• Who Owns the Future?

    Who Owns the Future?
    Jaron Lanier

    The short answer to the question posed in the title of Jaron Lanier’s latest take on the digital dispensation is “siren servers”: an infelicitous new term that basically just means the powers at the top of the information economy food chain. Despite the difficult and unnecessary terminology he invents (he even has “antenimbosia” for computing “before the cloud”), Lanier has a pretty direct and easy-to-follow take on where things are heading and steps we might take to create a new, more sustainable economic model based on a strong middle class and long-term  planning (for his earlier manifesto on the crisis, see my review of You Are Not a Gadget). In short, Lanier’s solution is that information should not be free but rather monetized through a system of micropayments to its creators. Such a program probably won’t be acted on, as power elites (siren servers or whatever) usually prefer to go down in flames rather than surrender any part of their privilege, but it’s an interesting alternative that highlights much that is wrong with the present system as well as the likely roots of its eventual and inevitable demise.

  • Bleeding Edge

    By Thomas Pynchon

    Is there some moral or professional principle that Thomas Pynchon — America’s best-known-for-being-least-known author — has been trying to affirm by shunning interviewers and photographers for going on fifty years now?

    Is it that he doesn’t want to be seen as just another media whore in a world where fame is so cheap?

    Or is he someone trying to stay in control of his own publicity, jealously protecting his eccentric brand with Oprah-like intensity?

    More to the present point, even with a new book out one has to wonder: were he to end his media exile now would anyone care?

    Over the last half-century Pynchon hasn’t developed much as a writer. In this reviewer’s (admittedly lonely) opinion his best book was The Crying of Lot 49, which came out in 1966. Favourite among fans is probably Gravity’s Rainbow, which was in 1973. The dates tell you something about where the author’s head is still at.

    In these and other early works all of the essential ingredients of Pynchon’s oeuvre, both in terms of style and theme, were in place. Since then the same elements have been recycled in different contexts and settings, albeit with diminishing returns. We now know exactly what to expect: political paranoia mixed with slapstick humour, comicbook characters with cartoon names, lots of silly song lyrics and dreadful puns, a fascination with the dark side of technology and the role of conspiracies in history, and outrageously complex plots that are never fully resolved.

    Bleeding Edge is his most contemporary work — it’s set in Manhattan in 2001, just before and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks — but it seems like only the names and dates have changed in forty years. This time out Pynchon’s detective heroine is Maxine Tarnow, a fast-talking Jewish mother and Certified Fraud Examiner “gone rogue.” For Maxine “paranoia’s the garlic in life’s kitchen … you can never have too much”: words that she may want to reconsider after getting sucked into a vast right- left- and everything-in-between-wing conspiracy involving the FBI, Internet entrepreneurs, terrorists, hackers, amateur porn producers, and the whole pyramid racket of late capitalism.

    Domestic paranoia today tends to focus on two economic sectors — finance and the Internet — whose power and influence have expanded exponentially despite the lack of any clear understanding among the public of what it is they actually do or how they do it. What were in all those collateralized debt obligations? Not even the people who invented them knew for sure, but they rocked Wall Street in the sub-prime mortgage crisis. And just how many people are (at least potentially) spying on you every time you open your Internet browser? Too many to count … even if there were some way of counting, which there probably isn’t.

    Pynchon’s main target in Bleeding Edge is this shadowy financial-digital complex, near the center of which sits a villainous dot-com billionaire/CEO cybercriminal named Gabriel Ice. But at least one reader will confess to being unable to tell you much more than that.

    There is a method, however, to the muddle. The point seems to be that if we really knew what was going on we’d likely be more depressed than alarmed by “conspiracies” that are really just a lot of stupid, greedy people acting in narrow, mean-spirited and selfish ways. Like Maxine (or her precursor Oedipa Maas) we all harbour a spiritual yearning to believe in powerful unseen forces at work, even if they are totally evil and threaten our destruction. Because if no one is pulling the strings, if no one is really in charge, then we may be in even bigger trouble than we think.

