Iraq Through a Prism

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Title: Redeployment

Rating: 4 Stars

Having some time ago finished The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, which was an absolutely brilliant set of short stories about the Vietnam War, I began to wonder if there was an equivalent for the Iraq War. Redeployment appeared to be the closest candidate, so I gave it a shot. The bad news is that I didn’t find it as strong as The Things They Carried. The good news is that it was still pretty damn good.

Unlike O’Brien’s collection, which really seemed to be tinged with a sense of the nearly autobiographical, Klay’s stories are clearly fiction. Each of the dozen or so stories are told from a different point of view. You view the war as a private on patrol in an MRAP. You view it as a soldier that collected the remains of dead soldiers. You view it as a chaplain. You view it as a soldier in an artillery crew. You view it as a psych ops officer. You view it as a civilian in Iraq to help the reconstruction. There are a couple of stories of soldiers coming home and trying to adjust. Each of these stories open a different viewport into the war.

O’Brien’s collections was that rarity where every story was strong. Here, the stories are more of a mixed bag.

Money as a Weapons System is the story of a civilian sent in to help re-build Iraq. Here you get the Catch-22 nature of the Iraq War. He wants to do the right thing, but the government, the army, and the Iraqis themselves pretty much prevent that from happening. He wants to rebuild their water supply but just ends up having to pretend to have formed an Iraqi baseball team to please some congressman’s benefactor. This is the dark humor of unwieldy bureaucracies colliding in a place where solutions are impossible.

Frago is a raid of a suspected Al Qaeda house that goes wrong. As the house is getting cleared, a favorite Corporal is severely wounded. Also, as they go deeper into the house, they come upon a torture scene of two men bound to chairs, horrible beaten and crippled. The fresh Lieutenant has trouble coping. Members of the injured Corporal’s team are barely functional. In this story, the narrator is the Sargent. He has to be alert to everything and be responsive to the needs of the team. He has to know when to tell the dirty joke to lighten the mood and when to gently help a distraught private eat his ice cream. This is a deeply affecting story of the horrors that a team on patrol regularly must face during their deployment.

Sometimes I forget how young soldiers really are. These are men and women that face extreme hardship and need strong emotional resilience, but so many of them are only nineteen or twenty years old. In the story After Action Report, one of the soldiers who has just killed his first man (actually a boy), tries to escape his pain through endless hours of playing Pokemon. It just seems so unfair to them to ask to sacrifice so much. There’s simply no way that you can come back from some of those experiences unscarred, be it emotionally or physically

Especially in the early stories, there is a heavy reliance upon acronyms and jargon. It’s used to highlight the foreignness of the Iraq War. They are Americans fighting this war, but they are Americans that nearly have a language of their own. While I understood that, it did make for rough reading.

The stories also seemed to have a bit of an emotional distance. Perhaps Klay is still working on his craft and trying to draw so many characters was just a little too much for him. In too many of the stories, instead of feeling drawn to the character, I felt as if the character was just a straw man built to bring out another dimension of the Iraq War.

I found this to be an effective, affective collection, but it does not seem that this will be the definitive final literary word on the Iraq War.

 

A Few Scant Words About A Hypergraphic

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Title: Joe Gould’s Teeth

Rating: 2 Stars

This has all of the makings of a great story. First of all, there is Joe Gould himself. He was a legendary, colorful, mysterious Greenwich Village character from the 1920’s through the 1940’s. He was known as a raconteur. He was allegedly writing an oral history of immense size. He walked around with copy books, incessantly writing in them (Lepore actually believes him to be suffering from hypergraphia). He gave volumes of writings to various friends and benefactors. He had literary friends such as E.E. Cummings, Ezra Pound, and Edmund Wilson that believed in him and tried to get him published. He had fairly serious mental problems, was constantly on the edge of homelessness, and spent time in various mental hospitals. Although not clear, ultimately he appeared to die in a hospital after a stew of electro-shock, possible lobotomy, and doses of psychotropic drugs. It’s truly a tale of a possible lost, misunderstood genius.

And then you have Joseph Mitchell, yet another New York character. He was Jimmy Breslin before there was Jimmy Breslin. For decades, he was a journalist for various New York papers. He hung around the edges of society and wrote about people that no one else wrote about. He consorted with strippers, bartenders, gamblers, and gave them a voice that they never had before. He was a Runyonesque character that served as the pattern and inspiration of every following New York journalist.

