Category Archives: apocalypse

Bray House 1919-3

Bray House by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne

There my be something about the experience of writing in Ireland that drives writers into exile. For every Yeats who holes up in a castle in County Sligo at the end of his days, there’s a Joyce or Beckett or Shaw or Wilde who leaves Ireland and doesn’t so much not look back as look back with love and pride and revulsion and irritation, look back compulsively and minutely. (Although, arguably, Yeats didn’t really live in Ireland either. He lived in a magical place called Yeatsland.) The Irelands of these writers are mirages of the retreating horizon, full of equal measures of hate and longing. Like the bragging protagonist in “Playboy of the Western World,” Irish writers conjure and murder their Irish father again and again, but the joke’s on them when Ireland continues to plug along in its Irish way, spitting out more exile-artists from the fertile ground of lost and sublimated languages, religion, peat smoke, and god knows what all. 

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne is not just Irish, but the kind of Irish that has an unpronounceable Irish name with the little thingy over some of the vowels. When she looks back, she doesn’t turn into a pillar of salt, Ireland does. She nukes it to a hard uninhabitable crust of ash and loss, and then catalogs its innards with the fine and almost-loving hands of an anthropologist scrying meaning from a collection of everyday objects and unfinished lives. Set in an ecologically devastated future, The Bray House is the first-person account of a Swedish academic, Robin, who organizes a expedition to return to Ireland and excavate one house out of the nuclear wasteland that is now Ireland. (When I said Ní Dhuibhne nuked Ireland, I wasn’t being funny; a series of nuclear accidents some time before the events of the book utterly destroyed the British Isles.)

It seems very rare to me that writers create truly horrible, unlikeable characters. Now that I say that, I realize that statement needs some clarification. There are plenty of unlikeable sorts in lit, but they’re usually shot through with some kind of redemptive humanity, some moment where they stand below the prostitute’s window and realize she’s a better person, and has been all along. (Having read Lolita, I understand that HH can bring the serious lulz.) I can see why authors wouldn’t want to do this. Not because they shy from the unlikeable and dishonest, but because who really wants to bring a creature like that into being, think like them, craft words they’d use? Blech. It was bad enough listening to Robin spin her entirely untrustworthy narrative of what happened on the expedition, what things she lost and found, what the events meant. I wouldn’t want to be the one who had to craft her voice, construct her guts and her lies. 

I don’t care much about plot, and I get the impression that the author didn’t either, but someone told her she should. This is too bad, because there are some things that happen that felt unnecessary or overly metaphoric, simply for the sake of having some events. The ending shows a restraint that many authors can’t muster though, although I won’t say too much more for fear of spoilers. The part that absolutely killed me was the little anthropological whaling section in the middle, written in dry academicese, that details the contents of the house they excavated, divines the characters of its inhabitants, and conjures the culture of Ireland in the moments before it vanished. It’s like the cast of the lovers from Pompeii, encased in ash and burned away, found later when archaeologists poured plaster into the voids. Robin isn’t a plaster person; she’s worse than this. She’s real and talking back at us from the void. It’s not a plaster Ireland, it’s sadder than this. 

When Americans annihilate our home country in fiction, we get Jerry Bruckheimer to direct, pack the White House with gasoline and a timer, and hire Charleton Heston and Will Smith to pose heroically in the foreground. It’s not a conflagration so much as a cook-out, a chance for neighbors to gab while the neighbor’s house burns to the ground. Such a pity! I envy the way the Irish return to their Irelands, a concrete and shifting mirage of conditional statements: might have been, was possible once, could be soon. As a nation of immigrants, we Americans are always arriving, finding new Americas when we cast off the old. Ireland is written by a nation of artists in exile, who keep trying to set the plaster while the dust shifts.

wrongways

Wrong Ways Down: True Thing

Writing fictions from a dude’s point of view after a long series of books written from the woman’s is a very difficult thing to pull off. The most famous example is probably Midnight Sun, which was to be Stephenie Meyer’s Twilightwritten from the point of view of vampire love interest Edward Cullen. Twelve chapters in, someone leaked the manuscript, and Meyer quit writing it, saying, “If I tried to write Midnight Sun now, in my current frame of mind, James would probably win and all the Cullens would die, which wouldn’t dovetail too well with the original story.” (Honestly, I think this alt-history Twilight sounds amazing, but ymmv.) Like when writing a sequel, the writer is constrained by a timeline of events that are inviolate (or fucking should be, George Lucas), and cannot strike out in new territory (such as murdering all the Cullens, or having Anakin meet his step-brother Owen for like 15 minutes even though Owen said out loud that he’s had a much longer and more fractious relationship than talking to Anakin once after Anakin committed genocide). (Not that I’m bitter.)

So it was something of a surprise to me that I enjoyed Wrong Ways Down as much as did. Wrong Ways Down by Stacia Kane is from the point of view of Terrible, sometimes partner and sometimes love interest of Chess Putnam, who is the principle of five (and counting) books in the Downside Ghost series. The series takes place in an alt-history where murderous ghosts rose up and killed roughly half the population of the planet in 1997. I could get into the exact backstory, but it’s not necessary, given that the books themselves aren’t too fussed about history. Chess is a junkie with a respectable job; Terrible works for her dealer as a knee-breaker; they both inhabit the wrong side of town called Downside.

Wrong Ways Down occurs somewhen between the first book in the second, and is written mostly in the Downside patois Kane invented for the neighborhood. Being the other reasons this book could fail, or could fail to hook readers. I myself like the street lingo of Downside because it manages to run a local idiom without being racist or relying too heavily on eye dialect. But I know this kind of stylistic choice can be difficult for people. I was just recently reading a book that spelled the word blood “blud”, which made me snort a little. Like spelling magic “magick” or fairy “fairie” (with apologies to Spenser), these are stylistic choices that can rankle readers inordinately. The occasional snort aside, I do not think these choices are errors. I, personally, think flipping out about punctuation choices in, say, The Road, is pedantry, but then I also know that the heart wants what it wants. Sometimes it wants capital letters, I guess.

