The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood

Seal, 2000, 659 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-7704-2882-7

The most overwhelming impression I got from Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin is how subtle it all was. Compared to this book, other novels are written with all the skill of a two-year-old kid messing around with markers. Atwood introduces, develops and disposes of her characters in such a delicate way that you only feel the cut of the knife long after it’s been pulled.

A substantial part of this success must be attributed to the intricate structure of the novel, which takes place on roughly four continuums at the same time.

The most immediate of those four threads is a first-person narration of Iris Chase’s life at 83. She putters around the small city of Ticonderoga, Ontario while reflecting on the nature of passing time and the fates of people she knew. Not quite a crotchety old lady, Iris still has an eye for things, and an ironclad memory of the early years of her life.

These early years form the bulk of the novel, as Iris relates the events leading up to her sister’s death, when “Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.” [P.1] That’s literally how the novel begins, and also figuratively how it ends, being the climax of Iris Chase’s life despite the fifty-odd years that would follow.

Interleaved along this parallel narrative is a third thread, made up of newspaper articles directly or tangentially related to the Chases’s life. Gossip columns, eulogies, newspaper reports provide a dry view of what happened to them, offering an “official” view of events that is often simply fantastical.

And, finally, as a fourth thread we get excerpts of “The Blind Assassin”, a cult-novel-within-a-novel written by Laura Chase. It’s about a woman who falls in love with a pulp science-fiction writer, but is it what it’s really about? In between the gaudy alien creatures, fantastical planets and simplistic plotting of the stories imagined by the writer, you can guess a deeper meaning.

You might find The Blind Assassin shelved in the “general fiction” area of your bookstore or in the “mystery” section, and both would be correct locations. Even only a few pages in the novel, troubling questions appear. Besides simply seeing how everything comes together, we get troubling hints of suicide, murder and utter downfall. Why is it that Iris Chase, daughter to an industrial magnate, would end her life as a near-pauper? Is it as awful as it appears?

Certainly, there’s something in this novel for everyone. Family portraits are always compelling, especially when they’re tragic. I was compelled by the inevitable descent of Iris Chase, even as it’s really liberation in disguise. And, of course, I couldn’t help but like the sympathetic portrait of pulp SF writers, with their imaginations being used for courtship and sustenance alike. There are beautiful phrases and memorable epigrams, as would be expected from an accomplished writer like Atwood.

It all comes together in the end, of course. In such a beautiful way that you close the book and whisper a stunned wow of astonishment at how well the structure converges to a single unification point, at how deeply you’ve come to care for these flawed characters, at how even characterization mistakes are intentional. Don’t be surprised if you like The Blind Assassin better after you’ve read it that during an initial approach. It’s an admirable book as much as it’s a compelling one.

The Lion’s Game, Nelson DeMille

Warner, 2000, 926 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-60826-2

Prior to September 11, 2001, I merely disliked terrorists.

Living in good old peaceful Canada, I’ve never had any direct nor indirect experience with it. It was something that happened elsewhere. Sure, people got killed, and for this reason alone terrorists should be caught and tried… but as far as day-to-day life went, they did their stuff, I did mine, and that was it.

That notion came tumbling down along with the World Trade Center.

Now I simply hate terrorists. Unconditionally.

On July 1 2001, me and me sister, while visiting New York, passed through the North-West Tower ground floor, snapped a picture and left.

Now we can’t go back. The whole area has been destroyed. Terrorists have effectively destroyed part of my history.

The effects ricocheted back to the present. A dear friend of mine was forced, amidst great personal turmoil, to cancel two trips she was looking forward to. And now I find that terrorists have invaded my library.

The Lion’s Game should have been a good read. Indeed, I passed up an opportunity to buy the hardcover edition in August 2001, rationalizing that I’d read it sooner or later, so why not later?

Later, after the WTC collapse, proved to be an atrocious idea.

