Sunday, February 28, 2016

A pop from the past

The Broken Bubble, by Philip K. Dick, 1956.

This realist novel is one both in and out of its time, the 1950s. Philip K. Dick wrote it in 1956 and it is both a mirror to the contemporary world and to PKD's mind. That in itself recommends it to the discerning philophile (or Dickhead).

The main characters are Jim Briskin, a disk jockey, and his ex-wife Patricia, with whom he is still in love. Then there is a young couple, Art and Rachael, with whom Jim and Pat become enamored. Shortly we have a marital mess, with all the characters continually changing their minds about which partner they want to sleep with or marry or remarry or unmarry. On top of that, throw in some juvenile delinquents who are sort of neither here nor there but provide a certain greasy comic relief. One is actually a would-be science fiction writer, which is about all the science fiction one gets in this book.

Close to the end a grotesque creature called Thisbe Holt, an exotic dancer, makes a brief appearance, nude and rolling around inside a plastic bubble, at a convention of equally grotesque optometrists. Dick seemed to give especial emphasis to this image, as his title for the book was "The Broken Bubble of Thisbe Holt" (it was not published until 1988, with the shortened title). The original title would have been peculiar in that Thisbe scarcely appears, and her sudden spherical entry is jarring. It is intrusive and seems to have no place in this narrative of two troubled marriages. She's like La Saraghina meets Dr. T. J. Eckleberg. What a strange and unexplained departure from ordinary 50s reality, and what a weird stew this book suddenly becomes!

So whose bubble really breaks in this novel? Thisbe's? Pat and Jim's? Pat has an amazing scene where she almost kills herself--"In the darkness of the apartment, she painted; she put more darkness around her. She lifted darkness and carried it about the living room and the bedroom and into the bathroom and the kitchen. She took it everywhere. She brought it to each thing in the apartment, and after that she turned it to herself." Jim returns to find her covered with blood.

So this is not just a book of its time. It exists just around the corner from the incomprehensible, trembling on the edge of just a little bit of insanity. If we remember the 50s, these scenes could be part of the fabric. They certainly were part of Philip K. Dick's.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The girl who could not make up her mind

Mary and the Giant, by Philip K. Dick, 1988.

Mary and the Giant is one of Philip K. Dick's nine surviving mainstream or realist novels. These were written in the 1950s but for the most part not published until after his death in 1982, Dick's other 36 novels were science fiction. The mainstream novels are underrated and underread, in my opinion. But usually only those who have exhausted the SF novels will venture on the path less traveled by into obscurer PKD.

Mary and the Giant, like the other mainstream novels, is a realistic evocation of the 1950's, a time as strange, in retrospect, as any we might find in an SF novel--which is sort of the point, really, about why we should read these books. They evoke a sense of mystery and otherness--only here, instead of making the otherness explicit by using SF memes--androids, time travel, dystopias, and the like -- here the otherness stays largely hidden and only hinted at.

The characters here are connected in terms of being in the music scene of a small northern California town. No heroes and heroines here: this is about their relationships, and their errant and fugitive attempts of awkward groping for love with each other in various combinations. The racial and sexual frankness of the book is extraordinary for the time period in which it was written, which may partially account for why it was not published at the time.

The giant of the title, Joseph Schilling, arrives in town to open a classical record shop. His origins are mysterious: "Perhaps he had come all across the world; perhaps he had always been coming, moving along, from place to place....He was so immense that he towered over everything." This mythic description introduces a note of fantasy into the drab small town setting.

Mary Anne Reynolds (of the title) is a very confused young woman who bats around ceaselessly from lover to lover, apartment to apartment, job to job. Joseph briefly becomes her employer and would-be sugar daddy. Although he appreciates her as a free spirit, the match is hopeless because of her headstrong and dilatory nature. Also, because she was sexually abused by her father, an older man like Joseph cannot be other than toxic to her.

Joseph is mysteriously drawn to her,like to a femme fatale, despite his better judgment. She eventually finds happiness with a younger musician, but in the ironic ending, Joseph does not.

How do you solve a problem like Mary if you are Joseph? You don't; the answers stay hidden. He understands that she is trying to fit into a world that has not come into being yet; that may not exist for a hundred years. Her indecisiveness can thus be explained by the fact that she is trying to inhabit a different reality, as was Dick himself.

Music was an article of faith for Dick. His inclusion of it here as a constant background gives us the author's witnessing presence, presiding over the eternal accompaniment to the dance of the wandering humans.

