Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Auster's "The Inner Life of Martin Frost"--Film Review

Paul Auster has said that The Inner Life of Martin Frost is a comedic answer to his film Lulu on the Bridge. Lulu on the Bridge is a story about a dying man's fantasy about a woman playing the role that Louise Brooks made famous in the German expressionist film Pandora's Box. Louise Brooks was probably film's greatest portrayal of the idealized woman. Every man painted his fantasy on her lithe figure. So what do we make of The Inner Life of Martin Frost? In short, it is about a man's creation of a woman and that creation's struggle to become real and alive.

More specifically, the film begins with Auster's voice, which is apropos, because he has one of the strongest authorial voices writing. His narration immediately alerts us to the fact that this is a story, being told by a writer, about writers and their muses. But, more importantly, we learn that this story will be continued to be written and revised, even as the last scene fades out. Consequently, there is no resolution, no completion for the viewer by the the narrator. Instead, we must finish the tale on our own.

The story is also a meta-fiction, which constantly refers to writers and their books. To emphasize this a wall of books plays a pivotal part in the film. On that wall of books two particular writers seem to receive attention--Samuel Beckett and Franz Kafka.

It is also a film about perception and the philosophy of perception. Claire reads aloud from Berkeley and Hume.

It is also a story about how men create women and how women nurture that creation and the dangers that arise from this artifice. In that regard, Auster has picked two exquisite and ethereal actresses to play the spirits or the muses-Irene Jacob and Sophie Auster.

The men, or the writers, come in two flavors-the slow, serious writer-Martin (David Thewlis)-or the plumber/writer-James Fortunato(Michael Imperioli), an alter ego for both Auster and Frost. As an aside Fortunato is one of the most interesting characters that Auster has created. He reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut's Kilgore Trout.

So, what about this movie? It is beautifully shot; the actors are wonderful; but it is a puzzle and a mystery. It frustrated me but it made me think. I have watched it twice and it grows on me. I highly recommend it to literary souls who are interested in the creative process and don't mind the frustrating tropes of meta-fiction.

Steven Savile's "The Black Chalice"

I have a theory that all fiction is pastiche. However, sometimes pastiche is the intended goal rather than the psychological underpinning of a writer's choice of subject matter. In that regard, intentional pastiche, as genre, is a literary work that imitates a renowned artist's oeuvre and includes a number of motifs copied from the original work in such a way as to give the impression of being a newly discovered original by that artist.

With that definition firmly in mind, Steven Savile's new novel for Abaddon Books, The Black Chalice, is most definitely pastiche. In fact the entire new series, Malory's Knights of Albion, purports to be the lost work of Sir Thomas Malory, the second volume as it were, and thereby gains its impetus and energy from the idea of pastiche. In this case, the pastiche is not satire (as many are) but a device to honor Malory and to create a modern version of Malory's themes in the secular age through the use of horror and fantasy memes. In other words, although the novel maintains a unified tone and fidelity to the Arthurian romance it imitates, it does so, while utilizing anachronisms of modernism. What this means is that, although the novel appears to be a rendering of the Arthurian romance, it is really a very modern horror tale. However, if we move away from the literary concept of pastiche, which is interesting in itself, the real question is: does the novel work as an independent work, irrespective of its connection to the original text; the answer, in this case, is a resounding yes. Savile has once against proven his ability to write a psychologically sound horror tale that operates successfully on all levels: he maintains a unity of tone throughout; he uses a single point of view, which adds suspense to the novel (did these fantastic things really happen to Alymere or were they the result of a diseased mind); the pacing is precise; and the unique elements of horror logically flow from the factual context of the novel and the age in which it is set.