On the surface, without any outside influences, The Lion’s Game is a promising read. It brings back John Corey, the wisecracking narrator of DeMille’s good Plum Island. This time around, though, Corey has accepted a job with the New York Antiterrorist unit. As the book begins, he’s en route to the airport to pick up a terrorist in transit from Europe. So far… so good?

Alas, any of the novel’s innocuous mentions of the World Trade Center now triggers a reflex. And that’s without counting lines such as “the quality of terrorists we get in this country is generally low… and the stupid things they’ve done is legendary… But then again, remember the World Trade Center. Not to mention the two embassy bombings in Africa.” [p.47] Later, there’s the disturbing scene on page 219-220, where our narrator stares at the WTC, reflects on the near-miss of 1993, possible worst-case scenario and the efficiency of American anti-terrorist units. Ow.

But the worst realitymod in The Lion’s Game is the nature of the terrorist himself. The titular “Lion” acts too much like… a honorable villain. He kills specific targets to fulfill a personal objective; he doesn’t blindly strike at whoever he can kill. He is up-close and personal with his victims. He goads our narrator. He in no way acts like the monsters of September 11. He’s clearly a fictional construct.

The resulting chase, which wouldn’t have been very good even when read “cold”, now seems more trivial than DeMille intended when writing the book. A few dead people here and there. Oh well.

There’s plenty to say about the book in itself. How the narrator is the main attraction, and the chapters starring “The Lion” are merely filler. How the book is much too long. How the ending, as original as it is -in the sense that you probably haven’t seen anything like it before-, wraps the book in a messy fashion that satisfies no one. How Corey once again gets to sleep with a different woman. How little there is in these 900+ pages.

But no; now, the main problem of the book is its attitude, its approach, its lackadaisical attitude toward terrorism. Scenes that now couldn’t exist. Lines that were funny, now turned sinister.

The terrorists that killed 6000+ persons on September 11, 2001 and destroyed the World Trade Center have also invaded our libraries and video stores, turning run-of-the-mill thrillers in distasteful disappointments. They’re messing with the 1976 remake of KING KONG. They are retroactively planting bad memories in our minds. They are souring the thrills out of thrillers. They don’t even need to kill another person to do so; the damage is self-sustaining, rotting away our leisure time.

That’s why there’s no escape, no surrender and no mercy possible for terrorists. And that’s why I hate their guts. No one messes with my library.

The Waterboy (1998)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Waterboy</strong> (1998)

(On TV, September 2001) Limp “comedy” starring Adam Sandler as yet another brain-damaged protagonist. This time around, he’s a weakly football waterboy whose unleashed rage can overcome even the toughest enemy player. Uh-huh. Whatever. It’s no accident if wrestling plays a substantial part in the film. The main arc of the story is as unfunny as they come, with expected developments, obvious twists and… wait a minute, did I say “twists”? Sorry, was thinking about another film entirely. In any case, the rare giggleselicited by The Waterboy are of the incidental variety, mostly through sight gags (“College Football Coaching for Dummies”, a Roy Orbison tatoo, a “What are they doing without supervision?” shot) and certainly not through Sandler, who here acts as a comedic black hole sucking all fun out of every single frame he’s in. Gaah. Zzzz.

Sneakers (1992)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Sneakers</strong> (1992)

(On VHS, September 2001) Lessons in cinema can come from the most unlikely sources, and so it’s halfway through Sneakers that I finally realized something that had eluded me for so long: The true origins of hacking movies (Hackers, Swordfish, etc…) are not thrillers in general, but specifically heist movies. Granted, this is an obvious revelation after you’ve seen this Robert Redford vehicle, which was made at a time where virtual heists were still in their infancy. Here, Redford heads an elite team of intrusion artists who are manipulated in stealing something for someone. Never mind who or what or why and rather focus on the elegant mechanics by which the various stunts are executed. Even if the plot is complete hokum (and it’s not… too much), the real fun of Sneakers is in the individual scenes in which our genius-level characters are allowed to strut their stuff and overcome various obstacles. (There’s a particularly joyous scene involving high-speed driving by a blind man.) Believable acting, good pacing and fascinating details complete the picture and overcome any of the niggling flaws of this thriller. Good fun.

