October 15, 2010

Your micro-review roundup: 15 October 2010

(Because I make my way through so many books and movies for CCLaP, I regularly come across projects that are interesting enough unto themselves but that I simply don't have much to say about, or at least not enough to warrant an entire entry. I thought, then, that on occasional weekends I would gather up such "micro-reviews" and post them all in one large entry; they can also be found on CCLaP's main book and main movie archive pages.)

Empty Mile, by Matthew Stokoe

Empty Mile
By Matthew Stokoe
Akashic Books

So I have to confess, it took an unusually large number of pages before I started sincerely really getting into the latest novel from our friends at Akashic Books, Matthew Stokoe's Empty Mile, because of it starting with a whole series of tropes endemic to a genre (noir) that I'm simply not a big fan of; and this of course is always the inherent problem with most genre novels, that they are loaded up with a fetishistic amount of stereotypes from that genre, specifically to please hardcore fans of that genre. (And seriously, I think I could probably go the rest of my life without ever seeing another developmentally disabled character in a noir, constantly spouting cutely retarded dialogue and existing pretty much so they can commit some dimwitted blunder that's necessary for that book's overly complicated plot.) And indeed, I had a problem with the end of this novel as well, because of it relying at its climax on not just one but two highly unlikely actions that are hard to believe the character involved actually doing, in order to create the inescapable disaster that leads to the book's tragic ending; and this of course is a common problem within the specific genre of noirs, that since most rely on their hapless characters to dig themselves into deep holes of which they are unable to get out, a rather delicate spiderweb of sometimes highly implausible events must be spun to create this hole in the first place, making many noirs in my opinion feel less like good literature and more like a nakedly manipulative puzzle the author has foisted on that reader.

Ah, but the middle of this book was a quite different story, and a good example not only of why so many people like noirs but why Stokoe has such a passionate cult following (he's also the author of the revered High Life); because he certainly knows how to create some memorably douchebaggy characters, that's for sure, a whole string of small-town losers who are set loose within the milieu of a forgotten rural former gold-rush community in northern California, telling a tale of our dark nomadic antihero local coming home for the first time in years, and how the convoluted lives of his family members, ex-girlfriends and old school chums end up pulling him into a mess that just keeps getting bigger and bigger with each passing chapter. (And speaking of this, I would be remiss to not mention what a great job Stokoe does with this unique mountainous setting, using the area's past as a prospector boomtown to great effect not only plotwise but simply in setting a mood, kind of like combining a traditional noir with a Sam Shepard play.) This is the second book in a row from Akashic I've read that felt like it was signed less for its own quality, and more as evidence of long-term support for challenging authors they believe in; and while this is certainly admirable, it makes Empty Mile almost the definition of the fabled "minor work," one of those titles that twenty years from now will be little more than a rarely visited, red-colored stub link at the end of Stokoe's Wikipedia bio. Although it comes recommended to existing heavy readers of noir, it can be fairly safely skipped by those who are only casual fans of the genre.

Out of 10: 7.7

From Acid to the Body of Christ, by Daxx Danzig

From Acid to the Body of Christ
By Daxx Danzig
Dog Ear Publishing

Although I'm an admitted fan of the literary genre known alternately as "gonzo" and "bizarro" fiction, I also believe that it takes a steady hand and a light touch to be a true success with this kind of story, ironically making it a genre that requires true mastery over the subtleties of literature; and I call this ironic, of course, because this is the genre that often attracts the least experienced writers out there, and the ones with the most immature personal style of all, making the majority of bizarro books actually most apt for hyperactive teenage boys, with the competition not other books but rather videogames, juggalos, and recreational drugs. Take for example the fictionalized memoir From Acid to the Body of Christ, by Adrian Dodson writing under the pen-name "Daxx Danzig," which pretty much plays exactly to this demographic: it's essentially the tale of a teenage piece of white trash in the stadium-rock '70s, whose first acid trip during a neighborhood party awakens a whole series of revelations in him, when he's not busy waxing poetic about Black Sabbath, Chevy Novas, or his take on the Fundamentalist Christianity happening all around him in his terminally dour rural environment.

And as far as all that's concerned, the book is decent enough, delivering almost exactly what it promises and not really trying to pretend that it's anything more; but I gotta warn you, the jokey and digressive style of writing seen here is less like a finished book and more like a personal blog, and while I like goofy personal blogs just as much as the next guy, there's a reason that we only enjoy such stories when they're presented in little half-chapter snippets each day, the entire thing quickly wearing out its welcome when presented with an entire manuscript of it at once. It's an entertaining book, don't get me wrong, and sure to have its passionate fans (especially if you're a fan already of such other gonzo writers as D. Harlan Wilson or Lance Carbuncle); it's just that most people I think will find themselves rolling their eyes a lot more at this silly, rambling story than legitimately laughing, a book deliberately designed for a small niche audience of which you may very likely not be a member. It should be kept in mind before picking it up yourself.

Out of 10: 6.9 (heh heh, I wrote '69')

Tell-All, by Chuck Palahniuk

By Chuck Palahniuk

Less a finished novel and more a writing-workshop dare grown out of control, Chuck Palahniuk's latest is almost too slight to deserve a write-up at all, although I suppose I'll try: it's essentially a fake kiss-and-tell biography of a 20th-century Hollywood starlet as told by her longtime put-upon assistant, actually written as a book-length Walter-Wintchell-style corny gossip column, complete with boldfaced type every time a person of note is mentioned (which is hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of times). As such, then, Palahniuk's attempt here at campy Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? fun clashes badly with the usual Palahniukian touches present in all his books -- from the transgressive exaggeration of sex and violence to his ever-increasingly annoying habit of picking a random phrase and then repeating it thousands of times throughout a manuscript -- resulting in scenes that typically start in a promising retro Hollywood style, but then always get interrupted by a jarringly out-of-place reference to Viagra overdoses or bloody dildos, then will segue into an outrageously fake reminiscence of some Lillian Hellman script that never in a million years would exist in the real world (Joan Crawford invents the atomic bomb! Then has a torrid affair with Albert Einstein!), teetering drunkenly between realistic drama and gonzo fairytale in a clumsy, ugly way sure to offend fans of either. Shame on you, Chuck, for releasing this nearly unreadable piece of garbage just so you could stick to your book-a-year schedule, when I suspect that you actually knew much better than to do so but did it anyway. We'll see if this holds true, but this might possibly be the book to change my policy of automatically reading every new novel that Palahniuk publishes.

Out of 10: 1.3

Filed by Jason Pettus at 9:27 AM, October 15, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |