Review: Grow Up, by Ben Brooks

>>Published: July 2011

>>Finally got around to it: May 2012

I am in the bath thinking about these things. In my hands there is a Philosophy and Religion textbook. I am reading about how some people believe in God because they had visions of the Virgin Mary. There is a large picture of the Virgin Mary wearing a blue dress and looking quietly pleased. I am bored. The book says that humans can hallucinate due to extreme emotional distress. I wonder if I will hallucinate because of the emotional stress caused by Keith’s constant murder-plotting. I hope I hallucinate Georgia Treely masturbating with a toothbrush.

***

Jasper James Wolf is a Holden Caulfield for a new generation. Seriously. He’ll even be the first to tell you:

I am Holden Caulfield, only less reckless, and more attractive.

And modest. Let’s not forget modest.

Grow Up, the fifth book by the barely-out-of-his-teens Ben Brooks, is a vicious, often hilarious—and hilariously blunt—microcosm of contemporary, ketamine-addicted British youth. Jasper, seventeen, is a fuck-anything-that-moves kind of kid. Prepping (but really not) for grammar school exams that will go a long way in determining his future, Jasper would much rather fantasize about the possible murderous history of Keith, his step-father; about seducing young, perfect Georgia Treely; about getting absolutely shit-faced with his best friend and possible suicide candidate, Tenaya; and about writing his novel, which must include a rape scene, a revelation, and, maybe, a lesson of some sort.

Middle class youth with too much money, and too few consequences to their actions. Grow Up is as much Catcher in the Rye as Less Than Zero, though Jasper is not nearly as bitterly disaffected as that novel’s protagonist, Clay. Jasper and his friends aren’t malevolent or consciously self-destructive—they don’t want to die, they just want to feel something more than their sheltered existence seems to provide. Lack of strong parental influence leads to a skewed perception of acceptable social behaviour and mannerisms, all of which is exemplified in Brooks’ perfunctory brick-through-a-window writing.

It’s easy to mistake Jasper for malicious, slightly touched-in-the-head prick—the extremes of his fantasies, and the speed at which he propels himself from one very random (often sexual) thought to the next are an alarmingly honest condemnation of a current cultural climate based on the immediacy of gratification. And when gratification is delayed, even for a moment, a replacement must be found: unfulfilled fantasies of Georgia Treely lead to a spur-of-the-moment rendezvous with the less-than-desirable Abby Hall, for example.

Not only honest, Grow Up is also genuinely funny. I laughed out loud, more than once, while reading this book; Brooks has natural comedic rhythm and a good ear for sarcasm:

Jenna lies back and a wide band of skin is exposed across her stomach from where her t-shirt has pulled up. I light a Richmond and leave it burning in the corner of my mouth while I pluck the petals off a poppy and lie them flat over Jenna’s belly button. This is called flirting. Flirting is a door with sex behind it. Sex is a door with babies behind it. Fucking doors. People should keep them locked.

It’s near impossible to hate Jasper, Tenaya, and any of their friends, no matter how horrifying their actions can sometimes be. These are not terrible people. Just… detached. Not from one another, but from their place in the world.

In Jasper, Brooks has captured a personality not bad, or cruel, or without feeling or remorse, but one unschooled in consequence, in the impact his actions have on others. Grow Up is disturbingly comic, unflinching, and enlightening.

Review: Scar, by Ryan Frawley

>>Published: October 2011

>>Finally got around to it: May 2012

“After that, I started seeing things. Just movement, at first, in the corner of my eye, and when you turn to see what it is, it’s gone. I mean, I think everyone gets that sometimes. I got it a lot. Then—it’s weird—you start to imagine what they are, men or monsters, whatever, and then that’s what you see. You know it’s at least partly your own imagination, but you can’t stop it, and once you’ve put a face to this faceless thing, that’s what it is, and always was, and no amount of logic will stop you from seeing it.”

***

Scar, Ryan Frawley’s literary fiction debut, tells a fractured narrative from the perspective of a young man, who also happens to be schizophrenic. Dermot Fallon, an English-born descendent of Irish ancestors, is hospitalized in Vancouver, BC, following a severe schizophrenic breakdown. Narrated from a first-person point-of-view, as fractured and disingenuous as it often is, Scar attempts to unfold the many layers of Dermot Fallon’s psychological imbalances.

