Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Stuff I've Been Reading November

You’d be hard pressed to find two critics who give me more simple pleasure to read then The Outlaw Vern and Nathan Rabin. You’d also find it pretty tough to find two critics more different from one another. Still a month spent reading there books, Vern’s Yippee Kay Yay Movie Goer released earlier in the year, and Rabin’s “My Year Of Flop’s” was a month very well spent. And both serve as perfect primer’s to the pleasure of each author’s company.

It’s no wonder that Rabin has earned himself a loyal cult following his writing isn’t so much friendly as it is positively chummy. It doesn’t lecture you from on high but instead takes you by the crook of your arm and whispers in your ear “I’m so happy I’ve found you my dear fellow, because I know that you at least will know precisely what I’m talking about”

At his best Rabin writes in a slightly detached, yet never disinterested tone, that's borderline conspirital tone. A voice perfect for dryly yet warmly conferring “I know I can’t believe it either,” when relating forgotten anecdotes like the time Columbia paid half a million Clinton Era Dollars to plaster Arnold Schwarzenegger’s face to Space Shuttle in order to promote The Last Action Hero. This is coupled with Rabin’s devastating skill with the deadpan vulgar one liner, usually buried in a harmless seeming sentence, such as when he casually lists the well known suggestively titled Pauline Kael collections before dropping in the unjustly forgotten “Handjob By The Popcorn Stand.”

My Year Of Flops, is a summation of the column that one Rabin his cult following. It’s a genius sort of idea. Take films that are genuinely unloved and give them a court of appeal. From Elizabethtown, OC & Stiggs, The Apple, to Heaven’s Gate, Rabin dissects and defends the cinematic detritus of days gone by.

If My Year Of Flops has a flaw, its that it could stand to be a little longer (if only all books had the same flaw) as a collection in and of itself it is a great read. As an archive of the column it is culled from it has something to be desired.

This is not a situation like Ebert’s Great Movies series where the whole of the writing has been preserved. When the new material is factored in only a handful of the original columns are present and they skew a little too heavily towards recent years for my taste.

But this is nitpicking. Like the whole of the critic’s work Rabin’s book is generous, warm hearted, knowledgeable and funny as hell. A model to be followed.

Vern on the other hand is a writer who is truly inimitable. Now that’s a word that gets tossed around a lot but in Vern’s case it is true. You can’t imitate him. If you do you’ll just sound like a jackass. Reading Vern’s prose is like watching an Indian Fahkir walk across hot coals, or a guy at a Freakshow pound nails into his face. The mind recoils, this shouldn’t work. And yet it does.

Vern uses syntax the way masters use Judo He redirects mysterious energies so subtly and surely that it takes a few moments for you to realize your flying through the air ass over teakettle. Using the momentum of your preconceived notion and Internet herd think to turn around on itself. His vernacular (I swear to Christ that’s not a pun, that’s how the word is spelled) is deceptively simple. Often using feigned ignorance and simplicity to disguise a killer argument until just the perfect moment to deploy it comes.

He writes with verve, a keen sense of humor and a keener mind, not to mention an uncanny ability to articulate that thing on the tip of your tongue, the one that encapsulates what’s so phenomenally absurd, or terrible, or wonderful about any given film or trend.

As a book Yippee Kay Yay Movie Goer could use a little more structure. It’s not quite a greatest hits collection but it’s not quite anything else either. The advantage to this is it allows a clearer look at just how much range Vern has an author, it’s not every book of criticism you open that will include a passionate defense of women’s basketball.

Anyway, if care about film and you’re not reading Rabin and Vern your life is poorer for it. Luckily both of their work is widely available on the internet so you can remedy that right now. But you’d do well to buy these books as well. I can guarantee every film fan’s shelf will be a happier place for having them. And both make the perfect gift for any cinephiles on your list.

