Thursday, August 23, 2007

"Depression: A Buyer's Guide": Unlikely but Interesting Espionage

"Depression: A Buyer's Guide," the latest spy novel by veteran master spy writers C. Immanuel Anderson and Kairi Gin Beckstein — yes, they're pen names — and the fifth volume in the "Blue Dagger" series, features Sophie Martoné, the daughter of the recently-assassinated Jesus and Lue Martoné. Readers will recall Sophie as the precocious but unbalanced girl who had grown up in the previous four volumes. In some sense, the "Blue Dagger" series is turning into a literary cycle centered around Sophie; the interpretation carries some weight if one considers Beckstein's comments in her 2006 interview in the London Review of Books. (No need to dwell on the interview here.)

Although "Depression" stands on its own as a complete novel, knowledge of the previous volumes does help one enjoy the read. In the first novel, "And God Said Lue," Sophie was born and provided a subplot of possible autism or other retardation that her parents had to wrestle with. In the second novel, "Three's a Charm," she was the toddler with idiot-savant tendencies. In the third novel, "A View to a Prelude," Sophie was a shy gel of six separated from her parents. "View" was the first novel where Sophie played a significant role in the main plot of the book, coming of age — inasmuch as a six-year old can come of age — while on the run in rural Uzbekistan, under the protection of a Japanese samurai/spy and a composer marked for having hidden code in his music. The fourth novel gave us Sophie, estranged from her parents, in the company of her samurai/spy tutor, and in her thirteen-year-old view, her future husband and lover (though she wasn't sure what the latter implied...exactly). Readers will recall the final chapter of the fourth novel, "Xanthia River," which spoils the readers with a touching reconciliation between Sophie and her parents, which is soon followed by their deaths.

"Depression" presents us with a sixteen-year-old Sophie Martoné, suffering from clinical depression that has obtained from both her underlying emotional problems and the loss of her parents. Depressed, Sophie is listless and mentally vulnerable, which makes her a prime target for interrogators who want information she may or may not have about her late parents. The secrets in question will not lead to the end of the world if they're discovered, but the skill of Anderson & Beckstein's writing is such that their plot doesn't need a catastrophe to be compelling reading. This is a refreshing change from the typical spy/action novel, especially of late, and "Depression" is all the more powerful for it.

The conceit of "Depression" is the stubborn inquisitor whose assumed name is Jack Ketch, the ancient moniker of the hangman. Jack, with his one-track mind, is convinced that the only way to reliably get information from a person is through the application of electricity. But he is all too clever by half, and he ends up giving Sophie the electroshock therapy that releases her from her prison of depression, if only temporarily. When he puts her into a temporarily-healed state, he learns that she wicked foe who enjoys a lifetime apprenticeship in being a super-spy of the James Bond variety.

With this plot established, the novel follows the cycles of depression, electrical torture, temporary cure, escape, depression, and so on, that describes the unfolding of the story. This leitmotif is neither boring nor repetitive, but instead lays out a rhythm that makes the novel all the more enjoyable.

The authors of "Depression" have done their homework, and only a psychopath could envy the research they must have done to make their torture not believable but realistic. Even more impressive how they've incorporated the fact that torture just doesn't work very well, and at the same time they've given compelling reason to believe that Jack is successful enough to keep his position of authority. Their research into mental disorders like depression is refreshing as well; even though the electrical torture qua therapy is an Olympian leap of faith, the rest of the story makes this suspension of disbelief an easy task.

As usual in the "Blue Dagger" series, the nature or origin of the villains is more a McGuffin than anything else. The pleasure is in the dialog, in the adventures, and in trying to figure out the plot. Here Anderson & Beckstein deliver as they always have: combining his scholarship in the classics and her scholarship in logic, they weave a tale where plot twists are exist only for those who cannot figure them out in advance. And I reckon, those who can solve the puzzles on the first try are few.

In conclusion, "Depression: A Buyer's Guide" is a delightful and challenging addition to the "Blue Dagger" series. Sophie truly comes of age in this novel, and she reminds us of our own weaknesses and flaws.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

"Dogwood Blues":

Shelly Senders's tenth novel Dogwood Blues is a book you most likely will not be able to actually read. Although the book is being published by the thousands as I type this review, and by a major publisher, the most likely place to find it will be the single copy in the Library of Congress. And that copy will most likely be purged by Independence Day. I've never seen nor heard of a suppression-censorship job done so quietly, so extensively since Simone Claque's Breakneck Earring was published in 1956. Breakneck was my first published book review, and go ahead and search for it, because you'll never find it.

