Nothing Lasts Forever, Sidney Sheldon

Warner, 1994, 384 pages, C$7.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-35473-2

There’s something to be said for trash, as long as it keeps me amused and out of trouble.

I know, on some intellectual level, that Sidney Sheldon is a best-selling writer. That his name is (was?) mentioned alongside Tom Clancy, Danielle Steele or Stephen King as this model of a wildly successful multi-millionaire author. But in a classic illustration of how large the fiction publishing universe has grown, it’s entirely possible for even a voracious genre reader such as myself to go practically ten years without reading a single novel of his, nor have much of an idea of what he usually writes. The last book of his that I’ve read, The Doomsday Conspiracy, was by a significant margin the single worst attempt at Science Fiction by a non-genre writer until Robin Cook’s Invasion.

I’m not a big reader of medical thrillers, but I believe that Nothing Lasts Forever does for them what The Doomsday Conspiracy did for SF: Barge into the genre with no affection and no refinement to develop a trite story featuring bad characters and entirely expected developments. But whereas The Doomsday Conspiracy‘s naive lack of sophistication seriously annoyed me, Nothing Lasts Forever ends up being… almost charming. I’m sure that my devotion to SF has something to do with my reaction (“How dare you make fun of my favourite genre?!”), but after this book, I suspect that there’s another element at play.

Let’s briefly review the basics of the plot: Three new doctors, all women (and yes, discrimination still plays an important part in this 1990 novel), learning the ropes at one of San Francisco’s biggest hospitals. But, as the first page baldly states, “one of them almost gets an entire hospital closed down, the second one kills a patient for a million dollars and the third one is murdered.” And there we go. In a curiously sophisticated nod to storytelling structure, the first chapter of the book is a fast-forward murder trial that, of course, presents a cynical version of events that will be completely overturned by the latter “true” flashback narrative.

If you’re used to daytime soap operas, Nothing Lasts Forever (a title that even sounds like a soap opera) will be instantly familiar. The shallow characterization. The casual evil inflicted by the tale’s villains. The twists and turns of fate (best described as “honking coincidences”). The way the story is pared down to its essentials in a series of short scenes. At the very least, no one wastes his time here, as the story races from beginning to end.

And that’s just as well, because the plot jumps from one unlikely situation to another. Gainful murder is committed because that’s the first thing that comes to the mind of the villain. An incompetent doctor naturally turns to Kama Sutra-enhanced seduction as a palliative for her lack of knowledge. (Worse; her daily couplings always works in ensuring the cooperation of her superiors and colleagues. Surely she can’t be that good, right?) Reading pages of this novel at random is an exercise in preposterous plotting.

But guess what? It’s so unsubtle, so unapologetic that it’s hard to resist. To quote the novel about the doctor with a specialization in Kama Sutra career-advancement, “There was a helplessness about her that they were unable to resist. They were all under the impression that it was they who were seducing her, and they felt guilty about taking advantage of her innocence.” [P.115] Bang on: This is such a fun novel, in its own skanky way, that’s it’s difficult to be harsh; it would be like spanking a mewling kitten.

If this review sound awfully condescending, consider this hypothetical scenario: What if an unbelievably crafty writer learned after years of trying that general audiences don’t like to be challenged? What if he took secret delight in producing trash and actually agreed with his most severe reviews while lighting cigars with hundred-dollar bills? What if he consciously dumbed down his stories so they’d appeal to everyone, including self-styled hipsters reading for ironic value? Hmmm… Twisted? Unbelievable? Even more so than this particular novel?

Collateral (2004)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Collateral</strong> (2004)

(In theaters, August 2004) Michael Mann films are rightfully regarded as minor film-making events, and even this admittedly average effort shows why: In this case, an average script is delivered by above-average talent, making it seem a great deal fresher than it is. Just take a look at the first few minutes, as Mann’s camera suggests Los Angeles as a vast uncaring monster, thinly linked by endless roads on which it’s easy for a man to be reduced to the simple role of a carrier. Hey, I know this is reading too much in a film, but that’s exactly the beauty of Mann’s direction: Make things appear deeper than they are. Because frankly, once you start picking at the details of this kidnapping/assassination thriller, it falls apart quickly: Jamie Foxx may play a sympathetic cab driver taken hostage, but the moron repeatedly manages to miss even the most obvious ways to get out, call the police and get away. The point isn’t that he should have done so (otherwise; short movie!) but that the screenwriter should have worked a little harder polishing the script. Otherwise, you end up with the kind of amazing coincidence that is likely to make any audience shake their head. (Come on: Don’t tell me you didn’t know, ten minutes in, who the fifth target was going to be.) Silly script, with a sub-par third act that crumples into a whimper of a conclusion. But -aha- boy does it look good and profound with Mann at the helm. (Tom Cruise also helps, with an icy look that does much to bring some much-needed oomph to the story) Wow, philosophical discussions in a taxi cab! It almost makes Collateral feel like it’s supposed to be a fable about estrangement and not a run-of-the-mill thriller. But don’t take a second look: You may be disappointed.

