Tuesday, April 26, 2011
A well without water. A bird that can't fly. An alley with no exit. (p. 66)
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is the seventh novel of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, and it is, from what I've read, often considered his best work. The book is filled with the exciting, the visceral, and the bizarre – but all of those elements are so loosely joined together that the overall work lacks the power of its components. If it was a song, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle would be a dynamic one, filled with different instruments, melodies and passages, but it would be played so quietly that you’d only be able to hear its power if you leaned close and listened hard.
Trying to sum up The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in a few words is an impossibility. It's easy to latch onto causes, but the effects soon spiral out of control and comprehension. In the beginning, main character Toru Okada takes brief breaks from his life to listen to the call of the Wind-Up Bird, a never glimpsed creature that makes a sound like a creaking spring. In his innocuous home, with the Wind-Up Bird’s call reverberating in his mind and with an unclaimed bird statue lording over the entryless and exitless alley, Toru Okada’s life falls apart. In Murakami’s world, the smallest of things can be momentous, and Kumiko – Toru’s wife – worries that their cat’s escape might herald the end of their marriage. Trying to placate her, Toru agrees to search for the cat, but, even once psychics are called in to aid in the hunt, the step is too little too late. The cat is not found, and Kumiko soon vanishes from Toru’s life, asking him to never try and contact her.
Throughout the book, Toru is the epitome of passivity. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a book filled with interesting characters, and that’s a good thing, because Toru has damn little will of his own. For most of the book, our narrator is simply a pinball knocked from one dominating presence to another. When Toru says that he will search for the cat, his conviction lasts just long enough for him to walk outside and get roped into a conversation with his sixteen year old neighbor, May Kasahara. When Toru says that he will search for Kumiko, what he means by that is that he will set at home and hope that she contacts him. When Toru first meets Kumiko’s brother, Noboru Wataya, Toru is disgusted by the man’s glitzy but empty persona and insists that he, too, is a worthwhile individual, even if his life is in every respect the opposite of Wataya’s. But, for the vast majority of the novel, he never does anything to even express his dislike of the man, let alone to actually harm him. Toru thinks by sitting in his house and listening to music, and he spends his free time staring at passersby and zoning out. The one active decision he makes in the first chunk of the novel (or, more accurately, just before the novel’s beginning) is his decision to quit his job, but that hardly leads to a series of self motivated actions.
The idea of responsibility runs through The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the uncontrollable past a subtle and inexorable influence on the present, the grind of history coming forth with the spring-like call of the Wind-Up Bird. Kumiko is driven away from Toru because of what she did behind his back and because of what she did not tell him. Creta Kano spent much of her life simply drifting through, immune to all concepts of pleasure and pain, and she’s only now trying to build something from her past. Lieutenant Mamiya and Mr. Honda are both still coming to terms with Japan’s Manchurian war, and May Kasahara and her deceased boyfriend both lived on the edge to try and exert control over their fate, and it’s that need for power that drives her to do increasingly reckless things.
And yet, of all the characters, Toru Okada, our first person narrator, exhibits this theme the least. He simply drifts from one side character’s causal chain to another’s, barely affected by his own past for the simple reason that he’s done precious little to set anything in motion. May Kasahara might nickname him Mr. Wind-Up Bird, but our viewpoint character is, truth be told, more voyeur than participant in the vast majority of the novel’s events.
At the very end, Toru takes control of his own destiny for the first time. One could argue, then, that the novel’s central struggle was his attempt to overcome his own passivity – but such a claim simply does not hold up. For the first five hundred off pages of the book, Toru makes no attempt to overcome his personality, and, if the ending’s transition to motion is supposed to be our climax, the overall book would be built around a narrative conflict so underdeveloped as to be effectively nonexistent.
In lieu of our protagonist making decisions, the story is moved forward by the secondary characters. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a large, scattershot narrative with enough plot threads to easily strangle oneself in. On the surface, it would be easy to see the book as not merely messy but as a mess, as it seems to struggle against itself at every opportunity. Characters come in, dominate the story, and then depart forever without a backwards glance, the questions that they posed looking confused and lost in their wake.