That Bringas Woman, Benito Pérez Galdós

Everyman, 1996, 218 pages, C$12.99 tpb, ISBN 0-460-87636-8

Through a set of circumstances too heart-breaking to explain, a good friend of mine gave me a copy of Benito Pérez Galdós’ That Bringas Woman to read. I never refuse given books, but in this case it turned into something bigger: As someone who generally reads modern genre fiction, I perceived this both as a challenge and an opportunity to broaden my literary horizons.

And what a broadening it would become: Benito Pérez Galdós lived and wrote in an entirely different world. He was born in 1843, was educated in Madrid, traveled to Paris, witnessed the Spanish revolution of 1868 and remains widely credited with bringing the Realist novel to Spanish Literature. He died in 1920 after being “denied a nomination for the Nobel Prize for political reasons.” His 1884 novel That Bringas Woman, alas, isn’t considered to be among his finest work.

And yet, it starts promisingly enough. The first chapter is akin to a gauntlet being thrown at the modern genre reader that I am, consisting in a long drawn-out description a picture, which we eventually find out to be made entirely of hair. It was a clear and unconventional signal that I’d better pay attention to the book, or else.

Fortunately, I stuck with it. That Bringas Woman is a sly satiric portrait of a dysfunctional family headlined by a boring accountant who develops a quasi-morbid fascination with creating a hair picture memorial to a departed friend (“the whole thing must be done in the family hair” asks the widow [P.5]) and a woman (that Bringas woman, as it is), who is consumed with an irresistible compulsion to buy, buy, buy more and more fine clothes. All obsessions have their prices, and so is is that the Bringas man goes blind and the Bringas woman accumulates some significant debts. Only sin will save her… or will it?

At it happened, I ended up reading That Bringas Woman concurrently with Chuck Palahniuk’s Choke. That was an invaluable exercise in perspective. Despite their different backgrounds, eras and approaches, both authors are really writing about the same things; characters consumed by their ambitions to the point of self-destruction. Palahniuk’s Victor Mancini might be a sex-addicted swindler with strong issues with his mother, but is he so different from Pérez Galdós’ Bringas, whose insatiable lust for fine things drive her to debauchery?

Now don’t get the impression that I thought this was a fantastic novel. After a very good first half, the novel sort of settles into inconsequentiality for much of its latter portion, never fully exploiting the various tensions set up in previous portions of the novel. Several seemingly useless passages are revealed to be ultimately just that; useless. While it would have been natural to expect a dramatic humiliation for Bringas, she barely suffers for her sins, as if Pérez Galdós couldn’t make himself be too harsh on the character. The parallels between the Bringas and the royal Spanish regime are also less and less exploited, leading even more to a strong feeling of untapped potential in the novel’s promise.

On the other hand, I can’t say enough good things about the Everyman edition of That Bringas Woman: Not only is the translation delightfully spot-on (with added modern touches, such as when the story of Adam and Eve is said to be so timeless as to be worth featuring on yesterday’s evening news), but the novel is encapsulated in enough supporting material -author biography, critical analyses, structural description, further reading, etc…- to make the novel accessible to any sufficiently-interested reader.

In the end, I come away from That Bringas Woman with a feeling much like the one I was expecting; a few great epigrams (“Oh, children! They’re an illness that lasts nine months and a convalescence that lasts your whole lifetime.” [p.21] is one for the ages), great character descriptions (See Chapter 12 and the hilarious “triplicate” statement), a sense of deep intellectual satisfaction and, yes, an impression of broadened literary horizons. Not bad at all.

