Monthly Archives: April 2007

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi

Pantheon, 2003 (2007 translation), 352 pages, C$29.95 tpb, ISBN 0-375-71483-9

Ask around for graphical novels recommendations, and everyone will mention at least one title: Art Spiegelman’s Maus, which used comics as a way to tell the story of a Holocaust survivor. The subject matter made it respectable for audiences far more diverse than just “the comic fans”, the meta-complexity of Spiegelman’s narrative ensured that it would remain a hit with the intelligentsia, and the accessibility of the tale made it a perennial favourite in bookstores. Don’t expect it to go out of print soon.

Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis has a number of superficial common points with Maus: Both are true stories in graphic novel form, both became breakout books with mainstream audience, both have something to say about totalitarian regimes, both use an iconic black-and-white approach to their visual presentation. But Persepolis also shares with Spiegelman’s masterpiece a deeper connection: Both use biographical comics as a way to show that history is something that happens to people.

Persepolis starts in Tehran at the end of the seventies. Marjane Satrapi is a ten-year-old girl, coping with the aftermath of the Iranian revolution. Through a series of short chapters, we come to learn about her family, her school, the circumstances surrounding the revolution and the immediate impact of it. During the second half of this first volume, as the story enters the eighties, we get to see the effect of the Iran/Iraq war on Tehran and Marjane’s life.

The Marjane in the first volume of Persepolis 1 is an irresistibly cute girl with a smart mouth and privileged circumstances. Distantly related to old Persian royalty, her immediate family is relatively well-off and is able to avoid the worst of either the revolution or the war. But not everyone survives, and the events reach everyone. During this first volume, Marjane is a victim of circumstances: The anecdotes that she relays are more powerful than even the most complete histories of Iran in making us feel why and how the revolution occurred.

Things are different in Persepolis 2: Sent to Europe to get a better education, 15-year-old Marjane has a hard time growing up alone and away from her family. Still smarter than most of her acquaintances, Marjane soon fall into a bad crowd, tries her hand at drug-dealing, quits school, is kicked out of her residence and touches bottom soon afterwards, living homeless for three months. Pushed beyond her limits, she returns to Iran, where she gets to re-experience the religious regime.

Persepolis 2 isn’t as cute as the first tome, but it’s more affecting: Marjane is now the person most responsible for what happens to her, and the smart little girl has turned into a self-destructive teen trying to find her place. As a young adult, her talents are still challenged by the society in which she lives. After a brief spell in which she thinks she can get along in Iran, she comes to realize that she will never belong, in Iran or anywhere. The entire series ends in 1994 as she leaves for France, where she still lives today.

It’s the story of a life, but it’s really in the telling that Persepolis comes alive. A crafty writer, Satrapi navigates a tone between innocence, confession and veiled outrage: By showing rather than proselytizing, she’s able to capture the essence of what life must have felt in Iran. She shows, by example, the inanity of a regime that considers its population to be childish and untrustworthy. She re-tells events such as the Iran/Iraq war and the Gulf War from an Iranian perspective, giving an extra dimension to history that Western audiences don’t know very well.

It’s all tremendously affecting, and carries with it the impact of an excellent narrative. The storytelling is top-notch, and even the deceptively minimal art is effective: Characters are immediately recognizable from a few iconic details, and the abstraction of the art enhances its universality. Best of all, though, is the way Persepolis is able to make us feel what it was like to be an young Iranian girl during the revolution, a pre-teen during the war, a teenager exiled in Europe, and a young woman back under the veil. It’s the kind of story to make us realize that beyond textbooks and newspaper headlines, history has victims. Persepolis is earns a place next to Maus on the “graphical novel classics” shelf, and it’s easy to see why. Don’t miss it.

(Some will be surprised to learn that I read Persepolis in English when the original version was published in French. The explanation is purely pragmatic: The relatively scarce four-volume series of trade paperbacks in French would have cost me around $130, whereas the two widely available hardcovers in English set me back “only” $45. Feel free to quote me the next time you contemplate the role of market economics in cultural assimilation.)

Target Lock, James Cobb

Jove, 2002, 490 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-515-13413-9

Describing the plot of this book is impossible to do with a straight face. It’s about, after all, a female American naval officer who falls in love with a pirate. If this was a movie, you would expect musical numbers, lush cinematography, situational comedy, and maybe even a “yarr, my darling!” or two.