And yet, as you read on, the threads begin to weave back upon one another. I don’t mean that there are nicely wrapped up climaxes and a careful laying out of cause and effect. Instead, Murakami builds a collage-like narratives out of similarities in theme and place, of faces that appear in two otherwise unconnected stories, and out of ideas that can be taken out of one life and applied to another.
Toru goes searching for his cat. He doesn’t find it, but he does meet May Kasahara. As a condition of their marrying, Toru and Kumiko are forced to see the clairvoyant Mr. Honda by Kumiko’s parents. He never ends up helping them with their marriage, but he does, after his death, send Lieutenant Mamiya to deliver a keepsake to Toru. Upon delivery, Toru asks Mamiya to tell him how Mamiya and Honda met. The story begins with that, but, by the time Mamiya and Toru’s acquaintance is through, it’s moved far beyond a simple meeting story and has left Honda behind in all senses but as a catalyst. The keepsake itself turns out to be empty. And so on. As the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that the lack of resolution is at its core, and so it’s fitting that the climax gives us a measure of understanding, but does not give us what we were seeking, leaving Toru’s ultimate goals unfulfilled even while salving a small portion of his need for knowledge.
Of course, there’s a vast difference between admiring and enjoying something, and Murakami’s narrative is in many ways the ultimate tease. Question after question is posed, but the board is never cleared, the answers never provided. Simulating all of life’s digressive messiness on the page is an impressive undertaking, but it’s not necessarily a satisfying one. All of which isn’t to imply that The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a hollow read. In lesser hands, a game of unresolved tension would simply result in the reader putting down their chips and walking home. Murakami, however, is too gifted to allow one to disassociate oneself that easily.
Murakami’s writing provides an easy intimacy with his character’s and his world. His prose is descriptive and evocative, his characters as sympathetic as they are incomprehensible. Murakami has the rare gift of making the mundane feel bizarre, of making the little inconsistencies in life seem like the keys to comprehending our entire existence. For him, it's not even the question that matters but the possibility of questions. As our narrator learns towards the end of the novel : Fact may not be truth, and truth may not be factual. […] The important question for Cinnamon was not what his grandfather did but what his grandfather might have done. He learned the answer to this question as soon as he succeeded in telling the story. (p. 525)
All of which isn’t to demean the big events of the novel. When Murakami does decide to bring one of his various threads to a climax, the results are simply breathtaking. There are moments in this novel that are almost unbearably rich. In his tale to Toru, Lieutenant Mamiya recounts how he was trapped at the bottom of a well. For almost the entire day, everything was utterly dark. And then, for a few precious moments, the sun shone down. In the end, those rays of sun may represent everything or nothing, but while the light is illuminating Mamiya’s leg it is easy to feel that we are as close as the character to suddenly knowing and understanding everything that we’ve ever wanted to know.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a novel as powerful as it is messy. This is one of the best articulations of our search for meaning that I’ve ever read, but it’s also one of the most difficult, in large part due to Murakami’s refusal to ever step beyond his parameters and bring things to a conclusion that is deeply craved, if not necessarily fitting. There is no denying that this is an interesting work, but I’m not sure that it’s necessarily an enjoyable one.
Saturday, April 23, 2011
To me, twitter fiction sounded like a bit of a joke when I first heard of it. But the one undeniable upside of the stuff is that it's short, and I figured that I would, in a worst case scenario, be wasting no more than a few seconds. So I read some. And it was good. Not that all of it was, of course, but the pieces that worked lingered and twisted about in my mind long after I finished them and had moved on to other, less twitter-related activities.
Being a writer – or, at least, someone who likes to think of themselves as a writer – I then tried to write one of these strange beasts. It didn't go so well. After trying a few times, however, some moderately interesting things came out, and I'm not the only one who thought they were rather snazzy. Cuento Magazine will be publishing one of my pieces on May 24th, Trapeze Magazine another on August 30th. And yes, I will shove both pieces down your throats again when they come out, have no fear.
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
There have been twenty-two apocalypses to date. There were now four distinct variations of humanity roaming the Earth – six, if you counted the undead.
It had been suggested that there really should have been a new word to describe "the end of everything forever," but most people had stopped noticing, much less caring, after the tally hit double digits. Not to mention the failure of "forever" in living up to its potential.
