American Tabloid by James Ellroy

I nearly put this book down after the first few pages. The writing was snappy, stylish, quick. It also pulls no punches and the first chapters reveal a cast of protagonists engaged in brutal violence, seemingly amoral, openly racist, antisemitic, misogynist, you name it.

Ellroy is eager and emphatic to prove his opening sentence, his great thrust:

America was never innocent.

Our heroes, shake down men and corrupt cops and FBI agents on the fast track to losing their conscience, are either terrible people or on their way to becoming so. Murder, torture, corruption. Five hundred pages of it. It’s alleviated somewhat by the fact that these guys aren’t even the worst the country has to offer — the mob and the US government, often-hand-in-loving-hand, are worse. Never innocent.

This book is like six hundred pages. You can’t really do six hundred pages of complete revulsion. Well. I can’t anyway. So what happens? You reach a point, this sort of nadir of disgust, and then you float past it. Embrace it, maybe. America was built on corpses, worshiped corrupt heroes like the coward-womanizer John Kennedy, was in bed with organized crime while endlessly persecuting innocents, so who gives a shit? Stop hating Pete and instead cheer on his massacres. Microwave into the bathtub, alright, great. Burn it to the fucking ground.

It’s hard to say if this is some kind of catharsis or an absolution of responsibility w/r/t the American present. I don’t know.

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

man in the high castleI expected a book about the aftermath of a history where the Allies lost World War 2. While that is the setting of the book, what I actually got was many pages about running an antique business in mid-century San Francisco. And many more pages of characters pondering their daily reading of the I Ching

At first, I was intrigued. People getting by in Japanese occupied SF (many of the streets mentioned surround my workplace!) It felt like a good play-on-expectations for anyone expecting a book about Nazi America. Then I realized that’s all the book is. In other contexts, this could be fine. But I didn’t care one whit about these characters. The book makes a point to paint them all as horrendous racists, Japanese or German or colonized American. Though the first and last didn’t set up murder camps. Or kill everyone in Africa. Yes, in this history the Nazis unleashed some bio-experiment that killed everyone in Africa. Also, slavery was re-instituted in America, a point that is given maybe a paragraph of recognition. While having point of view characters on every side, it’s borderline unconscionable that there is no black character with a voice in the novel. It single handedly robs the novel of the moral authority it attempts to wield.

There’s plenty of high-concept philosophical mumbling, but it’s unconvincing and comes to nothing. You have one character going on about Nazi ideology and wishing they were gods, several enmeshed in the I Ching and Yin & Yang and maybe this is supposed to tie back to the idea of history and how we fit in it. Maybe history doesn’t matter and embracing how feeble and weak we are and potentially governed by the esoteric will of a several thousand year old book is the answer. The fact of the matter is that this is less a plotted novel and more Philip K. Dick’s endorsement of eastern mysticism. You have a man yearning to be part of a harmonious cosmos, one that obviates human agency as a meaningful factor. Embrace the wu.

(so long as you’re not African)

This was one of those books that I didn’t dislike while reading, but found myself waiting, waiting, waiting for it come together; for the narrative and thematic threads to come together and form something. A tangible plot. A philosophy or politic of interest. I was disappointed. There’s hints of something better, but they’re half baked or cast off by novel’s close. 

The Last Defender of Camelot by Roger Zelazny

Last_defender_of_camelotJust look at that cover.

Written in the 60s and 70s, wreathed in a halo of cigarette smoke, amidst the fallout of an assured nuclear war, this collection of stories embodies an era. An era where a man could make a living writing dozens of short stories a year — filling plentiful sci-fi/fantasy magazines to the point where he needed pen names to allow multiple stories in the same issue.

Roger Zelazny’s stories follow a peculiar cosmology. Humanity is almost always extinct, or else we’re on our way to being so. Typically there are now robots or some kind of AI machines trying to emulate, understand, or ritualize the acts of the long dead humans. Even so far as racing stock cars or turning into vampire bots. Take away the radioactivity and craters, and everything else about the post apocalyptic wasteland he evisions matches up with modern sci-fi writers post-climate change future. No nuclear warheads necessary like they were in the 60s.

Many of the stories are very short, though there are three longer novellas in the middle. The first and longest one, He Who Shapes, is unfortunately a super weak sci-fi noir tale. It’s the only story where the casual misogyny of the time and genre was really distasteful (to me). The second novella, the tale of former ex-con biker literally named ‘Hell’ as he tries to drive a rocket-launcher armed, spinning blade equipped armored car across a post apocalyptic US from the nation of California to the country of Boston, is so completely silly and ridiculous it somehow turns out compelling. The last, For a Breath I Tarry, a story of sentient machines trying to recover the memory of man in a frozen over future earth is by far the best. Unlike most modern writers, Zelazny can write a story that is quite clearly allegory or metaphor in a straightforward manner that embraces its own internal story consistency without feeling the need to wink or gesture at the reader ro point out how clever and/or deep he is being.

Zelzany’s prose is better than most genre writers, and indeed he has a little intro at the start of the book where he says an integral piece of him becoming a good writer was to stop insulting the reader’s intelligence. The sparse prose that often references classical verse becomes jarring and kind of hilarious/fun when a very silly sci fi trope suddenly bounds on to the page. It’s fascinating how the original sci-fi grandmasters all cite their inspiration as the literary greats — when I see modern genre writers list their influences, it’s typically just past genre writers.