Reynolds’ Backup Blockbuster to Deadpool

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Title: The Voices

Rating: 4 Stars

This is one dark motherfucker.

Jerry is working in a bathtub factory. He’s a relentlessly cheerful person, although clearly he is putting on an act of how a relentlessly cheerful person should act.

He comes home to a dog (Bosco) and a cat (Mr Whiskers). It turns out that he holds active conversations with them, in that he talks to them and they respond back to him. Bosco is your cheerful, affirming dog caricature and Mr Whiskers is just evil. They’re clearly both representing different sides of Jerry’s personality.

Later, you see him in a therapist’s office. He’s clearly suffered some trauma in his past and has been undergoing years of therapy. His therapist repeatedly asks him to take his pills, but he refuses to.

He meets a woman and they’re driving along the road when a deer crashes through the windshield. Jerry hears the deer beg him to end his suffering. Jerry kills the deer with a knife. The woman, who obviously cannot understand the deer, is horrified at Jerry’s act and jumps out of the car to escape Jerry. Jerry hunts her down and accidentally stabs her. As she lies dying, he kills her to end her suffering.

Back at his home, he confesses his crime to Bosco and Mr Whiskers. Bosco tells Jerry to go to the police because he is a ‘good man’. Mr Whiskers tells Jerry that you’re only alive when you’re killing, so now that he’s started, he might as well keep killing.

Mr Whiskers wins the conversation and Jerry retrieves the body, dismembers it into Ziploc containers, and puts the head in the fridge. The head is now talking too and begs Jerry to take his medication.

Jerry does and when it kicks in, his two best friends, Bosco and Mr Whiskers, no longer talk to him, and his apartment, which in his delirium is spotless and well organized, is actually a total mess, splattered in blood, with feces on the floor, and crammed with full garbage bags. Horrified at his actual reality, he flushes the pills down the sink.

From this point on, his life disintegrates with multiple killings and the inevitable ultimate showdown with the police.

It boggles my mind that this movie was made. There was absolutely no way that this movie was going to be a blockbuster. It was made for $11,000,000, which is a pretty small budget for a movie nowadays, but how in the fuck were they going to make that money? It looks like it grossed somewhere around a million dollars worldwide and DVD rentals haven’t been that much either.

Did someone actually say/think that a movie about a goofy delusional serial killer was going to somehow make $20,000,000 or whatever it takes to make a profit on a movie with that budget? Did maybe the financiers think that Ryan Reynolds’ name would somehow carry this movie?

Which brings up the other main question: how does Ryan Reynolds decide to do this movie? Reynolds has had, over the last 10 to 15 years, a pretty checkered career from a box office point of view. He clearly has charisma to spare, and his star is now clearly ascendant with Deadpool, but two years ago he read this script and thought, yeah, let’s do this?

What is the decision process that an actor goes through when accepting a script? Does he think box office potential? Does he see this as a great twist on his general snarky nice guy persona? Is he really just shitty at choosing movies? Don’t get me wrong, I think the movie is great and I was well entertained, but I just don’t see the market here.

Johnny Depp was making pretty random movies with very limited appeal for a long time and decided, apparently on a whim, to make a movie based upon a Disney ride, for fuck’s sake, and now has a net worth of $~400,000,000, so who knows?

Anyway, however it was done, it was a pretty awesome movie. I had pretty low expectations, but it was laugh out funny and pretty deeply disturbing.

What more can you ask of a movie?

 

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A Searing Struggle to Regain Humanity

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Title: Johnny Got His Gun

Rating: 5 Stars

This work has a huge reputation for being an anti-war novel, and indeed it has a strong anti-war message. It includes scorching indictments of why men go to war, the futility of going to war, the impact that it has on the men that go to war, and of course, the men that order other men to go to war.

It had a clear impact upon the anti-war movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. It was read during Vietnam War demonstrations. Ron Kovic, who was severely wounded in Vietnam and later became a strong voice of anti-war protest, in the introduction to this version of the novel, calls out Johnny Got His Gun as a seminal work that inspired a severely handicapped person like himself to act.  He specifically cites meeting Dalton Trumbo as a critical moment in his life.

