Monday, 1 June 2015

The Man in the Velvet Mask

Daniel O'Mahony The Man in the Velvet Mask (1996)
This one seems to have been at the receiving end of more than its fair share of gongs over the years, gongs scoring swift removal from the stage by means of a long stick with hook on the end to a chorus of booing. This may be, I would respectfully suggest, because it's a Doctor Who tie-in novel and has thus been read mainly by Doctor Who fans, at least a certain quota of whom seem to prefer books which may be read whilst pretending to watch a children's television programme. The Man in the Velvet Mask is too violent, so it is said, and the Doctor's companion keeps getting her kit off and having it off with a nude and presumably tumescent man, and this is not something which would have happened in the television show - has been one such criticism, and one which apparently misses the point that The Man in the Velvet Mask isn't a television show; and as for the supposed sex scenes - Jesus - it's not like O'Mahony describes it going in and out or anything, and mostly such scenes tend to acknowledge its occurrence rather than getting into the spunky details. Certainly I found it difficult to masturbate to anything described herein.

More recently, some fucking genius pointed out that The Man in the Velvet Mask was a direct rip-off of a storyline in Grant Morrison's Invisibles comic, apparently basing this on the role of the Marquis de Sade as a character within the story because, you know, that's how it works; like with that Sandman comic which was totally a rip-off of A Midsummer Night's Dream blah blah blah totally iconic blah blah...

I couldn't actually say how much this novel has in common with Morrison's comic, having long since wiped my arse on my copy of Unreadables issue five, but if there was anything I'm pretty sure I would have noticed when I first read this back in the nineties.

Anyway, I remain relatively uninformed and accordingly undecided where the Marquis de Sade is concerned, presently maintaining only a vague impression of him having been a genuinely despicable man with either some interesting ideas, or some average ideas which have since been interpreted as interesting. I'm gearing up towards reading something at some point, admittedly with a certain reluctance informed by excerpts from The 120 Days of Sodom having been printed in some old Come Organisation fanzine I once had - all thoroughly beastly and stomach churning as I recall; and at the age of seventy, de Sade married a fourteen year old girl, which strikes me as just a teensy bit Jimmy Savile, quite frankly.

On the other hand, he apparently had some fairly interesting stuff to say regarding liberty, free will, morality, and generally not feeling like you have to say sorry; and this seems to be, more or less, where The Man in the Velvet Mask comes in.

In some ways, it foreshadows Lawrence Miles' Christmas on a Rational Planet, another Who novel which came out a few months later, or might even be viewed as a dry run for O'Mahony's Newtons Sleep, both of which deal with the Age of Reason and conflicting views of the universe as either ordered or chaotic dependent, I suppose, on the potential existence or nature of God. My reading of this book is that we see what happens when de Sade gets to create his own ideal world, but his philosophy pushed to an extreme more closely resembles its ideological opposite, specifically the severe reductionism and rationality of fascism as expressed by the French revolution; and here I can see that even my own sentences contradict themselves even before I get to the full-stop, so it's probably safe to say that there are some grey areas in this novel, and that either the narrative could have been a little more helpful, or else I read too fast. I appreciate how this isn't the kind of narrative which would have benefited from characters explaining the plot to each other every third page, and as something more fluid, roughly maintaining an atmosphere equivalent to German expressionist cinema of the twenties, it nevertheless does its job and generally does it very well, asking questions without necessarily providing answers.

Doctor Who as a series has had a tendency to overuse the sort of plot in which it turns out that Henry VIII was a Zygon, and thankfully this one steers clear of that approach, instead creating a reality which seems almost aware of its own fictional standing.

'I am going to try and escape,' the Doctor announced, coming to a sudden decision. 'My whole life is like this. I am imprisoned, I escape. I am imprisoned again, again I escape. My life is a sequence of cells, dungeons, oubliettes, caves and traps, again and again.

Meanwhile the Doctor's companion is adopted by a chaotic travelling theatre led by the wild and amoral Fantômas, seemingly a variation on the character created by French writers Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre. Fantômas appears to represent a counterpart to de Sade, manifest only as a mask worn by a series of different actors (yes, I know - I've just noticed that too), just as de Sade is himself an automaton based upon the Prisoner referencing Monsieur le 6, now an inmate of his own gaol. Lines are further blurred as the theatrical troupe effect to perform one of de Sade's plays, a variation on Juliette, from which Deputy Minski is additionally extrapolated - meaning here that the O'Mahony Minski presumably draws on Minski the cannibal from de Sade's novel, the novel of which the play described in this novel is presumably meant to be either an early draft or inversion. Then on top of all the masks, fictions, and lives lived as theatre, we have Citizen Debord, I'm guessing named after the author of The Society of the Spectacle, if this zinger is anything to go by:

Debord gazed at her over the top of his spectacles.

Maybe it isn't specifically Guy Debord, but given that That Society of the Spectacle was significantly concerned with society as an artificial or even psychological construct, you can maybe see how I might have picked up that impression.

The Man in the Velvet Mask is beautifully written, which sadly didn't seem to count for much with those sections of its audience who would have appreciated a few more references to Daleks, and mercifully it really isn't Doctor Who and the Fifty Shades of Gray any more than it's recycled Grant Morrison by virtue of common settings and characters. Unfortunately it all becomes a bit too Luis Buñuel for it's own good by the time we reach the closing chapters, sagging a little under the weight of accumulated allusions, reflections, and inversions which tend to reduce the clarity of what is said regarding determinism, fate, the Doctor facing his own dissolution and so on. On the other hand, you might easily argue that this at least gives readers such as myself something to work with. It's a puzzle, but a fascinating one, and if you can't appreciate that, then you can't appreciate nuffink.

'Whatever you see fit!' he called. 'The triumph of virtue, the misfortunes of vice! Who said the play had to be like the book?'

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