The last apocalypse wasn't even considered a cataclysm by most major governments.
It was just a Thursday. (p. 7)
Eirik Gumeny's Exponential Apocalypse is one hundred and ninety-five pages and eighty four chapters. In those pages, everything that transpires can be summed up as one of the following: Explosions, Slapstick, Exposition, or Dialogue. This is a novel wholly unconcerned with traditional ideals like setting up characters, like pacing or moderation, or like logical and foreshadowed plots. No, Exponential Apocalypse is focused on spectacle, and the spectacle on display is hilarious.
It's difficult to envision a successful plot summary, but I'll try to at least hit a few of the major elements (there are, in case you're wondering, a truckload of generally unrelated characters doing totally unrelated and hilarious things). A group of three reincarnated world leaders is passing time, barbecuing, and getting into scraps with assorted tough guys and mutants. Employees at a Holiday Inn happen to be cyborgs or Norse gods and grouse about fetching extra pillows. An Aztec god philosophizes about world domination with English majors. A telekinetic squirrel…
…see, this just isn't possible. Exponential Apocalypse is not, as we've already established, particularly concerned with making sense or building to much of anything. Instead, the various groups of characters wander around, get into ludicrous mishaps, and somehow get out again, if they don’t end up being destroyed in some incredibly gruesome fashion. There is, in the end, a main plot, but it doesn't come into play until we're closer to the end than the beginning, and the feeling of random what the fuck?-ness doesn't end until the last page is turned.
An example of the humor is probably warranted by this point. Our introduction to one of the main characters – the aforementioned Aztec deity – is this:
Quetzalcoatl stared at the clock. The digital representation of time stared back.
Quetzalcoatl stared even harder at the clock. The time did not blink.
Quetzalcoatl stared as hard as he fucking could at the clock. The clock burst into flames.
Granted, this didn't stem so much from the staring as it did the clock's position on top of a lit stove, but Quetzalcoatl didn't care. He hated that clock.
Quetzalcoatl was not well. (p. 19)
All of this…quirkiness (a word that does not even come close to describing the monumental strangeness of this book) is made comprehensible by Gumeny's world building. As well no doubt come as no surprise, the Earth of Exponential Apocalypse is not subtly constructed. Ideas are brought up, then ramped up, and then, when there's nothing left to do with them, declared an apocalypse while the book goes on to find the next huge explosion. All of this is narrated in a humorous style that renders the novel's many info dumps entertaining. Often, the exposition is balanced by a scene – generally one involving some form of over the top violence – and the juxtaposition often works, though there is the occasional passage made weaker by the rests in between.
Much of the humor here comes from Gumeny's truly monolithic irreverence. Nothing mentioned is safe, and it's plain that Gumeny takes pleasure in smashing through your sensibilities as often, and as forcefully, as possible. English majors (Sixty Two: This One Goes Out To All the English Majors (p.139)) , American foreign policy (OK, fine, we'll do it your soft, fuzzy way," the president continued. "Release the murder drones." (p. 116)), and scientific responsibility (It probably wasn't the best idea cross-breeding a werewolf and an atomic mutant, engineering it to be excessively belligerent, starving it, and then insulting its mother repeatedly. (p. 56)) are just some of the things brutally attacked here. By the end, the whole thing can become a tad desensitizing, but Gumeny is generally able to get laughs from more than just shock, even if that is a significant part of his armory.
I realize that this is, really, a pretty poor review. I feel more tour guide than critic, just pointing out various aspects rather than really commenting on them. But I'm not sure what else there is to do. Exponential Apocalypse is crass, ludicrous, and occasionally nonsensical. It's also hilarious and entertaining. If you liked the Quetzalcoatl quote or the cover blurb, you'll like the book. If not, you'll despise it by the end. There's not much more to say.
Friday, April 15, 2011
My review of Mark Charan Newton's City of Ruin is up at Strange Horizons. For those coming over from Strange Horizons, my review of Newton's Nights of Villjamur is here.
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
To those reading who enjoy stories that end with noble goals reached, lofty morals upheld, and mankind left a little better for the experience, I would suggest closing this journal now, should you have stumbled upon it long after it separated from my corpse.