Few, if any, will recall the events of the suppression censorship that swallowed Claque's writing, career, and life. Verily none can recall, or even find documents on Claque's arrest, deportation, and ultimate hanging in Buenos Aires; the sham trial, torture, and confession; the Águas de Março newsreel footage of 1975 and the thoroughly-debunked conspiracy that followed.

Suppression censorship is a dark shadow over American publishing, one that has been roundly ignored and hidden by historians, literati, and government alike. The case of Breakneck Earring was a watershed, however, demonstrating the fully totalitarian capabilities of the United States's federal government, if only over a very small, select slice of life. Indeed, so powerful is the Writ of Suppression and Censorship in the Lands, Waters, & Borders of The United States of America, as still-classified-but-discovered 1893 opinion of the American Supreme Court refers to it, that the most explosive text to fall under the writ's purview, Breakneck, still managed to stay under the radar of Soviet intelligence. Surely Breakneck could have incited riots in the States, and that's a bare minimum. Yet, fifty-one years after the event, I still cannot get my signed copy of Claque's novel from the FBI. Still too dangerous, or so they claim.

Senders's Dogwood is shaping up to be the new height of the Writ's power. A dubious honor to be sure, and I fear for Senders's person as well as her career. What is so bizarre about this already-bizarre situation is that Dogwood Blues has no appearance of being even remotely subversive. Yet the suppression-censorship machinery is working so efficiently that I cannot legally name the publisher. And compared to what I was told when my office was raided and my copy of Dogwood was confiscated last week, the threats I received back in '56 pale by comparison.

Dogwood Blues is a light, breezy — yet deeply sophisticated — novel about a young girl growing up in a Detroit suburb. Lexi Webber lives in a pleasant, comfortable two-story colonial on an acre of land her father purchased twenty years before, when the community was still farmland. Lexi's life is wholly ordinary; her parents are married, but sometimes have rough spots; her siblings are close, but with Norman Rockwell disagreements; she gets respectable grades and has friends, but gets some hassle in school popularity conflicts; &c. By all appearances, the novel should have no conflict, no plot, no story. Yet, it does.

When Lexi learns that her home hasn't been there forever, as she had implicitly assumed, her back yard takes on a whole new character. There is a significant patch of dogwood in the back yard, the center of which is actually a patch of clover. Lexi loves to spend her time there, especially now that her imagination has a new world to explore.

Lexi dreams of a fantasy world in her backyard, a gateway to a universe of her own creation. Long story short, she has an existential crisis when her imagination seems to be getting the best of her. But the crisis is subtle: hints of motion out of the corner of her eye, fleeting glimpses of magical beasts, her parents briefly showing showing their mystical selves.

Lexi confronts her parents and accuses them of being magicians from a magical world. This accusation comes after long, searching discussions with her two best friends Ben and Sarah, and she has steeled herself to be poo-pooed and dismissed. Her parents, actuaries we've come to learn, do not deny the accusations. Not at all.

Her parents' non-denial pulls the rug out from Lexi's feet. Having seen plenty of television and movies, and after consulting with her friends, she's ready and expecting her crisis to be merely imagination. But now she's left with the question her father asked: "How do you know we're not wizards?" To solve this riddle, she finds herself engaged in deeper and deeper explorations of knowing with the magical beasts around her, and her sense of reality further crumbles as she finds both possible realities increasingly improbable.

I must confess that Dogwood Blues is genuinely brilliant. I'm not an ignorant man. I'm often bored, and even insulted, by books or films that are praised for their depth and intelligence. Dogwood blew my mind. I've not experienced a book so powerful for fifty-one years, but unlike that other book, Dogwood is a playful exploration of a child's imagination or a deep study of what it means know; what it is not is subversive or seditious.

Whatever it is that has prompted the White House to exercise the Writ, the reason for the suppression censorship is beyond my imagination.

One hopes that some day Writ of Suppression and Censorship in the Lands, Waters, & Borders of The United States of America will be struck down by the Court or reversed by the Congress. One hopes that the Internet and the proliferation of encryption technology will provide deeper, much deeper information. One hopes that breathtaking novels like Breakneck Earring and Dogwood Blues will be allowed to enjoy the success they deserve.

