Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

Imagine a pop-up book mating with a crisp high-def image. Throw in occasional jerky motion resembling undercranked Mack Sennett moments when actors move too much, overly defined planes along the Z axis suggesting a View-Master brightened by the heat of a thousand suns, noses and ears sometimes revealed to be pellucidly prosthetic, and overhead shots of landscapes looking more like a cut scene crunched through an overclocked Nvidia card five years from now. To my eyes, this was what 48 frames per second looked like on a fifty-foot screen. I had heard reports that one was “supposed to get used to this” after a period lasting somewhere between five and twenty minutes. Unlike other 3D films, I did not get a headache. On the flip side, I couldn’t believe in the aesthetic.

But then The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is “fantasy” — not the thoughtful form from the adept hands of Michael Moorcock or Mervyn Peake or Kelly Link, but the inoffensive offerings from J.R.R. Tolkien. I don’t necessarily have a problem with a fantasy which opts to swim in the shallow end of the pool. The covenant is that, if the fantasy short-changes on human scope and capitulates to escapism, then the fantasy must inspire new awe and fresh wonder.

We come into The Hobbit familiar with the Shire’s round doors and verdant pleasures from years before. We have seen Middle Earth’s eco-porn greens and Rivendell’s gables and gazebos. So why exactly should we return to the theater and hand over our hard-earned shekels if it’s more of the same? Are we here for nostalgic purposes? Do filmmaker and audience alike prefer stagnation? I didn’t mind being there and back again, but the too clean 48fps technology had the strange effect of cheapening my middling affinity for Middle Earth. Like George Lucas before him, Peter Jackson has returned to the beginning, motivated by technological tinkering and the considerable dollars he will collect from feverish and unquestioning fanboys rather than any real need to spin a good yarn. At least there is nothing here as terrible as Jar Jar Binks.

For long stretches, this first film in Peter Jackson’s new Tolkien trilogy failed to seduce. This is largely because its source material only has enough material for two films. By my calculation, it takes Jackson 168 minutes to dramatize about 82 pages of material, which seems needlessly profligate. The Hobbit is many things, but it is neither Ulysses nor Gravity’s Rainbow. There is no doubt in my mind that we will see an extended version and supplements on DVD ensuring that nobody leaves the house for the next ten years.

The film opens with a lengthy flashback distressingly close to the confusing monologue which opened David Lynch’s ill-received Dune adaptation. But why? “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” is a straightforward first sentence requiring no additional mythology. But Jackson and his writers (which include Guillermo del Toro, who was originally supposed to helm this movie) feel compelled to throw in any stray flashbacks that they can to pad out this movie. I don’t wish to diminish the need for dwarf kingdoms, but there’s nothing in the film’s first hour even as remotely alluring as the Nazgûl, which provided The Fellowship of the Ring with an immediate threat to jump-start the narrative and set our heroes on an adventurous path.

Without something as big as Mordor threatening to engulf Middle Earth driving the story, Jackson’s métier as a Wagnerian filmmaker is undone by a cinematic experience that feels more like a game on rails, especially during a climactic goblin chase scene with a constantly moving godlike camera, but a paucity of closeups or medium shots. It also doesn’t help that Martin Freeman, cast as the younger Bilbo Baggins, really should have been hired ten years earlier. Having grown from the young and neurotic comic archetype into a more subdued and interesting middle-aged actor (best exemplified by his portrayal of Watson in Steven Moffatt’s Sherlock), Freeman is curiously unpersuasive in this film when he complains about wanting to be back home among his books and fellow hobbits. Ian McKellen is okay as Gandalf, but one longs for the gravelly gravitas he displayed so eminently in the last trilogy. However, I very much enjoyed Ken Stott’s fresh and feisty portrayal of Balin. But I do have a weak spot for any character with a massive bushy beard.

This lack of focus causes the first half to feel like a tenuous string of loosely connected sequences: dwarves show up at Bilbo Baggins’s hobbit hole, on Dori, on Nori, on Gloin, on Oin, on Blitzen, orcs, wargs, is Bilbo up for the journey, knowing look from Gandalf, walking, walking, orcs, hidden swords, is Bilbo up for the journey, complaints from Thorin, elves, orcs, knowing look from Gandalf, mention of arcane Middle Earth reference to appease fanboys, orcs, orcs, is Bilbo up for the journey.

You get the idea. But when the mountain trolls show up halfway into the movie, An Unexpected Journey starts to become fun for those, like me, who were fatigued by the bloodless and cutesy bullshit calculated to make this Fun for the Whole Family™. These trolls are lumbering, mumbling, ass-scratching giants who hock loogies into pots loaded with the carcasses of dwarves and elves. In other words, they’re a nice throwback to the visceral films Jackson made early in his career before going Hollywood, serving as a reminder that Jackson is at his best when he lets his inner six-year-old come out. Casting Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown is also a brilliant move, for McCoy taps both his Roadshow days and the dark command he brought to his brown-coated Doctor Who incarnation to enliven the eccentric wizard who plows through terrain with a rabbit sleigh. It is also hard to go wrong with good ol’ Gollum, arguably the most enthralling CGI villain of the past fifteen years, during the highly compelling game of riddles sequence. Why hasn’t anybody created a Ball-Arnaz inspired sitcom called I Love Precious?

But An Unexpected Journey is felled by its zestless commitment to the well-trodden path. Make no mistake: this is not Pan’s Labyrinth, Labyrinth, Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast, The Wizard of Oz, Princess Mononoke or The Princess Bride. Did we really need subtitles when the orcs don’t say anything especially interesting? Do we really need narrative digressions when the meat on the bones is so sparse? There are a few inspired ideas, such as the aforementioned trolls and a goblin stenographer traversing along a pulley cable on a chair. But if you spend years of your life working on a fantasy trilogy, shouldn’t it contain more imagination? Shouldn’t you wait as long as it takes to read the secret moon runes embedded in the map?