It only gets worse from here. (p. 9)
Black Halo is Sam Sykes's second novel. His first, Tome of the Undergates, had many interesting elements, but had an annoying or disappointing feature to match each of them. It was a new kid striding onto the dance floor with a bizarre style that was intriguing but didn't always work. Black Halo is him coming back the next year with not only his original maneuvers but also the skill to make them succeed. All of which, of course, is not to say that those maneuvers (or the preceding tortured metaphor) succeed all the time.
Black Halo is not a book focused on plot. Though there's a lot of action, the characters never advance significantly towards their goals. In my review of Tome of the Undergates, I said: At the beginning of the book, the characters have a magic book, hate each other, and have a series of interesting internal debates. At the end of the book, the characters have regained their magic book, still hate each other, and still have several philosophical puzzles to grapple with. Black Halo doesn't even cover that much ground. The characters start with a magic book, lose the magic book, and have yet to regain it by the time the book ends.
But that's not to say that the book stands still. When it comes to the overall plot, Black Halo doesn't so much move forwards as move sideways. That probably sounds like a condemnation, and it no doubt is to some extent, but the expansion in scale is massive and elevates the book above its predecessor. The majority of Black Halo follows the same adventurers as Tome of the Undergates did, but now there are numerous perspectives that give us further information on the Venarium, the Netherlings, and other groups. Tome of the Undergates was like following a specific, albeit important, sub plot of an epic fantasy. The events seen were interesting, but we were too close to them to grasp their importance. Black Halo, on the other hand, is like witnessing a widescale conflict – with a certain rogue group of adventurers running around in the middle of everyone's plans and wreaking delightful havoc.
The pace is half sprint and half crawl. Within scenes, events often move at a rapid clip, and circumstances often change drastically from one page to the next. In terms of the overall plot, however, it's not unusual to find a thirty or forty page segment that doesn't seem to move the characters in any particular direction. Overall, it's like sprinting into every nook and cranny on a long run and so not getting particularly far at all. The occasional faux-cliffhanger also makes its appearance, chapter endings where the tension would have been resolved with another eighth of a second (or sentence), but where, due to the book's multi-pov structure, the answer doesn't come for three dozen pages.
Still, such things are ameliorated by the general awesomeness of all the aforementioned nooks and crannies. Sykes's world is bizarre, varied, and, above all, interesting. Characters encounter friendly and talkative lizardmen, debate hallucinatory monkeys, antagonize gigantic sea serpents, piss fire and vomit acid after magical mishaps, and get into a dozen other varieties of trouble, trouble solved as often by further catastrophe as by the endangered's quick thinking of skills.
Most of our unmerry adventurers are more fleshed out this time around, and Sykes allows us to peer inside them a fair bit. Lenk, the group's leader, in particular comes into much clearer focus, and the conflicting voices in his head are ominous and speaking of great and dark things. His relationship with Kataria, too, advances, or at least goes deeper.
Of the other characters, Denaos grows the most. Interesting facts about his background come to life, and our glimpses inside the rogue's skull serve to make him more fascinating than despicable – or, at least, a mixture of both. Dreadaleon spends most of his time suffering rather badly from his overuse of magic in Tome of the Undergates. He's got some funny scenes, but his portions only get really interesting at the end.
Asper continues on her path of gods-doubting and strange-powers-experiencing. She's by far the most moral character of the bunch, and the question of the group's rightness (let alone righteousness) rests primarily in her evaluation, but she herself is still mostly an enigma. We get the broad outlines of her conflict, but she probably has the least sections of any of the major characters and reveals little in those she does have. Gariath spends most of his time alone or conversing with a certain ghost. Like in Tome of the Undergates, I found myself enjoying his character far more from other eyes than his own; his perspective is interesting in small doses, but his doom-drowned monologue can grow grating.
In addition to being amusingly written, every one of the character arcs above also share a major trait: repetition. Sykes has a deft hand for characterization and for momentous decisions, but his characters have the annoying habit of making those same decisions again and again. The first time Lenk surrenders control to the voices in his head is a powerful moment. Every time after that, however, suffers from the law of diminishing returns, and further debates on the issue feel redundant once an answer's been reached time and time again.
