Sunday, January 29, 2012

J.G. Ballard

I've been catching up with J.G. Ballard for the first time since college.  I read The Crystal World last week, and am currently half-way through a collection of short stories he published in 1990 called War Fever.  After that, Empire of the Sun is waiting on my shelf.

At least a percentage of Ballard's popularity is owed to the fact that he's very fashionable.  His modern-day parables are subversive, shocking, cerebral, frequently disgusting, and often inaccessible, which is always a sure-fire recipe for success with the literati.  Still, he WAS undeniably imaginative and talented.  He had a well-deserved effect on the mental environment of the twentieth century, and that alone makes him worth at least knowing about.  I have to admit I've been digging the hell out of him this time around.

Crash, his most infamous book, tells the story of a man who survives a near-fatal accident, then develops an erotic fixation with car crashes.  He soon falls in with a subculture of crash-fetishists, and begins orchestrating his own death in what he believes to be the ultimate erotic experience: an elaborate car crash culminating in a head-on collision with Elizabeth Taylor.  The book itself is horrifically unpleasant, but its moral is poignant:

Technology is sexy, but it's also dangerous, and it might kill us.

Last week I did a YouTube search for the trailer of David Cronenberg's film adaptation (which I still haven't gotten around to watching.)  I glanced at the comments below, and saw that almost all of them were typically YouTubian insults directed at some poor teenager.  I dug through the feed to find exactly what she said:

"Our teacher told us we had to watch this for class so I rented it. I don't get how this movie is about racism in people's lives at all. I reported her to my principal for making us watch this sick movie for a unit on racial tolerance!"

Oh, da yoots of today.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

mostly harmless

I recently borrowed my girlfriend's Kindle for a long plane itinerary, which consisted of a six-hour overnight to Brussels, followed by a six-hour layover.  By the way, if you're ever given the chance to take such a trip, don't.  Pulling an all-nighter is one thing.  Pulling an all-nighter and then staying awake for six hours in an airport where they charge €3.50 for coffee is yet another.

Browsing through her library, I noticed she'd picked up The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (the one with Neil Gaiman's introduction.)  I decided to re-read the first book, then continued on through the rest of the series.  At some point a crackpot theory occurred to me.  The further I got into the series, the more plausible it seemed:

Douglas Adams was predicting Wikipedia.

Think about it.  The Hitchhiker's Guide is a peer-moderated e-book about everything there is to know about...well, everything.  It's the single most popular reference source in the known universe.  However, the editors assume no responsibility for the content, as many of the contributors are politically biased, and many have no clue what they're talking about.  Following it word-for-word can get you killed, but it's still an effective way of getting from Here to There.

Just read this description from The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is an indispensable companion to all those who are keen to make sense of life in an infinitely complex and confusing Universe, for though it cannot help to be useful or informative on all matters, it does at least make the reassuring claim, that where it is inaccurate, it is at least definitively inaccurate.  In cases of major discrepancy it's always reality that's got it wrong.

Tell me I'm wrong.

Friday, January 13, 2012

words of advice for young people

"Kim, if you had your choice, would you rather be a poisonous snake or a nonpoisonous snake?"

"Poisonous, sir, like a green mamba or a spitting cobra."


"I'd feel safer, sir."

"And that's your idea of heaven, feeling safer?"

"Yes sir."

"Is a poisonous snake really safer?"

"Not really in the long run, but who cares about that?  He must feel real good after he bites someone."


"Yes sir.  Dead people are less frightening than live ones.  It's a step in the right direction."

"Young man, I think you're an assassin."

~ William S. Burroughs
         The Place of Dead Roads

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

It's not déjà vu if it's really happening again.

Near the international gates in PHL, there’s a snack stop called Flight Meals.  It’s not an actual room, just a few cooler shelves of drinks, sandwiches, and candybars, with a cashier sitting off to the side.

I was coming off three weeks with my family in the US, and was about to catch an overnight flight back to Europe.  I passed the shop on the way to my gate.  I stopped, glanced at my watch, and thought, “When am I gonna get the chance to have a raspberry Snapple again?”

Like any store in any airport, Flight Meals robs you blind.  The Snapple was $2.50.  But I glanced at the American change I had left in my pocket, and could have sworn I had enough.

When I got to the cashier, I counted dollars off as I handed her pairs of quarters.

“That’s not enough,” she said.


“These are twenty-five cents,” she said, holding up a coin.

I’d been away so long I was confusing quarters with €.50 pieces.  I felt stupid enough when someone had to explain to me how much a quarter is worth.  I felt even dumber when I realized that ALL of this had happened before. 

Last year I’d flown out of Philly after spending the holidays at home.  I had an overnight flight, and like this year, it was on the 9th of January.  At the last minute I started jonesing for raspberry Snapple.  I had a senior moment at the register, and my poor, frustrated cashier had to explain to me just how much my money could buy.  I can’t be sure, but I think it might have been the same girl.

I only hope she’ll remember me when I do it again next year.

Friday, January 6, 2012

IT: The 25th Anniversary Edition

It's been a quarter of a century since Stephen King released his thousand-page epic horror novel IT, and Cemetery Dance has commemorated the date with a gorgeous anniversary edition.  Given the structure of the story, it might have made more sense to put it out on the twenty-seven year mark, but I won't get into that.  They released two extremely limited signed versions (respectively $2,000 and $475), and both of those sold out within half an hour of being announced.  According to their website, half the copies of the Gift Edition ($125) are already gone.