Review: The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

The Amazing Spider-Man, a completely unnecessary reboot of a perfectly wonderful Sam Raimi movie that was released only ten years before, expects us to believe in remarkably unpersuasive and tepid lies.

It is a movie that expects us to believe that one can walk into a 100-story skyscraper situated in Columbus Circle run by an apparent multinational corporation, catch a look at one of the badges behind the desk, and assume one of the names. (Only an hour before the screening, my photo had been taken for a temporary badge so that I could participate in a twenty minute meeting in a building that had fewer stories than Oscorp, which I much preferred as a sprawling industrial complex in the Raimi movies.) It is a movie that expects us to believe that an impostor can enter a top secret facility standing thirty feet away from the door leading in and observe a scientist, who just happens to be there, tracing a pattern-sensitive code into the panel with his hand (no thumbprint or retinal scan or surveillance cameras?).

It is a movie that expects us to believe that a hero, unable to use his considerable strength just after being bitten by a spider, will be curiously inconsistent in how he destroys things. Peter Parker clicks on a mouse without incident, but the keys rip off the keyboard as he types. He destroys the bathroom sink, but his skateboard is remarkably preserved. It is a movie that expects us to believe that a kid possessing reflexes beyond the pale would not be recruited by a sports coach (Studio Executive to Producers: “We can’t do that because of the wrestling element in Raimi’s first movie. That bastard! Why did he bolt on us?” Producers: “Because he wanted more time to develop the script!?”) and would not be examined by scientists or specialists for his off-the-charts ability. The movie simply assumes that a preternatural ability to warp a goal post with a football (is that even physically possible with cowhide?) is par for the course among high school teens. (“We’re very excited about the creative possibilities that come from returning to Peter’s roots,” said Amy Pascal in a statement when Sony put the kibosh on Spider-Man 4. Apparently, “creative possibilities” involve a remarkably unprofessional failure to work out story logic.)

It is a movie that expects us to believe that an especially carnivorous rat (mutated, of course) running around a scientific facility would not be noticed by the many attentive professional minds employed by Oscorp. It is a movie that expects us to believe that the television cameras closely following an injured Spider-Man crawling up a building with some difficulty would not also roll as Spider-Man rips his mask off (in fact, Parker reveals his identity more times than one would think during this film; presumably, superheroes have become so commonplace in the Marvel universe that one need not bother with sub rosa). It is a movie that expects us to believe that a teenager can spend long hours fighting crime and collecting bruises and not be grounded or sternly disciplined by his guardian, who also does not follow Parker when he takes up a large and vertiginous stack of food up to his room (including frozen macaroni and cheese, which is not especially edible unless you nuke it). It is a movie that expects us to believe that a seasoned cop would not notice the numerous bruises upon his daughter’s date and would neither remark upon said contusions, much less the fact that this date has seemingly materialized out of nowhere into his daughter’s room and not shown up in a suit (as agreed upon in advance by the Stacy family).

I put forth the modest proposition that a movie containing this much paralogia should be rejected by a mass audience. It is one thing to accept a webslinger sailing through the Manhattan skyline on threads that couldn’t possibly be tensile enough to hold a 160 pound man. One must, after all, suspend some disbelief for a film of this type. But we are not dummies. And it is the job of the Hollywood professional to make us believe in the impossible for a few hours.

It is also the responsibility of the professional to give the protagonist an interesting antagonist: ideally, someone who shares similar qualities and who is just as dimensional as the hero. What have screenwriters James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargeant, and Steve Kloves given us? The Lizard (aka Dr. Curt Connors), who was capable of telepathic communication with other reptiles and was nuanced enough to help Spidey a few times in the comics, is a dull and plodding villain barking ho-hum soliloquies into his video camera and booming loud and not especially inventive three-word threats to Peter Parker. In this cinematic manifestation, he is such an underwritten and bland character that director Marc Webb, who seems to have carved out the inventive eye he brought to the marvelous (500) Days of Summer for the money men, constantly has his camera fixated upon Connors’s missing arm even after we have a pretty good idea that the experiments at Oscorp will cause it to grow back. I became so distracted by this that I was able to figure out where Rhys Ifans’s pre-CGI arm was with little effort. But as we have already established, Webb and his army of hacks aren’t especially interested in believable magic tricks.

* * *

“Don’t break promises you can’t keep,” says an English teacher at Midtown Science High School to Peter Parker, as he stumbles late into a classroom near the end of a broken cinematic promise. “Yeah,” Parker replies, “but those are the best ones.”

Actually, the best promises were fulfilled by Sam Raimi. Even Spider-Man 3, which had its share of problems, was free enough for Raimi to stage that gloriously cheesy scene in the jazz club. There isn’t a single scene in Webb’s hacktacular reimagining that comes close. Raimi understood that Spider-Man was the most endearing of Marvel’s superheroes: the bullied geek finding integrity through his superpowers. While Andrew Garfield is a handsome enough lead man, he doesn’t look like the kind of guy who would be beaten by schoolkids in a previous life. He’s too jittery and bewildered and spastic in his delivery to tend to a friendly neighborhood. It doesn’t help that he has a vague Jersey dialect which flits in and out, out of character for a guy ostensibly from Queens. But then the New York in this movie is some bizarre hodgepodge of the seedy Abraham Beame days (people apparently drink beer on the Q line and it’s too dangerous for a fit older woman to walk twelve blocks to a subway station at night) and something vaguely approximating a period that could be now or could be the 1980s (how else to account for the Rubik’s Cube that Uncle Ben picks up in Peter Parker’s room or the curious lack of texting among teens even as they are using smartphones?). While I accept that a comic book movie is going to stylize a city however it wants (Raimi was audacious enough to include an elevated line running through Manhattan), should it not be rooted in true imagination rather than careless what-the-hell incoherence? (On this point, the movie seems curiously self-aware of its fallacies. Not only does The Amazing Spider-Man lack the guts to utter the famous line “With great power comes great responsibility,” but an Einstein poster appears in Parker’s bedroom with the immortal quote, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” If ever there was a filmmaker who misunderstood Einstein, it’s director Marc Webb.)