Serendipity (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Serendipity</strong> (2001)

(In theaters, September 2001) An audience can forgive a lot of stupid stuff if only for two characters to end up together forever. Going to a romantic comedy built around the concept of serendipity, however, looks a lot like an invitation to be indulgent about 90+ minutes of coincidences. And, as a matter of fact, that’s pretty much what happens in Serendipity, another romance spoiled by its trailer, but first and foremost by sheer scriptwriting laziness. The fault certainly isn’t with the actors: Both leads John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale look as adorable as they should. Even the bit-players are surprisingly fun. Heck, even the first half of the film is amusing with its narrow misses, good-natured humor and general dynamism. It’s toward the end that the writer takes the easy way out. Something significant happens out of the blue, without any further explanation. Characters are gleefully forgotten out of the picture. A central romantic dilemma is never solved. Oh, and our two leads meet again in a completely non-climactic fashion. The whole film seems to lead to a big conclusion that deflates before impact. Sure, the two protagonists live happily ever after… but it’s still unsatisfying. And thus Serendipity fails Romance 101.

Recess: School’s Out (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Recess: School’s Out</strong> (2001)

(On VHS, September 2001) While fans of the TV Show will undoubtedly enjoy the film more than brand-new viewers, it’s far from being a total waste of time for the latter group. A good opening sequence efficiently introduces all the characters you need to know, and incidentally demonstrates a competent level of writing. Adults need not fear to be bored by the story; while this obviously remains a kid’s show, the various allusions, winks and general storytelling competency will hold your interest. Chances are that if nothing else, the “sixties flashback” sequence is designed specifically for the parents watching the film with their kids. (the latter Pink Floyd reference is guaranteed to have you howling) There’s also a more serious, and as effective, moment where the characters have to contemplate the passing of time and effect thereof on friendship. Some characters get unfortunately short thrift (more Spinelli!!) and the animation level -save for some computer-generated sequences- remains strictly Saturday-morning level. But don’t let that stop you; Recess: School’s Out is good fun. Stay for part of the end credits, as a hypnotically compelling version of “Green Tambourine” is sung by Robert Goulet.

The Others (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Others</strong> (2001)

(In theaters, September 2001) In this age of stupid big special effects, it’s easy to be seduced by a quiet little effects-free ghost story. Director Alejandro Amenábar here repeats many of the elements that made his previous film, Abre Los Ojos, such a success: A low-key approach steadily building up to a twisty conclusion, with our protagonists struggling with the acceptance of key facts. It’s not quite enough to be fully satisfying, though: Most of The Others‘ length is of such plodding, maddening pace that you’ll long once again for the snappy storytelling of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone”. For added bonus points, note how the keys motif seems to disappear midway through, and ponder how and why the film doesn’t make all that much sense once the final twist has been revealed. Oh, and wonder about the utility of the husband. Still, as mentioned previously, it’s so easy to be seduced by the quiet ones, that you never notice they’re not much better than the loud ones…

Appleseed, John Clute

Orbit, 2001, 337 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 1-85723-758-7

After suffering through John Clute’s Appleseed, I’m ready to propose a law that will require mandatory knee-breaking for every critic who has the gall to unleash a fiction borefest on an unsuspecting public.

An explanation is in order: John Clute stands supreme as the world’s best science-fiction critic. His incisive commentary is compelling even if you haven’t read the book he’s talking about, and his views on the state of the genre deservedly provoke controversy. Read his reviews, and you’ll pick up vocabulary. His essay collection Look at the Evidence is in my library; I still refer to it from time to time as a demonstration of my complete lack of talent as a critic. In short, he’s the man, and I’m the weasel.

So, naturally, the release of his first science-fiction novel, Appleseed, should be an event in itself. Who better than a critic to show a lesson to the rest of the SF world?

Hey, stop laughing. It’s hard to lose one’s illusions.

The problems begin even before the first page of the narrative, as Clute thoughtfully includes an Author’s Note explaining the meaning of “Azulejaria” and “Mappemonde”. Sound the warning bells; we’re in for a bumpy ride.