The novel begins with an introduction that states that this manuscript was found in a Church vestry in 2006 and that it appears to be Malory's The Second Book of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. The Black Chalice, the first story of the text to be modernized, concerns a young man named, Alymere, who like many characters in Malory, is on his way to Camelot to pledge his loyalty to the King. We soon discover that Alymere is angry at his uncle who he believes usurped his father's lands and, in effect, disinherited him. Along the road, Alymere meets Sir Bors de Ganis, one of the first of Alymere's "father" figures, who escorts the young man to Camelot. Once there Alymere meets Arthur who fails to embrace him instantly; maturation, training, and discipline come first. What becomes apparent early in the novel is that, because this is a third-person limited point of view, we see only Alymere's impressions and hear only his explanations. It becomes quite obvious that he is not entirely reliable and at the time morally challenged. Arthur sends Alymere home under the charge of his uncle Sir Lowick, who agrees to oversee his training. Two years later, reivers from the North attack, seeking the Black Chalice, and Alymere and his uncle sally off to engage them in combat. At this point, Alymere leaves the road and discovers the world of faerie where he foolishly pledges loyalty to the crow maiden.

Many times throughout the novel Alymere is required to choose and each time he chooses the wrong path(or, at least, that is what popular mores would say); however, his choices lead him ultimately to his fate and the salvation of the kingdom and the king. This formula is very close to that used by Malory and furthers the successful completion of the pastiche.

The Black Chalice is a finely-wrought Gothic novel that adheres to the standards of Malory's tales, while at the same time satisfying a modern reader's expectations and sensibilities. I whole-heartedly recommend it. And if you are interested in pastiche as a rhetorical device, I refer you to my review of Andy Remic's Kell's Legend http://redrookreview.blogspot.com/2009/11/andy-remics-of-pastiche-in-kells-legend.html.

Finally, I want to once again throw out a plug for Abaddon Books. They are tremendously hard for me to find in Dallas and I have had to resort to Amazon. But each one I've read has been well-written, well-edited, and beautifully designed. Pye Parr drew the evocative cover of The Black Chalice, as well as one of my favorite covers from last year: The Black Hand Gang. For more on Abaddon see my reviews of novels by Rebecca Levine and Pat Kelleher.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Jon Courtenay Grimwood's ""The Fallen Blade"

Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich

The Fallen Blade has a sub-title--Act One of THE ASSASSINI--which alerts us to the fact that it is the first book of a series, probably a trilogy, although I can imagine its narrative continuing, like a great canal, flowing around and through a strange, Gothic city, constructed on rotting pylons, hammered into tiny islands, for eternity. This eternal quality or tone induces an almost dream-like state in the reader and results from the novel's layered construction and the author's decision to use multiple POVs. The initial structural strength of the novel arises from the use of allusions to Shakespearean plays and poems, manifested in sub-plots taken almost directly from Othello (and perhaps even a nod to Measure to Measure with Lady Giulietta's pregnancy and undisclosed father)and the conscious use of the dramatic structure of a play to construct (and foreshadow) its various parts. In fact, the novel is a hodgepodge of resonances, calling upon memes from various fantasy tropes such as werewolves, vampires, fallen angels, viking narratives, and historical figures and events. In other words, the novel uses a known world upon which to create a new, fantasy world. Both the actual world of 15th century Venice and the newly created alternative world contain rich stories and flavors that the reader already knows, thereby providing a richness to the text. And, additionally, for anyone that has ever spent any time in Venice, that historical richness and Gothic beauty still exists. It doesn't take much while strolling through Venice on a wintry night to imagine the possibilities of vampires and werewolves struggling in the shadows.

The novel begins with the arrival in Venice of a beautiful boy, Tycho, hanging from shackles in the hull of a ship and the escape of Marco IV's cousin from her Doge. This exciting force illuminates and centers the machinations of the various power sources within the ruling family--the Millioni--of Venice. The boy suffers from amnesia and his true nature is unclear; and, although he appears to be a young adult, his actual age is unknown. He suffers flashbacks to a more ancient time and place. The girl is fifteen and of marriageable age. Both are pawns in the political games of the city and both seem destined to be together. The players of the game are the Millioni, the ruling family, their assassins, led by Atilo, the German Emperor and his army of werewolves, and the Order of the White Crucifers. However, although there are other forces in play (witches, alchemists, and sprites), both internal and external, the only game is between the Millioni.