    It’s a shame Bleeding Edge isn’t a better book. Like a lot of Pynchon’s major efforts it’s messy and bloated. The plot may be deliberately incomprehensible, but this only makes it less involving. The characters are thin and the attempts at humour fall flat. The writing is clever in spurts, but awkwardly driven by fractured dialogue with odd tics like ending sentences with question marks and including with every movie title mentioned the year of its release in parenthesis.

    But underneath it all is Pynchon’s still relevant, sustaining vision: that post-1960s America has lost its innocence and freedom to the forces of big government and big capital. This message was especially clear at the end of his last novel, Inherent Vice, where the Psychadelic Sixties are imagined as a “little parenthesis of light,” a “dream of prerevolution” snuffed out by corporate suits.

    That countercultural spirit is also felt in Bleeding Edge. We see it when, for example, Maxine walks through the “new” New York City, discouraged by how real estate developers have made the formerly grubby place “Disneyfied and sterile.” Maxine feels “nauseous at the possibility of some stupefied consensus about what life is to be, taking over this whole city without mercy, a tightening Noose of Horror, multiplexes and malls and big-box stores . . . Aaahh!”

    This betrayal of the spirit of the summer of love is part of our pop history now. Today we are all children of the ’80s, not the ’60s. Hence Dr. Evil taunting Austin Powers about how “freedom failed” and telling him that there’s “nothing as pathetic as an aging hipster.” Or the Big Lebowski crowing at Jeff Bridges’ laid-back Dude: “the bums lost!”

    And so is it too early to say that the Internet only offered an illusion of individual rebellion, revolution, and freedom? One that turned into a nightmare of corporate and state surveillance as cyberspace became a global prison?

    On the contrary, it’s far too late. But who do you think’s to blame for that happening? Us or . . . them?

    Review first published in the Toronto Star January 4, 2014.

  • Gone Girl

    Gone Girl
    Gillian Flynn

    In my brief review of Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands I ended by praising Roche’s creation of “a first person narrator who is so unconsciously unreliable, so dangerous without even being aware of it: the fully liberated modern woman as a psychopath.” Enter Amy Elliott Dunne and this tale of twenty-first century fatal attraction. It’s effectively written and exquisitely observed, but one wonders how to take it. The improbabilities in the plot escalate wildly in the second half, until at the end we seem to have entered the realm of sheer psychological fantasy. It’s still a lot of fun, but I think it muddies the point being made. As with any psychopath, Amy doesn’t really represent anything, she just is. The comic epilogue is a challenge thrown at the reader, a parody affirmation of family values. The question is set: just what are those values anyway? Amy appears to be a success in every conventional way: young, beautiful, rich, in control of her life. For that she has to be admired, doesn’t she?

  • The Bone Season

    By Samantha Shannon

    Samantha Shannon is a 21-year-old graduate of Oxford University, and so we might think of The Bone Season as among the first fruits of a generation raised on Harry Potter. More on what that means later, but for now let’s just note that the comparison is particularly apt as this is projected as the first of a seven-part series dealing with the adventures of a young person just learning to use their magical powers.

    In this case the heroine is Paige Mahoney, a kind of clairvoyant known as a Dreamwalker who lives in a London that is part of a police state called Scion in the year 2059. This is a future with a twist, however, as it’s also the product of an alternate history. Bone Season history diverged from our own two hundred years prior to the start of our story, with the arrival of a mysterious race of Netherworlders known as the Rephaim in 1859. Which is when all the magic started happening.

    Paige soon gets in to trouble in Scion and is whisked off to the ruins of Oxford U, which is now being run as a kind of prison colony-cum-school of magic by the Rephaim and is where her training will begin. We learn the Rephaim harvest clairvoyants every ten years in what are called “Bone Seasons”, and this is Bone Season XX. Paige’s new identity is XX-59-40.

    When launching a series this ambitious a first volume has to spend a lot of time laying some groundwork. Shannon does this with admirable economy, especially given just how much she has to get through. The book even begins with a flowchart mapping the seven order of clairvoyance as well as their more than fifty sub-orders, and ends with a nine-page glossary explaining terms like Querent and Amaurotic (the latter are the new Muggles: norms without any supernatural powers). It’s all quite inventive, but also reads a bit like a Dungeons & Dragons handbook, if you know what that’s like.