That slipshod quality extends to Peter Parker, who inexplicably clings to an analog camera in an age when nearly every aspiring photographer his age is likely to be using digital. Hilariously, Parker’s camera has PROPERTY OF PETER PARKER in embossed tape on the back, which conveniently allows a villain to find him not long after he tries snapping a few secret photos. (By comparison, notice how our first introduction of Raimi’s Peter Parker as photographer involves Parker asking permission at a museum just before he snaps a spider for the “school paper,” only for a bully to push Parker and mess up his shot. In a matter of five seconds, Raimi and screenwriter David Koepp established that (1) Parker is polite and destined to work for a paper to expand his scientific and journalistic interests and (2) he is also doomed to face bullies who will mess his vocation up, whether as crime fighter or photographer.)

And how can you have a Spider-Man movie without J. Jonah Jameson? Then again, after J.K. Simmons, why would you dare to cast another actor in the part? Jameson’s disapproval of Spidey is passed off to Captain George Stacey (played by Denis Leary, who seems to have turned into a poor man’s David Caruso, just as he was once a poor man’s Bill Hicks). But here’s why Jameson is so important. Peter Parker was able to work at the Daily Bugle trying to impress Jameson with his photos, while simultaneously facing Jameson’s smear campaign against Spidey. In light of the fact that he has no father figure, Jameson almost serves as an intriguing surrogate. Webb’s film has Captain Stacey insisting that Spidey is a menace, ordering the cops on his side. But we don’t believe it — in large part because Captain Stacey also views Parker as a kid with “psychiatric problems.” Yet it’s clear that Spidey is working on the side of good. However, we can believe that a media mogul would want to manipulate public opinion for his own selfish ends. Sure enough, Webb and his writers lack the deft hand to see Captain Stacey’s resentment through to the end.

I haven’t even brought up the Gwen Stacy story — in large part because Stacy, who was such a central figure in the comic books (memo to Mr. Webb: not especially wise of you to feature a prominent NYC bridge in your Spider-Man movie because it spells out how risk-averse and how out of your league you really are), is little more than a head-bobbing, limb-shuffling, one-dimensional, big-eyed love interest for Parker. In Raimi’s version, Mary Jane lived a few houses down from Parker. There were hints that a troubled family lived inside. Raimi even had the courage to have Parker mutter his feelings for Mary Jane while walking behind her: an uncommonly sincere moment that made us relate to Parker’s wistfulness in human terms. What does Webb offer us? Gwen Stacy’s photo on Parker’s computer.

I suppose I’m dwelling upon the many human elements that went awry because the comic book story here is boring and unsatisfying. While this movie is not as bad as any comic book movie with “green” in the title, I did not feel a single second of awe or excitement during The Amazing Spider Man‘s 136 interminable minutes. Once again, there was no real justification for the 3D: not even the ridiculous Spidey POV shots that Webb desperately introduces as a personal stylistic flourish. There also needs to be a moratorium on Stan Lee cameos.

We have seen origin story after origin story, and, after two Hulks (2003 and 2008), Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, it’s all becoming wearisome. At least with The Avengers, the spandex ass kicking began fairly early and there was decent acting and a few good lines and a rousing Alan Silvestri score and an endearing Hulk. But the comic book movie has become a drag. Nobody says “fuck” or fucks or drinks or does drugs or gets into serious trouble. Nobody really lives. Imagine how truly amazing these movies would be if somebody took a human chance.

Review: Dark Shadows (2012)

Tim Burton is little more than a soulless businessman who makes movies as cutting-edge as crucible steel. His films haven’t been fun or worthwhile in quite some time, an especially astonishing accomplishment considering the eye-popping work that came before. He’s been lurching around like a creatively bankrupt whore for at least sixteen years and his chief skill seems to be taking very fun films from decades past (Planet of the Apes, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, et al.) and adulterating them into tepid remakes which rival Sátántangó in sheer soporificity. Tim Burton is not a man who dazzles, but he is very keen on taking your money and boring you to tears.

With his latest disaster, Dark Shadows, Burton has once again butchered an engaging antecedent. He has hired Seth Grahame-Smith, an in-it-for-the-money mashup charlatan who wasn’t even alive when the first Dark Shadows series aired, to write a porous screenplay built upon gags so bad that even a Marmaduke fan is likely to go postal.

Instead of establishing Barnabas Collins’s striking qualities as a tormented vampire, Burton and Grahame-Smith cheapen him by having Barnabas react to cultural developments (“They tried stoning me. It did not work,” replies Barnabas when someone asks if he is stoned: no one in the theater laughed), having Dr. Julia Hoffman (played here as a clueless chain-smoking drunk by Helena Bonham Carter) go down on Barnabas because Burton and Grahame-Smith couldn’t ken the character (played by Burton’s real-life wife!) in any other way*, and having Barnabas quote from The Steve Miller Band’s “The Joker” (which actually came out in 1973, one year after the movie’s setting) and Erich Segal’s Love Story in an effort to relate to hippies.