Sykes's prose is powerful and irreverent, and it's easy to imagine the malicious grin on his face as he sullies the most romantic and solemn of scenes with messy realities: The firelight bathed her sweat-slick skin in gold, battling the pervasive moonlight's determination to paint her silver, both defeated by the smudges of earth and mud that smeared her pale skin from where she had fallen more than a few times. (p. 350) That being said, Sykes does not just render all moments coarse. His writing is often even poetic, reveling in the edges of human experience and turning flaws into virtues, such as his characters' often "sweat-kissed" skin (p. 32). Furthermore, when it comes to his creations and environments, Sykes is capable of summoning grace and atmosphere to the scene:
The wind picked up, sending the mist roiling about her ankles and her torch's light flickering. It carried with it a stink of salt and the faded coppery stench of dried blood. The moon shifted overhead, exposing a scant trace of light over her.
And with it, a shadow. (p. 143)
There are still quite a few issues that bug me with Sykes's writing, but those issues have been, for the most part, relegated to a background role. If the Aeon's Gate series is a long stretch of road, the end of Black Halo leaves the reader with the feeling that they can still quite clearly see the beginning of the book – and, perhaps, even the beginning of the first book. But the stretch of ground covered was, nonetheless, an exhilarating journey filled with misadventures so preposterous that they cease to be anything other than freaking awesome. Black Halo is messy, meandering, funny, gory, exciting, and fun – all at the same time, all the time.
Sunday, April 10, 2011
April was a rather slight month for me when it comes to quantity. In part, that's due to the length of some of the books, but, more, it's the result of me reading a large number of magazines (Weird Tales, Asimov's, Analog, and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine) in the middle. In an attempt to make my short story coverage more sensible, I'm no longer going to keep track of the magazines so much as the stories themselves, something that's taking far longer to do than I thought and will have to wait till next month to debut. But enough about things that nobody besides I and my I-should-be-using-Excel word documents care about. Let's get to some books…
Cold Hand in Mine was my first experience with cult horror author Robert Aickman, and it wasn't a disappointment. Aickman writes understated but magical stories, tales that aren't horrific in the slightest but are, instead, unsettling and profound from start to finish. Review coming up.
Great Expectations surprised me. Though I've often heard Di-ckens described as a clever writer, I was still expecting a dry "classics" read. Instead, I got prose that sang with wit, even if it was often bogged down. I found that the middle dragged fiercely, but the book was still quite enjoyable over all.
This is the conclusion to the Malazan series, a series that – as longtime readers know – I have quite an affinity for. I would not say that The Crippled God is my favorite volume, nor would I even say it is particularly close to that honor, but I did find it a quite satisfactory conclusion, filled with the grandeur, tension, awe, and depth that I expect when I begin one of Erikson's tomes. If there were to be no more Malazan novels, I would be sad but would not feel cheated. I will be rereading Malazan in the future, and will be covering it in some fashion, though I'm unsure exactly what shape that coverage will take.
Kiernan's writing is dark, lurid, and vivid. Her stories are composites of desire, lust, and decay, and they're filled with lush imagery that begs to be savored. Review coming.
The Wise Man's Fear functions in much the same way as The Name of the Wind. The prose is lyrical and fantastic, the story is as involving as could be, and the plot stutters and staggers over little ground. Review coming.
As always, Scalzi is amusing here. The novel is a mixture of wit, pulse pounding action, intrigue, and insightful social commentary. All that being said, there's still something holding me back from fully loving Scalzi, and I don't think it's a quantifiable thing. His writing and ideas are slick and enjoyable, but they're not something that I can fall for unreservedly. Still, this is recommended and, I think, highly unlikely to disappoint.
The Other is a powerfully written and involving horror novel. The characters and setting come to life through Tryon's prose. The reveal in the third act, and the climax, are breathtaking, though the tension before that does, perhaps, rise too slowly to be wholly effective. Still, this is an interesting and powerful read that's well worth checking out if it sounds interesting to you.
