Wednesday, August 18, 2010

TTDS Literary Revue: Early Looks At The New Work Of Guillmero Del Toro, Steve Martin, and MTV Books

(NOTE OF ETHICS: All Three Of The Titles Reviewed Were Sent To Me By Their Respective Publisher's For The Purpose Of Early Review. Read On To Find Out If I'm A Shill!!!)

Considering the pedigree involved and the advance buzz it engendered The Strain could not help but feel like something of a disappointment. Set to redefine the vampire novel, The Strain instead kind of limped along, hampered by too little of Guillermo Del Toro’s singular imagination. Too much of Chuck Hogan’s pedestrian prose and stock characters. A long winding build up and a payoff as tasteless as it was unexpected. Most damning, despite some intriguing ideas on the vampire, nothing in The Strain was really new. This wasn’t helped by the fact that Justin Cronin and The Passage came along to show the world what the modern post Twilight Vampire novel, that aims to actually horrify, should be. The Strain can’t help but just seem to be kind of there, a wallflower when it was supposed to be the guest of honor.

Still the second installment makes a marked improvement on the first. There is much more Del Toro signature pre occupations. And if it still doesn’t have the full vivid power of his inimitable imagination, the narrative is swarming with auction houses, ancient manuscripts, Nightmarish imagery like a breed of vampire assassins who happen to be children with burned out eyes, Immortal Nazis, baroque and perverse histories, luchadors, withered old men who do not eat, and straight up Grand Guignol all make it feel like something that came from Del Toro, rather then something he was merely tangentially involved in.

Hogan too, is much improved. Unlike his earlier work, which I found overrated, I quite liked his last novel The Devil’s In Exile, which was a pretty good crime novel that unexpected transformed into the greatest John Woo movie never made in its last hundred pages. Devil’s showcased a shaggier, looser, yet more intense Hogan. And he carries that same energy over to The Fall. He’s not perfect, he’s still a clumsy enough writer to use the phrase “Two Thousand and Late” unironically. But he no longer seems a drag on the ticket.

The Fall as the title suggests, documents the fall of New York to the vampire virus, as the world is plunged into chaos by a pact between a Rogue vampire and a decrepit Trillionaire, with the power structures on both sides of the Vampire/Human line too impotent or corrupted to make a real stand. Only our plucky band of Vampire Hunters, lead by a disgraced former Doctor and a holocaust survivor have a chance to stop the plot. As before, but this time to greater effect, the main narrative is intercut with EC style interludes as various citizens of the city fall to Vampire related demises. Del Toro and Hogan also increase the intercutting of Time Periods to greater effect. Which allows Del Toro to really cut loose a couple of times. Including the marvelously baroque history of a crucial manuscript and the horrendous yet fitting fate for a Joseph Mengele vampire proxy. Both set pieces being prime Del Toro.

The Fall isn’t perfect. It’s still hampered by a cast of central characters who are simply put, not very interesting. Save their old leader, who makes for a good Obi Wan Kenobi, and his star pupil, an Eastern European former exterminator who finds in Vampire Killing his true calling. Everyone else is as stock as it gets, Noble doctor with a drinking problem, fiery Latina love interest who instantly falls into the role of “The Woman” though she claims she will do no such thing, Gang Banger with a purpose, Evil Bazillionaire, moppet. ZZZzzzzzz…

Still The Fall is on just about every level a better read then The Strain. Fast paced where the first was a slog. Genuinely nightmarish where the first felt like it was just going through the motions. Personality driven where the first felt anonymous.

While I can’t quite give it an unqualified recommendation, I would urge anyone who felt burned by The Strain to at least consider giving The Fall a look.

I’m trying to fathom whom if anyone would want to buy Tales Of Woe. A virulently unpleasant little book. Perhaps a fifteen year old trying way to hard to be shocking, which in all fairness has long been MTV’s (who has published the book) purview. To anyone else it should be exceedingly useless.