Avalon (2001)

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

(On DVD, August 2004) “From Mamoru Oshii, the director of Ghost In The Shell” sounds like a pretty good sales pitch… until you realize that this means a live-action film that emulates all the most annoying characteristics of bad anime: Soporific pacing; re-use of the same shots; a threadbare plot barely deserving of being called a “story”; characters mostly defined by their cool nickname; inexpressive acting; obvious twists stolen from slush fiction; and so on and so forth. If this film had been paced like the usual American films, it might have lasted a good fifteen or twenty minutes. As it is, we’re forced to slog through 90 minutes of sepia-tinted melancholy to get to where we know it’s going to end. Beyond the weirdly stylized (and yet curiously dull) first sequence, don’t expect much in terms of action: This is one anime film where long static shots are meant to induce roughly the same catatonia that affects the lead character. Some interesting cinematography, but is it all worth it? So many clichés and overused elements, yet still all wasted. It all ends, as you would expect it, with the usual metaphysical ending that truly doesn’t mean much and concludes even less. Real or not? A better question: Do I care or not? Welcome to Avalon.

AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004)

<strong class="MovieTitle">AVP: Alien vs. Predator</strong> (2004)

(In theaters, August 2004) Admit it: what did you expect with a title like that? The good news is that the film delivers more or less what’s promised by the title: A B-grade movie that doesn’t try too hard in trying to please the fan-boys. Some winks and nods are cute (Lance Henrickson’s role, for instance), but as the movie progresses, it becomes more and more obvious that Alien vs Predator is, faithfully enough, fan fiction brought to the screen. And fairly dumb fan-fiction at that: On paper, it’s scarcely distinguishable from the tons of truly wretched fan-fiction to be found everywhere on the Internet: flat characters; clichés repeated with gravitas (“The enemy of my enemy is my friend”, “I’d rather have it and not need it than…”), scenes and beats stolen from the previous films in the franchise; as well as numerous errors of physics, continuity and logic. What’s worse is that the direction is scarcely better than average: While there are one or two good shots (I’m thinking of the “Pyramid Swarm” or the ironic “bullet-time face-hugger”), Paul Anderson (Resident Evil, Event Horizon) has done much better in the past. Worse; he’s the one who wrote the script, and you only need to read one or two interviews with the guy to understand that whatever talents he has are solely in the area of Special Effects-heavy direction. Oh well; dumb as it is, Alien vs Predator at least has the decency to move at a good clip and seldom wastes any time. As a result, it feels a lot more satisfactory than it really deserves. And that’s what I mean when I talk about a decent B-grade movie.

The Cheese Monkeys, Chip Kidd

Scribner, 2001, 275 pages, C$38.00 hc, ISBN 0-7432-1492-7

Yes, I will confess: I’m just a sucker for design. Despite having no discernible talent for it (hey, just look at this web site), I’m quite willing to spend hours reading about graphic design, going “ooh” when I see good examples. Now, design freaks do learn to remember some names, and one of those names is Chip Kidd. He designs book covers, and with over eight hundred titles to his credit, it’s likely that you have seen his work at some point. In fact, it’s a virtual certainty given how his design for the first hardcover edition of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park became the basis for the movie’s logo. Hey, when Spielberg himself likes your stuff, how can you say no?

But Kidd leaped from designing books to writing books with The Cheese Monkeys, his 2001 novel about life in a graphic design course during the 1950s. Tone: Humorous. Autobiographical content: Presumably high. Overall impact: Mixed.

Narrated by some nameless student, The Cheese Monkeys is that old standby of literature, the coming-of-age story, mixed with an influential-teacher plot and wacky-college-hijinks vignettes. The interesting twist is that our narrator is about to get a crash-course in graphic design that’s halfway between boot camp and a sadistic psychological experiment.

The Cheese Monkey changes dramatically the moment it introduces the character of Winter Sorbeck, enfant terrible and teacher extraordinaire. And I don’t say this in the usual hyperbolic sense: In one of the book’s clever design touches, the font of the text changes as soon as he comes on-stage. For our featureless narrator, Sorbeck is a revelation, a prickly mentor and maybe even something more. Through Sorbeck, we ignorant readers will learn more than a bit about graphic design, or as the novel puts it, art that makes you do something. It’s quite revealing, and even more so for all the design freaks in the audience.

Naturally, you can’t be as accomplished a designer as Chip Kidd and not take the opportunity of a first novel to play tricks with book design. And so that’s how The Cheese Monkeys enjoys dozens of little touches, from the nonstandard book jacket to slogans embedded in the edges of the page to unusually-placed acknowledgements to content crammed in the book’s endpapers. The dust jacket wryly proclaims “Design by Some Guy” while the opening scrawl states “Copyright (C) 2001 by Charles Kidd. Yes. Charles.” Fun stuff, quite enough to make this a good buy for collectors.