Yet this is the fourth entry in the “Amanda Garrett” series of military techno-thrillers. The natural audience for this book is not going to be the same than for Romance novels: Imagine steely-eyed conservatives, military personnel and chickenhawk nerds like me hoping for a follow-up to the excellent Sea Fighter and finding themselves with… a pirate romance.

Judging from the Amazon comments, some were baffled, many were pissed and only a few were amused. Predictably, I find myself solidly in the “amused” camp. Through I have a lot of respect for the first three novels in the series (even calling them some of the best military thrillers of the mid-nineties), my attachment to them isn’t quite that strong: if Cobb decided to mess with the formula with Target Lock, the best thing to do is sit back with a bucket of popcorn and watch the show.

Certainly, the macro-level premise of Target Lock is interesting. After the dirty little coastal war in Sea Fighter, US government grows concerned about piracy in Indonesia and wisely sends Amanda Garrett back to the sea. Tasked with solving the problem and helped along by a US Navy task force, Garrett eventually realizes that a modern-day “pirate king” is to blame for the attacks.

Up until “pirate king”, this was a wonderful premise: the piracy problem is indeed a growing issues in southeastern Asia, and it presents an interesting challenge even for someone with the latest technology at her fingertips. Heck, even with “Pirate King”, it’s a promising setup: a strong antagonist has to be involved (and vanquished) at some point for a dramatic conclusion.

But it’s all in the way things are presented. And this is where the “pirate romance” bit takes a toll: It’s one thing to speak of a novel that’s not as exciting, not as tightly focused as the previous books in the series. It’s quite another to compound that with incongruous scenes in which the formerly unflappable heroine of the series suddenly takes on the mantle of James Bond and self-consciously seduces a wealthy powerful man who just could be the Pirate King. Readers thus jostled out of the book’s spell can then start making wisecracks, dismissing the book’s complex problems with an easy “Yarr, my darling!”

This being said, I can’t help but wonder what role gender politics can play in such sarcasm. The Amanda Garrett series was distinctive partly for its portrayal of a female heroine in a modern naval setting. It has also been true that the attempts at romance between Garrett and other characters were tepid and not entirely believable. But what role does the madonna/whore archetype play in dismissing romantic entanglements for the series’ heroine? I wonder. I may think that this whole seduction business is a weak subplot clumsily inserted in a novel that didn’t need it, but I can’t account for my own invisible biases, and that worries me.

Not that this is the biggest problem with the book. The crystal-clear action sequences that made the previous books so memorable are here muted and infrequent. The final “attack in paradise” is suitably apocalyptic (and the Chris Moore cover of the book’s UK edition is lovely), but there isn’t much here to gnaw upon. Even my favourite character of the series, the wonderful Christine Rinaldo, doesn’t get much to do this time around. The result is a weak novel, even if you don’t add the pirate romance aspect, or the hints that another admiral may be romantically interested in Garrett.

It amounts to a disappointing novel by anyone’s standards, especially given the strong impression left by the first three books of the series. As of this writing, five years later, this is still the final chapter in the Garrett series, and Cobb has limped along on unrelated books that skirt the edge of self-publishing. His big return, planned for fall 2007? A Robert Ludlum “collaboration”. Uh-huh. He can do much better.

Death by Hollywood, Steven Bochco

Ballantine, 2003, 239 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-46687-X

Sooner or later, it seems that every writer who passes through Los Angeles ends up with the irresistible ambition to run to New York publishers and sell them a revenge novel about Hollywood’s excesses. Find a screenwriter with prose ambitions and you will probably find someone looking to settle a score or two outside the normal power structures of Hollywood. And watch out if an established novelist goes to Hollywood for a while… Sooner or later, they come back wide-eyed with a novel or at least a short story on the madness of Southern California. (Get Shorty, anyone?)

The twist with Steven Bochco is that in Los Angeles terms, he’s more a member of the TV middle-class than the cinema elite. But he’s from Hollywood anyway, so the revenge fantasy novel aspect still holds true. Bochco may not be writing directly about TV production in Death by Hollywood, but he’s still skewering the same celebrity-obsessed mentality that seems to permeate the L.A. bassin.

