Tuesday, February 26, 2013
I aim to misbehave.
Serenity is the movie that continued Joss Whedon’s stunning Science Fiction/Western Firefly. It doesn’t fall short of that series.
[Note: the following review will have SPOILERs.]
Admittedly, the transition from television series to movie is not a perfect one. Besides the alterations done to the world’s and characters’ backstory, the change in format from successive forty minute segments to a single two hour block requires a vast shift in pacing and in focus. Here, we have a far faster pace that frequently explodes into violence and often delves into darkness. Of course, all the strength and mounting emotional destruction of the movie is still offset by Whedon’s omnipresent humor, here manifesting itself in countless one liners and fantastic reaction lines. One particular choice bit near the beginning has the ship plummeting down to the planet below when Mal tells Wash to just get us on the ground, to which Wash responds: That part’ll happen pretty definitely. Still, The laidback, horses and towns under the hot sun feel of Firefly that brought out the Western elements is largely absent, swapped out for a greater focus on the epic and the Science Fictional.
Along with the aforementioned changes comes the shift in focus away from the ensemble cast and towards Mal’s character. Some of the others, like Wash, still manage to define themselves in an iconic scene or two without taking much screen time. Others, like Jayne, never get to do a great deal but are still a notable presence. But some, such as Kaylee, end up becoming part of the background; her role in the movie is pining after Simon and just about nothing else. Furthermore, the shift pushes some unresolved questions from Firefly into the abyss. Mal and Inara get a few small interactions but make no ultimate progress. Book, meanwhile, responds to Mal’s you have to tell me about [your past] sometime with No, I don’t, which, when one considers his brutal death not long after, rather shuts the lid on our ever knowing.
But while I might wish we could have a few more stories in the world, I certainly don’t mean to cast aspersions on the power of this one. In two hours, Whedon takes River’s storyline and manages to fully develop it and her in a fashion that, even if it’s not completely consistent with the hints we received in the show, is nonetheless satisfying and resplendent with awesomely choreographed action. It’s Mal’s development, though, that makes Serenity truly excellent. Here we finally see the exploration of evolution of Mal’s philosophy and character, and we see it in stark contrast to the Alliance’s Operative that pursues him to slay River.
In his pursuit of Mal, the Operative does great evil. This is not a subjective determination necessitated by nothing but the camera’s choosing to follow Mal, rather than the Operative, around. No, the Operative owns up to his evil. In fact, it defines him. When Mal accuses him of killing the innocent, the Operative proudly, determinedly says: I do [murder children]. If I have to.
The Operative is fighting because he believes in something, because he believes in a better world […] without sin, and he will commit any crime to reach that world. Of course, he is stained in the process. The Operative knows this. His and the Alliance’s morality is black and white, but it is not a black and white so selfishly twisted as to color their own actions white. The Operative will have no place in the promised land he brings about; his role, rather, is to create it by destroying those foes, like Mal, that stand in its way.
Mal, needless to say, is not the black that the Operative thinks him. He cares deeply about his crew and ship, and, as we saw demonstrated innumerable times throughout the series, will put his life on the line to save the innocent. But neither is he white on some alternative spectrum that the Operative fails to see. Mal had his morality, once. In the first episode of the show (confusingly enough also entitled Serenity), we saw the last vestiges of his faith in man die in the Battle of Serenity Valley, die when free men failed to fight their oppressors and, overmatched, bowed before them.
Since, Mal has been a rogue and a smuggler, capable of identifying evil and loving to prick it and save the little man from it but knowing he can do nothing against it. As he says: War’s long done. We’re all just folk now. And he has committed crimes of his own. His code allows any actions needed against those that stand in his way and don’t have the luck of falling into his few protected categories. In Serenity, we first witness him in a heist. When things go wrong, when the Reavers storm the town, he finds himself with a choice: he can save the loot or save an innocent man. He keeps the loot and gives the man a mercy killing.
