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Monday, June 26, 2017

The Sellout (Drama)

By: Paul Beatty

Publisher: Picador; Reprint edition (March 1, 2016)

Softcover 304 pages 

        “We lived in Dickens, a ghetto community on the southern outskirts of Los Angeles, and as odd as it may sound, I grew up on a farm in the inner city. Founded in 1868, Dickens, like most California towns except for Irvine, which was established as a breeding ground for stupid, fat, ugly, white, Republicans and the chihuahuas and East Asian refugees that love them, started out as an agrarian community. The city’s original charter stipulated that ‘Dickens shall remain free of Chinamen, Spanish of all shades, dialects, and hats, Frenchmen, redheads, city slickers, and unskilled Jews’ However the founders, in their somewhat limited wisdom, also provided that the five hundred acres bordering the canal be forever zoned for something referred to as ‘residential agriculture’, and thus my neighborhood, a ten square section of Dickens unofficially known as The Farms was born.”

        An incredibly satirical novel about a black man who tries to reestablish his town, after it is invisibly absorbed by the greater city of Los Angeles. That’s the simple summary, the text is much, much more.  Keep in mind this is a “read”- not a toss out in two nights book. It has an intense, dense style, where nearly every page, every line, is filled with a satirical comment or bizarre observation, which creates a broad picture of this world, flushing out ridiculous characters in a lifelike portrait. This is a book that needs time to digest.

         The text does, as I’m sure you can tell from the quote provided above, discuss race and race relations all through it’s 304 pages, but it is not a “get whitey” novel by a black male author- where the protagonist is the best at what he does, but is just brought down by “the man” and a racist society. It casts equal aspersions at the educated black community, paying token homage to the plight of their “brothers” once a month at a donut shop, before driving back to their ivory towers, and the poorer ones looking to get by. The last is personified by the character of Hominy Jenkins, last of the surviving Little Rascals, who demands to become the protagonist’s slave so that he doesn’t have to worry about life or the future anymore. “This is the very bus from which Hominy Jenkins, the last Little Rascal, asserted that the rights of African-Americans were neither God-given nor constitutional, but immaterial.”
Author Paul Beatty
        The protagonist is caught between these two extremes, presenting his world in a nihilistic tongue-in-cheek manner. Growing up with an maniac social scientist father who spent the main character’s childhood performing various Jungian experiments on him, the rest of the older educated black community dump on him for not parroting their rhetoric, calling him “The Sellout”, and the poorer folks who are under the impression that he is bougie, believing that he is better than them. The protagonist seems to identify with neither side, and perceives the problem of race relations in that the black society is too wrapped up in white perspective.
His solution is to bring back those elements that defined blackness in America: slavery and segregation. This inevitably brings about protests, riots, arrests, culminating in a Supreme Court hearing- all of which parody many Civil Rights moments.
         If there is a drawback in the style is the overuse of cultural references, political, social, and entertainment allusions are rampant through the text. Which may be a problem with those too lazy to google the terms, and doing such things always reduces a text’s shelf life in my opinion. Eventually causing it to be dated that much faster. But that’s just my point of view, and as I recognized what he was referring to most of the time, and wikipedia filled in the gaps, it may not have a problem with your reading enjoyment.

       For more readings, try my collection of books. 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Complete Elfquest Volume 3 (Graphic Novel) (Fantasy)

By: Wendy & Richard Pini

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (November 15, 2016)

Softcover 432 pages  

         Say what you want about Elfquest but they are a style, and nearly a genre, of their own. And it has staying power, being nearly 40 years since the publication of their first black and white magazine in 1978. They are now currently wrapping up the series in The Final Quest arc, but that’s not what this review’s about. If it must be given a label, I suppose you could call it fantasy (with some Sci-Fi elements in there), but it is not your standard fantasy series. It stands as a truly unique product.
          The Complete Elfquest Vol. 3 collects various issues of the Hidden Years series, which came out right after Kings of the Broken Wheel,  but for some reason excludes issues 6 and 7- not that it is much of a loss, after issue five the series took a serious downward spiral. The Pini’s, overworked from simultaneous projects, farmed out the writing and art to new people with a mixed bag of results. The writing was actually good, however without Wendy Pini’s art Elfquest loses its flavor. And the art in issues 8 and 9 here, compared to the five before it, feels flat and lifeless, and just off from what a reader of the series is used to. I know all comic art is technically flat, but it shouldn’t feel that way.