But all this sort of positioning shit aside, the real reason I liked Wrong Ways Down was that it didn’t diminish Terrible, relegating him to a bit player or an appendage in his own story, nor did it put all kinds of psychosis in his head, because sociopaths are rrrrrromantic. There are a lot of dude-perspective fictions — like Midnight Sun, or that short story by Moning from Barrons’ point of view, or Walking Disaster – which run the thought processes of their heroes like serial killers. Admittedly, a lot of these dudes looked like serial killers from the woman’s point of view, but as the old saw goes, better to remain silent and be thought a serial killer than to speak out and remove all doubt.

We know Terrible is a leg-breaker and enforcer — this is not a surprise — just like we know Chess is a fuckup and a junkie. How does he rationalize his own cruelty? What does he get out of violence? What does he think about Chess’s addictions? What does he do when he’s aloneWrong Ways Down addresses these sorts of questions, which I find incredibly satisfying. Much more satisfying than serial killer sociopaths growling about how the love interest lady is MINE ALL MINE and obsessing in the most rote way possible. I do not want hair-smelling scenes; gross. Sure, there’s something inert about fictions between this thing and that, which are constrained and cannot truly surprise. But sometimes the interstitial can be an exploration, a character study, a story from someone you thought you knew but didn’t. I thought Wrong Ways Down was pretty fucking deft, true thing.

Dearly Departed

Dearly, Departed

“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

 

Now, I admit my upbringing was in some ways unorthodox (and in other ways completely not), but this was a favorite aphorism of my mother’s. It comes from the climax of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by St Flannery O’Connor. The Misfit has just murdered an entire family while they were on a road trip, ending in the death of the grandma. She’s a horrible old bitty who doesn’t deserve to be gunned down on the side of the road, but maybe it’s also not the biggest tragedy ever either. But, you know, violence is cathartic and purifying, at least in St Flannery’s brutal theologies, so the horrid grandma has a humanistic epiphany at the barrel of a gun. Baptism by drowning, the last moments as your lungs constrict and your eyelids flash and flutter, reborn as your best self right before you die.

 

I think of this quote every time I encounter something that has all this incredible potential — this heat of possibility — and then it spins out into something more dreary and obvious. Dearly, Departed by Lia Habel has a shitton of potential, for me anyway, being as it is a steampunk zombie novel. Steampunk is maybe more problematic for me, in that I have undertaken its perusal because of my husband’s interests more than my own, but I am all over zombies all day. Both zombie and steampunk narratives often deal in social stratification, though obviously to very different ends. Smooshing them together could be fruitful in examining a rigidly class based society, but I know well enough not to expect such a thing, especially after Deck Z.

 

Occasionally this novel hits a mild frisson of this cultural examination, but mostly it opts for the spunky heroine and glaring infodumps over, like, insight. I was okay with the spunky heroine — she is a creature too ubiquitous to truly criticize — but the infodumps killed me. Apparently (and I use this adverb when I’m being an asshole), peak oil and maybe a nuclear devastation and probably the eruption of the supervolcano under Yellowstone lead to everyone heading south to central America, where some folk recreated the Victorians, and some other folk did not. I just…this was one of many situations where the explanations for the universe killed me, even if the universe did not. I’m going to accept your fictional world if you don’t overexplain, because the minute you do, I’m like, hold the phone. No, no, no. The world-building needed to be shot every day of its life.

 

This aside, Habel did get into some interesting stuff about the ways the lower classes are used against themselves, and as fodder for border warfare as a stand in for class warfare. The set up is that there is a border skirmish between the Vickies and the Punks, and a zombie outbreak has been bubbling in this DMZ, alternately used as biological warfare and “shock and awe”. The zombies in this universe go rabid, but after a time they resettle with their former personalities intact. The zombie soldiers were well realized, suffering both from the trauma of warfare, and from the guilt of their actions while rabid.

 

“Her collars and cuffs were white organdy trimmed with lace and at her neckline she had pinned a purple spray of cloth violets containing a sachet. In case of an accident, anyone seeing her dead on the highway would know at once that she was a lady.”

The problem is sartorial, in the end. Steampunk, maybe at its most basic, must dress a certain way to be steampunk. There will be corsets and umbrellas and bustles, and there must be the cruel social architecture to justify such a costume (cf. the museum exhibit Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century.) Habel does a fair amount of pushback against the social stratification — more than the usual, well, duh, of course a rigidly stratified society is unfair kind you see in steampunk — but I think trips over the skirts of gender politics. Her heroines are the usual spunky middle class ladies who behave almost entirely like modern girls, but there’s all this hand-waving to gender norms that just couldn’t produce such a creature. They put on the clothes, but it didn’t do more than touch their skin.

 

I’ve been burbling along with all my socioeconomic whatnot, and I feel like I should say I totally get that this is a steampunk romance zombie novel written for teens. My bitch isn’t that this book isn’t more than it is. It is what it is, and moreover, I was pleasantly surprised by some of the turns and twists. All this aside, my real problem is the romance between a living girl and a walking decomposing corpse. (Admittedly, these zombies are more desiccated than rotting; still.) Habel honestly gave it the college try, and their courtship — taking place, as it does, like Pyramus and Thisbe, through a wall — was honestly sweet. But it’s like the ultimate catfish to find out that dude’s a corpse who doesn’t have the requisite blood flow to, you know.

 

Tons of women lost their damn minds over Edward Cullen’s cold, lifeless body, so I think there’s probably something to say about the sexualization of undead flesh, especially in teen fiction. (Warm Bodies tried too; ugh.) There could be something here, probably, about love and sexual desire and the death wish in adolescence, etc, but I felt like Habel was too busy selling it as not-gross and self-evidently kinda racist to think this pairing might be squicky. I guess I’m not buying it on those terms, and I can’t get past my shudder at the thought of making out with cold, blue lips. Maybe this could have been twisted in such a way to turn my revulsion back on me, but it wasn’t. I’d pay good money to see such a thing though.

 

And then shoot it every day of its life.

 

So that you would know it was a lady.

 

sharcano

Sharcano!!!1!

There’s this dismissive, tautological quote that goes something like, “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” I can’t find a reputable source for this line — it’s been attributed to Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, or a tumblr image of some cats — but it has the kind of epigrammatic pithiness that makes for great ad copy. I think you can fairly easily tell by the title whether you are in the audience of this book. Sharcano = shark + volcano!!!1! You know if this math is for you.