In Serenity, Mal is forced out of subsistence and back into the larger conflict. He is forced to, as Abigail Nussbaum discusses in her piece “Oh Captain, My Captain: MalReynolds, Anti-Anti-Hero,” become a force for moral good in an amoral universe. At no point does he regain his faith in men or in grand causes. But the Operative’s relentless hounding, the Operative’s slaughtering of all those associated with Mal and all those associated with them, the Alliance’s crimes and refusal to let anything stand before them or stand untouched and unmanipulated by them, force Mal to take a stand against them, even if his stand is more one against evil than one directly for good. This ability – the ability to be a force for right, even without direct guidance as to what it might be – was espoused by Shepherd Book throughout Firefly. And, through Book is sadly almost absent from Serenity, he does get to crystalize that view in the movie, telling Mal: I don't care what you believe in, just believe in it.
Mal comes to stand opposite the Operative and the Alliance, but the axis he opposes them on is not the black/white or good/evil that they operate upon; it is, rather, that of freedom/oppression. The Alliance has taken the political independence of the worlds. As we saw in Firefly, its reach is ever expanding, deeper and deeper into space, limiting and meddling on every world. But its reach is not just political. The Operative speaks of a world without sin, and the Alliance has taken steps to achieve that world. On Miranda, they pumped gasses into the atmosphere to render the population docile, to strip them of their aggression. As the report says: The people here stopped fighting. […] There's 30 million people here, and they all just let themselves die. Those that didn’t die went mad with rage and became the Reavers.
It is this kind of control, the control that takes people’s very emotions and humanity from them, that Mal is against. It is, ultimately, the idea that people can be progressed beyond themselves. As he says, the Alliance holds the belief that they can make people... better. And I do not hold to that. At the movie’s climax, once Mal has beaten the Operative and restrained him, Mal broadcasts the knowledge of what the Alliance did on Miranda. Hell, I’m going to grant your greatest wish, Mal tells the Operative before showing him the footage. I’m going to show you a world without sin. There is, indeed, no sin amidst the corpses on Miranda and no humanity either. Mal is fighting for man as they are, not for man as they might someday be twisted into being.
Though the freedom/oppression battle waged here also comes to, by the end, seemingly coincide with our conventional definitions of good/evil, it is a mistake to limit its impact to that of that axis and to try and shoehorn all that Mal is into the role of white knight. The darkness we see in Mal’s character in the movie’s opening is not banished with his shift from survivor to warrior. It is no coincidence that Mal’s first words after his conversation with the Operative that forces him to accept his new role are, Get these bodies together […] I want them laid out on the nose of our ship. It is immediately after his transformation that Mal engages in his darkest acts. He disguises himself as a Reaver, takes on the guise of ultimate evil to fight the Alliance’s oppression and desecrates the corpses of those who died for him in order to do it. In fact, in his role as warrior, Mal abandons his previous code as a survivor. By going toe to toe with the alliance, he puts his crew, the family he would do anything to protect, into mortal danger and ultimately kills Wash (and, if you’ll allow me to unprofessionally fixate on that for a moment, what a death scene it is!).
Of course, the eternal championing of freedom, and freedom uncomplicated by good/evil morality, bears with it a few problems. Chief among them is the issue that, for all a world without sin may be an inhuman proposition, there are terrors yet inherent in sin that Mal seems to be removing the safeguards from, as Abigail Nussbaum (well isn’t this turning into the essay for referencing her?) writes in her “Well, Maybe You Can Take That Part ofthe Sky.” I am not, ultimately, sure that Whedon is as unaware of this problem as Nussbaum seems to suppose. Many of the problems seen in Firefly were caused by relatively small time criminals and crime lords just as on the run from the Alliance as Mal. Admittedly, Mal gives the poor folk oppressed by this lower level of evil little thought in Serenity, but I wonder if that might be more a product of Whedon’s compression of his idea into two hours rather than dozens of episodes than it is a product of Whedon’s actual vision. Still, giving Whedon points for what I think he might have later wrote is growing untenable.