    The plot is as complex as you’d expect from all of this elaborate infrastructure. The mysterious and not very likeable Rephaim claim they are here to save us from the dreaded, flesh-eating Emim. In fighting the Emim the Rephaim apparently need the help of gifted Voyants like Paige. However, one doesn’t need a psychic gift to realize that they have more on their agenda. As if you would trust anyone with a name and title like Blood-consort Arcturus, Warden of the Mesarthim anyway. Or people who snarl lines like “The word of a human means less than the incoherent salivation of a dog.”

    Now that’s incoherent!

    Nicely dressed in a full wardrobe of psycho-speculative trappings (ghosts, guardian angels, soothsayers, tarot card readers, etc.), The Bone Season is a very effective, albeit very conventional adolescent fantasy. It has a YA flavour, but in recent years this has become an all but essential ingredient of bestsellerdom. Why this has happened is hard to say (more fallout from Harry Potter?), but in any event you recognize a family lineage here not only to Harry, but to other franchises running through such recent megahits as the Twilight series, the Hunger Games, and even Fifty Shades of Gray (which, for all its naughtiness, was probably the most psychologically juvenile series of all). Scheduled to be published in huge numbers in twenty-one countries, The Bone Season bids fair to join this select company.

    There are predictable elements. No one can escape Sheol I (that’s Oxford), but of course a jailbreak is all anyone thinks about. Paige, our plucky heroine, will, we know, not be happy with being a mere number, and struggle to assert her own budding identity and independence. She will find some true friends along the way, fall in love, and be betrayed. Her tremendous gifts will be both a blessing and a curse.

    This might be Hogwarts Academy of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, or any other high school, anywhere.

    But great genre fiction doesn’t mess with a formula. It delivers what readers want, with just enough of a twist to keep them on their toes. Shannon does that here, and at a pace that never once lets up. The results should appeal to all recent graduates of Hogwarts. Or of Oxford, for that matter.

    If there is any difference now.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star, September 1 2013.

  • Vultures’ Picnic

    Vultures’ Picnic
    Greg Palast

    I wonder what the future of investigative journalism holds. With the shift from print to digital media and the increasing legalization and control of the image of power, the intrepid reporter is becoming an endangered species. So thank heavens for Greg Palast, whose brand of reportage verité has done so much to uncover the dirty deeds of the very rich and very powerful, which is to say some of the scummiest people on earth. Behind every great fortune is a great crime, or, as Palast puts it, “there is no such thing as a victimless billionaire.” The conspiracies are real, and deadly.

  • The Monster Show

    By David J. Skal

    Horror has to always justify itself. Romance, erotica, and yes even porn, are “natural” genres of expression and representation, as is comedy. We like to have a good time and a laugh. But what does an appetite for violence, cruelty, and terror say about us? It’s just as universal, but it doesn’t reflect as well upon us as a species. So something else must be going on. Horror has to be explained.

    In The Monster Show David J. Skal has undertaken one such explanation, focusing primarily on horror movies of the twentieth century. What appeared on the screen were a series of projections, and not just of light through ribbons of celluloid. Horror was a projection of the audience’s fears and anxieties, which were in turn the product of political, economic, and cultural events.

    All of this was apparent from the beginning. “Morbidity is not without its claims to a high place among humanity’s respectable emotional interests,” ran one apologetic trade report on Frankenstein (1931). This was because that film had arrived

    If the psychologists can be believed, at a familiar psychological moment. Say the savants, people like the tragic best at those times when their own spirits are depressed, and the economists tell us that even more than their spirits are at a low ebb.

