Wednesday, January 18, 2012

New Site!

A quick note to any and all readers: I've moved all content from this site to a Wordpress blog. From now on, all future reviews can be found at http://backlisted.wordpress.com/

See you there!

—Andrew

Review: Ohmhole, by Tyler Hayden


Published: November 2011

Finally got around to it: January 2012


His eyes tightened up with the fat of violence. “They contain the uncells that cure the world’s most deadly diseases, notably HIV and cancer,” he mumbled. “They are all young. I engineered them myself and they are more beneficial than any treatment approved by the medical profession since it no longer exists. You remember the death of that stray dog? I killed him in a fit of joy after discovering the cure for HIV that I engineered actually works. If that cure were once introduced into North America, it would spread so rapidly that in eight to ten business days, the continent would be repopulated.”

“I’m stupid. I don’t understand what you mean by cures. How is it possible for a man to invent a cure?”

“I keep forgetting you’re stupid. Lie down on the floor,”—he sat down on the toilet and I stretched out on the bathroom floor,—“Certain cures are produced by certain cells or uncells that have had their DNA tinkered with by certain bioengineers who reprogram the information within them to turn them into organic machines to hunt down the diseases. Reverse engineering is easier than actual.”


***


I’m the first to admit that I do in fact judge books by their covers. More often than not, my fine arts-oriented brain is drawn to an unknown title sporting a very pretty jacket. So let’s shake things up a bit and start with that: design wise, Tyler Hayden’s Ohmhole is a beautiful book. Simple, minimalist aesthetics go a long way with me. The second positive mark on the list: genuinely intriguing cover copy. A dystopian future where the populace lies dying of AIDS, and the only rumoured cure is believed to be exchanged through our bodily fluids? Definitely atypical of your average governmental/corporation-controlled authoritarian future speculative work.

However, despite my strong initial intrigue, I find myself fighting for the words to describe Ohmhole. Curious? Absolutely. Ambitious. Unrestrained.

Unfortunately, I would also describe it as needlessly abrasive, immature, vulgar, and lacking an emotional core.

If pressed for an A meets B reduction of the narrative, I’d classify Ohmhole as Peter Darbyshire and Douglas Coupland meets Daniel Allen Cox and Tao Lin, minus any sort of attention to character or the construction of a coherent narrative: society run selfishly amuck through a disaffected, repetitive, come-soaked fuckscape. Ohmhole feels hamstrung by its dystopian influences, but lacks the creativity, imagery, and emotional pull of others who’ve travelled a similar ideological path. Instead of an original examination of the themes outlined in the book’s synopsis, we’re treated to an Idiocracy-like approach to sexual terminology, beaten to death through aggravating, white noise-like repetition of language and action. What results is something altogether inane that borders on infantile—Hayden wields sexuality as if he were a child discovering curse words for the first time, overusing them to ineffectiveness.

My criticisms are largely technical: Hayden’s language did nothing to paint this world as anything more than a simplistic—though potentially controversial—two-dimensional conceit. Though I suspect there are much larger ideas at stake in this work—issues to do with the prevalence of sexual criticism; the nature of unnecessary criticism towards an individual’s rights to sex, sexuality and privacy; and the need, in such matters, for social and governmental responsibility without oppression—they are buried beneath a shock-for-shock’s sake treatment of language that left me with little desire to unearth his ultimate intent.

While there is likely academic or educational merit to dissecting Hayden’s work, as a novel Ohmhole fails to inspire further conversation. Instead, the book’s exciting premise is sadly extinguished by its overcooked and ineffective technique, and obsessively high school-level diction.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Review: Memoirs of an Addicted Brain, by Marc Lewis, Ph.D.


