomime villains and damsels.

arb2.jpg

jaws and smokey fistfight in heaven

Bear V Shark
Chris Bachelder

2001
Found: Original Soho Bookstore

 

Best read twice, BvS is a pre-9/11 book unfortunate enough to be released in October 2001. Drawing heavily, and (of course) post-modernly self-consciously, on Neil Postman, Henry David Thoreau, Guy Debord, and even a little Lacanian-influence Zizek, this novel twists from comic to tragic while maintaining its ironic timbre—a neat trick, that.

The second reading—and this is a quick read, despite some depth, making a second trip through no onerous task—retains the comedy of disconnected suburban people seemingly composed of nonsequitor soundbites, but the impending tragedy, and the anger, isn’t a distant spectre but the invisible engine of this world.

Bachelder asks us to imagine this novel, “based on a true story”:

…not unstable in its own right but perched upon, based on, the cautious steady slope of the shingled roof of Truth and teetering, teetering, the whole damn situation fixing to collapse into tainted wreckage, in which wreckage lie nearly equal parts Truth and Lie, irony and That Which Is Not Irony, such that context and purity are forever lost, and the pieces are indistinguishable.

This couldn’t have been written in 2002 with any comfort, and in 2007 is written not with comparatively safer angst on the nature of fiction but with anxiety over the major US news outlets. Likewise, the BvS victims of crime and terror, unseen to those attending to their entertainment-saturated frontal lobes, can no longer be conceived of when victims of terrorist actions (in the US, at least) are immediately made faceless political celebrities. They are part of the Why We Fight narrative, often championed by the same people who refuse others the right to contextualise their lives and deaths. They may be metaphorically raised high, trampled, and buried, but they are not ignored.

I ask myself now, why I am nattering on about the nightmare that is current Western/Middle Eastern politics? Do I love the sound of my keys clicking so much I pontificate through a book review?

Yeeeeeeah. I do. Best get used to that.

But I justify: BvS is fiction that inhabits the place where entertainment supplants living, where infotainment displaces journalism, where half-remembered juxtapositions smother education. BvS warned us of the dangers of itself, of clever bits of amusement we become accustomed to contextualising the moments of our lives for us. On the bus yesterday, watching a young, over-accessorised mother push her SUV of a stroller into traffic without a glace, punching buttons on her cell phone, and saw the scrunched face of her toddler inches from the bus’s wheels, I thought of the worried baby sitting next to the cash register in a roadside diner, unclaimed.

Not JesusChristWomanBabyNotTougherThanCars!!!

We’re now just as distracted by fictions and repackaging our lives into something suitable to multimedia blog entries. (This being the royal ‘we,’ of course…most of the world and the majority of living generations have no interest or access to this level of exhibitionist navel-gazing.) The important shift in the last seven years has been the conscious and sinister use of focus-group researched gut-level infotainment prevarication to shape national debate. Allowing myself to be more or less permanently distracted is to be part of the obfuscation. Dammit.

 

(q) aren’t satirists just sentimental and oversensitive cranks who just wish the world were a kinder place and furthermore sort of believe that it could be a kinder place and it is therefore tragic that it’s such a cruel and stupid place?

 

It’s entertaining, but not distracting. And there are flaws, connections that aren’t quite made—are the men who approach Mr Norman with cryptic comments the same as the Zizekian jouissance–loving terrorist group, the same as the luddites outside Vegas, the same as the folksingers and protesters?

I’m left wondering: is there reasonable hope this world will become a slightly less cruel and stupid place after viewers turn away from BvS, or will they demand less violence, less sex as well, less thought and investment in more shallow entertainments?

I can’t wait to read more from this guy.

Also, assuming equivalent sizes? The Shark’s got one weapon, teeth, in a relatively small and immobile mouth, which would be hindered by the bear’s shaggy coat and thick layer of fat. The Bear has five potential offensive points, can swim with some dexterity, and may mistake the shark for a large salmon. Advantage: bear, all the way.