And, within, the bounds of what we do see in Serenity, I found myself incredulous at how Whedon dodged the consequences of Mal’s actions. After Mal’s heroic defiance of authority and acceptance of the death that would likely result, Whedon grabs that seemingly inevitable result back off the table, leaving, despite a few cursory words about a possibility to the contrary, the Alliance’s vengeance one forestalled by them all suddenly turning into very reasonable chaps who are quite aware when they are beaten. Arguing that, if we are just heroic enough, we may get spared the consequences of our heroism seems to be a questionable proposition.
Such gaps and questions leave one wishing Whedon had gotten more time to play with the universe of Firefly. But what he has given us is mighty indeed. Serenity is an excellent Science Fiction movie, one that brims with wit, boasts a plethora of simply awesome sequences, and explores and evolves the philosophy of character of the enigmatic and fascinating Mal.
Tuesday, February 19, 2013
The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you. (p. 389)
When reviewing a novel of over a thousand pages, with literally hundreds of footnotes, it’s difficult to not start with a discussion of size. But Infinite Jest is not simply long. It is also complex. At times, David Foster Wallace struck me as a mad juggler, or at least a demented tosser of balls. Character after character is thrown into the air, dozens and dozens of threads and incidents, all rendered behind a dozen spins and obfuscations. But these are not random throws. No, Wallace may be as madcap as they come, but he is also brilliant, and each of the ten thousand pieces he sets in motion is precise and even, once we manage to follow its arc, beautiful. From early on, I was completely caught by Wallace’s wit and insight, and I soon found myself running along after his throws, frantically trying to understand each and every one. I didn’t succeed. This is not a book I can simply sum up. But my week and two days of determined reading, annotating, and theory-compiling still left me not only as stunned by a book as I have ever been but brimming with new ideas. Infinite Jest is a mammoth, hammer-wielding study of loneliness, meaning, choice, success, interpersonal connections, and addiction in America.
Before I can start trying to articulate what I think all those bells are spelling out or even how they were thrown, I had likely best give you some idea of what the more important arcs actually are. Hal Incandenza is the main character, if Infinite Jest can be considered focused enough to have a single main character. He is a student of the Enfield Tennis Academy, a prodigy on and off the court. On the academy’s grounds, however, we are not just interested in Hal. Wallace pans the camera all around, gradually assembling a picture of the school’s top athletes, its teachers, its courses, its administration, its grounds, and the way that tennis can function as a metaphor for just about anything (and everything, in turn, can function as a metaphor for tennis). Enfield is a shining academy on a hill, a place striving for perfection in every way.
Behind the Academy and even Hal stands the Incandenza family, a bizarre mass of geniuses, eccentrics, tragedies, and Oedpial dynamics. Of particular note is Hal’s father, Jim Incandenza, Himself, the Mad Stork, and even the Sad Stork (Throughout, David Foster Wallace endlessly concocts euphemisms, nicknames, and even neologisms). Up until his suicide by microwave oven, Himself was a genius like Hal who leapt from field to field as he mastered them, passing through and even revolutionizing tennis and military optics and more. Eventually, he landed in film. There, he became a controversial figure, at once lauded for and detested for his technical brilliance and his scorn for conventions and, debatably, even narrative. Himself created the Entertainment, the samizdat, the film Infinite Jest – but we aren’t quite ready to talk about that yet.
Down the hill from the academy, we find the streets of Boston, and we find Ennet House, a halfway house where a good half or so of our cast and action may be found. As at the academy, our angle is broad. Each of the addicts has a story, and we follow many of them, seeing their falls and their struggles to recover. Our main focus, though, is Don Gately, a longtime Demerol addict and burglar now struggling to get clean, now making it, now even a staffer at the house as he tries to help others follow his footsteps while he, too, struggles on. Coming with these struggles is Boston AA. Within and without the casts’ heads, we attend meetings, wrestle with and interpret AA’s ideology and practice, and plumb the depths of addiction and pain.
