Mar 9, 2011

Monkey droppings: The Good, the innocuous, and the ugly

The monkey's done a lot of 'high lit' reading lately.

Time to go genre, clear the palate, get some junk food.

Healthy, well-regarded junk food.

Subway, not Arby's.

Three reviews, hot and fresh and ready for the table. One good, one innocuous (bad seemed too harsh), and one ugly (think Hollywood-ugly, not ugly-ugly).


Lanceheim (HarperCollins, 2010)
by Tim Davys
"Without doubt, faith is worth nothing."
In 2009, Tim Davys (a pseudonym) released the English translation version of Amberville, the first in what I have now discovered to be the Mollisan Town quartet. It was a hardboiled noir dealing with issues of faith, death, fate, and existence. It was also populated exclusively by stuffed animals, automatically appealing to a strange side of me that enjoys unique literary examples of anthropomorphization (Hello, Winkie! Hello, Hal Jam!).

I loved Amberville, and tore into its sequel Lanceheim with gusto, expecting another tale of Eddie Bear and his investigatory exploits. Imagine my surprise (and later delight) at finding Lanceheim to be an entirely different beast, set in another section of Mollisan Town (segmented into the quarters of Amberville, Lanceheim, Tourquai, and Yok), this time not a detective noir but a parable, a play on the Christ mythology that takes on many of the same themes of Philip Pullman's The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ yet plays them far more intriguingly (and I really enjoyed Scoundrel Christ).

Lanceheim follows two separate narrative paths: on one, the reader follows Reuben Walrus, a famed composer seeking a miracle following a diagnosis of quickly oncoming deafness; on the other, a fellow named Wolf Diaz recounts his life as friend and later servant to Maximilian, a strange stuffed animal with unusual powers and a gift for speaking in obtuse parables. As in Amberville, the residents of the city live in fear of death, or in this case, "the Chauffeurs," dark figures who arrive without warning and remove stuffed animals who have reached the end of their lives. New residents are manufactured by Magnus, their (for lack of a better word) god, and Maximilian, with his charisma and lack of guile, is starting to threaten the religious hierarchy that uses fear of Magnus to keep the populace of Mollisan Town in check.
"I intend to create a Retinue," said Chaffinch, "which is neither afraid to believe nor to listen. The stuffed animals in this city are suffering. You know that, Wolf, you know it well - the terrified pursuit of success and material happiness that never has an end. Weighed down by the dogmas of the church. The thought of the Chauffeurs, and that they might come any day whatsoever. Stuffed animals are to be pitied. And if we can give them solace, we must do so. If ten stuffed animals can repeat what I say, what Maximillian has taught us, we are ten times more effective."
Davys comes across heavy-handed at times, more so than Amberville, and oftentimes Lanceheim falls prey to speechifying to get its point across. Yet again, Davys uses the conceit of a world of stuffed animals to bring forth serious questions of faith, dogma, and politics that would weigh down more realistic portrayals. Lanceheim is a less satisfactory novel than Amberville, too episodic, but it still retains a startling power, particularly in its remarkable twists near the end. I look forward to the next novel Tourquai with particular delight.



The Good Fairies of New York (Soft Skull Press, 2006)
by Martin Millar
"Right, you two," said Dinnie, stomping back into the room. "get out of here immediately and don't come back."

"What's the matter with you?" demanded Heather, shaking her golden hair. "Humans are supposed to be pleased, delighted and honored when they meet a fairy. They jump about going, 'A fairy, a fairy!' and laugh with pleasure. They don't demand they get out of their room immediately and don't come back."

"Well, welcome to New York," snarled Dinnie. "Now beat it."
Ah, whimsy. So easy to get tired of.

That's not fair, but sustaining whimsy over 200+ pages is hard. Far better if you taint your whimsy (yikes, now there's a sentence I've never typed before) with a healthy dapple of cynicism a la Vonnegut, or a dose of giddy mean-spiritedness a la Douglas Adams. You need balance, take the salt with the sweet.

Martin Millar almost pulls it off with The Good Fairies of New York. The cult urban fantasist (his Lonely Werewolf Girl sound likes a good time) sprinkles whimsy all throughout his tale of misplaced fairies making their way in the unScotlandlike boroughs of New York, but makes sure to add rude jokes, violence, obscenities, and various naughty bits to keep his ethereal heroines grounded in filthy reality. And it's fun, but too slight to resonate after completion.

The Good Fairies are Heather and Morag, thrown out of Scotland for inadvertently desecrating a fairy clan's sacred banner. Heather takes room with the disconcertingly awful Dinnie, "an overweight enemy of humanity [and] the worst violinist in New York," while Morag moves in across the street with Kerry, a free spirit suffering from Crohn's disease and attempting to complete a flower alphabet for a Community Arts award. There are also rock 'n' roll ghosts, Italian fairies, Chinese fairies, an awful version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, mythic flowers, horrible fiddle-playing, homeless people, and more subplots and diversions than you can shake a wand at.

It's all handled with a fair amount of aplomb; Millar is an amiable storyteller, and at its best Good Fairies reads like Neil Gaiman-lite, or a more sedate Terry Pratchett. But the story structure and its constant narrative momentum leave every character a cipher; I wanted to grow to like Dinnie, I understood that Kerry was adorable, but never did I actually appreciate them beyond their postings as serviceable plot movers. I can see that Millar is a talented fantasist, and I look forward to revisiting his imagination, but The Good Fairies is only diverting, too flimsy a tale to last.



The Fall (HarperCollins, 2010)
by Guillermo del Toro & Chuck Hogan

Well, 'ugly' might be overstating it. The Fall is fairly entertaining. But these vampires, man, they is ugly.

The direct sequel to last year's The Strain, The Fall is part two in author Chuck Hogan's and director Guillermo del Toro's Strain Trilogy, about a vampire epidemic taking over the world. In this world, vampires ain't the usual vaguely European dandies in capes, they are virus-laden monsters with a six-foot stinger that extends from their throats to grab and infect any person unlucky enough to be nearby. Continuing from the previous instalment, we join our hardy gang of vampire killers (including an epidemiologist, his young son, an elderly vampire hunter, and a New York exterminator who takes to monster slaying with ease) as they hunt down the Master, the one rogue vampire responsible for an outbreak which shows every possibility of destroying mankind permanently. Or at least moving us substantially down the food chain.

The authors tell their story well, jumping from attack to attack, but as with The Strain, the real problem is a lack of actual scares. The vampires lack personality, and the story moves forward so rapidly that there is no time to learn to empathize with the heroes. What we get is a fast-paced Hollywood monster movie from two men who should know better. Del Toro knows his monsters (Cronos, Mimic, Hellboy) but as he proved with Pan's Labyrinth, he can provide depth to join with his imagination to result in something truly spellbinding and wonderful (side note: del Toro's finally giving up on his adaptation of The Hobbit is likely a great loss to filmgoers, and his recent troubles in getting a Tom Cruise-starring adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness is a personal grievance). Hogan, in Prince of Thieves, proved himself an able craftsman who can weld interesting characters onto classic action scenarios. Working together, the result should be a near-classic, and its managing to be merely entertaining is a severe disappointment. I'm not turned off enough to not look for the finale in 2011, but The Fall is a wasted opportunity, a lark by two talents slumming it.


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