Full Dark No Stars is Stephen King in fighting form. There has been a lot of criticism for King’s later work and though I don’t agree with it I can at least see were the frustration were something like Duma Key, Under The Dome and Lisey’s Story comes from. For King fans feeling left out by his last few books I can not recommend purchasing Full Dark No Stars enough. This is Stephen King in fighting form, at his nastiest most low to the ground. Each of these Novella’s is a wonder of efficiency, which has perhaps been the one element that has been truly lacking in King’s post Cell work. Full Dark No Stars on the other hand is a work by a storyteller who is brutally proficient.

Written in a simple declarative voice that relates the most gruesome deeds with matter of fact detachedness, 1922 reads like a Sinclear Lewis novel written in hell, and in terms of language alone is one of the most ambitious things King has written in years. Telling a coal dark story of murder in the heartland to give away a single one of the events in it would be unfair. All I’ll say is the story makes me feel unusually unambiguous, if you don’t like 1922 then you don’t like Horror Fiction. Or at least you don’t like good Horror Fiction.

Big Driver seems to be the story that’s getting the most flack from this collection. For me at least it was a brutally effective revenge story. That makes some very smart decisions in how it avoids even a whiff of exploitation, by focusing the horror on the aftermath of its central attack, and not the act itself.

Fair Extension, is short and nasty. The most remarkable thing about it is that it seems like nothing so much as a response to Joe Hill’s Horns. Which makes the first time that this has happened and must come as a special relief to Hill, who must be so fucking sick of reviews that contain the words “As in his Father’s work-“ that he must be about ready to scream.

Then comes A Good Marriage, which ends things on as strong and chilling of a note as they began.

If I seem vague in this review please forgive me. But these are not stories one wants to give away. Perhaps the best thing I can say about them is that all four are going to make one hell of a dollar baby someday.

Blockade Billy on the other hand is just OK. I wouldn’t go so far to call it bad and if it was included in a book of King’s short stories I probably wouldn’t give it another thought. But having a volume all to itself carries with it certain expectations. Which the book fails to meet.

Still on the whole, between Full Dark No Stars and American Vampire it has been a very good year for King Fans. And with Doctor Sleep and The Wind Through The Keyhole on the horizon it looks as if the next will be as well.

Though I admire his short stories greatly it always astounds me how very few of Clive Barker’s novels I like (Weaveworld being the only one that springs to mind). And yet I keep returning to him, hope springing eternal.

If nothing else one must admire Barker’s conviction and staggering self confidence. Another writer might look at one of the scenes he had written, say the one near the climax in which the son of Satan suckles lovingly at our over weight heroines gignormous breasts (his emphasis of detail not mine) and say to themselves, “My this might strike the reader as over the top. And perhaps a bit silly.” But not Barker, he sails by it serene as a Hindu cow.

That kind of conviction you just have to admire.

Coldheart Canyon's mythology is too convoluted to summarize without rivaling the actual book for word count. Suffice to say the book follows waning action star Todd Picket, ends up recuperating in a secluded Hollywood house after a disastrous plastic surgery.

Unfortunately he has picked a house wherein an omnisexual fuck fest has proceeded unabated for the past eighty years. The attendees of the eternal- well orgy doesn’t quite convey the scope of the thing, are the ghosts of classic Hollywood’s best and most beloved stars. Mentioned by name, described engaging in vigorous acts of perversity so graphic and depraved that I’m shocked that the clearance lawyers didn’t rip Barker to shreds and devour him, the way the offspring of the stars and the animals they enjoy fucking (you read that right) rip apart the occasional unfortunate who cross their path.

There’s a lot to like, if not precisely enjoy about Coldheart Canyon. The writing is at first, less mannered then Barker’s usual prose, and has a few passages of Hollywood satire that are laugh out loud funny. And though he occasionally sails past the point of ridiculousness much of what Barker is genuinely eerie.

Unfortunately his characters are unlikable, which isn’t a sin and inconsistent, which is and the book overstays its welcome by a fair margin.

And ultimately an odd feeling of disconnect settles in. It’s hard to believe when Barker writes about his ghost’s boredom with their never ending display of hedonism he’s not writing about himself.

