John Fowles’ The Collector is a novel of the 1960s about a man who wins the lottery and then kidnaps a young woman, keeping her in a dungeon in the British countryside. It’s an unsettling book, even in our age of antiheroes, but what’s great about it is the structure. (I am such a sucker for an interestingly constructed novel.)
See, the first half of the book is the story from the collector’s point of view. We’re in his head and we see his reasons for everything he’s doing, and because he doesn’t rape the young woman immediately there’s this dread that builds and builds. The hassles and frustrations of buying a house and building a dungeon in it are all treated in a very matter of fact way and it lulls you into this weird headspace. It never has you rooting for him, but you can find yourself feeling sorry for him.
Then for the second half of the book we see everything through the victim’s eyes, including her preoccupation with an affair she was having with an older artist. It’s kind of amazing. I love that we don’t alternate points of view on things as they happen (or even on a chapter by chapter basis). Since we know the incidents that will happen from how the collector experienced them, it builds even more dread in the second half, not about what will happen, but about how will she feel when that thing we know is coming happens?
The conclusion isn’t anything special (I was kind of hoping for something amazing like in Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman) but this was his first novel, so I’ll forgive that. The whole book is quite restrained, and makes something like The Silence of the Lambs (just to pick a kidnapping story) seem really crass and obvious.
Frank Miller’s All Star Batman and Robin is a good enough reworking of the traditional “How Batman found a sidekick” story. It unhinges Batman a bit, really playing into the weirdo nature that would make someone dress up as a bat to fight crime. There’s no rationalization of why this makes sense beyond that the goddamn Batman gets off on it. Bringing in the whole kidnapping of a young boy whose parents have just been murdered aspect works well, as does the Justice League’s being aghast at the bullshit Batman is pulling in Gotham (in this continuity Batman is not part of the JL, which has Superman, Green Lantern, Plastic Man, and a very angry Wonder Woman). So yes, it’s not great in the way All Star Superman is great, but it’s a good book for seeing Batman embrace the insanity of his character.
Simon Morden’s Equations of Life is a pretty good Gibson-esque near future SF-noir book. Samuil Petrovich is a PhD student in London after Armageddon (which was not religious in nature, just a global catastrophe that sunk Japan, rained poison and generally made the world suck). When the story starts he interferes with a kidnapping and then things spiral into quantum computing, riots and eloquent gangsters threatening clueless American programmers. It’s a quick moving book and Petrovich is a very competent protagonist, who rides luck and resources he doesn’t explain till late in the book.
The thing I liked least was Petrovich’s cursing in Russian. It seemed manufactured and didn’t fit the rhythms of the rest of his dialogue. I kept on picturing the author asking his Russian friends for really vulgar curses and then consulting the list whenever he needed to make Petrovich look tough. Which is fair enough I guess. It just brought me out of it.
But generally it was a good little book. I enjoyed how Petrovich had a very weak heart, so all of his Russian cursing and bad-assness was not paired with any real physical impressiveness.
Wildwood is Colin Meloy’s fantasy novel about Pru, a girl in Portland whose brother is stolen by crows. The crows take him into the Impassable Wilderness on the edge of town and Pru goes in to rescue him, along with a nerdy classmate. Within the wilderness there’s a world of talking animals and magic and politics, three nations plus bandits and coyotes and witches trying to destroy it all out of spite.
Meloy tells the story well, creating sympathetic characters who aren’t idiots. There are places where a lazier storyteller could have fallen back on cliches, but he generally avoids that kind of thing. Still, nothing feels terribly new. It’s predictable in the way an old story (or perhaps more appropriately for the lead singer of the Decemberists the way a song) is. The bandits aren’t as terrifying as they might seem, a hero is tricked but manages redemption, there’s military assistance when all seems lost.
It’s good. I enjoyed my time in the world of the book (whose atmosphere was helped by Carson Ellis’ illustrations). And though there’s a sequel, this didn’t end on a cliffhanger, so I can go about my life thinking of the story as its own little thing.
The Complete Lockpick Pornography is two of Joey Comeau’s short novels (Lockpick Pornography and We All Got It Coming) put together in an attractive pink binding that belies all the violence inside.
The first story is about a guy who tries to overthrow hetero-normative society by stealing from straight people. We first meet him smashing a sex partner’s boyfriend’s TV and then stealing a new one to make up for it. He gets involved with a queer team who come up with a plan to break into elementary schools and leave books about gay grandfathers inside. And through all of this the narrator is calling a stranger in the suburbs and asking her questions to try and destabilize her life. Everyone is hurt and angry and trying to make the world better. There’s lots of sex and people trying to negotiate complicated relationships. It’s kind of like a lighter (and non-science-fictional) Samuel R. Delany story.