This will be short, mostly because I’ve been unable to finish the book. In fact, this is the second title I’ve walked away from this year (for everyone at home keeping score). It’s not that Dermot’s story is uninteresting. Far from it—the mosaic of possibilities, of pathways and divergences prevalent in so many stories about schizophrenia, is often fascinating. In Scar’s unfortunate case, however, the book is entirely undone by it’s structure and lack of restraint.

In this case, the tiniest of details matter, because there are enough of them to irrevocably tarnish the experience. This is a self-published novel, and as is sometimes the case, has not been carefully edited. There are, to my dismay, many instances of grammatical and structural errors, as well as things left ignored (like one chapter’s ending spilling onto the starting page for the next chapter in a rather clumsy, desperate-to-lower-the-page-count manner). Quotation marks in particular seem to have been a thorn in this writer’s side.

Apart from the editing is the choice of fonts. Three different fonts are employed throughout the narrative: one for the main body of text, one for the footnotes, and a cursive script employed periodically throughout. First, the body text is sans-serif and very tight together, making it difficult to read for any length of time. Second, the text used for the physician’s footnotes is more readable and spaced out than the body text, which is an obvious oversight—very much the opposite of what it should be. Lastly, the cursive script is near unreadable. In fact, when I began feeling the overwhelming urge to skim the cursive is when I knew I was finished with this book.

To go a step further, in order to drive home the schizophrenic nature of the protagonist, Dermot, the author has chosen to employ lighter, greyscale text interspersed and placed overtop of the body text in certain places, which is again enough of a struggle to simply read that one begins to question why they are bothering with it in the first place. It’s difficult to not contemplate the ways in which these asides, used to further illustrate Dermot’s shifting tenuous emotional state, could have been better handled, through simple italics, or by employing it all, straight-up, in the text, messing with the rhythm of each sentence but maintaining a readable structure.

And lastly, there are the footnotes—notations made by Dermot’s psychiatrist to better describe the meaning and rationale behind much of the details of Dermot’s text. These are, universally, unnecessary, and more often than not (based on the book’s first half, which is as far as I made it) tell in simple, perfunctory terms, pieces of information that could have been shown and inserted in small, subtle ways, but within the actual body of the text. Or even as end-of-chapter compilations, in the form of a report made on Dermot’s current entry, or something along those lines. As they stand, the footnotes are nothing more than distractions offering omniscient odds and ends that remove a great deal of intrigue towards the protagonist and his unique mental state. By comparison, the occasional broken paragraphs, on-the-spot poetry-style structure and reversed-polarity white-on-black pages are used sparingly enough and are not nearly as distracting (plus, given the nature of the book, they feel more necessary as experimental asides than anything offered in the footnotes).

Scar is a very frustrating novel. As interested as I am in Dermot’s plight—and I truly am—its structural and editorial problems are plentiful, and sadly damage this title’s potential. It feels as if this were a collection of first-draft ideas rushed to completion. Time and revision is needed before this approach can be effective. Based on these issues alone, I cannot recommend this book.

Review: Mr. Fox, by Helen Oyeyemi

>>Published: September 2011

>>Finally got around to it: May 2012

What is “it”? Sometimes I think he killed her to show us something, to show us what “it” is. She was my best friend, and she knew almost everything—if she didn’t know she made outrageous guesses. She made me laugh and I made her laugh. When I spoke to my mother I was the funniest, cleverest, most interesting girl alive. Other people’s mothers told them to “be good” or to “take care.” Mine told me to be bad and wicked and not to worry. While waiting for her to phone me at school I’d feel seconds bursting inside me and leaving clouds. That won’t come again—it can’t. I’ll never have that with anyone else. I’ll never even come close.

So. When I say I’ve been visiting my mother, that means I’ve been visiting her grave. I bring her foxgloves; her maiden name was Foxe. At her funeral she was hidden away in a closed casket because she was no longer beautiful. He’d done other things before he stabbed her—no one would tell me what. I suppose I could have insisted on seeing her, if I’d really wanted to.

***

Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr. Fox tells the story of the novelist St. John Fox, his wife Daphne, and his muse-made-flesh, Mary Foxe. St. John’s predilection for killing the heroines of his novels has driven Mary to challenge St. John’s nature, to discern the reasons for his murderous literary actions. As Mary turns St. John and Daphne into narrative subjects in their own right, an unconventional love triangle develops between them and St. John is forced to examine where his true desires rest: with the woman he is married to or the ideal he has conceived.