It’s been awhile since I’ve read Walter Mosely, as I’ve taken a bit of a break inbetween the front and back half of The Easy Rawlins saga. I decided to break the fast by reading the first of Mosely’s post Eazy series, The Long Fall.

It’s a solid PI novel, and if it lacks the irresistible hook of The Rawlin’s novels, and the narrative clarity of A begets B begets C which has never been Mosely’s skill as an author it more then makes up for it in the vividness of its characters mood and setting.

He spins a pretty good mystery, and sets up a similar dynamic to The Rawlin’s books with the weary private eye, and the muscle forever in his debt (This time the Zen Buddhist assassin Hush, perhaps the only legitimately cool white character Mosely has ever written). But it would be a mistake to consider the book a mere copy, Mosely deftly establishes his own vibe for McGill and has just as much to say about the racial makeup of the present as he does the past.

All in all The Long Fall is promising, even if what it promises is not quite the same level of genre immortality as The Rawlin’s series is destined to have.

t’s been rewarding returning to this series. You can read my thoughts on the first two novels here and here, I’ll be posting my Azkaban review tomorrow.

I like Gibson exponentially more with each book. Granted I don’t like the early cyber punk novels that made his name much at all so there’s was plenty of room to grow. But Gibson’s Bigend trilogy set in the modern day is another matter. Pattern Recognition was a seriously intriguing bit of work until its third act collapse. Spook Country I found downright enjoyable, until it too just sort of ended.

Zero History is even better, and for once Gibson actually gets to where he’s going before running out narrative gas. It’s a happy occasion indeed.

It would be inaccurate to say that writing his novels in the present day, has changed Gibson as a writer, it’s just brought his qualities which were always there into clearer focus. His excellent skill with female characters, his vivid command of tone and detail and genuinely prophetic visions. It’s Gibson’s world we just live in it. Luckily he is benign enough to leave us a map.

Zero History sends ex cult Rock Star Hollis Henry, with a perpetual pawn Milgrim on another merry chase, this time after an ultra exclusive brand of clothing, which has no apparent manufacturer or point of sale. The phantom clothes cleverly parallels the phantom films in Pattern Recognition and we get the typical tale of Gibsonian paranoia (In one of the book’s best moments a pawn of Bigend becomes agitated to the point of terror when he realizes that appearance of another character is just a coincidence and NOT part of some grand conspiracy).

What’s different this time out is the usually chilly Gibson’s obvious affection for his cast of characters, which by this time is quite large (He also answers a question I’ve been wondering about for quite awhile. Why he never followed up on his intriguing heroine Cayce Pollard in a bitch of cliffhanger). He still portrays the modern digital landscape as a baffling array of ever shifting rules, but this time he seems to care about those who the shifting landscape might crush.


le0pard13 said...

Looks like there are some reads I need to catch up on. Great post, Bryce. Thanks.

Jinx said...

That's what I was waiting for some more recommendations to keep me busy during the cold snowy months! Thank you, Bryce! I wasn't sold on Coldheart Canyon either, it was a terrible disappointment. Not nearly as filthy and pornographic as irrate Amazon reviewers had led me to believe.

Neil Fulwood said...

Looking forward to 'Full Dark, No Stars'. I've found myself preferring King's short fiction to his novels for quite some time now and it sounds like this collection is the dark and nasty King, the barbed story teller, that I originally got hooked on way back when.

I enjoyed 'Coldheart Canyon' for its ambition and some clever setpieces, but man does it drag in places!

Erich Kuersten said...

I dont know if I noticed it before, but I just got the full "story" of your cinema nightmare arc in the sidebar, from Amelie to the coffin garden... truly Awesome!!

Bryce Wilson said...

@ le0pard13: Many thanks sir.

@ Jinx: My pleasure Jinx. Please let me know what you think.

@ Neil: I can say with complete confidence its right up your alley.

You hit it though. Coldheart Canyon is a 300 page novel cruelly buried in a six hundred page one.

@ Erich: Huh. Can't say I've noticed that. But thanks. Each image does correspond to the one directly above and below it. Beyond that whose to say. But thanks again.