Crooked Little Vein, Warren Ellis

Morrow, 2007, 280 pages, C$27.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-06-072393-4

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Warren Ellis’ blog, but it had one feature that I remember clearly. Once every few days, a link called “Don’t click here!” would appear. These days, “Don’t click” is usually an invitation to see how jaded you can be. Thanks to the Internet, everyone now think that they’ve seen more of human perversion than the Marquis de Sade himself. Well, Warren Ellis meant it when he tells people not to click. Goatse is mere fluffy comfort compared to what he proposed under those links. Most people learned quickly that if Warren Ellis said not to click, you didn’t click.

For more than a decade, Ellis has written almost exclusively for comic books, racking such hits as Transmetropolitan and becoming something of a net.personality thanks to his work and an active on-line presence. His prose fiction debut, Crooked Little Vein, was eagerly anticipated. Would the book live up to the hype?

I can probably answer that question with two words: Godzilla Bukkake.

  • If you don’t know those words, Warren Ellis isn’t for you, and I’m not the one who’s going to explain what they mean. (Also: You’ll regret knowing. Don’t click!)
  • If you know those words and recoil at the thought that they could be combined, Warren Ellis and Crooked Little Vein aren’t for you. But at least you already know that.
  • If you know those words and wonder (maybe queasily) how they could follow one another, get Crooked Little Vein and turn to chapter 4. Your questions will be answered. In detail.
  • If you’re hollering and clapping “Godzilla Bukkake! Hell, yeah!”, you probably read the novel before I did. (Also; please stay at some distance until I get to know you better.)

To see a pope of pop perversion like Ellis turn to novel-length fiction is fascinating on many levels: How will his sensibilities adapt to prose? How will he handle the structural demands of a novel relative to comics? Would be he able to sustain a narrative over hundreds of pages? (Albeit barely: I’d be surprised if the book goes much longer than 50,000 words.)

The answer is surprising in its cleverness. First, Ellis takes on a standard boilerplate noir template to kick off the action: His narrator is a hard-boiled Private Investigator who’s asked to find an important national relic. Michael McGill is a protagonist living out of his time: He may be in 2006, but he truly belongs to the classical pulp era. His ability to attract the weirdest elements of contemporary society is a handy excuse for Ellis to trot out the worst of what he can find on the Internet, but it also sets up the novel’s examination of what’s weird. The stated assumption, at least at the beginning of the narrative, is that America has lost its way. That the ills of American society are caused by permissiveness and encouraged by the broad availability of amoral depictions.

But from this hard-boiled premise, Ellis turns to the road novel as inspiration. Chapter by chapter, McGill heads west from New York to (inevitably) Los Angeles. Every step along the way, he meets richer and more amoral characters. From Godzilla Bukkake, we go to genital saline injections, naked animal wrestling, Jesus-themed sex toys and even worse. I would say that delicate natures should abstain, but that should be obvious by now. But it also minimizes the fact that the novel is very funny. McGill’s narration is impeccable, and his mixture of world-weariness and “you’ve got to be kidding me” bewilderment at what he sees is the perfect middle ground for the readers.

What doesn’t work so well, as the book advances, is the false conflict between America’ “new perversion” and McGill’s so-called conservatism, as given voice by arguments between McGill and the female side-kick that follows him along his trip through darkest America. Ellis is too obviously fond of off-beat weirdness to be truly impartial in the matter, and the two or three plot beats that depend on McGill being an old-fashioned moral beacon in face of contrary evidence don’t really work. The conclusion is entirely expected: Much like Jerry Springer’s series is surprisingly moral under the freak show veneer, so is Crooked Little Vein once you accept the idea that unusual acts between consensual adults can be no one else’s business. It’s interesting to see, late in the book, where Ellis ends up drawing the line between good and bad behaviour. Morality is about people being hurt, not about people being vicariously shocked or offended.

But if trying to fit Ellis’ novel in an analysis of contemporary morality may be fun for budding sociologists, it’s not where the true worth of the novel truly lies: Crooked Little Vein is the type of vibrant little novel made for the comic-book generation, a short trip through a fun-house world that first wants to entertain its target audience. I have already met people who couldn’t finish the novel, and that’s OK: Much like more of Ellis’ work so far, Crooked Little Vein is bound to offend (or disgust) just about every reader at some point. It’s hardly perfect as a sustained narrative (the episodic structure is transparent, and some passages feel forced into the story, such as the plane ride with Falconer in Chapter 42), but it’s a lightning-fast read and a delicious summer treat for jaded readers.

Just make sure that you really want to “Click here”.

Not a review

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