The Spooking Orb #5: White Noise by Don DeLillo

white noiseWhite Noise? Not a Halloween read, you say? Reagan-era family life not scary enough for you?

Listen up, pal; the theme of this novel is fear. Not fear of serial killers or tentacle monsters or lab experiments, but the granddaddy of them all: Fear of death. Specifically, fear of death in the technology and marketing focused final quarter of the 20th century, where you can’t even entertain the fantasy that death is noble or holy anymore.

I only know I’m just going through the motions of living. I’m technically dead. My body is a growing nebulous mass. They track these things like satellites. All this is a result of a byproduct of insecticide. There’s something artificial about my death. It’s shallow, unfulfilling. I don’t belong to the earth or sky. They ought to carve an aerosol can on my tombstone.

These are the thoughts of Jack Gladney, professor of Hitler studies at a quaint midwestern university and our first-person protagonist. The novel follows Jack and his family: his fifth wife and their assorted children from various marriages. Much of the book is simply Jack’s musings and his back-and-forth chats with his family and friends. It’s the type of book, like A Naked Singularity (a book that draws much influence from White Noise), where people have these long philosophical conversations about life, death, media, family that rarely ever happen in the real world. It’s a warm take on family, though. I grew very fond of this clan of fatalists.

While the novel is mostly dialogue, both external and internal, the major plot happening is a catastrophic gas leak that shuts down Jack’s town and forces everyone to spend a night huddled on cots in a communal warehouse. The Airborne Toxic Event. The family car runs out of gas while stuck in traffic en route to the sanctuary and Jack gets out for a few minutes to fill it up. The two minutes he spends outside brings him into contact with ‘Nyodene D’, the toxic contaminant that kicked off the leak, with its potentially harmful side effects. Including vomiting, nausea, deja vu, and death. Potentially.

This launches an obsession for Jack. Death. Even though the effects of Nyodene D are mostly unknown and probably won’t affect him for 30+ years (he’s in his 50s), it’s all he can think about. He repeatedly visits doctors. Then stops altogether. He discovers that he’s always been terrified of death — it’s why he created the field of Hitler studies, so he could siphon some of Hitler’s aura/endurability and stave off death. Jack steals his wife’s experimental medication. He digs through trash, chases down neurochemists. Stalks people with guns. Considers killing to increase his own longevity.

This book feels old. It was written in 1985, the year I was born. Does that mean I’m old? It’s not like the text is dated. It’s more like Don DeLillo influenced writers two generations over. Bands named themselves after his chapter headings. I’ve seen these themes rehashed so many times, seen writers attempt to mimic his wit and reflection, I felt a (topical) sense of deja vu* while reading White Noise. Even though I’ve never read it before. Not only that, but DeLillo’s influence lies heavily in Kafka, and he was writing in a time much closer to him than we are now. Take this passage for instance, which could almost be ripped right out of The Trial, if it were about medicine instead of law.

I didn’t say it. The computer did. The whole system says it. It’s what we call a massive data-base tally. Gladney, J. A. K. I punch in the name, the substance, the exposure time and then I tape your computer history. Your genetics, your personals, your medicals, your psychologicals, your police-and-hospitals. It comes back pulsing stars. This doesn’t mean anything is going to happen to you as such, at least not today or tomorrow. It just means you are the sum total of your data. No man escapes that.

Maddening bureaucracy. Death became banal and ignoble and worst of all, unfulfilling, as digital technology arose.

 

*A potential side effect of The Airborne Toxic Event!

The Spooking Orb #3: The Guest

guest3

The Peterson family — father, mother, early 20s daughter, highschool age son — are in mourning. Recently, Caleb, their oldest son and army soldier was killed in the Middle East.

Enter David. The Guest. David shows up at the Peterson’s rural abode, claiming to be a squadmate and great friend of Caleb. We, the audience, know something is off with David, not simply because the movie is titled ‘The Guest’, and Mrs. Peterson senses this at first at well. But David backs up his story by pointing himself out in a picture of Caleb the Petersons had amongst their mourning shrine before he even got there. He ingratiates himself further by being the missing good son/brother — he helps the highschooler stand up to bullies, assists the daughter with boyfriend problems, is a sounding board for the dad’s work woes, a warm son-like presence for mom.

