Review: Ghostwritten, by David Mitchell

>>Published: August 1999

>>Finally got around to it: February 2011

Well, Love went to bed. It fucked, over and over, until it got sore-knob bored, quite frankly. Then Love looked around for something else to do, and it saw its lovely friends all having lovely babies. So Love decided to do the same, but Love kept having its periods, same as ever, however much it inseminated itself. So Love went to an infertility clinic, and discovered the truth. As far as I know Love’s stiff is there to this very day. And that, boys and girls, is the Story of What Happened to Love.

***

At the recommendation of many, I recently picked up a copy of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, possibly the most well known of his works. Before cracking it open, I decided to do something I’ve never done for an author: I checked him out online. I’m glad I did. Mitchell, it seems, shares an interest of mine—the interlinking and weaving together of stories, characters and plotlines across not only one book, but several that, on the outside, would seem disconnected from one another. Without spoiling too many details for myself, it was easy to see that his characters were constructed legacies meant to carry ideas, themes and concepts across a body of work, rather than being constricted to simple one-shots or a more readily defined series of linked titles. As a direct result of this research, I decided to hold off on Cloud Atlas and start at the beginning, with Mitchell’s first book—Ghostwritten.

Divided into nine parts, Ghostwritten tracks several characters—a Japanese terrorist, a pair of young lovers in Tokyo, a distressed businessman in Hong Kong, the owner of a small tea shop at the base of a mountain, a disembodied spirit in Mongolia, a group of art thieves in Petersburg, a ghostwriter-cum-musician in London, a physicist on Clear Island, and a late-night radio host in New York—as their lives gradually intersect in increasingly more dramatic and world-changing ways.

The intersection of these characters, in the hands of a lesser writer, could feel like nothing more than a six-degrees-of-separation plot device. But these characters are evidence of a greater plan, which Mitchell has chosen to slowly divulge over the course of this book (and, ostensibly, in books to follow). Their connections are never forced or presented in an overtly clever way; rather they feed into one another with butterfly-effect ramifications, the extent of which can only be understood when the individual parts are looked at from a distance, the way one would only be able to understand the logic of a maze from a bird’s eye view.

Though the title of the book is not invoked until the seventh part, the theme of ghostwriting—of abdicating responsibility for the impact one leaves on the world—runs through all of the book’s plots and subsidiary themes: history, culture, art, economics, and warfare. While some parts are certainly stronger than others, with some characters unfortunately relegated to role of thematic ciphers, the impact of the cumulative whole is satisfying.

All in all, Ghostwritten is an intriguing read. It falters only when ideas trump character development and plot, but not significantly enough to dampen the impact of Mitchell’s creativity, or the quality of his multi-tonal writing.

Review: Vancouver Special, by Charles Demers

>>Published: November 2009

>>Finally got around to it: February 2011

Charles Demers is a man torn between the Vancouver of his youth, and the one that exists today. Reading Vancouver Special was an interesting experience, one that inspired almost as much knee-jerk defence as it did warm and fuzzy vibes.

I was five when my family abandoned my birthplace of Calgary for South Surrey, BC. (The “South” is always emphasized, lest we be unfortunately lumped in with the Whalley crowd. It was often easier to just say “White Rock” and be done with it.) As a suburban kid, living on the outskirts of Vancouver, the city always had a bit of a mystery to it; everything was bigger, brighter, and more boisterous. What did all that mean? In a nutshell: excitement.

In my university days, I gravitated away from the ‘burbs and took up residence in the theatres and stores and restaurants of Vancouver as if I’d been walking the streets my entire life. But I was a transplant—the city held all the adrenaline and none of the black marks or the history that I knew were as much a part of its pavement as anything. When I’d hear West Enders bitching about the Kits crowd, or the Yaletowners turning their nose up at the Downtown East Side’s most unfortunate, it didn’t register—not like it would for a true Vancouverite, not for a long time after I’d implanted myself into the city proper. Even now I still see more of the beauty and rush of the city than I do the conflicting social hierarchies and more-than-obvious problems, ranging from insufficient policing to rampant gentrification, from drug use and homelessness to racism and exclusion.