Within this rich, political drama, is an origin tale--the story of the fallen angels and the birth of the vampire. Grimwood nurses this arc throughout the novel but he is hesitant to push the story too far. He even says in an interview:"to be honest I'm still not sure he is a vampire." This statement could be interpreted as disingenuous but I tend to believe him. I felt that he was letting the characters tell the story rather than his imposing his authorial will on them by marching them through the narrative, like his puppets. The book, for me, resembles an auteur-type production: it's a singular production of a singular mind, working just outside the boundaries of various genres. And, because of its singularity, or perhaps its idiosyncrasies, this novel is either going to be criticized or fetishisized.

Ultimately, it reminds me of one of my favorite novels: Patrick Süskind's Das Parfum. There is the same attention to historical detail, richness of colors and smells, and vibrant violence that induces dizzying madness and vertigo. I will definitely be attending the second act.

Monday, March 7, 2011

A Whimiscal Look at Parra's "Antipoems"

I picked up this collection because Roberto Bolaño said that he gave up on Neruda and followed Parra. I love Bolaño so I followed him to Parra. Parra is different from Bolaño so if you follow Bolaño don't be surprised when you discover Parra. They are different; their poetry is different.

Parra is an antipoet. What does that mean? According to the translator's introduction, "antipoetry mirrors poetry, not as its adversary but as its perfect complement."

The book contains both the original Spanish version, which is good (all translation works should contain the original), and the English translation. Ms Werner captures the spirit, the humor, and the sense of Parra's poetry.

One of my favorite poetic ideas is from Holderlin, who calls for us to live poetically. I suppose Parra would say Holderlin is a poet. Parra, the antipoet, responds in his short poem "Poetry Poetry" to Holderlin's sentiment:"Poetry Poetry it's all poetry/we make poetry/ even when we're going to the bathroom." I think you can see from this fragment the antipoet at work.

Parra reminds me of the surrealists but he is not one. There is something quite material about his poetry. Within the poems you feel the steel of a political mind.

One of my favorite poems of the collection is "Stop Racking Your Brain." The whole poem consists of three lines but it is quite true and sad for people interested in poetry: "Stop Racking your brains/nobody reads poetry nowadays/it doesn't matter if it's good or bad."

Moorcock's "The Mad God's Amulet"

Tor is re-releasing Michael Moorcock’s Hawkmoon tetralogy with exquisite illustrations. The first volume, The Jewel in the Skull (see my review of this novel at Hub Magazine: www.hubfiction.com/2010/03/issue-115/ ), and the second, The Mad God’s Amulet, are out. Not only are these editions a thing of beauty, they also have the power (magical power) to carry the reader back to the heady days of pulp fiction, which means, to me, a return to the feelings of my youth and the joy of discovering the multiverse.

Implicit in Moorcock’s multiverse is a metaphysical underpinning that raises these books above the level of pulp fiction and marks them as classics of the fantasy genre. Irrespective of their serious undertone and philosophical themes, however, the genius of these books is that on one level they can be read (perhaps a better word would be experienced) as picaresque pulp fiction, similar to the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Raphael Sabatini, or Robert E. Howard, while on the other they offer up a meditation or theodicy on the workings of fate and the machinations of modern man. The parallel between the history of twentieth-century Europe and the action evolving within the plot of these novels is thinly veiled, if not explicit. Additionally, the appearance of the Warrior in Jet and Gold, at pivotal moments within the plot, expresses the workings of a power much more potent that any army of Granbretan.

