Monday, August 12, 2013

Book Review Round-Up

Anno Dracula by Kim Newman
Hollywood Station by Joseph Wambaugh
Galveston by Nick Pizzolatto
All-Consuming Fire by Andy Lane
The Crow Road by Iain Banks

Galveston I read because the author, Nick Pizzolatto, has a TV show coming out on HBO that is getting ALL of the hype. The novel was okay, I guess. The prose was quite good, but in that tryhard writerly way. The mechanics of the plot are probably the best part, as the narrative takes place in two time periods: the 1980s and hurricane season in the 2000s. Despite knowing that the narrator survives in the earlier time period, essential information is kept from the reader by the narrator, and not consciously so. In fact, the whole novel is a rumination on the idea that the past is not real, but simply a biased imperfect construction of events. Which means our unreliable narrator suffers from delusions both in the later time period, and interestingly enough, also in the earlier time period. The slow reveal of plot details is sometimes so low key that I wondered if I had already learned the specific piece of info and had forgotten it, which is a definite problem. I also didn't care for how male gaze-y the book is. The teenage prostitute character is almost always described in lurid painstaking physical details, but her character is poorly defined. This novel is from 2010, so I can only assume Pizzolatto's skills have improved considerably.

Hollywood Station continues my very slow read of Joseph Wambaugh's novels and journalism. The novel charts a few months in the lives of various cops and criminals in the Hollywood Station district. Using black humour and real life anecdotes repurposed for narrative reasons, the novel tries to articulate life for the regular cop. Because Wambaugh was himself a cop (but like 30 years ago), the novel has a sheen of authenticity to it, not only in the plot details but also in characterization. As with many of his novels, Wambaugh also uses the novel as a didactic platform. In this book, the author criticizes the non-police oversight structures that came from decades of accusations of corruption and brutality. To Wambaugh, this watchdog structures mostly paralyze good cops from undertaking their job and enforcing the law to the full degree. He's concerned that cops have become mostly reactive to crime due to this public prejudice against the LAPD and subsequent "neutering" through incessant civilian probes. While this might be true in the microcosm of Hollywood District, Radley Balko's Rise of the Warrior Cop paints a different and more realistic picture. In his nonfiction account of the militarization of the police, Balko shows that police have been consistently increasing their reach, often operating as an extrajudicial arm of the state, upholding through increasingly violent means the economic status quo. How to reconcile this with Wambaugh's cheery, hilarious surfing cops that only want to enforce the law, not kill everybody? Regardless, the novel is quite funny and tightly plotted considering its large cast.

I'd almost like to review Kim Newman's Anno Dracula and Andy Lane's All-Consuming Fire together. Both of them are self-conscious literary pastiches using Victorian (and Edwardian) literary tropes and figures. Newman's novel, the first in a series, depicts an alternate history where at the end of Stoker's Dracula, the great vampire is not defeated and in fact marries Queen Victoria in order to usher in a new world of vampirism. Using a vast cast of characters drawn from popular and unknown Victorian novels, Newman throws himself into the premise. The plot is that Charles Beauregard (a spy for the Diogenes Club) is tasked with solving the Whitechapel murders. He ends up discovering the culprit (who is revealed on the first page of the novel) and then accidentally overthrowing Dracula's totalitarian rule of Victorian England. The novel is a romp, but it's more interesting for how Newman postulates the logical outcome of a world in which vampires are socially accepted.

Andy Lane's novel is a Doctor Who New Adventure starring the Seventh Doctor. Presented as a Conan Doyle novel, the text is excerpts from Doctor Watson's journal. He and Sherlock and tasked with investigating the theft of important banned works from a clandestine library. The Doctor is also on the trail, but as with the Seventh Doctor, he has prepared in advance. This is not the first Virgin New Adventure to use Lovecraft's creations, but the first to explicitly use the lore. The books stolen from the library allow for planetary travel, to a world called R'lyeh where an alien named Azathoth wants to invade Earth using an army of rakshassi. Cthulhu and Dagon are name-dropped along with a couple others. In addition to the Cthulhu Mythos, Lane also deploys various Holmesian details such as the Diogenes Club and even name drops Charles Beauregard. The best bits of the novel are the relationship that develops between Watson and Benny and then later Watson and Ace. This is an effect of the narrative necessity of having Watson be present for important things, but it's still a lovely development in both Ace and Benny. This version of Ace is, unfortunately, the hyper violent 90s Ace who name-drops Sonic the Hedgehog. Still, the novel was fun, even if the stuff about India is totally racist (cf The Sign of Four).

Both novels use the postmodern idea of the pastiche and for seemingly no artistic reason beyond "this is public domain" and "this is cool." Neither Newman nor Lane take even the slightest effort to say anything about British Imperialism. It's empty pastiche in the sense that Jameson talks about in Postmodernism. But then again, not all cultural objects, especially not licensed material, should be criticized for their lack of didacticism or pointed political critique. Especially since, in many ways, both novels are professional fan fiction. Newman and Lane obviously both have a fondness for these literary tropes, and even more so with Lane, who never really acknowledges that the Doctor is pretty much a science fiction Sherlock Holmes. What's interesting, as I read licensed material and material that repurposes public domain, is the sheen of "authenticity" given to these two objects while I simultaneously disregard or sneer at other fanfics. Intellectually speaking, there is little that separates amateur Internet fanfic from these works other than both of the authors were previously published and thus benefited from a system of professionalization (editing, agents, etc). Either way, I thought both books were enjoyable, but nothing really all that special.

The Crow Road, by Iain Banks, is a re-read, but from when I was in high school. I didn't remember a single thing about other than Banks' coinage of "vox humana" to refer to voices during coitus. It's a clever turn of phrase, and the entire novel is chock full of them. One that stood out was "rapacious stillness" which conjures such a mental image. This is one of those rare cases where the experience of reading the book outstrips my (hazy) memory of the first time. The Crow Road is a novel that I probably just did not understand when I was in high school. It's an emotionally mature work that is both a Bildungsroman as well as a family history. However, it's far more clever than simply a fractious recounting of family deaths and births. The text gestures towards ideas of memory, time, sight, and the emotional labour involved when pretending to be something you're not. It's quite a good text, only ameliorated by the stellar prose from Banks. I had totally forgotten how good a stylist Banks was. Sort of like Martin Amis, but without the narcissism. I re-read the novel because Banks passed away this year, and I've been staring at his sci-fi novels on my shelf for decades. I should get around to them, but his "literary" works were always just so much more captivating.