Monthly Archives: October 2008

Pandemonium, Daryl Gregory

Del Rey, 2008, 288 pages, C$15.00 tpb, ISBN 978-0-345-50116-5

Since I read current novels more readily than short stories, it’s rare that I will pay attention to authors before their first novels. But Daryl Gregory was an exception, thanks to “Second Person, Present Tense”, an astonishingly good story reprinted in the Hartwell/Cramer anthology Year’s Best SF 11. On the strength of that story alone, Gregory’s first novel was worth waiting for. Fortunately, he doesn’t disappoint.

A mash-up of genres and influences, Pandemonium is best described as a contemporary fantasy taking place in a parallel universe where people can be “possessed” by archetypes. After World War Two, instances of people acting strangely -often exhibiting abilities outside their knowledge- have multiplied, spawning research, fear, catastrophic events and a lot of curiosity. No one quite know how or why those possessions occur, but even the most skeptical have a hard time denying their existence.

Our narrator, Del Pierce, has a closer relationship to those entities than most. As a child, he was possessed by “The Hellion”, a Dennis-the-Menace archetype whose influence had real consequences. A childhood exorcism drove the demon out, but following a car crash, it seems that it’s trying to come back… and that’s not counting the wink that Del gets from another possessed person in the first chapter. Deadbeat, unable to hold on to relationships, severely emotionally afflicted, Del may not be much of a winner but there’s no denying his character.

Looking for clues and a way to get rid of his entity, Del travels to a convention of possession specialists, stalks an expert, partners with a somewhat wrathful nun and makes his way in America’s Midwest to find the origins of his problems. Thanks to a few twists that occasionally echo “Second Person, Present Tense”, it’s a more complex journey than you’d expect. The ending isn’t entirely happy.

There are a lot of things to like about Pandemonium, but the accessibility of the story is perhaps the most obvious of them. Despite the scope of the changes in that world, Gregory manages to introduce the premise smoothly, allowing us to understand the world and how it differs from ours. The telling of the tale is generally straightforward, except for the intentionally shocking twist midway through. The characters are well-sketched, and the prose is easy to read.

There are also a few memorable details. A description of a possession convention recalls a number of SF conventions, and the cameo by Philip K. Dick (himself possessed by Valis, a possession that seems to have had a beneficial effect on the writer) is only the most obvious of the unobtrusive in-jokes that pepper the novel. Gregory has a good handle on pop culture, and Pandemonium doesn’t have to scratch deep to find interesting things to say about our collective imaginary landscape.

If the novel falters a bit, it’s in building a credible alternate history for the universe. Despite significant differences between history of the world (including a rather different fate for Richard Nixon), many pop references remain the same, along with historical event such as the O.J. Simpson trial (although it, too, ends differently). To be fair, the balance between a recognizably similar universe and the changes flowing from fifty years of possessions was nearly impossible anyway: Too much in fantasy and the novel loses its relevance, while too much in realism and the entire thing loses its appeal.

But if you avoid looking too closely at the historical aspects, Pandemonium is a strong first novel, a perfectly satisfying read and a promising step up for Gregory. If you haven’t registered his name after “Second Person, Present Tense” and his other short stories, it’s time to stand up and take notice.

His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman

Knopf, 1995-2000 (2007 omnibus), 934 pages, C$24.50 tpb, ISBN 978-0-375-84722-6

In a way, it’s sometimes a relief to review books that everyone else has read.

Granted, my standards for “everyone else” are fairly low. But when discussing Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, “everyone else” is a lot of people. Pullman’s series may not have reached the mass-market hysteria that swept around J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (it helped that the series became popular after it was completed), but it was often mentioned in the same breath, sold widely, earned a lot of critical attention and had its first volume adapted to the big screen with an A-list budget.

The movie crashed and burned a hole in the studio’s budget, thereby ensuring no second and third film, but that’s not much of a big deal considering that the entire story, as conceived by Pullman, still exists happily on bookshelves, untainted by the film’s imperfections. In fact, it’s a bit of a wonder that the film existed at all given the original trilogy’s ambitious goals. While Harry Potter was an accessible experience for the entire family, His Dark Materials is significantly more complex, with a correspondingly more difficult style and thematic concerns that go well beyond the Young Adult market it was often aimed at.

