Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Imperial Bedrooms by Brett Easton Ellis

Well, he's tried Stephen King. What about Raymond Chandler? Lunar Park I didn't like much, but this is a lot better. How much, I'm still not sure.

Like Chandler it's set in LA and nobody knows what's going on. People are followed, other people go missing. The narrator is repeatedly told he's not seeing "the big picture." It's a murder mystery where the murder happens at the end and the identity of the killer isn't a mystery.

Luckily we have our hero Clay on the case (as well as many of the Less than Zero cast.) Not exactly a knight in tarnished armor, Clay. As mean as the streets, in fact. Detached to the point of autism, manipulative, sadistic, capable of horrible things and unexpectedly needy. His character is one of the most succesful aspects of the book.

So...the nasty bits. Well, it's really all contained in a sequence towards the end which is connected to the rest of the story only obliquely. It's certainly very disturbing, and it works character-wise. But a hater (not me, clearly) would wonder if it's been shoehorned in for the fanboys. I remember reading an interview where Ellis said he had to get wrecked for days at a time to write the infamous bits of American Psycho. How hard is it for him these days?

I've had a bit of a rocky relationship with this book. It took me a couple of goes to get into, then I was hooked - Ellis back to his best. Then I'm thinking - actually this is just the same as his early stuff - what's the point? I was disappointed when I finished this a couple of days back, and I'm liking it the more I think about it.

Here are the weak points - it's too short. It's not funny, like Psycho or Glamorama. I didn't understand the ending and had to look up wikipedia (I think this was me being stupid, rather than a clever chandler-esque end to the novel.)

But the big plus point - this is proper Bret Easton Ellis.

What I'll need to do is re-read Less Than Zero, then this again. And maybe Glamorama again. Maybe by then I'll be up for American Psycho again, though I've read it to death (ho!) Then, perhaps, a revisiting of Lunar Park whereupon I'll realise it's a misunderstood modern classic.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

1491 by Charles C Mann

In the late 15th century the Inkas controlled the largest empire in the world. It encompassed some amazingly inhospitable terrain - high mountain ranges, deserts, rainforests. Yet there was a road network covering 25,000 miles. Populations were moved around on a scale not seen again until Stalin. And there was no money. The government controlled everything.

It took fewer than 200 conquistadors to overthrow the Inka Empire. There were no Spanish casualties.

Pre-columbian American history is some of the most fascinating you'll ever read, but it's treated almost as an afterthought in most histories of the world, even modern ones. This book takes a much needed look at exactly what was going on over there, and why it all stopped. It turns out most of what we assume is wrong.

First off, the "new world" is a bit of a misnomer. The cities of the Norte Chico in Peru date back at least to the 30th century BC. That makes it the second oldest civilisation in history, after Sumer. And they had pyramids centuries before the Egyptians.

The scale of the history here is amazing. From the Mississippian mound builders to the ancient Olmecs with their massive, beautiful stone heads. From the awe-inspiring cities of the Maya and the Aztecs to the untold thousands living in the Amazonian rainforest, sustaining themselves in ways we're only beginning to understand.

If you've ever read your Jared Diamond you'll know what went wrong. Not so much the guns and the steel. More the germs. The Americas never really had any domesticable animals, so people never lived in close proximity to livestock. That means they didn't have generation after generation building up resistance to their diseases. The number of people who lived in the Americas in 1491 is still hotly disputed, but as much as 95% of the population may have been killed by smallpox.

This is how Pizarro was able to defeat to the Inka empire - the epidemic had caused untold deaths and then civil war. But it's also why in North America there built up a myth of the noble indian living in harmony with nature. We've heard about the herds of thousands of bison sweeping across the plain when the white man first arrived. That's because smallpox got there first and killed most of the people. The bison had the place to themselves.

There's lots to ponder here. Guilt, for one. In the main, this was accidental genocide. The conquistadors and pilgrims didn't know about germs and there's no way they could've predicted the epidemics. They thought the indians lived like degenerate savages, not realising that these people were like post-apocalyptic survivors. It was the Europeans' fault, but they didn't mean it.

The second issue if about the determinism of history. The book has many stories of history hanging on a horseshoe nail - the Mayflower pilgrims surviving their first winter, Cortes taking Tenochtitlan, Pizarro defeating the Inkas. But these American societies were doomed from the moment they first had contact with people who were, if not necessarily "more advanced," certainly more riddled with disease.

Yes, this book is without doubt heavily inspired by Jared Diamond (Collapse, as well as Guns, Germs and Steel) but I prefer 1491. Diamond is certainly fascinating and groundbreaking, but his writing can be a little flat. Mann is a journalist and knows how to tell a story from many different angles. He's also great on the vicious, petty squabbling which seems endemic among historians and archeologists.

I've actually been listening to more music recently (thank you all the bloggers on Advance With Sound) so I haven't been listening to books on tape. Inspired by the Gagarin anniversary, I've already started Cosmonaut Keep by Ken Macleod. He of the "communism in space" fetish. So far, not enough communism.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Stone Junction by Jim Dodge

A forward by Thomas Pynchon would usually be enough to put me off a book, but I'm glad I started Stone Junction. Not so glad I finished it, however.

It's about a chap called Daniel Pearse, who grows up in a idealised counterculture with his mother in California. He's then passed between a series of tutors who show him how to meditate, play poker, grow and take drugs, disguise himself and, finally, perform actual proper magic. Then there's a heist which goes....strangely.

I really enjoyed much of the book. It's very earnest, there's a lot of pseudo-mystical balderdash and the lead character's kind of a blank slate. But I did like the folksy American style and the love of rebelliousness. I'm no fan of hippies of course, but there's always something to be said for sticking it to the man. There are also some great passages - a botched plutonium raid, rebuilding a riverboat casino, playing a high stakes lo-ball game. And the writing style won't be to everyone's taste, but it rattled along nicely and was nothing like Pynchon.

But this is a failed novel. From about the halfway point it starts going downhill and gathers momentum until the truly horrible ending. It's hard not to suspect that the writer didn't know where he was going, so he thought big handfuls of drugs would dig him out of a hole. This makes it sound better than it is.

In fact, there is a decent plot going on. There's a big mystery about what happened to Daniel's mother, and two people trying to figure it out and there's even a relatively satisfying answer, but it gets buried under truckloads of bollocks about magic, love, madness and a big diamond. Again, sounds like it could be good. But not good in any way.

It's a real pity because I was loving this at the start, and there are so many interesting avenues I thought it was going to go down. Colourful characters appear and vanish a couple of pages later. One important character from the beginning turns insane, then disappears until the last couple of pages. They never get the riverboat casino back under steam!

My suggestion would be to read the first half, then make up the second half yourself. And you should probably take less drugs than the author.

Now re-reading an excellent history of pre-columbian America and listening to a very interesting book by Tony Blair's ex-chief of staff, looking at his rise to power and the challenges of office through the lessons of Machiavelli.