In the first volume we meet Count Brass, ruler of the Kamarg, Dorian Hawkmoon von Köln, a German nobleman, his boon companion, Oladahn, and his love, Yisselda. These characters are the last hold-outs against the forces of the Dark Empire and its vast armies and infernal machines.

The plot of the first novel involves the ingenious plan of Baron Meliadus, commander of the Clan of the Wolf, and general of the armies of the Dark Empire, to employ Hawkmoon to assassinate Count Brass. To facilitate this plan and to control Hawkmoon, he embeds a Black Jewel in Hawkmoon’s skull that has the power to destroy him if he does not do the Baron’s bidding. Eventually, Hawkmoon overcomes the jewel in his skull and defeats Meliadus.

In the first novel we have intimations of the workings of the Runstaff but in the second these themes surface and pre-dominate. Fate (or the Runestaff) reveals itself, although Hawkmoon refuses to acknowledge its power or his role within the multiverse.

Although the second novel, The Mad God’s Amulet, develops the serious themes of the Runestaff, it also reflects a move to pure adventure reminiscent of the novels of Raphael Sabatini with a bit of horror thrown in to season the pot. Where the first novel dealt with great armies moving across large battle fields, the second novel seems more intimate, closer to the Saturday morning adventure serials.

Two early episodes in the second novel demonstrate the workings of the Runestaff and the plight of those who serve it. Hawkmoon and Oladahn on their way home to the Kamarg are ambushed by Huillam D’Averc, the new general sent to find and capture them. D’Averc is a brilliant creation, similar to Doc Holiday but probably modeled on the character, Athos, in Dumas’ The Three Musketeers. D’Aver is ill and his maladies become a running theme throughout the rest of the tetralogy. He is also a romantic, like Athos, whose love (his fate) will eventually lead him to his doom.

In one of the initial scenes of the novel Oldahn is captured by D’Averc and the general uses him to draw Hawkmoon out of hiding. Refusing to be used to betray his friend, Oladahn jumps to his death. However, the Runestaff refuses to allow him to die because he has an essential role to play. Another scene, just as poignant, involves D’Averc. He chases after Hawkmoon in one of the empire’s elaborate ornithopters and crashes. Instead of dying like the pilot, he survives to be found days later, floating in the sea, by Hawkmoon.

These scenes, although perfectly installed in the plot and exciting to read, support a more important apparatus: the overarching plot of the tetralogy. And this is where Moorcock’s genius lies. The novels move like greased lightning with battle scenes equal to anything in Sabatini or Dumas but there is always a sense of control and a reminder that a greater story is running in the back ground.

However, as I said the novel also contains pulp fiction elements that in themselves are highly entertaining. Oldahan and Hawkmoon after escaping D’Averc set sail on the high seas with a dysfunctional crew of dissipate sailors and it is here that they encounter D’Averc, floating alone on a raft, the mad pirates of the Mad God, and Yisselda’s ring, alerting them to the fact that she has been kidnapped and fallen into the hands of the Mad God.

The pirate scenes are worthy of an Errol Flynn movie but they serve to lead us to the horror of the Mad God.

It is probably important to note that there is a certain Gothic quality to Moorcock’s work. In the first novel these elements are illustrated through the descriptions of Londra and the King-Emperor. In the second, the Gothic threads are exposed with the terrifying Mad God and the melodramatic sub-ploy of the hero rescuing the damsel in distress. Contained within the Gothic elements are the mechanical monster of the Wraith-Folk and the Mad God’s beasts.

In the final analysis, no matter the profundity I might find in The Mad God’s Amulet, the novel is fun to read. Moorcock, with a jaundiced eye on prospective critics, wrote of the tetralogy: “As with rock and roll, I was attracted to this form because, originally, it did not absorb the interest of the critics. The books were written in the hope that they would help readers pass their time without feeling they were wasting it, in much the same spirit as I performed on stage.” I must agree that although I find a certain seriousness in the novels, the author did succeed in producing a rollicking good read.

