The Einstein Papers, Craig Dirgo

Pocket, 1999, 388 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-671-02322-5

Sometimes, I can’t even figure out why I’m reviewing a book. Craig Dirgo’s The Einstein Papers is a perfect example: Today, eight years after its publication, I doubt that even the author cares about it. It’s the exemplary paperback thriller, literally made in the Clive Cussler mold of action-adventure novels. It has no deep message, no memorable scenes, nothing beyond an intent to entertain its reader well enough to convince him to buy the next book in the series.

In fact, the publishing matrix in which this novel is set is far more interesting that the book itself. For years, Clive Cussler has been shaping the thriller field with a series of formulaic novels that are never particularly exciting, but always consistent. The formula works in that it provides the framework for the witty dialogue, exciting action sequences and silly premises that form the texture of the modern American beach thriller. Even when followed to the letter, the formula still manages to entertain. Heck, Hollywood is based on the same concept. It may not be good art, but it’s great business in this age of extruded entertainment products.

This brings us to Craig Dirgo’s Einstein Papers insofar as the novel is Dirgo’s attempt to file off the serial numbers of the Cussler formula and run with it under his own name. (Don’t think that Cussler doesn’t approve: they collaborated on two books before The Einstein Papers, and two more after that.) The rugged middle-aged hero, John Taft, is nothing but Dirk Pitt under a new name (indeed, several in-jokes make the filiation abundantly clear. At the end of Chapter 23, when questioned about his name, Taft answers “Dirk Pitt”.) His job as an anti-terrorist expert is designed to sustain a series of books —though the underwater aspects quickly pops up again in the finest NUMA tradition. Even the relationship he’s got with a team of supporting characters, including the requisite sarcastic non-WASP sidekick, is nothing but setup for handy helpers in book after book. Obviously, Dirgo has learned from the master.

But what Dirgo still hasn’t figured out is the formula. The book begins with a too-long set-piece deep in China, an escape sequence which acts as a stuffy prologue to the book’s real story: a hunt for papers left by Albert Einstein, papers which (predictably enough) could mean a terrifying new weapon. Less terrifying should it stay in the hands of the United States, more terrifying should it go to those all-purpose-evil Chinese. The papers are discovered, fall into the wrong hands, and the chase begins. Meanwhile, the Middle East is once more thrown in chaos. The action starts and sputters, finally going along merrily to its expected end.

(There’s also some silly subplot about the weapon being developed while waiting for the crucial papers, as if scientific research could hop along on government funding and a missing theorem. But if you’re reading The Einstein Papers for an accurate portrait of the scientific/military establishment, boy have you got the wrong book in your hands. And oooh, let’s not talk about the geopolitics of the novel. No, let’s not.)

It all amounts to, well, an ordinary beach thriller. Nothing crazy, nothing wild, just the equivalent of an action film bound in a paperback format. It passes through the brain like a breeze, temporarily displacing lighter concerns but ultimately leaving no trace. As a piece of literature, it’s a non-entity. I can’t imagine that it took much more than a few weeks to write: certainly, the editing appears to have been completed in minutes.

As a piece of Dirgo’s career, it’s may remain a failed experiment. Though he has recently written another solo John Taft novel (Tremors), most of his latest books have been “collaborations” with Clive Cussler. It’s a career, I suppose, somewhere in the gravitational pull of another author, unable to escape even when writing solo novels. I may not be able to figure out why I’m reviewing this novel, but I hope there’s at least five digits on the reason why Dirgo wrote it.

Identity Crisis, Brad Meltzer

DC Comics, 2005, 256 pages, C$19.99 tpb, ISBN 1-4012-0458-9

I’m both the best and the worst kind of reader for this particular super-hero comic book.

Worst because frankly, I’m not much of a superhero comic book fan. I know the archetypes, but I never had a steady weekly habit at the comic book store, never followed the history of the characters and don’t care much about them either. Identity Crisis is many things, but it’s partly a homage to an entire era of comic books, the Sixties’ “Silver Age” in which many of the conventions of the genre were refined in time to reach the baby-boomer generation. So when the story starts messing around with the lives of particular C-list characters, I’m left on the sidelines going “Oookay, whatever.”

But this same detachment also makes me a member of another audience for the book. Identity Crisis, I’m told through its Wikipedia entry, was a major event in DC comics continuity. It upset a number of conventions, changed the lives of several characters and -best of all- messed with the heads of comics fanboys. It made the DC universe a slightly uglier place and brought some consequences and realism to a stunted sub-genre that was doing very well without them.

Written by thriller author Brad Meltzer (whose Zero Game wasn’t bad at all), Identity Crisis is set in motion by the violent murder of a superhero’s wife. In a terrific first chapter, Meltzer establishes the characters right before the crisis and sketches the first few consequences to the crime by hopping back and forth in time around the “now” of the corpse’s discovery: it’s some of the finest comic-book writing I’ve read so far in my admittedly meagre experience.

The victim was carefully chosen (I’m told) among the most innocuous characters in the DC repertory. But the death sets in motion a number of even more shocking developments, including a revision of classic superhero history that will make most readers squirm in their seat. During Identity Crisis, the DC universe’s carefully limited spectrum of good versus evil was nudged toward the “evil” side: murder and rape became possibilities against which the superheroes themselves weren’t immune, and even the least-dark characters became complicit in shared shames. (Ironically, it’s Batman, dark anti-hero par excellence, who becomes a victim of the least-heroic moment of the series.)

And that, frankly, is the reason why I’m so satisfied by Identity Crisis despite its loaded baggage in the field. I don’t need to be told how this miniseries was carefully engineered for monetary purposes. I have read the infamous “the rape pages are in” essay, and I don’t disagree with its conclusions. But the darker turn marked by Identity Crisis represents an identity crisis of sorts for the entire superhero industry, and it’s about time that it starts to confront its own schizoid nature.

Summarily put: Superhero comics are made for retarded teenagers and their commercial viability has meant that for decades, the surest way to keep printing the dollar bills was to make sure that nothing changed. The essence of melodrama is that despite the tears and the screams and the flying plates, nothing ever chances. Think about it: Superman is an archetype. For all of the various plot developments, he hasn’t changed much in decades, so that the commercial potential of the character remains intact across all potential profit-making ventures (in comic books, yes, but also in movies, books, posters and lunch-boxes). Superman is doomed, by marketing fiat, to remain static. This means that he can never be too affected by any story. This means that the stories themselves have to be superficial. The very kernel of story-telling (“characters undergo events that change them forever”) is absent from superhero comic-books.

Now repeat the same reasoning for all characters in the superhero stable. They are archetypes, not evolving creations. Even if marketers agree to mess around with the characters, fans start frothing at the mouth, unable to cope with the end of their comfort reading.

Dramatically satisfying stories are almost impossible in that locked format; all that remains is a stunted type of sideshow where city blocks get destroyed but nobody gets killed, because true consequences are feared by both the marketing geniuses who advertise the product and the fanboys who keep buying them. Perfect deadlock, leading straight down a spiral of ever-loonier denial. If that’s the way the superhero comics industry has to be, I’d rather see it crash and burn. Perhaps, after, things wouldn’t be so bad.

But there’s an alternative, and Identity Crisis is part of it. Raise the stakes. Face the consequences. Get rid of the fans who can’t take it. It doesn’t mean rape and murder on every page: it means a comic book field that grows up and starts responding to a wider segment of the population. Imagine if written novels had to be tailored toward the type of fan who buys comic books…

Timidly, I see that the post-Identity Crisis comic book industry has started to evolve. Not much, and it remains to be seen how much of it is driven by marketing decision … but it’s a step in the right direction. (The recent Civil War story arc was interesting, but not quite handled elegantly enough: part of the problem was that the story arc couldn’t be confined to a tight story and had to sprawl in all nooks of the DC universe. Once again, marketing screws up storytelling.)

These considerations aside (to go back to the subject after the longest tangent on record), Identity Crisis is worth a look because it’s a well-written, well-drawn miniseries. I’m disappointed about the identity of the killer, and it’s obvious that I’m not getting even a quarter of the references in the series, but those inconveniences are more than outweighed by what’s good and impressive about the story. The only superhero battle in the entire book is handled in a very unconventional fashion, the storytelling is fully exploiting the possibilities of the comic form, there are a few terrific moments and images (I’m very fond of the close-up on Batman’s faux-printed photo) and there’s almost a conceptual breakthrough in how Meltzer re-uses a hoary “body-switching” event as a hair-raising imperative for indefensible moral choices. He almost highlights the absurdity inherent to superhero comics, but then turns into something that leaves a bitter taste of reality.