Enfield and Ennet may be the two largest arcs, but they are not the only ones. Innumerable smaller stories and styles lie all about them. We are in the future, here, a future assembled as if the present were a film and this its parody. Relations between the US and Canada have grown beyond frosty, and Quebecois separatists form terror cells to injure the United States in whatever way they can. The most fearsome of these are the Wheelchair Assassins, and it is from this conflict that we get Marathe and Steeply, two intelligence operatives whose debates form another of the tapestry’s recurring strands. Elsewhere in the text, we have those struggling on the streets of Boston, articles on the etiquette and economics behind the rise and fall of videophones, the way that broadcast television and advertising were killed by the advent of something suspiciously like Netflix (fact check: did Wallace have access to a crystal ball?), Orin Incandenza’s rise to NFL fame, the and countless other strange and wonderful asides and tales.
Were I simply handed this book without any information at all about its author or the circumstances of its creation, and were I told to take the best guess I could from how all these threads are conceived and played out, I think I might have thought Infinite Jest the work of a partnership between Alexis de Tocqueville and Jerry Seinfeld after the two were bludgeoned and inspired by every walk of life, every kind of loneliness, and every kind of addiction. As for how that pairing (or should I throw in a third name, to match David Foster Wallace’s three?) gets its effect, I think the brew’s three main components can be identified, if not exactly summed up by, the following: detail, insight, and wit.
This is a novel bursting at its themes with details. There are veritable mountains of them within it. Imagine, for a moment, that the world was frozen in time around you, you were given a pad, and you were told to write down everything you saw and heard and felt. Done? Now imagine that you are living a full life and that you treat every second in just that way. That is something like Infinite Jest. One chapter has Hal and his fellow culprits caught after a rule-breaking debacle and left to wait in the anteroom of the academy’s headmaster. They do nothing but wait, and Wallace turns our eye to and fro over every object in that waiting room, drawing connection after connection between them, delving into their pasts, exploring every inch of ground in every direction but simple, forward narrative momentum. That level of it is unique to that scene, but the tendency can be seen throughout. Taken alone, this would make for an unreadably tedious book. But, coupled with Wallace’s other strengths, it makes for a hypervivid one.
David Foster Wallace was a genius. Not only that, but he can impart his wisdom. Though often hard to imbibe, Infinite Jest is a book that, once digested, genuinely expands the way you think. Wallace gets fully within his characters and drags you in after him. Their revelations are yours. The insights of the characters’ lifetimes dawn on the reader as they progress, rammed home by our witnessing their formation, and Wallace’s wide angle allows him to crowd a great deal more than one epiphany in there. Every once in a while, Wallace pauses it all and goes so far as to simply talk to us. In one section, we are told about “exotic new facts” (p. 200) that we can learn in a halfway house, should we ever step foot within one. As we likely have not yet done so, Wallace then tells them to us. This technique should simply not work. For the novelist to break out of character and simply lecture should be unbearable. But the hypothetical novelist the rules were written for was not David Foster Wallace, and it works. Brilliantly. (As for the wisdom that is conveyed, well, I will do my best to lay some of it out soon enough…)
The reader gets through the details and learns the lessons, and enjoys the hell out of it all too, because David Foster Wallace was one funny bastard. His wit can be seen in one-liners and snide remarks. Early on, Hal asks a (potential) professional conversationalist: “Would it be rude to tell you your mustache is askew?” (p. 30). Elsewhere, the book boasts elaborate comedic set pieces, like the depicted game of Eschaton (in which tennis players pose as world leaders and lob balls/tactical nuclear weapons, into each others territory) and how it goes so horribly awry. Often, Wallace’s humor operates in the darkest of places, and Wallace respects no boundaries. In fact, laughter is often how the novel imparts its deepest pathos. At AA meetings, Wallace tells story after story of pain and degradation. The human suffering in these, the Bottom that the members reach, is exaggerated until it is absurd, even parodic. We laugh, and then we realize what we were laughing at, and we feel the blow that they felt.
And now, I think, the time has come to look at the struggle at the heart of it all. Infinite Jest is about the need for meaning, a need that is attempted through successes and entertainments and drugs, but which can ultimately only be fulfilled through genuine connection with another human being. As David Foster Wallace tells us, The great transcendent horror is loneliness (p. 694).
In his quest to illustrate meaning, connection, and the quest for them, David Foster Wallace begins with their opposite: depression. By this point in time, I think it’s fair to say that most of us have heard Wallace’s own story of depression and suicide, and I’ll avoid interpreting his masterpiece through the lens of events of over a decade later. Besides, such biographical readings are not needed to give the text power. Kate Gompert, a resident of Ennet House, is clinically depressed, and Wallace’s evocation of her condition is one of the most painful things I have ever read. In the absence of meaning, life becomes an unendurable slog, a state of utter hell and nausea. “I can’t stand feeling like this another second,” Kate tells her doctor, “and the seconds keep coming on and on.” (p. 74) At the root of this hell is loneliness, for depression is lonely on a level that cannot be conveyed. […] a person in such a state is incapable of empathy with any other living thing. […] A clinically depressed person cannot even perceive any other person or thing as independent of the universal pain that is digesting her cell by cell. Everything is part of the problem, and there is no solution (p. 696).
The best, the highest route to purpose seems to be finding something greater than yourself to dedicate yourself to, finding some ideal of perfection to work towards. This is the route that those at Enfield Tennis Academy take. As the instructor Schtitt makes clear to them, tennis is not truly a game between you and the opponent. It is a game between you and your own limits: You compete with your own limits to transcend the self in imagination and execution. Disappear inside the game: break through limits: transcend: improve: win. […] All life is the same, as citizens of the human State: the animating limits are within, to be killed and mourned, over and over again (p. 84).
For a time, such drive can suffice, but the pursuit of success is doomed. Should the athlete – or human – in question attain their dreams, they will be destroyed. As we are told of one such triumphal striver: Achievement didn’t confer meaning or joy on his existence (p. 693). The true struggle at Enfield, then, is not to make oneself better, for that struggle is more prerequisite than purpose of this level of play. The true struggle is to not be destroyed when you achieve the source of your meaning and find it hollow.
Striving for perfection does not occur in a vacuum; it, like all of our other strivings and sources of meaning, is a way to connect with others, and the connection at Enfield is that sports are one of the many sources of entertainment that we in America try to connect with one another through. After all, professional athletes are [… also] entertainers, albeit of a deep and special sort (p. 188). And the draw of both sports and entertainment in general is connection, as Orin shows when describing the wonder of football for him: a lot of It seemed emotional and/or even, if there was such a thing anymore, spiritual: a denial of silence: here were upwards of 30,000 voices, souls, voicing approval as One Soul (p. 295).
Such moments of genuine connection, however, are rare. Even when there is genuine emotion in art, it is almost always one way. Mario listens to the radio show of Madame Psychosis, and it moves him deeply, but he is sure Madame Psychosis cannot herself sense the compelling beauty and light she projects over the air, somehow (p. 190). Conversely, one of Himself’s films has a lecturer speaking to students. The lecturer is so moved that he weeps. The students watch, bored and doodling.
The fastest – and, ultimately, the most disastrous – escape route from that loneliness is drink, drugs, addiction. Throughout the story, highs are associated not only with pleasure and a warped sense of time but with a sense of connection, one borne from chemicals but one that nonetheless comes to provide purpose and comes to end that loneliness, such as in this description of Joelle’s high from cocaine: The ‘base frees and condenses, compresses the whole experience to the implosion of one terrible shattering spike in the graph, an afflated orgasm of the heart that makers her feel, truly, attractive, sheltered by limits, deveiled and loved, observed and alone and sufficient and female, full, as if watched for an instant by God (p. 235).
The connection found in a syringe or bottle, though, will ultimately destroy you, leading to the Bottom, a plummeting return to the meaninglessness of depression while the alcoholic stares about their shattered life. This is what so many in Ennet House struggle with, the horrible truth that Once you are sufficiently enslaved by a Substance to need to quit the Substance in order to save your life, the enslaving substance has become so deeply important to you that you will all but lose your mind when it is taken away from you (p. 201).
The only way out is to not simply slaughter that need but to transfer it. As Infinite Jest progresses, it becomes clear that addictions do not end with substances. AA itself is approached in the same way, as are relationships, arts, and religions. We are all addictions, all slaves; we have all shoved our passions entirely into something, desperate for it to give us joy and purpose and connection. As Hal says: We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately – the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away utterly. To games or needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. A flight-from in the form of a plunging-into (p. 900).
But what if there was an entertainment that actually formed a genuine connection, that truly touched us? That question brings us to the Entertainment, the final creation of Himself, the film so entertaining that anyone who watches it will never want to do anything else, will gladly chop off their own fingers for another viewing, will sit and starve in front of their television while it loops endlessly. Canadian terrorists are now disseminating that film throughout America, believing that the foolish Americans will prove their weakness by being unable to refuse the choice for death of the head by pleasure (p. 319). The connection is made between it and drugs, and it is clear how absurd and futile it is for a government to try and protect us from our own choices.
But the Entertainment is more than cocaine. For one thing, it is explicitly and obviously a high borne from communication. Himself says that his goal in making it was to contrive a medium via which he and [Hal] could simply converse. […] His last resort: entertainment (pp. 838-9). Furthermore, though the Entertainment obviously brings with it great consequences, it does not bring the Bottom that the bottle does. There is no indication within the text that its high is not a true one. Remember that the horror of alcoholism comes at the end, comes when the drink has destroyed everything else in your life, is your only meaning, and then itself turns to poison: . You cannot get drunk and you cannot get sober; you cannot get high and you cannot get straight. You are behind bars; you are in a cage and can see only bars in every direction (p. 347). The Entertainment brings the outward consequences of such a state and more, but we never see the viewers have any desire to stop at all, we never get a hint that the transcendent pleasure of viewing is less on the thousandth viewing than on the first.
That contrast between inner and outer state, then, may serve a different purpose: it shows the true importance of, as Himself had it, conversing. If we can truly connect with another human, the wonder of it will outmatch everything else, for every other activity in our life is a simple striving for that connection. That is why, when presented with it, we will gladly allow the rest to burn.
The Entertainment, unlike lesser entertainments, manages to go both ways, to touch the entertained and the entertainer, even if its impact on the matter is more oblique. A glimpse of this can be seen in Himself’s film Medusa v. Odalisk, in which the two legendary creatures fight on stage while an on-film audience turns to stone at the sight. With each petrification, the briefest flash of grief can be seen on the combatants’ faces as they realize the destructive (and transcendent?) cost of connection on the audience.
Admittedly, the actress in Infinite Jest claims to have thought it boring, says she can’t understand how anyone could have found it entertaining, let alone lethally so. But that actress, Joelle, wears a veil because of her beauty. I’ll allow her to say why in her own words: I’m so beautiful I drive anybody with a nervous system out of their fucking mind. Once they’ve seen me they can’t think of anything else and don’t want to look at anything else and stop carrying out normal responsibilities and believe that if they can only have me right there with them at all times everything will be all right. Everything. Like I’m the solution to their deep slavering need to be jowl to cheek with perfection (p. 538). The effects of her beauty (itself a form of interpersonal connection), then, have an effect like that of Infinite Jest, and that effect has deeply impacted her. Furthermore, one should remember that Joelle never views the scene herself, just creates it. And as for Himself, it is always hard to say what he is and is not affected by, but one must remember that he not only joked about the film’s lethally entertaining value but also killed himself three months after its creation.
There is another element to this quest for meaning and connection, however, for, though we spend our lives striving for it, we also fear it. We despise it, even. As Hal theorizes: What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being human, since to be really human (at least as [Hal] conceptualizes it) is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic, is to be in some basic way forever infantile (p. 695). The final word of that, infantile, is important.
Throughout the novel, there are hints that connecting with each other, while what we really need, is also something we view as pathetic, something we are kept from doing by our very age. One of the novel’s last scenes is the story of the Enfield employee Loach, who tries to prove the goodness of man by living on the streets and begging not for money but for a single touch. Not one passerby will grant him that simple human contact – not until Mario comes along, Mario who had no one worldly or adult with him there to explain to him why the request of men with outstretched hands for a simple handshake or High Five shouldn’t automatically be honored or granted (p. 971).