This is Dark Shadows‘s idea of character development, and it extends to the acting. A distressingly plastic Michelle Pfeiffer, unable to express anything with her face, resorts to eye blinking in her role as the Collins matriarch (and cannot compare to the classy Joan Bennett from the original). For some inexplicable reason, Burton has directed nearly every woman to talk with a gravely two-packs-a-day timbre. And this became so distracting that I had to do a double take to make sure that Eva Green (who plays Angelique, the witch who ensnares Barnabas) wasn’t Helena Bonham Carter. Bella Heathcote tries her best (and is an excellent Kathryn Leigh Scott mimic) as Victoria Winters, the woman who looks like Barnabas’s lost love, Josette du Pres. But with such a middling script (and a really awkward backstory about being institutionalized as a child reflecting the desperation of artistic cretins sandwiching Maggie Evans and Victoria Winters into one character), Heathcote’s talents fizzle before they are allowed to catch fire. As for Johnny Depp, he’s in full paycheck role somnambulism here, offering little more than a not particularly precise Liverpudlian dialect and spastic presence. It is now clear that Johnny Depp, who was once one of our more interesting and daring actors, can no longer be trusted to put his name to anything even remotely daring. (His next film is The Lone Ranger.)

And I put forth to any self-respecting moviegoer that when a character is forced to exclaim “You’re way too weird!” to another in a movie, as one does to Barnabas, this is probably happening because the writer and the director are incapable of establishing the weirdness through action.

The Jonathan Frid and Ben Cross incarnations of Barnabas Collins didn’t require external prodding from others to establish their on-screen gravitas. Producer Dan Curtis, faced with a miniscule budget for his daily soap opera, relied on two dependable qualities that have escaped Burton’s feeble attentions: (1) go-for-broke writing and (2) theatrical acting. So he had his writers scavenge ideas and narrative angles from Poe, Lovecraft, Wilde, Stoker, Shelley, and countless other classics to create what was surely one of the most ambitious and quirky daytime shows ever produced on television, including everything from vampires to werewolves to gripping court trials to a wealthy family to parallel universes to immortal figures to Gothic intrigue. It proved so strangely addictive — almost the American answer to old school Doctor Who‘s endearing combination of wobbly sets and high concept — that I ended up renting the first 52 volumes on VHS at a Sacramento video store around 1990, managing to hook a number of friends and family members into my surprise find, and was crushed when I learned that there was no 53rd volume. (Later, I discovered that the Sci-Fi Channel was broadcasting Dark Shadows every morning, and I waited patiently for the series to catch up to where I had left off.)

So if you’re going to compress a series this complicated and this distinct into a two hour movie, you need dedication and finesse, especially if you hope to attract a new audience.

But Burton and Grahame-Smith are so laughably amateurish that Barnabas walks around town in open daylight with little more than a hat and an umbrella to protect him. (Indeed, after the fifteenth time I noticed some stream of sunlight that should have killed Barnabas, I stopped counting.) And unlike the Frid or Cross exemplars, who both used their innate charisma to persuade, Barnabas relies mostly on his hypnotic powers to coax others to do his bidding. As the wonderful bar scene from Near Dark demonstrated, a vampire is only as badass as his actions. Tim Burton’s Barnabas comes from a soft, privileged, and unlived place.

In addition, the movie is needlessly aggressive in its use of obvious music cues — The Carpenters’s “Top of the World,” The Moody Blues’s “Nights in White Satin,” Barry White’s “You’re the First, My Last, My Everything,” many others — to telegraph its hackneyed moments. One almost expects Casey Kasem to show up. Instead, we get Alice Cooper performing at Collinwood, the Collins family manse that was so enticingly mysterious in its two television incarnations. For Burton, Collinwood is merely a place where you stash your badminton and macramé supplies in the secret rooms.

If turning a secret room into storage space for a Veblenian haul is Burton’s idea of imagination, then it’s clear that this rabid bore should be taken to the woodshed. The man contributes nothing of value to the American cultural landscape. He may look like Ichabod Crane, but he lost his head for fun a long, long time ago.

* — To give you a sense of how Burton and Grahame-Smith have diminished Dr. Julia Hoffman, here’s an extremely abbreviated character history from the original series. She was the head of a sanitarium, pretended to be a historian to infiltrate her way into the Collins family, and discovered Barnabas to be a vampire through her own initiative. Barnabas and Julia developed an interesting relationship that was built on trust, hypnosis, blackmail, and near murder. Should such an intriguing character really be little more than a drunk?

A Hasty Response to The Late American Novel

I remember reading Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee’s anthology, The Late American Novel, a few years ago when it was called Kevin Smokler’s anthology, Bookmark Now. Kevin Smokler has more followers than I do on Twitter and is paid by Chris Anderson to do something in relation to books and marketing. When I read Bookmark Now in 2005, I had a beef with Kevin Smokler. But now I do not, although Smokler doesn’t follow me on Twitter. And I don’t follow him. I do not have a beef with either Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee, but Max and I follow each other on Twitter. It may be that I am less angry now than I was in 2005, or that I like Max more in 2011 than Kevin in 2005. I feel compelled to point out that it is not 2005. I know this because I have less hair. The Late American Novel may have spoken to me six years ago, but I am not quite sure that it speaks to me in 2011. But then I have not yet opened its contents. I am about to. I will say that I do not see the Internet as a distraction or even an enhancement. It is a bit like a sex toy that I plug in from time to time. I am certain that I am not the only one that feels this way. If the Internet were to go away, I’d be perfectly happy. Because, aside from my extracurricular activities, I am surrounded by books and, if websites were to go away, you would find me in the streets disseminating pamphlets and circulars. You would find me giving speeches in obscure town halls. (Come to think of it, you may be finding me there even with the Internet. I comfortably wear the Internet as a surplice, but it is not the end all and the be all. It has yet to design the intellectual equivalent of exciting underwear.)