But I get ahead of myself, what is Tales Of Woe? Well why should I tell you when the back cover will more then fulfill your daily dose of self satisfied twaddle;

“The fact: Sometimes people suffer for no reason. No sin, no redemption- just suffering, suffering, suffering. Tales Of Woe Compiles Today’s most awful Narratives of Human wretchedness. This is not Hollywood Catharsis, this is Greek Catharsis: You watch people suffer horribly and then feel better about your own life. Tales Of Woe tells stories of Murder, accident, depravity, cruelly, and senseless unhappiness, and all true.”

Like Whoa Man! My mind is blown. You hear that you yuppie bourgeois stuck in your Hollywood fairytales?!?!?! You might think life is a bowl of cherries! But John Reed is going to set you right! Because he’s too real!

Bitch Please.

Interestingly enough, I came across a passage detailing this exact phenomenon in Larry McMurtry’s Walter Benjamin At The Dairy Queen not a week ago.

One of his (Frank O’Connor’s) most powerful convictions, one I have cause to recall almost every day, was that you couldn’t make art out of unredeemed pain. Of course in our time that belief has a particular reference to literature of The Holocaust and I don’t know that Mr. O’ Connor was entirely right. Maybe you can make art out of unredeemed pain, but only if you’re a genius, Dosteoyevsky perhaps.”

It will surprise no one to learn, that Mr. Reed is not Dosteoyvesky. But moving on…

“The sin that television journalism signally must answer for is that of brining the unredeemed pain of the whole planet into our daily lives. A village is buried by a mud slide in Peru. We see the small hopeless people probing in the mud which has just buried their homes and killed their children. A man pulls up a pot, or perhaps a child, he weeps. Or in Bangladesh a flood sweeps away eight thousand people and leaves countless thousands destitute, in the rain possessed of nothing but their need. Or in New York a child is beaten to death by her mother’s boyfriend- even Saul Bellow had trouble making child battering work within a novel…”

I will interrupt to point out that Mr. Reed is no Saul Bellow either. But I digress...

“ The rain of tragic images is unending. They drip into our lives every day, bringing neither the relief of dramatically realized tragedy nor even the fright of the fairy tale. .Through constant repettiont the weight of the world’s gloom increases proportionately.”

Tales Of Woe is almost dumbfoundingly glib. Understand, I am not offended by Reed’s content, but his utter lack of seemingly any thought within his head while presenting said content. OK, I suppose I am a little offended by his completely spacious definition of Greek Tragedy, but that’s just a matter of him being stupid. Which is unfortunately not the subject of this review. Him being a remarkably bad writer and artist is.

Making art that is unappealing is often a great boon. Making art with no apparent audience is certainly no sin. But making art that both wallows in filth while tut tutting it is the worst kind of hypocrisy. In one of her finest moments Pauline Kael remarked, “That there is nothing worse then a clean minded pornographer.” Mr. Reed might consider himself the Larry Flynt of moralists.

That’s what really makes Tales Of Woe so extremely distasteful is the fact that it pretends to be a high minded treatise on these peoples suffering, when its really just a very ordinary exploitation of it. One need look no further then its faux gothic drawings and textual experimentations to see that its real concern is not its subjects, but in its callous disregard for them. Should you be at all tempted to believe that Reed has any sympathy for these unfortunate people, the first loving rendered sexualized illustration of the topless victim of a brutal murder should dissuade you of that. Reed is nothing more then a well paid Nelson Muntz, peddling by screaming “Ha ha! People are poorer and more desperate then I!” It makes The National Enquirer seem as like a beacon of taste and tact.

“But Bryce, this isn’t a normal book, this is an objet d'art. You can no more condemn him for his work then you can condemn David Hirst for killing animals in his pieces.”

Well I do happen to be one of those who condemns David Hirst. And I find Reed’s intellectual cruelty no less deplorable then Hirst’s physical cruelty. Call me provincial. I’ll cop to it. Yet I am convinced that there are much worse things to be. Things like John Reed for example.

So by all means, if you’re looking for an over priced, self satisfied piece of calculated miserabilism, buy Tales Of Woe. If you still have your higher brain functions intact though, I suggest you avoid it.

Though he is an accomplished essayist, memoirist, playwright, and banjoist Steve Martin has not proven himself, before now, to be a very good novelist. Shopgirl was finely written but hinged on sexual politics that were as kind of icky as your average Twilight installment. The Pleasure Of My Company was better, but seemed to redefine slight. As though it were a series of reoccurring essays, or a play that had been brutally forced into novel shape.