And that, in the end, is why I can’t help but respect Identity Crisis. As stated in the book’s afterword, it’s a story that takes something silly (the whole concept of secret identities) and justifies them. It’s both an intricate homage and a step forward. Of course, it could end up meaning nothing. There’s nothing quite as meaningless as “a comic book death”, especially in a field where continuity is always adjusted retroactively. But for the span of 256 pages, it’s a mean new world for superhero comics, and I’m both the least and most appreciative of readers for that type of thing.

Cusp, Robert Metzger

Ace, 2005, 517 pages, C$36.00 hc, ISBN 0-441-01241-8

Some novels don’t have to be good if they’re completely insane.

Case in point: Robert Metzger’s Cusp, the type of book for which craaazy has been invented.

Consider the prologue: Thunderstorms! Earthquakes! Entire continents torn asunder! One billion deaths! When the dust clears, Earth’s geography has been forever altered: It’s now circled by two massive rings of what looks like reactors, their tip reaching above the atmosphere.

That’s the prologue. Eleven pages into the novel.

Then twenty years years pass before the first chapter begins and things get even craaazier.

Trying to give you an idea of the subsequent plot would be a challenge of van Vogtian proportions, so let me tease you with some buzzwords: Lemur-evolved Aliens. Bill Gates as a dinosaur. Planets used as engineering components. Humans “punching through” the singularity. And many, many more, including familiar SF tropes: Police state America, AI-augmented brains, robot servants, spaceship to Mars, evidence of time-travel, etc. A glossary of terms would have been helpful. Cusp is crammed with cool ideas and big-scale thinking: if only for that, the novel ends up with a marginal recommendation.

But readers may have to struggle through entire chapters of unconvincing developments in order to get to those ideas. One of Cusp‘s most visible signs of craaaziness if how it flips back and forth between a pretty big cast of characters, arbitrarily sending them from one planet to another in order to keep the plot moving forward or sideways. The demands of the plot pieces outweigh the character development: it’s all a frantic rush through five hundred pages.

I have alluded to van Vogt above, and the most pleasing quality of Cusp is indeed the way it never pauses for consideration. Absent an editor and most common-sense, it just keeps slamming along, adding even more elements to the mix regardless of how appropriate they are to the entire story. Sometimes it works: For every few artificial plot point, there are a few spectacular scenes that really focus the novel. A scene in which a woman manages to go post-singular is both vividly described and completely terrifying. Another action set-pieces involves an AI-augmented cop surfing down a rain of debris from an exploding air vehicle. Things turns spectacularly nasty at the end of the book as characters outdo themselves in order to engineer a pre-ordained tragedy. And through it all, readers will be left wondering how much craaazier this is going to get.

The answer is very craaazy. By the time planets are moved around like billiard balls to complete (or thwart) million-year-old plans, veteran SF readers will be too exhilarated to care about the suspicion that the plot makes no sense at all. Rings to move the Earth around? When a simple earthquake can destroy an entire countryside? What’s the point? In many ways, Cusp is high-tech fantasy dressed up in Hard-SF wording. And I’m not even going near the character motivations. Though it is satisfying to see Bill Gates get his head bashed in. Sort of.

(On the other hand, the grimness of the novel almost ends up working against it: You can forgive practically everything to an author who keeps smiling, but it takes a lot more fortitude to stay nice to those who pile bodies up like cord-wood. Not that this is quite Cusp‘s problem, of course…)

In more competent hands, Cusp would have been a blockbuster. In Metzger’s hands, though, all it’s got is its craaaziness. Despite the high-fructose energy of the plotting, the book itself can be tough to read and even harder to follow. This isn’t Metzger’s first novel and it’s not Metzger’s first disappointment either: his Picoverse was similarly dogged by undisciplined writing and outlandish plot developments. Cusp is just a bit better, but still a fair distance away from satisfaction. If seasoned SF readers will stick through it for the cool visuals and the demented plotting, casual readers are likely to swear off the whole thing after a few incoherent pages. I’m not blaming Metzger as much as I’m surprised Ace wasn’t able to find an editor good enough to reign him in. Because, as much fun it is to find van Vogt-level craziness in twenty-first century science-fiction, it would be even better to be able to read a good SF book and not feel guilty about it.

Map of Bones, James Rollins

Avon, 2005, 523 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-06-076524-0

The runaway success of Dan Brown’s 2003 thriller The Da Vinci Code had terrifying consequences: an entire cohort of copycat novels. Suddenly, mixing history with big thrills (preferably with a side order of religious conspiracies and high tech gadgets) was the genre’s favourite recipe. A number of new authors appeared on the scene with trunk novels that just happened to catch the right wave, while other veteran authors suddenly found themselves encouraged to write a certain type of novel.