Mr. Fox is a novel of magical realism with a required reading list. The narratives that Mary pulls St. John into borrow from classic tales and folklore such as Perrault’s Bluebeard and the Brothers Grimm’s Fitcher’s Bird. Sadly, my extensive literary education has somehow overstepped these and so many other tales employed in Oyeyemi’s work. Therefore I come at Mr. Fox from the bottom of a steep hill, having not done any of the homework. Does the novel succeed apart from its influences? I’ll be honest—I’m not entirely sure.

Without the entry-level literary knowledge that seems necessary for this title, Mr. Fox is an uneven read. The shifting perspectives, locations, and overall tone give the title an austere, highly manicured aesthetic, but sacrifice accessibility and depth of character in the process. Removing the elements of magical realism and placing the novel’s psychology at the forefront, Mary Foxe is something akin to a form of insanity shared by St. John and Daphne, revealing both desire and the impulse for self-flagellation; Mary is simultaneously an embodiment of St. John’s desires and a fulcrum for Daphne’s insecurities. Her presence is the catalyst by which St. John and Daphne are forced to re-examine their marriage, their trust, and their love for one another.

The unevenness extends to the writing as well. As previously mentioned, Oyeyemi’s language is delicate and very deliberate. However, some chapters feel more essential than others, with respect to the metaphors at play and narrative momentum. “The Training at Madame de Silentio’s” and “What Happens Next” are captivating and do a great deal to move things along, while “Hide, Seek” and the final chapter “Some Foxes” feel sadly unnecessary.

Having read Mr. Fox without first knowing the details behind its literary inspirations has, undoubtedly, coloured my opinion of this title. The concept—dissecting the needs and desires of a murderous, misogynistic writer—is exciting in and of itself, but without providing an adequate portrait of its trio of protagonists, it falls unfortunately flat. I would like to revisit this title in a few years time, after having read and digested the novel’s source material. It’s very possible that, given the proper pre-novel legwork, the finer details of Oyeyemi’s work will suddenly click. At this moment, however, Mr. Fox is a unique meta-literary exercise that never quite comes together.

Review: Basement of Wolves, by Daniel Allen Cox

>>Published: March 2012

>>Finally got around to it: May 2012

The damage grew day by day. We were doing more than just making a bad movie that caved in to public hunger for violence and revenge. We were destroying me. I had already made a significant effort becoming RR in hopes of saving myself. I recreated his personality in my heart, his life in my head. RR’s memories soon took their place beside mine, supplanted them. Images of ploughs, hay bales, and cracked hands sank into my own childhood. Sneaking mouthfuls of fresh chewing tobacco behind the shed. Washing the bell of a trombone with lake water and then polishing it in the sun. Instant shine. I immersed myself in a love of wolves. I believed there was hope for escaping horrible situations. You could reinvent your life by taking drastic action. But now RR was becoming a fiend. I suspected he would kill someone before the movie was over. Maybe my screen dad, Supreme Asshole. A lone bullet would kill him, but it would really be killing me. There was no way to back out of this disaster contractually. I would have to pursue it to the end, let it consume what was left of my joy and optimism. I could disavow the character, but it would live on in the movies. I would always be the angry guy on the poster. The killer lives on in myth like no other.

***

Michael-David has been, is currently, and will soon be steamrolled by ubiquitous soul-hardening machine called Hollywood—and Hollywood’s wanton succubus, Fame. As a forty-year-old paranoid actor, Michael-David is aware of his distinct middle-child status: too old to be hip, but too young to be distinguished. He worries his best times are behind him, and fears the slow, humiliating death of his career to the faces and bodies of younger, firmer, more finely pieced together archetypes—like his arch-nemesis (of a sort), Pinchable Cheeks. So he hides, for years, avoiding the gun in the script that will forever vilify him, putting an all-too ceremonious capper in his career.

The protagonist in Daniel Allen Cox’s latest novella, Basement of Wolves, is an amped up combination of self-hatred, misanthropy, and a total lack of confidence. Struggling to survive in an industry that thrives on suffering, humiliation, and a near-constant changing of the oh-so-beautiful guard, Michael-David’s journey is a career’s entire arc encapsulated in unfinished screenplays, strange, cradle-robbing love affairs with are-they-or-aren’t-they fans, and a fairly on-the-nose dissection of the machine of self-representation that defines the film industry. When a Chekhov’s gun-style plot twist reveals itself in his latest film, Michael-David experiences a mid-life, mid-career crisis and bails, leaving the film unfinished.

Basement of Wolves plays a great deal with style. Using a first-person narration, Cox experiments, diving into the minds of others and what they may or may not have experienced by using Michael-David’s imagination as the point of entry. While distracting in some places, it’s an intriguing technique that helps flesh out Michael-David’s surrounding world and dramatis personae.