It remains unclear whether Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee will, in five years time, be paid by Chris Anderson (or some other dimwitted man who plagiarizes from Wikipedia and hosts conferences and edits overrated magazines and pays quirky and interesting voices a lot of money to transform into uncritical hacks in a few years) to do something in relation to books and marketing. But I don’t think they will. Jeff Martin and C. Max Magee are certainly more admirable and interesting in their 2011 pursuits than Kevin Smokler was with his 2005 pursuits. Looking at the list of contributors in The Late American Novel, there are only three names that make me want to throw the book against the wall and rage like a deranged animal for another random anthology so that I can peform the same eccentric test. And I have to say that, as anthologies go, this is a pretty decent batting average. I think there were more contributors who annoyed me in Bookmark Now.

I’m not sure I needed Thomas Allen’s “Notes on the Cover.” If you have to explain your book cover, it’s my feeling that you’re slumming it in some way. I also didn’t need Reif Larsen’s “The Crying of Page 45.” Larsen, who has littered this essay with annoying postmodernism (“Figure 3: The order of Chapters in Cortazar’s Rayeula“) didn’t get the memo that, thanks to the twee approach of McSweeney’s, pomo will be quite dormant for the foreseeable future. “I never arrived at page 45,” writes Larsen. And one longs to tell this precious writer that he’s not exactly making it easy to push beyond the third paragraph. One also wishes to tell Larsen that nostalgia is a terrible reason to read. One reads to get some sense of being alive. Or at least this reader does.

Which brings us to Marco Roth’s “The Outskirts of Progress,” with its second-person East Coast assumptions. First off, Marco, I may be skeptical, but I’m not pessimistic. Like you, I’m not a slave to technological progress. But unlike you, frequent railroad landscapes do not bore me. I also quibble with your suggestion that I am deracinated. I was just watered and taken for a walk. No knowledge is lost, if one looks hard for it. Please take more time formulating your thoughts.

The widely disseminated Davey Gates-Johnny Lethem exchange from PEN America (collected here as “A Kind of Vast Fiction”) is something one can get behind, especially in response to Gates’s idea about the “instantaneous opinion marketplace” and whether all future novels are, in some sense, historical. But then my own long-winded online presence would suggest that Gates and I are simpatico on this score. I also liked Deb Olin Unferth’s “The Book,” in which bullet points demonstrate the futility of attempting to announce the death of a medium. Elizabeth Crane humbly writes, “So I’m the last person to have any predictions about the fate of fiction in the future. Are there any original ideas anymore?” Hucksters and e-cult members: take note.

Leave it to Emily St. John Mandel to cut through the bullshit by opening her essay with this sentence: “There are certain divisions in the world that seem unnecessary to me.” Bookmark Now prided itself upon insisting quite rightly that books were still alive in a digital age. The Late American Novel insists quite rightly that we are all no longer on the same team. Yet I flit around for an essay hoping to acknowledge this fragmentation and I find Katherine Taylor offering the advice: “Don’t go back to Fresno.”

That’s a bit like referring to “flyover states.” It’s impolite.

Maybe going to Fresno might give some of us a more reasonable idea about where books are heading and what regular people are reading. The Late American Novel, while refreshingly cheerful, doesn’t quite acknowledge this. But then neither did Bookmark Now. Rudolph Delson is wrong to suggest that there isn’t pleasure in knowing about novels. That’s like saying there isn’t pleasure in knowing about people. We should know about everything. But perhaps The Late American Novel is a necessary kickstart.

New Review: Tom Bissell’s EXTRA LIVES

I don’t confess nearly as much as Tom Bissell in my review of his excellent book, Extra Lives. But I do nevertheless come out to some extent in today’s Barnes & Noble Review:

When Valve recently updated its shiny Steam client—that flashy desktop app permitting the user to waste numerous hours on video games and to spend precious dollars on special weekend sales—I received the soul-shattering news that I’d clocked in an alarming 131 hours of Team Fortress 2. I had not asked for this statistic, yet this seemingly benevolent software company had given it to me in the game launch window. And the size of this embarrassing timesink felt incommensurate with my daily duties as a books enthusiast. It was enough to make me wonder if I needed to register for some national time-offender database.

Far more important than any any of this introspective flensing, of course, is Bissell’s book. Read the rest of the review to find out why Extra Lives is a must read.

So Much for Shriver

My review of Lionel Shriver’s novel, So Much for That, runs in today’s Chicago Sun-Times. Here’s the first paragraph:

In We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver axed at the angst of self-absorbed parenting while spinning the unspoken psychological grindstone that sharpens school violence. In her severely underrated novel The Post-Birthday World, Shriver expertly established two parallel universes that exposed the delicate fissures buried within a seemingly grounded relationship. One would logically assume Shriver to be the ideal social novelist to fire up the Flammenwerfer for a blistering assault on the ongoing health care crisis.

You can also listen to my 2007 interview with Shriver on The Bat Segundo Show. While I was extremely disappointed by the latest novel, I still believe that Shriver has enough talent to recapture the momentum contained within her last three novels, which are all worth reading.