It’s presumptuous to link James Rollins’ Map of Bones directly to The Da Vinci Code: Without priviledged access to the author, who can really say that Rollins saw Dan Brown climb up the charts and decided he could do just as well? The only thing we have to go on are the right dates (allowing for a two-year publishing cycle, Map of Bones could have been written as a response to Brown’s early success), explicit cover blurbs and eerily similar thematic elements.

Consider this: A terrorist attack on a German catholic church with supernatural overtones. Another terrorist attack on an American military base with a high-tech secret. A scientific investigation that reveals historical clues. A top-secret organization within the Vatican. Another shadowy organization that seeks ultimate power beyond organized crime. Maps with secret clues. Gunfights and chases down subterranean structures. Tons of “factual” details. Oh yes: Even if Rollins was never inspired by Dan Brown’s success, his marketers aren’t shy about making the comparison twice on the back cover, and readers will definitely feel similar thrills.

The irony is that I may be harping about the novel’s derivative nature, but Rollins has seldom written anything better. His first few novels felt like standard-issue thrillers, sometimes a bit too ludicrous to be taken seriously. But with Map of Bones, Rollins finally finds his way to a superior thriller. The action is tighter, the characters are more distinctive, the details are more interesting and the pacing never flags. The union of historical clues with high-tech gadgets is well-handled, and Map of Bones simply rockets forward. As a result, it easily rockets to the top of my list of his novels.

You can even say that it’s better written than Brown’s novel… although that’s not saying much, of course.

It’s not perfect, of course. The scientific justification for the quasi-supernatural elements that rocket the plot forward is almost painfully stupid and won’t earn any bonus points from anyone with at least high-school physics. Worse, though, is the novel’s conclusion, which resorts to the hoary “there are things man isn’t meant to know, yadda-yadda” cliché to refuse its readers a world-shattering explanation even though the entire novel’s been building toward it. We’re left with a bright flash, a few lines of pseudo-lyrical description and a hole in the ground: another triumph for the small-mindedness of thriller writers looking to the sequels.

Of course, there are sequels. Rollins is now up to his third “Sigma Force” novel, The Judas Strain, proving to the world that he has absolutely no shame left in exploiting flash crazes. Good for him: if we’re lucky, we’ll even get a passable novel out of the lot. Heck, I didn’t expect much from this one and ended up pleasantly surprised. If he can keep it up, maybe I’ll have to stop making all of those Dan Brown references.

Overclocked, Cory Doctorow

Thunder’s Mouth, 2007, 285 pages, C$19.95 tpb, ISBN 1-56025-981-7

This is Cory Doctorow’s second short story collection, but there’s a big difference between the Doctorow who wrote the stories in 2004’s A Foreign Place and 8 More and the one who wrote the stories in 2007’s Overclocked. In retrospect, the earlier Doctorow seems more scattered than the newer one: his early stories range from comic surrealism to nerdcore hard-SF, with a diversity of theme and effect that brings to mind a young writer still finding his true calling.

Things are different with Overclocked. As the title suggests, it’s an all-nerdcore collection. Following on the footsteps of “Ownzored”, Doctorow has spent the latest period of his writing career giving his fiction a thematic unity with an activist edge. Doctorow’s real-life work has turned him into political lobbyist, arguing in favour of free culture against interests that would seek to monetize or restrict it. In this light, it’s almost natural that Doctorow’s fiction output would match the set of issues for which he has become an Internet celebrity.

The six stories in Overclocked, all published between 2005-2007 (though specific publication credits regrettably aren’t included in the collection) all relate in some way or another to free culture. This isn’t a mere question of being allowed a few free music downloads: Doctorow makes it clear that he’s arguing for nothing less than civil liberties at a time where the expression of thoughts is becoming currency.

“Printcrime” may be one of those Nature short-short stories that fits in three pages (four, if you include the introduction), but it’s a quietly angry shot at whoever would think about restricting civil rights in the name of making an extra dollar buck. It may not be long, but it delivers Doctorow’s thesis in its distilled essence.