I guess I expected Sharcano to be a nod to pulp horror like anything by Guy N Smith, a journeyman writer who churned out well over a hundred novels, and, given that he isn’t dead yet, likely is churning them out still. (His wiki page notes that he is an “active pro-smoking campaigner”, which I find inordinately charming. I even smoke, and I know that shit ain’t good for anyone, mostly because I smoke.) I was expecting shoddy continuity, uproarious misogyny, and lurid bloodbath, the kind of thing banged out in two non-consecutive weekends with a lot of uppers in the mix.

But no, Sharcano is more a nod to big budget action disaster films, movies like Armageddon and The Day After Tomorrow. This is not a criticism; more an observation. There’s an estranged couple — one of whom is a massive television personality slash dillhole — so you’ve got your remarriage plot; a couple of moppets of various ethnicity; a priest at the focus of a shady Vatican conspiracy; some bubbas; sasquatch &c. There’s a lot of destruction that would work well better on the screen with Michael Bay-ish craptacular jump cuts, but then there’s a wry comedy aspect that would never be evident in a Michael Bay film.

What Sharcano reminds me most of is The Core, which is a silly disaster film complete with unobtainium and Stanley Tucci. The scene where Tucci is in a train car thing, about to die, bloviating into a tape recorder in his showboat way, and then starts laughing at the ridiculousness of such an act is one of my legit favorites. Almost as good as Samuel L in Deep Blue Sea starting into a monologue about how we’re not going to fight anymore! right before the supershark fucking drops the knowledge. Drop the knowledge, sharks made out of lava. We’ll catch up.

Here’s the thing: I’m not sure this book needs to be 400+ pages, and I’m seriously unsure that it should be the first in a trilogy. Sharcano is well better than it should be, a quality which gives with one hand and takes with another. Pulp’s got a certain energy to it, a rough, unedited pulse. Sharcano has a more arms-reach approach to the material, a half-ironic tone that tries to split the difference between straight up satire and gleeful homage. That’s a hard line to walk, very hard, and that Sharcano manages it at all should be seen as a win. If you like this sort of thing, as the cats of tumblr tell me, then this is the sort of thing you’ll like.

 

I received my copy from Netgalley. Thanks, dudes.

Sheltered

Review: Sheltered by Ed Brisson and Johnnie Christmas

Sheltered is a perfectly lovely nasty piece of work, a “pre-apocalyptic tale” about all the horrible things people do in preparation for the end of it all. I enjoyed Sheltered immensely, but the first collection (which collects #1-5 of the ongoing comic) has an expectant, waiting quality about it, unfinished, almost unstarted. This dovetails beautifully into the themes of the comic: all of the potential of adolescence untapped and unstable, and how that adolescence slowly, choice by choice, resolves into dreary, irrevocable adulthood. Boo yah.

Sheltered first introduces us to Victoria and her father David. They’re newish members to the prepper community of Safe Haven, which lives somewhere in the hinterlands of Montana. Vic’s not altogether happy with her new digs, hanging out with Hailey, another teen girl who has been in the community much longer. “At this point I’d kill for a mall,” Vic says ruefully, sitting in a deer blind with a flask. “I hate malls. That’s how desperate I am for any sense of normality.” Her dad — an engineer of some stripe — talks shop with the other adults, obviously not quite with the whole prepper community ethos. There’s a pretty wonderful conversation about pulling permits, which I admit might not resonate for other readers who do not have a contractor’s license.

After the slow pan of the first installment, rolling over the bunkers and principals, we get to it: blank-eyed teenage psycho Lucas somehow gets all the other kids to rise up and kill their parents. The supervolcano over Yellowstone is going to erupt soon, within days — according to Lucas — and the food won’t last the three years necessary to survive the nuclear winter with all the adults alive. Hard times call for hard choices. Lucas’s motivations aren’t lingered on, nor are we given much in the ways of his persuasive arguments for doing this.

I thought about this narrative choice for a long while. It could easily be seen as cheating, rushing this hard to imagine brutality; bang, blood in the snow. But I thought it worked, in the end: this unexplained outbreak of violence in a community that has been preparing for a more explicable outbreak of violence. Plus, I dunno, I like the irony of a community preparing for the worst not being prepared for the very worst. Other than the newcomer Victoria, I get the impression that these kids have been raised with a shadow of doom their whole lives, the constant expectation of violence, and I can almost feel the relief when it arrives. Boom. Here’s your apocalypse.

Some of the mid sections are a little slack, with maybe not the best sense of place. Victoria and Hailey are bunkered down somewhere on the campus, Hailey injured, and I couldn’t quite tell you where their building was in relationship to others. Lucas makes a lot of terrible choices, and tends to respond to even perceived threats to his leadership with violence and cruelty. It works. He’s got the shiny blondness of a cult leader, but he’s still a kid. He’s marshaled his charisma to get the other kids to commit this unspeakable act, but he’s not mature enough or wily enough to manage their grief and guilt. What if you were wrong? What then?

There’s a great sequence where Lucas mansplains to another boy about how he should stop hanging out with a girl because we can’t have any pregnancies and we all have to think about group morale etc etc. His mansplaination goes on waaaay too long, long enough for the other guy to be like, geesh, lay off already, mom, I was just talking. It’s hard to pin Lucas’s motivations here: maybe he believes what he’s saying, but maybe he’s also jealous and frustrated that he hasn’t got any easy joking friendships. He’s clearly cut himself into the loner leader role intentionally, but intentions at that age are mutable and jumpy. When he can’t admit he’s wrong — and he really never can, given the stakes — his only recourse is to double down.

The end of the last installment ends with a truck pulling up, the tall figure of a man flicking his cigarette off into the snow. “Hey kid,” he says to Lucas. “Your parents around?” Boy howdy, they are not. There’s been a lot of scrabbling and missteps by Lucas up to this point, and it’s going to be interesting to see where this situation goes. On some level, a new grown up threat is what Lucas needs, given that the younger kids — like the foul-mouthed little shit Curt — have been acting like kids without parents. (Or even acting like kids with parents, because impulse control is low, parents or not.) If he can cow them into submission with another threat, he might be able to keep this crapshow going long enough for the supervolcano to blow. That’s the American way, after all.

