Friday, December 11, 2009

The Road (2006)

There is a distinct branch of Science Fiction, what we might call the Office of Dystopia, which quietly began operations during the Industrial Revolution, late in the 19th Century. Earlier, in accordance with prevailing philosophies, speculative fiction tended towards more rose-tinted outlooks; people believed history was progressing and improving, the trend was upwards, Heavenwards, and the fortunes of Mankind were leading to if not Earthly Paradise then certainly to some graceful, affluent state. Many metaphorical tales for the Age of Exploration do in fact revolve around quests for "lost" civilizations, heretofore undiscovered countries inside the planet's crust or hidden at the poles, or accessible dream worlds -- all of which represent the kinds of beatific society assumed to be the ultimate fate of Earth's citizenry. Two definitive, if late, expressions of this school of thought appeared in 1933: James Hilton's Lost Horizon, a travel brochure for the Utopian hideaway of Shangri-La, and H.G. Wells' The Shape of Things to Come, a prophetic dispatch from a future society dedicated to the global promotion of science and the arts. (Neither of these novels is entirely Utopian in scope, each hinting at impending world war, and can thus be said to provide bridge material for the harder, more pragmatic brand of SF just around the corner....)

As the world entered first the Machine Age and ultimately the Atomic Age, the "scientific romances" popularized by Wells and Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs turned quaint, even gauche. Speculative fiction began directly siphoning the promises of applied sciences and engineering -- disciplines increasingly applied to military weapons development, bottom line being the cost of human lives during wartime -- and was thus forced to view Utopian dreamscapes through a harsher, more cautionary lens. (The more recent "steampunk" offshoot of SF retrofits 21st Century sensibilities into Victorian settings and tech, resulting in yarns dyed deeply with irony. See: Pynchon's Against the Day (2006) which by no accident contains, among many such plot threads, a futile search for Shambhala during the run-up to World War I, as though uncovering such an idyllic place might somehow save the world from impending doom.)

Propulsion being a by-product of detonation, rocket technologies did not generate only stories of travel through outer space; as the Cold War dawned across the 1950s and the geopolitical landscape divided into East and West, nuclear apocalypse mushroomed into a daily threat, an invisible cloud looming over the planet, likely to burst at any moment. Writers best equipped to scry the future saw grim patterns in the crystallizing mist; proposing improved futures fell to nostalgia for a better world that should-have-been but never came within reach -- the perpetual folly known as The Good Ol' Days. Tapping into underlying fears of the future, the sub-genre of post-apocalyptic SF was easily geared up and sent shambling over the literary landscape.

Whether dealt with via metaphor or more directly, post-apocalyptic narratives break down the business of survival in an environment rapidly coming to pieces, or already in pieces. The means of destruction may differ -- plague, unnatural depletion of resources, nuclear annihilation, brain-munching zombies -- but the response is every time identical: just like the song says, Hit the Road, Jack. It's never safe where you are, but there's a Promised Land just over the next hill, and you may as well die trying to reach it. (Notable exception, in which a cadre of characters dig in and band together: Frank Conroy's Alas Babylon (1959). Following a one-day nuclear war, citizens of a south Florida community coalesce so firmly that when the military finally arrives, offering to move them elsewhere, they refuse to go, steadfastly believing they can best rebuild where they already are. The novel is a dramatic study in the civil defense mindset of the Eisenhower Era, but is otherwise a statistical anomaly within the sub-genre.)

George Romero's zombie films trace their pathos to the Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend (1954) in which prototypical last-man-on-earth Robert Neville is besieged by bloodthirsty creatures (humans transformed by a mutant virus) who swarm his suburban castle after sundown; like any good mid-century American citizen with a backyard bomb shelter and an instructional brochure on nuclear fallout, Neville pragmatically hunkers down to wait out the insane disaster. Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978) takes doomsday prepping to the next level, with a band of characters holing up in a shopping mall they convert into a fortified private compound, shutting out the undead hordes. While Romero satirizes consumer habits, the real truth unveiled is how quickly and terribly society deteriorates when under siege, and how safe places become hideous traps. To survive, keep moving -- the moving target is hardest to hit.

More than simply fleeing danger, Apocalyptic Wanderlust is fueled by the basic desire for human connection, for families and clans. Dystopian novels often feature characters beginning their journeys alone, then in slowly aggregating communities as the plots progress. In Nevil Shute's On the Beach (1957), Australian survivors of a nuclear war await the arrival of drifting radioactive clouds. When a Morse Code distress signal from North America is picked up, the military dispatches a submarine to investigate; this quest for fellow survivors becomes a major plotline but the novel remains chiefly concerned with how people address their fates, how much quality and grace they carry into their final acts.

Two novels by Stephen King follow a more typical "travel narrative" pattern: The Stand (1978) and Cell (2006). In both books, overnight catastrophe wipes out the majority of the human race, leaving those unharmed by either flu-like plague or brain-frying microwave pulse to suffer dreams and visions which compel them to a common destination (in The Stand, it's Colorado; in Cell, central Maine). Staying alive is not a solitary endeavor, but a common one -- it's going to take a village to reconstruct civilization, after all. Anyone who has endured the calamitous, ongoing aftereffects of severe weather (hurricane, earthquake, tornado, take your pick) understands how important, how inherently logical, neighborly relations are. Permanently wrecked infrastructures of course means the disappearance of law enforcement, the rise of self-deputized vigilantes, not to mention armed highwaymen with a severe case of the Self Interest. Within this void, citizens necessarily become clan members -- continually protective, defensive, wary.

So, as characters strike out for the Unlikely Promised Land, they must also watch their backs. This is the underlying scenario of Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006), a novel that differs from the usual post-apocalyptic template in one important way: in most cases, whatever disrupted society remains part of the ongoing story, like the tribal struggles over gasoline in George Miller's film The Road Warrior (1981), or how in John Wyndham's novel The Day of the Triffids (1951) deadly bio-engineered plants have usurped mankind's primary position on the food chain, with plot revolving around efforts to keep the creatures at bay while also seeking permanent sanctuary from them. But in The Road, the only real goal in sight for the unnamed father and his son, heading inexorably south to the coast during relentless nuclear winter, is daily survival. Killers and cannibals roam unchecked through the poisoned landscape, as if the ashen wastelands were not obstacle enough, but man and boy persist because that is all there is to do -- cling to each other and continue.

Like Rod Serling's classic Twilight Zone episode "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street" (itself an allegory of the Cold War-related Red Scare), the story is concerned only with what the characters do with the incomplete hands dealt to them -- whether they will act rationally or succumb to hysteria. In many ways, The Road echoes On the Beach, illustrating how disaster and death are not just inevitable, but ever-present -- we shouldn't need a global disaster to remind us how to live and love and take each day to our bosoms like rare treasure.

At the end of McCarthys' novel, there is no ultimate Better Place, only more of the same. While on one hand this contradicts the logic of setting out in the first place, it also underscores the intrinsic importance of believing in a Better Place. That a phoenix might arise from the ashes of the old world, and be waiting at the end of a hard journey, is reason enough. Even when faced with overwhelming odds, hope dies hard -- and that's exactly as it should be. More than youthful vanity or misplaced survival tactics, the drive to outlive an apocalypse -- atomic, viral, or zombified -- is what makes us fully human.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

True Grit (1968)

It's a surreal joke, with a winding punchline worthy of Mark Twain: When is the South not the South? When it's the Old Southwest! This shifting literary borderland -- populated by mustache-twirling villains, inept but determined (and uncannily lucky) lawmen, saloon brawlers boasting how they could whup Sampson himself, misunderstood hookers with perfectly calibrated hearts of gold, not to mention Johnson Jones Hooper's infamous Captain Simon Suggs and Twain's own celebrated jumping frogs -- is nowhere funnier than where mapped by Charles Portis in his novel True Grit.

Portis hails from Arkansas, a state many would consider decidedly Southern, and his novel makes affectionate, specific use of the setting: main character Mattie Ross takes bold pride in repeatedly reminding others how things are accomplished in her native Yell County, just for starters. Still, several initial reviews of the book took care to point out the "Western" aspects, with Michael Cleary defining Portis as "one of the most inventively comic writers of western fiction" in Twentieth-Century Western Writers.

Location-challenged reviewers aside, the story is relatively high concept, and certainly familiar to readers of pulp westerns: the aforementioned Maddie seeks justice for the murder of her father by one of his hired farmhands, Tom Chaney, who has taken up with a band of outlaws led by the nefarious Lucky Ned Pepper. To apprehend (or kill, whichever) the dastardly Chaney, Mattie treks to Fort Smith for the purpose of hiring a lawman with "true grit," and finds near-enough in the figure of Federal Marshal Rooster Cogburn. Also on Chaney's trail is a Texas Ranger, name of La Boeuf; eventually -- and despite their differing motivations, which range from sheer revenge to simple cash reward -- these three ride out together in search of their quarry.