“Anda’s Game” is likely to become one of the centrepiece stories in any of Doctorow’s future career retrospectives, not because it’s a particularly fine story (It struck me as obvious the first time I read it, and only slightly better the second time), but because it’s been re-anthologized a number of time, even in non-SF venues. Most of all, it exemplifies one of Doctorow’s central themes, which is how SF is uniquely placed to comment upon the present by re-casting it in the future: The story discusses the very real phenomenon of virtual game gold-farming, with a few tweaks and gadgets to make it feel five minutes in the future. It’s no accident if the entire collection is subtitled “Stories of the future present”.

“I, Robot” got a similar amount of attention within the SF community (earning Doctorow a Hugo nomination), but feels even more ham-fisted. Questions Isaac Asimov’s assumptions is interesting, Doctorow’s point feels obvious and trite given the length of the tale. At short story lengths, it might have worked better. As it is now, we just wait too long before hearing the other shoe falling. At least it’s readable enough: few Doctorow stories are anything less than crystal-clear in their prose.

“I, Row-Boat” takes the concept even farther and manages to one-up its predecessor, in some ways confirming my doubts about Doctorow’s sledgehammer subtlety. The story is somewhat more unusual than Doctorow’s typical settings, and the unlikely characters are quite unlike anything seen so far. It takes Doctorow’s reflexion on sentience on non-obvious tangents, and satirizes the obvious rhetoric. It may not be as immediately accessible as the other stories in the collection, but it’s more effective at engaging the reader. Which, considering the place of the human characters in the story, is not an obvious conclusion at all.

“After the Siege” almost feels like a return to sledgehammer rhetorics with a tale of copyright-driven warfare, but Doctorow mitigates that feeling with a powerful depiction of a population under siege. The old-fashioned feel of the story is intentionally derived from the horror of WW2 Leningrad. For all of the future gadgets and fancy justification, it’s the atmosphere of war that lingers on after the story is over.

But for atmosphere, it’s hard to beat “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth”, a post-apocalyptic story that imagines the reaction of Internet system administrators locked inside a data centre during and after a major civilization-ending event. Though the event itself is hazily described, the end-of-the-world feeling is terrific, bringing to mind a number of classic British cozy catastrophes. As someone neck-deep in the IT industry, I ended up unexpectedly moved by the story and its characters. The laconic last few lines are a killer: “Tomorrow, he’d go back and fix another computer and fight off entropy again. And why not? It was what he did. He was a sysadmin.” Beautiful.

And in some ways, that resonance explains why, despite my hesitations and problems with Doctorow’s stories, he remains one of the SF writers who most closely track my own conception of Science-Fiction, what it’s good for and who it speaks to. Doctorow’s the bull geek of SF, and Overclocked shows us why he’s important.

Stomp The Yard (2007)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Stomp The Yard</strong> (2007)

(In theaters, February 2007) If ever you’ve wondered what would happen if you blended hip-hop music with Jackie Chan movie-making, don’t look any further: Stomp The Yard is this year’s 8 Mile in how it present a troubled youth’s redemption through suddenly-hot performing arts. For Eminem, it was poetry slams; this time around, it’s dance-stepping. But whereas 8 Mile was grim and dreary, this one’s all-out light and fun. The dance and song sequences have an irresistible energy, and they lift the film far above its terrible plot and dialogue. The protagonist isn’t unsympathetic despite his almost tiresome aggression, but that character trait feels like a dramatic shortcut in a film that can’t be bothered by subtlety. Elsewhere in the script, hideous coincidences and convenient back-stories make up the rest of what could laughably be called “plotting”. But just like a Jackie Chan film, the story is just an excuse to move from sequence to sequence. In this case, it’s easy to be forgiving as soon as the foot-stomping dance sequences start: The film suddenly becomes alive, bubbling with good fun and terrific camera work. (It could have used longer coverage shots, but that’s a common-enough complaint.) As far as teen movies go, this is surprisingly enjoyable.

Notes On A Scandal (2006)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Notes On A Scandal</strong> (2006)

(In theaters, February 2007) As we all know, it doesn’t take a crime to be a bad person and Notes On A Scandal seems fascinated by this idea. Though there is a nominal crime at the heart of the story, it seems minor in comparison to the twisted mind games played by an older woman (Judi Dench) on a younger one (Cate Blanchett). Though the film disappoints in how it refuses to be spectacular, there is an unnerving quality to the film’s banal betrayals and how it represents the kind of toxic relationship that sometimes contaminate lives. Visually, there’s little to distinguish the film: It’s strictly movie-of-the-week territory. But the performances are interesting, and the “banality of evil” theme is unusual enough to warrant some attention.