Tuesday, April 5, 2011
Noise is relative to the silence preceding it. The more asolute the hush, the more shocking the thunderclap. (p. 194)
Alan Moore's V for Vendetta explores power, morality, and responsibility, and it manages – incredibly enough – to do justice to all three themes. The novel is a powerful and intelligent story that's a classic of its genre, one that is far more complex than it seems (and it doesn't seem particularly simple to start off with).
[Note: the following review contains SPOILERS]
The first thing that has to be understood about V for Vendetta is that it’s a text filled with questions and bereft of answers, both on a large and small scale. Who is V? We never find out. We find out just enough to create a compelling theory, and we know the sensational parts of his back-story, but everything from his name to his childhood is obscured. V is an enigma, and he remains an enigma, the actual man insignificant when compared to what he represents. As he says: There’s no flesh or blood within this cloak to kill. There’s only an idea. Ideas are bullet proof. (p. 236) He does not fit the archetype of hero. His every action, from his outlandishly disguised identity to his quote-filled dialogue, is fit more for the stage than for the battlefield.
In mannerism, the character he most resembles is the Joker. Both came from backgrounds of chemicals and insanity; the joker (depending on your origin story of choice), some kind of deviant who fell into a chemical vat, and V a man sorely abused and altered by hormonal testing at a concentration camp. Each of them sport an almost comical grin whilst sowing chaos, and each is flamboyant in dress (a purple suit here finding its counterpart in long hair and cape) and actions. This Vicious Cabaret of V for Vendetta’s second act and the humorous man-as-employee speech of his is even similar to the Joker’s song in Moore’s Killing Joke (released shortly after V's serialized beginning). Of course, that’s not to suggest that This Vicious Cabaret is equivalent to the Joker's song or V to the Joker. Joker maliciously cackles and spouts discontinuities and absurdities; V soliloquizes and quotes Shakespeare, a Joker tied to an enormous and incomprehensible intellect and pitted against a foe so dark that the maniacal one of the pair is actually the hero. Norsefire, too, can be roped into the comparison. Completing the utter inversion of your archetypical comic book, the villain here is Batman. Batman and Noresefire both overpower their foes with technologies and are muted in tone when compared to the vibrancy of their antagonists. More importantly, both emphasize order over everything else; Noresefire perhaps being comparable to Batman’s utopia gone awry, crime prevented at all costs. Perhaps this was the end that Fox feared when Batman showed his technological mastery as The Dark Knight came to a climax.
So V is the good guy. But can you really call him that? V is a revolutionary and not in the blandly heroic sense. There are hard choices that must be made when overthrowing a society, and V does not hesitate to make them. He kills again and again over the course of the novel. Some of his victims are the high ranking fascists of Norsefire, and so the reader can, perhaps, give him a pass on that, thinking that tyrants deserve what they get. What’s harder to excuse are those that die along the way. V blows up several government installations, not only killing the leaders but every man inside from sadistic secret policemen to janitors. As we see in Vertigo (one of the two bonus chapters), V can even be sadistic in his pursuit of his goals, not only killing his enemies but striving to emulate their methods and degrade them even in the moment of their demise. Harder still to excuse is the psychological torture that V causes, both to Rose Almond and to Evey, whom he’d led to believe he would protect. V was made who he was through the brutality of Norsefire's concentration camps and experiments, yet he has no qualms about using the same methods to achieve his own ends; he has willingly embraced the effectiveness of the enemy in his attempt to bring them down.
In addition to taking Norsefire’s physical and interrogative methods, V usurps Norsefire’s symbolism. Norsefire was a fundamentally unapproachable dictatorship that communicated with the people by trying to make itself both unquestionable and down to earth. The voice of Fate accomplished both tasks, undoubtable due to its moniker and its lack of competitors and relatable by means of helpfully reporting the weather in the midst of its warnings. In order to compete, V needs to be more than a man. His guy fawkes mask becomes an icon, the mystery of his identity a larger than life dilemma that the government cannot solve. When he appears to the public, his tone is, as it almost always is, theatrical and humorous. Like the supposed voice of the computerized Fate, he sets himself apart from those he addresses even as he claims to have their own best interest at heart.