I don’t want to minimize the importance of the political message, especially in this day and age where we’re living pretty much in a state of permanent war. The message is important, needs to be heard, and needs to be spread far and wide.

From a purely literary point of view, I found the non-political part of the work more powerful.

Joe Bonham wakes up, but has no idea of what has happened to him. What has happened is that, while serving in WWI, he was hit by an explosion, and through some medical miracle, he was saved. However, he lost both arms and both legs. A major part of his face was also blown off, so he is now blind, deaf, and can’t speak.  There is now a hole where his eyes, nose, and mouth were.

Slowly, over the length of the first half of the novel, he comes to realize the extent of his injuries. While doing so, he lives in a confused slurry of dreaming and waking, never sure of his state. He remembers fondly his love of Kareen, happy memories with his family, and working in a bakery. He remembers times of pain, when his best friend cheated on his then girlfriend and how he thought he’d never recover from it.

As he comes to grips with his new life, he understandably suffers despair and hopelessness. He has no idea how much time he has lost (days, months, years) and he has no way to communicate to the outside world. It appears that he’s on an inevitable course to madness.

This reminds me of the third part of Beckett’s trilogy named Molloy, Malone Dies, and the Unnameable. The Unnameable was one of the most unreadable books that I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. Huge chunks of it can best be explained as a disembodied voice speaking into nothingness. It’s an interesting concept, what would such a voice say if it actually existed? One thing is that it must incessantly talk, since to stop talking would be to lose existence. Since it is, like other living things, impelled to exist, it must always talk. Much of what it says must almost necessarily be nonsense, since no one can speak clearly and rationally nonstop. This forced me to a second conclusion, which is that the voice must also be insane. Bereft of any other sensory input other then the sound of its own voice, the voice loses all contact with reality and rationality.

As I read of Joe’s suffering, it would seem that he’s in the exact same strait as that formless voice from Beckett’s novel.

However, his humanity and perseverance begins to shine through. He tries to figure out how to calculate the passage of time. After many false starts, he succeeds.

He stumbles upon a method of communication. He can move his head, so he starts to beat Morse code on the bed. The attendants understandably think that he’s suffering, so they sedate him. He continues to struggle, and finally, a nurse makes the connection of what he’s doing. She summons someone who can tap Morse code.

Finally! He makes a connection to the outside world. He urgently communicates that he wants to be used as an example. He wants to go out and travel the world and tell/show everyone the evils of war. People will see the monster that he has become and this will once and for all inspire the people, the men that actually fight the wars, to rebel against the masters that send them to war.

There is a pause after he communicates this. The word then comes back that this will not be permitted. After all, it’s the masters that are keeping him alive in the ward. They will not and cannot permit him to spread his anti-war message. As he’s raging his anti-war message in his head, they are sedating him and his tapping becomes slower and slower. His voice will be silenced.

And there the book ends.

Will Joe spend the rest of his life in a narcotic haze to keep him silenced? Will this be the final act that will drive Joe to madness? Will the little man ever have a chance to overthrow the bosses that callously lead them into slaughter?

The fact that the book leaves these questions unanswered is probably the answer to those questions.

Gateway Drug to the Russian Novel

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Title: Fathers and Sons

Rating: 4 Stars

Considering its modest length, this is basically a Russian novel for beginners. It has many themes that you’d expect from a Russian novel, but clocks in at a little over two hundred pages.  At that point in War and Peace, Tolstoy is just getting ready to introduce his fiftieth character.

At its heart, like in many Russian novels, lies generational conflict. You have the older generation. They consider themselves to be liberal and progressive. They’ve survived the serf reforms and are now trying to treat the serfs in a humane if somewhat indulgent manner (ie not as outright slaves). They respect tradition and aristocracy and like to think of themselves as enlightened Russians.

The younger generation is having none of that. They want to completely free the serfs and they want to be free of all traditions. They believe in nihilism. You have to destroy and/or ignore the past and start from scratch, making sure that first such things are done as making sure that all are fed and clothed and then slowly build up from there. Question everything, and everything that does not stand up to their rigor must be discarded.

