October 18, 2011

Bluebeard (#96)

Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut

What I said then: 

Vonnegut’s a huge favourite of mine, to the point that I’ve had to ration his books out so that I don’t find myself with fifty years left to live but no new Vonnegut to read.

What I say now:

Of course, there's always a chance that I'll be hit by a car tomorrow. And as I lie on the road my last thought will surely be: Consarn it, now I wish I'd read every last Kurt Vonnegut novel as soon as I fell in love with the guy.

But at least I'll have read Bluebeard.

After Drood I figured I'd treat myself to one of the 'sure things' that's still on my shelves, to perk me up a bit, and Bluebeard didn't disappoint. If you haven't read Vonnegut before, his tone of voice is difficult to describe: he's like the perfect uncle you wish you had, both wise-cracking and wise. Honestly, his writing is a mess of contradictions, managing to be simultaneously hilarious and tragic, serious and silly, and best of all, sane and insane at the same time. And for as long as you're reading a Vonnegut book, that feels like the only possible way to respond to this mad, beautiful, cruel world we live in. He's a magician.

Rabo Karabekian, an Armenian-American Abstract Expressionist painter, has a cameo in Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions (his scene in that book is a favourite of mine), and is placed centre stage here. After the particular brand of paint he used for his art turns out to fall off the canvas after a while, he has become a laughing stock and is living out the last years of his life in relative seclusion. His comfortable decline is interrupted when a bossy know-it-all widow named Circe Berman shows up on his private beach and cajoles him into writing his autobiography. Bluebeard is that book, and it swings between Karabekian describing his ill-starred youth and relating the philosophical disagreements that arise between himself and Berman, who becomes his house-guest.

Spicing the book with occasional historical figures (Jackson Pollock figures prominently), Vonnegut gives us a potted history of the beginning of the Abstract Expressionist movement. However, it's the running commentary provided by the arguing Karabekian and Berman (she can't stand his collection of paintings, he can't satisfactorily explain them) which is the most fun. Their relationship --- snarky and adversarial, but still needy --- is a delight.

Sorry, this is a pretty crap review. I don't really know how to explain the appeal of Kurt Vonnegut to me. I've loved every one of his books that I've read. Reading the last third of Bluebeard on the train back from Wangaratta I laughed out loud on several occasions, and had to wipe tears from my eyes on several more. But for the life of me I can't dissect how he does it. Or maybe I don't want to dissect it.

So ... look. Go to a bookshop. Pick up a copy of Slaughterhouse Five. (That was the first book of his that I ever read, and it blew my mind apart. In a good way.) Stand in the store and read it until you come to the words "It ends like this: Poo-tee-weet?" In my edition, that's sixteen pages in. If, at that point, you haven't fallen head over heels for Kurt Vonnegut the way that I did (and still do), then I feel sorry for you. You won't know what you're missing.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Revolutionary Road by Kurt Vonnegut
books to go: 95

October 11, 2011

Drood (#97)

Drood by Dan Simmons

What I said then: 

A Victorian mystery which has Dickens and Wilkie Collins as its protagonists

What I say now:

It's possible that I did this book a major disservice by reading it immediately after I had read Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone. Simmons' book is told in the first person, from Wilkie Collins' point of view, and the fact that I was juxtaposing real Wilkie Collins with fake Wilkie Collins made the fake version nigh-on unbearable. Every time Simmons got the voice wrong (which was often) it jolted me out of the story. Maybe with a bit more time and space in between them, all of Simmons' infelicities of style wouldn't have been so noticeable, or bothered me so much. As it is, his effort at literary ventriloquism struck me as a complete and utter failure.

Even more unfortunately, the story was annoying as hell. Charles Dickens, returning from a trip to France with his mistress (and ... the mother of his mistress?!), is involved in a horrific train crash. As he helps to pull people from the wreckage, he encounters a mysterious apparition: a disquieting man in a long black opera cape, with no nose and severed fingers, who has a lisping hiss of a voice and is named Drood. Drood, may or may not be an Egyptian hypnotist, a master criminal, a serial killer, or a figment of Dickens' and his protege Wilkie Collins' imaginations, or all of the above. Over the next five years, the last of Dickens' life, Drood haunts, beguiles and terrifies the famous author, and casts an even greater shadow over the grasping, peevish, Collins who narrates our tale.