We All Got It Coming is a much gentler story about two guys in a relationship. The narrator gets pushed down the stairs at his shit job and he quits and tries to find something new to do with himself. He wants to raise hell and be awesome, but the world isn’t going to make it easy. This one is more about responding to violence and being weak and wanting to be otherwise.
They aren’t direct sequels, but I think reading the two stories right after each other works really well. The violence in We All Got It Coming is handled very differently from Lockpick Pornography – it’s much less of a way to blow off steam and maybe think about a little and more something that completely destabilizes a person. Putting the two together gives good perspective on the idea of violence being omnipresent and how control of that violence empowers and disempowers people.
Joey Comeau writes excellently spiky language to get caught in your brain. It’s a great book and I highly recommend it.
Athos in America is a book of short stories by Jason (featuring his trademark anthropomorphic animals, naturally). There’s “The Brain That Wouldn’t Virginia Woolf” a science fictional story of a man and the head of his wife he’s keeping alive and trying to find a body for, “So Long, Mary Ann” a story of a prison escapee, “A Cat From Heaven” a reflexive story about Jason himself being a huge asshole to everyone, “The Smiling Horse” a noirish story of kidnapping and revenge and the titular story of Athos the musketeer hanging out in a bar talking up his exploits in the U.S.
My favourite story though was “Tom Waits on the Moon.” Each page has a character talking to him or herself for four panels, asking a lot of questions, doing a lot of self-doubting, and all coming together in the last page. It just worked really well (despite its lack of Tom Waits as a character).
Ben Hatke’s Zita the Space Girl: Far From Home is a great science fictional kids comic. Zita and Joseph find a big red button in a field. Zita presses it and Joseph gets sucked through a vortex. Then she summons up her courage and presses it again to go after him. They’ve both ended up on an asteroid filled with aliens (and robots), some of whom speak English. The asteroid is going to be destroyed by a comet in three days though, so they need to get out of there. Joseph has been kidnapped and taken to a castle to be imprisoned and Zita gathers up her resources to go find and rescue him. She makes allies and gets betrayed and eventually everything works out pretty well.
There’s nothing crazy complex going on with the plot, but the characterization is fun. There’s a war-bot that likes to tell stories of his escapades (much like warship in The Culture novels) and a giant mouse who doesn’t speak but prints out little messages from his collar. The art is cute and the story moves really quickly. I liked it a lot.
Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass is another book for my course that I’ve read before. Now, I didn’t really like the second and third books in the series but this one is still pretty awesome (it has a lot less annoying theology to it).
The story follows Lyra, an orphan girl who lives at a college at Oxford. Her uncle is a great explorer of the North and she is a great explorer of the warrens of Oxford. Then people start stealing children and one of her friends gets captured and then she gets to go away with Mrs Coulter, who seems very nice and urbane and sophisticated but is actually quite terrible and she escapes and joins up with the gyptians who’ve had so many children stolen in a quest to rescue them (and deliver this truth-telling compass to her uncle who’s been imprisoned in the north for his researches). There are also armoured bears. It’s four kinds of awesome.
One of my favourite parts of this alternate world they live in is that everyone has a daemon, an animal representing their soul. You talk to your daemon and until you hit puberty it changes shapes. Eventually though it settles into a form that reflects who you are. You might be unhappy with its form, and if so you’re not going to be happy with yourself. There’s a conversation with a sailor (whose daemon is a seagull) about a man he knew whose daemon was a dolphin, so he could never come on land (you can’t be separated from your daemon by much distance and there are huge unbreakable taboos against touching another person’s daemon). I fucking love that shit.
The idea of knowing who you are and having it torn away from you is just about the most personal kind of conflict and stakes you could tell a story about. Yes the adventure is a lot about Lyra being awesome and she’s got a bit of the Chosen One thing going on with her extraordinary ability to read the alethiometer (the titular compass) but I care so much about her and the rest of the characters in this story, who’re all trying to ensure that they can be in control of their selves in the face of giant bureaucracies and powerful people. It’s the most important story.
And I love the ending of the book. I remember it ending right in the middle of a climactic battle, but it’s got a bit more resolution than that before the next books in the series. Nothing is as simple as it might have been and that’s the mark of a story that’s great.
Man, I love this book. Sequels not so much, and I assume the movie was a piece of shit, but this book is great.