It’s a story of a young girl discovering the world, but there’s a lot more to Pullman’s ambitions than to deliver a coming-of-age story: Before she’s through, heroine Lya will discover her unpleasant parents, see friends die horribly, venture to the land of death and eventually confront The Authority itself. While the first book is generally about her, from her perspective, the latter parts of the story shatter in multiple viewpoints, some of them ending only when the characters die while striving for their goals. Along the way, Pullman hops from one universe to the other and tackles philosophy, the nature of the universe, the way science works and how people change. It’s an almost impossibly rich mixture of themes, and trying to take it all in takes time and effort.

In fact, I’m not terribly ashamed to say that the book lay on my bedside table for nearly a year, slightly and infrequently read, until a series of airports and planes gave me sufficient motivation to finish it. It’s not particularly accessible for those who just want a story, and it takes a lot of time to rev up. By all means, see the movie to prime your imaginary engines… but don’t be surprised if it remains heavy-going.

On the other hand, the rewards for reading the story to the end are considerable. Over and over again, it’s hard not to be impressed by Pullman’s audacity, his willingness to go to difficult places, kill favorite characters, defy convention and still manage to deliver a satisfactory conclusion. The fantasy elements he brings to the story are both complex and original, never completely tipping over in familiar tropes and surprising even seasoned genre readers. He sets a high standard for himself and dares others to keep up, which is a tough but rewarding experience as long as you keep up.

Unfortunately, this demanding regimen makes it difficult to recommend the book widely. Readers with patience, some literary skills and a taste for more ambitious material will get the most out of this trilogy. But the beauty of reviewing works that “everyone else” has read is that, by now, everyone who wanted to read it was already done so.

Half a Crown, Jo Walton

Tor, 2008, 316 pages, C$28.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1621-9

True to form for Jo Walton’s work, Half a Crown is both familiar and unexpected, successful and flawed, charming and unnerving. As the third book in the “Small Change” trilogy, it has to live up to the expectations set by its predecessors, which described the course of an alternate history in which England played nice with the Nazis. The result was fascism with a kindly British face, told in alternating chapters by young women and a detective with more and more to lose.

This detective, Peter Carmichael, has risen through the ranks in the decade-and-a-half since the previous volume: Now head of the secret police, he spends half his time upholding the law of his government and the other half doing what he can to lessen the oppression. The years since Ha’Penny have been rough on England: In almost fifteen years of totalitarianism, the population has come to an arrangement in tolerating its oppressive government. Some people have lived nearly their entire lives under this type of regime, and find the whole thing natural.

Which brings us to the other narrator of the story: Elvira, daughter of Carmichael’s old partner, now his ward but also eighteen and anxious to become a débutante. Her introduction into formal society won’t go as planned as a rally turns violent and police arrest her. For both Elvira and Carmichael, this is the beginning of momentous events that will change everything. 1960 London is boiling with tension, and this gives Half a Crown an extra layer of urban complexity that wasn’t immediately obvious in the first two novels of the trilogy.

As ever, it’s Walton’s low-key extrapolation of British fascism that make up the bulk of the novel’s conceptual appeal. Draped in King and Cross, Half a Crown show that fascism can become part of the background noise –especially if one learns to ignore the occasional cries for help. If the political events of Farthing could be considered an accident and Ha’Penny can be seen as a missed chance to make things better, Half a Crown is more pernicious because it shows that totalitarianism isn’t something that will be automatically be resisted by everyone. The inertia of ordinary people, promised nothing less than what they already have, can be a surprisingly amoral force.

As for the novel’s more conventional qualities, there’s little to say: Walton is a careful writer, and there’s a great deal to like about Half a Crown‘s characters (especially as they’re forced to make the choices their whole lives have been leading to), the slow-burn pacing and the way Walton finds essential details in commonplace things. Fans of the first volume will finally learn what happened to the Khans, although the answer and its implications may not be as reassuring as they may think.

The only element of the book that is likely to cause controversy is the ending. The “Small Change” trilogy has been relentlessly downbeat, and though everyone can forgive a happy ending, Half a Crown seems to make things awfully easy on itself, in a way that practically begs for a dose of sarcasm. A short royal conversation, a proclamation and the whole thing is on its way out? It fits and yet doesn’t: despite the sacrifices of the characters (and yes, a recurring character does die along the way), Half a Crown‘s ending seems to wrap up too quickly and easily.