Their paths collide in the early 1940’s when Mitchell wrote a profile of Gould called Professor Seagull. Gould was called Professor Seagull because he had a habit of flapping his arms and squawking, which in hindsight apparently are symptoms of autism. The profile gave Gould a measure of fame. Whatever goodwill that might have been gained by this fame was pretty much squandered by Gould by his strange behavior, public drunkenness, and never ending requests for money.

Later, after Gould died in the late 1950’s, Mitchell set off in search of Gould’s oral history. By the time of his death, it should have consisted of many hundreds of volumes. Gould always wanted it to be published after his death and that it would change the entire concept of what a history is.

Mitchell searched high and low for it. Finally, he came to the reluctant conclusion that the oral history never existed. He believed that Gould, despite his incessant writing in his copy books, really had a massive case of writer’s block. He wrote a second piece about Gould describing this search called Joe Gould’s Secret, which was much acclaimed.

Mitchell wrote this book in 1964. Interestingly enough, Mitchell continued to go to work every day at The New Yorker for another thirty years after he wrote that piece (well into his nineties). Before that time, he was remarkably prolific. After, for the following thirty year period of time, he didn’t write another significant story.

Mitchell, after accusing Gould of a multi-decade case of writer’s block, proceeded to himself experience a multi-decade case of writer’s block.

Isn’t that a great story? Wouldn’t it be awesome if someone like a Erik Larson or a David Grann or a Laura Hillebrand would dive into the details of this period and these characters and piece together exactly what that happened?

Unfortunately, instead we have this book. As far as I can tell, it was written over a very short period of time as an exercise for Lepore’s grad students. She finds original sources, but then barely even talks about them. She finds hospitals where Gould might have stayed, but then barely even gets information out of them. She finds evidence of a curious relationship with an African American sculptor (Augusta Savage), but discovers little about their relationship. It truly appears that Gould’s last years could have been harrowing and possibly could have served a larger purpose of describing the horrifying state of mid century mental health care in America, but even that seems to have been give short shrift.

The research here is so shallow it’s dismaying.

Saving The World While Wearing High Fashion and High Heels

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Title: Atomic Blonde

Rating: 4 Stars

If I was in the business of giving halvsies, I’d give it a 3.5. But I’m not and I really don’t like giving out 3 stars, so 4 it is.

Set in 1989, right as the wall is coming down, Charlize Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 spy sent to Berlin to recover a list of spies. She teams up with the Berlin station chief, David Percival (James McAvoy), to try to recover it. She quickly discovers that Percival is not to be trusted and that the KGB is hot on her trail. Extreme violence ensues.

It would be charitable to describe the plot as convoluted or contrived. A more accurate description would probably be nonsensical. Especially in the mid part, the plot is about as important as the plot is to a porn movie. Even for spy / action movies, the plot here verges on the ridiculous.

However, Charlize Theron legitimately is a kick ass action hero. I loved her in Mad Max and here again she is a presence. She is tough, strong, and fearless. After an endless string of dudes, it really is great to see Theron positioned as a top line action star, which right now she unquestionably is.

James McAvoy has a special gift for portraying authority figures that have gone to seed. His performance of a spy who has been in Berlin for too long and has been corrupted by it reminds me a bit of his role as the police officer in Filth.

The style of the film is reminiscent of the John Wick films and to Kingsman. The violence is graphic, gory, and voluminous. In fact, the violence reminds me of nothing more than a graphic novel. Considering the fact that both Atomic Blonde and Kingsman were based on graphic novels and that John Wick was later turned into a graphic novel, I guess that’s to be expected.

I’m guessing that all three of the films themselves owe a debt to the Matt Damon reboot of the Bourne series, which in hindsight was a landmark in action film development. They all share the same graphic, extremely short take fight sequences.

Atomic Blonde and Kingsman take it a step further. In both cases, they’re an absurdist ironic reboot of the essential spy film genre. The violence is more graphic, the sex is more explicit, and the plots more ridiculous. The actors all but wink to the camera as the film progresses.

In fact, including the phrase Atomic in the title is a throwback to the 50’s and the 60’s, when atomic warfare was on everyone’s mind. During that time, the phrase atomic appeared in multiple cultural contexts (watch the documentary Atomic Cafe for a more thorough discussion of this).

Another reference to the 1960’s in Atomic Blonde was to its pervasive use of fashion and music. This seemed pretty clear to be a subtle wink to the Mod movement in England. Whereas Mike Myers openly and absurdly exaggerated this movement in his Austen Powers movies, here the irony is less broad but still quite apparent.