Charles Demers’s Vancouver Special is at once a love letter to the city he knew in his youth—and knows is still there, somewhere—and a condemnation of what the city has become as a result of so much social and political divergence. Over 29 chapters, Demers breaks down the neighbourhoods, people, and culture of Vancouver—the good and the bad. A comedian and activist, Demers writes with an intelligence that is rooted in research and shared experience. He laces the text with enough humour to keep the book light in tone. But between the lines, it’s impossible to miss the snatches of sorrow he clearly feels over missed opportunities for Vancouver to make right for so many wrongs and truly become the city it’s meant to be.

While reading, it was difficult not to feel slighted—as if Vancouver was being attacked without reason. But my adoration for the city is a teenage love affair still in bloom; it is a beautiful, amazing place, but it is also a liar of the highest calibre—when the world stopped in to see us for the 2010 Winter Games, they saw our best and brightest face, the glamour that obscured the scar tissue of the DTES. Because we’ve always donned our best designer tracksuits and gone out for a run, rain, rain, rain or shine (or rain). Vancouver is a city divided into clearly defined ethnic and social sects, each one looking forward with tunnelled vision, not wanting to look to the periphery should they happen to see something they might not like about their fair city.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone; I choose to see the city minus its acne. But no city is perfect, and no populace is without fault. I miss Vancouver every day, in spite of its many problems. Because it is still a world-class city, even if it unnecessarily feels it has to prove that fact to the world watching from beyond our borders. Vancouver Special never forgets this. Though it often feels as if Demers is lamenting the death of a loved one before they’ve been put in the ground, the love he has for Vancouver is undeniable.

And as a man who denies his ties to Surrey (for reasons which are many and obvious, should one spend an afternoon at the King George SkyTrain station and manage to get home without getting mugged), I was certainly able to appreciate a lot of the shots taken at its expense:

Surrey is the cultural whipping boy of the GVRD; it’s Vancouver’s New Jersey, except that New Jersey gave the world Philip Roth and Bruce Springsteen. Surrey is a city seemingly without zoning, and so it makes no sense as you drive through it (which you essentially have to do, even though the SkyTrain line cuts deeply into the city—fitting, because people in the city get cut deeply next to the SkyTrain).

Spot-on, Charles. Unfortunately.

Review: Nexus: Ascension, by Robert Boyczuk

>>Published: August 2010

>>Finally got around to it: February 2011

The Facilitator’s eyes flickered and he stared off into the middle distance, accessing data. “The plague begins with a light fever. After a brief remission, a more debilitating fever occurs some forty-eight hours later, as the virus spreads to the liver and spleen, enlarging them and accelerating the filtering and phagocytic activities into a hyperactive state. Red blood cells are destroyed indiscriminately. Jaundice appears. Then the victim experiences intense abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhoea and vomiting. Within twenty hours, lesions form on the skin, and abscesses develop inside the lungs, kidney, heart and brain. Lassitude, confusion and prostration result. Within forty hours, irreversible cerebral and renal damage, then multi-organ failure. Death follows quickly from toxic shock, hypovolemia—or any one of dozens of other complications.”

Silence.

“No survivors,” Hebuiza added flatly, his eyes focused on Josua again. “The morbidity and mortality rates appear to be one hundred percent.”

***

Exhausted and nearly out of fuel at the end of a thirty-year trade mission, the crew of the Ea arrive home to find their world, Bh’Haret, is a corpse. “Screamer” satellites orbit the planet, warning any ships that pass of a plague that has ravaged the planet, leaving no survivors. What follows is a detailed, exciting sci-fi thriller that succeeds in as many ways as it stumbles.

