Thursday, November 23, 2017

"Flowering Judas" (1930)


Katherine Anne Porter's story is set in Mexico during revolutionary times. It's a murky but cosmopolitan scene. Our main character, Laura, is Anglo. A vaguely menacing character, Braggioni, is Italian. And there are Indians, Poles, Romanians, others. Already I get a hit of the surreal sense of Latin American literature, or culture, a kind of acceptance of the absurd that requires no discussion. Laura is frequently described in nun-like terms, and she dresses and behaves modestly. Braggioni is interested in her—courting her, even, but not in any way that she appears able to decline. She's in a situation, somehow, where her best choice may be to go along with it for the time being. Her occupation is described as teaching Indian children. Braggioni serenades her, singing and playing a guitar. "She knows what Braggioni would offer her, and she must resist tenaciously without appearing to resist, and if she could avoid it she would not admit even to herself the slow drift of his intention." Braggioni was some kind of commanding soldier in the revolution, grounded in carnal realities and equations of power. Despite Laura's modest manner and reserve, or perhaps because of them, Braggioni lusts for her: "he wishes to impress this simple girl who covers her great round breasts with thick dark cloth, and who hides long, invaluably beautiful legs under a heavy skirt." Laura is more than a teacher—she obviously has a stake and specific personal reasons to be there, attending union meetings and visiting political prisoners. Even if she were interested in a relationship she probably wouldn't have time—but, again, she appears to have limited choice, beyond those for any Anglo woman in that time and place. As we come to learn, she is also somehow involved in subversive activity. There's a strong but fleeting suggestion that she may have provided the means for a political prisoner to commit suicide. There are many layers to reality in this story, and tearing one layer away also can have the effect of resetting reality to a new ground. Laura is afraid of Braggioni's vindictiveness, which could leave her even more vulnerable in a situation she seems more committed to than ever. The story ends with a bad dream Laura has after going to bed. There's a sense there are many days and nights like this still ahead of her—and many already behind her. The language and images are precision-fitted, and altogether it's a pretty good story.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)

I tried to go into Blade Runner 2049 with an open mind, even though I'm inclined to be suspicious of all sequels, reboots, and the like, I'm really not convinced of anything yet about director Denis Villeneuve, I had gleaned enough about the response to know it's already considered a disappointment and commercial flop, and last but not least I knew it was nearly three hours going in. Four strikes, you're out, man. And there were more red flags too, one each for Ridley Scott, Ryan Gosling, and Harrison Ford, each a problem for different reasons. I'm officially tired of Ford's farewell tour of his career greatest hits, after the Star Wars reboot, another Indiana Jones on the way, and who knows what else. Philip K. Dick's name comes after all of the above in the credits, which is probably as it should be because the whole thing is not very Dickian at all anymore. It is Ridley Scottian, and Harrison Fordian, and maybe even young Ryan Goslingian before it is Dickian. But Blade Runner 2049 is Villeneuvian more than anything by way of his indulgence for high concept and tricksy plot developments, previously seen in Incendies and Arrival (at least). Sicario is the best and most exciting I've seen by him so far, looking for its complexities in the intricate levels of power in the cross-border drug trade, with everything else straightforward and somehow achieving a unique lucidity. Blade Runner, of course, is all concept and nothing straightforward, as received, and with the franchise now openly abandoning Dick and developing in other ways. It lifts a page from the Battlestar Galactica playbook and turns our tale of corporatism and human simulacrums into a story about robots interbreeding and giving birth, as opposed to being manufactured. This, you see—being born—is the dividing line between having a soul and not having one. It is all very busy building to a Big Reveal, which I admit seemed to play fair by all the rules I understand in these games of narrative peekaboo (and note that I'm not giving anything away). Yet it amounted to nothing—much like the reveal in Arrival, something garbled about perception and time and sadness. Blade Runner 2049 is long and feels every minute. Everything good about it is better in any one of the three or four cuts Ridley Scott already took at the original. At least it's beautiful. This franchise is a mess. Philip Dick wept.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Sacred Fount (1901)