What’s interesting to me is…what’s next? Once you’ve completely deconstructed a cultural archetype through irony, what do you do next? What is post irony? Will the movies just keep getting more and more cartoony (perhaps ending up like the movie Idiocracy where there’s an entire series devoted to nothing more than a man getting hit it in his balls)? Or will it cycle back and movies become sincere again? Or will the genre just die off with nothing interesting left to say?

If you’re really interested in the role of irony in art and the impact that the pervasive nature of television (and if he was still alive, I’m sure he’d say internet now instead) has had in drowning us in a sea of irony and what impact that will have on art in the future, please read David Foster Wallace’s essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”.

One final note. Yesterday, I finished reading Legacy of Ashes, a searing review of the incompetence of the CIA. Reading this before served quite the contrast to Atomic Blonde, which portrays intelligence agents, even if they are corrupt, as ruthlessly efficient. Don’t be fooled, our intelligence agencies don’t even have a fraction of the knowledge, ability, and competence that is shown in this film.

When You Ask For James Bond And You Get Maxwell Smart

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Title: Legacy of Ashes

Rating: 5 Stars

I first read this many years ago. So, as far as contemporary histories go, this is getting a little dated (written 10 years ago). However, given the history of the previous sixty years, it seems highly unlikely that the CIA has really changed in the interim.

It starts in the aftermath of WWII. Really for the first time in its history, the United States is truly an international power with interests that extend far beyond its shore. Clearly, the Soviet Union has designs beyond its border. What are its intentions? Does it want to take over all of Western Europe now that the bulk of it is in ruins? Will it try to spread communism all over the world?

Originally, all Truman wanted was someone to provide him an intelligence briefing that had more depth than what he could read in the New York Times. However, the veterans of the OSS had other ideas. They felt that the Soviet Union was an inexorable force and it must be fought back via all means possible.

And this sets a pattern for the future. The presidents, some of whom are more enamored with covert actions than others, by and large want one thing. They want to know what is going on in the hearts and minds of their adversaries. However, the bulk of the intelligence budget goes to covert action. You end up with CIA directors either outright lying to the president or at best misleading by misdirection.

All of this could be excusable if the CIA was at least good at either of the jobs. For most of its history, the CIA produced analysis, that at its best, is a just a rehash of what is known (several presidents claim they receive better analysis from The New York Times), and at its worse, is just blatantly wrong. With very few exceptions, the CIA has missed every historically significant event. If possible, the CIA might even be worse at covert action than it is at analysis.

Here are just some of the notable analysis failures of the CIA:

  • Said Soviet Union couldn’t produce an atomic bomb for at least 4 years at the very moment the Soviet Union set one off
  • Claimed that the Chinese would never cross the Yalu River into North Korea at the very moment that the Chinese were invading
  • Completely missed the Cuban missile crisis
  • Said Soviet Union wouldn’t invade Afghanistan at the very moment it invaded Afghanistan
  • Completely missed the Ayatollah coming to power in Iran and the rise of Islamic government in general
  • Missed the fall of the Soviet Union
  • Learned about the wall coming down by watching CNN
  • Had all kinds of warnings about 9/11 but could never synthesize it into actionable intelligence
  • Somehow mistook the Chinese embassy in Belgrade for a military warehouse; to this day many in China think its bombing was an at of deliberate provocation

In case missed analysis isn’t bad enough, how about blatantly misleading the president:

  • Falsified data to make it look like the Soviets were behind the terrorist acts of the 1970’s and 1980’s
  • Falsified enemy strength in Vietnam
  • Intentionally wrote up misleading assessments of WMDs in Iraq to make it look like the information came from multiple sources when it actually all came from one source aptly named Curveball
  • General multi-decade gross exaggeration of threats to ensure the funding would always be flowing

How about bad covert action:

  • Every single Soviet double agent was discovered, captured, and usually executed.
  • Thousands of partisans parachuted behind the iron curtain are either executed on the spot or turned to double agents.
  • Every single agent in Cuba recruited over a twenty year period was proven to be a double agent
  • Never could penetrate the Hanoi government during the Vietnam War
  • The primary impetus of Iran-Contra (I’ve now written about this a couple of times, it’s such an act of madness) was to free American hostages for arms to Iran but the net result was an increase of American hostages (since it basically set a market price for them)
  • An argument can be made that the CIA overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran in the early 1950’s was the template that the United States was to follow (ie support a dictator and train his secret police) throughout the Middle East, ultimately leading to deaths of hundred of thousands of civilians and thousands of American soldiers
  • Arming the Mujaheddin in Afghanistan with absolutely no thought to the long term implications of doing so
  • Post 9/11, the CIA was given essentially super powers, which was squandered in secret prisons, torture, murder, domestic surveillance, and virtually no useful intelligence

How about morally reprehensible behavior?