 

Thanks to sj at Snobbery for turning me onto this.

the n-body problem

The n-Body Problem: Oh, the Humanity

In the end, the zombie apocalypse was nothing more than a waste disposal problem. Burn them in giant ovens? Bad optics. Bury them in landfill sites? The first attempt created acres of twitching, roiling mud. The acceptable answer is to jettison the millions of immortal automatons into orbit.

Horror can seem a little rule-bound at times. There’s a monster, say a zombie. You work out how it’s defined – it’s a living person infected with a rage virus, or a dead person who is reanimated. It can run, or it can’t. It can climb, or it can’t. It doesn’t like sunlight or it doesn’t care. You figure how to kill it, or immobilize it, or cure it, or you die and join it. You figure out if everyone is infected, or if it’s transmissible, or how long it’s been since the first outbreak, the last outbreak. You set up communities that function according to rules that dovetail into the rules for the monster. In this way, you make the point that the true monster is human. Ba dump tss.

The opening of The n-Body Problem by Tony Burgess, despite a seriously questionable level of sanity from the first person protagonist, seems to start with rules in mind. It’s been 20 something years since the first dead person didn’t stay dead. It’s not so much that they became flesh-eating corpses, but that the dead just never stop moving. After the initial panic died down, they had millions of wriggling undead bodies to be disposed of. End result: they start shooting them into space. Our protagonist – who I would like to note is off his nut – is spending his time plying some serious hypochondria and chasing a man called Dixon. Dixon is a traveling horror show who rolls into town and convinces the entire town to kill itself, presumably so they can go to space because it’s so pretty and peaceful up there. Then he plays in their corpses.

You can kinda see how this set up might unfold: the requisite show down between Dixon and Bob (which is not the protagonist’s name, but I think the only one he ever gives); the boy Bob picks up serving as a generational example of What Has Changed; some pyrotechnics with WasteCorp, which is the multinational company that has shot a billion wriggling corpses into space; maybe even a sequence in the cold airlessness of space, the sun rising over the black orb of the planet in wavering stabs of light. Burgess occasionally gives you glimpses of these narrative possibilities – like a searing fever dream that takes place in space, the corpses turning sunward like flowers – but mostly he just laughs inscrutably and delivers some of the sickest shit and stomach-dropping plot turns I’ve ever seen.

There is an xkcd for everything.

The n-body problem is a mathematical problem going back to antiquity for predicting the motions of celestial objects in gravitational relationship with one another. This is certainly a problem if you don’t understand that, say, the stars and planets are not in a fixed orb rotating around the earth, but it’s apparently also difficult to solve using general relativity. Frankly, there’s a lot of wonky maths that I don’t get in the explanation. Obviously, this book is named The n-Body Problem because of one billion corpses in space and all that, but I think there might be another reason too: Burgess is taking a big, gory dump on post-apocalyptic conventions, just absolutely hazing you and your expectations. Solve for x, bitch.

Another possible title for this novel: Trigger Warning for All Things.

So you want to see some marauding cannibals and rape gangs? Boom, only he turns the rape gangs into a mordant joke, and denies you the prurient thrills that so much apocalit delivers in the form of sexual assault. How about a blood bath? Boom, only this time it’s a swimming pool, and the blood is still shimmering in that uncanny way of the undead here. The sickness is so sick it’s downright funny at times, these horrible laundry lists of horrors that numb until, wait, what the holy hell was that? The whole thing is completely bonkers, transgressive in a way that goes beyond the usual transgression of body horror, of which there is plenty. Nobody’s going to yell, “Oh, the humanity!” when the zombies start falling from the sky in some half-assed coda.

“They look like cherry blossoms. Opening and then falling apart in the wind.”

I guess I could go on, but I’d probably get into spoiler territory. I just want to note, quickly, that there’s something here that reminds me of Ice by Anna Kavin. Ice is a strange, mid-century post-apocalyptic novel written by a functioning heroin addict which is about, insofar it is about anything so easily spoken, two men fighting over girl. The landscapes rear up in the same ways, the connectives cut with a box-cutter, the identities fragile and mutable. And the iceIce made me incredibly uncomfortable – often in ways The n-Body Problem does not, owing to certain perversions I have about mid-century novels – but there’s still a central discomfort that feels the same to me. This discomfort doesn’t necessarily come from content – though, I did mention this was sick, non?- but some deeper, more chthonic level which implicates me in the proceedings. If I were still rating things – I’m trying not to – I’d leave this similarly unrated, because no metric as childish as stars – their motions cannot be solved for anyway - can get at my response.

So yeah, thanks to sj for turning me onto this, but then also what the fuck did I just read? 

 

The_Destruction_of_Leviathan

Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

Original review January 2012

As a reading experience, I loved Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey. I was sick when I started, looking for the literary equivalent to a Law & Order marathon. Space opera is the police procedural of the science fiction world, and this one has an actual police procedural embedded within. It’s a galactic billiards game, the ordinary made extraordinary through the right place, right time, a bunch of forensics/technology, a lot of fragility of life just on this side of the hard vacuum of space. I mean, gee whiz.

There’s a Jim Anchower article, Jim being one of the “columnists” for the Onion, that describes Star Wars: Attack of the Clowns as “like watching C-SPAN on some other planet” – a bunch of boring imaginary politics playing out in the most expository way possible. Space opera can fall into this so, so easily. The ships embody the engines of society, and authors get caught up in the schematics, reading out the blueprints. Look at this nifty pinball game I made! It’s cheering when books like Leviathan Wakes avoid this trap. The characters here are more types than actual people, but the cultures they inhabit, they were well sketched. This is an alien-less environment (for the most part) – so the conflicts are between people, in social terms: the Belters, several generations out living in low-g on Saturnine moons or asteroids, stretched by weightlessness, grousing about tariffs and taxes imposed by the colonizing Earthers or Martians; the freedom-fighters/terrorists; the subtle pull of cultural gravities in different places.

