Saturday, November 26, 2011

Shock jock mocks hawks

Dead Air, by Iain Banks. London: Little, Brown, 2002.
In the large novelistic oeuvre of Iain Banks, this book resembles The Business (2001), another topical novel with a somewhat slapdash style, fun to read, fast moving, full of satire, political rants, and intrigue. I don't believe that this novel, alone among all of Banks' books, was ever published in the U.S., perhaps because it adopts an anti-American tone in the wake of the post-9/11 Twin Towers Bush atrocities. Intemperate invective against conservatives, anyone? Why not! You can now pick up used copies of this insufficiently published book very cheaply online.
The main character makes me think of a latter-day Lucky Jim, hilariously inept. A controversial radio talk-show host, he falls in love with the wife of a gangster and proceeds to get both himself and her into mortal danger due to a drunken phone call. This allows the author to indulge in a major nerve-wracking set piece involving a burglary of the gangster's headquarters.
I like Banks, would read anything by him, but don't particularly recommend this title before reading quite a number, really, of his other books which have a little more substance to them. Start with The Crow Road if you haven't read it and then try one of his science-fiction novels about The Culture.
Actually, read whatever you want in whatever order you want, whether it be by Iain Banks or anybody else, okay?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

No worm left unturned

The Ganymede Takeover, by Philip K. Dick and Ray Nelson, Ace, 1967. I recently reread this novel although it ranks somewhere in the lower echelons of Philip K. Dick's 45 novels in terms of literary quality. A friend had mentioned it as his favorite PKD work and took me to task for having underrated it in my 1988 study Philip K. Dick. I can't say it impressed me very much this time either, though my friend is right, the book is quite funny, and in that respect it does recall some of the more humorous Dick titles such as Clans of the Alphane Moon. That said, Clans is a much better book, but the point is that all of PKD's novels of the 1960s do in a way constitute one meganovel, which includes everything from The Man in the High Castle (1962) through Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said (1974). See this link for the complete list of PKD books published between those dates; they can be read in any order. (Lies, Inc. sits toward the bottom of this listing but should be included as part of the meganovel.)
In The Ganymede Takeover the Earth has been taken over by giant intelligent worms from Ganymede who share a group mind. One of the rulers, called Mekkis, is given Tennessee to govern, which is considered a pretty terrible assignment. He has to deal with an internal war between the racists and a black power group. Mekkis cannot focus much on politics, however, because he becomes so obsessed with the topic of human psychiatry that he eventually causes the whole Ganymedan race to self-destruct by infecting its group mind with his visions of an existential hell.
There is also a telepathic radical, Percy X, who is leading a revolution but becomes so unbalanced that he almost destroys the world with a "hell weapon." This is an apocalyptic scenario that the human race ends up narrowly avoiding in the end. It's a real 60s novel; one could imagine a version directed by Stanley Kubrick, with maybe Godfrey Cambridge as Percy X?
This book was a collaboration with Ray Nelson, who was also a cartoonist and inventor of the propeller beanie. Again, it does not represent Dick's best work when considered in isolation, but if you're reading the other PKD novels of the 60s, which are extremely addictive, by all means add it to your list. These books sometimes tend more towards the sociopolitical, as in the case of The Penultimate Truth, The Game Players of Titan, and this one, while others like Ubik are more ontological, or gnostic like A Maze of Death, or concerned with the relationship of empathy to human consciousness as in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? To me, this meganovel ( consisting of 22 novels in all) is Dick's greatest work, and one of the landmarks of twentieth century literature.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Holy warrior of writing

Crusader's Cross, by James Lee Burke, 2005.
I keep returning to James Lee Burke, whose many novels overflow one of my bookshelves, and whose genius for resonant titles entice me to pick up yet another unread volume. His prose is carved out of compassion, disillusion, and a longing for manifestation of true spirit in an evil world. Particularly the world of his most famous character, police detective Dave Robicheaux. This is a typical Robicheaux tale: the seedy and splendid rural Louisiana setting, the conscienceless low-lifes and ordinary saints, the hero flawed to a fault, battling his demons while trying to put down the depraved bad guys. Burke weaves his skein of vivid descriptions and terse dialogue to portray a world, not merely deliver a plot. The narrative is not airless. There are moments of peace, of beauty, where Robichaux is able to lift his head out of the swampy soupy miasma of criminal undergrowth and look at the sunrise. I think we all can identify with Dave, whether or not we share his alcoholism or penchant for violence. And so I call Jim Burke, Dave's emissary and apologist, a holy warrior for good writing, preserving the integrity of American literature amidst the general degradation of language, as well as hoisting the standard for the neglected human values that Dave defends at no little cost to his own safety. The past, in the form of crimes against blacks, women, and the disenfranchised, is constantly casting its shadows across the bayou in this series of books. It is these shadows that form the real opposition, and menace and theaten to drag down the good man. Thus memory does make martyrs of us all.