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.