But it’s also fair to say that the principal strength of the series has been about journeys, about the day-to-day life rather than the cusp points or the wrap-up. Walton, in a way, has attempted the portray the unstoryable, the way in which we get used to horrible things. Comfort from routine can be found in the oddest places, and upsetting this routine always feel wrong somehow, even when the change ends up (or should end up) being for the better.

The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made, David Hughes

Titan Books, 2001 (2008 rewrite), 350 pages, C$16.95 tpb, ISBN 978-1-8457-6755-6

One piece of knowledge that differentiates Hollywood insiders from mere pretenders is the understanding of how difficult it is to bring a movie to the big screen. As a collaborative art form, film involves hundreds if not thousands of people, millions of dollars and years of effort. The financial risks are so high, and the number of potential projects so vast, that there are far many more ideas than production slots. No wonder, then, that there is enough material for a fascinating book about the movies that never were.

While the idea of a book about non-existing movies may strike some as useless, David Hughes’ The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made is far more interesting than anyone may expect. Far from presenting a compendium of failures, Hugues uses this opportunity to reveal the hidden history behind some famous SF franchises, study the ways Hollywood really works, and tell fascinating stories about the film industry. Ignore the pandering “Sci-Fi” and broken toy robot on the cover: this is serious film journalism, blending information from public sources and exclusive interviews to describe development processes that may have lasted decades.

Chances are that you will recognize many of those “movies never made”. For one thing, what we’ve seen on screens isn’t always the first concept that occurred to the film’s producers. There’s an entire chapter on the STAR TREK series of films, for instance, that sketches the false starts, development pains and secret negotiations that shaped the series. For another, good film concepts don’t necessarily die when work stops on them: often, they go dormant, awaiting only the right person for a revival. So it is that many movies judged “dead” in the first edition of Hugues’ book were revived and released before the second revised edition. THUNDERBIRDS, THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, SUPERMAN RETURNS, FANTASTIC FOUR are only four of the titles that made it out of development hell in the meantime (with WATCHMEN a few months away from release), and this edition of the book has been revised to include the postscript of those efforts.

Most of all, The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made provides great examples of the way Hollywood really works in the myriad of ways movies can turn wrong, or never make it out of the intense competition for limited production funds. Science Fiction movies are expensive, and it’s a defining characteristic that may account for a significant number of failures: at that level of commitment, few people are willing to go on a limb and remain true to an artistic vision. And that’s assuming that the creative differences are settled, which isn’t always the case: WATCHMEN, for instance, had no less than half a dozen different directors attached to it at one time or another, all cracking their heads on the issues in adapting a comic-book masterpiece to a different medium.

Happily enough, Hugues’ style in describing those complex stories of failure and successes is almost compulsively readable: His clean prose deftly juggles names, time-lines, interview quotes and explanations of why things didn’t go as planned. The narrative prose is clear, with the sources kept in a dense thirteen-page appendix. There’s a lot of original research, and even film buffs will find something new in there.

Naturally, we shouldn’t mourn for all of those movies. I was particularly taken by the case of Clair Noto’s famously unproduced script “The Tourist”, intriguing in its moody description of stranded aliens, but almost certainly the kind of film that I would have hated in theaters. That the premise is eerily similar to aspects of the delightful MEN IN BLACK is something left to contemplate whenever I feel that Hollywood always makes the wrong choices.

The Brass Verdict, Michael Connelly

Little Brown, 2008, 422 pages, C$29.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-316-16629-4

With a bibliography that now numbers twenty volumes in sixteen years, it’s no accident if Michael Connelly’s got a keen understanding of what his fans are expecting from him. Given Connelly’s track record of bringing together practically all of his protagonists, it’s not much of a surprise to discover that The Brass Verdict features two of Connelly’s best-loved heroes so far: “Lincoln Lawyer” Mickey Haller and series stalwart Harry Bosch. The least surprising development, of course, is that for all of its twists and turns and limpid prose, The Brass Verdict remains solid Connelly.