Nexus: Ascension is a difficult beast to fully appreciate. As Boyczuk’s first full-length novel following an admirable collection of short stories, Horror Story and Other Horror Stories, Nexus: Ascension is a well-written, well-plotted book that, while ambitious in scope, fails to provide any true, three-dimensional characters. The result of that is that, beyond the enticing premise, the first half of the book is a bit of an uphill battle. We’re given a cold opening to the characters, but never given the necessary tools to understand how they’ve gotten to be who they are—and why one character in particular, Liis, seems to trip right away into an almost delusional believer/lover mindset with no indications in her character toward such propensity.

Detail is the prevailing theme of this book, and Boyczuk delivers on that end. For all the character beats that feel neglected or absent, the universe, the world of Bh’Haret and the mystery surrounding the plague and the possible involvement of Nexus and the mythical two brothers at the heart of it all are exciting and written with a genuine sense of momentum that carry the second half of the book towards a satisfying conclusion.

Though I enjoyed my time with Nexus: Ascension, I can’t decide if it’s a universe I feel I could visit again. While the detail and history/myths were engaging and thought provoking, the lack of a heart—a character or characters I felt I could really attach myself to—hurt the book’s overall impression. Late in the game we’re introduced to a woman named Lien, a “Speaker”. Her story more than any feels as if it has hooks for another entry into this world, but to what end I can’t be certain. I’d be curious to see where Boyczuk takes this universe, but not with as much excitement as I’d hoped I would have.

Review: Daytripper, by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá

>>Published: February 2011

>>Finally got around to it: Immediately–as it should be with a book this good

My name is Brás de Oliva Domingos.

This is the story of my life.

Take a deep breath, open your eyes and close the book.

***

We must die in order to prove we were ever alive.

This is the abstract to Moon and Bá’s utterly beautiful, moving, soul-rumbling work of art, Daytripper. For ten impeccably illustrated chapters, Daytripper gives us a life collected in snapshots—emotionally stunning vignettes punctuated by death. It is an examination of the meaning life has, and can have, only when viewed through the scope of mortality.

Brás de Oliva Domingos is a writer, a dreamer, and a man who does not know how to define his own life. He struggles with the curses and passions he inherited from his father, of which, he comes to realize, are one and the same. He dreams of writing, of changing the world through literature, and finds himself instead giving solace to the families of loved ones left behind as an obituary writer.

Each chapter is another day, or another week at a different point on the non-linear thread of Brás’ life, and each chapter ends the same way–with his death. But death is never the end for Brás. Death is understanding. Death opens his eyes, shows him his worth, his place in the world, through the eyes of those he loves, and those who will miss him the most. Through his many postcard existences, Brás loses his life to love found and love lost; he sacrifices himself to save a friend; he gives in to weaknesses of the body he never knew he had, but were remnants of a shadow he could not escape. Everything Brás ever was, ever would be, ever could be, exists in the moments where and when and how his life comes to an end. But never are these deaths more relevant, more impactful, than in the understanding that all these lives and all these deaths serve to illustrate only one thing:

The only way to live life is to live without fear.

Fear of love. Fear of accomplishment. Fear of failure. All must be left behind, shed and left on the ground like the skin of a snake.

Because there is a final chapter to each and every book. Without that chapter, without those final pages, paragraphs and sentences, nothing that comes before it has any meaning.

Brás dies, has died, and will die repeatedly to become the man he’s meant to be, to experience the love and happiness and success that he is due. And through these many deaths, parsed from more obituaries than any one person can have, is an understanding of life’s value that few are capable of achieving.

There aren’t many books that have left me with a lump in my throat by the end. Daytripper is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in a long time. As a meditation on life and the impact a life can have on those loved, lost and never forgotten, this book succeeds in every way.

Review: Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, by Jane McGonigal

>>Published: January 2011

>>Finally got around to it: February 2011

The truth is this: in today’s society, computer and video games are fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy. Games are providing rewards that reality is not. They are teaching and inspiring and engaging us in ways that reality is not. They are bringing us together in ways that reality is not.