Though the novel could easily carry different genre labels (satire/humor, coming-of-age) at this later date it's no feat to look back and ascertain how True Grit came to be shelved as a Western rather than, say, a Southern (a decent tag which would fit many books, and that some have tried to make stick, though the adhesive apparently still needs work). The initial marketing of the book is not terribly at fault: the first edition jacket design features a simple illustration of a stern-looking young woman holding in one hand the reins of a horse and in the other the barrel of a rifle. While this iconography telegraphs "Western" for sure, it also merely reflects the essential elements of and suggests a time-frame for the tale resting between those covers. True Grit is Mattie's story, in both plot and tone (she's the first-person narrator, recounting her adventure some sixty years after the fact).

But almost unarguably the main reason: scarcely a year following publication, out from the Hollywood hills loped a popular film starring beloved "cowboy actor" John Wayne as Cogburn, a role which finally earned him an Academy Award. But John Wayne alone did not brand True Grit as a Western; the 1969 film takes many liberties with the novel, beginning, importantly, with the setting: the scrubby, mountainous landscape of Ouray County, Colorado, stands in for the Ozarks, and thus does the movie unavoidably "look" like a traditional Horse Opera. (Additionally, the screen version moves Cogburn to front and center, correspondingly muting Mattie's acerbic attitude and commentary -- an undeniable charm of the novel.) Interestingly, Vincent Canby, in his mainly positive review of the film for the July 4, 1969 edition of the New York Times, had this to say: "I couldn't quite understand what all the fuss was about when the Charles Portis novel hit the best-selling lists last year. The book was strictly freeze-dried nostalgia, which imitated the flavor of nineteenth-century American writing without ever making you believe it was as good as the real thing (Mark Twain, Bret Harte)."

Though contemporary full reviews of the novel are now scarce, Canby's comments seem to be at odds with those short blurbs and slug lines which do remain accessible, either printed on the front endpapers of the paperback editions or elsewhere. In the New York Times Book Review, Richard Rhodes called the book a "skillfully constructed ... comic tour de force," echoing the sentiments publisher Overlook reprints on their current edition, which also features an afterward by another Southern novelist, Donna Tartt -- who proclaims the book a "masterpiece" even as she notes how well it captures "the Wild West of the 1870s."

It is as though the film, despite its bold differences from the source material, has supplanted within what Carl Jung would pinpoint as our Collective Cultural Consciousness the true character of the novel. In that sense, at least, Mr. Canby has had his way -- despite the fact that Portis' novel sold millions of copies well into the 1970s and for a short while was taught in schools, when most people think of True Grit they are thinking of the film and not the novel, thus bringing to mind stereotypical Western iconography. Meaning: horses, shootouts, lawlessness, and of course John Wayne. (Doesn't help that the latest [2004] edition of the True Grit paperback features silhouetted saguaro cacti -- which grow only in the Sonoran Desert. Does everybody around here need a map?) Of course, American pop culture sensibilities are finer attuned to cinema than to the written word, at present. It could even be argued that many people, in remembering moments from their favorite books, are actually remembering details from the better (or at least most persistently referenced and shown) movies made from them. Motion pictures like To Kill a Mockingbird, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Maltese Falcon, and The Lord of the Rings have all come to be considered as powerful complements, if not outright equals, to their literary sources. (There are even cases -- Love Story, Jaws, even Dracula comes to mind -- where the film treatment might be preferred over the books.)

Assisting this perception, True Grit, despite its initial popularity, remained out-of-print for nearly twenty years. In an essay for Salon, Allen Barra writes: "True Grit's going in and out of print over the last four decades probably has more to do with a reluctance to take the western seriously as literature." Which is a fair point. By the mid-1970s, the Western had fallen out of favor; the dime novels and pulps and Saturday serials which had popularized the genre were long gone, Westerns rarely produced in Hollywood anymore, even the long-running TV series Gunsmoke reached the end of its run. And, in favor or not, "Western" is an easier tag to apply than "Southern." Particularly when only remaindered and hand-me-down copies of the novel were available, and the film version had free reign to establish itself in the cultural memory.

