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.

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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.