Friday, September 4, 2015

A blues-ribbon book

Black Cherry Blues, by James Lee Burke, 1989.

This was the third in the Dave Robicheaux detective series and the first of Burke's books to win the coveted Edgar prize for best mystery novel of the year. By now there are twenty or more titles in the series, and while I have read many of them, oddly I had never read this one before. I found it to be an outstanding representative of the series and certainly deserving of the honor it received. The writing is as deeply felt and vivid and memorable as anything in Burke's oeuvre.

If you have not experienced Burke's prose before, any of his books will do. His models were the great American writers like Hemingway and Steinback, and not so much the genre of mystery fiction. His whole object is to sear you with blazing prose that makes you feel into the recesses of the heart and uncover the true mysteries there that can never be totally solved.

However, the Robicheaux series is special, and if you are approaching it for the first time, I would recommend the first two books of the series, The Neon Rain and Heaven's Prisoners, before you read Black Cherry Blues, as your understanding of the main characters will build consecutively. Still, every title in the series stands alone and it is not necessary to read them in order. This is especially true of the later titles.

In this book, Dave, who has become an ex-cop living in a Louisiana bayou, finds himself accused of a murder he didn't commit, and has to travel to Montana to clear his name. These contrasting milieus provide a canvas for descriptive master Burke to pull out all the stops. This is Louisiana: "Late that afternoon the wind shifted out of the south and you could smell the wetlands and just a hint of salt in the air. Then a bank of thunderheads slid across the sky from the Gulf, tumbling across the sun like cannon smoke, and the light gathered in the oaks and cypress and willow trees and took on a strange green cast as though you were looking at the world through water. It rained hard, dancing on the bayou and the lily pads in the shallows, clattering on my gallery and rabbit hutches, lighting the freshly plowed fields with a black sheen." And Montana: "There were lakes surrounded by cattails set back against the mountain range, and high up on the cliffs long stretches of waterfall were frozen solid in the sunlight like enormous white teeth."

Somehow the shift in scene lets some air into the oppressiveness of the initial chapters and symbolically gives Dave space to redeem himself, at least for this novel. There will be many other opportunities for redemption in the books that follow, for Dave Robicheaux is a mysterious soul whose integrity and self-control dance dangerously on the edge with his propensity for violence. It's a compelling brew which make the reading of these books a compulsive addiction.

Friday, February 28, 2014

A couple of cases

The Case of the Velvet Claws and The Case of the Sulky Girl, by Erle Stanley Gardner, 1933. Perry Mason is an iconic figure whose relevance, eighty years after his creation, is perhaps even greater than ever. We need a lawyer-hero, dammit, to help us safely negotiate our course through the shark-infested waters in these parlous times. These were the first two of ninety Perry Mason books by Gardner, and it is interesting to see the sprouting of the nascent character. In the first story, The Case of the Velvet Claws, which never even makes it into the courtroom, Mason is more like a private eye than a lawyer. Think Bogart in The Maltese Falcon, and all the detective pulp fiction of the 1930s, which is a good distance from the urbane Raymond Burr of the TV series. By the second book, however, Mason has fully developed into the legal wizard who has probably done more to resuscitate public faith in the judicial process than all the actual lawyers out there. He is more restrained, less of an overt tough guy, but inwardly as tough as they come.

In these books it is abundantly clear that the beautiful Della Street, Mason's secretary, is majorly in love with the dashing attorney. She even gets to plant a kiss on him at the end of Velvet Claws, leaving some very visible lipstick behind. This is an element that never evolves much through the book and TV series, unfortunately for her; Mason is much too preoccupied with whatever his current case is to stoop to notice any form of wood at hand other than a gavel.

Somehow these books seem timeless. There is very little description that fixes them in their time period. We are completely pulled into the mystery itself, which exists in a world of its own. The discovery of a whole other layer of truth underneath the apparent one, the status quo obviousness of guilt and innocence pulled back by the superior man. Perry Mason represents the truth. That is his ultimate client.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Support your local sociopath

Pop. 1280, by Jim Thompson, 1964.

As one of the writers who defines literary noir, Jim Thompson found the perfect balance of black comedy and bleak irony with this novel. If you have read his best known book The Killer Inside Me, Pop. 1280 is also a variation on the theme of a small-town sheriff who ends up presiding over a murderous roundup of most of the story's other characters. In the case of this book, the carnage is accompanied with a leavening dose of low comedy and a feast of sociopolical satire from the point of view of the sociopathic Nick Corey, High Sheriff of Pottsdale.