As befits a dual-author novel, this pings back and forth between two pov characters: a space ship captain cut from the same cloth as Malcolm Reynolds, with more high-handedness and less Han Solo, and a noir-ish cop who getting to old for this shit. The individual sections tend to be beautifully arced, little vignettes which build from one of those “he didn’t know that his day could get any worse” and then ramping up furiously until you hit the next commercial break section totally leaned in, freaking out. Maybe it sounds like I’m making fun of this, and I am just a little, but affectionately so. There is something to be said for this kind of masterful genre writing, the guns laid onto the table in deliberate, methodical gestures, and fired one at a time, hitting their targets with a casualness that belies study, and lots of it. Bew bew! The book is masterfully plotted, and absolutely joyful to read.

But, two things stuck in my craw starting at about half-way point. Miller, our exhausted, alcoholic Belter cop who is in over his head, leaves the culture which props up his personality – types, as I said, more than people – and at this point his character falls apart for me. His motivations become laughable, his psychology almost literally unreal. You cannot take a type like Miller out of his world, because he is his world or the lens on it, the situated observer, the commentary though moving mouthpiece. And his relationship with Julie is squicky in a way I can’t put my finger on, but in a way that dovetails into my next complaint.

At about 3/4 through, two women have a conversation about going to the bar and playing a game together, and then have some teasing fun. This is (I’m pretty sure) the only conversation that keeps this entire 600ish page novel from failing the second two parameters of the Bechdel Test - and that just barely, because this was not a necessary or meaningful exchange. Now, yes, the Bechdel Test was developed for movies, and failing the test does not mean the book sucks. There’s all kinds of situations that fail the Bechdel test because they are small, personal stories that take place with limited characters, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But a tumbling active story taking place all over an entire freaking solar system? It is incredibly discouraging to me to find yet another fictional solar system in which women are only love interests or ball-busting superior officers, vague individuals in a universe peopled by men almost exclusively. Miller’s relationship with Julie, in this context, seems like that shitty thing where a girl becomes an emblem, a chit in a psychological game that moves a man, because a man is what moves. I don’t think I’m supposed to heart Miller and the way this plays out, but it doesn’t feel good to read.

I don’t want to come down on this too hard or act like this book is somehow anti-feminist or anti-woman. It just feels like in riffing on these traditionally boys-only genres – the police procedural, the space opera, the cop show – no one bothered to notice the boys-onlyness. And there are, to make up for this lack, a pretty subtle sense of politics and societal tendencies, and vomit zombies. Vomit zombies! I’m not going to explain, because explanations is spoilers, yo, but the vomit zombies were part of a general inventiveness and genre-specific yee-haw! that I really enjoy reading. This is a first in a series, I am given to understand, and although this one ties off in a way that doesn’t dot-dot-dot to the sequel, I would totally read the next one. Gee whiz!

 

Edit: I’m feeling a little defensive for bringing up the Bechdel test, for no good reason, because it’s not like anyone has called me on it or something. I went and looked at the books on my space opera shelf, and at least half of them fail this test, as far as I can recall. It’s a pretty common thing. The names thing is little easier to pass in books, because it isn’t hard to name a female character on the page, even if she is throwaway and tangential. The rest though – that happens much less frequently. I would just like us all to image a boy version of the Bechdel test, where we look for a book that fails that, a book where there are not two male characters who have names, they don’t talk to each other, and when they do, they only talk about women. Can you think of even one book or movie that fails this test? I don’t think so. And sure as shit, you can’t think of a hundred.

Gospel-of-Z

The Gospel of Z by Stephen Graham Jones

There is no other monster more contested than the zombie. Call any creature which doesn’t adhere to strict Romero-style zombie epistemology – it runs, or it’s not exactly dead, or it can talk, or whatever – and someone will jump down your throat. I tend to take a functional definition of your fictional monsters, meaning I’m less interested in static attributes, and more interested in how those attributes are deployed in context. Meaning if it walks like a duck even though the text calls it a chicken, you might as well treat it like a duck in terms of how that fowl functions.

Take, for example, the vampires in Twilight. There is very little to the creature called vampire by Meyer that adheres to the folklore. They’re undead, and contagious, but they sparkle, cross running water, and can go out in sunlight with no deleterious effects. (I’m not even clear on whether they drink blood, or if they consume flesh too.) No one questions whether they’re vampires though, because the whole functional definition of a vampire has to do with predatory aristocracy, sexual and class politics, and certain kinds of body horror, especially as regards to procreation. (Maybe this last isn’t in the traditional folklore, but since Claudia in Interview with a Vampire, it’s definitely a thing.) Her vamps are just ducky, even if their attributes are only vampish.

But call the creatures in I Am Legend zombies, and you will get into serious trouble with the neckbeards, even though they (the zombies, not the neckbeards, though  them too, kinda) adhere to the functional definition of the zombie. They’re relentless; they outnumber “normal” humans (the opposite is almost always the case with vamps); they presage or have caused the end of the modern world; their body horror is not based on their sexual attributes, but on revulsion and rot. (Also, bearing in mind I’m talking about the Will Smith and Vincent Price films, not about the source novel. Those creatures are an interesting inversion.) Additionally, those movies have lots of the motifs of a zombie narrative: besieged homesteads, traumatic loss of loved ones, the slow madness of the lonely.

I guess my point is this: I’ve gotten into a lot of pointless, stupid arguments on these here Internets about the definition of the zombie, and I wonder why the definition is such a big deal to people. I wonder why people police that definition so narrowly. My pet theory is that zombie narratives are often about race and class, and we’re all pretty kinked about those definitions as well. Like when I see idiots say things like “Obama is half white, so I’m not being racist when I say this racist thing about him.” Race isn’t like swirl ice cream, but a complicated slurry of competing functional definitions. In other words, race can’t be defined by attribute; it can only be defined by function. But holy god do we want it to be defined by attribute in our biologically deterministic little hearts. Ditto zombies.