How bumpy? How about a randomly-chosen prose excerpt for your perusal? Ready? Here goes: “Opsophagos consulted the crippled captive AI in its iron mask. They agreed that the Johnny Appleseed face of Klavier was artefactual, a play of light visible only from the command skiff. But the other face was no decal, no trick played on the instrument of the Harpe. The other face was the face of a planet.” [P.166]

That might have been a bad random selection; it’s actually almost vulgarly accessible compared to the rest of the novel. The word “unreadable” generally comes to mind.

But “boring” quickly follows it. Because not only is reading Appleseed a lot like wrestling in a mud pit with an octopus, when you manage to shine a light through the clouds of obfuscation and uselessly fancy prose, you end up with… not much. A standard mercenary trader story. A space opera that could have been written in the fifties if it wasn’t for the bad language and the sex.

Oh yeah, the sex. And the bad language. Having lived only five years in the seventies and having never indulged in recreational drug-taking, I don’t have LSD flashbacks. But I can certainly have bad literary flashbacks, and reading Appleseed took me back to my least favourite SF period, the brain-damaged late-sixties/early-seventies when “experimental” authors like Moorcock, Delany or Russ urinated in the common pool by stuffing as much gratuitous sex and language in otherwise insipid stories. Appleseed is not only an atrocious book; it’s an atrocious book from the seventies.


I seriously thought about stopping to read, an exceedingly rare event for me. I kept slogging on, against my better judgement. Maybe it would get better. It sort of did, for a while, but that ultimately proved to be a cruel illusion. I might have read the last third of the book. I certainly don’t remember any of it.

My point ultimately being that Appleseed is one of the worst SF books I’ve read in a while. Give me Star Trek novelizations or even another book by William Shatner; I might hate it as much as I do hate Appleseed, but at least I’ll have much more fun doing so.

[July 2006: Years later, not necessarily any wiser, I have come to regard my impression of the book as a personal failure of comprehension. Clute rocks and we’re just hicks trying to catch up. There’s a telling passage by Neil Gaiman in the Clute-hommage anthology Polder that goes like this…

[During the Milford writer’s workshop] we questionned his metaphors and similes. We would say: “John. You say here that ‘it was as if an entablature of salamanders performed a [myoclonic] can-can.’ Isn’t that a rather laboured, not to mention utterly opaque simile?”

And he would brush off such foolishness with an airy gesture. “You may think that,” he said, “but later in the story an entablature of salamanders will actually perform a myoclonic can-can. And then it will resonate.” [P.158]

…and so I am humbled. I will try this book again.]

Moulin Rouge! (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Moulin Rouge!</strong> (2001)

(In theaters, September 2001) As someone who sees nearly a hundred films per year, it’s often difficult to justify seeing so many when so many of them are just crap. Then comes the odd one-in-a-hundred moment, the one that is so good, so original, so perfect that it fully justifies the rest of the dreck in theaters. That moment is the highlight of Moulin Rouge!, the introduction of the nightclub and of the Satine character, a raucous musical number featuring and blending “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”, Madonna “Material Girl”, Nirvana’s “Nevermind”, the latest “Lady Marmalade” remix and a brand-new Fatboy Slim track. You have to see it and hear it to believe it. But don’t be surprised to find yourself stuck with a silly grin during the first half of Moulin Rouge!, even occasionally shaking at how good it is. A triumphant revival of the musical with an initial hyperkinetic approach reminiscent of Fight Club, this is one unique film, a jewel in the rough for everyone who loves movies and pop songs. Gleefully using twenty-five years of pop music like a toolbox to tell his story, writer/director Baz Lurhmann does things with the raw material that will leave you breathless at his audacity. Postmodernism at its best. Top-notch editing, a wonderful screenplay and excellent musical talent will leave you gasping for more. Granted, the second half of the film is more dramatic, less impressive than the first half, but that first half is likely to be the best thing you’ll see in 2001. Even the dependence on raw sentimentalism works to some degree. Don’t miss Moulin Rouge!