  • Trained the brutal secret police of Iran, Iraq, Cambodia, Guatemala, Peru, and South Korea
  • Covertly funded the Ba’ath party, eventually leading to Saddam Hussein coming to power
  • At various times, provided intelligence to both Iran and Iraq during their war
  • Explicitly orchestrated overthrows of democratically elected governments in Guatemala, Iran, and Chile

I could go on and on. To quote from a Congressional investigation into the CIA: “Great successes are rare and failure is routine.”

For its entire seventy year history, the message has consistently been, give us five more years and we’ll really have this intelligence thing figured out.

Well, it’s clearly not working. Isn’t it time that maybe we just acknowledge the fact that secrecy and covert action is either anathema to democracy or possibly, at a fundamental level, just not part of the American character?

 

A Week, A Day, An Hour At The Beach

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Title: Dunkirk

Rating: 3 Stars

This is a hard film for me to rate.

The basic plot, in case you really need this to be spelled out to you, is about the WWII evacuation of Dunkirk after Hitler inexplicably halted his panzer advance just as the German army was about to push the British and French forces into the sea. There were some 300,000 British soldiers trapped on the beaches. Fearing a German invasion, the British did not want to risk their navy, so they marshaled an entire flotilla of small boats to come out and bring the soldiers back to England. In so doing, the British army was saved.

Clearly the evacuation of Dunkirk, from a historical perspective, was a huge undertaking. The film narrows its scope to land, sea, and air vignettes. The land part, which takes place over a week, concerns a soldier trapped on the beach trying to get home. The sea part, which takes place over a day, concerns an English civilian sailor that takes his boat to Dunkirk to rescue all of the soldiers that he can. The air part, which takes place over an hour, is three airmen that fly out to try to keep the skies clear of German fighters. The three stories are told in an inter-weaved, nonlinear manner,

First of all, I’m not sure if Christopher Nolan can make a bad film. I’ve seen all of his full length movies. Even the one that I liked least (I’m looking at your Interstellar), was thought provoking and visually appealing.

Dunkirk was certainly a panoramic film. I saw it in 70mm, which heightened this effect. Especially in the air part, you really get an idea of the vastness and the emptiness in which pilots have to operate. Also the theater I watched it had a state of the art sound system, so the sounds of war came through loud and clear.

The cast was also top notch. Any movie with Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, and Cillian Murphy is going to feature top tier acting.

As usual with Nolan, he handles time confusion masterfully. The three episodes, taking place over a week, a day, and an hour are effortlessly integrated together.

The film was beautiful. The acting was top notch. The plot was engaging. So, what was the problem? For some reason, the movie seemed to lack drama. I never really felt on the edge of my seat. There just didn’t seem to be much suspense in the little boat crossing the channel to pick up soldiers. The shell shocked soldier (Murphy) fighting the civilian captain Mr Dawson (Rylance) almost seemed to be a plot contrivance to add drama to the crossing. In all three sub-plots, there seemed to be an air of almost detachment that kept me from becoming completely engaged.

Maybe there was just a little bit too much British stiff upper lip to me. Hardy’s, Rylance’s, and Branagh’s characters all seemed to just calmly go about their duty. I never really sensed any conflict or fear or doubt in any of them. I know that the WWII British ethos was to Keep Calm and Carry On, but this just seemed to take this to extremes. Near the end of the movie, you hear that Mr Dawson very recently suffered a serious loss. The only reaction in the entire movie that you get of that pain is a slight grimace.

Because none of the leads seemed to show any concern regarding their well being, it in turn made it difficult for me to really feel engaged in the plot.

Jumping On The Fascist Crime Noir Bandwagon

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Title: A Man Lies Dreaming

Rating: 5 Stars

Yesterday, when I wrote about Deadwood, I said that I probably gave it an artificially low rating because the HBO series Deadwood was one of my favorites and I kept comparing the novel unfavorably to it.

I have the exact opposite problem with A Man Lies Dreaming. This is one of those books that I just picked up at on a whim from the local book store. The cover was attractive and the blurb on the back seemed interesting, but I’d never heard of either the novel or the author, Lavie Tidhar. So, I had absolutely zero expectations going into it.

Well, it certainly blew past zero.