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Little Miss Sunshine</strong> (2006)

(On DVD, February 2007) “Independent comedies” are hit-and-miss affairs. Though their “independent” nature ensures that they’ll be quirkier than conventional studio fare, that same quirkiness either works to viewer’s sensibilities or doesn’t. In this case, Little Miss Sunshine doesn’t look all that funny for a long time. Suicidal Proust expert? Foul-mouthed grandpa? Loser-writer trying to get a publishing contract? Not exactly the stuff laughs are made of. It doesn’t get any better as the film becomes a road trip film, as it plays as a humiliation comedy, as characters die and others are pushed even further in depression. But something strange happens near the end of the film, as viewers finally click to its peculiar view of the world and as the dramatic arcs of the characters reach a meaningful conclusion: Little Miss Sunshine becomes, well, a ray of sunshine. The end dance number is terrific: the film earns its comedic release far more than in a film where nothing is risked or loss. A surprise finish for a film that takes its time to put all the pieces together.

Little Children (2006)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Little Children</strong> (2006)

(In theaters, February 2007) I have a particular loathing for the “suburban adultry” sub-genre of melodrama, enough that I try to avoid them unless they’re (inevitably) nominated for the Academy Awards. Imagine my surprise, then, at how Little Children turned out to be an almost enjoyable example of the form. It’s not nearly as clever as it thinks it is: the ponderous narration is almost completely useless, bringing little to the film that we can’t already see for our own. But the same narration gives a pretentious degree of self-importance to the film, one that takes it into a darkly comic realm. Oh, sure, it’s not laughs from beginning to end: the film’s most consistent thematic motif is how it keeps playing with expectations: just as you think the story may aim toward redemption, it twists the knife again, transforming heroes into heels, losers into bastards and bored housewives into masters of manipulation. Little Children, at the very least, won’t allow you to get too comfortable, and that very well may be why I respect it despite my complete lack of interest in what it has to say. After all, how can one dismiss a film that includes the line “Madame Bovary is not a slut, she’s one of the greatest characters of Western Literature!”?

The Bureau and the Mole, David A. Vise

Atlantic Monthly Press, 2002, 272 pages, C$40.95 hc, ISBN 0-87113-834-4

The real story of Robert Hanssen is the type of material from which spy thrillers are built. For decades, Hanssen sold US state secrets to the Russians. He sold out American spy networks, betrayed critical contingency plans, passed reams of technical information to the other side and probably caused a number of agents to be arrested or executed. As a tech-savvy senior agent within the FBI, Hanssen had unparallelled access to a wealth of government material from a variety of sources, multiplying the damage of his actions.

And yet, Hanssen fit none of the popular expectations of how a spy should behave. Not only was he married and father of two children, he was an active member of the ultra-conservative Opus Dei catholic sect. And yet there was another layer behind the austere and righteous facade: Hanssen had a relationship with a stripper, had a fixation on Catherine Zeta-Jones and posted amateur pornography on Usenet groups. Even today, trying to make sense of Hanssen remains a challenge.

And yet that’s what David A. Vise attempts to do in The Bureau and the Mole, one of several non-fiction books to document Hanssen’s covert career. Pushed by the release of the film BREACH, which also tackles the Hanssen affair (don’t miss the exceptional performance by Chris Cooper as Hanssen), I dug into my pile of books to read and came up with this one. Call it documentation selection by proximity.

I’m sorry, in a way, that I don’t have anything but a movie and the official story to compare to the book: Trying to evaluate non-fiction without other references is always risky.

But I can still tell you that The Bureau and the Mole is a bit of a mess, especially if all you were hoping to get was the story of Hanssen’s life. As the title suggests, Vise soon makes an attempt at opposing virtue to Hanssen’s perfidy: To this end, the narrative spends what seems to be an inordinate amount of time lionizing FBI director Louis Freeh in between the looks at Hanssen’s occult career. Interesting idea in small doses, but the extent to which the FBI’s general history comes to dominate the narrative eventually feels like padding more than context. Describing the FBI’s ironically thwarted efforts to find the traitor within their ranks is fine. But spending a chapter on the FBI’s anti-mafia efforts feels superfluous.