Michael-David himself is an interesting enough character, though not especially original (the aging actor hiding from the world, wanting to deny progress and live as a recluse). This is certainly the case when paired with Poland Radek, the arsonist-artist protagonist of Cox’s last novella, 2010s Krakow Melt. Radek was engaging, a parkour-and-firebombs kind of a guy. Unpredictable. Michael-David, on the other hand, feels more removed, confined within his own multi-layered psychosis.

This is my problem with Basement of Wolves: though I thoroughly enjoyed the novella, it feels less… essential… than Cox’s previous work. There is simply less at stake in this narrative. Michael-David’s struggles, while pertinent to the story being played out, are more passive and filled with self-loathing and disdain for the career spiral he seems caught in—justifiably content to slip in for breakfast at the hotel without being noticed by the Disneyland vacationers that surround him.

And as a final bone of contention, I must tip my hat into the obsessive-compulsive ring of current generation pop culture fact checking:

Now on the twenty-fifth level of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, he kept playing right through moving day, while the movers picked up furniture and boxes and plants around him, creating holes in his environment.

Perhaps this is the nit-picky nerd in me, but we’ve reached saturation point with video games. The knowledge is out there for anyone willing to spend a few minutes looking into things. With IMDb, there’s no longer any excuse for forgetting who starred in what, or when a certain flick dropped into theatres. Likewise, it’s very easy to pop onto Google to discover that there are no levels in a modern Zelda game—dungeons, yes, if you want to get technical (and I clearly do), and never more than ten. When reading, this sort of detail leaps out at me like any time- or space-based anachronism. If a book’s background is pop culture, nail those details like no others.

I would recommend Basement of Wolves, but less for the character of Michael-David and the overall plot, and more for Cox’s concise writing, intriguing perspective shifts, and sharp tone. It’s a bit of a disappointment after the kick to the balls that was Krakow Melt, but Basement of Wolves is still an interesting exercise and certainly a worthwhile single-sitting read.

Review: The Gift of Fire and On the Head of a Pin: Two Short Novels from Crosstown to Oblivion, by Walter Mosley

>>Published: May 2012

Walter Mosley, creator of the best-selling Easy Rawlins mystery series, releases a pair of pseudo-science fiction/fantasy novellas. In The Gift of Fire, the fantasy novella in this pairing, Prometheus, the Greek titan condemned to suffer for eternity for providing mankind with the gift of knowledge (in the form of the eternal flame), thus sacrificing some of the gods’ control, is unexpectedly released from his chains. He escapes his imprisonment and makes his way… to present-day South Central Los Angeles:

He found himself upon a hilltop. To his right rolled the waves of a great ocean and to his left sprawled a mortal city with its temporary structures and its people who lived and died without suspicion of the knowledge that the partially comprehended but never knew. The smell of their smoke and feces filled his nostrils and burned his eyes. It was ever this way when gods and Titans mingled among humans. Mortals were like animals to those of the higher planes, snuffling and snorting and spraying urine to mark their domain.

Los Angeles was to Prometheus like a dung hill is to a swan—dirty and diseased, stinking of mortality—and yet these were the fallow grounds for the possibility of life.

The titan is immediately imprisoned as a suspected drug- or booze-addled homeless person (of surprising size and presence). Through his imprisonment in a mortal jail, he claims the name Foreman Prospect for himself and befriends a wino named Nosome—and through Nosome, a child, an invalid named Chief Redd, whom Prometheus heals and designates his vessel on Earth. As the knowledge and curative properties of Prometheus’s touch spread, miracles are brought into existence, minds cured—or damaged beyond repair—from trauma’s felt and inflicted. Through the vessel of Chief Redd, Prometheus is able to continue to spread knowledge, slowly gathering a cult-like swath of followers and transforming the gutters of South Central Los Angeles and the lives of those tossed in them.

On the Head of a Pin is the science fiction half of this double feature. Josh Winterland is a writer hired to document the findings of scientific research firm Jennings-Tremont Enterprises. When the completion of a project known as a Sail—a intricately woven fibre optic creation capable of accessing unforeseen energies—opens a window into what appears to be another realm, Josh is connected with a being that escapes conventional description:

I didn’t have to turn around to know that the memory he was experiencing was being represented on the screen.

I opened my eyes just in time to see Cosmo hurrying into the room.

“How did you do that?” Zintel was asking.