Not to put too much blame on the author, but another factor in this slightly askew labeling might well be the sparse, pigeon-hole proof output of Portis himself. His career as a novelist spans from the 1966 publication of Norwood to the 1991 appearance of Gringos; counting also the 2012 essay collection Escape Velocity, Portis has produced only six slender tomes over a five decade period. With topics ranging from ridiculous secret societies to bus-driving cuckolds to UFO hunters lost in Mexico, his novels have only one thing in common: a distinct comic sensibility. Given a one-line description of each, one might reasonably assume all five are the products of different individuals -- particularly since we readers are accustomed to authors tackling recurrent story structures, subjects, themes.

Which brings us back to Mr. Cleary's assertion that Portis is "one of the most inventively comic writers of western fiction." In the final accounting, given his disparate if slight oeuvre, Portis can no more be counted among the writers of "western fiction" than can be Mark Twain, whom Mr. Canby thinks Portis is clumsily aping. At least Donna Tartt doesn't entirely miss the mark -- the final pages of True Grit do specifically satirize "Wild West" exaggerations, as Rooster is remembered as having become an actor in a travelling circus, cashing in on his rough-n-tumble lawman-of-the-frontier persona. He rode with Quantrill! the handbills for the Cole Younger/Frank James show say, He rode for Parker! -- a brief but snarky reference to the showmanship and commercialized myth-making which still colors popular American perceptions, far contrary to reality, of what the West was like in the last couple decades of the 19th Century. Looks like we all need maps, if not well-researched guidebooks.

Perhaps the grand irony here is, Portis was trying to disassemble the Western, not contribute to the canon. Though it would seem he's been largely misunderstood, given the prevailing comic sensibility of the novel, Portis probably still would argue his joke landed correctly -- squarely on the heads of his audience. Having scribed Mattie's own inflexible worldviews, Portis shows he understands both the folly and the comfort of unchanging perception. And if anyone appreciates the humor of a grapefruit being labeled as an orange, it would surely be Charles Portis.   

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Inherent Vice (2009)

In all the commotion typically attending the appearance of a new title by Thomas Pynchon -- considered by many to be the poster boy for Postmodern Literature -- it is often forgotten that he began his career as a bestselling popular novelist. Mass market paperbacks of his first two books, V. and The Crying of Lot 49, had sold a combined three million copies prior to the 1973 publication of Gravity's Rainbow -- a novel for which, shortly after launch, Viking boasted orders of over seven hundred copies per hour. But during the seventeen-year silence leading into Vineland, Pynchon got racked into the category of "literary" (not to mention "difficult") rather than "popular" and while his next three novels made a great deal of additional noise over the publishing landscape, such prior sales numbers proved elusive.

The savvy Pynchon is apparently unwilling to fade into "literary cult author" status -- how else to explain this curious cross-breeding of a Maltese Falcon with a Pink Panther at a time when crime fiction is at a hip zenith? Inherent Vice is exactly what the dust jacket makes it looks like -- streamlined noir, gilded at the edges with a mellow, psychedelic glow. It is 1970 in the LA surf community of Gordita Beach. The Lakers are in the playoffs. The Manson Family is going to trial. And gumshoe (or, as he refers to himself, "gumsandal") Larry "Doc" Sportello is one evening visited by his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fey, transmitting bad vibes about her current dalliance, billionaire real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann -- who soon disappears, possibly murdered, leaving Sportello as the chief suspect, at least in the eyes of Sportello's perpetual shadow, LAPD detective Bigfoot Bjornsen.

Sportello (think Phillip Marlowe by way of the Firesign Theatre's Nick Danger) spends the rest of the novel trying to clear his name, or to at least keep from being ensnared by Bigfoot. Or something to that effect. Other ingredients include but are not necessarily limited to: a federally-thwarted plan to build domed houses for the poor and homeless; smugglers from Vietnam trafficking in counterfeit bills printed with Nixon's face; a multitude of wigged-out hippies and surfers, some capable of astral travel; an early version of the Internet which interests Doc only so much as it might help him score weed; a set of peculiar neckties, hand-painted with likenesses of nude women (one of whom is Shasta Fey); a cabal of sex-crazed dentists; and a mysterious schooner called the Golden Fang, whose shadowy operators just might be tied to everyone and everything involved.

