Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Man on the Balcony (1967)

As police procedurals go, I tend to be more attracted to the routine and mundane—I still think Adam-12 is one of the best. But for obvious commercial reasons, and perhaps because police famously "see everything," they're often at least as lurid as true-crime. Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, the Swedish writing partners behind the Martin Beck series, were hardly immune. The first novel featured a sexualized serial killer. This third is essentially the same, except the victims are young girls around 10 years old. So even more lurid. At the same time, the cast of characters around Beck and the context of his job are starting to deepen and grow larger. And the one thing you can say about Sjöwall and Wahlöö is that their language is never sensational. It is flat nearly to a fault—flatter than Hemingway, though perhaps not Jack Webb. I suppose it could be partly the translation. But they respect rules of the genre scrupulously—it feels like the way police who are serious go about investigating and solving crimes. The Man on the Balcony was written before the Zodiac killer started up in California, though quite soon after the Boston Strangler, and it is good at painting a portrait of a large city, Stockholm in this case, seized by panic as an invisible monster roams among them. There are nods and winks to Ed McBain, such as an alliterated pair of patrolmen partners, Kristiansson and Kvant (different police roles but same narrative purpose as McBain's Monoghan and Monroe). But there's much more gravity to these Martin Beck stories. It's partly the loss of McBain's sunny optimistic American voice as opposed to the more sophisticated and dour European judgments of Sjöwall and Wahlöö. Remember, pretty much all McBain did—as McBain, Evan Hunter, and under other aliases (none of them his actual name, Salvatore Lombino)—was write popular fiction and screenplays. Per Wahlöö was a journalist and wrote other novels of his own. Maj Sjöwall was a translator and poet. They were also life partners for 13 years and self-declared Marxists. Not surprisingly, they represent an interesting wrinkle on the form. As usual, the police are presented as at least well-meaning and generally competent, but here they are also specifically functionaries of the state—the beneficent but not always competent state. The ambivalent attitude toward the police even as the work of some of them is valorized is a pretty neat trick. The Man on the Balcony is very sharply done, quick and to the point, yet thorough. It's just I could just do with a little less child rapist. They get better.

In case it's not at the library.

Monday, May 21, 2018

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke (1966)

The second Martin Beck novel takes a different tack from the first, in terms of the character of the victim. It's still based on established investigative technique, etc. But whereas the victim in Roseanna was a perhaps troubled but fundamentally innocent person, here it's someone who is a bit of a rat, a drunkard, a womanizer, and worse, as we come to find out. Alf Mattson is also a talented journalist. When he disappears on assignment in Hungary, Beck is called in to work the case unofficially. I'm not sure I understand this "unofficial" point. Hungary was rather different in 1966. The Cold War was on and it was in the Soviet sphere—maybe that explains it. At any rate, Beck goes there and pokes around a bit, accomplishing nothing. When he finally contacts the Budapest police, at first unwillingly, then the case slowly starts to crack open. Mattson had traveled to Hungary on assignment. He'd reported from there before, but this time he disappeared almost as soon as he arrived and nothing was heard from him since. This case gets a bit complicated as both the crime and investigation require a lot of subterfuge, with passport and visa manipulation, black market activities, and generally a high level of paranoia. Authors Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were not as good at spy stories, so this suffers a little in that regard. But it's police technique that solves it: a close analysis of descriptions of the victim's clothes compared with what was found in his abandoned traveling case and his closet at home in Stockholm. The most interesting point is the description of Budapest and Hungarian life, which of course in many ways is no different from Swedish life. I'm sure that was much of the intended point then, but it's lost a little in these post-Cold War times when it's harder to remember how real the divisions were. Only 10 years before publication of this novel Soviet tanks had rolled through Hungary asserting Soviet authority. Martin Beck's dour yet dogged personality is developed further, and we start to see a little more of the complex and interesting characters around him, such as Lennart Kollberg. As in Roseanna, Beck befriends a police investigator beyond Stockholm, who similarly just wants to use established technique to haul in the bad guys. It's a short novel too, perfect for an easy day.