The basic story is a private detective in London in the late 1930’s named Wolf. It starts off like every hard boiled crime noir fiction starts. A beautiful siren with a problem and trouble on her mind enters a run down office of a nearly bankrupt, hungry for work, hungry for women, world weary PI (or dick, or shamus, or gumshoe). The case seems fishy, but Wolf takes it on.

As is usual in crime noir, nothing goes right for Wolf. The coppers have it in for him, rich men try to buy him off, their thugs knock him unconscious, and the dead bodies start to pile up. He in turn is a vicious man not averse to violence for his own ends.

It’s a pretty fine crime noir on its face.

But then…

You start to realize that this isn’t just any typical 1930’s London. Nazism has failed in Germany. The communists are in power there and have aligned with the Soviet Union. A huge influx of German immigrants have flooded into England. This has resulted in a dramatic surge in popularity for Oswald Mosley, a British Fascist who wants to throw out the German immigrants.

Wolf himself is a German immigrant. In fact (and this isn’t particularly disguised, so doesn’t really count as a spoiler), Wolf is Adolf Hitler. He had been thrown into a concentration camp as a result of the Communist takeover of Germany, but has managed to escape and is now living in London in obscurity.

But then…

Every couple of pages, the plot switches to Shomer, who is a Jewish prisoner barely surviving in a Nazi concentration camp. In his previous life, Shomer was a pulp fiction novelist. As he’s working, to keep his sanity, he is imagining an alternate reality in which Hitler does not rise to power but actually lives the life of a concentration camp prisoner himself before living a life of depravity, poverty, and obscurity.

So, the main plot of the novel is actually a novel within a novel that is the dream of another character in the novel.

For those of you keeping score at home, I believe that this makes this novel the very rarely executed hard boiled crime noir post modern WWII alternate history story in a story dreamed in a concentration camp.

What’s odd is that just a couple of months ago, I read a novel called Clinch, which was a crime noir (set in Sweden) in 1932. This work is the first of a series, possibly dealing with Sweden’s flirtations with fascism. Is this some kind of a trend?

If so, then it does make sense. The height of crime noir was probably in the 1930’s (think Chandler and Hammett), which coincided with the rise of fascism. Also, in crime noir, usually the down on his luck detective is having to fight some vague but menacing authoritarian power (think Chinatown), and what could be more menacing than fascists?

Be that as it may, I’ve read a lot of books. Most times, when you read a book, you can kind of see the overarching narrative arc of the work. I have to admit that I always give bonus points for stories such as this that surprises me. On top of that, I have a weakness for crime noir. I enjoy alternate histories. I went through a period of reading a lot about WWII.

Basically, I think that this novel was written specifically just for me.

And I appreciate it.

Beaten By A…Gasp…Television Series

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Title: Deadwood

Rating: 3 Stars

First of all, I have to say that this isn’t a fair review. It’s actually a perfectly fine novel, probably worthy of a higher rating. It’s just that I can’t stop comparing it to the television series Deadwood, in which there really is no comparison.

First, let’s talk about the book. This is the story of the early founding of Deadwood. The first part focuses on Wild Bill Hickok and Colorado Charlie Utter. They are best friends. Hickok is a legendary figure but is down on his luck and is not in good health. Utter does his best to keep his friend out of trouble.

This is hard to do because he is Wild Bill and everyone in the town wants a piece of him. They want to gamble with him. They want to drink with him.  They want to swap stories with him. When Charlie leaves him alone to run an errand, Hickok is murdered. Charlie has to come back to bury him and to send condolences to his widow.

Hickok has an air of resigned fatalism. He seems to sense that Deadwood is going to be his last stop. He has some kind of urinary tract infection and his vision is slowly going (never a good thing for a marksman). With his weary detachment, he simply endures.

Utter is active, clever and sardonic. He has a wry quip for every occasion. Together, Utter and Hickok clearly form a strong bond.

The sections after Hickok’s death are not as strongly drawn. There’s an odd section where Utter, in his grief, consorts with a masochistic prostitute while a Chinese prostitute plots his demise. There’s another section where Agnes, Hickok’s newly minted widow, comes to visit Deadwood. Finally, there’s a section that focuses on Calamity Jane, the always drunk, slightly crazed, frontier woman that finds her true calling nursing victims of smallpox. She truly thinks that she has a gift of God and apparently does have some kind of immunity to the disease. However, mysteriously enough, even though she’s immune, usually within two weeks of her arrival into a town a smallpox epidemic always seems to erupt.

These sections are fine, but they pale to the Utter / Hickok section and at times, it wasn’t really clear what the purpose they were serving.