The connection we need is something that we also keep from ourselves, then. But the Entertainment bypasses that. And do you want to know one of its tricks? Himself, always the technical whizz, filmed it with a special lens: The lens was supposed to reproduce an infantile visual field. That’s what you could feel was driving the scene (p. 940).
The above is certainly not the only possible interpretation of Infinite Jest. It leaves many facets of the book unexamined. Really, this is the kind of novel that – both due to its length and to its author’s perspicacity – feels, well, infinite. One gets the sense that the only limits to the meanings that can be found within are how deep you are willing to delve. As can no doubt be guessed from all the above, Infinite Jest wowed me. In fact, it blew me away like nothing else I’ve ever read. If I was to pick a single favorite novel, this would be it.
Tuesday, February 12, 2013
We destroy the enemies of the city, drive back unstoppable darknesses and purge the night of the things that would make us fear (pp. 40-1)
If anyone is looking for a blueprint for how to do a sequel properly, Kate Griffin’s The Midnight Mayor might suffice. It makes the first book, A Madness of Angels, bigger and more explosive without making it silly. Moreover, it covers the same thematic ground as the first book (Magic is life…) but does it from the other direction (Life is magic…) and so manages to both expand on a theme and cover new ground. Of course, a year after The Midnight Mayor, it was time for book three. The Neon Court has many things going for it, not the least of which are Griffin’s prose and another slice of London’s magic. But it is not quite the perfect sequel (to a sequel).
Having looked from both directions at the relationship between magic and life, Griffin here decides to take a closer look at what form that relationship takes in the various magical groups that make up the city. This is a book about community and about isolation. The conflict that it begins with is a looming war between the Neon Court and the Tribe. The Court is society’s crystallization, humans twisted into nothing but what is expected of them by others, life turned into high theater: We imagined that he was what the times called beautiful, a work of art, not a human at all, assuming there was anything of the human left in him (p. 315). That beauty is, needless to say, a mask (p. 349). The Tribe, already down beaten by society and outside its embrace, have decided to flee and fight civilization: the lost, the young, the scarred, the angry, the old, the lonely, anyone and everyone who wasn’t one of them, transformed in this place into one of us, the outcast, united by being outcasts (p. 241). This, they say, makes us free […] Not good n bad – just free. (p. 253) At first glance, the Tribe and the Court seem opposites, but both are twisted in reaction to expectations, even if one is embracing and the other battling.
Blackout is another byproduct of society. It is kicked out from society like the Tribe, but its exile has nothing of choice about it. It’s not whole humans but rather their fears, their shame. It is not a counterculture but isolation. Griffin conveys this through streams of anonymity and despair: no one need ever know what happened here just you and me just you and me and it’s not like anyone cares not here not now we can do anything because no one will ever know anything at all what can you imagine at all it doesn’t matter no one will see no one will judge us now the sun’s gone down (p. 374).
The conflict between those three – and, of course, Swift and the aldermen – shape the novel. The beginning has Swift trying to stop the war between the Tribe and Court while all whisper about a chosen one’s coming. Oh, and there’s the matter of Swift’s friend and/or mortal enemy Oda, now warped nearly out of recognition, both begging and monstrous. But all of this story is not as successful as it might have been. Like each Mathew Swift novel so far, we start with chaos and Swift struggling to figure out what’s going on as it all spirals further out of control. Here, however, much of that chaos comes to feel rather perfunctory. Swift’s premonitions of a greater evil don’t seem so much tied to anything concrete as they do the product of that just being how these stories go, so it must be around here somewhere. Furthermore, the politicking of the Court and the Tribe is not quite as deep as it is portrayed. The idea of magical diplomacy, complete with defensive alliances signed in 1959, is quite amusing, but any machination that can be exposed by simple arithmetic (Lady Neon arrived too soon, she had to be in the air by the time all this was happening (p. 74)) is simply not a masterful plot.