So it gives me pleasure to say that the third time is the charm for Martin. An Object Of Beauty stands as an excellent work. The first book that deserves to be put side by side with the best of Martin’s other writings, and indeed above a great deal of them.

An Object Of Beauty documents the rise and fall of a young art dealer, from the mid nineties to the modern day, and with her a certain kind of excitement for the frivolousness of the art world. And with that an appreciation for what lay behind the frivolousness. It’s an end of an era novel written in concordance with the era’s ending. On the back cover Joyce Carol Oates compares it to the work of Evelyn Waugh, and I don’t think she’s wrong.

The title (Which obviously refers to the female protagonist rather then any of the works of art on display) and her occasionally flighty, occasionally mercenary nature of the protaginist (she’s not above trading sex for a closer look at money, power, and privelege) might add fuel to the fire of those who consider Martin a misogynist after the… odd sexual politics of Shopgirl. But it breaks down when you see how clearly Martin likes her. Like everyone who crosses her path, he seems entranced. It’s in the way that no matter what deplorable things she does to get ahead, there is always a finer part of her that seems untouched. As a character study it’s sharply drawn but never ungenerous, and as a study of a world and lifestyle, its eye for detail and ear for dialogue border on perfection, kept aloft by Martin’s quick wit.

It is perhaps uncoincidental that in making the novel successful Martin is forced to rely on many of his skills from his stronger suits. He’s able to sidle in rewarding digressions like a lively and insightful essay on Andy Warhol into the narrative with great ease and reward.

Martin writes in elegant sentences and paragraphs, which I kept going back and rereading at least two or three times, out of a simple desire to see more closely how they work. Its not often that an author intrigues me enough to enjoy the brushstrokes in and of themselves, yet Martin somehow has enough grace that it never once distracts from the story.

That elegance could in the past ossify into bloodlessness, but not here.

Take this passage which holds extraordinary wisdom not just on the collection of painting, but collection in general.

“Paintings where collected not because they where pretty, but because of the winding path that lead the collector to his prey; provenance, subject matter, rarity, and perfection made a painting not just a painting, but a prize.

Lacey had seen the looks on their faces as they’d pondered various pictures. These objects, with cooperating input from the collector’s mind were transformed into things that healed. Collectors thought this one artwork will make everything right, will complete the jigsaw of their lives, will satisfy eternally. She understood that while a collector’s courtship of a picture was ostensibly romantic, at its root was raw lust.

The novel isn’t flawless. It gets bogged down midway with an art theft plot, which is best described as unnecessary. It ends up setting up a Chekovian Gun of sorts for the finale, but really none was needed. And the attempt to bring the passive narrator into the plot in the last act proves to be to little to late, and assumes an investment in him that the reader simply does not have.

Still these are when taken as a whole, minor quibble. On the whole An Object Of Beauty is a wry, funny, distinguishably adult novel. Well worth reading for fans of Martin, The Art world, or human nature in general.


J.D. said...

Hmm... I actually quited liked THE STRAIN so I'm really looking forward to THE FALL. I know what you mean about most of the characters being stereotypes but as far as in-transit-to-work reading you could do worse. Thanks for the heads up on the new book!

Bryce Wilson said...

In all fairness I probably would have liked The Strain better had anyone other then Del Toro's name been on it.

That's a name that brings with it a huge amount of expectation for me, and it just wasn't met.

Still if you liked that one I think you'll love this one!

Matt Keeley said...

Tales of Woe sounds like Edward Gorey for those without subtlety or taste.

Or possibly Belloc's Cautionary Tales for Children, but not fun or entertaining or likely to be remembered.

Matt Keeley said...

Mark Twain also comes to mind:

I doubt I shall read Del Toro's books, but I must say they sound like they would make pretty great films.

Re: Steve Martin: I've heard Gene Wilder is also a pretty decent novelist. Have you read him?

Bryce Wilson said...

Your giving him way too much credit Matt. All three of those authors had wit. Something Reed is in cripplingly short supply of.

I haven't. I didn't know he wrote novels either, though I hear his memoir is excellent.