There is little doubt that the book is well-researched. Vise does have a Pulitzer prize under his belt and there’s a lot of good material here and there in The Bureau and the Mole, gathered from interviews with people in the know and other sources who can’t be acknowledged. One of the most embarrassing revelation in the book is the transcription of a pornographic story about his wife that Hanssen posted, apparently using his own name, to Usenet groups. (Just when the story couldn’t get any weirder… no wonder even the movie doesn’t dwell on the subject.)

Yet the book still feels padded with barely-relevant material. Worse yet are the usual sins of disappointing non-fiction: lack of an index, simple theories out of thin facts (a long chapter on Hanssen’s relationship with a stripper seems vaporous, unrelated and overly moralistic) and few discussions about deeper motivations.

For all of the facts and the context, one comes away from The Bureau and the Mole unsatisfied by the result. We understand that Hanssen saw spying as a way to prove his intellectual superiority over his less-capable colleagues. But Vise often seems too eager to wag his finger at Hanssen, momentarily distracted by shiny events in Louis Freeh’s life or the FBI’s history. The book intrigues more than it satisfies, giving the impression of a dynamite magazine article stretched over two hundred pages. Too bad, given the inherent interest of the Hanssen story. Looking at the inflated Canadian price tag of the book, I’m even more happy than usual that I’ve been able to get a cheap copy at a used book sale.

Idiocracy (2006)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Idiocracy</strong> (2006)

(On DVD, February 2007) The danger in making a film criticizing idiocy is that the effort itself may feel, well, pretty idiotic itself. Mike Judge’s first film since the wonderful Office Space doesn’t entirely avoid the charge: Nominally about a normal contemporary man waking up in a future where the average IQ has plunged downward, Idiocracy isn’t as smart as it should be. The first few minutes aren’t too bad, as they graphically explain how dumber people have more children than smarter ones. (Yes, unacknowledged echoes of “The Marching Morons”) But once it’s in the future, Idiocracy lets itself go in raunchy bad language, easy caricatures and cheap plot mechanics. The low budget doesn’t help, but neither does the sub-standard script and the pandering attempt to present an intellectual argument without annoying the none-too-smart people who could see the film. Idiocracy plays a risky game: how do you criticize stupidity without looking like an arrogant fop? Alas, it runs too far in the other direction: Lead actors Owen Wilson and Maya Rudolph may be sympathetic, but they’re stuck in a bad script that wallows in its own naughty words. Worse: the story almost ignores its female protagonist despite her being just as intellectually qualified as the male one. Through Idiocracy does have its generous share of rude laughs, it eventually suffers from its own contradictions. No wonder it went almost directly to DVD; it’s just about worth a marginal rental.

Hannibal Rising (2007)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Hannibal Rising</strong> (2007)

(In theaters, February 2007) It’s a law of commercial exploitation that every compelling character will be over-exploited until only an easy caricature will be left. In this case, this fourth (or fifth, if you count Manhunter) Hannibal Lecter film achieves the dubious distinction of de-fanging the character until all that’s left is a tiresome standard-issue serial killer movie. This prequel (always a sign of creative desperation) doesn’t teach us much about Lecter (especially if you’ve read the silly Hannibal) , and what little it does is more ridiculous than interesting. After that, it fades into a pretty standard revenge story in which the protagonist likes to eat his victims. The little suspense in the film is quickly overwhelmed by its ridiculousness, and the competent art direction does little to overwhelm the boredom that eventually creeps over the film. I’m already tired of the “serial killer as a hero” theme; such a limp take on the concept does nothing to endear me again to the concept. Hannibal Rising is the kind of film that justifies the existence of reviewers: For goodness’ sake, leave this one on the video store shelves.

Epic Movie (2007)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Epic Movie</strong> (2007)

(In theaters, February 2007) Every time I think I’m a good and forgiving reviewer, a stinker like Epic Movie comes along and sets me straight. I normally like comedies and I’ve got a big soft spot for parodies: I think I may have been one of the few non-teens to give a passing grade to Scary Movie 4, for instance. But the current crop of parodies is a long way away from the classic days of Top Secret!: Rather than honest good jokes, we get re-creations of familiar big-budget films with violent slapstick and hip-hop references. There is little intent to subvert the original films, point out their flaws, or use the material as a stepping stone to a more original story. Epic Movie is among the laziest of this wave of parodies from writing/directing duo Friedberg/Seltzer (and, one hopes against dollars, one of the last). A mish-mash of Narnia, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and many others, Epic Movie just seems happy to wallow in recent pop-culture references. Alas, none of them play off each other, the laughs are few and the cumulative effect is irritation. (There’s a moderately witty use of the Click remote control late in the film, but it comes far too late to save anything.) Heck, even the normally amusing Kal Penn is wasted in this film. Perhaps the only thing Epic Movie is good for is showing off the cuteness of Faune Chambers (who’s really playing the role of Regina Hall in the Scary Movies), but if the price to pay to be in her fan-club is to see this film, it may be worth waiting for her next role. Lazy, dull and dumbly reaching for the lowest common denominator, Epic Movie seems determined to prove how little laughs can be included in a “comedy” without having the audience ask for refunds.