***

In Reality is Broken, author and game designer Jane McGonigal presents a manifesto that illustrates how games are critical to the advancement of our species and the world—essential even, if we hope to change in order to match the speed and potential of our imaginations. She posits that games are tools by which we can overcome depression, anxiety, feelings of social irrelevance and the lack of self worth that so many of us struggle with as we sit trapped in mundane, closely-choreographed nine-to-five lifestyles. She goes on to suggest that the catharsis games provide at an individual level can be used in a transitory manner to affect genuine, widespread social change.

From the introduction:

If you are a gamer, it’s time to get over any regret you might feel about spending so much time playing games. You have not been wasting your time. You have been building up a wealth of virtual experience that, as the first half of this book will show you, can teach you about your true self: what your core strengths are, what really motivates you, and what makes you happiest. As you’ll see, you have also developed world-changing ways of thinking, organizing, and acting.

I’ve grown up with games as a large part of my life. There were times when games were a far stronger presence than they are today, but they’ve never dominated my existence. They were, and still are, an accentuation—something to trigger my imagination, or to help me relax in ways that a film or a good book just aren’t capable of. Because, as McGonigal writes, we are at are most psychologically sound when we are accomplishing things—when we are working through skill- or mind-based challenges and puzzles—and not simply relaxing. The level of engagement is what makes all the difference, and games provide a level of engagement on a one-to-one basis that no other medium can match.

As McGonigal moves from singular video games and into massively multiplayer games and Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), she brings social change and advancement into the equation—the idea that, as productive and detail-oriented as passionate gamers are, should their skills be used in games that can enact real-world change, the results would be immediately noticeable. The possibilities range from affecting social moods and placing gaming’s relevancy into the sights of as many people as possible in the hopes that they will come to understand the benefits of gaming’s psychological and emotional catharsis and problem solving potential, to using gamers to hunt and reveal the criminal actions of politicians through parsing mass amounts of financial data, to bridging the gaps to Third World and underprivileged nations in need of the information we have at our fingertips. Alternate Reality Gaming and massively multiplayer online systems have this potential, should we choose to accept that games are not simply child’s play, and in fact can teach and reveal a great deal about our psychology, what drives us, and how we can use that to strike forward into unparalleled realms of social constructivism. Because:

When enough people play a game, it becomes a massively collaborative study of a problem, an extreme-scale test of potential action in a specific possibility space.

If the future McGonigal conceives does in fact come to pass, it will be a realization of the Global Village concept popularized by Marshall McLuhan, one in which we are all tied to one another not just by technology, but by shared knowledge the depth and detail of which we’ve never before been capable of—because we won’t just be reading about the worlds of others, we’ll be playing in them, manipulating them, and at the same time, enacting real-time change, just as people from around the world will be able to do with our own backyards.

Games don’t distract from our real lives. They fill our real lives: with positive emotions, positive activity, positive experiences, and positive strengths.

Games aren’t leading us to the downfall of human civilization. They’re leading us to its reinvention.

Review: Popular Hits of the Showa Era, by Ryu Murakami

>>Published (in Japanese): 1994

>>Published (in English): January 2011

>>Finally got around to it: February 2011

“I mean, just because I came up behind that Oba-san and poked her in the ass with my tent pole, she starts screaming like a banshee. I’m not about to put up with that kind of shit. Anybody would’ve lost it, right? I mean, what about my dignity? So I broke through the imagination barrier and took out my knife in the real world and slit her throat, guerrilla-style, and that was it. It was the right thing to do too.”

***

A little bit West Side Story, a little bit American Psycho, a whole lotta karaoke. That more or less sums up Ryu Murakami’s Popular Hits of the Showa Era. This deliciously perverse novel is a sexually charged, misogynistic, spiteful, blood-splattered tale of assault, murder and revenge between six young, very lost and destructive men, and a group of divorced, slightly older women who call themselves The Midori Society. When the first of the society is murdered in an act both twisted and celebrated by the author and the other men, it sparks a war between the two factions that escalates from knives and guns to heavy weaponry and genocide, all written with such over-the-top vitriol and satisfaction that it’s impossible to be taken as anything but a farce of deliberately low taste.