In this case, the younger generation is represented by two young men, Arkaday Kirsanov and Yevgeny Bazarov. Bazarov, the more dynamic and intellectual of the two, is clearly dominant. Kirsanov is much more an acolyte under the thrall of Bazarov.

Trouble starts up when they visit Kirsanov’s father, Nikolai, and his uncle, Pavel. Pavel is clearly representing the aristocratic previous generation, complete with his prideful quasi-expertise in French, his excessively perfumed handkerchiefs and his respectably tragic love affair in his past.

Nearly immediately Bazarov and Pavel are at odds. They engage in debates in which Pavel comes out much the worse.

After a short time, the two young men leave to visit a town, in which they encounter an enigmatic young woman, Anna Odintsova.  Against his will, Bazarov finds himself falling in love with her. Cursing the prosaic nature of it but unable to deny his love, Bazarov professes his love and is rejected, much to his horror, disgust, and disappointment.

The young men next visit Bazarov’s parents, who are a complete contrast to their son. They are traditional, superstitious, poorly educated Russian farmers. Although Bazarov holds them in affection, their simple nature stands in stark contrast to their more sophisticated, intellectual son that holds in contempt all that they hold dear.

Ultimately, Kirsanov cannot completely tear himself away from the tradition upon which he was raised and comes into conflict with Bazarov. He breaks with the nihilist philosophy, marries a conventional woman and takes up farming by the side of his father.

In classic Russian novel, Kirsanov, the principled hero, contracts a deadly disease. Before his death, there is a final rapprochement with his love Odintsova.

So, what do we have here?

  • Generational conflict? Check
  • Early, tragic death? Check
  • Emotional intensity? Check
  • Passionate unrequited love affair? Check
  • Uneducated buffoonish Russian peasants? Check
  • Uneducated but earthy wise Russian peasants? Check
  • Many statements about how Russia was, how it is, and how it will be? Check

In short, pretty much everything that you’d expect from a Russian novel, just with way fewer characters and in a much more abbreviated form.

If you’re looking to read Anna Karenina or The Brothers Karamazov and need a gateway drug to get you started, you can do worse than by reading Fathers and Sons.

What A Lovely Movie

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Title: Mad Max Fury Road

Rating: 5 Stars

I’ve now seen Fury Road, I think, three times in theaters. I saw it in IMAX 3D when it first came out. I later saw it when it was re-released (probably Oscar season IIRC) at the Cinerama. I bought it for my ex and I’m pretty sure that I watched it at least once at home. I just now saw the Black and Chrome version of it at, again at the Cinerama.

This is without question my favorite movie of recent years, and it’s probably now crawled up into my all time top 5 movie list.

It just has so much going for it. It has amazing action. It’s a brilliant portrait of a dystopian post-apocalyptic world. It has a great message. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

First of all, take on the haters. It’s called Mad Max but clearly Max is a secondary character here. Max, nearly insane at his loss and his struggles to simply stay alive, is nearly non-verbal in this movie.

The true heroine here is Imperator Furiosa. For some reason, this infuriates the fan boys. Are they mad that it’s not Max? Well, the director / writer of all Mad Max movies is George Miller. I’d say that he’s pretty much entitled to take his vision where ever he wants it to go.

Are they mad because the heroine is female? Somehow that is not realistic or feasible? Is somehow making one action movie in which the heroine is female is making some feminist statement that threatens the entire foundation upon which our culture is built?

The fact is is that Furiosa is seriously bad ass. She’s a tough, relentless, brutal heroine bent upon saving the breeders from the clutches of Immortan Joe.

This takes me to the theme of the movie, which is another reason that some really hate it. From pretty much any point of view, this is a story of a group of women gathering together to overthrow a patriarchy. Granted, it’s a patriarchy built on lies and enforced shortages (ie water). It’s a patriarchy that, by this point, can only breed deformities as its progeny. It’s a patriarchy clearly on its last legs being kept upright only through brutality. It’s a patriarchy that needs to fall.