Because that's what we deserve.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

"Skunk X": A Tale of Two Lovers

Skunk X, like all tales of fiction, has the disclaimer that all characters and events bear resemblance to reality — or previous fictional accounts — purely by accident. Does anybody take those seriously? Frankly, I can't believe Lindsay K. Shtupp's new novel of unrequited love made it past the publisher's legal department, for the story clearly revolves around Pepé Le Pew and his eternal victim Penelope Pussycat, also known as Fifi, Fabrette, and "the black cat."

The book tracks three parallel views of the relationship between skunk and cat: it alternates between a clinical third-person view, Pepé's first-person view, and Penelope's first-person view of events in their ersatz courtship. The premise seems obvious after the fact, and it proves a wonderful study of perceptions in one of life's most emotional aspects: love.

Typical of Skunk X is the first event, where skunk and cat first meet. The book opens in post-war Morocco, where the skunk is disembarking from a merchant vessel from France by way of Algeria. The clinical view — all clinical views are illustrated by famed Tibetan artist Sangmu Yesche, who had never seen the Warner Bros. creations when she created the art for this book — follows the fez-donned skunk as he wanders blissfully through the streets, taking in the local flavor. Eventually he espies the cat, who just had a white stripe painted down her back in a typical whitewashing accident. This first view of the opening scene is key in establishing the skunk's identity.

Armed with a nasty and effective defense, the skunk finds the city and its denizens to be friendly and generous to the point of being fulsome. He is clearly oblivious to himself qua skunk, and not realizing that he is so threatening, he finds himself in a world where everybody is friendly (if eager to get to some other place) and eager to please; the skunk can do no wrong. Lacking normal social limits, he takes jokes a little too far, stands a little too close, is a little too friendly.

When the skunk first meets the cat, we see he is interested and forward, yet in a way both clumsy and shy. He is endearing to the reader, and he doesn't understand that the cat is repulsed by him: she acts just like everybody else, and he has never met a person he didn't consider to be a friend.

The skunks view of the first meeting is now predictable, but well written and engrossing. He is smitten and a bit confused by the cat's game of playing hard-to-get, but she doesn't express distaste, she just moves on. Her perspective is the mirror image, where he is the aggressive creep who doesn't get the hint.

By showing us these three views of their relationship, Shtupp forces us to reconsider our relationships and the signal we (usually fail to) send and (usually fail to) receive.

I've decided to edit out more than half of this review; you really don't need an in-depth description of the events to get the idea of what the book is about. The gist should be clear, so we needn't explain it any further. What unfolds is a delightful character study, exploring the relationship between two multidimensional characters, with the reality and their perceptions.

Lastly, I must note that Yesche's artwork makes this novel possible: her illustrations are so expressive and so unlike the Pepé Le Pew we came to know so long ago. Absent her brilliant artistic eye, Skunk X would have been a miserable failure. But Yesche was the artist chosen to do the work, and Shtupp's book itself becomes a brilliant work of art as well.

Monday, May 14, 2007

"Daisy's Salad Days": Did NOT Belong in the Young Adult Section

The new novel Daisy's Salad Days by poet Mortimer Frempsch is billed as "a magical fairy tale for teen girls of all ages." I discovered the book in the young-adult section of my local bookstore when the inscription "M. Frempsch" caught my eye. I was well familiar with the poet's work — I was the sole literary critic back in the '70s with the wherewithal to review his entire Barbecue Trilogy, three books of poetry: Bugger 'da Landlord 'ya Fecking Twat; Feck Yerself, Miss Marzipan; and the infamous Kill 'da Wimmin' & Sod the Sheep! Thirty years later, the name Frempsch still catches my eye.

What I would have hoped would be obvious is that Frempsch's Salad Says is not fit for young adults of any age. This is a book that makes Naked Lunch look like a Dr. Seuss tale, both in content and in coherence. If one imagines Naked Lunch as a view from inside the throes of deep heroine addiction well before the information revolution, one can grasp Salad Days as a terminal meth trip in the heart of Tokyo, 2007.