But pet theory aside, I think the other things about zombie stories is that they are new on the scene, relatively speaking, so they have a kind of same-same to them. Although the whole sexy aristocrat thing is new to the vampire – older folklore has vampires as more zombie-ish ghouls who are decidedly unsexy – the folklore is old enough to allow wide latitude in definitions based on attribute. We’ve got at least a hundred years of sexy aristocrat blood-drinkers. You can date the modern zombie to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, no question, which was filmed not long before I was born, cough cough. The motifs have yet to fully differentiate through a century of reiteration and reimagining. We’re still working out the tropes, collectively.

Which is why The Gospel of Z by Stephen Graham Jones is notable. No, the zombies are more or less your granddaddy’s Romero zombies – neckbeards take note – but there’s a fundamental weirdness to the proceedings that stretches the motifs, moves the markers, and fucks with the same-same. It’s ten years after the zombie apocalypse – or zombie apocalypses, as the end of the world was a slow, bleeding affair in this this novel, a series of last nights before the very last night. We pop into the life of the “more or less white” Jory Gray, low level schmuck who lives in the militarized encampment of what’s left of half of humanity. His girlfriend left him recently for the Church on the hill, the other half of what’s left of humanity.

It’s whispered by the working stiffs that the Church both worships and has neutralized the zombie threat, but this is the kind of whispering that occurs between all working stiffs, and it’s both envious and disbelieved. Jory works building Handlers, a kind of superzombie built out of mad scientry and bureaucracy. The Handlers are used to differentiate zombie flesh from the edible, human kind, scrambling in the dirt to eat our remains unless our remains want to eat right back. They’re also fucking terrifying, in a way, this barely restrained weapon used for the most prosaic ends. Everyone can see how they’re going to go wrong, and spectacularly, but everyone is just some asshole trying to get by

Everyone is shades of Jory Gray, trying hard not to be noticed until they are, and then fuck, maybe I’ll have to come to terms with that thing that one time. Maybe the apocalypse has more to do with one moment with a hammer than it does with anything that goes on later. Maybe we’re all working though that one trauma, and the zombies and superzombies and everything else is a memento mori, but a memento mori with teeth and a descant. Jones’s prose is nasty, pointed, that kind of horror writing that runs everyday until it escalates, and then it’s well over the fence. Catch up; keep up.

I thought the climax was confused a bit – what the fuck was that one thing – but the parts that ran everyday honestly wrung me out. So much of the end of it all is the end of the one true thing, the thing you keep trying to find once it’s lost, and when you find its reminder, you sit on the floor of the bedroom and weep. You kill something with a knife made of bone. You go to work everyday like a schmuck, because that’s what you’ve got in you. That’s the only thing left, until it isn’t. Who even knows.

The Gospel of Z feels non-functional, in a way, this fucking weird, armadillo-ridden narrative, too personal, too specific. This is something left out of the canon: a side story, an apocrypha, a letter to the Galatians. This is a vision on the road to Damascus brought on by epilepsy. This is a parking lot with a good vantage. Which makes it somehow perfect for the zombie narrative, giving you good, Romero zombies that no one could argue to do this crazy thing on the edges. God bless, and good night.

World War Z: The Movie

Of course when I started seeing trailers and reading descriptions of the film adaption of Max Brooks’s journal of the zombie apocalypse, World War Z, I immediately jumped up onto my high horse and started penning angry screeds in the comment sections of Reddit. (Just kidding. I don’t use Reddit.) Why in the hell were they even calling this movie World War Z if exactly nothing was taken from the book but the title? The book World War Z is nerdy and wonky, very much what a serious military history geek would write about the zombie apocalypse with CNN on mute in the background. So, maybe the individual voices were a little same-same; Brooks’s take was refreshing in its long, global pan, broken out from the locked room scenarios of so many zombie narratives. Instead of the usual how will we survive tomorrow, it was a consideration of how society - societies - would respond to such a threat.

Admittedly, the book is a little bloodless – the snap gone out of recountings because we know the raconteur has survived – and I was expecting changes. Much of Brooks’s book simply wouldn’t work on the screen. I did have some fantasies about the film being about the soldier’s narrative. He pops up at least three times in the book, moving from the Battle of Yonkers – which is actually beautifully narrated, and a pretty biting criticism of the ways military tacticians refuse to adapt to changing realities – to a West Coast enclave, and then back out through the flyover states, reclaiming this grand America. The zombie herds like buffalo, the consideration of the in-fill towns and the feral domestic animals, the drudgery and mud-covered victories: all this would have worked on the screen. Alas, no mas.

World War Z, the film, opens with a languorous morning flipping pancakes and only occasionally tense domesticity. Gerry Lane is an ex-CIA investigator, clearly still in the recovery phase of adjustment to stay-at-home dad and unemployment. His kids are moppets, and while I think it might be indicted that his wife is a professional of some kind, this isn’t lingered on. The New York setting and the traffic snarl action pieces reminded me of Will Smith’s I Am Legend, but the New Yorkiness and generally elegiac tone is absent from the movie. Pitt’s Gerry Lane seems like someone who would be better played by Tom Cruise, whose asshole Ethan Hunt routine from the Mission Impossible movies might register stronger than Pitt’s surfer insouciance. Much as I generally like Pitt, here he lacked an edge that made his supposed backstory anything but narrative justification. I was in the CIA, like, I guess.

From here, the movie bops around the zombie apocalypse, running set pieces with the thinnest of narrative fiber between them. Some of the set pieces were honestly thrilling – like the zombies swarming over the Israeli wall, or some of the stuff in North Korea. Some of them felt like hey, what about an outbreak on a plane??? I felt twitchy about a wasted David Morse vamping through a toothless mouth prosthetic about Jews and how they never forget, although the chatty Jurgen Warbrunn – one of the few characters (sort of) from the novel – explains a little better what looks like unvarnished antisemitism in Morse’s explanations of the Israeli response. I liked the look of the androgyne Israeli soldier tasked to escort Lane out of Israel, but there wasn’t much more than a look to her character. All in all, the movie was the kind of contentless flash-bang that can be fun in the dollar theater on a Sunday, but will likely diminish on the small screen to the point of boring.

