March 2012

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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace

Guarantee: contains many spoilers

George Eliot's Daniel Deronda (1876) fascinated me. I am surprised it is not better known among Jews. The famously agnostic author fell in love with Judaism at the end of her life, and invented a proper Englishman who discovers, in his thirties, that he is of Jewish descent. He has been raised by his mother's properly Anglican lover, as a gentleman, in ignorance of his origins. He responds by adoring the philosophy and spirit of Judaism, marrying a Jewish girl, and, at the end, leaving for the Holy Land to help create the Jewish state. Eliot soaked up a lot of Jewish culture, religion and lore (Deronda is married underneath a huppah). There is precious little anti-Semitism around; the Anglican characters mainly regard the Jews, including pawnbrokers and other small creatures, as curiosities worthy of respect. The novel contains a parallel story, in which Deronda raises the moral tenor of a headstrong, selfish Anglican beauty who loves him. The book has been released in bowdlerized form as two different novels: Deronda and the Jewess; Deronda and the beauty. Coming in an era where the tritest, most hateful references to Jews were so common in fiction, the novel is a remarkable artifact, written with great sensitivity.

Inglourious Basterds (2009) directed by Quentin Tarantino, is a deliberately cheesy masterpiece. Snapping together genre tropes without much heart, Tarantino displays his increasing mastery of suspense. The movie includes an extended set piece which ranks as among the best suspense footage ever made: the team of undercover Jewish American killers in France is told they must meet a German agent in a basement bar; Brad Pitt, their hillbilly leader, agonizes about the dangers of fighting in a basement; the venue, which was supposed to be private, turns out to be the scene of a Nazi celebration; everyone is drunkenly playing a game in which you try to guess the name of a personage or literary character on a card attacked to your forehead; an SS man, sitting out of view in an alcove, emerges to confront the British agent in a stolen German uniform; everything ends in a shoot out. What is so remarkable is how unhurried Tarantino is--we watch several full rounds of the game, while the suspense becomes nigh unbearable. There are ways in which Tarantino even surpasses Hitchcock, who would never have thought of a sinister hero, Pitt's character, bearing a completely unexplained rope burn on his neck. There is no back story: we never learn who hung him, or how he survived. Finally, Tarantino delights us by ignoring the dull historical movie convention that famous targets survive attacks which didn't historically kill them: We know watching "Day of the Jackal" that DeGaulle will survive. Tarantino says, "I am the Quentin, I can do anything", and Hitler dies at a movie matinee in Paris.

Ethan Frome (1911) by Edith Wharton is an unusual short work which proves her mastery: she persuasively limns a world very far from her usual one of young women in society. Ethan is a New England farmer pressed to the limits, barely scratching an existence; he has a sick older wife; her young, lovely, sincere cousin comes to stay; Frome has a vision of another life which is dashed, very uniquely, in a suicidal sled run. It is an elegant little tragedy.

I had wanted to re-read George Eliot's Silas Marner (1861) back to back with "Ethan Frome", as they are similar in so many respects--two women novelists, specializing in the upper middle and upper classes, writing about broken, distorted men of an agrarian or rural working class. Ethan Frome is smashed by love and his desire to evade his lot; Silas Marner, in a more conventional, sentimental narrative, is redeemed by love and acceptance of his lot. Solitary, furious, an outcast from his home town falsely accused of a theft, Marner's life changes when a lost toddler enters his home; he blooms as an adoptive father, returns to church and becomes a prime citizen. The novel is somewhat reminiscent of "The Secret Garden". Eliot's prose is careful and beautiful; she is the greatest of English writers, so you forgive the sentimentality. Wharton's characters are broken by entropy; Eliot's people successfully vanquish it.

Why did I read Dreamcatcher (2001) by Stephen King? I keep returning to his work because I am fascinated by his success. He knows how to snap together well-worn elements borrowed from other authors. I am always astonished how trite and old the borrowings are, what a pastiche of genres the novels are, how little he cares about these elements, and the way he succeeds in assembling them into narratives that are rather gripping in their trite sentimentality. This one involves a group of quasi-telepathic friends, shades of a Theodore Sturgeon novel I remember from childhood; alien larvae which burst from your body, shades of the "Alien" movies; and gray aliens of a kind we have seen on "X-Files" and a hundred spin offs.

Neal Stephenson's Reamde (2011) is a near-miss. What he does best is very strong in this one: enjoyable, believable multi-racial heroines; surprising uses of technology; plot twists that are funny and compelling (the best is when the heroine, trying to protect some hackers, sends some Russian mafia into the wrong apartment, unaware that as a result they will be accidentally raiding an Al Qaeda safe house instead of an apartment full of docile, frightened geeks). One of the great things about Stephenson is how well he sells the skewed worlds he favors: here the heroine's uncle is the CEO of an online game company, and extended scenes are set within the game in a far more realistic way then William Gibson's more powerful and fanciful cyber-worlds. But the two narratives never really cohere, don't quite belong together. Sadly, from the moment, about a third of the way in, the Al Qaeda characters are introduced, the life begins to leach out of the hacker/gameworld/Russian gangster plot, and by the end, the novel is a well-turned but rather standard running gunfight through Canadian mountains: superior Lee Child, but a waste of Neal Stephenson.

I went on and reread Stephenson's much superior Snowcrash, a revelation when it came out in 1992 and which has aged pretty damn well. Daring to field a main character--wait for it--named Hiro Protagonist, Stephenson has him hook up with a 15 year old female skateboard courier named Y.T., a benign, avuncular mafioso named Uncle Enzo, and a sympathetic villain named Raven, an Aleutian whose modest ambition is to nuke the U.S. Much of the action takes place in an online world called "The Multiverse"; unlike the similar game world in "Reamde", which is a sidelight to the main story, here people actually are mentally disabled by a computer virus delivered directly to their brains online, and much else takes place that is central to the action. The novel is slightly dated by references to political, historical and musical figures that few will remember (there is a form of devalued currency called "Meeses", after Reagan's attorney general).