This comic tale is something that might be produced by an unholy union of Mark Twain and Jack the Ripper's mother. The sheriff juggles three women, possessed of insatiable sex drives, who are amusingly offset by his attempts to accommodate all of them without getting caught and while not missing breakfast. The passions that fuel the characters have escalated to the level of mini-religious apocalypse by novel's end. Only then do we realize Nick's comic objectivity conceals a frightening psychosis. This is also seen when as the only character with sympathetic feelings for the downtrodden Negroes, he dispatches a loyal old black servant with a shotgun practically on principle.

It is interesting to consider this work in light of the influence that Texas has had in terms of national politics over the last fifty years since it was written. We are still a killer nation and Texas, which is the evident setting of the book, epitomizes this. The annual number of gun murders in Texas (1246 in 2010) is approximately the population of the small town where this novel is set. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre has nothing on the more efficient bloodbath that greets us daily from the "red" states.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Winning the Cool War

Live and Let Die, by Ian Fleming, 1955.

Despite the fact that this, the second James Bond novel, does for racism what the previous one did for misogyny, Ian Fleming achieves complete mastery over the spy thriller genre. This book revels in the exoticism of America (with its many "negroes") and Jamaica (whose waters teem with dangerous sharks, barracuda, and octopi)--and a major supervillain called Mr. Big, a black gangster with artistic sensibilities, particularly in the way he kills. Bond, like a modern knight-errant, carries the standard of the British Empire into these out of the way places, aided by his highly cultivated taste for wines, women, and weaponry.

In that the novels debuted in the 1950s, and launched the 60s version of the Bond icon epitomized by Sean Connery, we may consider Ian Fleming to have in large part invented the modern era. Not content to win the Cold War, he won the Cool War as well, replacing the anger and depression of the post-World War II heroes with wit, panache, and a sexual killer instinct.

In creating Bond, Fleming also created JFK, whose favorite writer was, of course, Fleming. Let us not underestimate this feat of imagination which has changed the course of history, providing a somewhat more gentlemanly gender stereotype which has enabled us to transition into the 21st century with our homicidal instincts shaken not stirred.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Quantum of bondage

Casino Royale, by Ian Fleming, 1953. "Bond--James Bond." This is where it all began, with Ian Fleming's first novel of the series. I read it in high school in the early 60s, along with a couple of other Bond books, loving of course the movie Bond of the era, Sean Connery. Now I return to it having seen and enjoyed the splendid recent entries in the movie series starring Daniel Craig, among them Casino Royale, finally.

Encountering the original Bond in book form is a bit of a shocker, really. He's a stone killer and a sexual beast, chiseled out of Cold War sensibilities and gender stereotypes. Completely politically incorrect. There is considerable power in this persona: huge, coiling energy that is capable of anything. In this sense of latent brutality, Daniel Craig is perhaps a more convincing Bond even than Connery. (Still, Connery has that quintessential core of Bonditude that cannot be denied.)

I was taken aback by the strength of the novel. Fleming's prose is not pretty, but it is authoritatively rough-hewn and terse--not, however, lacking in English flair. I enjoyed Fleming's daring in devoting a good large piece of the book to the description of one card game. I didn't recall the movie allowing such a large block of time to covering the incident. Fleming makes it work. He also goes on for an age about the torture administered to Bond's genitals while he is tied to a chair. The recent movie amply documents that extended pummeling in excruciating fashion. But to turn to Bond's tender side, so to speak, Fleming also shows James as tentative and vulnerable around Vesper Lynd, the "Bond girl" of this book. Before we even have a handle on Bond as a recurring series character, we already see his range of emotion--his ambivalence about women and ability to get his heart broken.

I love the last line of the book: "Yes, dammit, I said 'was'. The bitch is dead now." What a dash of cold water! James nearly lost his testicles trying to save Vesper--and he was betrayed. Something has died here for this newly minted double-0 agent: his last illusions about being able to rely on anything else in life beyond his resilient body and  keen mind and finely honed instincts. As for women--"the bitch is dead now." THE END. That's pretty powerful.

We know of course the women are going to come back, though, again and again, like Ursula Andress in the first Bond film, Dr. No, emerging in her iconic white bikini like Venus from the foam, fetchingly carrying her conch shells. But that's another book for another time. I'll read or reread all of these eventually. They have tied me to the chair!