The women represent fertility and re-birth (literally women are pregnant and are the carriers of seeds to re-feed the world). They come back to overthrow the decrepit patriarchy and claim their place re-building the world. Their first act is to release water to alleviate the suffering and to spread a common resource to all (oh no, they’re socialist on top of everything else??).

I get that this is a pretty strong feminist message. Do keep in mind that this is one movie. There are plenty of other movies where a degenerate male ruler is overthrown, but usually it’s by another man fated to assume the ruler’s position (meet the new boss; same as the old boss). These movies are also destroying existing patriarchies. Is it somehow socially more acceptable that this is done by another man then by a group of women?

So, I guess my message is to grow up. Women can be strong. Women can be brave. Women can actually rise up and overthrow an oppressor. Women can rule. That truly is the way of the world and it’s about time that our art recognizes it and celebrates it.

OK, enough with the message. The fact is, what makes this movie insanely good, is even with that broad, deep message, it’s just a fucking good action movie. I’ve seen it at least four times, and the action still takes my breath away. There is some CGI in the movie, but the action scenes are nearly all real. The car stunts are amazing. The fighting scenes are brutal.

One thing true for all of the Mad Max movies is the absurdist imagination of a George Miller envisioned dystopian world. This continues to hold true for Fury Road. Miller’s vision of the future is a dark one with a few overlords, many slaves, boys trained to sacrifice themselves in war, a populace reduced to rags and begging, and, outside the Citadel, bands of roaming, violent gangs.

However, despite the bleakness, the message ultimately is one of hope and re-birth. Max chooses to not be a part of this re-birth, but with some sense of renewed hope there is a possibility that some of his personal demons will now allow him some peace.

I can write so much more about this movie (hello, climate change, anyone?). In my opinion, it is one of the most important, most entertaining movies I’ve seen, and the fact that it accomplished both of these is truly a hallmark of a great film.

 

Great Prophecy Does Not Make Great Literature

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Title: Fahrenheit 451

Rating: 3 Stars

It’s tough for me to rate science fiction books written long ago that take place in a distant future that is now the time in which I live. How much do I ding them for what they got wrong? How much should the conditions of the present day influence my opinion of the work written long ago? I need to tread a careful line.

So it is with Fahrenheit 451. It was written in 1953, in the ashes of the totalitarianism of WWII and the start of the cold war with the Soviet Union. As a science fiction writer in that year trying to visualize the future, I can easily imagine that a grim fate seems most likely.

So it is here, books are banned and people caught with books are punished by burning all of their possessions. There is the constant scream of fighter jets overhead of a nation constantly at war. The populace is numbed by constant streams of mindless television playing its images on all four walls of the room. Firemen no longer put out fires but are the ones that start them.

Out of this milieu comes Montag, a fireman that, at the beginning of the book, enjoys his job, but as time moves on, begins to question, not only his job, but society at large. He meets a carefree young woman named Clarisse, who opens his mind to stimulating conversation. He watches with horror as his wife blithely tries to kill herself due to basic ennui and then wakes up the next morning all cheerful as if nothing happened. He sees a woman, caught with books, voluntarily set herself on fire so that she can die with her books.

All of this leads Montag to believe that there must be something more to life, and maybe that can be found in books. He tries to learn but is stifled by his own ignorance. His chief, Beatty, catches him, arrests him, and orders Montag to burn his own house down. After doing so, in a confrontation with Beatty, Montag murders Beatty and goes on the run.

The novel concludes with the city being destroyed by war and Montag ends up with a troupe of vagrants that have memorized works of literature. They vaguely plan to rebuild society from the ashes of the city (like a phoenix).

In terms of prognostication, Bradbury does a respectable job. Although not banned, fewer people read books then ever. As televisions have gotten larger and larger, they have become to assume ever larger positions in people’s home, if not their lives. As people grow more isolated in their cocoon-like homes, there seem to be ever fewer bonds of emotional intimacy available. And yes, the US has effectively been at war now for over fifteen years. Writing from the year 1953, this is not an unimpressive achievement.

