Sunday, February 24, 2008

Jonathan Lethem's Omega

I have not been a "real", cash-in-hand, obsessively collecting comic book fan since I was a teenager - nor have I ever been inclined to dress up as Sgt. Nick Fury at Comic-Con - but over the subsequent decades, I have become a huge fan of novelist Jonathan Lethem. Comics have always had a major thematic presence in his books, perhaps leading all up to this: Lethem has revamped and rewritten the obscure 1970's comic book character, Omega the Unknown. Hardcores out there may remember Omega references from Lethem's magnum opus, The Fortress of Solitude - "The heralded Omega? He turns out to be a mute superhero from another planet, pretty much Black Bolt mated with Superman, if you allowed the comparison. The comic is weird, worse than unsatisfying." You can read the entire first issue of Lethem's take here at Marvel Comics. Check it out.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Sinner's Lament

For the calendar year of 2007, my friend & fellow bookseller, Scott Ehrig-Burgess and I had a sporting wager - we each selected one relatively obscure novel that we felt passionate about and would diligently handsell for the entire year. He chose "The Day Dreaming Boy" by Micheline Aharonian Marcom and I selected "Handling Sin" by Michael Malone. The loser would have to purchase and read the winner's book. On Friday, February 22, 2008, Mr. Ehrig-Burgess purchased one copy of "Handling Sin" by Michael Malone, having been outsold by an embarrassing score of 50 to 12.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

I have to admit, in all likelihood, I probably would not have sifted this book out of the endless pile of galleys streaming through my door, had the publisher, Grand Central (a Time Warner imprint), not taken me out to dinner. Not that there's anything wrong with the book, its just the sheer volume of the pile, you know. Seen here, in a post-feeding portrait: Tom Rob Smith, author of Child 44, Susan of Warwick's, Brian Malarkey, "Top Chef" from Oceanaire in SD (who appears to be playing the role of "author"), Your Catapult Operator, and Adrian, John, & Jan, also from the W. That said, I was pleasantly surprised by what turned out to be quite a well-written, provocative page-turner. And the food wasn't half bad either.

1953 - Leo Stepanovich Davidov is a loyal Party member, war hero, and a respected officer in Stalin’s MGB State Security force in Moscow. “Feared”, rather than "respected", is perhaps a more operative word, as fear is the oil that keeps the Soviet machine running in 1953. Leo has killed dozens of people, tortured countless others, and sent more citizens to the gulags than he can care to count – yet his is the life of the emotionless, unquestioning civil servant, working for the greater good of the State. Leo is the face of fear in Stalinist Russia – he truly believes that his actions are necessary for keeping the evils of the West at bay, all the more for the State to thrive and become the abomination of human rights it aspires to be. That is until a series of events begins to call his belief in the system into question – he never looks for the chinks in the armor, yet they gradually begin to show with age. When the child of a fellow officer is brutally killed, Leo follows orders and tries very hard to convince himself (and even attempts to convince the child’s family) that this was not murder, but just a horrible accident. The Official line is that murder does not happen in Soviet Russia – there is no place, societally, for a murderer, therefore, it is impossible. So while on another case, with this infinitesimally faint glimmer of a doubt in his head, he gets busy tracking down an accused traitor to the State – the mere fact that this man ran away must be proof of his guilt – and torturing him in order to learn of his imaginary collaborators. Under the sway of a truth serum, the man admits repeatedly that he is just a veterinarian – just the words Leo needed to hear, apparently – and “the seed of doubt, sitting dormant and undigested in the pit of Leo’s stomach, cracked open.”