A relatively short novel at a time where 350-450 pages is the norm, Death By Hollywood is as long (or as short) as it needs to be. Told from a first-person point of view that at first seems disconnected from the action, Death By Hollywood is about murder (fittingly enough for the creator of “Hill Street Blues”, “L.A. Law” and “NYPD Blues”), but also about the cult of celebrity and the way in which a person without scruples has a huge advantage over anyone who does.

It starts with voyeurism, as a screenwriter watches a naughty scene turn violent, then deadly. Obsessed with the idea of a killer script premise, the screenwriter inserts himself in the developing story, all the while plotting how he’s going to influence the events for the best dramatic effect. If it means getting friendly with the lead investigator in the case and getting very close to the murderer, well, why not?

Played half with a smile, half with a cynical sneer, Death by Hollywood wastes no time in getting into the heads of characters willing to do the worst to others if it just means taking a step closer to success. Never mind that the plot never quite makes sense (announcing what you’ve done to the world isn’t a terrific idea for a criminal, script or no script): the emphasis here is on the satire, the description of how Hollywood corrupts everyone who’s touched by its illusions. Even the characters who should be the most trustworthy aren’t any better than the others, we discover. The language of the book is crude, and the action sometimes pauses for ribald scenes. This is both a macho-noir narrative and a satire: it’s not to be taken too seriously.

Yet part of what makes the charm of the novel is the accumulation of details about life in Hollywood. I’m always very fond of the alternate Hollywoods developed by fiction writers as they weave details that may or not correspond to real-life celebrities. The nature of celebrity being so extreme, the difference between reality and fiction is never too clear nor too clean. Suffice to say that Bochco writes with the weariness of someone who has spent decades in the business: the asides of his narrator alone are worth the short time it takes to read the novel. (Though I wonder if Death By Hollywood would have been different if Bochco had tackled TV series production. Is there a reason why he didn’t, or was it just a better story this way?)

It’s hardly a perfect novel (among other things, the omniscient point of view seems a bit presumptuous from the narrator, especially when he tries to justify how he learned all of that information), but it’s a very enjoyable one. It may not be worth the price of a hardcover unless you’re building a collection of Hollywood revenge novels, but it’s a great excuse for going back to your local library, or to hunt the bargain bins. Steven Bochco won’t ever by known for his novel over his TV series, but Death by Hollywood certainly isn’t a dishonour. In fact, I wonder if he’s ever going to write another one…

Throne of Jade, Naomi Novik

Del Rey, 2006, 398 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-345-48129-1

Sometimes, sarcasm is the quickest way to the truth.

So when I say that reading Throne of Jade is like being stuck on a slow boat to China, I’m not being mean as much as I’m being as descriptive as possible

Nor am I being negative given how much I enjoyed the novel despite its lopsided structure.

Because Throne of Jade does take place on a slow boat to China. After the events of His Majesty’s Dragon, Will Laurence and Temeraire are faced with a new threat: the Chinese government has learned that Temeraire, formerly a gift to the French government, has fallen in English hands. They’re not happy and the English government isn’t necessarily feeling better about it. Soon, a plan is hatched to send Laurence out of England and in China, where negotiations with the Chinese emperor can most efficiently settle the issue.

There’s a catch: during an eighteenth century where most of Europe is at war, sending a major delegation to China can only be done by boat, around Africa and the Indian Peninsula. For the duration of the trip, Laurence, Temeraire, their entire crew, the English delegation, the Chinese diplomats and everyone’s support staff are stuck on a flotilla going to China.

It’s not a smooth voyage: beyond culinary matters (as Temeraire comes to appreciate Chinese cuisine), the ship is attacked by pirates, dogged by traitors, wracked by dissension and enlivened by all sorts of other incidents.

Still, we’re on a slow boat to China.

This changes two-third of the way in the book, as China looms over the horizon and the palace intrigue begins in earnest. Almost too quickly for comfort, various conflicts are introduced or revealed, along with significant revelations about why Temeraire was sent to Europe. As a few roughly-paced actions scenes show, all is not well in the Chinese court,. Temeraire makes a permanent enemy, but manages to make things end happily for everyone else. If you’re looking for a plot, you’ll find it in the last hundred pages of the novel.