Now, contrast that to the HBO series. The similarities are that both capture Utter’s sardonic wit and Hickok’s weary acceptance of his fame and his fate. In both, their friendship is clear and strong.

However, the other characters in the series are just so much more richly drawn. Al Swearingen, who in the novel is a pretty weak, cowardly pimp, is a dark force of malignancy in the series. Seth Bullock, here a pretty straightforward law and order sheriff, is a grimly repressed man of compressed rage in the series. E.B. Farnum was a throwaway character in the novel but is fully formed in all of his toady, sniveling glory in the series. And so on…

And the language in the series! Rumor is it that writers wrote scripts for the series, turned them into Milch, and then Milch completely rewrote the dialog. I can believe it because the dialog, with its mixture of raucous crudity and Shakespearean eloquence, is the greatest that I’ve witnessed in, well, any non-Shakespearean play. It’s certainly the only television series that I’ve ever watched where occasionally I’d get so caught up in the beauty of the dialog that I’d lose track of the plot.

I know that it’s not fair. The novel was written twenty years before the series. The novel is 350 pages while the series is 36 hour long episodes. I get that. It’s just that with the series in my head, the novel just seemed like a pale reflection.

Human’s Ultimate State Is…A USB Stick?

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Title: Lucy

Review: 2 Stars

A young woman (Lucy (Scarlett Johansson)) gets trapped into making a delivery by her boyfriend. The delivery goes bad and she ends up being used as a drug mule. The drug in question is a synthetic version of what a mother gives a fetus at a very early stage of development to spur it. The drug is surgically inserted into Lucy’s body. She is attacked and is kicked in her stomach, where the incision was made, unleashing all of the drug into her body. She gains an extremely enhanced understanding of the world and gains super intellectual powers.  As she consumes more of it, she nears the point in which all 100% of her cognitive abilities are in use, which gain her an almost godlike existence. All the while, the gangsters that originally made her the drug mule are trying to track her down to reclaim the drugs.

To start with the good, the movie is visually stunning. Having said that though, I don’t remember seeing anything that wasn’t already in the Matrix over a decade earlier (or we can say it in an even more mean manner and say a century earlier). At some level the conceit is the same. Lucy, in her most advanced states, is essentially above reality. She can manipulate it at will. She can win fights without fighting. She can see events without actually having seen them. You know, kind of like Neo.

The bad has to do with the plot. The premise rests on the fact that only ten percent of our brain is ever in use. This was a theory that has been around for a while, but has pretty much been demolished ever since the development of brain imaging. It’s pretty clear that all of our brain capacity is used, and is actually in use pretty much constantly.

I could maybe have suspended reality a bit on that point, but with Morgan Freeman, playing the role of philosopher / scientist Dr Norman, using his voice of God credibility to spend a significant amount of screen time pontificating upon the fact was pretty ridiculous.

I might have been OK if they’d stopped her development in the early stages. At least then, there could have been some kind of ultra genius fish out of water story (think Flowers for Algernon, John Travolta in Phenomenon, or even Jeremy Renner in the hilariously bad The Bourne Legacy (“he’s going to run out of brain!”)). But no, Luc Besson had to keep kicking it up a notch as Lucy ingests more and more of the drug.

By the end of the movie, she has time traveled, stopping at various moments, including apparently the original Lucy (as in the first hominid) and actually doing some kind of Michelangelo Sistine Chapel finger touch with her. Does that affect the original Lucy? Does this act actually fire some kind of synapse in Lucy’s brain that leads her to become the founding mother of the human race? If so, then on top of all of the other silliness that’s in this movie, Besson has also introduced a time travel paradox.

By the end, Lucy (now I’m back talking about the present Lucy) has essentially become one with the cosmos and one of her last material acts was leaving  behind what appears to be a USB memory stick containing all of the knowledge that she’s discovered.

I have to give it credit. It’s not the normal everyday kind of movie that is mindlessly put out. It was fast paced and I was entertained, albeit in a largely bemused manner. I just couldn’t get past the intellectual / visual pretentious silliness of it all.

Where Are Today’s Scalawags?

One thing that I admire about the nineteenth century political system was their creativity in naming their factions. Consider the following:

Fire-Eaters: These were Southern politicians from the 1850’s. They were the hard core pro-slavery advocates. They were the ones that were advocating early for succession. They were even proponents of reinstating the slave trade, outlawed in 1808.

