(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.)
Thursday Thistle: A Fairy Tale
By August V. Fahren
Broken Star Books
The more bizarro novels I end up reading here at CCLaP (not by choice but because of so many bizarro authors specifically sending me their books, I think because of a reputation I've picked up in their circle for being kind to bizarro authors), the more I'm realizing that even among this most original of genres, there are still certain running themes that repeat among a whole series of these books, a lot of them first established by groundbreakers so long ago that their followers might not even know they were the originators. For example, it's becoming clear just how much the entire bizarro genre is defined solely through the work of early gonzo pioneer Kathy Acker, and how many of these books take on the same general Acker premise for their own; that is, an adherence to a general fairytale trope that already exists (pirates, ogres, Alice in Wonderland) but then filling that trope with details that are truly transgressive, which for those who don't know the difference is not just subversive (i.e. challenging the system) but actively celebrates things that many others find repulsive.
This is all essentially a long preamble to my look at August V. Fahren's Thursday Thistle, because that's essentially what the book is -- an Ackeresque transgressive fairytale but with the author I'm not sure even being aware of Acker's work, which I think says a lot about just how common this has become within the world of bizarro fiction, of taking Grimm-like conceits about Little Red Riding Hoods then raising the stakes to a ridiculously adult degree. As such, then, certainly it's a well-done book just on its own, and a great introduction to the genre for those who are new to it; but it will try the patience of those already well-read in this genre, and be actively disappointing to existing obsessive fans of Acker herself. And in the end, I guess that makes it kinda middle-of-the-road in general, which is why it's getting a middle-of-the-road score today.
Out of 10: 7.9
By Daniel Clowes
Drawn and Quarterly
It was just a month or two ago that I was reviewing Daniel Clowes' Mister Wonderful, lamenting that little wisp of a story and declaring how much I was looking forward instead to his next major masterpiece; and now it's here, in the form of a giant oversized hardback called The Death-Ray, although with "new" perhaps not being the best term, in that this is actually a reprint of a 2004 issue of his idiosyncratic comic book Eightball. Nonetheless, this sees Clowes in the same brilliantly dark, surrealist form as such past classics as David Boring and Like A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, telling the story of a nerdy, antisocial teen and double orphan in the mid-1970s who discovers that his dead father committed bizarre genetic experiments on him as a child, granting him superhuman abilities every time he smokes a cigarette but also an uncontrolled rage to go along with it; the story itself, then, is partly about what a sociopathic loner like him might actually do with such powers, partly about his "Ghost World"esque loser best friend as he transitions from heavy metal and dysfunction to punk rock and relative normalcy in those same years, and partly what can only be called the most deconstructionist take Clowes has done yet on the entire subject of visual storytelling in the first place (and this from a guy who spends a lot of time thinking about the conventions of the comic-book format), the story itself hopping back and forth between different styles and color palettes in order to set different emotional tones for different scenes, and Clowes brilliantly adding context to dialogue by sometimes literally cutting voice bubbles halfway off with the edges of his story frames. A fantastic treat for existing fans, and a great starting point for those unfamiliar with his work, like a lot of artists throughout history a conservative President in power seems to do wonders for Clowes' artistic output, with him churning out classic after classic during the Bush years but now in a seemingly constant flounder since Obama got elected in 2008. An absolute must-read for all of CCLaP's readers, and a book that will very likely be making my best-of lists at the end of the year.
Out of 10: 9.6
By Alex Shakar
So before anything else, let me caution my fellow New Weird fans that Chicagoan Alex Shakar's Luminarium is not the trippy sci-fi novel that its cover, jacket copy and breathless Dave Eggers blurb promise it to be, and that those picking it up expecting it to be such are going to be severely disappointed, especially by the "anti-trick" ending that provides a rational explanation for all the bizarre things that happen before it. If what you're looking for, however, is an extremely clever and well-done character-heavy look at the zeitgeist of the Bush years, seen through the filter of such mid-2000s cultural detritus as virtual worlds, New Age mythology and the Disney-owned town of Celebration, Florida, then this Believer favorite is going to be right up your alley; because of all the 9/11 novels I've now read, this is arguably the best of them precisely because it takes such a sideways look at the subject, essentially sneaking up on the issue by instead concentrating on the co-founder of a Second-Life-type MMORPG that's been co-opted by Homeland Security, who rapidly unravels after starting to receive what seems like a series of otherworldly online messages from his comatose twin brother, while simultaneously participating in an academic neurological study that may or may not be slowly granting him psychic powers.
Full of all kinds of wonderfully nerdy details sure to delight any metaphysical tech-head (for one great example, the '70s Cray supercomputer that one brother gives the other as an elaborate joke gift, which is then turned into the online-startup "Prayerizer.com" that will send billions of pleas to God per day on your behalf for a nominal fee), but combined with the kind of quirky character-building details that MFAers are always on the lookout for (like the main character's habit of still performing in cheesy magic shows for children's birthday parties with his stoner hippie dad), Shakar almost magically manages to pull together these and dozens more widely scattered references into one coherent whole by the end, ultimately delivering a profound message about the schism between faith and technology in a world of 3D avatars and planes slamming into skyscrapers. Although the book definitely has its problems, which is why it isn't getting a higher score today -- I would've liked to have seen less academic stream-of-consciousness, for example, and more Chabonesque action scenes, such as the wickedly great section where our punch-drunk hero rampages through the headquarters of his startup's new corporate masters -- Luminarium is nonetheless well worth your time, but only for those prepared to enjoy it for what it is instead of being disappointed for what it's not. It comes recommended in that spirit.
Out of 10: 9.0