In case it's not at the library.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Roseanna (1965)

According to the introduction by Henning Mankell for the 2006 reprint of the first novel in the Martin Beck police procedural series The Story of Crime, authors Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were heavily influenced by Ed McBain's 87th Precinct novels. I actually hadn't known that when I set out to read through them again, beyond a general understanding that McBain is a milestone figure in the subgenre, perhaps even second only to Jack Webb. The Martin Beck novels—there are only 10, compared to 55 87th Precinct books—are better in nearly every way, more literate, more circumspect, and more carefully written (which is obvious even in translation from Swedish). More classy, as McBain might say. Or maybe that's the European glow to an American rube such as myself, but let me point out some facts about Sjöwall and Wahlöö. They were a couple during the collaboration, which ended with Wahlöö's death in 1975, and they also wrote and published separately. Wahlöö was a journalist with a bent toward social justice. Sjöwall was a poet and translator. These elements were alchemically blended to produce a foundation for what is called "Nordic noir," a kind of procedural tradition veering decidedly toward the dark, which includes Mankell, Stieg Larsson, and a raft of other books and movies too. This first novel, Roseanna, is very basic police procedural fundamentals, as if establishing bona fides. The nude body of a dead young woman is dredged from a Swedish resort lake. She hasn't been dead long, but no one matching her description has been reported missing. Investigating police detective Martin Beck and his colleagues have almost nothing to go on. They must put together the case painstakingly, one minuscule piece at a time. They use police routines, to quote Ed McBain, "based on established investigative technique." Certain familiar elements of those routines are carefully injected: the casual brutality of crime, detectives who become personally invested in solving crimes, the ways resources are deployed to track down detail. Written in the '60s, at the dawn of the imperial age of serial killers in pop culture, it's either well-researched on the behavior of serial killers or has spectacularly good instincts. It doesn't try to do any more than it has to. It's compact and dense with a momentum all its own. Don't hesitate. Start here.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

"The Wedding" (1982)

Story by Joy Williams not available online.

This Joy Williams story left me a little cold. It seemed too typical of a certain post-Carver mold, both in terms of its focus on vaguely underclass losers and its self-conscious minimalist aesthetics. The two characters who marry in this story, Elizabeth and Sam, are full-grown adults with previous failed relationships. She is 30 and has a 5-year-old daughter. He seems a little older, in his 40s, married three times. He's also likely an alcoholic. It feels like a marriage they are both settling for, don't exactly want, though Elizabeth campaigns for it and Sam goes along, popping the question not long after his third divorce has become final. Formally the story is on the order of a shattered narrative, with line breaks and new scenes every few paragraphs. The narrator is third-person mostly omniscient, mostly looking from Elizabeth's view. It seems to be about exercising the quixotic nature of the search for love as it existed in the early '80s. Except for certain details of ambience (such as prevailing technology) it could happen 100 years ago or 100 years from now. What seems unique might only be the itinerant nature of so many people's love lives, set free within this still relatively new liberated era of marrying for love and pleasure. In that context, in many ways the story focuses on the trauma of divorce. Both Elizabeth and Sam actively want to be married. That's the primary objective—that sense of security that comes from being cocooned with someone, fortified against the world somehow. But it seems unlikely this marriage will last either. They don't seem to know each other very well. Obviously neither means any harm. They are just two confused people, with a 5-year-old in tow. They feel hollow, without centers. I suspect that's the point. And it might have felt fresh or compelling in the early '80s, but now feels like we've been over the ground a few thousand times, like Vietnam.

American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks

Monday, May 14, 2018

Ready Player One (2018)

There may be enough to like on the surface of Steven Spielberg's immersive foray into video and role-play gaming to make it a good movie, but mostly it felt empty to me, though it's always likable and often entertaining and even spirited. It is high science fiction concept, set in a bleak dystopic future, and majority visual attack, roaring at you with swirling, bobbing CGI that makes your head spin. It features a commodified virtual gaming reality that offers a Matrix-like escape for citizens of the post-apocalyptic world of 2045 (exact nature of apocalypse unspecified). The structure of the movie, naturally, mimics the structure of a video game. Fire up the gear, enter the game, and take a challenge to win a key which unlocks a clue to the next challenge, delivering another key, clue, and challenge. In this particular game (backstory provided), three keys will make you rich beyond your dreams. So rich that an evil corporation has thrown heavy resources and dirty tricks experts into winning, putting their evil corporate thumb on the scales to disadvantage our scrappy Scooby-Doo heroes jacking in from these future slums, which look like auto graveyards. Ready Player One riffs not just on the pell-mell boom and crash of fast-moving animated action—what do you think those challenges are about?—but it's also decked out with the frippery of a dense and constant stream of pop culture references: Rush posters, Back to the Future music, the Iron Giant itself, Freddy Krueger, Alien biology tropes, King Kong and Pong and the Batmobile and topics in the history of video gaming. That's approximately 0.1% of what you will experience in brief flashes. It had to be a licensing nightmare getting it all straightened out. And you're going to need a remote to pause some of these images and study the detail—hang on, that home product has to be almost here by now. It all feels more like a series of stunts than anything thought through very far. For example, one thing that definitely drags it down is the supersaturated nostalgia pop soundtrack, which always feels obvious no matter how much I might like the song (and I don't even like them all): "Jump" by Van Halen, "Take on Me" by a-ha, "Stayin' Alive" by the Bee Gees, "You Make My Dreams" by Hall & Oates, "Blue Monday" by New Order, and so on. They feel shoved in mechanically, with little sense for making the music connect and work with the narrative or visuals. It may be surprising, but Spielberg has spent most of his career working with John Williams. He doesn't show the least pop music soundtracking skill here. It's almost shocking since he is otherwise such a captain of pop culture. There's a reasonably inspired sequence in which the action enters the movie The Shining—the sets and locations and characters from that movie—which gives another opportunity (with A.I. Artificial Intelligence) to witness and ponder the unusual affinity between Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick. Like the weather everywhere, if you don't like what's going on in this movie wait a few minutes. Maybe you'll like the next place it frenetically zaps to. I was hoping for a little more, probably because it's Spielberg, but the best video game movie I've seen so far is still Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Golden Bowl (1904)

Henry James's last novel is one of those books I suspect many people read (or don't but say they did) for the sake of saying they have. I know I might have! It is an often overwhelming thicket of delicate nuance, most often dwelling inside its characters and their complex relations. Maggie Verver has married the Prince, a charming Italian fellow. She is the only daughter of her widowed father, the industrial baron and art collector Adam Verver (not to be confused with Adam West). Something about the family that verves together—swerves together? Lerves together? Adam and Maggie (now the Princess) are close, but she knows her marriage threatens their intimacy, and she fears he will be sad and alone now, like the father at the end of Late Spring. So she works with a woman improbably named Fanny Assingham to find him someone. That turns out to be an American woman of about the Princess's age named Charlotte Stang. By amazing coincidence, or not, Charlotte has a history with the Prince, which is rekindled after Charlotte's marriage to Adam. It's quite a predicament when the Princess figures out what is going on. But stop for a second to consider the situation in terms of James's familiar themes. Here, starkly, are European elites preying on American naifs. But it's not quite so simple. The Ververs are not that naif. They hold the cards of wealth and know it, and the Prince knows it too, and they know he does. Within these interior machinations, it's often a matter of what each one thinks or believes, which of course James keeps ambiguous (now a valued corporate trait). There's also the matter of the cloudy areas of who knows what and when do they know it. But it's all so cunningly conceived for balance you almost feel like you could put The Golden Bowl on top of a garden stake and it would just sit there spinning. If the Prince and Charlotte behave licentiously—and they do, think about it—I'm not sure the Ververs end up that much ahead of them morally. No one is talking about incest, only a kind of American clannishness that is not hard to recognize. For all the difficulty of James's language, and it often requires patience, it seems in the service of something subtle but real. The best scenes are when combinations of the four interact. The title conceit, a real object in a pawnshop, is obtuse, and as a plot device jarring, a blaring circus in the middle of all these restrained beiges and grays. But he had to call the book something. For the dedicated only, as you may have suspected.

"interlocutor" count = 6 / 518 pages (includes "interlocutress")

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

Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Soft Bulletin (1999)

If Wikipedia is to be believed, this ninth album from the Flaming Lips is their masterpiece. Dig a little deeper and you find the people making the claim are Amazon verified purchasers, but whatever. That's Wikipedia for you! The Soft Bulletin and the album that followed were also the high point of the trio's fame, for those inclined to embrace or reject on that basis. That puts them basically on the rise here. But I wish someone would make a case for this album, which always seems to come up short for me. Actually, I'll say that one song at a time listened to closely can be rewarding—that makes it workable anyway in a multi-CD shuffle type of mode. (Maybe in that regard it merits the comparisons to Pet Sounds, which I sometimes suspect have more to do with the theremin.) The moody brood of "What Is the Light?" and the soothing swamp of "The Observer." The plangent tender sadness of "The Spiderbite Song." The screaming glories of "The Gash." The aching throb of "Race for the Prize," the album opener and one of the two singles. The Peter Mokran mix of the other single, "Waitin' for a Superman," which hums with a bracing natural sweetness. Natural sweetness, in fact, is one of the band's enduring and greatest strengths. All this points to what I love most about the album that came next and my favorite by them, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, a one-of-a-kind that proceeds out of children's fantasies but remarkably with almost no cloying sentimentalities. Just the weirdness and the goodness—and so beautiful. I think my problem with the Flaming Lips might be that they're good at things which don't naturally coexist. They have a penchant for psychedelicized studio wonkery, with harsh edges that scrape at your head, which famously produced Zaireeka, a 4-CD album in which all four discs are intended to be played simultaneously. They have a reputation as a great live act—I'm sorry I never saw them in the '90s. They're not afraid of noise. And yet they can write the sweetest pop confections. In the songwriting they appear to act as a unit as all songs are credited equally to the band's three principles, Wayne Coyne, Steven Drozd, and Michael Ivins. Or maybe my problem is that drummer Drozd's playing is so intrusive, too loud and ornate and too often into the middle of everything. Obviously this is as intended—a feature not a bug. So I'll take my bad with my good. Maybe it bolsters the rock bona fides to have all that random booming and stamping going on, or something, but it's wearying. I'm sticking with Yoshimi.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Blow-Up (1966)

