Thursday, February 18, 2010

Caryl Férey goes Zulu

I just finished a book called Zulu by French author Caryl Férey (due to be published by  Europa Editions in May) and now, with apologies to South African readers, I am never going to go to South Africa. Zulu won France's Grand Prix for Best Crime Novel in 2008 with good reason - it's a flat-out brilliant crime novel, but ultimately it rings truer as an exposé of the current socio-political climate in South Africa - and, sorry, but it is not fucking pretty.

Ethnic Zulu, Ali Neuman is the quintessential product of apartheid violence - driven from his home after the brutal murders of his father & brother, he has spent his adult life hiding his deep emotional scars working as a detective in Cape Town. Cape Town's streets are rife with gang violence and rampant drug use - a product of the vacuum left in apartheid's wake that opened the floodgates for southern Africa's poor, criminally-minded souls to enter the newly "free" society. When a white girl's body turns up (with her face and skull smashed to pieces with a hammer) Ali and his two white partners - fresh-faced, innocent Dan & the gritty, angry Brian - begin to investigate, rather routinely at first, digging into the fringes of a post-Boer society that still harbors resentment over their loss of power. But there's something else simmering beneath the surface of their investigation - in the form of a horrible new meth-based drug being introduced into Cape Town that seems to whip it's users into a violent, murderous frenzy. The questions pile up almost a quickly as the false leads do. Who is producing this drug? Who is selling it? How is this related to the white corpses that keep turning up? Were they killed "by accident" or is there a much more sinister plot afoot?

Once the team is down the rabbit hole though, all bets are off as far as standard crime novel fare is concerned - don't let your hands get cut off by that machete, friend. I think what disturbed me so much was that the violence never felt gratuitous in any way - it just felt real, which is a lot scarier. You learn about halfway through that this is one of those books where no character is safe - just like it would be if this were a true story. Once the gang that Ali & Co. are chasing realizes that cops are, in fact, touchable, the whole game is turned on it's head and you really never know what will be lurking in the next set of shadows.

It is by no means a perfect book - the characters are a bit wooden and some of the clunky prose can be chalked up to the translation, but not all of it - but Férey delivers a terrifying look into a society that has struggled so hard to mask the dark underside of its history, only to leave it all simmering just below the surface. Anybody have any World Cup tickets they want to unload now?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Let's Race to the Pulp Mill!

Hey, have you written a book that you can't seem to get published? Are your fingers calloused and bloodied from typing out your unread masterpiece? Are you hopelessly swamped with debt from trying to pay for your Masters degree in Creative Writing while you work in some dark cave in the back of an independent bookstore?

Does the release of this book on Tuesday, February 16th make you feel worse?

Well, this one did take three people to write...

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Prince of Darkness Comes to La Jolla

Mr. John Michael Osbourne will be at Warwick's in La Jolla, CA on Friday, February 19th at 6:30pm. Please enjoy this public service announcement to aide in your visit.

Friday, February 05, 2010

The Godfather of Kathmandu - John Burdett (Review)

The Godfather of Kathmandu - John Burdett
Sonchai Jitpleecheep has long considered himself to be the lone honest, incorruptable cop on the Royal Thai Police Force in Bangkok. Despite this, he has an uncomfortably close relationship with his millionaire boss, Colonel Vikorn, the Napoleonic, narcisist kingpin police chief. When Sonchai loans him the dvd set of the Godfather films, Vikorn magnanimously decides that Sonchai should be promoted to "consigliere", like Tom Hagan, "that light-skinned farang who's not as hairy as the others". The promotion comes with a massive salary increase (30x his normal pay) which leaves Sonchai uneasy - and no longer the incorruptable super-cop he imagines himself to be. The tricky part about Vikorn and his side businesses is that they primarilly involve the trafficking of heroin - it is only a matter of time before Sonchai is called up to earn his consigliere salary.

When Vikorn receives a phone call from a mysterious Tibetan lama in Nepal who claims to have a massive amount of heroin he would like to smuggle into Thailand - as well as offering to put Vikorn's arch-nemesis & biggest competitor, General Zinna, out of business -  Sonchai is tasked to be the liaison for the deal. What he doesn't bargain for is the life-changing experience he has when he meets Norbu Tietsin, the lama who enlightens Sonchai (so to speak) with his vision of "apocalyptic Buddhism", opening his mind in ways he never thought possible.