Fortunately, the chief attraction of the Temeraire series is still world-building, character and prose rather than plot. Novik is still fond of short-loop drama (though one hopes that the introduction of a recurring antagonist may change things slightly) and the structure of her second novel is lopsided, but she still writes entertaining prose, and the deepening characters of Laurence and Temeraire are doing much to keep us in the story.

Temeraire may often be too good to be true, but his growing awakening to the true treatment of English dragons (especially when compared to their Chinese brethrens) introduces a few elements that may eventually develop into satisfying plot lines. I’m still vaguely unsure if the human/dragon relationships are meant to satirize a certain view of male/female power dynamics, or if they’re meant to map onto other privileged/oppressed relationships. But then again, sometimes a dragon is just a dragon… and on that score, Throne of Jade does much to stretch the reader’s imagination: Temeraire’s arrival in China is a glimpse into yet another series of conventions regarding dragon accommodations. Compared to His Majesty’s Dragon, the feeling of “cheating” alternate history is lessened given my lack of familiarity with Chinese history at the time.

But even despite my quibbles about the plot and structure of the novel, I still had a lot of fun reading Throne of Jade, and that ends up trumping all other concerns about the book. Novik has, once again, delivered a solid series book that shows that the readability and richness of her first novel weren’t accidents. It doesn’t stand alone, nor is it meant to: her story may be shifting gears in anticipation for later instalments. Black Power War is up next, with its deliciously ominous title.

Temple, Matthew Reilly

St. Martin’s, 1999, 508 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-312-98126-0

Few dilemmas of genre fiction fascinate me as much as the trade-off between believability and excitement in thrillers. Make your thriller as faithful to reality as possible and there’s nothing left to distinguish it from dull newspaper headlines. Make your narrative as wild as possible and no one will take you seriously.

On the other hand, nobody ever said that “being taken seriously” was in the job description of thriller authors. So congratulations to Matthew Reilly for figuring out that sometimes, it’s better to be fast, furious, insane and action-packed than to be realistic. His second novel Temple may never survive a real-world audit, but it’s exciting like few other thrillers I’ve read recently, and that excitement does much to patch over the weaker parts of the novel.

Although mixing historical treasure-hunting with high technology has enjoyed a renewed degree of popularity since Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, Reilly was there before most others with Temple. The initial hook is a staple of adventure fiction: A rare Inca idol made of extra-terrestrial material that could end up destroying a good chunk of the Earth should it fall in the wrong hands. To retrieve the idol from its current unknown location, the U.S. Army grabs academic William Race and drags him in the jungle, where he’ll have to interpret a rare manuscript, make nice with his ex-girlfriend and learn how to become an action hero against nature, Neo-Nazis and American traitors.

Busy schedule, and “busy” is only one way to describe the fever pitch of Temple when it gets running. As he runs deeper in the Andean jungle, William Race is surrounded, then abandoned by highly-trained military personnel. Occasional allies include native people and a pair of German police officers (including one coincidentally named Karl Schroeder). But it’s the variety of threats that make Temple flip over on the “wild and crazy” side of the thriller ledger. Any novel that pits giant felines against Neo-Nazis is not one to dismiss easily, especially when both of them are against an academic who’s got to learn everything about modern weaponry in the blink of an eye.

The chief attraction of Temple is how it unabashedly structures itself as a written action movie. There’s little complexity of prose and character here, but a lot of complicated action sequences and cinematic set pieces. This isn’t a book for delicate little literary flowers: this is the written equivalent to a blockbuster Hollywood action movie, and it works remarkably well at fulfilling those expectations. Many thriller writer attempt such action-heavy stories, but few of them do it as well as Reilly.

The only lull in the action comes in a pair of lengthy historical narratives forming the diary of a priest visiting the Inca empire hundreds of years before Temple‘s contemporary frame. I ended up skimming those sections with little impact on my comprehension of the rest of the story.

As for the rest, well, it’s tough to summarize boats jumping in the air and wild gun tricks. I’ll let you grab a copy of the book and find out for yourself. Just don’t expect a lot of internal coherence or even a basic respect for the laws of physics. The last death-defying climax is so ridiculously overblown that it will either make you hate the novel or seal your love for it forever: It’s the kind of things that only insane or self-confident authors can pull off, and I can’t tell if Reilly is one or the other. I’m not even sure I want to know.