Donald E. Westlake’s Lost Novel

In today’s Philly Inquirer, you’ll find my review of Donald E. Westlake’s Memory, published by Hard Case Crime. Here’s the first few paragraphs:

The celebrated literary critic Edmund Wilson famously derided the detective story as a form that existed only “to see the problem worked out.” The French critic Roland Barthes was slightly less derisive, seeing a mystery as a facile narrative paradox with “a truth to be deciphered.”

These reductionist takes presumptuously assumed that mysteries served only as plot-oriented puzzles, and that thematic truths and behavioral insight were taking a busman’s holiday within an allegedly inferior form.

But a magnificent novel from mystery writer Donald E. Westlake, collecting dust in a drawer for four decades until an unexpected excavation just after his death on Dec. 31, 2008, demonstrates that his talent clearly extended into the literary.

You can read the rest here.

New Review: Gail Godwin’s Unfinished Desires

My review of Gail Godwin’s Unfinished Desires appears in today’s Chicago Sun-Times. Here’s the first paragraph:

Over the past half-century, the extreme religious right, as documented in Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming, has transformed certain fidelities about faith into snaky traducements that resemble a spastic Tex Avery cartoon. This surrender of common sense has sullied the more sober connections between spirituality and American life, creating an exploratory reticence among novelists that has softly settled into the cultural berm. But Gail Godwin, one of American literature’s best-kept secrets, has quietly eked out a thoughtful bypass in which orthodoxy and human folly are often entangled.

You can also listen to my recent interview with Godwin on The Bat Segundo Show.

New Review: Charlie Huston

I’ve interviewed the extremely entertaining writer Charlie Huston twice now for The Bat Segundo Show: once in 2007, where Huston rather devilishly attempted (and failed) to employ a minor Yojimbo between the good Rick Kleffel (also a Huston fan) and me, and again in last February (accompanied by a short video excerpt). But as funny and as enthralling as his last standalone novel was (The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death, nominated days ago for an Edgar), Huston’s most recent novel, Sleepless, as I argue in today’s Barnes and Noble Review, represents a major step forward as a writer. Sleepless is an unusual fusion of dystopian cyberpunk, multiple perspectives, and fatherhood, and it really deserves more press. But, as John Fox has thoughtfully observed, today’s book reviewers have permitted idiosyncratic gripes and personal prejudices to intrude upon the sheer pleasure of reading. Small wonder that genre gets ignored or writers who attempt something different are castigated, and that today’s critics, with rare exception, remain about as adventurous as a company man too terrified of venturing more than six blocks away from his workplace during lunch hour.

Whether Huston will ever breach past these retroussé-nosed sentinels, now working themselves into a needlessly vigilant lather over Joshua Ferris’s sophomore slump, is anyone’s guess. The newspaper book review sections, for the most part, remain dull and uninviting in this volatile economic climate, too afraid to take chances or to offer space to thoughtful contrarians, and too diffident to hand over their column inches to anyone possessing even a modest strain of passion. But for those of us who still love fiction, and who can still remember the first time they were excited by a novel, I’m here to tell you that Huston is the real deal. In just five years, the writer who has savagely tortured animals and ushered his two series protagonists (bartender turned vigilante Hank Thompson and New York vampire Joe Pitt) through gritty and gleeful perdition is beginning to blossom before our eyes. As such, Sleepless is the first great novel I’ve read in 2010. And you can read why in today’s Barnes & Noble Review.

New Review

In all the NYFF madness, I failed to note that my review of Morris Dickstein’s Dancing in the Darkappeared in Friday’s edition of the Chicago Sun-Times. It begins:

While the intrepid academic Morris Dickstein has been noodling around on Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression (W.W. Norton, $29.95) for 29 years, the regrettable surprise is that the chapters read like airless lectures delivered to a fidgety audience that’s only sitting through the whole darn talk for a college credit or a free barbeque.

You can read the rest here.

The Underestimated Nicholas Meyer

In today’s Barnes & Noble Review, I take on Nicholas Meyer’s The View from the Bridge. Meyer is best known as the man behind Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the film that arguably saved the Star Trek franchise (for better or worse). But people often overlook the fact that Meyer also wrote a series of amusing Sherlock Holmes pastiches (beginning with The Seven Per-Cent Solution), as well as the 1983 TV movie, The Day After.

Meyer is a far more interesting figure than most people give him credit for. While there are several unanswered questions in the book, the memoir does provide an interesting glimpse into an accidental career. But go to the B&N Review to get the full skinny.

New Review

My review of Chuck Barris’s Who Killed Art Deco? appears in today’s Chicago Sun-Times. And truthfully, the review is far crankier than I remember it being when I filed it. Indeed, the piece is more than a bit ridiculous with some of its pedantic quibbles. I don’t know how many reviewers would actually confess such qualities, but I am committed to candor. This is a Chuck Barris novel, for crying out loud. Not a Donald Westlake novel. But it was an annoying book with homophobic conceits.

New Review: I Am Not Sidney Poitier

In today’s Chicago Sun-Times, you can find my review of Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier. And it’s rather fitting that much of my review ended up as a list of rhetorical (and possibly unanswerable) questions.

everett2As it so happens, just after filing the review and being wowed by the book, I learned that Everett happened to be in New York. And I was able to set up a rare interview with him (which will be airing as the next episode of The Bat Segundo Show, to be released very soon). Everett, who has avoided nearly every form of marketing for his books*, and who declared to me that he had no interest in the business of publishing or catering to an audience, identified his book as a “novel of ideas.” But I Am Not Sidney Poitier is also steeped in an old-fashioned sense of humor. Here’s a brief excerpt from the forthcoming Segundo installment, in which Everett explains the relationship between these two concepts:

Everett: There are no rules. I don’t believe in any rules when it comes to fiction. If I can make you believe it, then it’s fair game. Probably when I’m working, if I can make myself believe it, then it’s fair game. Because I don’t know what you’re going to believe. And it depends on the work. A novel like Not Sidney, where much of it is more a novel of ideas and the narrator is of a certain sort, can make bizarre perceptions or representations of the world and have the one-dimensional county of Peckerwood County. Whereas in other works, that simply wouldn’t work. So the work talks to me. The most important part of the story is the story. And I can’t impose my feelings or my desire to write a certain kind of thing that day on it.