This is a movie of tension, building. Watch David chop food in the kitchen with a large knife and wave it around while he’s talking in his earnest, affable manner. There’s a constant juxtaposition between blue eyed, ultra friendly David, that guy from Downton Abbey, and the violence we’re sure he’s capable of even before we see it. Indeed, the tension is dramatically more engaging and frightening than the violence itself when it does arrive.

While ostensibly a horror movie, The Guest isn’t all that scary or share many commonalities with modern horror. It’s more of a homage to 80s thriller/horror. It’s kind of goofy, kind of campy, there’s purposeful overacting and secret military plots. The type of movie that somehow sets its final set piece amidst a Halloween maze. Dan Stevens keeps David just believable enough to not devolve fully into silliness. 

The mystery of David is never fully explained. The film uses some sci fi handwaving to explain portions of it. But that feels more like a crutch to explain otherwise inexplicable violence than an organic part of the film. I read later that the director had more ‘explainer’ scenes in the initial cuts but removed them because audience’s found them boring. But the end result feels too middle-ground for me — I would prefer a full explanation or none at all. If you read into the details the film drops, there’s definitely a fun sci-fi twists lurking below the surface, but without a reveal, it loses much of its appeal. I realize how fickle I am when I just celebrated a movie for giving no full explanation two days ago and then get annoyed this one didn’t have one. But they’re completely different styles of narrative!

My final thoughts coming away from the movie was that it was a great ride that I really enjoyed while it was happening, but kind of unsatisfying in the end. You could almost chart my tension/engagement as a jagged, rising line that flatlines once the movie ends. Something about this style of horror, even when very well realized like this movie is, just does not stick with me like other, scarier subgenres.

The Spooking Orb #2: Fatal Frame: Maiden of the Black Water

fatal frameblack

Fatal Frame 2 on the Playstation 2 was the scariest game I ever played. I straight up did not finish it. Couldn’t handle it. Only game that I can claim that. I could only play in very short bursts before the atmosphere got to me and I shut it off.

Why was it so frightening? For several reasons. Even though most horror games I had played were Japanese in origin, they were based on American mythos (Resident Evil, Silent Hill) with zombies and mad scientists with a vision and bioweapons gone wrong and Freudian rape monsters. Instead, Fatal Frame was full J-Horror — drowned women, hanged women, broken necked women, women weeping tears of blood, all pale with creepy, flowing black hair. (Why is J-Horror so feminine? I’m sure someone’s written about that.) That shit is scary. They bust out of a wall screaming, or creep around the corner awkwardly bent over backwards and grinning at you upside down.

And unlike the other horror games, you had these ethereal, shrieking creatures pursuing you but you weren’t some burly dude with a gun, but instead a little girl with a camera, which you could use to trap the ghosts in, ghostbuster style. You actually start as twins with a camera — the protagonist and her identical sister who has a lame leg, which she drags along after you as you navigate the game’s setting. An effect used for scares of course (…wait a second, I can’t hear the other girl dragging her leg anymore, how long has it been???). I’m telling you the avatar you control in games is a big deal.

After I shamefully put down Fatal Frame 2 (I think I sold it, actually; total banishment!), I did not pick up further entries in the series. Then the other day my Wii U controller started blinking to alert me a new Fatal Frame game had come out. Not only that — I could download the first few levels for free! Just in time for Halloween.

Long story short: It’s extremely boring and mediocre, a clunky, difficult to control mess. 

Like another favorite Japanese genre, RPGS, Japanese horror seems to have stagnated. This game feels like, mechanically, it could have been a PS2 game. We don’t put up with terrible controls anymore! The story, the dialogue and voice acting does not feel modern. There’s some sort of hair monster that looks more like a Final Fantasy boss than something that’s supposed to cause a fright. Enemies take forever to kill — the scariest ghost becomes kind of joke when you have to take dozens of pictures of him to kill, while fighting off the horrendous controls (what kind of game in 2015 doesn’t let you move the game camera while walking??).