One thing is for sure, though: Now that I have belatedly become aware of Matthew Reilly, it’s about time that I find out what else he’s written. Already, Contest and Ice Station have been thrown in my pile of books to read, and I can’t wait to find out if the brand of crazy action that sustained Temple is to be found in his other books. But, oh, have I got a hunch…

Perfect Stranger (2007)

(In theaters, April 2007) There are bad dull movies and there are compulsively watchable bad movies. Perfect Stranger falls squarely in the latter category. A mish-mash of ludicrous plot twists, unlikable protagonists (I like looking at Halle Berry, but her acting is like nails on a blackboard), bad technical details, dull eroticism and clumsy direction, Perfect Stranger is nonetheless captivating: the plot mechanics are unaccountably fascinating, and that’s without adding the attraction of watching a cinematic train wreck and wondering how bad this is going to turn out. The final few minutes are a masterpiece of the “let’s screw with the audience” school of thriller plotting. A chaste thrill-free “erotic thriller”, Perfect Stranger still has a magnetism of its own. It’s a bad movie, but I guarantee you won’t be bored.

Pathfinder (2007)

(In theaters, April 2007) There are bad dull movies and there are compulsively watchable bad movies. Pathfinder falls squarely in the first category. A war movie in which Vikings go against Native Americans in the year 1000, Pathfinder thuds in theatres and can’t be bothered to be interesting. Bad direction, ugly dark-and-blue cinematography, faint characters, major continuity mistakes (What’s that about walking to the Rockies from the eastern coast?) and a total lack of interest are the distinguishing characteristics of this sorry excuse for entertainment. At every moment, we’re reminded that Apocalypto did the whole “ancient war movie” so much better. Even by the low standards of action cinema, Pathfinder has little going for it. Go ahead; rent it despite the warnings of this review and feel sorry for yourself.

The Black Ice, Michael Connelly

Warner, 1993, 439 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-61344-4

Whenever a reasonably good and consistent author emerges, reviewers inevitably wonder what will be the novel to break their stride. What’s the worst they can do? What is the least of their capabilities?

The Black Ice may be an above-average police procedural, but this second entry in my Michael Connelly Reading Project (“One novel per month, every month, until I’m caught up”) is the weakest of the half-dozen Connelly novel I’ve read so far.

Once again, the star of the show remains Harry Bosch, the laconic LAPD policeman that has since become Connelly’s signature character. For Harry, things are tough at work and about to get tougher as a policeman’s corpse is discovered. Suicide, say early results, but Bosch isn’t convinced –even as his superiors aren’t fond of too-clever deductions. In typical Connelly fashion, the subsequent investigation takes Harry in dangerous places, especially when the death turns out to be linked to the drug underground of Los Angeles, with an even more problematic Mexican connection.

Throughout most of its duration, The Black Ice is slick procedural detective fiction, and it uses a number of L.A.-specific elements to spice up the narrative. Fruit flies have seldom been so important in a police procedural thriller, and even routine scenes such as a visit to a low-end bar end up having unexpected spikes of drama. Before the end of the novel, we’re even treated to a big SWAT action sequence.

For readers who aren’t following Bosch’s novels in linear order, The Black Ice doesn’t particularly depend on the events of the first volume. Only Bosch’s romantic history and distrust of the LAPD’s Internal Investigations unit carry through most clearly. After the troubled romance of the first volume, Harry is after yet another opportune girlfriend this time around, although don’t worry –later volumes show that it won’t last. The internal investigation angle is trickier: Harry doesn’t trust the LAPD and the LAPD doesn’t trust him either. In Connelly’s fiction, though, this is business as usual.

But “business as usual” ends up being the key expression to describe one of Connelly’s most average effort so far. His typically fluid prose remains just as apt at hooking readers into a complex web of competing subplots but The Black Ice, for the longest time, lacks the distinctive edge that usually gives an extra boost to Connelly’s fiction. Critics will struggle to find something to say about it and turn in shorter-than-usual reviews. Until the last quarter of the narrative, it’s “just” another murder investigation with a drug angle. What happens afterwards is definitely a spoiler, but that extra quasi-insane twist eventually becomes the most distinctive element of the novel.