After two years away from the law after the events of The Lincoln Lawyer, protagonist Haller ends his self-imposed sabbatical in less-than-ideal circumstances: An acquaintance of his has been murdered, and a past agreement between them stipulates that Haller is the legal executor who gets to take care of the cases. For Haller, who planned on slowly getting back into practice after a lengthy rehabilitation period, this comes as a shock in more ways than one, especially when he realizes that one of the thirty-one cases falling into his lap is a high-profile murder case featuring one of Hollywood’s power producers. But there’s a lot more to it. Like, for instance, finding out who murdered the lawyer with the original case load. The LAPD is on the case, and they’ve sent one of their finest agents on the case: Grizzled veteran Harry Bosch, who shares another connection with Haller.

Narrated by Haller himself, The Brass Verdict is a welcome return to the legal procedural mode last successfully seen in The Lincoln Lawyer. While Connelly’s usual perspective (via Bosch) is about police work, Haller’s an opinionated expert on law, and his digressions on the way justice is served in the real world are just as cynical as Bosch’s own handiwork. Lies, unsurprisingly, are at the heart of this novel’s thematic concerns —especially when they place Haller in a difficult position. Meanwhile, Bosch is usually somewhere in the novel’s shadows, doing his own thing.

While The Brass Verdict stands alone by itself, there’s little doubt that Connelly fans will get the most out of it: The interplay between Haller and Bosch is better if readers already know the two characters. As usual for Connelly’s crossovers, Bosch is more scary than admirable when seen from another perspective. The Brass Verdict may be the first of Connelly’s novels to turn him into a supporting character, acting away from the narrator’s perspective and letting Haller realize how callously Bosch is using him for his own purposes. The central connection between the two characters, which has been known to faithful Connelly readers for a while, comes as a bit of an anticlimax late in the novel as the narrator finds out for himself. Meanwhile in the Connellyverse, other characters make guest appearances, from Jack McEvoy’s extended cameo to a fleeting suggestion of Void Moon‘s Cassie Black (who’s overdue for a return feature engagement after being anonymously glimpsed in at least two novels so far.)

There are questions that linger, though: Isn’t it convenient that Haller is still another lawyer’s executor after two years away from the law? Isn’t it convenient that Bosch (just-as-conveniently back in active Homicide cases as of The Overlook) is too heartless to recuse himself from a case involving someone he knows? The questions aren’t as bothersome as the reasons why they spring to mind: Despite Connelly’s sure-footed prose and click plotting skills, The Brass Verdict often feels like a perfunctory effort, another crossover special with more emphasis on the high-concept log-line (“Haller meets Bosch!”) than the actual plot, which seems to end on a rather gratuitous fishtail.

But there’s no need to panic yet for Connelly fans: Even at its contrived worst, The Brass Verdict won’t disappoint anyone, and does nothing to tarnish anyone’s appreciation of the author. If nothing else, it brings to mind memories of The Narrows, which also brought together known character for a result that ended up being less than the sum of its parts. Still, even at his most routine, Connelly still manages to beat most other crime fiction writers at their own game.

Wit (2001)

(On DVD, October 2008) There’s nothing amusing about seeing someone die for an hour and a half, but Emma Thompson manages to make the whole experience uplifting during this adaptation of a play about a scholar slowly dying of cancer. Her flights of fancy as death closes in may not rank as uplifting, but they do credibly tackle the formidable waste that death can be, especially when her own experience of the process clashes so dramatically with the doctors who see her as nothing more than another patient on which to perform the experiments that will prove them right. Not bad as far as tearjerkers go, but stay far away if you’re not in the mood to contemplate slow and futile death. The DVD doesn’t contain any other material of note than the film.

Pride And Glory (2008)

(In theaters, October 2008) In theory, it’s entirely possible to mix genre fiction with serious drama. The problem is that such a hybridization can’t be handled lightly, and requires a deft touch to keep everyone happy: The pacing of genre fiction can often be inconsistent with the demands of dramatic depth, and a cross-over can fumble both. This is pretty much what happens here, as the filmmakers try to deliver a drama that cuts deep into the ties of a family of policemen and the larger NYPD around them: The balance between the inner lives of the characters and the police investigation that the perform isn’t satisfying, and feels either dull or rushed. Despite capable performances from the cast (including Ed Norton and Collin Farrell), Pride And Glory doesn’t have the heft or the nimbleness that a genre cop drama should have. It can’t even conclude properly, with a fistfight climax followed by cheap street justice. Most of all, there little moment-to-moment interest as the film moves from one scene to another. Character tangents are taken but not resolved, (such as when a journalist becomes a viewpoint character,) reinforcing the impression of a slap-dashed script shot too quickly. There have been more satisfying films about cop families recently, including We Own The Night, and this one won’t have any staying power.