(Second viewing, On DVD, August 2002) Wonderful stuff any way you choose to see it. Boffo set designs, exceptional music, enjoyable acting and some dynamite movie moments. It doesn’t stop, and you’ll wish it never did. The DVD is stuffed with an embarrassing amount of extras, commentaries, on-set documentaries and oodles of other fun stuff, such as co-writer Craig Pearce discussing an early draft of the script which contained a character called “Baron von Groovy”. (I want to see that film!). Warning, though: While the audio commentaries are great, the film perceptibly loses a lot of its impact stripped of the music, which makes the completely-muted commentary track a very curious choice from the DVD makers (as opposed to a track where the audio plays at a greatly reduced volume throughout.) I still think it’s a fantastic film.

The Making Of ‘Thriller’ (1983)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Making Of ‘Thriller’</strong> (1983)

(On VHS, September 2001) Occasionally interesting documentary about what’s arguably the most influential music video of all time. The focus on special effects is great, and so’s the segment on shooting. The documentary, however, is padded and hampered by several overlong excerpts of other videos, a John Landis film and a Grammy performance. Obviously there only to bolster the documentary’s running time. The image quality was poor, though that might have been a flaw of the older rental cassette we viewed. For fans.

Fear (1996)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Fear</strong> (1996)

(On TV, September 2001) So rich-daddy’s girl Reese Witherspoon hooks up with Mark Wahlberg, who turns out to be not a sensitive guy but rather a full-blown psycho. Despite what you may want to think, this actually turns out to be a sociologically relevant teen thriller. Sure, it does start out as your average teen romance film, what with the overworked daddy, the bitchy stepmom, the annoying kid brother and the lonely female protagonist. A chance encounter with a nice boy evolves into something far more dangerous and pretty soon, we’re in every daddy’s best nightmare. Suddenly, the father-figure has been right all along about the creepy boyfriend and must actually physically protect his family. If that’s not wish-fulfillment, I don’t know what is. As a thriller, Fear is only average, with a lengthy start and a progressively sillier finale. But it’s when considered on a more abstract level that it becomes fodder for a master’s thesis on teen alienation and fatherhood representation in pop culture. Squint even more, and you’ll find a fable about the panic of first romance and the inevitable transfer of a young woman’s affection from one male figure to another. Not bad for a teen flick starring Marky Mark, right?

Crazy/Beautiful (2001)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Crazy/Beautiful</strong> (2001)

(In theaters, September 2001) My initial reaction at seeing the trailers for this film was to wonder if there was something -*anything*- in there to motivate me to go. There wasn’t. Even after watching the film, I still can’t see any reason to see it. As soon as you define the genre (teen romance between a rich white girl and a poor ethnic kid), you pretty much have a good idea of where and how the film is going. The only particularity is the self-destructive personality of the female lead, which gives rise to the only interesting scene of the film, a sequence where the father of the girl promises to sign the guy’s military academy admission papers only if he stops seeing the girl… for the guy’s own good. The film soon after reverts to true Hollywood form, complete with happy weepy ending. It doesn’t help that in addition to the linear nature of the story, the film is one of the ugliest piece of cinema of the year, with “naturalistic” cinematography that just ends up looking dirty and unpleasant. A good script could have helped matter, but what we’re stuck with is a simplistic clunker that charms no one. (The film’s most vivid audience reaction at my screening was caused by improper framing and errant boom microphones. The biggest laugh happened after the girl says to the guy “My father’s away until midnight. We is all alone!”… and they’re followed by the overhead microphone.) Kirsten Dunst might be in the film for credibility points (she basically plays the antithesis of her cheerleader protagonist from Bring It On) but chances are that no one will remember this film in six months.