Like fellow literary lion Cormac McCarthy, who some years back and with great commercial success began shedding a dense, idiomatic, description-centered prose style for leaner, plot-oriented narration, Pynchon here nixes his notoriously recursive and tangential approach(es) to storytelling. The omniscient intrusions and historical flashbacks which extend, deepen, and often contort his previous works are no longer in evidence -- vanished, apparently, into the ever-present smog surrounding Gordita, Pynchon's stand-in location for the Manhattan Beach of his own younger days (where he reportedly wrote a great deal of Gravity's Rainbow). One can almost imagine the author blissfully banging away at his typewriter, serving only the basic needs of his tale, freewheeling as it is -- Vice is nothing short of a classic potboiler (emphasis being on the pot.) It is also a bittersweet portrait of the American culture teetering between the joys of Sgt. Pepper and the grisly angst of Dark Side of the Moon -- and as some have pointed out, the particolored details are likely the closest the World of Letters will get to autobiographical reveals from the famously reclusive Mr. Pynchon.

For all its narrative brevity, speed, and hilarity -- and this might well be Pynchon's funniest book, which is no small statement -- there is a devious undertow at work. Pynchon sends up his own obsessions, elements from previous novels, and the expectations of a devoted readership, but retains his signature moral outrage against imbalances of power. Gravity's Rainbow underlines the weird moralities and opportunities "civilized" countries abuse during wartime -- whatever atrocities can be gotten away with under cover of larger violence; Inherent Vice takes the scarier tack of what can happen in the Homeland when citizens remain willfully unaware of what is happening under the auspices of keeping their streets safe: neighborhood watches suddenly comprised of neo-Nazi wannabe badasses, sub-contracted private firms looking to get into the paramilitary business, all sanctioned by local law enforcement by way of federal monies. It's not hard to imagine how Pynchon feels about Halliburton or the agents of Blackwater.

Against the backdrop of Fear as powered by the atrocities of the Manson Family, fear against the hippies and their Freak Power movement destroying society, Bigfoot constantly attempts to recruit Doc as an informer to aid in various shake-down schemes -- a path Doc dreads Coy Harlingen, the subject of one of his missing persons cases, has already stumbled down. Harlingen was a semi-famous session musician and saxophonist for a surf-rock band called the Boards (now apparently taken over by zombies). Coy's wife, the aptly named Hope, does not believe her husband overdosed on heroin, the official story, but that his death was faked and he is now a federal operative. Whatever the circumstances which led to Coy being taken from her, she doesn't care; she just wants her family back together. As things will turn, repairing this damage will become Doc's primary concern. When, that is, he's sober and straight enough to focus on the mosaic of clues.

Inherent Vice (a term from maritime law, applied to annul potential shipping damages -- i.e. eggs break in transit, reason being: they're eggs) is saturated with images of "the axes of space, now taken away into commotion and ruin." While this initially seems like yet another route into entropy (one of Pynchon's favorite concerns, going back to his eponymously-titled 1958 short story), in Vice that idea is taken a quantum step further. Natives of the coast wander their old neighborhoods, confused by the sudden construction craters where their houses used to be. But the old order isn't being supplanted by the expected chaos: coming to replace the old standalone businesses owned by locals are clean corporate franchises, lined up in strip malls. Pynchon pinpoints a moment in our culture when the detritus inevitably left behind by commercial efforts of change and progress started being packaged and sold: the experience of nostalgia as commodity. Doc, driving past a supermarket-sized record store, takes note of the customers visible just inside the sweeping glass front, each secluded in a soundproof booth; music -- the community glue of that era and an important motif in this novel -- is suddenly an individual rather than a collective experience. The Powers That Be have already begun to divide and conquer, using the easy wedges of simple market forces, supply and demand -- no greater conspiracy seeking control and subservience of a citizenship, such as those that have previously dominated Pynchon's novels, is necessary. If billionaire Mickey Wolfmann has no say in his own development projects, what chance do the rest of us (capable of being bought off with a chili dog, as one character points out in the novel's closing moments) have? Doc himself, no bumbling hippie innocent as might initially appear, eventually drifts into his own, essentially inevitable fog, only mirroring, if not actually following, the leads of those who have hired him or crossed his path.

In Gordita Beach, there's no screaming coming across the sky -- just the sound of the surf, the quiet, relentless surf, eating away at the edge of the continent. Pynchon's apocalypses have become less sweeping, more focused, smarter, meaner, personal. There's an old saying, essentially this: As goes the State of California, so goes the Nation. Inherent Vice is Pynchon's candy-coated warning: the Golden State and all the dreams it stands for, long-understood to be just one good earthquake away from slipping into the Pacific, is soon to be as lost to the rest of us as the mythical continent of Lemuria -- a set of final coordinates for that Golden Fang, perhaps.

Originally published in the Mobile Register as "Tie-Dyed Noir" September 28 2009