I think if I somehow recovered a copy of FF2, it would have many of the same shortcomings. Well, actually the environment didn’t stuff me into narrow hallways where I couldn’t see anything like the Black Water demo and I don’t recall the enemies being quite so annoying to fight. But otherwise, probably the controls and camera and whatever weren’t great. But that was like ten years ago! I need a game to be enjoyable to actually play before I can get scared nowadays.

The Spooking Orb #1: Primer

Prepare your Jack O’Lantern, it’s Halloween week! Welcome to The Spooking Orb: All week, I will be blogging about scary things — mostly movies, but games & books as well.

Primer

Primer stars two guys in identical white collared shirts trying to build something in their garage. It’s unclear exactly what it is. An electrical invention that involves complex physics and energy-based jargon. Something they plan to sell, or at least get VC funding and mass produce. Of course what they eventually do succeed in building — The Box — does not function as they intended it to, or indeed function like anything else anyone has ever built before.

This is Star/Director/Editor/Composer/Everything Shane Carruth’s first movie. Later on, in Upstream Color, he’ll end up splicing fast moving, occasionally unintelligible dialogue into some sense of language. Individual sentences disappear but the context persists. I had never seen this before. In Primer, he performs another cool and innovative feat with language: Protagonists Aaron and Abe spend the entire first half of the film babbling. The film jumpcuts between the two of them pitching technical ideas to the other and flipping ambiguous switches and turning up dials. We understand the words they are using, but since we have no idea what they are trying to build in the garage or, at least if you’re me, no in-depth knowledge of electrical engineering, nothing they’re saying coheres into an actual method or goal. Instead, again, we merely get the sense of what they building.

The second half of the movie is the reveal of what their invention actually does. The Box is born. This movie was made on a shoestring budget so Carruth settled for a ducktaped, plasticky coffin that makes whirring, booming, industrial noises. It resides in a storage locker, just snug enough for a human to crawl inside. It’s frankly sinister.

At this point, briefly, I could smugly claim “I understand exactly what is happening in this movie.”. Then of course the sci-fi-paradox consequences of The Box take effect and space & time & narrative break down (well, for the latter, breaks down more than it had already). The delicate workings of The Box require a lot of concerned chatter between Aaron and Abe: “Is the box still running?” “When did you set it for?” “Don’t get out the box too early, I told you.” Picture these with an accompanying man nervously running his hands through his hair. These utterances make a little more sense than Act 1 technobabble. Not that much. There’s A->B diagrams at least.

It should be no surprise that the conclusion of the movie does not fully explain the plot, but there’s enough there to theorize just what happened (best recommended watching with a netflix partner to discuss after). I think if you watched the movie enough and plotted out the arching and re-arching plot strings, going backwards and forwards through time, you could probably come up with something coherent.

But these movies aren’t really to be understood. They’re to be sensed/experienced. Let the language and cuts and washed out filters and concentric narrative threads wash over you. You still can’t help but wonder where it’s all going, but also know that you won’t ever fully comprehend. I understand I am in a distinct minority in loving this guy’s movies; he’s only been able to make two in ten years after all. But as I’ve mentioned maybe dozens of times on this blog, I like to watch/read/experience skilled, ambitious creators try something new.

Show me something I’ve never seen before.

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

library-mt-char-jacketThe Library at Mount Char is about a family of librarians. Sort of.

Sort of a family, because I guess that’s what you become when all your parents are simultaneously murdered and you’re adopted by a timeless demigod (not-so-fondly known as ‘Father’).

Sort of librarians because while they are caretakers of shelved books, they’re more like the X-men; The books serve as fonts for their themed superpowers. In other words: If you study something long enough, say medicine, you gain larger-than-life abilities, like healing any wound or bringing people back from the dead. The librarian in charge of the animal books can speak to and live like animals, learn all their rituals and hierarchies. The guy whose catalog is War has mastered every sort of weaponry, can read his enemies thoughts, and mows down armed soldiery faster than you manning a turret in the latest Call of Duty game.