          The first five issues however are some of the best art I’ve ever seen Elfquest produce. They are in full color, designed to be in full color, which is a rarity for the series. And beautifully mesh art, action, story, and words together. It took me awhile to get through these issues due to my stopping and staring at for half an hour at each gorgeous page. I was so swept up in the art that I sometimes forgot the plot to the story.
          The Hidden Years issues do not compromise a story arc, but are independent stories which focus on a different character in the times between when Kings of the Broken Wheel concluded. But it is not necessary to have read any of those previous issues in order to enjoy the stories. Just keep on and you will pick up the gist of the meta-plot. They are well crafted stories in their own right.
          The last 150 pages are taken up by the Dreamtime story, originally published in Elfquest II in the mid 1990s. It is a string of stories, in black and white, each focusing on a different member of the Wolfrider tribe and the dreams they had during the long sleep (over 10,000 years) they endured chasing the villain Rayek. It is a fun story, very dreamlike as it should be, and utilizes different artistic styles and points of view than the rest of the series. Some may find it to become tedious after about fifty pages, I certainly did, only because I was expecting something to happen, but this story is more about character introspection than character action.
          This is more a collection of interlude stories. The next main arc Shards should be included in the next collected volume. Despite that, there are some fantastic tales in this volume and I encourage you to take a look.

       For more readings, try my collection of books. 

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Junky: The Definitive Text of "Junk" (William Burroughs)

By William S. Burroughs (with the 1952 & 1977 introductions by Alan Ginseburg) (and the 1953 & 1964 forwards by Carl Solomon)

Publisher: Grove Press (November 13, 2012) (originally published by Ace Books in 1953)