But yet, the writing is at best ham-fisted. The characters are used to drive the action, not to drive emotion or growth. Montag, Beatty, Mildred (Montag’s wife), and Faber (a fearful intellectual trying to guide Montag) are all at best caricatures. It’s a thin book with thin characters and a pretty thin plot.

I appreciate the place that this work deserves in the pantheon of mid-twentieth century science fiction. This is just a genre that does not do a whole lot for me generally, so I can’t give it an enthusiastic recommendation.

Worst Work Day Ever

I’ve had a rough time at work lately. In fact, there was one day in particular where there was one really bad meeting that had the effect of destroying the morale of my entire team. As we left the meeting, shell-shocked, someone turned to me and asked if this was the worst day of my professional life. This is a tough question, because after all, I’ve been working at the same company for over 30 years.

I took a second, thought about it, and responded no.

Let me tell you about the worst day of my professional life. Before I start, there is one fact that seems random but will ultimately prove to be relevant. My father died when I was a child. Like probably about ninety percent of all Christian burials, the song Amazing Grace was played at his funeral. Even now, forty years later, hearing it takes me right back to the time when my father died and my feelings of shock, loss, and grief.

Back to the story…

This was about ten years ago. I was working on a very large military program. It was so large in fact that it was being run by two companies, my company (Boeing) and SAIC.

At this time, I was working insanely hard.  I was serving as the team lead for a critical system integration team.  This team was responsible for getting all of the defense contractors (and this was a large military program, so nearly all of the big players were involved) to integrate into one platform. If anyone has worked with large companies before, you can only imagine how challenging it is to get all of these behemoth defense companies to work together seamlessly on anything.  Imagine trying to get a herd of elephants to dance in the same Conga line. That itself was more then a full time job.

On top of that, I was working on supporting another program. This program involved me traveling several times a month to such lovely locations as St Louis, Philadelphia, Dallas, and Albuquerque. This was just ramping up and so was making huge demands upon my time as well.

After doing this for a couple of months, I was frazzled. I was trying to do both jobs, each of which was more then full time. I was working 70+ hours a week, I was losing sleep and I was probably suffering from depression. In the midst of this, my then wife was also working extremely hard and traveling a lot for her job, so my marriage was under pretty severe stress as well.

In short, I was not a happy person.

On top of this, some more drama enters my professional life. The main program was so large that it had its own CIO, a man named Rich. Rich was a very controversial leader. My opinion of him was that eighty percent of the time he was actually a talented, visionary, charismatic leader that I enjoyed working for. The other twenty percent of the time he was an asshole. Also, it could at best be charitably said that he was occasionally ethically challenged.  This was a problem.

Reporting to him was a person named Rick (I know, confusing). Rick had been by Rich’s side (as his protege) for probably ten years. This had, on the one hand, worked out well for Rick, because over the last years, as Rich advanced, so had Rick. Rick was now a team leader reporting directly to Rich, the CIO.

However, remember Rich’s twenty percent asshole component. For ten years, Rick had basically been Rich’s go-fer. Although Rick had advanced as a result, eating that much shit from Rich over the years must have been galling. Rick had been open to me regarding the basic contempt that he felt for Rich, but had no way of expressing it or venting it.

At one point, Rich decided that it would be a good idea to hire his son, Dom for the program. Now, if you think about this for one second, big corporations kind of frown on overt nepotism (covert nepotism is a different story), so he couldn’t do it directly. Instead, he had the other company running the program, SAIC, hire Dom.

Shockingly enough, Dom lands in Rich’s organization, and even more shocking, Dom gets almost immediately promoted to manager. What were the odds?

So, Dom is a manager that is reporting to Rick (the team leader) who reports to Rich. So, a son is directly in a reporting relationship to his father, but there is the fig leaf that they’re actually working for separate companies. I don’t know how Boeing buys off on this, but it does.

What does this have to do with me? Dom is the manager of the systems integration team, the very team that I am the lead of. Yes, I’m a Boeing employee reporting to an SAIC manager, who happens to be the son of my CIO.

As I’ve mentioned, I’m already unhappy and stressed. This does not alleviate either of these two conditions.