    Of course, in 1931 you didn’t have to be an economist to know that the economy was at a low ebb. That much was pretty obvious. The Great Depression was the American Nightmare, and horror movies are nightmares displaced. Such connections have always been made; cultural criticism is nothing new. Also writing during the Depression, Nelson B. Bell noted the link between the popularity of horror movies and the dismal economy:

    Many are without employment, many are employed only by virtue of having accepted drastic curtailment of income, many lead their lives in a state of constant dread of the disaster that may overtake them at any minute. This is a state of mind that creates a vast receptivity for misfortunes more poignant than our own.

    This correlation between a collective state of mind and attendant social conditions with the kinds of entertainments and diversions it calls forth is the basic template for Skal’s analysis in The Monster Show. In brief, how did what was happening in America (and, to a lesser extent, Europe) influence what audiences flocked to see on the screen?

    In many colourful ways. Maimed and disfigured soldiers returning from the First World War became the animate corpses of the Frankenstein mythology. Zombies, in the Depression and again today, come back to life during times of economic hardship, loss of a sense of personal agency, and exaggerated economic inequality (the living haves vs. the undead have nots; the besieged 1% in their gated communities vs. the hordes of mindless consumers: under social Darwinism the only law is to eat or be eaten). The atomic age breeds giant monsters like Godzilla or the ants in Them. Bulb-headed, bug-eyed aliens land during the “right-brained and technologically-obsessed” 1950s, their appearance on film and the new medium of television eerily foreshadowing our own age of screenwatchers (“In the way that early movie monstrosities reflected a horror of physical transformation, these new creatures anticipated not the violent rending of the body but its withering and atrophy. The future was about watching images and processing information; the eyes and brain were the only useful parts of the human form left.”). The Pill and thalidomide are dispensed and we get an entire sub-genre of “birth horror” (Rosemary’s Baby, The Brood, It’s Alive, Alien). Sexually transmitted diseases make headlines and promiscuous teenagers are slashed to pieces. Most recently (and after the publication of the revised edition of this book), we go from Guantanamo to Hostel and “torture porn.”

    This could all get reductive, but it doesn’t because Skal never suggests that such correspondences tell the whole story. To be sure, at times the analysis doesn’t quite persuade. I’m still not convinced of the relation between the Depression and Dracula, and Hitler as the Wolf Man strikes me as a real stretch. Nevertheless, this is an entertaining, well-informed, opinionated and at times idiosyncratic look at a fascinating subject.

    But perhaps the most interesting question Skal’s work raises is the extent to which horror leads or follows the larger culture. Are the purveyors of scary thrills the antennae of the race, the paranoid legislators for mankind? Or do they just respond to contemporary anxieties and trends? In the late 1930s, New York Times critic André Sennwald saw a resurgence of horror films as “related very distinctly to the national state of mind.” It reminded him of the “mad confused days which preceded our entrance into the World War [when] the cinema was satiating the blood-lust of noncombatant Americans with just such vicarious stimulants. Hollywood, always quick to reflect or stimulate a mass appetite, seems to be doing the same thing all over again.”

    Reflect or stimulate? This is an important question. Does culture lure us into danger, or is it a healthy kind of catharsis or therapy – in one of Skal’s analogies, acting like a picture of Dorian Gray and taking on and containing society’s fears as a sort of public service.

    To some extent it’s a chicken or egg problem. The bent of Skal’s analysis is toward seeing horror as a responsive genre, reflecting larger historical realities. And I think that for the most part this is right. But as Wilde said in one of his Dorian Gray aphorisms, it is also the case that life imitates art. This isn’t to point a finger of blame at horrormeisters as corrupters of youth, but only to say that reality is shaped by the human imagination, its dreams and its nightmares. The summoning of monsters is a complicated business.

    Review first published online November 3, 2014.

  • The Children’s Crusade

    The Children’s Crusade
    Gary Dickson

    Was there a Children’s Crusade? It seems that something happened in 1212 that looked like one, but the evidence for what that something was is scattered, meagre, and conflicting. Nevertheless, the idea of a mass movement of young people marching to Jerusalem on a doomed quest to redeem the Holy Land was irresistible for writers looking to point a moral. This led to the story of the crusade entering the realm of “mythistory”: a useful concept saddled with a horrible label that I would happily sign a petition against. In mythistory what actually happened in 1212 isn’t as important as how it was interpreted, or what it meant. In the most popular version, the Children’s Crusade has simply become a byword for immature idealism leading to disaster. “Mythistory” notwithstanding, Gary Dickson makes the crusade into an interesting test case of historiography, showing what an ongoing project the construction of history always is.

