Oct 26, 2009

Monkey droppings - Shambling Towards Hiroshima by James Morrow - "We can thank our lucky stars that Hitler never got the lizard."

Today, the monkey braves horrors that would terrify you, if you were a gullible teen in 1940s America. As it stands today, you'd probably giggle instead.

Still, great book ahead.

Shambling Towards Hiroshima
by James Morrow

There exists in my house a monolithic list of authors I admire intensely. I'd show it to you, but it's far too heavy to move, and is in danger of growing its own gravitational pull. It's currently functioning as a temporary retaining wall in my basement. It's a big list, I guess would be the main bullet point to take away from this topic.

But authors I will follow to the ends of the Earth and beyond if they asked me to? The list quickly gets whittled down to a select few. These are authors who've earned my respect and admiration to such a degree that they could publish the phone book under their name and I'd read it. Hell, I'd read it twice.
Jonathan Lethem is probably the leader of the pack. Philip K. Dick, Stephen King, Clive Barker. William Kotzwinkle. Eric McCormack. John Irving. I'm sure there are more, but you get my drift. Jim Dodge, where are you? Please write again.

James Morrow is another. His
Godhead Trilogy is arguably (and I'll argue it to the pain, my friends, the pain) the greatest religious satire of the last century, followed close behind by his own Only Begotten Daughter. His work evokes the best of Vonnegut and Swift. Morrow is an author par excellence, a satirist of the highest quality, a provocative writer of limitless compassion for the foibles of humanity. And a damned funny novelist. If you don't laugh as his befuddled characters trek around, over, and through the two-mile-long floating corpse of God in Towing Jehovah, well, you just don't get humour. Or you're easily offended.

But Shambling Towards Hiroshima, like its subject matter, is a weird beast. It's a light, airy piece of work, a lark. Morrow appears to be having a ball with this quick little read, loosing all his talents over a frolic of a novel. Consequently, Shambling may not be his best, most focused work of caustic wit, but it is supremely entertaining.

Remember Godzilla? Silly question. We all know of the great fire-breathing lizard, even if we haven't seen his films. So great and powerful is the hold the mythic pop-culture monster has over our collective conscious that everyone everywhere knows of his exploits. Not bad for a man clad in a rubbery, unwieldy costume who lays waste to some of the least-convincing cities ever put to film.

Well, Godzilla had nothing on Gorgantis, the fire-breathing lizard whom the world fell in love with, at least as Syms Thorley tells it. According to Thorley, writing his memoirs over the course of one long night , Gorgantis was not originally a monster born of Japanese fears of nuclear argmageddon in films such as Gorgantis vs. Octopocalypse. No, Gorgantis was the brainchild of the U.S. Army during the final days of World War II, an attempt to terrify the Japanese high command into surrendering. And it was Thorley, b-movie actor and star of such 1940s monster epics as Curse of Kha-Ton-Ra and Corpuscula Meets the Dopplegänger (not since
Paul Auster's Book of Illusions have I longed so desperately for fictional films to actually exist), who was picked to star as the titular monster because, as head mad scientist Dr. Ivan Groelish says, "His lumbering is second to none." And given that Thorley is most famous for portraying Corpuscula, a monster with a "third eye embedded in his cheek and [a] herniated brain emerging from his fractured skull," he would seem ideal for the role. And it's not like Thorley would turn down good work: as he puts it, condensing an actor's entire existence into one short sentence, "You learn your craft, you play your mummies, you collect your trophy, and then you die."

This being the U.S. Army, of course, frightening the enemy is not nearly enough; there has to be something to back up the macho posturing. Through Dr. Groelish's tireless efforts, three leviathan fire-breathing lizards do in fact exist, kept sedated in a large lake and going by the names Blondie, Dagwood, and Mr. Dithers. These aren't cartoonish monsters, however, but truly horrific freaks of genetic alteration:

The creatures suggested quarter-mile-high tyrannosaurs, but modified for a marine environment - pulsing gill slits, translucent swim fins, webbing between their talons like the vanes of a Spanish fan - and retrofitted with fighting tusks, barbed horns, feelers as long as tentacles, and dorsal plates the size and proportion of fir trees.
Thorley is to portray Gorgantis destroying a scale model of a Japanese city to demonstrate the unstoppability of the real monsters should they be unleashed upon Japan. Much of the novel's humour comes from Thorley's personal testing of the constume with his girlfriend Darlene, both for practical and impractical purposes, which leads to a scene of sexual bravado that can only be described as...well, I don't know how to describe it well enough to do it justice. Let it be known, however, that the original Gorgantis suit was put through its paces both inside and out.

Morrow's novel is at once a cautionary tale of military paranoia and a superbly enjoyable recreation of the b-movie renaissance of the '40s and '50s. Thorley's memoir is peppered with loving tributes to the days when movies were made in two weeks, descibing himself and his fellow b-movie breathern as "a bunch of hard-drinking alpha males who spent their days pretending to perform blasphemous medical experiments and their nights fantasizing that they were going to give up alcohol tomorrow."

It was also a time when true craftsmen toiled in the trenches of pulp cinema to pursue their art. Cinema geeks (such as myself) will get a kick as luminaries such as esteemed director James Whale (Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein) and special effects maestro Willis O'Brien (King Kong) make appearances. O'Brien is hired to create the effects for Gorgantis' carnage, and Whale is pegged to direct the opus for maximum terrifying effect. Whale proves himself somewhat more artistic than the army had hoped: "This is not a cerebral part," Whale instructs Thorley on the nature of his role. "You are a monster from the id. You are Death with haunches, la Grande Faucheuse with scales."

Beyond the loving recreation of Hollywood's monster era, Shambling Towards Hiroshima makes some trenchant points on military madness, the utter uselessness of war, and the way horror movies desensitize the populace to the true, unimaginable horrors that exist just out their windows. Such movies are fine for entertainment's sake, but they can serve to distract us from the importance of our own reality, as Thorley discovers in his later years, preaching on the perils of nuclear holocaust to Gorgantis fans far more interested in his recollections of wearing the suit.

As I said, Morrow is being immensely loose and playful with his story, which may explain the novel's relative slightness. But how I can I really complain, when the result is so much damned fun? Shambling Towards Hiroshima is the most sheerly entertaining novel I've read in quite a while.



James Redekop said...

The American Freethought podcast interviewed Morrow for their 49th Episode, and Chariots of Iron for their 30th, both in conjunction with his presentation at the American Atheist national convention in Atlanta.

Remi said...

I now have a new author to toss on my teetering TBR pile. If it collapes and smothers me, I'm holding you accountable.

I can see you're probably running into same problem as me - far too many favourite authors releasing new books this fall. Have they no respect for our pocketbooks?

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