The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Devil Wears Prada</strong> (2006)

(On DVD, February 2007) Terrific actresses, sharp details about the world of fashion and easy-flowing direction more than make up for easy targets and a familiar dramatic arc in this surprisingly entertaining comedy. Anne Hathaway is adorable as usual in the role of a brainy writer forced to fend for herself in the world of high fashion. But it’s Meryl Streep who really runs away with the film as the hard-driven empress of a fashion magazine: brassy, ruthless and too busy for social niceties, she is both detestable and alluring in a plum role that would have been wasted on a younger actress. (The Oscar nomination was well deserved.) The cynical look at the insanity of the fashion industry is expected, but it still works well. What doesn’t work as well are the forced romance and the predictable conclusion. But The Devil Wears Prada runs along smoothly, and that’s pretty much all it’s required to do.

The Broker, John Grisham

Dell, 2005, 422 pages, C$11.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-440-24158-8

It must be good to be John Grisham. Sign a contract with a publisher, take a long trip to Italy, see the local sights, write a novel about the experience. Final step: Profit, as the book sells zillions.

It’s not such a bad deal even for us readers: Grisham hasn’t allowed success to destroy his ability to write competent thrillers, and some will even argue that the latter-period Grisham is even better than what his first few novels promised. While his fiction still revolves around familiar themes (lawyers, money, ethical concerns), he has also shown willingness to stretch the envelope a bit and play around with different elements. Grisham has been able to deliver both what his readers expect, and -presumably- what he’ s been wanting to write.

The Broker stretches the Grisham oeuvre in two different ways. For one thing, it’s closer to a straight-up thriller than to the type of judicial thriller that Grisham readers are used to. The story revolves around a complex baiting game in which the US government frees a prisoner with too many secrets in order to find out who’s most keenly interested in killing him. Spy satellites and foreign interests are involved.

But the prisoner has no intention of being so cooperative in his own demise. Initially led by US government contacts to the sunny skies of a Northern Italy city, our protagonist soon starts making other plan. But not too quickly, which leads us to Grisham’s second distinctive departure for this novel: The Broker often reads as a travelogue of northeastern Italy as the action grinds to a halt and our protagonist plays tourist.

It’s not unpleasant, mind you: Even when he’s not busy advancing the plot, Grisham writes engagingly enough that even descriptions of churches and small cafés are interesting. The atmosphere of the novel, even loosely wrapped in a thriller outline, is one that feels like a vacation. Even as our protagonist’s enemies close in, as he rebels against his minders and turns the tables on the US government, The Broker is the very definition of escapist entertainment. I suspect that not all readers will be so lenient, but Grisham has a gift for reasonably entertaining prose. If that takes the form of a travel memoir with thriller bookends, well, so be it. It’s all fun to read anyway.

More serious problems arise when considering the overall MacGuffin that precipitates the plot: Some kind of ultra-secret satellite network that can be hacked by a bunch of post-grads, while mystifying both the US intelligence services and their hackers. There’s a reason why Grisham doesn’t dwell all that much on those background thriller elements: They don’t make much sense.

But if you’re the forgiving type, as you probably need to be in order to enjoy this novel to the fullest, it’s worth ignoring the wobbly setup and the lengthy travelogue to get to the final section of the novel, which hails back to the types of high-stakes negotiations and bluffing games that formed the backbone of previous Grisham novels. Once again, it leads to a fuzzy moral conclusion where (Grisham seems to argue) it’s best to run away without money than remain a slave of the system, or something like that. Someone could do a thesis on how many of Grisham’s novels conclude with “and then he/she/they ran away”.

But if you’ve been following the Grisham oeuvre so far, The Broker remains a new and interesting brick in the wall. It’s got most of the Grisham pet obsessions and introduces a number of new wrinkles that may very well play out in future novels. It’s not quite what most people will expect, but it’s a lot of fun to read.