Doughfaces: Southerners weren’t the only ones to come up with creative names. There was a collection of Northerners who favored appeasing the Southern slavery demands. These were Northerners who supported the fugitive slave law and opposed the Wilmot Proviso. They were considered by their fellow Northerners to be weak, half-baked men.

Know Nothings: This was a new party in the 1850’s. You’d think that with the country being torn apart on the issue of slavery during this time, that most people would kind of have their hands full deciding where they stand on that issue. Was slavery tearing our country apart or a essential component of the country’s fabric? But no, there was a subset of people that thought that pretty clearly the obvious issue was too many Irish and German immigrants. You think that banning immigration on religious grounds was a new thing for our country? You think that Muslims are tearing the fabric of our society? Welcome to the nineteenth century, where the Catholics were the radical sect du jour. These new immigrants refused to adjust to the American way of living, lived off the public dole, caused violent crime rates to soar, and blindly followed their religious leader (ie The Pope). Sound familiar to anyone?

Copperheads: These were the Democrats during the Civil War that violently opposed the Civil War and tried to make peace with the South. First used as an insult but later the term was embraced, they actively accused abolitionists of starting the war and advocated for peace at any cost. For decades after the Civil War, being labeled a Copperhead Democrat was pretty much a kiss of death.

Scalawags: After the Civil War, there were Southern politicians who clung to power by making peace and working with reconstruction Republicans and even (gasp) black freedmen. One of the most famous is James Longstreet, probably the most strategic and capable of the Confederacy generals (with all due apologies to Bobby Lee). In working with Republicans after the war, he was never forgiven by the Lost Cause Southerners.

Black-and-Tans vs Lily-Whites: You have to hand it to the Republican party. Sometimes they really do boil down the complex issues of America to very simple terms. The post Civil War Lily-White faction of the Republican party was composed of all white politicians and the Black-and-Tan faction of the Republican party was bi-racial. It’s pretty simple, right? The two sides fought it out at conventions and, spoiler alert!, the lily-whites ended up taking the title.

Stalwarts: At last we’ve now put the Civil War and Reconstruction behind us, but the Republican party (and let’s face it, they came out of the Civil War completely in power and the Democrats were in ruins, every single presidential election between 1860 and 1880 was won by Republicans) was starting to splinter. The Stalwarts were old school machine politicians that loved how you could reward your supporters through the patronage system of spoils.

Half-Breeds: Opposing the Stalwarts were the Half-Breeds. They were what passed for reformers in the late nineteenth century. Understanding the patronage system was unfair and inefficient, they pressed to reform it. They ultimately prevailed, setting up a civil service based upon merit and removed political tests as an application requirement. Interestingly enough, James Garfield was elected president, who was a compromise choice favored by the Half-Breeds. His vice president, Chester Arthur, was on the ticket for balance and was a strong Stalwart (he himself was a product of the patronage/spoils system). After Garfield was assassinated, it was the Stalwart Arthur who signed into law the reform act, shocking his fellow Stalwarts.

Mugwumps (my favorite and what inspired me to write this post!): In 1884, James G Blaine, a dedicated Half-Breed who was the force behind the patronage reform act, was running for president on the Republican ticket. The problem with Blaine was that he was pretty deeply involved in a financial scandal (check out the Credit Mobilier scandal). In disgust, a number of Republicans bolted the party and chose to support the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland (conveniently ignoring the fact that Cleveland fathered a child out of wedlock by date raping a woman, paying her off to put the baby in an orphanage, and committing her to an asylum when she came back for her child, ain’t politics grand?). The mugwumps might have made a significant enough difference in enough key states to have swung the election to Cleveland, the first Democrat elected since James Buchanan in 1856.

That’s a pretty awesome list of names and I feel that our current era of politicians need to up their game. Sure there’s the Tea Party on the Republican side. Not that long ago amongst Democrats there were yellow dogs and blue dogs, but with the death of the party in the South, there is not that many of them left. Now it’s all boring names like the Freedom Caucus, the Tuesday Group, and the Congressional Black Caucus.

Come on guys (and yes, you’re nearly all guys). You need to up your naming creativity!

 

Infinite Jest, Jr

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Title: Girl With Curious Hair

Rating: 3 Stars

I’d read this collection many years ago. I didn’t remember a whole lot from it, so I gave it another shot.

The good news is that I enjoyed the short stories. My favorite was Lyndon, which probably tells more about my minor obsession with presidents than it does the quality of the story.