UK / Italy / USA, 111 minutes
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Writers: Michelangelo Antonioni, Julio Cortazar, Tonino Guerra, Edward Bond
Photography: Carlo Di Palma
Music: Herbie Hancock, Yardbirds, Lovin' Spoonful
Editor: Frank Clarke
Cast: David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, John Castle, Veruschka von Lehndorff, Sarah Miles, Yardbirds

Somehow it always seems to slip my mind that Blow-Up—the front end of a great double feature with Blow Out—is a movie by director Michelangelo Antonioni. All the evidence is there in the strange way it moves and refrains from meaning, of course, notably at the ending, yet Blow-Up is so steeped in the "Swinging London" version of the day-glo '60s that it seems qualitatively set apart from his earlier monochrome exercises such as L'Avventura and L'Eclisse. In fact, Blow-Up would pair equally with any movie that takes on the '60s as we understand them now—Midnight Cowboy, for example, or Repulsion. The Yardbirds famously show up in a can't-miss cameo, even if they are only called on to ape the Who.

But the maddening elusive ambiguities, along with the wondrously strange and beautiful imagery, are there as they always are in an Antonioni picture. In Blow-Up, as one example of his meticulous aesthetic, Antonioni relied on a strict color palette that required some repainting—including of roadways— to get things to the right shades and hues. Between Blow-Up and L'Avventura, the most obvious trait in common is Antonioni's misleading approach to mystery. His ideas about mystery are more on the lines of philosophy—e.g., what is the meaning of this existence we are in?—and less about whodunits and capers. Yet both pictures focus on crimes (or at least a reasonable likelihood of crimes) which by intent are then never resolved. If that's your thing, come and get it.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

"Train" (1972)

Story by Joy Williams not available online.

Like first sentences, single-word titles are a bit of an art form in their own right. In this series, we've seen a few different ways to do it: "Akhnilo" (made-up word), "Cathedral" (portentous image), "Charles" (character), "Departures" (poignant image), "Helping" (multifaceted), "Moonwalk" (historical specific), and so on. Joy Williams's choice, for the last story in the collection edited by Tobias Wolff, is pretty good, more or less in the multifaceted vein. In the first place, the events in this story take place on a train ride from D.C. to Florida. In the second place, adults are modeling behavior for children to learn from. The two main characters are 10-year-old girls, Danica and Jane. Danica has spent the summer with Jane and Jane's family while Danica's mother takes the time to sell her house and prepare for a second marriage. It's September now and the train is bearing them all home—Danica, Jane, and Jane's parents. Danica and Jane are at a stage where they are a little tired of one another, while each still recognizes the other is all she has. The summer is ending and both have trepidations about the immediate future. Meanwhile, Jane's parents are your basic awful couple, full of sarcasm and bile toward one another, which they cheerfully broadcast at will to both girls. Late in the story Danica asks Jane's father, "Do you think Jane and I will be friends forever?" He responds, "Definitely not. Jane will not have friends. Jane will have husbands, enemies, and lawyers." He then goes on, "I'm glad you enjoyed your summer, Dan, and I hope you're enjoying your childhood. When you grow up, a shadow falls. Everything's sunny and then this big goddamn wing or something passes overhead." Note the momentary lapse into Salinger in this key passage, perhaps the most important in the story. Jane's father is probably right about Jane's future, as this story is particularly good at etching the characters of the two girls. As for the bickering adult couple, their fighting seemed more comical than sad. Their putdowns are too often too witty, and so is much of their behavior—they have to be entertaining each other at least a little. When Jane's mother passes a note to Danica for Jane's father, for example, he eats it without reading it. They just don't seem that embittered. There's not the feeling of two people clawing each other apart, as seen in fractured family tales elsewhere. I'm saying that like it's a bad thing, I know. It actually feels like relief that there might be some hope for this relationship. I'm just not sure that's what was intended—which maybe dates it some.

The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories, ed. Tobias Wolff