This is something of a theme with Murakami’s work. His books are reminiscent in tone of the more abrasive, socially detached works of Brett Easton Ellis or Chuck Palahniuk, but so over the top by comparison that it’s practically impossible to feel any sort of attachment to the characters within. Which, given the segment quoted above, is a very good thing. You don’t want to feel anything for these characters. They’re avatars through which the author can examine extremes of social depravity and maliciousness, but without the heavy hand of societal condemnation hammering the message home. With that in mind, the book works best when it travels to descriptive extremes:

Nobue and Ishihara were in a state resembling sleep paralysis as their brains tried to process the afterimage of the junior college girl’s face. Unable to move, they were still shivering at the image when the actual face materialized before them, seeming to cause the blue sky to crack in two and the yellow ginkgo leaves to turn to scraps of rotting flesh, fluttering in the breeze. Both of them felt as if they’d just slurped up their own vomit.

It goes without saying, reader discretion is advised. In fact, I’d give such a warning for everything Murakami’s written—his style is unique, and certainly not without its merits, but the violent and psychologically distressing extremes to which he frequently takes his characters are not for the easily offended or nauseated. There is a great deal of humour in the book as well, though it is very dark and in some cases masks extremes more disturbing than what he conveys in the rest of the book.

Review: You Are Not A Gadget, by Jaron Lanier

>>Published: January 2010

>>Finally got around to it: February 2011

Consciousness is situated in time, because you can’t experience a lack of time, and you can’t experience the future. If consciousness isn’t anything but a false thought in the computer that is your brain, or the universe, then what exactly is it that is situated in time? The present moment, the only other thing that could be situated in time, must in that case be a freestanding object, independent of the way it is experienced.

***

In his manifesto, You Are Not A Gadget, Jaron Lanier posits a bleak—but not unspoken—future for us all, one where the definition of humanity and the defining characteristics of our brains and what makes them so special and likely impossible to digitally replicate is at risk so long as we continue, unchecked, to attempt to extrapolate the basics of our pre-digital lives and incorporate them into a new schema. The threat is similar to one we already see developing: an ever-pressing need to build upwards without expanding outwards, piling more information and more means to both absorb and produce it in order to make use of what feels like an increasing lack of time in our daily lives.

Lanier isn’t willing to present such a dire forecast without first addressing the nature of the beast: the physiology and psychology of man. Using music, language and the senses as means to convey how our limitations as organic beings actually provide us with more reasons to focus our creativity and ingenuity, rather than simplistically adopting a rapidly changing, continuously expanding, Lanier positions himself as a humanist first. The reasons we are capable of so much is that we have been met with limitations and forced to adapt, using them as a spark for much greater ambitions. Through a true computational adoption however, the ability to press onward into seemingly never-ending algorithms to answer any and all possible questions and roadblocks life tosses up, risks extending us past our natural limits, stretching ourselves thin to take on more and more, as if information expenditure and absorption were a drug addiction. At this point, gifted with as much power and autonomy as we can spare, technology will shape our lives and not the other way around.

Part call to arms, part techno-humanist blueprint, You Are Not A Gadget is not the simplest of reads, but neither is it obtuse or unfriendly to the prospects and potential on both sides of the equation. In spite of the cautionary tale at the heart of this book, Lanier presents numerous ways in which the technological and computational renaissance we have been entrenched in since the rise of Silicon Valley gifts us with essential tools to enhance and, in some cases, simplify day-to-day human existence. The key, however, as with all things, is in moderation. Through moderation, an understanding of what our limitations mean to us, what they have allowed us to accomplish, and what we risk losing should the push for technological and social networking supremacy one day become the language and music of our world, rather than the tools we use to understand languages and cultures as they already exist around the world.