Then there’s the inevitable problem that results from this being the third book about the same sorcerer battling off supernatural apocalypses by the skin of his teeth. The Mathew Swift novels don’t build on each other. There isn’t one overarching story. Instead, a new ultimate evil appears each time, unrelated to the one before it. After a while, the reader starts wondering how many ultimate evils there could possibly be, why they don’t ever bump into each other, and how the world could possibly be here if there’s a yearly enactment of the Book of Revelations whenever a new novel’s about to hit the shelves. Before long, Griffin is lampshading the improbability of all this with statements like: “You’re not the guy who keeps on getting beaten up by inexplicable mystic darknesses, are you?” (p. 131) As Griffin is a damn clever writer, those almost always get a chuckle. But they also remind the reader that we’ve been here and seen this, even if we had a different villain that year.
All of the problems I’ve listed primarily bother me because the novel lacked the emotional heart I kept desiring. Mathew Swift books have always had the pyrotechnics in the front and center, but I got the feeling from the first that there were real people here and that we could get to know them if the action ever took a breath. By now, I think I’m realizing that it’s not about to. At the end of The Midnight Mayor, Swift gained an apprentice, but everything is too busy exploding in this one for us to see more of their interaction than clever banter on the way to rescues. Moreover, the relationship between Swift and Oda is central to The Neon Court’s conflict. But we never really see it. Though ostensibly bitter enemies, it’s clear that they do care about each other. But we never see more than those glimpses, and the two don’t get much time together at all between the fiery opening and the climax. As a result, Oda’s being at the center of the threat is not nearly as heart-wrenching as one might wish.
Despite all those chunky paragraphs full of flaws I just penned, I still finished The Neon Court in two days and enjoyed it quite a bit. The first reason is that, though she may have something of a surplus of them, Kate Griffin is incredibly good at evoking inexplicable mystic darknesses. As Blackout nears, night goes on unceasing, and the passage of time falls to pieces. Griffin rams this home with a mixture of dramatics and by knocking the most mundane of things slightly out of whack until they make no sense at all: It was like all these people were compressed, time-compressed, like it was school-leaving time and rush hour and party hour and happy hour and lunch hour and all hours all at once, packed in together (p. 153). That’s nothing to Blackout itself. As the power comes, it’s not just that the world disintegrates. Oh no, for to even look at Blackout is to bleed from the eyes and to soon go blind. Desperate fight scenes against a foe that you can’t even look at turn out to be nothing short of pulse pounding.
London, too, is on excellent display. Griffin manages to both make the city always feel like a place lived in and to awe us with its scale and oddities. In part, that comes from how many groups and peoples are settled within that one city and from how long they have all been there: Thing about building a modern city on a Victorian one on a Tudor one on a medieval one on a Saxon one on a Roman one, is you can guarantee there’s always going to be more down there than you bargained for (p. 223). Other descriptions have the city flexing its muscles on the plot, and they are some of Griffin’s most striking: Kayle ran, but the city no longer wanted him, the streets themselves cracked beneath his feet, the lights went out ahead of him, the buses wouldn’t brake a the shelters, the trains wouldn’t open their doors (p. 164). Many of my favorite parts of the book, though, have more to do with London’s little corners than they do with the big bangs happening in its battlegrounds. Often, on entering some new area, Griffin will dish out some little mention of a sorcerer’s strange antics there, and these glimpses of a wider world give the novel life.
Finally, Griffin’s prose is as good as it’s ever been. Her long, sensory-overload style of description is still present here and used to good effect, but I’ve no doubt covered that sufficiently in previous reviews. What I may not have made enough of us is how witty she can be: He stretched himself out further over the seat, achieving that posture seen on any form of public transport whereby one man and his testicles, by the simple act of sitting back and spreading his knees, can occupy enough space for five (p. 335). That skill enters into the dialogue. Though the Tribe’s misspelled speech can grow grating, Griffin is generally adept at not only differentiating her characters but making them feel witty and alive with each line.
The Neon Court did not strike me with the same force as The Midnight Mayor, but it is still quite a strong read. It boasts a terrifying foe, a masterfully shown city, and damn good writing. Admittedly, many of the problems on the other side of the ledger from those positives are not unique to this novel. They are, for the most part, things that were present all along in Mathew Swift but that I needed time to breathe to notice. Still, I hope that Griffin can straighten them out in The Minority Council, because I enjoy these books far too much to want to see them get stale.