Softcover 256 pages

          “The questions of course could be asked: Why did you ever try narcotics? Why did you continue using it long enough to become an addict? You become a narcotics addict because you do not have strong motivations in any other direction. Junk wins by default. I tried it as a matter of curiosity. I drifted along taking shots when I could score. I ended up hooked. Most addicts I have talked to report a similar experience. They did not start using any reason they can remember. They just drifted along until they got hooked. If you have never been addicted, you can have no clear idea what it means to need junk with the addict’s special need. You don’t decide to be an addict. One morning you wake up sick and you’re an addict.”
          Thus begins William S. Burroughs’s first published book, dedicated to his one true love, drugs. This work is unlike any of his other writings (except for a few selected essays) in that it maintains a coherent focus and timeline. It does not devolve into hallucinogenic insanity as does his later texts. Though we do see a few precursor snippets of Naked Lunch within the story. The pusher Bill Gains and the narco cop Hauser appear, both the same brutal caricatures. The Mexican drug queen Lupita is a prominent figure in the later parts of Junky. Never seen, she is constantly lurking in the background, controlling his supply of morphine. The police detective trailing someone in a white trenchcoat, making him easy for others to spot, occurs here as well. These are all small, but memorable parts, of what will be his seminal work.
Author William S. Burroughs
            Junky came out at a time when a series of lurid tell-all books appeared on the subject- H is for Heroin and The Man with the Golden Arm. This book differed significantly because the tone is so flat, almost amoral. The heavy handed morality play or exploitation luridness is nonexistent. “Here are the facts,” Burroughs writes and he gives them, without social comment and without emotion.
          In a sense this is not an autobiographical work, as you do not get a sense of eh man behind the pen. He is in fact a dead slate. It comes as a surprise later in the work when it is revealed that he has a wife. And you would never guess that, except in one throwaway line, that there were two children dragged along into the gays bars and shooting galleries of New York, New Orleans, and Mexico City. A line near the end of the text, “My wife and I were separated,” is the only cryptic indicator of the infamous William Tell incident, where he drunkenly shot her in the head. This separation is permanent. All that is presented is one man and his junk.
          This is not uncommon for old school autobiographies, the fifties were just beginning to tilt that narrative. Despite his rejection of it, the Victorian values of upper crust educated WASP society had left an indelible mark on Burrough’s style. Simply put, you do not air your family laundry in public. Being gay and a drug user was one thing, that was him, but the rest of the family was out of bounds. 
Original cover, title, and nom de plume from the 1953 Ace publication.
          Burroughs loves his drug habit. “Junk does not cause addiction,” he writes, “exposure does.” A very thin hair there. The only emotion he displays here is anger towards those who prevent him from scoring and the psychiatrists who regularly ask him why he feels he needs it. “I need it to get up in the morning,” is part of the standard reply. As I have said previously in my review of his other book and that of his son's, had no one prevented him from getting drugs, Burroughs would almost have no opinions on anything at all.
          His views on homosexuals are interesting. He seems to have an absolute dislike for them, despite being gay himself. “A room full of fags gives me the horrors. They jerk around like puppets on invisible strings, galvanized into hideous activity that is the negation of everything living and spontaneous.” He reports on this several times, only seeming to go to such places when drunk and horny, but otherwise abjuring them in preference to dark junk filled holes and bars on the outskirts of poor areas. His disregard for women is also well know. Even his common law wife. “We give them too much power. It’s some left over Southern chivalry that we need to jettison.”
          Included is the glossary that was part of the original edition. Nowadays it’s rather laughable because all of the hip slang terms of the time are now so ingrained in our common vocabulary that an explanation isn’t needed. Idioms like “cold turkey”, “kick a habit”, “coke”, “weed” are all spelled out for the 1950’s “square”.  
Cover the 1977 edition
        Two additional chapters written for the original version have been included. One detailing a stop Burroughs makes between New Orleans and Mexico City, the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. He goes on for some length detailing its decay over the years and its cultural stagnation. The tone is totally different from the rest of the text. In the second he details the idiot ideas of Wilhelm Reich and how the orgone accumulator could cure cancer, as well as number of other illnesses. These assertions of Reich eventually lead to the death of several children and the burning of all of his works, ordered by the FDA. He describes building an orgone accumulator and curing a junk habit with its use. It also was removed due to its tonal shift from the rest of the text and for repetition, as parts of what he states in the chapter has distributed elsewhere in the book.
          In becoming the “definitive” edition the book has ironically left something out. In the original edition there were copious editors notes placed in the text, which clarified or disagreed with the facts that Burroughs put forth. These were omitted as they were not the author’s words. I still would have liked an appendix which stated what these editorial blurbs stated.

                For more readings, try my collection of books. 

Friday, June 2, 2017

Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography (Non Fiction)

By: Roger Shattuck

Publisher: Harvest Books; 1 edition (September 15, 1997)