Choke, Chuck Palahniuk

Doubleday, 2001, 293 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-385-50156-0

Well, Palahniuk’s back with another book, and the bad news are that he’s not stretching many new writing muscles with his latest effort. Choke is in many ways the same type of stuff we’ve come to expect from the author of Fight Club, Survivor and Invisible Monsters. A first-person narration by a flawed character whose self-destructive impulse eventually break into weird self-salvation; this is and isn’t something we’ve seen before.

Victor Mancini, medical school drop-out, has two jobs: The first one is at one of those fake historical villages. The second is to pretend to choke in fancy restaurants and “allowing” people to rescue him, then milking their sympathy for a few checks from time to time. Whenever he’s got time, he hits sexual addiction recovery groups for hot chicks or visits his mother, currently wasting away at a retirement home.

But of course, you may suspect that as with any Palahniuk book, the real point of the novel isn’t as much in the main character as in the various vignettes he tells. No disappointment here, as we’re treated to a demented behind-the-scenes tour at a historical theme park (Chapter 4, 19, 28), the mechanics of scam-choking (Chapter 12), warning signals in public places (Chapter 15), a consensual mock-rape going hilariously wrong (Chapter 27), rock-collecting addiction writ large (Chapter 29) and the practical considerations of adhering to the Mile-High Club (Chapter 40). Good stuff, funny stuff. Not always particularly well-integrated stuff.

The usual Palahniuk tic of repeating particular catch-phrases are also included, this time with the medically inspired “See also:” cascades and the recurring “[foo] isn’t the best word for it, but it’s the first one that comes to mind.” These fragments work well, and don’t get too repetitive.

What is new -but not particularly successful- is how Palahniuk here flirts with the supernatural, with a less-than-definitive conclusion that disappoints in this regard. (It’s not the only problem with the conclusion, which is also a bit too hurried for full satisfaction.) There is also a small twist of sorts, but not a big one like the whopper in Fight Club or the barrage of steady revelations in Invisible Monsters.

At least one thing that’s steady is the high level of quotable material, hilarious vignettes and semi-deep thoughts. Also constant is the compulsive readability of it all; don’t be surprised to read the book in only one setting, as it’s small enough and vigorous enough to drag you all the way though it. If nothing else, Palahniuk’s prose kicks the stuffing out of all the turgid self-important bon mots found elsewhere in the “general fiction” category. It’s hip writing, and it makes for cool reading.

(Though, as usual, readers with weak sensitivities should steer clear of the Palahniuk oeuvre, as -in this case- it’s pretty much impossible to talk about self-destructive sexual addicts without, well, being graphic about it.)

And yet, despite all the reading goodness of a new Palahniuk, it’s hard not to feel slightly disappointed by it all. Familiarity breeds contempt, and if it’s a good thing for an author to deliver similar material to his fan-base, it’s hard to feel as if Palahniuk should unshackle himself and try something different. Even third-person narration might be a break from the norm!

In the meantime, there’s nothing wrong with picking up his latest book. Funny, readable, not entirely superficial and filled with memorable passage, Choke might just make you wheeze, hiccup and snort with delight.

Sien nui yau wan [A Chinese Ghost Story] (1987)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Sien nui yau wan</strong> [<strong class="MovieTitle">A Chinese Ghost Story</strong>] (1987)

(On VHS, September 2001) Exhilarating picture mixing action, fantasy, romance, comedy and seemingly everything else. It’s gonzo filmmaking in the Evil Dead and Dead Alive vein, with hordes of monsters, impossible stunts, out-of-nowhere twists and turns, full-bore fantasy elements and a whole lot of fun. You head will spin, turns and maybe even hurt trying to piece it all together. Try not to; it’s more fun just to be swept away. The technical polish of the film is a bit lacking, but don’t worry: you might never notice. While maybe a bit overhyped (this review isn’t any exception), A Chinese Ghost Story will delight anyone looking for something dynamic yet not from the same boring Hollywood tradition. One question, though: Looking at the release dates of both films, how much -if any- of A Chinese Ghost Story was influenced by The Evil Dead?