It’s the story of a fictionalized aide to LBJ, rising from the lowly mail room to being in LBJ’s constant presence. It briefly touches upon his senate and presidential actions, but it focuses on LBJ the person. I’ve read a review that describes Wallace’s fictionalized depictions of real world people as being holographic. That’s pretty apt. Somehow, within the span of a short story, Wallace can draw a character and it seems to breathe life. All of LBJ’s bravado, crudeness, and insecurity are on display here.

My Appearance is the story of a fairly successful actress getting ready to appear on the David Letterman show. Bear in mind that this collection was written in the late 1980’s, when David Letterman was doing his late show and was considered the arbiter of all that was cool. The actress, the lead in a television series, had just started making hotdog commercials. Her husband and her friend are terrified that Letterman will rip her apart and ruin her career over this. There are very intense strategy sessions to try to figure out how to respond to his questions in a knowingly (but not too knowing!) ironic manner to demonstrate her knowingly unknowing ironic self awareness (but not too self aware!). The fact that very successful, very highly paid people are obsessively working out the calculus of a five minute television interview is humorous. Letterman, sketched with few words but again with holographic clarity, is, in his own way, completely non-ironically authentic, making a mockery of all of the stratagems that the actress’ handlers were trying to employ.

Predating Ken Jennings, there is a story about a woman who has a three year winning streak on Jeopardy. This is used to get behinds the scenes of a game show. As with My Appearance, it takes a fairly benign television event, and you see intelligent, very highly paid people taking it extremely too seriously. Merv Griffin is presented as some kind of mysterious guru sage dispensing advice only to his initiates. Alex Trebek, Pat Sajak, and Bert Convy, all faces of popular game shows, obsess over their appearance and try to fill the days between their easy work schedules.

My other favorite story was the Girl With Curious Hair. In this story there is a collection of punk rockers who have become friends with a wealthy conservative young Republican businessman. The anti-social actions of the punk rockers mesh with the sociopathic nihilist tendencies of the young man to disrupt a jazz concert. It contrasts the social violence of the punk rockers with the actual deranged violence of the young man (he burns people for sexual enjoyment). This marriage of two different violent attitudes bringing forth possibly even greater violence led me to Alex recovering his violent tendencies and getting into league with the government at the end of A Clockwork Orange (I’m ignoring the 21st chapter which the American edition excluded and  that the Kubrick movie also conveniently ignored 🙂 ).

The collection closed with a novella named Westward The Course Of Empire Takes Its Way. For me, this was the weakest work in the collection. I haven’t read too many reviews of it. I’m guessing that it’s probably the most technically skilled of all of the stories. It’s the story of an advertising executive who has the McDonald’s account gathering together all actors that have ever appeared in a McDonald’s commercial to appear in one more commercial that will be the apex of all McDonald’s commercials and possibly be the fin de siecle of advertising in general.

To me, this work is a dress rehearsal for Infinite Jest. It has the elements of post modernism that Wallace is famous for. There is the visible author of the story forcibly injecting himself into the work. There is the immediate now cultural references. There is gender confusion (is Magda really Dr Ambrose’s ex-wife or is she actually Dr Ambrose in drag?). There is the cognitive dissonance of literature (ie art) meshing with consumerism. There are obscure call outs to post modernists before him (eg John Barth).

And, oddly enough, there is Jack Lord. Yes, that Jack Lord, the star of the television series Hawaii Five-O. Bizarrely enough, about a year or two after this work came out, Thomas Pynchon released the long awaited Vineland, his first novel since Gravity’s Rainbow (I was literary aware then and it was kind of a shocking event since most people thought that the reclusive Pynchon had given up writing). Sure enough, in Vineland, Hawaii Five-O and Jack Lord make an appearance.

What is up with post modernists and Hawaii Five-O? Is it the overt colonialism (white man overhead in helicopter directing / imprisoning brown people)? Is the square jaw of Jack Lord some symbol of authority that they’re rebelling against? I haven’t read Vineland in a long time either, but I’m pretty sure at one point, just like here, someone says “Book-em, Danno”.

Anyway, this story, possibly a precursor to Infinite Jest, is definitely not Infinite Jest. It appears to be an early offering of an author trying to find his way. There really is nothing like a plot, it’s really just a group of people driving around in a car. The writing exhibits the worse traits of “look ma, no hands” kind of writing that Wallace made to much better use later (although, even here, as the omnipresent author, he amusingly acknowledges this self indulgence).

That’s not to say that Wallace’s genius doesn’t shine through. I don’t think it’s in him to actually write a bad story. Even in the novella and strewn throughout the other stories, there are almost throw away lines that made me laugh out loud.