Miracle At St. Anna (2008)

(In theaters, October 2008) Spike Lee knows how to shoot a movie, but since Miracle At St. Anna hits the two-and-a-half-hours mark, I’m not sure he knows how to edit one. It’s a shame, really, because it would have been interesting to watch a movie about the all-black Buffalo Soldiers regiment and their experience in the Italian front of World War Two. We get some of that early on, but then the film loses itself in mystical drama about young boys and partisan politics. The film grinds to a half, occasionally mugs for seriously misguided laughs, and wears everyone’s patience thin before an ending that get more and more irritating. The real miracle here is that anyone will stay awake until the end: Lee’s direction seems to have lost all of the snappiness on display in Inside Man, and his racial message gets less and less effective as he multiplies his cartoonish antagonists. What a waste of resources; I suspect that the length of the film is directly related to the involvement of the original novel’s writer in the screen-writing process.

Tripwire, Lee Child

Jove, 1999 (2005 reprint), 401 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-0-515-14307-2

One of the advantages of reading through an author’s back-catalog the way I’m rushing through my Lee Child Reading Project (“One book per month, every month, until I’m done”) is the way I can spot subtle differences between novels. Tripwire is like most Child novels in that it features Jack Reacher and combines genre-savvy plot mechanics with strong technical details to create a top-notch thriller experience. On the other hand, this is the first Reacher novel I’ve read (out of five so far) that tackle the limits of the protagonist, and feature him against a memorable villain.

It’s also a Reacher novel that covers quite a bit more ground than usual: after a prologue set in Key West (where Reacher is working as a pool-digger, no less), the action moves to New York, then off by commercial plane to destinations farther west. It also digs into Vietnam-era history and establishes careful ties with Reacher’s own biography.

The best thing about it is how it finally gets rid of the coincidences that propelled the plots of Killing Floor and Die Trying: This time, the action comes to Reacher as a private detective manages to track him down in Key West. Reacher denies being himself, but soon has no choice than to go back to New York City when the detective is savagely assassinated. Trying to track down who wanted to find him, Reacher stumbles onto an old friend, and then onto unfinished business… Meanwhile, in a related plot development, a businessman is coerced into ceding a controlling share of his company to a mysterious man with a hook and a burn-scarred face. How these two plot-lines come together is one of the book’s primary point of interest, but it is by no mean the only one.

As usual, Reacher’s knight-errant adventures lead him to a beautiful damsel-in-distress, dangerous situations, complicated back-stories and convincing background details. Tripwire includes details about things such as forensic anthropology, .38 weapons, Vietnam helicopters, prosthetics and grey-market money-lending. As usual, everything rings utterly true, lending considerable credibility to the novel.

Also as usual, Child is skilled in keeping us guessing as to the true shape of the story. There are a series of mysteries to elucidate one after another, up until we realize that it’s been a much simpler novel than we’d been led to extect. Superb pacing (even more so considering that the novel isn’t a fight-a-page carnival), limpid writing and tough characters only add to the attraction of a superior genre thriller.

But this time around, Tripwire does feature an unnerving antagonist, someone whose bloody murderous methods aren’t even slowed down by an office on the 88th floor of the World Trade Center. After several books where Reacher seemed to outnumber armies of paid goons, it’s a change of pace to see him go head-to-head with a villain who seems to be just as clever as he is.

The other distinctive plot element of this nove is Child’s willingness to acknowledge Reacher’s own limits: his nomadic lifestyle may be a boon for the series’ plotting possibilities, but they don’t make him a perfect human being, and he’s got to confront a few of those limits throughout the novel as a tempting slice of normalcy is dangled in front of him. (Alas, I’ve got a feeling that we’ll seldom, if ever, hear about that again: Like most serial heroes, there is no stable future in store for Reacher.)