Softcover 384 pages

          “A contradiction or paradox lies buried in the title of this book, Forbidden Knowledge. If we are familiar enough with any entity or domain to call the result “knowledge” then we already know too much about it to apply the adjective forbidden. The taboo or prohibition has already been broken, the obstacle or risk of knowledge still unlocated, unnamed, unexplored, possibly closed to us. ‘How,’ Meno asked Socrates, ‘will you look for something when you don’t in the least know what it is?’ These paradoxes do not disqualify the phrase ‘forbidden knowledge’ On the contrary, the phrase remains with us and carries meaning by its long association with particular stories and case histories.”
          Many claim that this book is somewhat overwritten, I disagree. It is a heavy read, but it is easy to see that the author enjoyed crafting aspects of the text very much and was genuinely interested in the intellectual debate. Be that as it may, the first portion of the text does rely heavily on assumed knowledge. The author expects that the reader is familiar with various literary texts. That they have read Faust, Doctor Faustus, Frankenstein, Billy Budd, The Stranger the poems of Emily Dickenson, the essays of Michel de Montaigne- or at least have a working idea of the thematic elements present in each one. If you do not, you may want to skip the first five chapters and go straight to Part Two, which deals with case histories of the arguments surrounding forbidden knowledge.
          The book begins with a classic examination of the ancient’s attitudes towards man’s pursuit of knowledge and what limitations should be placed upon it. Essentially we have the cautionary tales of man giving into his curiosity, reaching too far, offending the divine, and being slapped down by the Almighty. Stories like Pandora, the Garden of Eden, and the Tower of Babel all warn mankind to curb their inquisitiveness lest it lead them into ruin.  
Author Roger Shattuck
          Until modern times these ideas of forbidden knowledge meant less about scientific discoveries and focused almost exclusively on heretical religious ideas and philosophies. For this the banned registry of the Catholic Church was founded, on which texts were alternately placed on and removed from over the centuries. The common herd must be protected from dangerous ideas and heretical thoughts. It’s why so many of the enlightenment liberals were against the idea. That a free flow of ideas was most important.
          However the idea of forbidden knowledge changes as medical and scientific breakthroughs create physically dangerous concoctions and devices. All of a sudden it becomes important to restrict that information. Should everyone know how to make dynamite, or refine heroin, or modify an assault rifle to become fully automatic?
          The author expressed this notion with two examples, the atomic bomb and the Human Genome Project (which was still being mapped when the text was published). These two present different aspects of the scientific question, one having been finished and many of its creators horrified by the results. The other has many fears swirling around it, about the dangers that might be done in meddling with the fundamental aspects of humanity.
          When it comes to the atomic bomb and all its offspring, the scientists who developed it have put blinkers on their eyes. They knew they were developing a weapon during war time. What did they think was going to be done with the device? As for the Human Genome Project, X-files linking it to an alien invasion aside, it really hasn’t yielded all that much. It has considerably sped up some aspects of cancer research and investigation into various other diseases and physical disorders, plus it added to the development of evolutionary theory. But no monsters or super-viruses have resulted from the project.
          The question of whether knowledge should be sought after becomes a moot point.  Inevitably if the information is within grasp, man, like Eve plucking the apple, will search it out. Time has shown us this. The idea of remaining ignorant is almost universally rejected by anyone who is curious.
          The enquiry becomes more interesting when it is applied to the most extreme examples of literature, namely the books of the Marquis De Sade. These books paradoxically have never been out of print since first being published in the late 18th century, but also very rarely were available to the general public. There have been many attempts over the 20th century to rehabilitate the image of the Divine Marquis, Camille Paglia being the most recent, and cast his evil shadow in a different light. However as the author points out, and I completely agree, all attempts at this fall flat upon a cursory glance at the actual text. The morality of DeSade’s work is immorality. It is sadistic porn, a glorification of cruelty and narcissism, with a half digested attempt at a philosophical reasoning tacked on. After reading all of his work myself I can say, sexual violence and rape is not presented in the work to emphasize a moral, political, or philosophical point. The point of his work is sexual violence and rape which occurs at length on nearly every third page. The rest is just framing.
Only known portrait of De Sade circa1760
          As such do we limit access to the works of De Sade, who essentially was the first and worst murder-porn writer. Do we create a new registry and have the texts locked away for only a chosen few to gaze upon? Or should it be freely available to all at all libraries? If neither option appeals to you, then what is the middle ground? Should there be an age limit? If so, then what is to prevent other age limits being slapped on other works, perhaps for religious or political reasons? The best answer seems to lie in a free market censorship. Publishers are reluctant to put out the book due to bad publicity, book stores are likewise resultant to stock the book, so distribution is limited. Thus reducing the chances of someone who is not looking for the text to accidentally stumble across it.

       For more readings, try my collection of books.