From a strict literary perspective, it’s not a bad book. The writing is generally clean, crisp and amusing. The narrator is purposefully left blank, but one can’t say the same of the other characters in the novel. (Perhaps too much, in fact: It’s difficult to figure why the book is supposedly in the 1950s when some of the characters and events seem so contemporary.) While the book takes a long time to heat up -obviously leading up to Sorbeck’s introduction-, the last half is crammed with memorable scenes as the sadistic teacher tries to whittle down his class.

Unfortunately, Kidd reaches too far into surrealism for his last scene, and the book doesn’t grind to a halt as much as it collides with the back cover. What does it mean? What has happened to some of the characters, and what’s next for them? This is one of those annoying books which lets you decide. Some call this sophistication; I call it a lack of confidence. (Yes, I “get” the meaning of the last page. But really, wasn’t there a better way to do it?)

But this frustrating caveat aside, there’s plenty to like here, and not just for design geeks: There’s a number of truly hilarious scenes, starting with the “Colonel Percy” dousing scene. The reflexions on graphic design are brought forth with conviction, with an impact that won’t be wasted on anyone who has even thought seriously about this stuff. It’s an interesting book, a short book, and now that it’s generously available in remainder stacks, what are you waiting for?

June 2005: A frustrated reader wrote in to ask, in part,

Hey – so you “get” the last page of “The Cheese Monkeys”? I sure don’t and I’m cranky about it. Been puzzling for two days. Clues? Hints? Blatant explanations for the retarded?

Here’s what I sent back… (WARNING! EXTREME SPOILERS!)

As far as understanding the ending of Chip Kidd’s The Cheese Monkeys, I find myself in the awkward position of re-reading my review and thinking “What the heck did I mean back then?” Was I over-optimistic or deluded?

Re-reading the last few pages brought back a few memories, but nothing definite. The key, of course, is that I believe that the ending doesn’t make sense in a conventional way. Elements of it are superficially suggestive of a wrapping-up of loose threads, but my belief is that Kidd found himself unable or unwilling to deliver a true conclusion and so jumped the rails to give something that, if you squint real hard, can actually look like a conclusion. (I read over 200 books per year, and that type of stuff is more common that you’d think.)

The presence of the fish actually brings back to mind a bad joke…

Q: How many surrealists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A: Fish.

…hey, I said it was bad. But if this was a term paper, I’d actually use it to try to make the point that the ending isn’t meant to be conventionally fatisfying.

This being said, a number of small expanations suggested themselves to me while browsing through the ending once more. Maybe one of those is what I had in mind when I wrote the review two years ago:

1. The meaning of the last page (“…I want you to design a moment in time…” “…you will take something you have made and use it to claim a moment for yourself -yours and truly yours- in front of the class…”) is that it explains (pick one) the entire book, the last section or the last chapter (called “The Final Exam”). In this explanation, the last page suggests that the last chapter is not part of the narrative, but represents kind of a grandstanding attempt by Kidd to re-use elements of his narrative (“something you have made”) and make an impression on (“claim a moment for yourself”, or maybe just “piss off”) the reading audience (“the class”). If I was trying to deconstruct the novel in a post-modernist interpetation, I believe that this theory could be made to work.

2. The “Fear and Loathing in Design Class” rests on the theory that “…we were somewhere around Bauhaus when the drugs began to take hold…” and that the narrator’s barriers of sanity start to erode roughly a hundred pages before the end and that by the end of the book, he’s blasted out of his mind by the pressure and exhaustion and what he perceived is half-informed by reality, half-shaped by wide-awake nightmares. In here, the last chapter is the kind of nightmare you’d make while drowsing fifteen minutes before the last exam, and the last page a reminder that it’s not over yet. If you want to be twisted, re-read the la
st page as if it was narrated by Keanu Reeves at the end of the first MATRIX movie (“…I’m not here to tell you how it ends, but to tell you how it begins…”) and then play Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up”.

3. …and so we come to the allegorical interpretation, probably the one intended by Kidd, but my least favourite one given that it has an effect undistinguishable from saying “I give up! It’s too complicated!”: Himillsy as a feminist symbol (a fish in a bowl, unable to get out), fading away (as per the graying-out of her dialogue) as the novel ends and the narrator conveniently graduates and allows her memory to disappear. (But not being unaffected by the experience: the font never changes back to Apollo typeface)

4. Then there’s the “Sixth Fish” theory that Himillsy was always a fish and that only the narrator saw her as a real person. (I’M KIDDING!)

Well, that’s already far too much thinking about a book that’s probably intended as being a zen-like unanswerable object of contemplation. (Internal evidence of this: The hardcover edition dust jacket’s blurb: “Oh, wouldn’t you meatbags like to know”)

Hopefully, you’ll be able to pick a half-satisfying theory from the ones above and let go of the novel. Please! Let it go! Read another one!