“It’s the Sail,” I said, exhaustion moving through my limbs. “It, it… Everything that ever happened, everyone and everything that ever lived has left an impression. This screen can connect with those impressions.”

“Like ghosts?” Zintel asked. There was no vestige of the official left. A deep experience had yanked him by the roots of his mind and he was moved.

“Yes,” I said. “I believe so.”

What the Sail has opened is a communication pathway with a conceptual multiverse (a familiar concept to physicists and comic book geeks alike). Through the collective memories of our world and an infinite number of others, Josh is witness to atrocities he can barely comprehend, and a degree of love he never thought possible. To those outside the experience looking in—government and military officials—the Sail is a potential weapon of untold power.

The pairing of these two stories is an interesting decision, one that I’m not sure works as well as the author might have intended. On the surface, they are relatively simple, interesting parables of knowledge—of the potential when faced with the prospect of omniscience, and the threats revealed when ignorance is embraced. In The Gift of Fire, the primary threats are those below the base ethical line society has drawn in the sand: murderers, rapists, and gang leaders among others. Through the touch of Prometheus, they are able to experience the full comprehensive details of the pain they’ve dealt to others, which in turn, is capable of driving these already deranged souls mad. However, in On the Head of a Pin, the threat is the control of knowledge by those seeking to keep a leash on what does and does not make it into the world at large. The two extremes of the economic/class structure are represented as being equally incapable of handling the knowledge given to them, due either to the actions they’ve already taken, or those they can only imagine will be available to them in the future. To this degree, the pairing of these narratives is certainly intriguing. Where they struggle to find cohesion, however, is strangely enough in their more direct similarities.

Religion (faith) and society (class and race): both stories deal directly with these concepts. With respect to religion, The Gift of Fire treats the coming of Prometheus as less a purveyor of knowledge and more of a direct Christ allegory, a concept made clear as Chief Redd’s influence grows and the once barely-alive child develops a following of worshippers and acolytes. Though seemingly benign in their endeavours, the President of the United States (under advisement of another Greek god in disguise) begins to see the threat of Prometheus/Redd’s growing influence. The spreading of knowledge is thus treated less like a source for ideas and action and more as a poor man’s simulacrum of total and unquestioning faith. Conversely, On the Head of a Pin uses religion to a more personal degree, detailing one man’s change of heart (with respect to race, which I’ll get to later) and how what he has seen through the science-made-magic of the Sail has convinced him to take dangerous, deadly action to keep knowledge form the hands of those who seek to take it and hide it away—the government and the military.

While both stories use religion in somewhat contrasting ways, the simplistic one-to-one of religion and knowledge is what pushes these stories apart, with respect to their potential impact. Instead of being Yin and Yang to one another, they tread all too similar ground, which in turn hurts the stories’ representations of knowledge, its power, and its purpose. This is also apparent when dealing with race and class issues in each story. Both employ such divisive concepts to further sketch a world seemingly without wisdom and in desperate need of it, but do it in such similarly hand-to-nose ways as to damage their individual and communal potential. In both stories, the power of black men is to be feared—be it by an authoritative presence in The Gift of Fire or a single misguided individual, as is the case with the zealot of On the Head of a Pin. The issue of race is tackled with claw-hammer delicacy, as the President is advised of the threat of a black man with followers, and a co-worker sees Josh (a black man) as less than human—until he is touched by “the divine”—and once more the promise of these two stories of contrasting genres approaching a similar conceit from two individual and unique perspectives is lost.

Perhaps this is a question of expectations. As I read the two stories, I found myself more intrigued by how the author presented knowledge as a fulcrum around which the details spun into their own independent directions, dependent on the genre and scope at play. But while these basic plot elements did in fact contrast (the science versus the fantasy; the homeless versus the scientists, both fighting the government), they were drawn in to one another all over again by Mosley’s inability to truly push the ideas of race, class, religion, and knowledge into far reaching corners at the opposite ends of the spectrum, which is what the differing set-ups seem to promise at the outset of each story.

Taken individually, both stories are somewhat amusing, if occasionally frustrating, takes on familiar science fiction and fantasy tropes. The Gift of Fire is certainly the stronger of the two in terms of plot and character development, though the character of Prometheus is all too quickly abandoned for the less strenuous Christ allegory. But together, laced as they are with socially pertinent themes that are simply not given their chance to develop into unique approaches to what is in the end very familiar subject matter, The Gift of Fire and On the Head of a Pin just don’t reach far enough.