Published: October 2011

Finally got around to it: January 2012


I am a little boy rummaging, drawer after drawer. And there are drugs here. So many. Sure enough, drawers full of boxes, piled high, free samples. Must be. And ohhhh, there’s the Demerol. Multidose glass vial: 50 milligrams per millilitre! That’s the strong stuff. Almost full. Now, the apparatus. Drawer full of syringes and needles, each cozy in its wrapper. I am literally chuckling with glee. I am pretending to be Mr. Hyde, or I’m not pretending. You’re fucked, I tell myself. But I’m still smiling. The accusatory voice has no power now. No mother, no father, anywhere. And look, a nice folded plastic bag. I start to stuff it. Halloween in Drugland. My mood is off the charts. Intense excitement, glee, power, triumph, and anticipation of the… oh yeah… shooting Demerol is just so nice. There is nothing like it. I once read that if there’s anything nicer in the universe, God saved it for himself.


***


That Marc Lewis is still alive, and has the remaining brain cells to accomplish all he has as a neuroscientist, is nothing short of a miracle. From his miserable teenage years interned in a New England boarding school, through university life during Berkley’s drug-addled 1970s, and crossing continents to Malay and Calcutta, Memoirs of an Addicted Brain is an engrossing first-hand examination of addiction—an account of its power, its ability to rewire the brain through perceived physical necessity, and its very unforgiving nature.

Marc Lewis writes about drugs with a split personality; he approaches his life and his various travels into and out of the world of drugs with both a scientist’s respect for knowledge and fact, and a child’s wonderment and eagerness to experiment with everything he can get his hands on. His memoirs, as it were, are part psychedelic travelogue, part detailed-yet-accessible breakdown of each drug’s effect on the human body and mind.

The appeal of drugs, as Lewis describes, is at once mythic and chemical. The dangerous proposition of removing oneself from the frustrations and difficulties of a less than ideal existence, spiking dopamine levels past risk and into reward, is effectively broken down and explained:


Dopamine—the fuel of desire—is only one of four major neuromodulators. Each of the neuromodulators fuels the brain operations in its own particular way. But all four of them share two properties. First, they get released and used up all over the brain, not at specific locales. Second, each is produced by one specialized organ, a brain part designed to manufacture that one potent chemical. Instead of watering the flowers one by one, neuromodulator release is like a sprinkler system. That’s why neuromodulators initiate changes that are global, not local. Dopamine fuels attraction, focus, approach, and especially wanting and doing. Norepinephrine fuels perceptual alertness, arousal, excitement, and attention to sensory detail. Acetylcholine energizes all mental operations, consciousness, and thought itself. But the final neuromodulator, serotonin, is more complicated in its action. Serotonin does a lot of different things in a lot of different places, because there are many kinds of serotonin receptors, and they inhabit a great variety of neural nooks, staking out an intricate network.


In four parts, chronicling his first steps into drug use and abuse, through world travel, failed relationships and marital missteps, and ultimately a minor (but still deplorable) life of crime to fuel his ever-expanding narcotics addiction, Lewis’ approach is honest and without apology. He acknowledges his failings without sugar coating them; instead, he offers insight and analysis few who have struggled with the same demons would ever find themselves in a position to provide.

Memoirs of an Addicted Brain is an uncomfortable, but still captivating exploration into a life most of us would fear for reasons of health, safety, and the sake of family and friends. Experiencing Lewis’ life, knowing he comes out on top in the end, doesn’t negate the nervousness and uncertainty one feels reading his exploits and the risks taken for that one extra hit of whatever he was pumping into his veins at any given moment. His eventual success with career and family doesn’t make his breaking and entering and failing our of grad school any less disheartening, or the many times he falls off the wagon any less demoralizing.

There’s an element of “taking one for the team” that permeates Lewis’ work—an almost indescribable fascination one feels reading the combination of science and gratification devoid of reason, and the knowledge that such an experience could only come from a mind wired for the darkest trips into self satisfaction and pleasure seeking. That he manages to walk away from his past with only a scarred brain, but still a high-functioning brain, is incredible.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Review: The Inquisitor, by Mark Allen Smith


Published: January 2012


Geiger’s mind was sent reeling away from the dark forest, defying the vision’s gravity and seeking refuge beyond it. But what came before him was a floating curtain, and then, as the curtain parted, it revealed the long shelf carrying all his session books: the black binders, the hundreds of Joneses, the thousands of pages filled with strategies and methods, reactions and conclusions. Geiger could see the faces of his subjects, he could hear every epithet and plea ever uttered, every sound a human can make in fear or pain. Confronting him was a compendium of the darkest of man’s arts—and a garish portrait of a monster that now, for the first time, he recognized as himself.