Correspondent: But in identifying Not Sidney as a novel of ideas, I would argue — and this is where we get into needless taxonomy arguments. But I should point out that you are essentially saying, “Well, this is a novel of ideas.” And maybe the story itself will matter on some basic entertainment level.

Everett: Oh no. The story still matters.

Correspondent: Okay. But I’m curious how committed you are to this idea of the “novel of ideas.” If it’s entirely a construct, should we believe in it entirely or should we believe in the ideas?

Everett: Well, if I’ve done it right, you should believe in it entirely. And superimposed upon this is the narrator’s concept of this being a story of ideas. But you can’t have — and this is not a rule, but, for me, I cannot have a novel where the story is secondary to anything. The world has to exist. And so I have to make it. And I have to make it believable. How I do that can vary and come across in any different number of trajectories or strategies or whatever.

* — This may answer, in part, Gregory Leon Miller’s query this weekend on why Everett’s work hasn’t received the attention it deserves.

New Review: Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk is regularly dismissed by the snobs. Despite his sales, you will not see a New York Review of Books or a Bookforum essay on the man anytime soon. The atmosphere is too retrousse. Here is an author who seems to be uncritically admired by his fans and just as unilaterally (and unfairly) condemned by the literary elite. But people do read the man and the man is not without talent. It is a foolish person indeed who does not submerge himself with some frequency into the common lake of the average Joe. You really don’t need a nez relevé to appreciate the bas-reliefs of any structure.

Much as Jeff Vandermeer did earlier this week in the Washington Post, I approached Palahniuk’s latest novel, Pygymy, with this demarcated dichotomy in mind over at the Chicago Sun-Times. And yet the book’s voice proved so unusual for a popular book that I felt compelled to turn in an initial review mimicking its style. The editor wisely suggested that I rewrite it, permitting me to keep a paragraph. The review is much stronger as a result. One can indeed write a whole review or a whole book in a particular style, but the human heart must remain in conflict with itself. That makes this business worth the agony and the sweat.

New Review

In today’s Barnes and Noble Review, you can find my piece on Nancy Kress’s Steal Across the Sky. The first sentence — what some folks in the know call the lede — reads as follows:

The latest volume from the prolific, award-winning science fiction author Nancy Kress bombards the reader with big ideas aplenty — but only a genre-addled birdbrain would pigeonhole Kress as yet another concept-slinging roughneck kicking around speculative turf.

To find out just what that turf entails, read the rest of the review. Needless to say, I do think Nancy Kress deserves more credit for her work. At times, she’s almost the Carol Shields of the speculative fiction scene.

May Podcast Madness!

In today’s edition of the Chicago Sun-Times, you can find my review of Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger. Waters appeared on The Bat Segundo Show back in 2006. And she’ll soon be making a second appearance. Which brings us to an unexpected issue of productivity that I need to address.

First off, I wish to offer a profound apology to several authors and publicists, who have been waiting patiently for several Segundo installments.

podcastmadnessI am not entirely certain how it happened, but I apparently interviewed quite a number of intriguing people over the past month or so. Many of these interviews are quite funny and interesting. One interview is extremely odd and features a notable cinematic figure making a rather naughty reference to a chorizo. Another interview ended with the guest falsely believing me to be a Republican when I stopped tape. Yet another interview features an author and a translator sitting next to each other. But one should not confuse the prolificity of these interviews for any downturn in quality.

But because there was so much interview conducting, this has resulted in an extremely ridiculous backlog of shows that I could not keep up with. And the many gigabytes of data presently lingering on my hard drive probably represents the largest backlog of shows I’ve had in the show’s history. (Indeed, I was so busy conducting these interviews that it hadn’t occurred to me to produce the shows. Between looking for work and other professional obligations, I could do either one task or the other. And not one to keep idle hands, I ended up doing a lot of the former.)

So in an effort to catch up with this mess, I have decided to not interview anybody for the next two weeks or so (although a few interviews have been scheduled after that time). Instead, for the next two weeks, this website will become a depository for May Podcast Madness! I will be putting up a new conversation during just about every weekday for the next two weeks. I suppose that this is podcasting’s answer to television sweeps week. Brace yourself.

My Services Elsewhere

Two pieces have been recently cajoled out of me. Chris Robbins recently acquired the domain,, through some legerdemain that I won’t inquire about. (It seems more interesting, anyway, to keep it all a mystery.) When he told me that a number of writers had suggested that they might write pieces for him — in the same cowardly way that a casting director tells you that he will call you or an accounts payable person tells you that the check is in the mail — I felt compelled to offer him this entry for why I presently feel embarrassed.

I was also very honored to be asked to contribute to the Philly Inquirer again — courtesy of some kind lobbying from a few considerate souls who still seem to think I can write — and you can read my review of Thomas E. Ricks’s The Gamble in today’s edition. I must say that I came away from this book respecting General David Petraeus considerably more than I had in the past. It’s easy for any liberal-minded individual to get caught up in the crude sentiment that the war is wrong. It certainly is wrong. But the book challenged and informed my perceptions about Iraq in a way that I think any good thinker should consider. On this basis alone, the book is worth your time. We’re content to look at the situation with a sense of detached removal. As if it will go away. Like some obnoxious uncle with a drinking problem at a family reunion. But it’s not going away. It’s a scenario that we must understand and that we must take responsibility for. And perhaps that might involve looking hard and less superficially at the Baghdad clusterfuck.