And then it gets worse. Rick, who has ten years of pent-up frustration built up against Rich, upon whom he really can’t vent (being his boss and all), has struck upon an idea. Sure he can’t go after Rich, but as his direct report, he can sure as hell go after Dom.

So, Rick proceeds to harass Dom and to make him miserable. Dom’s not the kind of person to take this lying down, and after all, his father is the CIO, so Dom begins to plot to take over Rick’s job.

In all of this, they both try to pull me into their respective Machiavellian plans. Rick would regularly call me on the phone and ask me to formally tell him that I have a problem with Dom, which would give him enough justification that Rick could remove Dom. I’m like seriously, you’re asking me to drop a dime on the CIO’s son? Is that the career advice you’re giving me?

Both men are trying to pull me into their little byzantine plots, but I’m actively trying to stay neutral. So, not only am I stressed and unhappy, but I’m also having to actively fight to somehow stay out of some serious Game of Thrones type shit.

While all of this is happening, I’m still working my two full time jobs. For my lead job, I’m being immeasurably helped by a young woman named Jennifer. She’s hardworking and whip smart. The kind of person you look at and realize that you’ll probably be working for her some day. She is handling the business part of the systems integration job, and is doing a stellar job. I basically don’t even have to worry about that part. I let her run it and she only comes to me when there’re questions or problems.

One night, Jennifer and I were working late. She calls me into an empty conference room. I sit down and I notice that she’s crying. In a halting voice, she tells me that, for the past year or so, she and Dom have been secretly dating. They’re now in love, want to go public, which means that she can no longer work on the team anymore, since Dom’s the manager, and apparently that’s the conflict of interest straw that breaks the camel’s back.

I’m speechless and stunned. She was the one irreplaceable member of the team. Once she leaves, there is no one that can perform that business part of the team. I’ll have to somehow find time to do it, and I have no idea how to even start adding that into my work schedule. Not only that, but over the last year or two, as we’ve worked more and more closely together, she’s become a close friend and a confidant, so not only professionally but I’m also losing even more on the personal front.

I don’t know what to do. I’m lost. I’m forlorn.

Knowing no more work is possible that night, I decide to go home. It’s late because, well, it’s always late when I go home. I pack up and head outside. My car is the only car in the parking lot. The building is empty. The parking lot is empty. The entire environment appears as desolate as my soul now feels.

Shoulders slumped, head down, I start walking towards my car. Lifting my head, I see a man. A man standing next to my car. A man wearing motherfucking kilts. A man playing a motherfucking bagpipe.

And the song that he’s playing is…Amazing Grace.

And that’s the worst business day of my life. Things have to get a lot worse before they can even come close to that day, and I very sincerely hope that they never do.

Little Sympathy for the Devil

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Title: Horns

Rating: 2 Stars

This had such a strong start. Ignatius Perrish is a child of privilege destined to do wonderful things when his girlfriend is horribly raped and murdered. He’s suspected but nothing can ever be proven. It’s now a year later and his life is in a tailspin.

Ig wakes up after a night of debauchery that he can’t really remember, but he vaguely recollects doing various possibly sacrilegious activities. Not feeling well, he looks into a mirror and sees horns growing out of his head.

Not only that, but these horns seem to compel the people that he talks to into revealing their deepest, darkest secrets. His current girlfriend confesses the need to binge on the donuts she’s eating. She confesses to performing oral sex on a mutual friend the previous night. He meets a nun who confesses that she just wants to steal money and run away and a priest who boasts about the grieving women that he has affairs with.

This is an interesting premise. If you were given the power to have people compel their deepest darkest confessions to, how would you make use of it? Would you capitalize on it? Would you try to drive people to their darkest sins or would you try to save them?

These are all interesting questions and probably would have been a great character study into motivations and abuse of power.

However, this is not that book. After spending a lot of time meeting characters and understanding their most secret motives, pretty much all of that knowledge is cast aside by Ig when his brother confesses that he knows that Ig’s best friend Lee killed Ig’s girlfriend, Merrin.

Ig pretty much immediately stops using the horn’s special powers and focuses on avenging himself on Lee. It becomes a duel to the death between Ig and Lee.