It is difficult to review this piece 0f work — yes, that was pejorative — in any real sense. It appears to revolve around a group of rural American ex-pats living in Tokyo, who get it into their heads to create their own meth lab in their cramped high-rise apartment. They succeed in brewing an abundant batch of the drug, but immediately start a conflagration that forces them to flee the building lest they be consumed by the fire. Now homeless and with more meth than they know what to do with, they reason that they'll be caught for sure and done for murder, since two of their mates died in the fire, so they might as well go out with a bang.

From there the story dissolves into a frenzy of crime, sex, and drugs involving all manner of objects, animals, and people. Surely fueled by Frempsch's well-known and highly-publicized amphetamine psychosis — his friends and family report that his habits haven't changed since his infamous appearance on Laugh-in, and his doctor has personally speculated to me that Frempsch long ago made his deal with the Devil — Salad Days pushes to break every taboo imaginable, and it does so in the most graphic, explicit, and brutal ways conceivable. This 1,243-page magnum opus of filth contains no introspection, no philosophy, and little description of anything other than the deeper depths of degradation that each consecutive sentence can bring. In that regard, Frempsch's Daisy's Salad Days is truly a masterpiece: a tour de force that makes even the infamous film Flower of Flesh and Blood look like an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies.

In the end, Daisy's Salad Days is a sick and twisted work from a sick and twisted mind. It's only redeeming quality is it's unflinching embrace of the worst there is. For those who find such work to have literary merit, then this book will be sure to please. But what is true regardless of one's taste is that this book does not belong in the young-adult section of your local bookstore.

I strongly suggest parents and adults of character go immediately to your bookstore and ask for this volume to be properly shelved.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

"Bone Saw": Fun, Upbeat Bloodbath

One doesn't often expect a story of a sadistic serial killer to be a so-called laugh riot — perhaps a black comedy, one might suppose — but somehow, some way, Emily Johnstone's first novel, Bone Saw, is a lighthearted, romantic comedy as seen through the eyes of one victim of the twenty-first century's most prolific serial killer, the fictional Ricky "Straight Razor" Nickelson.

It is easy to view Bone Saw as a departure from Johnstone's previous literary works; she has enjoyed a respected career as one of America's favorite children's authors. But, careful reading of her work for children reveals a deep leitmotif, especially her children's books Notty's Third Thumb, William The Roach Knight, and most particularly Ricky Nickelson's Playhouse. "What is this theme?" you ask. To that question I say, let's consider the book.

Bone Saw is set in Las Vegas circa 2065 and centers on nanotech dealer cum victim J. Horton. Horton has designed an "enmac," slang for nanotech machine, that can be set to destroy a particular person's biological material. Not on a scale to destroy a person, but enough to clean a criminal's latent evidence from a crime scene. When Nickelson learns of Horton's invention, he kidnaps the inventor and puts him to work.

The rest of the story involves Horton's efforts to develop new enmacs that will simultaneously keep Nickelson free from capture (and thus save his own life) and tip off the police to Nickelson's identity (and thus save his own life). Horton's foil is the police detective Jenna McTitson, a nanotech engineer of low caliber, but who must learn her trade to stop Nickelson's killing spree.

Johnstone's brilliance as an author shows in her ability to make this story funny and light; it's Gothic horror, Italian gore, and Bob-Hope humor all rolled into one coherent tale. She accomplishes this through her deft dehumanization of Nickelson's victims, which we see through Horton's eyes. Bearing no culpability, and needing to free himself from the horror that will quickly break his mind otherwise, Horton quickly detaches from reality and views the proceedings as a cartoon akin to Bugs Bunny and similar Warner Bros. creations.

The reader quickly falls for this cartoon reality, and many of the laughs come in the transitions between Horton's reality and McTitson's reality. At each point of transition, Johnstone openly mocks the reader for the beliefs and views the reader had during the previous reality; she breaks the fourth wall in a way that exposes not the fiction of the novel, but the reader's silly choice to believe what she is reading.

More fun follows from the discussions of cartoon Horton and reality Nickelson, as the books becomes a subtle satire that could be aptly named Zen and the Art of Pure Evil or The Tao of Dahmer. This is where Johnstone has set herself up to capture her children's audience as it grows to enjoy mature works of pop fiction.

The final source of comedy is the distant, budding romance between cartoon Horton and reality McTitson as they communicate through simple codes in their enmacs as she hunts Nickelson and he hides same.

All told, Bone Saw is an outstanding debut novel, and I for one am looking forward to Johnstone's next mature outing.