Thursday, July 05, 2012

The Wisdom of Shoshanna

Totally aware that I am late to the love-in, but how great is "Girls" on HBO? So great that I watched the entire first season in two sittings, and my stomach muscles hurt from alternately laughing and clenching with sympathetic anxiety.

And, in honor of a new classic, The Huffington Post brings us "Sh*t Shoshanna Says."And, for some unknown and annoying reason I can't add the video itself, so click the link below.

Book Review: Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville


I can't believe how long it took me to pick up a book by China Mieville, and now I can't shut up about about him. Perdido Street Station is stellar and wholly original, truly literary weird fiction from a writer determined to subvert the reigning sci-fi/fantasy cliches. (In fact, Mieville is notorious for having referred to Tolkien as "the wen on the arse of fantasy literature.") Nevertheless, Perdido Street Station is, like LotR, essentially an epic quest tale, in which a mismatched group of everyday people must face overwhelming odds to rid their world of a menace so great -- and seriously unsettling -- it might mean the end of civilization as they know it. But that's where the similarities to "traditional" fantasy end.

 I know several otherwise perfectly sane and intelligent people who refuse to read Mieville on the grounds that he is "too hard" (as in "I'm not in grad school anymore, so fiction shouldn't hurt my head," hard). And to be sure, his postmodern political education credentials and ginormous vocabulary are intimidating; but Mieville is his (our? whatever.) generation's reigning master of the weird, and his strange and lyrical mastery of the English language is currently unparalleled in the genre.

Like a sci-fi Rushdie or Dickens, Mieville revels in detail and lush descriptive language, and his city of New Crobuzon -- with its vile slums and peculiar brothels, political machinations and crime networks, artists and renegade scientists, "xenian" races, sentient constructs and horrific "Re-made" underclass -- reflects world-building on such a massively detailed scale that by the time you've finished you feel as if you could navigate its strange, seething streets yourself. On a few occasions, especially as the many narrative threads start coming together and the nail-biting climax approaches, these dense descriptive passages feel as if they are bogging down the tale, but their intrinsic beauty and alien horror are well worth the time spent in detour.

As a sidenote, Perdido Street Station is the first of three books set in the world of Bas-Lag. The second, The Scar, is not really dependent on having read the first, but The Iron Council (review coming soon) really is. Read them all, and I guarantee you will never forget Bas-Lag.

Book Review: The Light is the Darkness, by Laird Barron


Conrad Navarro, modern gladiator with a genius IQ, is the apotheosis of all Laird Barron’s previous tough guy protagonists. He is their perfection – the imago, if you will – a poetic image which Barron invokes repeatedly in his body of work. The story of Conrad's transformative journey is violent, hallucinogenic, and terribly sad by turns; it's also surprisingly challenging in its execution.

Known simply as “the American,” Conrad makes his living fighting in ludi (singular ludis, after the games held in conjunction with Roman religious festivals): secret and meticulously orchestrated blood sports in which combatants fight to the death for the pleasure of the wealthy and powerful. Between bouts, Conrad obsessively searches for his missing sister Imogene, an FBI agent gone off the reservation on her own dark odyssey: she’s hunting the ancient, elusive and sinister Dr. Drake, a radical experimental physician who may have killed their cancer-stricken brother Ezra in a botched treatment . . . or was it an unspeakable ritual? Following her trail, Conrad finds the cryptic messages she has left for him, parlaying each into another step closer to his beloved “Genie,” and his own fate.

However, nothing in Conrad’s surreal world is as it seems. What really happened to Ezra and the others under Dr. Drake’s care? Why did his mother drive herself off a cliff, and what drove his father – less literally – around the bend? Why does Conrad, “a special case,” according to dear old Dad, seem impervious to death, and get stronger, heal faster by the day? And where has Imogene really gone?

What Conrad fails to grasp until it’s far too late is the extent of the conspiracy that enfolds his family, or the cruel cosmic game in which they are merely pieces on a board. In his blundering search for the truth, he has caught the attention of the darkness, and he will have to pay.

Short, fast and unapologetically brutal, The Light is the Darkness is a gut-punch that shares more stylistically with Barron’s first anthology The Imago Sequence than it does with his most recent (and more subtle) novel, The Croning . . . though one does get the feeling that all of Barron’s stories are taking place in the same savage world, that the cosmic horrors we meet are related, and that human beings almost always exist primarily as “provender” for their obscene needs.

At first I was mildly disappointed with LitD; so much happens so fast
 . . .  it's like like bright strobes illuminate various setpieces, and then, before you can make the necessary connections, it’s over. But it had crept into my brain and wouldn’t leave me alone, so I went back to it. Though it's just novella-length, its fairly experimental style requires a closer look in order to fully appreciate the layers of imagery and sometimes nonlinear plot trajectory. Upon a second reading, symbolic patterns and foreshadowing emerge, and cryptic hallucinogenic stream-of-consciousness passages that seemed intrusions on (or excursions from) the main storyline click into place and make Conrad's story richer and ultimately more horrific. For me, real enjoyment of this incredibly weird book demanded study. The Light is the Darkness may not be anybody’s idea of light summer reading, but once again Laird Barron challenges the prevailing assumption that so-called "genre fiction" can't also be intellectually challenging.