Lee, although fair haired and handsome, is clearly evil here. Ig, although he has grown horns, is purified by fire, and attracts throngs of snakes, is representing good.

I think that the book is trying to make a statement regarding the fact that the devil doesn’t necessarily exist in a purely Manichean world. There are times when the devil plays a necessary role and possibly even a moral role.

The problem here is that it just muddles all of this together. There is so much plot here. Merrin’s story and why she dumped Ig right before he left for London. Ig’s brother Terry and his budding television career. Lee and his relationship with his mother. Ig and Merrin’s idyllic time in a tree house. Lee and his relationship to an ambitious congressman. What actually happened the night of Merrin’s murder?

At this point, does anyone care?

The book really isn’t even that long to try to cover all of those many plots. In fact, the shallowness of the book almost has me convinced that it’s targeted at young adults. I went so far as to check this but it does not appear to be the case.

I’ve also read Hill’s previous works, Heart-Shaped Box and NOS4A2. Indeed, in both cases, they started off with strong premises but then I lost interest as the plots lost steam due to the weight of multiple story lines that grew ever increasingly fantastic.

This leaves me to wonder if Hill’s strength might actually be short stories. He’s written a number, but I have yet to read any. It could very well be that he has the creative mind to come up with fascinating plot concepts but has trouble extending them out to novel size without adding the literary equivalent of flying buttresses that medieval cathedrals used to stay upright.

An Extreme Act of Self Criticism

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Title: The Map and the Territory

Rating: 2 Stars

When I was at a London bookstore, I tried to find a couple of books that I would have trouble finding in the US. One of the books that I chose was by a Swedish author; it turned out that my cube mate’s partner had the book on her shelf ready to read. So, kind of a failure there.

I seemed to have better success with The Map and the Territory. I don’t know anyone who is reading it or has even heard of the author, Michel Houellebecq.

Unbeknownst to me, Houellebecq is kind of an enfant terrible of the French literary scene. He writes controversial novels and one of his literary tours ended with accusations of racism. At one point, to escape the controversy, he moved to Ireland.

This story centers around an artist named Jed Martin. He’s not terribly sophisticated, he latches onto an idea, explores it until he achieves success, at which point he abandons it and moves on to his next project, which can take many years of isolation to come to fruition.

During this time, he has difficulties reconciling with his very business-like, practical father and a love affair with a beautiful Russian named Olga.

Right at the point where he’s beginning to lose his relevance as an artist, he embarks on a new series of paintings representing ordinary people at mundane jobs. As part of the project, he asks the famous author, Michel Houellebecq, to write the program for the exhibit. In doing so, Houellebecq becomes a character in the very book that he’s writing. In it, he does not come off well. He’s irritable, drunk, and anti-social.

The exhibition, with some credit going to Houellebecq’s brilliant writing, becomes a huge success, and Martin becomes a fabulously wealthy man, which seems to change him not in the slightest.

At the point where Martin becomes a huge success, there is a sudden change in the plot. Houellebecq is brutally murdered. The story then morphs to a police procedural, in which ultimately Martin plays a part in resolving.

So, what to think of it? It’s tough. It is amusing. Although I don’t know the French art scene, Houellebecq takes clear pleasure in skewering it. The author introducing himself as a character in his own novel and then being brutally murdered midway through it is certainly an amusing diversion, and possibly, especially considering the nature of his murder, a meditation on the role of the artist, his work, and the commercialization of his work.

However, at the end of the day, Jed Martin is just a cipher. He seems to have no opinions and really doesn’t seem to express many emotions. Again, perhaps that’s the point. An artist exists on a different plane, so such feelings might have no meaning. Or maybe, again, Houellebecq is mocking the artistic scene by constructing an artist that becomes so celebrated but ultimately really has nothing to say. By being an empty vessel, this allows critics and patrons to fill his art with meaning that he himself does not provide.

I don’t know. In any case, Martin was just not an interesting character to me. Being central to the book, this lack of engagement made it a difficult and challenging read for me. Again, maybe that was the point.

If so, well done!