***


Geiger: Information Retrieval specialist. Interrogator. A torturer of a kind; a man with a strict moral code—something that cannot necessarily be said of his contemporaries. Mark Allen Smith’s first novel, The Inquisitor is a brisk thriller that hedges its success on an unconventional protagonist with a mysterious past.

In the off-the-books world of information retrieval, Geiger is a known quantity on a very short list. He’s efficient. He gets what he needs, and he does it without bringing extensive physical harm to his subjects. Mental anguish however… that’s an issue for another day. Geiger gets the call when the Jones—the individual he is hired to withdraw information from—needs to be broken without leaving bodily evidence to be mopped up in the aftermath. He lives a restricted, Spartan lifestyle, and adheres to a personal code of ethics. His past is a mystery, even to himself, but his talents are without question. When a not-entirely-on-the-level case is offered to him, Geiger is forced to decide whether or not to deviate from his code and interrogate a child—a young pre-teen named Ezra. Should he refuse, the information retrieval will fall to another in his line of work—a notoriously blunt instrument named Dalton.

The Inquisitor doesn’t try to hide its hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold roots: Geiger, though violent and at times highly unstable, is our man on the inside, the good guy with the shady past whose sins—dark though they may be—are not beyond absolution. Smith isn’t interested in challenging us with a thoroughly detestable main character; he wants us to sympathize with and, in time, understand Geiger’s behaviour. His past, his motivation, and his abilities create a wholly sympathetic social outcast with precious few confidants in his closed-off world. Yes, he has certain unscrupulous connections and has done some unforgivable things in his career, but his code, which removes him from his role as interrogator and installs him as Ezra’s protector, is noble and unshakable.

While Geiger is certainly an intriguing, Jason Bourne-esque personality, the book’s remaining characters run the gamut from the hard-on-his-luck “best friend” and accomplice, to by-the-numbers mobsters and are-they-or-aren’t-they government agents, and one very off-kilter sister, whose presence provides the narrative with a certain amount of pathos. The most fascinating of the side characters, interestingly enough, is Geiger’s vile counterpart, Dalton. The pairing of the two in the book’s third act offers the story’s strongest character development. Dalton is what Geiger could be, were he to completely discard his code of ethics.

The Inquisitor is at times an uneven experience. While I appreciated the lean and energized narrative (with its obvious allusions to Wikileaks), the quick character turns—the willingness to abandon a career so dramatically when ethically challenged—left me feeling winded. It was as if an earlier novel developing Geiger’s modes and methods of operation had been written and discarded in favour of what at times feels more like the second chapter of a series, and not an introduction. Though his interaction with Ezra works to humanize Geiger, it feels as though we’ve missed out on an opportunity to further explore his interactions with other Information Retrieval specialists. Granted this could be done in the future with prequels or flashbacks, should Geiger become the star of his own series, but as a singular instalment I found myself more fascinated with the implications and details of his dark industry than with any late-in-the-game character revelations.

In spite of these reservations and a forced, Friday the 13th hand-out-of-the-water climax that falls into slightly comic territory, The Inquisitor is still an exciting page turner, and I’d love to know where Smith takes the character from here. I just hope the road to Geiger’s salvation is a little rockier and more challenging from here on out.

Monday, January 2, 2012

2012: The Year I Read Myself Into Oblivion

1. Amulet - Roberto Bolano
2. The Inquisitor - Mark Allen Smith
3. Memoirs of an Addicted Brain - Marc Lewis, Ph.D.
4. Ohmhole - Tyler Hayden
5.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Review: 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami


Published: October 2011

Finally got around to it: December 2011


1Q84—that’s what I’ll call this new world, Aomame decided.

Q is for “question mark.” A world that bears a question.

Aomame nodded to herself as she walked along.