And yet one of Norsefire’s directors says that the the Noresfire regime never capitalized on symbolism, a statement that is simply bewildering. Norsefire is a totalitarian regime styled on the Nazis. Yet it claims to have avoided symbolism. How is such a thing even possible? Furthermore, the claim flies directly in the face of the regime’s use of the voice of fate. Thinking further, however, I realized that – with the exception of Fate – Norsefire is curiously devoid of the common trappings of an oppressive regime. There is no one unified style to the cities. The enforcement of law is left to openly acknowledged thugs recruited off the street, lacking even a recognizable uniform. Cameras are watching, yet we never see them do it. We’re told that Norsefire is evil and invasive, and we get proof of it to some extent in the first chapter’s sting operation (though, to be fair, such a thing’s not so outlandish that you need a fictional tyrant to conceive), but examples after that are hard to come by. Moore and Lloyd are so focused on depicting Norsefire’s fall that they essentially neglect its rise and reign. We see incredible brutality from flashbacks, but the present day storyline shows Norsefire as nothing much besides a tad invasive. Without ever seeing its effects on a significant number of characters, it’s hard to feel the organized evil that we are obviously intended to feel. Still, such things are easy to forgive. After all, the strength of Moore's writing isn't what it says about his fictional world but rather about what it says about our own.
V is an idealist. He is fighting for equality, yes, but he is not fighting for justice. V is, as he himself proclaims time and time again, an anarchist. This is not a sugar coated anarchism, soon evolving into democracy or whatever model of a just society you, the reader, happen to believe in. No, V’s byword is chaos, and disorder is his ultimate aim. As V asserts more and more of his power, and as the state crumbles around him, we are not entering a utopia. The dubious morality of the opening – prostitutes accosted, killed, and raped by secret policemen – is exchanged for a world of lootings and riots. Will this transition into something better, the security of Norsefire without the oppression? There’s no way to tell, but it’s plain that V could never bring such a world around, could not even stand aside and let it happen. That is why Finch, Norsefire's arbiter of justice, must kill him.
Finch is, in many ways, comparable to V. He shares V’s desire for equality and admits to himself that he knew that Norsefire was wrong, oppressive, and unjust all along. And yet he went along with them, joined them, played a part in leading them. Why? His own answer is weakness, but it’s not clear that things are so simple. V focuses exclusively on the big picture. In order to bring down Norsefire, he will do anything. On a personal scale, V commits horrible crimes. He is no common criminal, though, but rather a revolutionary; these small crimes are steps along the way. The people he killed entering the television station were necessary in order for him to broadcast his message and help the general good.
Finch chooses the opposite path. He is a police officer. For him, the personal crimes against individuals cannot be allowed to continue; he must hunt V down, no matter the cost or overall morality of the hunt, because V has killed those around him. In return, Finch does his best to turn a blind eye to the overall results of Norsefire’s actions. Unlike V, however, Finch is conflicted and unsatisfied with his choice. His world does not allow for the black and white absolutes of V’s. The regime he supports puts monsters on the streets and gives them guns and uniforms. It leads to rapes and murders on scales small and large, injustices that Finch cannot account or atone for. Pushed away from that society, however, Finch is cut adrift and wanders, aimless.
What will happen to society after V’s death? It is obvious that Norsefire was inimical to freedom and justice, and it is equally obvious that V’s perfect, utopian anarchy cannot last. But what is to replace it? We’re left, at the end, with Evey behind V’s mask, a new symbol to lead us into a new world. But what kind of person is Evey? The Evey of the novel’s beginning is obviously unsuitable for such a role. She bends her principles for her survival, an action too human to be grandly symbolic. Left without enough to eat, she tries to turn to prostitution, and only V’s timely arrival averts her untimely death. The Evey of the novel’s middle is, likewise, ill-fitting. She goes so far as to become happy with the enemy, living with one of Norsefire’s leading members and managing to turn a blind eye to the pain all around her. The Evey of the novel’s end, however, is a very different beast. Brought to and then over the brink by V’s molding, by his cruelty, she rejects her own wellbeing for the sake of her principles. She is, finally, fit to take V’s place. But is she fit to usher in a new world? She was, after all, made in the same way that V was. Is it possible to make two different creations with the same method? There’s no way to know. Our only hint to the positive comes when V offers her vengeance – and she declines. There is, as the novel closes, a chance that things will change for the better. And, of course, a chance that they will simply deteriorate further.