The original hardcover was a massive bastard of a doorstop, and this oversized edition is one of the largest books I've ever owned.  It comes in a brown slipcase, and is fully illustrated with color and b/w prints by Alan M. Clark and Erin S. Wells.  The vividness of Clark's color paintings embodies the intensity of the trauma inflicted on the characters.  Contrastingly, Wells's pencil drawings are blurry and cartoonish, reflecting the themes of misplaced nostalgia and hazy memory prevalent throughout the story.  My only complaint is that out of thirty pieces of artwork, there are only three depictions of Pennywise the Clown.  Then again, it's pretty hard to imagine that demonically surreal villain without thinking of Tim Curry.

Cemetery Dance put a lot of love into this edition, and I harbor a certain degree of pride in the knowledge that it was published in Forest Hill, MD, forty-five minutes from where I grew up.  IT is one of the most imaginative, horrific, and well-told stories I've ever read, and it was the book that made me want to become a writer.  King writes in the new Afterward, "If these characters still live for you and speak for you--even a little--I'm glad for both of us."

Steve, they certainly do.

Monday, January 2, 2012

2011 in Reading Material

I try to read at least forty books a year, though it usually ends up being more like thirty.  Here's my reading list from 2011, in chronological order:

Mark Z. Danielewski - House of Leaves
Edward Gorey - Amphigory
Charles Bukowski - The Last Night of the Earth
Hunter S. Thompson - Generation of Swine
Erik Larson - The Devil in the White City
Frank Herbert - Dune
Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard - The Colosseum
Frank Herbert - Dune Messiah
Charles Bukowski - Love is a Dog from Hell
Cesar Millan - How to Raise the Perfect Dog
Hunter S. Thompson - Songs of the Doomed
Charles Simic - Walking the Black Cat
Neil Gaiman - Stardust
Frank Herbert - Children of Dune
Michael Chabon - The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio - Stories
Stephen King - On Writing
H.P. Lovecraft - The Best of H.P. Lovecraft
Mario Puzzo - The Family
Tom Holt - The Portable Door
Clive Barker - The Hellbound Heart
Clive Barker - Books of Blood, vol. I-III
Shirley Jackson - The Haunting of Hill House
Shirley Jackson - We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Shirley Jackson - The Lottery and Other Stories
Jim Thompson - The Getaway
Jim Thompson - The Killer Inside Me
James Joyce - Dubliners
Keith Richards - Life
Benjamin Franklin - The Autobiography
Suzanne Collins - The Hunger Games
Hunter S. Thompson - The Curse of Lono
Jeff Shaara - Gods and Generals

Graphic Novels:

V for Vendetta
Batman: The Killing Joke
Swamp Thing, vol I-IV

My Christmas Disaster-Miracle

I want to tell you about something that happened to me around this time last year.  It wasn’t enough to base a movie on, though at times I felt like I was trapped in the holiday episode of a medium-rate sitcom.  It was one of those experiences that can really make you believe in the Spirit of Christmas.  At the very least it was enough to make me rather eat a shit sandwich than ever fly British Airways again.

Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games

I read most of The Hunger Games on a transatlantic flight after my Xanex wore off.  I’m not the biggest fan of YA books, but I am a fan of dystopian fiction, and this one came highly recommended by my girlfriend.  Plus I wanted to have read it on the off-chance that the movie ends up showing in Rome in the original language.  Catching movies in English in the theater is a rare treat for me these days.

The first chapter unfolds like Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery.  The citizens of an impoverished village gather in the town square to witness the random selection of a boy and girl who will compete in The Hunger Games.  Through the narration of the novel’s heroine Katniss, we learn that the Games are an annual televised event in which two kids from each of the twelve districts of Panema (future North America) are placed in an arena and forced to fight to the death.  The last one standing wins.  Sort of a cross between The Running Man and Battle Royale.

While reading this story, I couldn’t help but draw lines between the Games and the Roman Colosseum.  Typically, gladiatorial matches in ancient Rome would only continue until one of the contestants was beaten into submission.  Given the high cost of training and maintaining a gladiator, it would have been highly impractical to let one die in each match.  However, if the emperor decided that the audience needed to see some action, he would order two men to fight to the death.  Throughout the book, Katniss contemplates the dichotomy of her role in the Games.  She strives to win the approval of the audience, while simultaneously hating them for for putting her in this situation.  She makes allies with other contestants, knowing she may be forced to kill them later.  You can imagine the gladiators having similar hang-ups.

I’m pretty sure this isn't an accident, given the novel’s numerous none-too-subtle Roman references.  There’s a character called Flavius, who shares a name with the 1st century emperor who founded the Colosseum.  There’s a brief mention of a previous contestant named Titus, who went insane and  proceeded to mutilate and eat his dead opponents.  This could be a reference to the emperor Titus, who launched the Inaugural Games.  It could also be an allusion to Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s play about a fictional Roman general, which is loaded with murder, rape, mutilation, back-stabbing, and cannibalism.  And of course, there’s the fact that the Games are hosted by a guy named Caesar.

The basic premise of the book is nothing new, but Collins makes it worthwhile by placing it in the context of the Reality TV Age.  And, like all stories about TV taken to the hypothetical extreme, it begs the question, “Would you watch it?”

I would, if they used the cast of Jersey Shore.