Like it or not, I’m here now, in the year 1Q84. The 1984 that I knew no longer exists. It’s 1Q84 now. The air has changed, the scene has changed. I have to adapt to this world-with-a-question-mark as soon as I can. Like an animal released into a new forest. In order to protect myself and survive, I have to learn the rules of this place and adapt myself to them.


***


Parallel universe-crossed lovers Tengo and Aomame—him, a cram school math teacher and modestly successful ghost writer/wannabe novelist; her, an athletic instructor, personal trainer, and enterprising young assassin—are the twin protagonists for Haruki Murakami’s 925-page, three-part epic of magical realism, 1Q84.

One day, embarking on a routine hit, Aomame is delayed by gridlocked traffic on Tokyo’s elevated Metropolitan Expressway. Unable to be late for her “appointment”, she abandons the taxi she was riding in and crosses the lanes of traffic to an emergency stairwell that will take her off the expressway and down to the city streets, where she is able to catch the subway that will take her the rest of the way to her target. In another part of the city, Tengo—Aomame’s fated lover, a man she has not seen in twenty years—is being coerced into the role of ghost writer for an unconventionally brilliant book by a first-time author, the mysterious and enigmatic Fuka-Eri. The novel, Air Chrysalis, has captivated both Tengo and his friend Komatsu, though Fuka-Eri’s writing is stilted and lacking the depth to turn the book into the classic both men suspect it is capable of becoming.

By straying from their paths—in Aomame’s case, as she climbs out of one world and into another via the emergency expressway stairwell; for Tengo, as he invests himself in Fuka-Eri’s impossible-yet-entirely-real tale of possibly mystical-in-nature cocoons, religious indoctrination, and the little people that crawl out of the mouths of dead animals—Murakami’s protagonist quietly abandon the Japan of 1984 for what Aomame dubs 1Q84—the world with a question mark. For the pair, it is an uncertain world of two moons, phantom NHK fee collectors, and the occasional immaculate conception. How they have fallen into this parallel world, and how they expect to extricate themselves from their individual-yet-intertwined situations, is 1Q84’s focus.

More through the looking glass than down the rabbit hole, 1Q84 is both an exercise in literary re-interpretation and a culmination of Murakami’s many interests and obsessive quirks. There are undoubtedly parts of the book that feel cobbled together from narrative strands and character traits in Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore. However, rather than feeling overworked or relied upon too much, these instances and many others—his obsessions with ears, philosophical literature, jazz and classical music, and the otherworldly influence of cats—are pulled together and expanded upon in ways that make some of Murakami’s previous works feel like working drafts of concepts not yet fleshed out. There is certainly a road-well-travelled feel to some of these underpinnings, but the narrative of 1Q84 remains fresh thanks to its protagonists.

Murakami’s approach to magical realism has always been perfunctory. Things simply are, no matter how weird or outside of reality they may appear to be. Convincing his protagonists of the mystical dual nature of their two-mooned world is something of a rote task by this point in Murakami’s career.

What separates 1Q84 from the rest of Murakami’s work is its somewhat obvious literary precedent: George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Murakami holds a mirror up to Orwell’s dystopian future narrative. Big Brother becomes the Little People, an almost invisible force that may or may not impart a deified sort of wisdom unto a populace from within the carcass of a dead animal; the authoritarian political regime becomes a Jehovah’s Witness-style cult of dual-natured people—of perceivers and receivers; the two-mooned world of pursuing cult enforcers, false grant providers, and oversexed hospice nurses, is a prison of sorts for Tengo and Aomame and no one else.

It’s difficult not to wonder if some of the beauty of Murakami’s imagery is lost in translation, or if his abrupt descriptions of a world less than familiar to our own is simply his method of relaying the absurd and surreal with as little fanfare as possible. Because of this, some of his descriptions can feel anticlimactic or long in the tooth, but they paint an effective portrait of a world that is at once different and still very much the same.