There's something so compelling about Sonchai - I don't know if it's this newly duplicitous nature of his, the skill with which he's able to flip back and forth between being a brilliant detective and being the right-hand man of the biggest drug smuggler in Bangkok or his newfound faith, however misguided it may be. I think what I really enjoy about Burdett's novels is that I never feel like I'm reading a book just set in Thailand for convenience with some standard detective character as the narrator going through the motions. Sonchai is cynical & hilarious, poking fun constantly at us, the "farang" Western readers. We cannot possibly hope to understand Bangkok, but I wholeheartedly believe that Sonchai Jitpleecheep has lived there all his life, works as a cop in the Royal Thai Police Force, and is part owner in a strip club.  (Seriously, his mom & Vikorn own the rest of it.) He is drawn with such skill and believability that I see him more clearly in my minds-eye than most of the other characters of the genre that I've read.

Further more, this particular novel carries such more meat to it than your typical "dime store" detective novel that it really is bordering on literary fiction, rather than be crammed in and labeled as "genre fiction". The relationship that develops between Sonchai, who's craving stability in his life much more than he is even aware of, and the manipulative, drug-smuggling Nepalese lama is beautifully manuevered into the crime novel that Burdett has crafted. Sonchai has to deal with a brutally murdered American, elaborate precious jem and heroin smuggling rings, and the fragile political morass that is Thailand, to grapple with his own faith - in God, humanity, and himself - in a way that I have never encountered in straight-up crime fiction.

Go, farang, find a copy and read!
(The other books, although you don't really have to read them first, are: Bangkok 8, Bangkok Tattoo, and Bangkok Haunts.)

Monday, February 01, 2010

I Think I Missed the Point, Omega

Outside Borrego Springs, California - Summer 2009 

Let the record show that I am most likely the only online reviewer of this book who will admit that they are not smart enough to "get" Don DeLillo's latest novel, Point Omega.  I'm not gonna sugarcoat it for you or use big words so you think I get it - I really don't.  Sorry.  Hell, I'm hardly going to review it.  I liked it (I think) but I definitely didn't get it.

I read this concise, compact little 117-page book in maybe 2 or 3 hours this weekend, but was left wondering just what exactly it was that Don was trying to tell me. The bulk of the book seems to be about the relationship that develops between 3 characters - Jim, Richard, and Jessie - as they are isolated at Richard's home in the California desert of Anza Borrego. Jim Finley is a not-very-successful filmmaker who has talked his way into Richard's life in an attempt to make a one-man documentary film on him. Richard Elster is a 73-year old retired government "haiku war planner" (as he puts it) - he worked in some vague capacity as a civilian consultant for the US military in Iraq. Jessie is Richard's 20-something daughter, sent to the desert by her mother in an attempt to remove her from the man she has been seeing. The three develop as a strange family unit over the course of several weeks - Jimmy & Richard bond over scotch and stargazing (or navel-gazing, really) in the evenings, pondering one another's place in the universe, espousing on vague, complex philosophical points that are over my head - only to have it all come crashing down around a mysterious, tragic incident. This was all fairly straight forward plot machinations, but I was especially baffled by the prologue and the epilogue - 2 sections about a man watching a video installation piece of Hitchcock's Psycho, slowed down so that it takes 24 hours to view in its entirety - and how they related to the rest of the book. 

Upon finishing, I cruised the interweb, looking for answers amongst the other reviews - what I found was a large population of book reviewers who seem to have gotten something out of this book that I simply missed.

  • The Boston Globe informed me that it was about "the leaching of material human reality by the manipulated abstractions of modern life."
  • The LA Times's Matthew Sharpe mentions in the title of his review that "Point Omega is an Iraq war tale", but then never mentions this aspect again. 
  • Entertainment Weekly gave it a 'C+' and thought it seemed "like an excuse to drone on and on about the end of the American empire." 
  • Time Out New York really shorted my brain out with this esoteric gem: "The omega point is the teleological coordinate of maximum universal complexity and self-consciousness, a point that (early-20th-century Jesuit philosopher Pierre) Teilhard equated with Christ and that Elster, holding court on his porch, equates with, one slowly gathers, death, apocalypse and the ruin of humanity."
Jeez. Every review makes a point of mentioning Elster's discourse on his role in the war, when the simple fact is that he and Jimmy spend very little time discussing anything of such concrete structure and more on Jimmy's plans for the look of the film he wants to make or blathering about the mind-expanding "omega point". I mean, I get that Richard has a heavy conscience over his career, but I just couldn't see the deeper point beyond the fairly straightforwardness of the plot. Maybe I'm just too much of a plot-driven reader - although I never think of myself that way. 

I don't know, it just makes me tired thinking about it.  Since I have an overwhelming urge to move onto something else and I have nothing else to say on this matter, I'm just going to leave it there.  Sorry for wasting your time.