Yes. This is an extremely, extraordinarily goofy book.

It is Carolyn, whose catalog is language (of which she can read or speak any variety, both modern and ancient, both human and animal, both worldly and out-of-space) that we follow through most of the novel. Now in their thirties, the librarians’ ‘Father’ is suddenly missing. It turns out that despite being a colossal hardass who more-or-less constantly tortured and abused his adoptive children, Father was the catalyst who kept all the entities who are even worse from descending on the earth, turning people into tentacle monsters and extinguishing all life on earth and whatnot. But Carolyn has a plan. The plot is the realization of that plan.

Did I mention this book was goofy? It embraces it. The God of War guy runs around in a blood-caked Tutu killing people en masse with a pyramid attached to a chain, gifting his victims’ heads to his girlfriend. I mean, like, total eradication of a police station. Intestines hanging from the ceiling, cops chopped in half, don’t slip on the blood! This is only the tip of the iceberg. The novel is consistently weird. I think it’s supposed to be dark and brutal too, which I guess it kinda is, but the ruminations on abuse are difficult to take seriously within the scope of tutu guy assaulting the White House. The violence falls somewhere between a Tarantino movie, a slasher flick, and a video game. Somewhere in me I have a thesis about how video game violence altered book and especially movie violence in the past decade. Another time.  

This book has some great ideas that only half-happen. They’re a tease. We have this intriguing set of superpowered librarians but we only get to know maybe 3-4 of them. There’s 12 total but not even all of them are named, which is baffling honestly. Likewise, partway through the novel when the world threatens to end and eldritch beasties are unleashed across it, I anticipated the second half of Cabin in the Woods but received barely a glimpse of the outside world. Instead: repeated conversations by the same two characters wandering the library. There’s a whole lot of talking and explaining in this book.

Fantasy/Sci-fi pet peeve: While it’s understandable when confronted with the fantastic and seemingly impossible that modern day humans react with disbelief, after a while, I think I’d get used to it and stop asking. This one guy, Steve, spends half the damn book going “Bluh? Carolyn, lions can’t talk!” “60,000 years old? People can’t live that long, Carolyn!” “Carolyn, despite seeing this before my very eyes, it’s impossible for this library to be bigger on the inside than the outside, surely it’s an underground bunker?”

I threatened to skim Steve. Anyway, despite problems like these, or the way the pacing unravels in the last third of the book or the fact that the final answer of “Why? Why does the library exist! Why did Father kidnap and train these people!” is a tired cliche, I sort of loved this book. It’s ridiculous but inventive and creative and fresh in a way I wasn’t expecting. I read it in a handful of sittings. I want fantasy to take me somewhere I haven’t been before, and The Library at Mount Char did just that.

The Best American Essays 2015, edited by Ariel Levy

bestamericanHere’s the reviews for:
2013
2014

Ariel Levy wrote the best essay of last year: Thanksgiving in Mongolia — wherein she delivered a premature birth in a Mongolian hotel room. So I was looking forward to what she’d come up with as the editor of the latest installation. Unfortunately her introductory essay is short and forgettable. The essay selection itself is pretty good though.

The essays in this collection skew heavily towards intense personal experience. There’s multiple entries about getting old or getting pregnant. Some of these are quite good, but as I mentioned in my review of 2013, sometimes I just want to hear a skilled writer go: “Hey I just found something cool / morally imperative, let me write about it!” There’s maybe only one or two in this collection like that, one of them being Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent essay on The Crooked Ladder: Why are the descendents of the Italian/Irish gangsters of the 1920s all upper class, entrenched Americans, but the families of the black gangsters of the 80s and 90s still mired in poverty?