Henry James apparently disavowed this short but interminable novel, declining to include it in a comprehensive 1908 collection of his work. Whatever else it is, The Sacred Fount is difficult and annoying, that's for sure. Even the typically anodyne Wikipedia has a note of impatience in its summary: "[A]fter a while, the narrator's theories begin to drive everybody, including the reader, a little nuts." Yes, and what's more, as usual, finding the antecedents to the pronouns is the hard part, with generous portions of "that to which he had earlier referred" and the like. The consensus appears to be that this nuanced narrator is overly interested in various sexual affairs going on behind the scenes at a weekend gathering in the country, and that might indeed be what this novel is about. I'm struck, however, that the basic clue appears to be who has aged among the weekend attendees, and who, improbably, has grown more youthful. Some of these people are 40 and look 25, that is, but their descriptions are rendered in such excruciating detail that I'm halfway willing to believe they actually are younger, and this is some kind of science fiction twist (after all, we've seen that James likes detective and horror stylings). "The sacred fount" is not sex, as most take it, but literally the thing Ponce de Leon was looking for. These richies have a line on it. Although that doesn't explain some of the unnatural aging of some of the other characters, so fuck that. The novel is probably short enough it could be mistaken for a Dick Francis in mass market paperback, but don't let that fool you. You're going to want to hurl this one across the room frequently, and you can take that as a recommendation underlining James's own instinct to avoid it—I read it so you don't have to—or perhaps you can take it as a personal challenge. After all, it's so short. It does have a kind of spooky Twilight Zone air somehow, as if the narrator is the only one truly alive there and the others come to life only when he engages them in conversation. Otherwise they are like murmuring extras in party and dinner scenes in movies like Last Year at Marienbad. If you're going to read The Sacred Fount, see if you don't agree with me that there really is some kind of potion or elixir these wealthy privileged characters are sharing with (and/or denying to) one another. They are visibly becoming younger even over the course of the weekend. In another week they might be teenagers. What the point of that could possibly be, I admit, is not a question I'm ready to answer yet. One theory that occurred to me is that James read Oscar Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray and it made him mad with jealousy. Following this came arguably his greatest period of work.

"interlocutor" count = 14 / 172 pages (includes "interlocutress")

In case it's not at the library. (Library of America)

Saturday, November 18, 2017

87th Precinct directory

87th Precinct: 11 books to read first
Tricks (1987)
The Con Man (1957)
The Empty Hours (1962)
Hail, Hail, the Gang's All Here (1971)
Killer's Choice (1957)
So Long As You Both Shall Live (1976)
King's Ransom (1959)
Poison (1987)
Lady, Lady I Did It (1961)
Fuzz (1968)
Cop Hater (1956)

List of reviews in series order after the jump.

Fiddlers (2005)

I don't know for sure that Ed McBain knew this would be the last novel in his 87th Precinct series of police procedurals, but he probably knew at least that it was approximately the 55th. McBain was also known as Evan Hunter, but his real name was Salvatore Albert Lombino and he was a pro to the end. The case here turns on a series of murders that are linked by the gun and method used—a Glock and two shots to the face. The title returns to one of his characteristic titling strategies, a single word played various ways. One of the victims here plays violin professionally, and the killer complains that all his victims fiddled with his life. It's decently constructed if a little rickety. There's a great joke here when Meyer Meyer confronts the killer. McBain certainly seems to be making a point of including everyone (and, interestingly, mentioning many of their ages). So Genero is here, and Eileen Burke, and even Nellie Brand, the prosecuting attorney who often showed up conducting formal interviews at the ends of his books. It's a little bit like the last episode of Seinfeld that way. I was distracted by some of the details about age that were disclosed. For example, Steve Carella's twin children, Mark and April, are fixed at 13 years old. They were born in the second of three novels McBain published in 1959 ('Til Death). Similarly, Bert Kling is identified as being 33 and we first saw him promoted as a raw rookie in the second of three novels McBain published in 1956 (The Mugger). He wasn't 17—I remember him being more like 23 or 24, or perhaps 21—so it's evident that time streams across the whole series are somewhat flexible from character to character. I can't say it's a surprise, as the amazing floating ages of Mark and April alone have always led to certain dislocations of perception. Kling also takes one more relationship pratfall in this one, with troubling aspects of his personality revealed again. But he's also made out to be a martyr, with his age specified. In a way, a sad way, his whole life turns out to be a joke. But Fiddlers involves a lot of wistful sadness anyway, some on McBain's part and some on my own, as I felt the ending of the whole thing close in. Is it flawed? Of course. In fact, as I've worked on putting together a short list of the best from the series, I've been dogged by the lack of consistency even within single novels. And the larger project in turn is brought down a little by a sense of dead ends and missed opportunities. Sure, he could have done more. Like Oskar Schindler, we all could. But 54 (or 55) books, any one of which will fly fine on an airplane, is not bad. Not bad at all.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Frumious Bandersnatch (2004)