1Q84 is a bit overwritten in parts, with deliberate language echoes and character repetition as garnish for the world outside of the norm. But what Murakami achieves in his otherworldly homage to Orwell’s masterpiece, Jan├ícek’s Sinfonietta and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is an impressive feat of magical realism, social commentary, and long lost love. I can’t say whether or not 1Q84 lives up to the symphonic hype it accumulated in the months leading up to its release, but Murakami’s epic is a deep and compulsively entertaining work of fiction, with only the odd misstep in pacing and originality.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Review: Glass Boys, by Nicole Lundrigan


Published: July 2011

Finally got around to it: December 2011



Mrs. Fagan sighed. Somehow, this house, rickety and full of whispers, had become a home for herself and her son. Even though he was fully grown, he lived with her still. In the room he had occupied since he was a boy. When her older daughter was grown, Mrs. Fagan had rooted her out, and she would do the same with the younger girl, as soon as possible. But Garrett would stay. Garrett was a good boy, strange, yes, different, yes, but he was a decent son. Maybe she hadn’t loved him enough, or protected him from Eli. Maybe he had been damaged somehow, when lost under the ice pans for those long minutes. But what sort of son offers up a reward he has earned to his useless old mother?

She went to her son’s room, opened the door, and there he was, on his knees, spreading out a scrap of beautiful carpet. “Looks nice,” she said. “Might be hard to keep clean.”

“I’ll be careful,” he said. “I won’t make a stain.”

“No, you won’t,” she replied. “I’m sure you won’t.” Garrett Wesley Glass was a good boy. A good man. No one could tell her any differently.


***


Glass Boys, Nicole Lundrigan’s fourth novel, is a compelling family mystery set in the small everyone-is-in-everyone’s-business town of Knife’s Point, Newfoundland. When Eli Fagan discovers the unsettling secret his stepson, Garrett Glass, has hidden in an old pickle jar, an unfortunate and accidental death drives an impassable wedge between the Fagans and a neighbouring family, the Trenches.

Spanning several years—taking us from the death of Lewis Trench’s brother Roy, through his marriage to Wilda and the childhood and adolescence of Lewis’ two young sons, Melvin and Tobias—Lundrigan gradually exposes Garrett Glass’ dangerous proclivities, and how is inability to understand and contain such urges risks destroying the Fagans and the Trenches, casting dark aspersions over the small Newfoundland town.

Lundrigan’s approach is subtly non-linear. She whisks us back and forth on a whim, dovetailing threads in an effort to understand the various threads of mistrust and discontentment that have woven these families together, in spirit if not in reality. Her method, and the supremely lyrical quality of her writing, offers a series of impressionistic family portraits that neither ignores nor directly explains the intentions of her two families, relying instead on a naturalistic manner of exploring emotional self-examination and trauma un-tethered by attentive parental influence.

The overwhelming tenor is evocative of Grant Wood’s American Gothic; there’s a lifelessness and timid presentation to both Wilda and Mrs. Fagan, a muted sensibility that trickles down to their children—Wilda, incapable of giving herself over as a mother; and Mrs. Fagan, oblivious to Garrett’s unsettling idiosyncrasies—and invariably affects their growth. Conversely, Eli Fagan is, at first glance, an abusive, uncaring husband and father figure, and Lewis Trench is more than willing to assume the worst of Melvin, without truly understanding his son’s actions. It’s through Melvin’s younger brother, Toby, that these imperfections are made clear.

The faults and inaccessibility of their parents is cyclical—Lundrigan reveals their past miseries as points on the line of fate, dictating their inadequacies as parents before children were ever a threat to their futures. The X-factor, so to speak, is Garrett, and Garrett’s very specific secret which Eli would sooner forget than comprehend. And it is Garrett and Glass Boys’ uncomfortable examination of a young boy’s confusion developing into an adult’s homosexual and paedophilic tendencies that contrasts so alarmingly with Lundrigan’s effortlessly poetic diction.

Though my lack of small town maritime experience made Lundrigan’s work somewhat difficult to penetrate, her language and respectful, realistic depictions of people and place were far more captivating than I first expected. It didn’t take long for me to feel drunk on her descriptions of environments and interactions, like ice settled on a young boy’s eyelashes, or the way two figures embrace in an act of extreme violence, “hugging almost like old friends.” Glass Boys is unnervingly soft, its tenderness underlined by thick strokes of familial secrets and dark histories.