I didn't like George Pelecanos' latest, What It Was (2012). It is a memory or flashback to an early 1970's case in the life of an African American detective. We are on very sensitive racial ground here: a white man is writing, quasi-sympathetically, about African American characters, who have many strong qualities, but also dip into cliche: the protagonist will sleep with anything that moves; other than the detective and one or two vaguely glimpsed cops, the other black male characters are all killers and drug dealers; and the book definitively lost me when a beautiful, smart black schoolteacher,working as a tutor in white neighborhoods, stole jewelry from her employer.

Elmore Leonard's Raylan (2012), is a very minor exercise in what he does so well. Most genre authors, especially those in late career, have moments when their work goes dead, when you sense they are not really trying, when the plotting is improbable, the prose clunky and expositional. Leonard, never; you sense these characters are all bubbling in his head all the time, he knows exactly how they talk and what they do. The kidney-ransom plot with which the book opens is quite improbable, but the characterizations are so sharp and funny you easily forgive the author for it. His series protagonist, a federal marshall, wanders from one subplot to another, shoots a couple of bad characters, and falls in love with a poker-playing college student, whom at book's end he is trying to persuade to join the marshall's service.

Red Tails (2011), directed by Anthony Hemingway, is a very enjoyable war movie of the kind they don't make any more. The basically true story, certainly with some exaggerations, of the Tuskegee Airmen, the Army Air Corps experiment at the end of World War II of deploying African American pilots, the men it portrays are loyal, kind, brave and dedicated to their mission. War movies about white people, even the few still being made which are set in World War II, tend more to the snarky, cynical and tired. The special effects are a leap beyond anything done before, so the number and movement of the planes in the dogfight scenes is worth the price of the ticket. The Airmen shoot down the new German jets in numbers, and one of them escapes from a POW camp in Germany and gets back home, proving (as the propaganda films of the 1940's did, many of them still very enjoyable) that loyal, kind, brave, dedicated people can do anything.

Dark Star (1974), John Carpenter's first film, expanded from his film school project, is a hoot. A dead eyed group of men--all men--pilot a starship around the galaxy, nuking unstable planets. They are hirsute, and dirty, and Earth has cut their budget, so as stuff breaks on the ship it will not be replaced. They have been in space twenty years, despise each other and only get interested in life when about to launch another nuke. The bombs themselves are intelligent, and the climax of the film comes when one gets stuck in the bomb bay door and the captain must go outside to reason with it. The spectacle of a man in a space suit discussing phenomenology with an intelligent nuclear weapon is funny, scary and memorable. The movie makes the most of its zero budget; an alien pet is played by a beach ball, and when it goes on a rampage is shot with a tranquilizer dart, with predictable results.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, (2000) directed by Ang Lee, illustrates the thesis that the line between martial arts and dance is exceedingly thin. You can understand this movie's success, its romantic appeal, if you think of it as a poignant musical. One of its peculiarities is that the fights against the actual villain (a woman) occupy only a few moments of the film; most of the fighting is between the good guys, a young headstrong girl and an older experienced female fighter, and between the girl and the male protagonist. Beautiful, intricate and well-choreographed, and lacking any bloodshed, these are really dances, most notably the fight in the treetops, which is weird and lovely. By imagining a world in which men and women fight with equal strength and skills, and then populating it with romantic subthemes (each of the characters loves someone forbidden very much), Lee created a unique and memorable martial arts film, one worth watching again every few years.

Chronic City (2009) by Jonathan Lethem was a disappointment. Years ago, he wrote a few tightly constructed, snarky and amusing fantasy novels, notably "Gun With Occasional Music" and "Amnesia Moon". As his stuff became more autobiographical, such as "Fortress of Solitude", it turned more solemn and self-reverential. This novel, a roman a clef set in a slightly futuristic alternate universe New York, involves a protagonist who mingles with the barely disguised super-rich (for example, a character based on Mayor Bloomberg). An escaped tiger is improbably eating buildings; it is revealed to be a malfunctioning tunnel-drilling machine; when the characters see it, it is actually a tiger. Worse, we make the discovery that the world we think we are living in with the characters is unreal, scripted, which is the most routine and tedious reveal in the fiction of bright, lonely high schoolers. As well as being explored by several Hollywood movies which themselves were not that great. Lethem seems at moments busy adulating the rich, and at others merely tired and out of ideas.

Just Kids (2011) by Patti Smith, about her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, is over-rated. There are a few genuinely beautiful and strange turns of prose, a lot of pretentious and effortful writing, and almost constant name-dropping after a certain point (Gregory Cava came over, Allen Ginsberg bought me a sandwich, we went downtown to visit William Burrroughs). Mapplethorpe comes off as vain, desperately ambitious, quite crazy. The book reminds you that, in order to become famous, you have to want it very, very badly. It also reveals, without any comment, the interface (which I am sure continues today) between sex and success: Patti Smith is talented, but other talented people who did not have sex with Sam Shephard and the guy from Blue Oyster Cult probably remained unknown. There's a moment when Mapplethorpe and downtown poet Jim Carroll are discussing their habit of selling their bodies to men for grocery money. Carroll comments that Mapplethorpe is gay, because he sometimes doesn't charge, while Carroll knows that he himself is heterosexual, because he always collects. In the end, the book is worth reading because at the core is a beautiful friendship with intermittent sex and romance, and, more compellingly still, a perfect equality of understanding in which a man and woman served as each other's muses.