Like most of the later novels in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain, The Frumious Bandersnatch is loose and uneven, with some aspects given more thoughtful attention than others. McBain concocts a plot based on Lewis Carroll and hip-hop. Most of the energy is spent on the first very long chapter, which details a sensational kidnapping that happens to be captured by a TV crew. A new performing talent, Tamar Valparaiso, is about to release a debut album, a concept album which riffs on Carroll's "Jabberwocky." (I'm not sure whether McBain knew it, but there was a '60s psychedelic rock band from San Francisco called the Frumious Bandersnatch, whose members went on to play with Steve Miller and/or Journey.) At the launch party for the album, on a boat in the harbor, Valparaiso is kidnapped in a daring, brazen, etc., and we're off and running. The jurisdiction of the crime falls to the 87th, but because it's a kidnapping the FBI is involved. Our usual hero Steve Carella is dispatched to work with them. But there are tensions because the FBI has no respect for local cops. Inevitably Carella shows them how wrong they are. Once again, Fat Ollie Weeks is here because McBain likes writing about him. He has some unconnected scenes as he starts to date a uniform officer, Patricia Gomez. Because she's Hispanic, Fat Ollie has to confront his own bigotry. It's pretty much predictable but there's a surprising moment at the end of one of their dates. Meanwhile, the main case takes an ugly turn at the end—McBain actually finds a new way to be cruel with the fate of the singer. Overall the Carroll element is weak, most of it built into the singer and her album. But McBain randomly inserts Carrollisms all the way, to keep the concept freshened and perhaps out of appreciation for the always strangely lyrical nonsense syllables. Otherwise it's all familiar elements present and accounted for, e.g., the late humanizing of Fat Ollie. Bert Kling and his African-American surgeon girlfriend Dr. Sharyn Cooke get some scenes. McBain's voice is still engaging, but he's less energetic, more prone to dated ways of thinking. Not bad if you're getting to all of them.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Fat Ollie's Book (2002)

I've been through nearly all of the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain now, and it is finally just dawning on me that Fat Ollie Weeks is McBain's favorite character in the whole thing after only Steve Carella. Which, in turn, raises interesting questions about McBain's own Jekyll and Hyde personality tendencies. Carella is a boy scout practically as good as it's possible for a human being to be. And Fat Ollie is nearly the opposite. He's fat, he's a slob, he doesn't go by the book, and he's a bigot. The only thing they have in common is they're both good detectives. But heck, Fat Olllie doesn't even work for the 87th Precinct. He's always been part of the neighboring 88th. He came along in the '70s and then just never went away. It was confusing not least because there was already one outspoken racist turd, Andy Parker, who was always part of the series. He's even in this one. Unlike Parker, Fat Ollie is smart and entertaining, though he tends to be despicable before anything else. But McBain evidently saw something redeemable in him, made him slightly more vulnerable in places, and set him loose. This book is his great moment, more or less. He's hot on his own big case, the murder of a politician, and incidentally trying to recover the manuscript of a novel he has written, Report to the Commissioner, which was stolen with his briefcase. It's the only copy he has so he's a little desperate. Fortunately, the thief is also a character in the case, so that means we get to see sections of it. It is actually funny, which means McBain accomplished the feat of writing funny too, no easy thing. What he did not accomplish, however, was writing funny and writing a decent mystery story, let alone police procedural. This is all for the laughs, and they are there, but it also feels like a wasted 87th Precinct story. It's late in the series, when McBain was getting sentimental, injecting more reminders of past cases, and outright reminiscing. Fat Ollie's Book just kind of lays there, until the excerpts from Fat Ollie's book come along, and they are entertaining. Some of that is because it's such paper-thin recasting of reality in the 87th Precinct world, such as Fat Ollie hiding his identity by making his first-person narrator / detective a woman named Olivia Wesley Watts (as opposed to Oliver Wendell Weeks). Some of it is because he's trying to skate by his own grammatical ignorance. After asking a rhetorical question, for example, Fat Ollie's narrator goes on: "I guess you know better than me, [Mr. Commissioner]. Or perhaps even better than I." And some of it is just because it's all so absurd. On the other hand, I'm not sure Fat Ollie's Book would be funny at all to someone not familiar with the series. Even if you are, it's still not one to hurry to get to.