Rather than just complain about fast zombies, because honestly, that’s maybe the lamest criticism one can level at the zombie narrative, my complaints more have to do with the lack of viscera. (Seriously, I’ve been trolled one too many times by people exclaiming that fast zombies aren’t really zombies, like the taxonomy of imaginary creatures isn’t flexible enough to include a little sprinting.) But really it was the lack of guts that got me, because whatever other societal jibber jabber zombie narrative might capture, they can thrill because of entrail-rending zombie bouquets, the mob ripping someone limb from limb. They’re about physical fear, body horror, our fear of the inevitably declining meat-sack we all live in. It’s not about the fear of death, but of decomposing life. Blood splatter was notably absent in World War Z, which seems a crying shame.

But that’s not even what I want to note about this movie. What I want to talk about is Gerry Lane’s wife. I’ve noted before that zombie stories deal with domesticity in a weird way, and the housewife, as the embodiment of domesticity, ends up bearing the brunt of the weirdness. And maybe I should just take a minute to define terms. Yes, obviously, Lane’s wife is working outside the home, and Lane himself is playing emasculated parent to her harping worry. There’s a quelling quality to their marital interactions: you shouldn’t want to go back out into that manly, war-torn landscape, Gerry. No, no, of course I don’t. I’m using housewife as a shorthand term for the straight, white, middle class momming set, working or not, who regularly are the focal point of the Mommy Wars, the cultural wars, and apparently, now the zombie wars. The housewife is a category more mythic than actual, but she’s got teeth like any other monster, and sometimes she sprints.

But when the fit hits the shan, it’s Gerry’s war skills that nurture domesticity. Gerry mansplains to the Hispanic family that they have to move to be safe in crisis, and they don’t listen, bringing moppet count up to three when their son takes the advice they don’t. By the time the Lane family makes it to the aircraft carrier, Mrs Lane is in full on helicopter mom mode, hissing at Gerry and the UN dude that they should take their conversation about zombies outside lest they upset the children. I punched my husband at this point in the film – in the arm, jeez – why wouldn’t she want to know wtf was going on? Fair enough, don’t freak out the kids anymore than you have to, but given that they were pretty much unconscious in every scene from here on out, maybe you have a shred of curiosity about anything but making sandwiches? Why would a professional woman just wring her hands and push her sleeping babies’ hair out of their eyes? You’re in danger of getting chucked from the relative safety of the carrier, why don’t you offer up whatever hastily sketched skills you have?

Mrs Lane’s story reaches a nadir when she calls Gerry in a panic while he’s on a dangerous op in North Korea, the squeal of the phone alerting the zombies to their locale. Pro life tip: set your cell phone to buzz when in the zombie apocalypse. (Also: cell phones work?) His world-weary decision not to tell her that her domestic panic got a lot of good men killed – good men! – just exhausted me. Broads, man, amiright? Don’t text me right now because I’m in a v. important meeting. Mrs Lane ends up as this tragic impetus for action, inert and often interfering, but without agency or motivation beyond the cheesy invocation of family. Someone smacks down Gerry near the end when he invokes it right back – I watched the thing that became my wife kill my children – but this is a weird conversation, bros ruminating on their obligations that are little more than luggage. Think of the children! Because that’s all we can do!

I don’t know. It’s late, and I’m tired, and maybe I’ll be back to bloviate tomorrow. I thought WWZ: the Movie was fine when people were running and screaming, but it wasn’t much more than that in the end.

Oh, and also, the scene where Gerry pops open a Pepsi machine and the cans all rolled with their labels out cracked my shit up. Pepsi: The Choice of the Undead! Pepsi quenches your thirst for brains.

katniss barbie

Capitol Girls: Hunger Games Make-Up

My daughter and I ditched over to the Walgreens on Lake St in Minneapolis to get a gift for a birthday party she was to attend. I’ve always liked that drug store, despite it being down heel and over-stuffed. Even though my neighborhood is very mixed – residential and commercial, foreign and domestic born, poor and maybe not rich, but certainly middle class, different races – the clientele for businesses tend to sort by class or ethnicity. White girl that I am, I don’t frequent the botanica two blocks down; that store is not for me. I also don’t go into the punker store (too old), nor the saddle shop (too not a cowboy), nor the various halal groceries (too…atheist?) Even within our mixed neighborhood, we sort.

But the Walgreens on Lake cuts this really cool cross-section. Some of this is, admittedly, the fact that it’s a drug store, and the need for microwave popcorn and some $2 novelty socks at 11pm cuts across all socioeconomic and racial divides. But still, even then, when you compare that Walgreens with the CVS just blocks up, which has roughly the same kind of 2-for-1, as-seen-on-TV kind of endcaps, the Lake St Walgreens has a decidedly more broad clientele. And really garrulous employees. I was in there getting a prescription filled for my husband a couple of weeks ago, and the pharmacist browbeat me into getting a flu shot, at which point a young woman in a hijab stuck me efficiently, and then gave me a sticker.

So I was just jaw-dropped when I saw the following spinning display rack right smack in the middle of the make-up section.

spinning display of Covergirl ads using the districts as themes.  The idea of Hunger Games district-themed make-up was bad enough, but to be confronted with it in one of the few places I can think of in my city that don’t exemplify the (admittedly simplistic) divisions of Collins’s dystopia, well, that was another thing entirely. But I’m probably getting ahead of myself here, because when I posted this image on facebook, those who hadn’t read the books didn’t get how egregious this ad campaign is.

So, a little back story on the country of Panem, where Collins’s story unfolds. Panem is a post-America America, occupying the same landmass, but there are hints this a post-peak-oil and/or other post-apocalyptic environment, but centuries past whatever crisis changed the US into Panem. The political/economic system has been reordered into twelve districts controlled by an unnumbered district known as The Capitol. Each district is defined by a primary industry: coal-mining, agriculture, small electronics, heavy industry, etc. Due to a rebellion by the districts 75 years earlier, each of these districts offer up two teenagers to the Capitol as tribute every year to fight to the death in the Hunger Games. Out of 24 tributes, only one will survive. The whole event is televised.