In 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, I was 14 - old enough to know that something good was happening and something bad was ending, but too young to really grasp what had been going on behind the Iron Curtain. The Soviet Union was always a politically demonized, ice-cold, foreign land filled with fur coats and blotchy, vodka-soaked skin. I was so removed from the reality there, that it never really became just that - it remained a fictional enigma. A polar bear in the jungle. A few years ago I read "The Long Walk" by Slavomir Rawicz, which chronicles the author's escape from a Soviet work camp in 1941 and subsequent trek across the whole of Asia to freedom in India. Even this didn't paint the whole portrait for me - I had an idea of what life was life once you were sent to the gulag, but I had no real sense of what it was like living day-to-day in Stalin's Russia. For whatever reason, Child 44 really put that element into place for me. These people lived in constant fear. Constant. That's a hard concept for a comfortable, well-fed American of the 21st century to comprehend. There was not a day that went by that you were not utterly terrified that you were doing something deemed disloyal to the State - whether you were late for work, "collaborating with Western spies" by giving their pets veterinary care, or just reading Hemingway on Sunday - any of which were bad enough to send you to Siberia, if you were lucky. Most people were just shot. In the novel, when Stalin finally died in 1953, I thought there would be a massive release of pressure from under the iron lid, yet Smith describes a different scene - one of genuine mourning and feelings of grief for the man who had not left anyone untouched by his atrocities. Bizarre.

The core of this novel is that fear - fear of betrayal, fear of pain & suffering, fear of free thought exposed. Leo and his fellow officers have spent a lifetime exploiting that fear, but once he allows doubt to enter his thoughts, one of his comrades is quick to exploit his fear in return. In a forced exile in the industrial town of Voualsk, Leo discovers that the death he so callously brushed under the rug back in Moscow is virtually identical to another in his new hometown. And another. And another. And he soon realizes that the unthinkable is happening - Soviet Russia has a serial killer in its midst. How appallingly Western! Unlike your typical murder-mystery-detective story, the issue is not simply calling the cops and letting a taskforce handle things - the MGB not only doesn't believe that someone is killing children in a pattern across the landscape, but they do not believe that it is even possible to murder someone. If that was something that anyone really, truly believed, wouldn't that have been a true utopian state? Instead, we are left with the failures of humanity and the depths to which we can sink in the name of "progress".

Duma Balls

I really don't look for these things, I swear. Every time I think I will never write about Mr. King again - it's juvenile to pick on him, really - something like this rears it's ugly head.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Hey Buddy, Whatcha Readin'?

My Revolutions by Hari Kunzru
A very smart, concise, well-written novel about the fine line between being a revolutionary and being a terrorist. During the 60's, Chris Carver was a communist revolutionary living in London & fighting against England's passive involvement in Vietnam. When his group's tactics began to stray from passivity and understanding towards the violent and extreme, his life became much more complicated, and that line I mentioned - between positive revolution and flat-out terrorist activities - became severely blurred. Now, in the late 90's - nearing an interesting time period for terrorist novels, actually - "Chris" is now "Mike Frame", and has been living so for close to 25 years. When someone from his revolution days arrives on his doorstep, calling him "Chris", Mike understandably freaks out & decides to leave his new life behind, but not before mentally running through the events of his life for the benefit of the reader. An important novel these days, for obvious reasons - is there really much difference between revolutionary and terrorist? Or is it all about perception and who wins in the end? After all, history is written by the victors.

Lush Life by Richard Price
Another book that looks at the degradation of society - although not in an overtly political way like the Kunzru novel. Price is a master at capturing the essence of street-level New York City (Clockers, Freedomland) - this is one of those books that really could not be set anywhere else or during any other time period, as it explores the NYC of right now, right this minute - a very small window for a place with small units of time like the "New York minute". It's a novel about perception - even when you think you're getting the whole story, there's always more to it than you initially thought. (Kinda like the real world.) Eric Cash, struggling actor/writer/bartender, survives a mugging one night that his friend Ike Marcus does not. Ike becomes a folk hero, while Eric becomes more & more bitter and Ike's grieving father looks for vengeance. Peach-fuzz gangbangers, Tristan & Little Dap appear to have been involved, but were they really? And if they were, did they actually kill anyone? Ah, but is Eric lying about the entire scene, just to shift the blame off himself? How could no one on this New York street have heard anything that night? Who are they protecting, other than themselves? If Detective Matty Clark can sift through the lies, both black & white, to sort any of this out, will justice actually be served? Everyone is suspicious of everyone else on these mean streets, where sometimes it's best just to keep your head down & go home. This is more than just some dime store detective story, by the way - Detective Clark is just a player on the stage here, just part of the ensemble cast of characters that drift through your field of view. Like I said, it is really a novel about perception. And it's brilliant.

Thursday, February 07, 2008