Drood is 800 pages long, and is stuffed with incident, but it was all so haphazardly thrown together that I'd struggle to elongate that brief summary. Soooo much happened, but it was all soooo meaningless. Not once, but several times, there would come some extraordinary revelation that should have changed everything about the relationship between Dickens and Collins, only when next they met, everything would go on exactly as before. Sometimes no reason was given for this break from cause & effect storytelling, and sometimes Simmons fell back on the excuse of hypnotism (mesmerism, he calls it) to explain why events have no seeming consequence. I couldn't tell you which annoyed me more. There's even one moment, I shit you not, when an entire chapter is explained away with the old 'Then I woke up and it was all a dream' chestnut. Doesn't everybody in the world know that trope is dramatic death? Doesn't everybody know never to use it?

Collins --- jealous, drug-addicted, psychopathic, possibly mad and possibly hypnotised --- is an unreliable narrator, but his unreliability is never utilised for any purpose. The best unreliable narrator stories will still, at their close, offer satisfaction to the reader because they'll explain how, why, and in what way their narrator was concealing the truth. When Simmons closes Drood he leaves us still completely in the dark as to how much of the preceding 800 pages was madness, how much was hypnotism, how much was exaggeration and how much was true. At that point it's not clever, it's just frustrating.

My other beef was with Simmons' insistence on cramming in every damn bit of research he could find, regardless of whether it served his story or not. So much of this novel (not half of the total word count, maybe, but probably a third) consisted of tidbits about Dickens, or about Collins, or about the time they lived in, that simply had no need to be there. There'd be entire chapters in which the story would stop dead in its tracks while we were treated to a lovingly detailed description of what Dickens and Collins got up to in February of 1861. Okay, okay, I'm over-stating the case there ... but I'm overstating it by less than you might think.

All in all, this was a crushing disappointment. I've got Hyperion, another Dan Simmons novel on my shelf. It might be a very long while before I pull that one down and give it a go.

Cheers, JC.

about to read: Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut
books to go: 96

October 4, 2011

'First and Last Thoughts' --- short story

'Sup everybody. Drood is continuing to be boring as hell. I just checked the dates and holy shit, in three days I'll have been reading it for a whole frickin' month. Ugh. I've got Thursday off, so if I really plow through the ending maybe I can beat the one-month deadline.

Anyways, given the relative silence recently I thought I'd throw up an old story from one of the writing groups I used to be a part of. I dropped out of them earlier this year because I was embarking on a big writing project which has taken up a heap of my time and energy. I'll have more details on that 'big writing project' reasonably soon. Hopefully. (Ooo, mysterious!)

So this particular story was for the --- how can I put this? --- vastly sillier of the two writing groups, and the theme was Trashy Vampire Fiction. It may or may not be the funniest thing I've ever written, but it's certainly the dopiest. But before we begin, here's a little something to get you in the mood:

Remember, if you think the story sucks, you can always scroll back up and gaze into R-Pattz's horrifyingly dead eyes. On that note, enjoy!

First and Last Thoughts

Doctor Isabelle Lee’s first thought was that the girl was terrified.  Her second thought was that the boy’s hairstyle was ridiculous.  It swept upwards in artfully asymmetrical swoops and swirls, like a disaster of post-modern architecture, or like a half-melted soft-serve cone from McDonalds.  Her third thought was that, despite the hair, he was smoking hot.

It was nearing four a.m., and nearing the end of her shift in the E.R.  It had been a relatively quiet evening: most of the drug-related gunshot wounds and stabbings had had the good grace to be D.O.A., and she’d even been able to snatch moments of sleep in between signing off on them and sending them down to the morgue.

All her tiredness disappeared, however, as she gazed into the calm young man’s limpid green eyes.  She put his age at about sixteen, but his eyes seemed older somehow.  His skin was white, the pure white of a blank sheet of paper, as though there was no blood beneath the surface to stain it pink.  His lips, however, were brilliant red, and the contrast with his skin was dazzling.  They were like juicy fresh-picked strawberries perched atop a dollop of thick, luscious cream.

Isabelle became suddenly aware of her own skin, and began to feel hot underneath her scrubs.  For a brief moment, everything was forgotten—the hospital, the injured girl, her boyfriend Lorenzo waiting at home in their cramped apartment—everything was lost, except for him, and her.  Isabelle’s heart beat a tattoo against her ribs.