“The Worst Book I Have Read in the Past Three Years”

In today’s edition of the Chicago Sun-Times, you will find my review of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones. Let it be known that I did not arrive at my assessment lightly. I am an ardent lover of ambitious literature, and I realize when taking on any review assignment that an author has probably sweated for years on a project. As such, I do everything in my power to attempt to understand a book on its own terms.

But this novel was so atrocious that I was forced to record a video presenting just how this atrocious book left me vitiated. If you haven’t yet seen the video and you’re on the fence about Littell, I strongly urge you to see what it might do to you. For if you have any decent literary standards, you may very well find yourself incapacitated in a similar manner when you reach the end. (I still don’t know how Orthofer got to the end, but his review is also worthy of your attention.)

One other side effect of reading Littell: I was forced to spend half a day staring into space in order to recover from the book’s sheer awfulness. You can find out the specific reasons why in the review. But I must stress that, even if I didn’t possess some modest spirit of decency, I could not possibly recommend this book to my worst enemy. The Kindly Ones still rests in the stacks of spent tomes, sullying the fine offerings of other skilled voices. I have strongly considered burning it.

New Review

The book appears to have been completely ignored by American newspapers. There’s this snobbish Bookforum review which observes “lowbrow thrills” and appears written by a humorless gentleman who wouldn’t know fun even if he were offered the role of his choice in a custard pie fight. (This regrettable quality is quite typical of the people who Albert Mobilio hires these days. It has been suggested to me that Mobilio does not laugh at all or that he titters infrequently at best. To expect humor, much less fun, in Bookforum‘s dilletantish pages is akin to asking a paraplegic to wake up one morning and participate in a 10K run. It’s simply not going to happen.)

My own take on Alberto Sánchez Piñol’s new novel, Pandora in the Congo, a book that is especially wonderful, can be found in today’s Barnes and Noble Review. I must also praise translator Mara Faye Lethem (who is disgracefully unmentioned in the Bookforum review). Translators are often granted the least hosannas. But between Pandora and Javier Calvo’s Wonderful World (which I am now sneaking pecks at between other books), Lethem is one of the few translators who truly gets pulp, perspective, and idiosyncratic voice. These are vital aspects of literature that are beyond the understanding of Mobilio’s army of hubristic hucksters, but are thankfully within the easy reach of the rest of us.

Another New Review

There’s a lot of fresh content that will be unloaded onto these pages over the course of the day, including three podcasts and a film review. But while you’re waiting on all this, you can find my review of Christopher Moore’s Fool in today’s Barnes and Noble Review. About a month ago, this assignment caused me to delve into any number of King Lear adaptations and reworkings, getting in touch with a rather obsessive interest of mine that I’ve kept quiet about (for reasons cited in the review). And while I’ve long championed the work of Christopher Moore (who was interviewed on The Bat Segundo Show in 2007), this review asks a number of very important questions about the satirical novelist’s present output. To find out what those questions are, and what my ultimate conclusion about Fool was, you can read my review.

New Review: George Friedman’s THE NEXT 100 YEARS

Well, the Gerald Celente post continues to draw plenty of haters to this site. And that’s fine. Because everybody needs a hobby. But I’m pleased to report that I’ve taken on another dubious futurist in the fine pages of the San Francisco Chronicle. I had truly hoped for more from the book. I have a soft spot for futurists and I always start reading a book hoping for the best. But, alas, it proved to be grand bunk.

Today, if you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can pick up the paper and read my review of George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century. Unless, of course, you want to read it now. I can’t possibly predict the future of your own decision, but I’m all too happy to embrace the uncertainty of the present.

Conversations In the Book Trade

Deadlines and line dancing which pertains to deadlines will keep me occupied for the better part of today. So pardon the silence while I clack away on the keyboard. In the meantime, I should observe that Finn Harvor has managed to extract some possibly interesting answers from me on the publishing industry, e-books, the Internet, which mediums work best for fiction, online bookstores, literary agents, and numerous other topics.

(Also, as both the Washington Post‘s Bob Thompson and The New York Times‘s Motoko Rich observed this morning, the NEA’s outgoing chairman Dana Gioia seems to believe that the rise in blogs and online reading over the past five years had no effect on the rise in American fiction reading, but had everything to do with The Big Read program. What next? Will Gioia be attempting to persuade us that he invented the Internet? I also love how the NEA’s smugness, emerging from research director Sunil Iyengar in the Thompson article, is on full display in relation to genre. “Literary” doesn’t imply “highbrow,” says Iyengar. And that goes for mysteries, which the report recognized as the most popular genre. Well, considering that Kipen and company were actively pushing The Maltese Falcon as one of the Big Read choices last year, it seems to me that the NEA is eating a cold bowl of hypocritical stew.)

New Roundup

One of my projects over the past few months was reading somewhere in the area of sixteen books (along with a good deal of beginnings) for a science fiction roundup. I’m pleased to report that the fruit of my labors can be read this Sunday at The Washington Post, where the books featured include Gene Wolfe’s An Evil Guest, Nancy Kress’s Dogs, Leslie What’s Crazy Love, and Benjamin Rosenbaum’s The Ant King. I did my best to include a variegated mix of big and small authors, expected and unexpected presses, et al. If I have erred even a quarter as badly as Dave Itzkoff, by all means, feel free to rip me a new one in the comments.