In case it's not at the library.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Nocturne (1997)

Nocturne may not feel as tired as other late entries in the 87th Precinct series of police procedurals by Ed McBain—as tired, I say. It's still tired compared to titles before about 1980. The mystery story is complicated too, and gets hard to follow. One of McBain's favorite jokes here—he goes to it at least three times—involves people talking about that movie Alfred Hitchcock wrote called The Birds. Then other characters say they don't think Hitchcock wrote it. In fact, of course, McBain wrote it 35 years earlier under his Evan Hunter pseudonym. Another running joke starts with the death of the primary victim, gunned down point-blank with two shots to the heart. Most times this comes up someone says they saw that movie, and someone else says they don't think that's what it was called. It sounds like the reference is to One From the Heart, which was 15 years old at the time, but who knows? Happens in passing and never explained. The main case involves an old woman who is shot to death along with her cat. Steve Carella and Cotton Hawes are on the case, and yes, once again, Fat Ollie Weeks shows up working a case that might be related. He's not that offensive this time. Mostly he just works his case. The old woman was formerly a celebrated concert pianist brought low by arthritis and nagging hearing problems. Her granddaughter is also a pianist, but not as talented and more in the cocktail lounge style. The more I summarize the plot points the more contrived it looks. Cruel high school football players—or psychotic, really—are also on the town, preying on the vulnerable, though it's mostly played for laughs. That's the case Fat Ollie is working. Step away from McBain's storytelling voice and the jokes are not funny at all. Maybe that's a continuing problem, especially with these later ones. What once seemed dark and sardonic humor inflecting the action has turned steadily into easy cynicism, with exaggerations. People are bad enough. You don't have to exaggerate that. Save this for later, or read the series in order. Either way, this one can wait.

In case it's not at the library.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Mischief (1993)

Though it's another Deaf Man episode, this police procedural in the 87th Precinct series by Ed McBain was more competent and engaging than I expected. It has numerous cases besides the Deaf Man story, and is also one of the very biggest entries by page count. The balance helps. More than anything, however, Mischief is an attempt at a statement on race in the wake of Rodney King and the 1992 Los Angeles riot which unfortunately falls short. There is a rap group here, Spit Shine—to start with, that strikes me as a terrible name. McBain's understanding of hip-hop is essentially stillborn. But at least he's trying? I liked the detective pairings in this one and how McBain used them to explore the chemistry of the characters. With McBain actively addressing both racial tension and political correctness, inevitably there will be wincing. Steve Carella, of course, gets the Deaf Man case, with Arthur Brown, the chronically underutilized African-American detective, here rotated more toward the front. Bert Kling and Andy Parker work an unlikely case of a serial killer. Someone is murdering graffiti artists (which McBain calls graffiti "writers"—I don't think I've ever heard that term). Parker used to be the chief designated racist in the series until Fat Ollie Weeks came along, but McBain still reaches for him as needed for the extra helping of obnoxious bigotry. Parker is always a reliable source of wincing, both for his sake and McBain's. Parker and his escapades are bad enough (very bad) so next to him Kling gets to play the good cop role, though he's often not a good cop. Mischief is also where Kling first meets a later love interest, Sharyn Cooke, an African-American forensics physician and surgeon. In many ways, the case that Kling and Parker are working is the A story here, though ultimately the Deaf Man is reserved for the finish—another elaborate crime with taunting clues as we go. In the social realism department, Meyer Meyer and Cotton Hawes are investigating seniors with dementia who are being dumped around the city. They have no ID and don't know who they are. If Mischief is dated and painful at least it is dated and painful in intriguing little ways, incidentally offering a profile of a white man with all the best intentions attempting to understand racial issues, and failing. I sympathize a little, because I'm sure I make my own mistakes, but that doesn't mean it isn't painful. At least it's a decent police procedural.

In case it's not at the library.