  • Consumed

    By David Cronenberg

    Seventy-one might be considered a ripe old age to be publishing one’s debut novel, but famed Canadian film director David Cronenberg is hardly a rookie, bringing several decades of screenwriting experience to the table.

    That background is hard to miss in Consumed, as the full slate of Cronenbergian motifs are in play, beginning with a visit to a slightly sinister, quasi-legal medical clinic, and then proceeding through a melange of sex, disease, fetish, and technology.

    The story concerns a pair of young journalists who share a dangerous appetite for the exotic. Naomi is looking into a sensational crime in Paris, where a fashionable French philosophe has apparently killed and eaten his wife, then disappeared. Meanwhile, Naomi’s boyfriend Nathan is doing a piece on a cancer clinic in Budapest, where he contracts an obscure venereal disease that he tracks back to Toronto. The two only meet once in the novel, but as things go on they begin to recognize how their stories share “odd things, funny parallels.”

    A lot of Cronenberg’s horror derives from his making metaphors literal. Or, as one of the characters here puts it when talking about paranoid imaginings of bodily corruption, “it’s not that you believe in its literalness, but that there is a compelling truth in its organic life that envelops you and is absorbed by you almost on a physiological level.”

    If you feel afraid, then that itself becomes something to be afraid of; what you fear becomes real.

    This is certainly the way things work in Consumed. Naomi and Nathan have a mainly ethereal relationship, hooking up globally via cellphones and the Internet in “disembodied” states. It’s significant that the only time they do come into physical contact the results are unfortunate.

    They are untethered not just from their bodies but from reality. True digital natives, everything they see and do is recorded, filmed, or photographed. The result of all this is to make them prey to various conspiracies that in turn get passed on like a virus. How much of what you see on the Internet can you believe?

    This, in other words, is virtual horror: one where mediated reality has taken over. Did the trendy French philosopher consume his wife, Célestine? Being a trendy French philosopher he’s not sure it makes a difference:

    spousal cannibalism expanded in the media to the point where it took on a potent reality that was not really connected to my life or to Célestine. I was enveloped in that reality, enshrouded, until it became my own, until my own thoughts, and emotions were displaced by those thousands that came from television, newspapers, the multiple internet sources, the YouTubes and Twitters, yes, even the car radio and the talk shows . . . I was colonized, appropriated. I had to leave my dead husk to shrivel and wither in Paris and become someone else . . .

    The horror of virtual reality has consumed him, eaten him alive. This seems to be Cronenberg’s larger point in the novel, which he arrives at by way of a paranoid conspiracy plot reminiscent of writers like Pynchon and DeLillo.

    Consumerism and the Internet have fused, we are told, and what we are consuming online is ourselves. The narcissism of Naomi and Nathan, so familiar to observers of digital culture today, has its end point in autophagy, self-cannibalism. We put our entire lives online, indeed live our lives online, and so become the content the Internet feeds on, enveloped and absorbed on “an almost physiological level.”

    Cronenberg has been down this road before, but the fact that his weird imaginings seem so relevant today only highlights how far ahead of the cultural curve he has always been. It’s a scary thought, but his nightmares are coming true.

    Review first published October 18, 2014.

  • Rogue Male

    Rogue Male
    Geoffrey Household

    A novel whose cultural resonance is testament to the archetypal status of its unique hero. The unnamed narrator is both a generic and emblematic figure (underground man, courtly avenger, wild man of the woods) as well as sui generis. His adventures in and beneath the English countryside are nightmarishly surreal as well as folksy and familiar. He is one of the rabbits living on Watership Down. He is Lear on the heath. He is a psychopath. Like most fantasy fables, it’s a book that allows for many readings and interpretations, unbound to any particular time or place. Included among its descendants are The Day of the Jackal and First Blood. It was a product of Auden’s “low dishonest decade,” which was an odd period for British fiction. The pure products of England weren’t going crazy yet, but they were definitely starting to show signs of cracking up.