And yet, even if The Black Ice is satisfying crime fiction, it’s still a notch under what Connelly can usually write and the difference is perceptible. Since the result is still superior to the average, it’s easy to forgive Connelly this misstep. The mark of a great author, after all, is how he can be above the norm even in his weakest moments. The Michael Connelly Reading Project rolls on, far from being disappointed.

Next (2007)

(In theaters, April 2007) Adaptations of Philip K. Dick stories are either SF classics or B-grade pap, and Next goes straight in the second category as a limp action film that never uses its premise to its fullest extent. Oh, Nicolas Cage is entertaining enough as a Las Vegas magician with a few special powers, but there’s little of note in the tedious film that surround him. The action scenes are by the numbers (all the best images are in the trailer), the special effects look substandard, and the ending takes back the entire third act. Boo! Though not quite egregiously offensive or awful, Next nonetheless leaves no lasting impression and will soon go languish in bargain bins all around the world, right next to Paycheck. Isn’t that just a waste?

Meet The Robinsons (2007)

(In theaters, April 2007) This second Disney CGI effort after the uneven Chicken Little is a good step up for the new animation house: Not only is it a solid kid’s film, it espouses a number of worthwhile values and even presents a mission statement of sort of Disney itself. Not bad for a film dealing with a genius twin being carried away in the future. The pacing is brisk, the characters are surprisingly well-defined, the animation is fine and little of it is saccharine or maudlin. Better yet: the film often allows itself little forays in bizarre territory, such as when a dozen characters are introduced in ninety seconds, or when a family dinner turns into a cheaply dubbed martial arts sequence. Not exactly the kind of thing you’d expect from the fairly standard trailer. Perhaps the best thing about this film from a purely geek perspective is how it embraces the notion of technological progress as an extension of human values; that’s a nice SF attitude right there, and it does much to make me fond of the movie. (Heck, I even went back two weeks later to see it as a 3-D feature and still enjoyed it.)

Death Proof (2007)

(In theaters, April 2007) Seen as part of Grindhouse: “In comparison, Quentin Tarantino’s subversive Death Proof is far less even: it dawdles along on Tarantino’s usual verbal pyrotechnics, then delivers a jolt of exploitation adrenaline. But then the movie resets to another format, turning the cards and screwing around with audience expectations. It’s a ride and a half, perhaps too conceptually clever for its own sake.”

Planet Terror (2007)

(In theaters, April 2007) Seen as part of Grindhouse: “Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror is by far the most entertaining film of the duo: A self-aware parody of zombie films, it’s crunchy-delicious in its avowed awfulness, and never misses an outlandish beat when it sees one.”

Hot Fuzz (2007)

(In theaters, April 2007) The boys of Shaun Of The Dead are back with another genre comedy, and this time it’s both the quaint English countryside character comedy and the big old Hollywood action movie who successively come under fire. Simon Pegg is exceptional as the super-agent “Nick Frost” transferred from London (where he makes the rest of the force look bad) to a small village where nothing happens. Nothing? Well, OK, not nothing: maybe a continuous series of suspicious incidents… It’s all fun and surprisingly gory jokes until the two-third mark, at which point the film changes gears and truly tackles action movie clichés with a delirious energy. The solid all-star cast does little to distract from the fun. So far, this is the comedy to beat this year…

Grindhouse (2007)

(In theaters, April 2007) For a movie industry that is renowned for not taking risks and always presenting the same thing, American cinema can still be surprising from time to time. Case in point: the wonderful cinematic experience that is Grindhouse, complete with two full-length movies, fake trailers, fake film damage, “missing reels” and intermission cards. (Canadian theatres even got the bonus trailer Hobo With A Shotgun). It’s long, it’s self-indulgent, it’s hyper-violent… but it’s a trip and one of the best prepackaged movie-going experience I ever had in a multiplex. The movies themselves aren’t all that special, but it’s the whole experience that makes the show. Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror is by far the most entertaining film of the duo: A self-aware parody of zombie films, it’s crunchy-delicious in its avowed awfulness, and never misses an outlandish beat when it sees one. In comparison, Quentin Tarantino’s subversive Death Proof is far less even: it dawdles along on Tarantino’s usual verbal pyrotechnics, then delivers a jolt of exploitation adrenaline. But then the movie resets to another format, turning the cards and screwing around with audience expectations. It’s a ride and a half, perhaps too conceptually clever for its own sake. Still, the entire package that is Grindhouse is a success and a great big gift to movie geeks. Whatever you do, don’t miss Don’t!