The boy smiled, a perfect dimple cleaving his hard, masculine chin.  ‘My girlfriend caught her tongue on something,’ he said.  ‘Could you take a look at it?’

His voice was unusually deep, and it shook through Isabelle like the bass in a nightclub.  It took her a moment to register what he’d actually said.

‘What?’  The world—the cruel grey world—came flooding back.  ‘Oh, yes, of course.  So, uhh, what seems to be the trouble?’

Turning to the girl, Isabelle again saw in an instant that something was scaring her out of her wits.

‘Mppffhhmm,’ she mumbled, refusing to open her mouth.  Isabelle pulled up a stool in front of her and laid her hand on the girl’s knee.

‘It’s okay.  You’re safe here.  What happened?’

In answer, the girl opened her mouth, revealing that her tongue had been shredded to ribbons.  She was a beautiful girl, Isabelle reflected.  Or, more accurately, she would be beautiful if her mascara hadn’t dripped to form black tear-streaks on her cheeks, and if her hair wasn’t in disarray, and if her clothes weren’t torn …

‘We were making out …’  The boy was stealthy; he had crept up behind Isabelle without a sound, and his deep voice purred into her ear.  Just hearing him say the words ‘making out’ in his Barry White-esque timbre made her lose herself.  A shiver ran down her spine and she shifted on her stool.  She grew damp, and not with sweat.

Staring blankly into the girl’s open mouth, at the half-cooked bolognese that was all that was left of her tongue, Isabelle surrendered to the boy’s lustrous voice.  She let out a whimper.

‘… and I grazed her tongue with my fangs …’

As he spoke, the boy hooked a finger underneath Isabelle’s pony-tail and draped it over one shoulder, exposing the back of her neck.  The faint whisper of his breath on her skin made her arch her back in delight.

‘… and I tasted her blood …’

He stroked Isabelle’s tight pink flesh.  His fingers were icy cold, like frozen sausages left to thaw in the kitchen sink of her burning skin.  She shuddered at his touch, closed her eyes and leaned back, biting her lip to keep from groaning out loud.

‘… and it tasted good.  Once a vampire tastes blood, his thirst is almost unquenchable, he can’t be stopped …’

Wait … fangs?  Vampire?  Huh?  Isabelle opened her eyes and the boy’s pale unearthly face was mere inches from hers.  His skin was smooth as marble, and just as cold.  But his eyes, despite their agelessness, were warm.  She was overwhelmed by his beauty, by the sheer perfection of his astonishing face—he was like a perfect meld of Brad Pitt, Johnny Depp, Zac Efron and all three Jonas Brothers.  She felt a monstrous heat growing inside her, a heat that Lorenzo had failed to make her feel in years.

‘… but I love my Lydia …’

The girl, her fear replaced by something close to joy, stroked the boy’s pale hand.

‘… so stop I did.  It almost killed me …’

He smiled.  Even the sight of his snow-white fangs couldn’t mar his angelic beauty.  Isabelle gasped and writhed in delight, intoxicated by his very presence.  The heat inside her was building to a crashing crescendo.

‘… and now I’m sooooo hungry,’ the boy crooned.

As the two pin-pricks of his fangs sank into her neck, as her life drained away, as her orgasm sent great rolling waves of hot pleasure that wracked her body like a lifeboat in a storm, the last thing that Doctor Isabelle Lee ever thought was: it was worth it.

And then she died.

Story notes:
  • In all honesty, this barely qualifies as a story. It's more like a Trashy Vampire Anecdote, or something. Even the wizard one, which is shorter, at least has a beginning, middle and end. This is too slight. It's just kind of a run of gags.
  • A shout out to my good friend Kerls, whose series of Bad Fiction Friday Arvos over on his blog A Totally Irrelevant Title made me more willing to throw up something that's deeply terrible.
  • I still giggle at the frozen sausages metaphor. I do wish that sentence was phrased a bit more elegantly though. Ah well, can't win 'em all. 
  • I hope you laughed at least once. If you didn't, I'm not as good a writer as I think I am. 
  • I genuinely have no idea what the Jonas Brothers look like.
Cheers, JC.

currently reading: Drood by Dan Simmons
books to go: 97