Here’s my favorites:

Thing with Feathers That Perches in the Soul by Anthony Doerr: A romantic tale about the founding of Boise, Idaho of all things. A man finds a small house in Boise that he never noticed before despite driving by it every day. He tracks its history back to the marriage between two of the very first pioneers in Idaho, who had seven children living with them in their one-room cottage. What follows is a paean to humanity’s capacity to preserve and remember.

A Man and His Cat by Tim Kreider: The title says it all. Kreider details the longest relationship of his life — the companionship of a 19 year old cat. When humans find their intra-human social needs missing, they tend to lower the bar and accept other creatures in their stead. A comic but moving defense of the personhood of animals.

My Daughter and God by Justin Cronin: Cronin receives a call from his wife that she and their daughter had just been involved in a ‘fender bender’. He rapidly discovers that she is in shock and their accident was actually a catastrophic freeway spinout that obliterated their SUV but miraculously left both passengers unharmed. Cronin and wife then find God and organized religion and begin their search (in east Texas) for a church that isn’t horrendously, hatefully socially conservative. Meanwhile their daughter, a consummate atheist since she was in a stroller, feels betrayed and starts living in her closet. It’s the type of family drama that only shines in the hands of a skilled narrative writer, and Cronin is that.

There’s a few duds. I’m sure there’s one or two aging/life change pieces so repetitive I’ve already forgotten them. And there’s a couple on the nature of Time that did not work for me. A guy recovering from surgery convaleses in his study and watches his day — sunlight, meals, segments of time itself — elongate and disintegrate. I found it intolerably boring. There’s a later one by Rebecca Solnit that takes on a similar theme, using Buddhist arches in Japan instead. It’s prettier but still meh. “Time is not absolute” is not exactly groundbreaking here.

But, like I said, overall: Pretty good collection.

Lost amidst the Atlantic

breton

No update this week. Er, it’s Sunday. Belated: No update last week. It’s my wife’s birthday and I’m officiating my sister’s wedding. So here’s a picture of Cape Breton, on the eastern most tip of Nova Scotia, where I spent much of the last week. On sea and land, by boat and car and foot.

Reviews to continue next (this) week, as I’ve got a backlog to start writing from.

Cathedral by Raymond Carver

cathedralThis book is called Cathedral: Stories but probably it ought to be called Alcoholism: Stories given the content it explores.

As I mentioned in my review of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Carver explores a white working class life familiar to my childhood that very few authors write about. At least not well. The practical but inimicable relationship to hated jobs, the centrality of an always-on television, a grim fatalism that can’t quite eliminate hope from the equation. But my family had this weird sort of asceticism: the dependency of the drinking class was basically absent. My grandfathers would drink a light beer in front of the TV and that was about it. My parents only started drinking, sparingly, in the last few years. Forget MJ or any hard drugs. So this collection doesn’t resonate as well, and despite being superb (Carver prose = magic), I think personal-familial musing aside, it’s just not as strong as the other collection.

Alcoholism in Cathedral is a demon. The demon. It unmans men, invokes violence and cruel madness, puts people in an early grave. Wives are willfully destroying marriages, husbands are hiding their 9am 2nd bottle of champagne behind the toilet, fathers are slapping their sons around. It’s effective, and the influence on Infinite Jest’s black comedy/horror scenes of AA meetings where people admit horrific-to-the-point-of-hilarious abuses due to the drink is crystal clear. But it does start to repeat a bit, in a less than compelling way. 

The first story is the best story; a man brings his wife to meet his work buddy, at the latter’s country ranch where he has a pet peacock and an ugly new baby. It shows us guileless, pure love, and then flips the switch to this helpless melancholy triggered by missing out on that same love, even when you tried pretty hard. It feels like maybe you only get once chance to get it right.

A shorter story from WWTAWWTAL appears here as well, except about four times the length. The first collection leaves us in a hospital with a dying child, this one kills him and shows us the aftermath, which involves repeated calls from a baker who made the dead boy’s birthday cake that no one picked up. Actually you know what? The stories about love are better than the ones about alcohol. My favorite boozing story — a couple, divorced due to the man’s alcoholism, gets together for one last magical summer — merely uses the drink as a backdrop. 