John Stack's "Ship of Rome"

Delenda est Carthago Marcus Porcius Cato

In the last few months I have finished reading over ten novels situated in ancient Rome. Of those ten or so novels, three were by Rosemary Sutcliff and two by Alfred Duggan. Additionally, over the last fifty years I have read scores of historical novels and throughout that time I have devised a test: either (1) the novel is simply an action adventure (or perhaps romance or political thriller)with the characters dressed as Ancient Romans or (2) it is truly a historical novel, a novel that takes us to that specific time, teaches us something we did not know, and possesses a serious theme and purpose. Those novels that fall within the first category can be quite entertaining like a good movie; however, those that fall in the second category transcend the genre to become literature, especially if they are written with an eye on the first category. The movie Gladiator falls within the first category; I, Claudius is firmly situated in the second. John Stack's Ship of Rome, a novel set within the historical period of the first Punic war successfully chronicles the naval battles that occurred and Rome's emergence as a mighty sea power. It falls within the first category but clearly satisfies in its execution. The story is accurate; the characters well-rounded and believable.

Part of the problem for me is that novels that fall within the first category suffer from what I call anachronism of modernism. Even if the author does everything he or she possibly can do to fall in the second category, he or she sometimes fails because of the point of view or the method in which he or she tells the story. Primarily, the current crop of historical novelists want to follow the Bernard Cornwall model, which is not unlike Scott and Cooper of the 19th century, or O'Brien of the 20th. There is a formula and a heavily plotted story. Survival of the main characters is a given because they must live to fight another day and appear in the next installment. Consequentially, this formula is satisfying and safe. As I write this I can think of least twenty works that fall easily into the category; they usually include two characters--one patrician, the other a commoner-- fighting the good fight in some foreign war, a series of near death episodes, shady leaders and evil machinations by both friend and foe. The fact is that this formula works. From Sherlock Holmes to Batman, it succeeds in pulp, in comics and in movies. Novels that do not fit the first category are rarer and usually more difficult to read; they are idiosyncratic for the most part and based on character or theme. Nevertheless, let me be clear, I like books that fit both categories. I enjoy the novels of Scarrow and Cornwell just as much I like the novels that fall in category two. However, even within the categories some novels satisfy more than others as historical novels. John Stack's "Ship of Rome" is one of those novels. Even though he clearly falls in line behind Cornwall, Scarrow, and Sidebottom, for some reason I found his work more grounded, perhaps more realistic and less like cinema. And, even though, he employs several anachronisms of modernism, including the patrician/commoner duo, the romantic trio, and the devious senators, I found myself believing I was reading about early Rome. In other words I suspended disbelief and found myself engrossed in the novel, caring about the characters.

I believe Stack pulled this novel off by situating the action firmly within the facts of the times. Most of the characters are actually historical characters doing and saying what they actually did and said at the time. The battle scenes are carefully drawn and resolve themselves as the Roman historians said they occurred. The descriptions of ships, cities, and the Senate are precise and detailed; and although it is a technique of modernism, Stack's use of multiple points of views provides the reader a 360 degree view of the Punic war. Additionally, his main characters, Atticus, the Greek sea captain, and Septimus, the Roman Centurion, are well drawn and sympathetic. Conflict is rampant in the book on several levels: man against nature--the Romans are new to naval warfare and the sea itself is a daunting place; man against man--the characters struggle against one another, Rome wars against Carthage, Legion battles Navy, Senators deceive Senator, patricians detest nouveau riche; and man against himself--Atticus struggles to be a Roman and overcome his inferiority complex, while Septimus struggles against his prejudice of barbarians, more specifically, the Greek, Atticus.

All in all, Ship of Rome was a quick, exciting read; and although it contains many anachronisms of modernism, including the fact that it is the first book of a series, I found it one of the better books in the first category. Stack is a worthy newcomer to the Scarrow/Sidebottom Roman historical novel genre race.