None of those distinction harm Reacher as a character, and they do much to set this book apart from the other ones in the series. While Tripwire doesn’t quite attain some of the series’ high points (such as the brilliant first hundred pages of One Shot, or a few virtuoso scenes in Die Trying), it’s a decent entry that’s features a slight-enough departure to keep things interesting. Balancing the familiar with the unusual is a constant problem for series writer, but Child seems to be doing pretty well so far.

Max Payne (2008)

(In theaters, October 2008) The irony is that this film based on a game largely inspired by John Woo movies never feels a tenth as interesting as John Woo movies themselves. Aside from a fairly dull shootout in an office made of glass partition and a ridiculous shotgun blast in a factory, the game’s celebrated “bullet time” (itself borrowed from another pretty good movie) scarcely makes an appearance. But if you were hoping for a compelling plot to fill in the blanks left by underwhelming action, forget about it: What we get is by-the-numbers revenge plotting, with scenes that sound familiar and dialogue that never sticks in mind. It’s a pretty sad film, really, and the occasional visual flourishes aren’t enough to make it better than it is. Game-to-movie adaptations usually have a terrible record, and this one will only fuel that particular axiom.

Lakeview Terrace (2008)

(In theaters, October 2008) I’m generally not fond of comedies of humiliation, nor of its darker thrillers of exasperation. And this story pushes several of my annoyance buttons: cheap interracial tensions, cartoonish neighbors from hell, obvious dramatic arc and a director with a history for uncomfortable films. So I was surprised to find out that Lakeview Terrace wasn’t quite as grating as I thought: While the well-worn plot holds little surprise as soon as the first five minutes are over (neighborhood tension, escalating all the way to… well, you know), the last act of the film has a few manipulative surprises in store, and Samuel L. Jackson’s antagonist remains as compelling as despicable. It’s too bad that the protagonist is written as a nebbish decent guy: it’s tough to identify with his passivity or his easily-avoidable bad moves. Thriller fans will find a further point of interest in noticing how Jackson’s character, a perfect action protagonist in other contexts, is here portrayed as a man incapable of living in civilized society: now that’s some meta-contextual grist for action cinema critics. As for Lakeview Terrace itself, it’s unnerving, not as surprising as it could have been, but basically a competent thriller if you can make it through an hour of predictable rising tension.

Eagle Eye (2008)

(In theaters, October 2008) It’s rather telling that a technothriller like this one can slip so easily in the realm of Science Fiction using nothing more than a voice on the phone and some impeccable timing. It’s too bad that the nature of the antagonist will be obvious to even the dullest viewers, or that Eagle Eye never hesitate to indulge into easy clichés, but even those are small problems compared to the film’s inconsistent interest and forward pacing. For every dynamite sequence in the film (such as the escape-by-crane, the naval yard ballet or the Predator Drone chase), the script allows itself a few underwhelming moments that make little sense and rob the film of its impact. There is a lot of interesting material in the film’s justification, where automated systems take it upon themselves to respect a constitution ignored by its human masters, but all of it leads to yet another iteration of the old “sparking computers, last-minute rescues” clichés. It’s a curious grab-bag of contradicting impulses, and it’s perhaps more interesting to discuss than to watch.

The Bonfire Of The Vanities (1990)

(On DVD, October 2008) This movie was critically lambasted upon release, but if it’s not quite a success, it’s not the disaster that some reviewers have reported. As an adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s novel, it manages to hit most of the high points of the novel, and if Wolfe’s prose can’t be fully adapted to the screen, it finds an appropriate counterpart in Brian de Palma’s swooping direction and ambitious cinematography. The long continuous opening shot is a small marvel of the form, while other sporadic flourishes keep things hopping along. Things aren’t as slick regarding the script, which does an intriguing job re-casting Wolfe’s story into a satiric comedy mold, but falters in the film’s second half with a number of limp scenes that don’t advance the story as efficiently as they should. It’s too bad that the manic quality of the original is only half-finished here. The result isn’t terrible, but it certainly could have been better. The first-generation DVD, regrettably, doesn’t include any supplementary material about the film, which is a shame given that an entire book has been written about the film’s troubled production.