  • Extraordinary

    By David Gilmour

    Extraordinary challenges the reader right away with a cringe-inducing premise. All that happens in the book is this: the narrator goes to his handicapped sister Sally’s apartment to reminisce, get drunk, and then assist her in committing suicide.

    It sounds painful. Depressing. Literary, in the worst possible way.

    But it’s not.

    In the first place, David Gilmour’s voice is a charm. As with all of today’s best conversational prose stylists — think of names like Nicholson Baker, Julian Barnes, or John Banville — you feel like you could read Gilmour’s rendition of an IKEA catalogue. He has the relaxed, informal, intelligent but unpretentious manner down pat, and it fits his narrator — a familiar, semi-autobiographical figure conscious of being a bit of a jerk but unconscious of being an even bigger one — like a sharkskin racing suit. The effect is so smooth that on the very few occasions where you come across a misplaced or inapproriate word (I couldn’t buy “lugubrious” here, or Sally having to remind her brother of her ex-husband’s name) it’s like jamming your toe.

    It’s a grace the narrator appreciates in others. “I wanted to keep her talking,” he says near the end of his sister, “she took such palpable pleasure in conversation, she danced such an elegant dance when she spoke, that I thought for a second it might occur to her to stay around and do some more.” But of course the music has to stop for all of us.

    And it’s a short song. Another thing Extraordinary has going for it is its lightness. In fact it’s almost a novella, coming in at under 200 pages (framed with very wide borders). You can read it in a single sitting, or about the same time as the narrator’s evening visit takes.

    As time runs out, the walls close in. We never leave the apartment, a bubble that the outside world (voices in the hallway, a mysteriously ringing phone) only faintly impinges on. But because the book is so focused, it doesn’t feel rushed or abridged. Brevity — in particular the brevity of life, symbolized here by guttering candles — is what it’s all about. The narrator isn’t trying to re-tell an entire family history, but is condensing that history into a series of final thoughts and reflections that gradually become more compressed as the night advances.

    In what spirit will we meet our end? In what state of mind? What will our final thoughts be of? These are universal questions, and if we believe “death concentrates the mind” and that in vino veritas, then this is the sort of evening we would expect to provide some answers. Both Sally and her brother are hitting the Drambuie pretty hard, and what point is there in lying to one another now?

    But there are no revelations forthcoming, despite the narrator’s rather crass urge for enlightenment. Instead there’s just the booze, the candles, painful trips to the bathroom, and a pre-Boomer soundtrack that finally ends in absurdity with one of those stupid and unlikely tunes we can’t keep out of our heads.

    And through it all there’s a nagging sense that something is going unsaid. Sally and the narrator are only step-siblings, and since Sally is by fifteen years the elder the two don’t seem particularly close. Despite the fact that they have important things to say, they’re not things we feel they need to say to each other. We’re never sure of the exact nature of their relationship, and a lot of the time they seem to be talking to themselves, about people who aren’t there, while trying to make sense of their lives.

    There is an irony in the title, as Gilmour is primarily the chronicler of all-too-ordinary, middle-class disappointments. And even given the book’s charm and mystery there’s no denying the sad takeaway: that the End is a time of regrets and for dwelling on the mistakes that we’ve made. Middle age, which brings with it reflections on the damage we’ve caused to others in our lives — damage that we can no longer hope to undo — is some preparation, but not a final accounting.

    Such a reckoning is impossible. The narrator envisions drawing a line under Sally’s life and then beginning a process of forgetting, memories fading “like the paint on an old house” until “there’d be nothing left of us or this evening.” But it is now years later, and he’s writing all of this down. Forgetting, and forgiving, isn’t that easy. You can draw a line under a life and try to sum it up, but in families there’s always some figure to be carried over into the next column, and another generation to be accounted for.

    Review first published in the Toronto Star, September 11 2013.