253, Geoff Ryman

Griffin , 1998, 384 pages, C$17.95 tpb, ISBN 0-312-18295-3

(Preferably read online at http://www.ryman-novel.com )

Now here’s an early-web curio that most may have forgotten: a “hypertext novel” in the purest sense, a story without much of a main plot but plenty of characters. 253 of them, in fact: the number of people that can fit in a London tube train. Every one of them to be described in 253-word long chapters. The train (we quickly learn) is doomed to a terrible crash, making the lives of its passengers seem even more poignant.

High concepts such as “interactive novels” are often bandied about by amateur writers convinced of their genius and self-importance. Often, they’re just rehashes of cheap “make your own adventures” YA novels. Less often, they can take on deeper themes about the way we live stories (such as Kim Newman’s exceptional Life’s Lottery). Geoff Ryman isn’t just any writer (a fact that has grown even more obvious since 253) and his hypertext novel is considerably more ambitious than a piece of stunt writing.

Inevitably, there are many ways to read 253. Paperbound readers will find a “paper remix” of the book available in bookstores. But that’s a very linear interpretation of the work: the fullest experience is freely available from the web site on which Ryman originally wrote the novel. Here you will find the introductory material, tragic conclusion and the 253 character profiles that form the backbone of the novel. Thanks to the hyperlinks, you will be able to jump from one character profile to another as they interact, building a fuller picture of what is happening aboard that doomed train. Navigating through the novel becomes your own interpretation of the book: Characters encountered in a particular context will have a different resonance later on when they’re seen from other viewpoints, perhaps irremediably affecting the experience of 253.

For instance, I started reading 253 with the firm intention of doing it linearly: I would read all of the introductions, then all of the character profiles, then the conclusion. But only a few characters into the story, I started following the links that suggested a story. A young man with a crush on an older woman? Let’s click and see what she sees! What, she’s married and her husband is following her? Let’s click and see what happens! Ryman has been clever enough to include a number of such mini-dramas in the hypertext, and it’s not uncommon, following links, to go from one of those stories to another. In some ways, the free-form nature of 253 offers a clearer look at the way storytelling is wired in our brains: I found that I simply couldn’t resist the attraction of a suggested narrative. (Clearly, I’ve been spending too much time reading John “The World can be read as Story” Clute.)

The number of characters also allows Ryman many fiction-bending possibilities, as it eventually becomes apparent (especially in the last car) that not every character is inhabiting the same world, the same genre or the same story. Some are lost in dreary domestic drama; others are stuck in a crime thriller; at least one would feel at ease in a science-fiction story (having discovered the proof of the entirely reasonable assertion that all males are slightly autistic), whereas a bunch of them eventually transform their train ride in a musical comedy. A “Tall, ravaged, nervous-looking middle aged man” named Geoff Ryman [Passenger 96] even makes an appearance as part of a roving comedy troupe. But even he isn’t the strangest character on-board: That honour could either go to another man studying his fellow passengers and writing the novel’s epitaph (Passenger 252), mysteriously blank character 70, “Pigeon-chested, pigeon-toed” character 121 (my personal favourite) or the ultimate passenger 253, who sends the entire novel into an entirely different direction altogether.

It makes a unique reading experience: So many characters in such a condensed fashion, with unexpected links and a variety of lives worth experiencing. 253 often recalls the old joke about the dictionary (“great vocabulary, lousy plot”), but here the diversity and interconnectedness (or lack thereof) of the characters is the fabric from which the narrative is made. The train crash is the epilogue than caps off the story in tragic fashion, a sad note in what is otherwise an exhilarating experience (albeit occasionally tedious, when read too quickly). I’m half-glad, half-disappointed I got to experience it at home in front of my computer: In an ideal world, I might have done better had I read it on my PDA during my own lengthy bus rides to and back from work.