 

Map of Panem

Now, I’m the first to admit this political/economic system is ridiculous, and it wouldn’t take more than a minute to rip it apart as unrealistic in concrete terms. But when you’re dealing with dystopia, and to a lesser extent young adult literature, strict realism isn’t the point, nor should it be. I was bowled over by Collins’s country of Panem because she captured a certain emotional reality that we live every day. My neighborhood is a Capitol sorted by districts. It is a microcosm of Panem, a country which makes manifest our American economic disconnects into the rigid structures of barbed wire and geography. Collins turns the economic, political, racial divides into someplace clarified and concrete, and then she has our children fight to death within it. Sure, it’s unrealistic, but it’s also happening every godamn day of the week.

But what does this have to do with make-up? Lemmee tell you. The plot of Hunger Games deals with Katniss Everdeen, a teenager from District  12, the poorest and least populated district in Panem, and her experience as one of the tributes in the Hunger Games. The main industry of District 12 is coal mining. Mum and I took a tour of the coal mines in the coal districts of Wales, and what I took from the experience was that mining is the most out-of-sight-out-of-mind of the heavy industries. Men disappear underground to bring up fuel for the capitalist fire, and when they die in cave-ins and of suffocation or eaten by machinery, their bodies are often not recovered. Like fishing towns, the graves are predominantly for women, because the men just disappear into a pit. The labor movements roil underground in thousands of unmarked tombs. (At this point I highly recommend doing a google for “pit ponies poetry” and just freaking out at the poems you’ll find. They were brought down to work until they died. I won’t put a fine point on the definition of “they.”)

pit pony with his handler in a mine

One of the things I love so fiercely about Hunger Games is how it has this nuanced engagement with things generally seen as girly frivolity, things like fashion. Katniss is brought from her district to the Capitol, and denuded and perfected according to the beauty standards of the capital city. The sequence of her bodily perfection reads like an assault, almost a sexual one, her body flensed and bitten, her poverty stripped and removed. The Capitol takes away the marks of poverty in order to kill her with spectacle. She wakes up to the the gentle tutelage of Cinna, who will be her fashion consultant through the Hunger Games. He knows what she’s gone through, and he has a game plan. While Katniss, rube teen, wants to reject all the trappings of her assault and the cruel spectacle of the Hunger Games, he sees the subversive utility of playing the game to other ends. He reads it all against the grain.

As a completely unacculturated teen, Katniss can only see her engagement with the Capitol in all-or-nothing ways. She will wear black and combat boots and scowl. She will act the part of her resistance because she cannot look the part of her resistance. But the character of Cinna shows the beauty of subversion, the ways you can twist things designed to oppress you to uplift you. It’s not as simple as “looking pretty makes you stupid”, but something weirder like “looking like you have authority means you have authority” or maybe “take seriously the deliberately unserious” or maybe “not everything is as it seems.” To misquote Elizabeth Bishop: sometimes we are living in imaginary gardens with real toads in them. Panem is an imaginary garden with real toads.

After the first movie came out, I was confronted by a Katniss Barbie doll in the toy aisle, and I really had to consider whether I thought this was a nightmare or not. After a ton of searching my late-model feminist soul, I eventually decided Katniss Barbie was okay. It’s kind of perfect, in a way, because the Hunger Games series can be consumed as just addictive pop fiction, this present tense hurtle to finish all about love triangles and teen tragedy and the like.  It’s a Barbie, totally all about consumption, which you watch, glued to set just as surely as any Capitol citizen.

Two racist ethnic caricature Barbies, Katniss, and Holiday Barbie.

I’ve seen a lot of teen reviews of the series that seem to have zero idea that there’s a deeper message to the Hunger Games series, training their attention on love triangles and pretty dresses. But one day those kids might wake up, bolted out of sleep that, wait, omigod, I’m living in the godamn Capitol. That’s the power of the series. That’s the power of the Katniss Barbie: something you play with until you realize that play is action. It’s practice, and it’s a subversion.

But, boy howdy, is the Covergirl Hunger Games campaign completely message-deaf. Dressing up as a coal miner, with “flamed out” eyeliner and mascara, with nails black and blue like bruises or coal is the kind of horrible poverty porn that every single person in Panem who doesn’t live in the Capitol hates about the Capitol, and with good reason. Don’t play dress up with the inescapable economic hardships of other people, people who on some level live and die so you can swan around in the comfort you so richly deserve. Accessorize with black lung, and malnutrition, and infant mortality, and short lives that don’t matter to anyone but those who lived them. Accessorize with injustice.

a look from District 10 marked livestock

This isn’t even getting into the model marked “livestock” from District 10, with a feather headdress and a fur collar, animistic eye make-up fanning out over her stark blue eyes. It’s almost too easy to rip this easy equation of female bodies with cattle for the slaughter, the invocation of bestiality, the dehumanizing furriness. Or the dreary Orientalism of the model for District 3, all made up like some cyberpunk fantasy, denuded of hair, even her eyebrows replaced with sharp triangles. When I think cheap electronics, I think Asian woman, amiright?

District 3 look: technology

Or the District 1 “luxury” model whose look invokes Marie Antoinette. Which, okay, maybe that’s hilarious. Maybe that’s the only look here that isn’t repulsive, that gets on some level the symbolic structure of the districts to the Capitol. I don’t even know what to say about the model for District 4: Fishing, which dresses up a black woman as a fish.  Or the District 2: Masonry look which puts Kabuki slash Mod make-up on a white woman. I just…my feminist background has no ways of dealing with this mess.

I’m kind of getting rage fatigue thinking about these looks, and the fact that probably dozens of people, maybe hundreds, were involved in their creation; that thousands, probably tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars went into this campaign, and not one person said, “You guys, we should be ashamed of ourselves.” These aren’t, presumably, teens who have an excuse when they miss the point completely, but grown ass adults. I’m not even trashing the models or peons – we all have to work, and eat – I’m trashing all the damn people with the power to greenlight such a complete disaster. Who have no sense of irony. Who can’t even read.

District 1 luxury model

 I’m not even saying I’m not a Capitol dweller myself. I am. I’m not even saying that shame is enough of a political act to counter the wrong in the world. It isn’t. The wrongs in the world are staggeringly large and crushingly intractable. But compounding them by playing poverty dress-up is disgusting, and worse than that, it’s the wrong kind of subversion. 

Under the spreading chestnut tree, I sold you and you sold me. 

But I’m not buying it this time.