Alternadad, Neal Pollack

Pantheon, 2007, 290 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-375-42362-8

I’m now well in the stage of my life where friends are not just married, but actively reproducing. The changes are profound, as the new kids become the focus of their parents’ lives: suddenly, evening movie outing are impossible, and lunchtime discussions become all about showing the latest pictures of their superstar. Some people become hollow husk of their former personalities, having sacrificed every shred of it on the altar of parenthood. Lest you think I am making fun of them, let me set you straight: I’m not mocking them as much as I’m dreading that in a few years, the same thing could happen to me.

Books like Neal Pollack’s Alternadad may not be the answer to this growing fear, but they certainly put the discussion in context. People who have read Pollack’s previous books will be surprised to learn that his latest is a memoir of his first years as a father. After all, The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature was literary hipness given form (from McSweeney, no less), even as Never Mind the Pollacks was a rock-and-roll novel through and through. The leap from this hipster coolness to the more conventional demands of parenthood end up forming the main concern of Alternadad, as Pollack tries to reconcile his hip formerly-single self with the demands of a growing son.

The narrative begins in Chicago, where alternative-culture-loving Pollack meets the love of his life (although not without behaving badly enough during their first date that he’s got to beg for another one), gets married and learns of her pregnancy. Then it’s off to Philadelphia where Elijah Pollack is born, and where Pollack père gets increasingly concerned about the riskier neighborhoods that he used to find so charming when he was a carefree single.

So it is that the bulk of the book takes place in Austin, where the Pollack family undergoes its formative years: Elijah starts going to preschool (and becomes a biter) while Neal briefly plays in a punk band, trades a drug habit for another one and gradually gets involved in community work. As Elijah grows up, music starts being a factor in the father-son relationship, as Neal is determined to give his son a solid background in what he considers cool music.

As a narrative, it’s an engrossing read: Neal is a flawed character, but a solid narrator, and his easy prose is peppered with killer lines and flashes of insight. Part of the appeal of the book, perhaps unfortunately, is that Neal does act in ways that most would consider irresponsible: his drug habits may be recreational, but they’re constant through the book, and his decision to form a punk band and go on a multi-city tour soon after his son’s birth may not be exactly what we’d consider solid middle-ground behavior for a new father. Later on, Elijah gets expelled from preschool for behavioral problem, and Neal writes an on-line article about it that becomes a controversy magnet and an excuse for perfect strangers to criticize his behavior. Remove those elements, however, and Alternadad becomes a fatherhood narrative like many others.

While I may not share any unsavory habits with Pollack, his narrative does address universal concerns. The transition from bachelor to husband to father is fraught with identity crises, and if Alternadad may be an extreme data point on the “personality change” scale of parenthood, it shows that some people don’t necessarily disappear once their genes have been passed on. Whether this approach is preferable to people who straighten up, become devoted brain-dead parents and carry around a photo album of chocolate-smeared infants is something that everyone will have to decide for themselves, but it’s a comfort of sort to understand that some things don’t change no matter what happens.

Body Of Lies (2008)

(In theaters, October 2008) Never mind that this adaptation seems to have dispensed with the rationale for the original novel’s title: Even in a pumped-up, slightly dumbed-down Hollywood version, this story has the heft of a solid contemporary thriller, not unlike Syriana even if it doesn’t satisfies as completely. As a look at current American covert intelligence operations, it’s credible and merciless: the lack of compassion is biting, the rivalries are omnipresent and even the so-called good-guys have their less-admirable qualities. It’s slightly too long for its own good, but director Ridley Scott delivers the goods when comes the time to deliver the showcase sequences: There’s a jeep/helicopter chase early in the film that makes little tactical sense, yet crackles with energy. Throughout, we’re treated with superb cinematography and capable acting: While the spotlights will go to a scruffier-than-ever Leonardo DiCaprio and a rotund Russel Crowe, two of the film’s most remarkable performers, in entirely different registers, are an unflappable Mark Strong as a jordanian spymaster and an irresistible Golshifteh Farahani as an Iranian nurse stuck in the middle of an espionage plot. The best part of the film is how it’s absorbed like a good novel, watching the pieces set up and running in different directions. It’s hardly perfect, but it’s pretty good at what it tries to do, and that’s already not bad.