I’ve also heard this collection is supposed to be when Carver got happier and injected hope into his stories. While I guess this collection is slightly brighter, as it contains a whole two stories with hopeful endings (after a whole bunch of other bad stuff happens), it’s hilarious to call this collection happy or hopeful. It’s not happy! It’s grim! Grim with shades of survival.

 

A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor

time of giftsOK, I don’t think you can truly appreciate this book unless you’re European. Or at least have a knowledge of European art and history, an overall aesthetic sensibility that I do not possess. I’m going to spend some time backing this theory up, but first let me tell you what A Time of Gifts is about.*

When the author was 18, which was 1933 or thereabouts, he was kicked out of school for stealing time with a woman, though really it was a culmination of havoc caused by his inveterate trouble-making that got him the boot. So he decided to walk across Europe, from London to Constantinople. This book — written in 1977 with Fermor’s remarkably acute memories plus a few diary excerpts from the walk itself — details just about half of that journey. I don’t plan to read the rest, so jolly, naive teen Fermor will be gallivanting across Europe forever as far as I’m concerned.

Post World War I, the Old World is supposed to be dead. But, at least in part to being a precocious and over-literate student, Fermor is greeted with non-stop hospitality. People he seems to know for a few minutes put him up in their flats (or estates or castles or couches) for the night. Then call all their friends and set up free stays for his foreseeable future. The world around him is snow capped villages, lumberjacks, barges, peasants. There’s a middle Europe village lifestyle awash with aromatic stews and freshly churned butter and cold ale and pipe-smoking lumberjacks that makes it jarring when modern tech like automobiles or telephones launch into focus and you remember it’s the 1930s, not the 1630s.

The descriptive prose is generally excellent. Even though I honestly didn’t like the book all that much, I kept reading because of how entrancing and memorable certain passages were. I could feel young Fermor crunching through the snow above the Danube, could just about see the magnificence of mountain peaks in the distance. His enthusiasm is often infectious and some of the people he befriends and describes, and the little narratives that surface — Fermor runs out of money and with the assistance of a Don Quixote-esque personage starts going door-to-door selling his portrait-sketching skills to the people of Vienna — are engaging.

So far so good, but here’s where this book, written in a dense style of English filled with many words I did not understand starts failing for me. Fermor, a certain kind of old-school English intellectual, thinks I can read Latin. And French. Or at least this is what I am to assume from all the untranslated Latin and French in the book. German is mercifully translated. He also assumes a knowledge of European art that I lack. Watch my eyes glaze over, sticky and dry, during the lengthy passages where he pontificates on old paintings he assumes the reader is familiar with and how they relate to his surroundings. Indeed, he has this whole notion that painting and travel are inextricably linked because you often see places in paintings before you visit them. This idea is so foreign and counter to my real life experiences (where I might replace ‘painting’ with ‘film’ or ‘tv’ or ‘literature’) that I cannot but guess this is intended for a different generation or culture than the one I presently belong to!

Historic assumptions are rife within this book too, though less bothersome. I don’t have Prague and Vienna built up with such mystique as young Patrick does, so his wonder does not quite resonate with me. The middle European empires I know only in murky, half-forgotten shades. Certainly nothing to match Fermor’s musing on the Hapsburgs. The thing that kills me are the times he engrosses me in some historic element and then completely abandons me out at sea. While stomping through Germany he meets all kinds of different politically minded people, plenty of which want to know why England doesn’t like the Nazis. Fermor responds that his people aren’t so keen on:

  1. Burning books.
  2. Concentration camps.
  3. Persecuting Jews.

Then, instead of telling us what the Germans’ responses were, he says:

Anyway, the reactions and arguments are too familiar for repetition.

Ahh! No they are not familiar to me, Patrick! I wanted to know what the average people of Germany had to say in response. This is the sort of half-brilliant, half-complete drudgery I found this book to be.

*Note all the glowing reviews on Goodreads, many written by Americans, show I’m more-or-less completely wrong about this. But whatever. I’m sticking to it.