January 2, 2008

Book review: "Crooked Little Vein," by Warren Ellis

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Crooked Little Vein
By Warren Ellis
HarperCollins / ISBN: 978-0-06-072393-4

All hail Warren Ellis! Er, don't smack me for saying that, Mr. Ellis! For that's a big reason why so many people so passionately love this "weird" author, gonzo blogger and comics veteran; because he takes no sh-t, rarely grants interviews, calls people to the carpet in public when they're in the wrong, and will pursue fights with both individuals and corporations as long as he feels he needs to, sometimes simply to make a theoretical point. But then again, many feel that he's earned the right to be this way; still technically in his thirties (he turns 40 later this year), he's been professionally involved in mainstream comics now since 1994, is the author of one of the most beloved transgressive titles of all time (Vertigo's Transmetropolitan), writes a column for postmodern porn site Suicide Girls, writes another column about the videogame Second Life for the mainstream news agency Reuters, wrote the screenplay for the upcoming film adaptation of Castlevania: Dracula's Curse, and has even been ascribed by Wikipedia (take that as you will) as having more trade publications in print than any other comics professional alive. Whew! ALL HAIL WARREN ELLIS! Ow, why'd you smack me?!

Crooked Little Vein, by Warren Ellis

And now you can add "novelist" to this unending list of achievements under Ellis' belt, damnit; just last summer, in fact, saw the publication of his first full-length prose book, the deeply subversive fictional look at America's real cultural underground, Crooked Little Vein. In fact, this is an excellent place to start when talking about the book, is the circumstances behind it -- that I'm not exaggerating, it really is based mostly on true "stories of the weird" that actually exist in the real world, most of which Ellis learned about because of the devoted readers of his various websites and fan forums. This is what Ellis does, after all, both as a hobby and a profession, is endlessly sift through the cultural detritus of society, finding just the strangest of the strange and floating it up enough for all of us to see it too. If you're already a fan, for example, of such classic transgressive projects as The Illuminatus! Trilogy and Church of the Sub-Genius, you're going to immediately understand where Ellis is coming from here with Crooked Little Vein and what he's trying to artistically accomplish; and if you're not familiar with these projects already, then hold on, buddy, 'cause you're in for a bumpy ride.

Because "transgressive," when all is said and done, is basically about ripping the cover off safe and bland mainstream society, about showing all the dark and wriggly little things going on under that shiny surface, not the George Clooneys of the world but the dangerous one-armed drug-addicted hallucinating losers who stalk them. As any Transmetropolitan fan can tell you, Ellis is obsessed with this stuff himself -- the freaks and mutants of the world, the sexually deviant -- and in Crooked Little Vein he puts such obsession to good use, crafting a highly stylistic detective story here about a noir private investigator who literally attracts a "world of sh-t" around him wherever he goes. This is what's made him such a good private eye all these years, after all, is that the losers and freaks and deviants of the world are just naturally attracted to him, no matter where he goes or what he does; and this of course is what makes him the perfect choice for the quest that fuels the center of the book, a cross-country quest for a secret second US Constitution that our Masonic Founding Fathers very quietly created back in the 1700s, as a "fall-back" option in the future for those who secretly control the world at any given point, just in case things with the first Constitution go bad and they somehow find themselves in a living hell of moral quagmires and decadence. Oh yes, and which is bound in the leathery skin of a space alien who kidnapped Benjamin Franklin in Paris and anally probed him for a week, until Franklin got mad and killed the alien with his bare hands.

Zuh? Yeah, that's something to get used to in Crooked Little Vein, if you're not used to such things yet; that in the highly specialized genre of "gonzo weird lit" in which Ellis writes, the story itself moves at a fast and furious pace, not even stopping long enough to marvel at one outrageous concept (Godzilla bukkake?) before rushing right along into yet another outrageous concept (saline-injected testicles?!), all of it related to us by a main character who simultaneously believes and doesn't believe any of the things going on around him. It's brilliant, then, for Ellis to specifically make our anti-hero a fated "sh-t magnet," and to base all the details on real-life stories learned online; it essentially makes our sad-sack private eye a physical manifestation of the internet, or at least the worst and most bizarre the internet has to offer, and his zig-zagged journey across America (which is where the novel's title comes from) stand symbolically for the online trawling a lot of us do among a certain amount of the web's back doors, through the ghettos of the world's video-sharing sites and bizarre posting forums.

Now to be sure, there are some problems with Crooked Little Vein as well, although mostly small and technical in nature; for example, like a lot of genre writers and especially weird authors, the love story at the center of the book comes off more like a Vaudevillian routine than an actual relationship. Also, Ellis has a bad habit sometimes of devolving into simplified preaching, especially when it comes to how we should all be more tolerant of those who live lives we don't personally agree with; it's something more forgivable in the comics format where he usually works, but something that stands out more to its detriment here in a traditional long-form written manuscript. And man, it's true that this book can get disgusting at points as well, especially when knowing that most of the stories read here are true; you need a strong stomach to get through some parts of this book, something you deserve to know in advance.

Still, though, mostly I'm happy to say that this novel delivered exactly what I wanted and what I was expecting -- a full-length version of a Warren Ellis story, something that proves he doesn't need pretty pictures to go with his words to tell an entertaining yarn (although the pretty pictures never hurt, either). With the untimely passing of Robert Anton Wilson last year, I think an argument can now be made that Ellis has become the premiere transgressive author of our times; it's nice to see officially that he can make that leap from comics to novels, and I'm now looking forward to the future projects he has in store for all of us.

Out of 10:
Story: 9.4
Characters: 7.3
Style: 8.6
Overall: 8.2

Read even more about Crooked Little Vein: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:00 AM, January 2, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |