Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Sympathy for the Devil

 

Daniel Bristow-Bailey Sympathy for the Devil (2020)
I'm still sort of waiting for Daniel Bristow-Bailey to return to the written word, given the promise of 2016's The Ruins, but I'm not inclined to complain about his subsequent focus on comic strips, of which this is the latest, because his ability with a crayon is, so it turns out, comparable to his ability with a keyboard. So comparable, in fact, that it seems almost unfair. There must be something he can't do, surely.

Sympathy for the Devil is approximately the book of Genesis retold as Mike Judge's Office Space. If it's not clear what I mean by that, we open with a celestial board meeting wherein Lucifer suggests dinosaurs be repurposed as something he's decided to call birds, while Michael - clearly one of God's golden boys - poo-poos the idea, pointing out that they'll only shit everywhere, which hardly seems like the sort of thing anyone is likely to want in the proposed earthly paradise. You may already know what happens next, but the telling is something new, beautifully paced, and with Bristow-Baileys' illustration looking better than ever - combining the weight and depth of Jean Giraud with the looser, more expressive quality of maybe Edward Ardizzone. Sympathy is genuinely one of the best looking independent comics I think I've seen, possibly ever.

Buy it here, my child.

Monday, 12 April 2021

Dr. Mukti


Will Self Dr. Mukti (2004)
By this point there seems to be only a few by Will Self which I'm still to read, and - at risk of being repetitive - I still don't get the general thrust of the hostility regarding his works. I appreciate that we don't like grammar school boys unless they pretend to have been born within sonic proximity of Bow bells, and I appreciate how we might not like too many long words; but a rock casually lobbed at internet commentary upon Self's writing will almost certainly strike something so thoroughly indignant as to border on character assassination. I don't know if there's any other writer - at least among those with demonstrable ability to string a sentence together - who consistently inspires such bile on the grounds of somehow being the darling of the critics despite that none of the critics seem to have a good word to say about him. Maybe I'm looking in the wrong places. A quick rummage around for second or third opinions on this one suggested that at least two of the short stories collected herein were actually random assemblages of long words pulled from an inverted top hat. While it might be said that Conversations with Ord twists and turns a little too much for its own good, if you're genuinely unable to tell it apart from Marinetti's parole in libertà then you probably need an MRI scan.

Anyway, Dr. Mukti is a novella with bonus features more than a short story collection in the sense of The Quantity Theory of Insanity. The title track, which takes up half of the full page count, revisits the familiar psychiatric territory of Self's grotesque pop psychologist, Dr. Zac Busner as he engages in territorial pissings with a colleague, each combatant referring a series of increasingly bizarre patients to the other - more or less brinkmanship with nutters. It's funny and deeply appalling and may even be among Self's best in certain respects, and while it's undoubtedly a freak show, anthropological detachment doesn't come into it - unless you're really looking for it in furtherance of a sneering point, I suppose. I believe the author has had some experience with mental health services, and even his most scatologically debased mutants are granted some dignity while his view - or at least that of Dr. Mukti - seems to be that mental illness can be as much a product of environment as anything.

People as products of their environment seems to be the dominant theme here, although it has preoccupied Self elsewhere. Of the other stories, 161 is probably the strongest, and may actually be the best thing here. It inhabits one of those doomed London tower blocks from the turn of the century, home to a handful of rotting pensioners soon to be rudely gouged from their dwellings in the name of urban renewal. As with Dr. Mukti, an environment and culture is captured in painfully vivid terms of its decay with the sort of clarity which Self's critics presumably consider a cheap holiday in someone else's misery, therefore nyer nyer nyer; but I don't know. I'm actually very familiar with the territory - or was as of a couple of decades ago - and Self gets it spot on so far as I can see, regardless of anyone feeling duty bound to experience offence on the behalf of a working class they don't actually know so well as they might like to think.

As collections go, it's not pretty but it's certainly compelling. Two of the stories were a little messy, I thought, but they don't take up much space and the good stuff is genuinely terrific.

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Rhialto the Marvellous


Jack Vance Rhialto the Marvellous (1985)
This one is part of the Dying Earth series, as it's called, which I picked up purely because Matthew Hughes cited it as a significant influence on his Raffalon stories - which I can see now that I know what to look for. I tend to avoid anything involving wizards as a general rule, but as with Hughes' writing, this is clearly something else. More than anything it reminds me of Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time in being set in the improbably distant future amongst a community of peculiarly eccentric beings with strange powers. That being said, it's quite different to Dancers while being similarly distinguished as betraying no tangible influence from Tolkien or any of the usual pointy-hatted suspects.

What actually seems to distinguish Vance from everybody else - at least everybody else that I've read - is the language, ornate, luxuriant, decadent and never afraid to use an archaic term if it suits the sentence, or even to just make something up. With that which is described being at least as strange and ornate as the composition of its description, Rhialto is a delight to read, resembling surrealist fiction as much as fantasy, conjuring images as much resembling traditional Japanese art as Heironymous Bosch as Yellow Submarine; and it's nothing if not witty.


A big-bellied old man with grey wattles sidled a few steps forward. He spoke in a wheedling nasal voice: 'Must your disgust be so blatant? True: we are anthropophages. True: we put strangers to succulent use. Is this truly good cause for hostility? The world is as it is and each of us must hope in some fashion to be of service to his fellows, even if only in the form of a soup.'



The only downside here is arguably that the language is such as to require the reader's full and undivided attention, because it can be otherwise quite easy to lose one's footing and slip, mid-narrative, and a little of Vance's prose goes a long way. Then again, if that seems like it might be a problem, you should probably stick to Terry Brooks or one of those guys.

Monday, 5 April 2021

Highwood


Neal Barrett, Jr. Highwood (1972)
Internet research has revealed to me that Neal Barrett, Jr. had a reasonably respectable career as a writer following this early effort and - of more direct interest to me - was born in San Antonio; so I was well disposed towards this as I turned to the first page, or at least curious or hopeful or something. It came stuck to Barrington Bayley's arse as part of an Ace Double, and gets off to a tremendous start.

Highwood is a relative of Aldiss's Hothouse, or maybe something from Ursula LeGuin, or Ewok soft porn at the less complimentary end of the scale. It's set on a world where the trees are tens of miles high and home to entire communities of lesbian natives resembling lemurs. The males live in a separate segregated community, either in another tree or miles down on the forest floor - the author seems a bit vague about the details. Kearney Wynn comes to this world to study these natives and immediately finds herself at odds with Hamby Flagg, who seems to be some sort of colonial caretaker stationed on this peculiar world. Hamby is accompanied by Teddi, a robotic teddy bear who provides the counselling and emotional support necessitated by such a thankless and solitary posting. Of all the novels which have ever reminded me of Philip K. Dick, this one reminds me of Philip K. Dick a lot, at least up until the last couple of chapters - and in a good way, writing with the same sort of rhythm - expressive without getting too fancy - and characters who could easily be on vacation from Ubik or A Maze of Death or one of the others.

However, Highwood seems often wilfully vague in what it's trying to describe, and I made it right to the end without quite working out what had happened to the colony of male natives seen earlier, or - honestly - what the fuck was going on; and before it gets resolved, the author whips off the mask and reveals that we've actually been reading a very different book, one which seems to promise a lot but turns out to be ham-fisted bollocks. That lesbian Ewok colony was actually some sort of metaphor for women's emancipation, which Kearney realises is all a waste of time, and she only ever thought otherwise due to having had some funny ideas in her head - probably all that book learnin'.


She stepped back from him, thrust her fists stubbornly against her hips. 'No—you listen to me, Hamby Flagg. I didn't climb all over this damn planet and half a dozen others for my health—or for science, either, for that matter. I was looking for a man, Flagg. I didn't know that, of course, and I sure as hell wouldn't have admitted it to myself, but it's true, nevertheless. And now that I've found one, moth-eaten and grimy as you are, I kind of like what I've got. Though God knows you're not what I had in mind—or thought I had in mind, anyway. But I do not intend to waste all that time and effort just to—to provide a very unappetising picnic for those things!'



Highwood opens like some lost Philip K. Dick novella and ends like the sort of conservative and occasionally Christian science-fiction which has always made Analog magazine a bit of a lottery.

Never mind.

Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Inferno


 

Grant Morrison, Mark Millar & Carlos Ezquerra Inferno (1993)
I was still buying 2000AD regularly when this saga was first published; I re-read some of it a couple of years ago after snapping up those Summer Offensive issues on eBay - mainly for the sake of Big Dave, and yet none of it rings any significant bells; and now I've bought it again as a collected edition—sorry, graphic novel—so as to give it a fair crack of the whip. I say saga but I actually mean a story lasting twenty issues of the galaxy's greatest which therefore probably wouldn't stand up in comparison to, off the top of my head, Beowulf.

Anyway, the main thing I've taken from this, and which I'd forgotten, is that Judge Dredd in its heyday was mostly a comedy, or at least satire, sharing more in common with those ludicrous hard man strips in the early issues of Viz than it did with any caped American fare. In a totalitarian future society where one might be executed by a monosyllabic uniformed nutcase for littering, chuckles were never far away. Dredd himself is therefore horrible, which is the point, his principal virtue being that he's absolutely consistent and ruthlessly honest by his own draconian terms. The weekly strip therefore usually seemed to work better in short, sharp bursts of ultraviolent slapstick, and earlier attempts at lengthy stories spanning multiple issues worked best when they kept this in mind - I still have fairly good memories of the Cursed Earth and Judge Caligula tales, although admittedly it's been a while.

However, fifteen or so years down the line, it was beginning to look a bit thin, at least to me, which was presumably why I stopped buying. Dredd works better as a Ramones album than as some sprawling conceptual Tolkien with firearms cycle exploring the limits of his grim, frowning universe, because that universe isn't really very interesting unless it's funny. Mark Millar's Purgatory develops the background of a prison break in a penal colony on one of Saturn's moons, and Grant Morrison's Inferno brings the escaped violent psychopaths to Mega City One - which they take over because what else would they do? So they act like escaped violent psychopaths - a handful of whom have somehow managed to oust the government of a city of eight-hundred million - Judge Dredd busts heads and saves the day, as usual.

I like Mark Miller but Purgatory is high on primary colours and low on redeeming features even by his standards, and Inferno reads like Grant Morrison was mostly just trying to pay off a phone bill. It would be saved by Carlos Ezquerra's mostly gorgeous artwork, but even that has begun to stray into caricature by this point, with Chief Judge McGruder having sprouted what looks like a loaf of bread where her nose used to be.

It's not bad but it feels somewhat like a strip going through the motions, and the inclusion of Millar's pleasantly ludicrous six-page I Hate Christmas serves mainly to remind us what Judge Dredd should look like.

Monday, 22 February 2021

Dead Babies

 


Martin Amis Dead Babies (1975)
I'm still trying to work out who or what the title refers to. So far I have the possibility that these babies are all, like, dead inside, man; or it's Keith Whitehead who, being a chubby dwarf, may be seen to have the appearance of a baby; or it's the emotional neoteny of everybody concerned; or it's something to do with the spunk flying in all directions, not many of which are conducive to procreation - shorthand, I suppose, for wank, inadvertently suggesting that the book reviews itself; or it's all of these. Nobody fucking knows. I seem to recall a couple of actual dead babies and the term is used as a slightly bewildering expletive by a couple of the characters, but that seems too obvious a correlation given these being of no greater consequence than any of the other routinely transgressive occurrences passing along on Brucie's literary conveyor belt without anybody really caring one way or the other.

Dead Babies describes a house full of Hooray Henries and prototype Sloane Rangers, mostly over-moneyed sixties burnouts, getting shitfaced and screwing each other in a variety of increasingly baroque configurations with no clear separation as to how much of it is hallucinatory. They're all irredeemably horrible, with the possible exception of the aforementioned Keith, and much of the novel reminds me of dismal eighties parties where I spent most of the evening trying to avoid the attentions of some speeding fucknugget determined to lecture anyone who would listen about either Jim Morrison or William sodding Blake. Also, there's gratuitous animal abuse for some reason or other.

Of course, it's beautifully written and is as such sort of compelling, but I still have no idea as to what end or what I'm supposed to do with any of this. I can see why the late Simon Morris was a fan to the point that I found myself unconsciously awaiting narrative punctuation from a list of Dr. Hook's ten greatest albums, but it left me as cold as almost all J.G. Ballard I've ever tried to read, and I get the impression ol' Jimmy may have been an influence to some extent. The aforementioned Simon Morris described Amis' London Fields as a pointless narrative that's like a joke without a punchline, while London Fields strikes me as the much better book, like Dead Babies done right, written by someone who wanted to write a book rather than just wave his dobber in your face for a couple of hundred pages. I expect Kenneth Clark would have described Dead Babies as absolutely ghastly - due to that doubtless being Marty's intention - and I'm inclined to share that view. In televisual terms it's Abigail's Party repopulated with the cast of Lindsay Anderson's If… without the nuance of either, the written equivalent of those bloody awful Allen Jones paintings of boobs squozen forth between rubber straps.

The tragedy is that I can't even bring myself to hate it. I've read much, much worse, and Dead Babies is just kind of dull but for the poetry of its composition. I suppose it would be a very boring world if we all liked the same thing.

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Annihilation Factor


 

Barrington J. Bayley Annihilation Factor (1972)
Bayley's second novel features one of those star spanning galactic empires loosely resembling Tsarist Russia wherein different planets are ruled by kings and daily life occurs with a sort of imperial elegance, although thankfully not to the point of delineating those most delightful and diverting excursions of a gentleman with an ostentatiously elaborate name who conducts his business whilst rather fancifully attired in a bronze top hat to which the contents of a grandfather clock have been most felicitously affixed.

Ahem.

The presence of Castor Crakhno, a character alluding to Nestor Makhno - a founding father of the anarchist movement - presents the possibility of commentary on either the Russian revolution or some episode of equivalent vintage, as does King Maxim - Maxim being short for Maximilian, because I'm sure there was an historical Maximilian in there somewhere; but it's either way above my head or I'm simply spotting patterns which probably aren't there. The novel seems to be about free will - possibly - in how it may relate to the transcendence of the material plane 'n' stuff.


'You fool, there is no freedom,' Peredan chuckled. 'The material universe is a trap whose meshes we cannot escape, however much we try. Throughout history men have held such ideas as you have belatedly discovered, due to some fastidious aversion you appear to have. But the universe always mocks at these ideas. It always has something more strange, more monstrous than we can deal with—such as the Patch.'



Bayley's novels always seem to be spun upon a single and cinematically weird element - sentient hosiery, war waged between different eras, funny animals piloting spaceships or whatever. In Annihilation Factor it's the Patch, a vast presumably sentient field which moves through space devouring everything in its path. The Patch turns out to be something akin to Phil Purser-Hallard's City of the Saved but spends most of the novel as some remote nihilist force feared from afar - one which can be controlled by masturbation; despite which Bayley still doesn't quite manage to achieve escape velocity with this one.

It may be that I wasted too much time trying to decode Castor Crakhno, leader of a nihilist anarchist movement called Death to Life, which doesn't really work for me because the two tendencies would appear to contradict one another, at least here, and Death to Life sounds a little too close to a Two Ronnies take on placard waving revolutionary politics - Down With Knickers and that sort of thing. Also, the novel is so bogged down with endless exposition of one form or another that it becomes difficult to keep track of who is who and what's happening. It all pulls together in the end as we discover what the Patch is supposed to be, but it's a satisfying ending to an otherwise underwhelming, if mercifully short, novel. I still say Bayley was one of the greats, but Annihilation Factor isn't one I'd put forward in support of the argument, which is a pity because it should have been, given what it tries to do.