Towards the novel’s end, V says: There is no coincidence, only the illusion of coincidence. Though V seems like a reactionary beast, ala the Joker, he is actually a deep planner, though there's no way to tell exactly what was planned and what was a welcome coincidence. Every layer seems more impossible than the last, and yet each seems to support itself. However far down his machinations go, V is a master manipulator, and he plays the characters of the novel like puppets. Though he does, on several occasions, fight himself, V is not an action hero. Once the initial stage of violence has passed, V’s plan turns to one of building tensions and turning the hierarchy of Norsefire against itself.
When a key portion of your plot is concerned with the gradual changes in the relationship of a large cast, it’s obviously instrumental that that cast be both expansive and, more importantly, distinctive. The cast list seems to grow exponentially as the novel progresses, and some of the minor players can be hard to keep track of, but the various character driven twists of the ending feel organic and natural. Moore proves capable of characterization with only a few words, and the juxtaposition of scenes is excellent, though not quite to the degree of Watchmen. One scene shows various key Norsefire members conspiring in the pews while a preacher gives his oration, his words manipulative and apocalyptic while the various members of the directorate muse on V’s actions and their own.
V for Vedetta doesn’t distribute its pages equally among its characters. There’s always one dominant storyline running, and other characters either appear in the periphery or not at all. As to what that dominant story is, the focus shifts considerably over the course of the novel, and there are quite a few sections focusing on events almost unrelated to V (though generally caused by him). These subplots are given their own space to develop, which makes the individual issues/chapters satisfying in their own right. On the other hand, some events that are never given the spotlight end up coming out as shallow. The head of Norsefire’s dependence on Fate is well established, but how quickly he turns into a slobbering mess after Fate is gone makes it hard to imagine him ever coming to dominate a high school technology class, let alone the UK.
Lloyd's art style is a dark one, realistic in feel for all but V, who struts across the page while fitting in as (brilliantly) poorly with his background as he does with his world. The best part of the art is that it is mature. This is a gritty text, devoid of the juvenility of sound effects and their ilk. All that being said, Lloyd seems to struggle with the volume of characters. I can’t conclusively say how much is the fault of his style and how much is a simple result of my relative unfamiliarity with the graphic form, but the secondary and tertiary members of the cast easily blend together, and a few main characters are, at times, difficult to distinguish. This is especially bad for the female characters, and that’s magnified further still by the scenes taking place in the more stylized location of the nightclub; I’ll admit that I had to reread an entire section because I wrongly identified the acting character in just about every frame of it.
If you're looking for a heroic read, something filled with heroes for whom you can stand up and cheer, V for Vendetta will fill your expectations for a handful of pages before leaving you cold and alone, sickened by what's passed. This world is sprawling, both alien and familiar, and it’s cast is treated horribly, often by the very people who (supposedly) have their best interests at heart. Though Moore isn't always successful at displaying life under Norsefire's regime, he's a master at showing how his characters attempt to cope with such a reality. In interviews, Moore's said that the inspiration for the book was his unease with Thatcher's government. Nowadays, in a world scarred by the twin towers burning, it would be perfectly justifiable to read the text as an examination of terrorism and the methods used to combat it. I predict that, decades from now, other potential readings will appear and will be just as valid, because what Moore's created here truly transcends the years in which it was written and the paper that it's written on.
Craig Klein has a fantastic and information filled "shrine" to V for Vendetta here.
Friday, April 1, 2011
Are you interested in a book of Lovecraft-inspired horror stories stretching back throughout history? A book that happens to contain stories by E. Catherine Tobler, Josh Reynolds, William Meikle, Jesse Bullington, and quite a few more fantastic authors, all gathered to present you excellent tales of supernatural misfortune, disaster, and woe? A list of authors that would not, of course, be complete without good ol' me?
Of course you're interested. The question we face today is not do you want to read some great fiction? because that's obvious (you do, in case you're wondering). The question we must face is: do you want to read great fiction while shaving twenty percent off the cover price? If you answered yes, you'll be glad to know that Historical Lovecraft is now available for preorders. Buy as many as you want. I promise I won't get mad if you get a copy for everyone you know.