Archive for September, 2008

Pandora in the Congo by Albert Sánchez Piñol: A Most Wondrous, Fearsome Fiction

Posted in Book Review with tags , , on September 26, 2008 by davehurwitz

5 out of 5 Bloody Knives

Take one of the greatest books every written, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and then sprinkle in some Jules Vernean creatures from the center of the earth, and you have Albert Sánchez Piñol’s newest work, titled Pandora in the Congo. Suffice it to say I liked the book.

Several months ago I stumbled upon the news that Piñol had published a second book. Up till then I had read, and loved, his first work: Cold Skin. Pandora is to be the second book in a trilogy. Needless to say I rushed out to buy it, only to find that it was not yet available in the U.S. Did I wait. No. I tracked it down on Amazon U.K. A hapless click of the button sent me two copies instead of one. Factor in the exchange rate, and I had a $50 book.

An odd aside. Because of my previous post on this story, I was contacted by the American publisher who will handle this book. Impressed by my laudations of Cold Skin, they intend to send me the U.S. copy of the book for free. Now I will own three copies.

It’s hard to pinpoint just one thing to love about Pandora. First it succeeds where many attempts fail. Piñol pulls off a flawless first person narrative where the narrator is not (at least to start) the protagonist. This is where it parallels The Great Gatsby.

The narrator, Tommy Thompson, is an aspiring writer. He starts by ghostwriting a 1914 adventure novel, written in one week from a outline provided by the ignoble Dr. Flag. The title of the book turns out to be Pandora in the Congo. The outline is hilarious to read, with such admonitions to Thompson to not “scrimp on the adjectives”.

Thompson has an unbelievable turn of events (I won’t spoil it, but it involves two funerals), and lands the job of writing the story of one Marcus Garvey. The British manservant was the only survivor of an expedition to the Congo. Both his masters, the Carver brothers, have not returned. Garvey was imprisoned on evidence that Garvey murdered the Carvers. To make matters worse, he returned with two immense diamonds.

Garvey’s lawyer, Edward Norton, hired Thompson to write the manservant’s true account of the events, in hopes that this will help the man’s trial. Garvey’s version contains a tale about a race of creatures, the Tekton, who emerge from a gold mine to invade the world of man. (Anyone familiar with Cold Skin, will see the connection here.)

That said, the book is peppered with aphoristic moments. Here are a few:
•    That was the universal law: the clueless obey the insane.
•    One of the things that makes youth so painful is the belief that much struggling is enough to get what you want.
•    Memory is a perpetually pregnant woman: is always has cravings.
•    To truly measure the value of a good author, what we need  to do is compare him to bad authors.

The novel ends with a remarkable twist, falling like a hammer in the last 50 pages. Normally I’m a slow reader. I piece together chunks of 15 – 20 minutes every so often. Sometimes it takes me over a year to finish a book. At 441 pages, Pandora looked to be a year long book. Not so. Although the second act dragged a bit, once it took hold, it wouldn’t let go. And the last 50 pages went by in a flash (just the way a good book ought to). The ending ties up the odd quirky beginning, and reveals that Thompson was not only the narrator, but the protagonist as well.

Finally, if none of the above convinces you, let me share with you one of Piñol’s characterizations:

After living with MacMahon I came to the conclusion that he was the inventor of five types of farts. One of them I baptized Big Ben farts, precisely spread out, as if marking the hours. Poom, pause, poom, pause, and on and on until midnight. Another kind were the Vickers farts, which were less loud but had the cadence of a machine-gun. Their main trait was that they had no quantitative limit. They could be ten, twenty or thirty. They all made exactly the same sound, MacMahon controlled the dilation of his sphincter and the dose of gas perfectly. Sometimes, though, MacMahon lost control and his farts sounded like a flock of wild ducks, quack, quack, quack. The fourth kind was the Voilin fart: thinner, longer, like a kitten that meows because it’s lost its mother. Those ones really got on my nerves. The fifth type, well those were Doctor Flag farts. I gave them that name because of one of Doctor Flag’s novellas, in which some sort of widespread flood throughout Africa was meant to redeem the continent from paganism. It began with a  large thunderclap; just one, but an omnipotent one.

If you read nothing else, ever, read Pandora in the Congo.

Chris Kalidor

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Richard Stark: The Hunter, The Man with the Getaway Face, and The Outfit (aka Donald Westlake)

Posted in Book Review, Parker with tags , , on September 20, 2008 by davehurwitz

I am a continual source of aggravation to my booksellers, the good people at Mysterious Galaxy.  Even at a store specializing in genre fiction, I often confound the staff by requesting books from obscure authors, strange imprints, and dubious small presses.  Most of the time, these are books that only I would be likely to pay good money for.  Once in a while, however, I come across something that other people will want, and a few extra copies get ordered along with my own.

A case in point are the University of Chicago Press reprints of the first three novels by Richard Stark:  The Hunter, The Man with the Getaway Face, and The Outfit.  Stark is the pseudonym and evil alter ego of Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Donald Westlake.  While Westlake writes noir and heist novels with a comic flavor, there’s nothing funny about Stark and his infamous creation, Parker.  This dangerous man is an “operator,” a professional thief, and his crimes, successful and otherwise, form Stark’s subject.  The Hunter is the basis for the classic John Boorman film Point Blank, as well as the less impressive Mel Gibson vehicle Payback.

My enjoyment of Stark’s work is hard to quantify.  For one thing, Parker is thoroughly amoral.  He follows a code of conduct:  Don’t burn your partners.  Don’t kill cops or civilians.  But the purpose of this code is to minimize trouble, and Parker follows it out of professionalism.  Parker deals harshly with betrayal, but is never the first to break the rules.  Apart from this, he is almost without personality.  He goes home to his companion, Claire, but I cannot imagine them relaxing on the sofa together.  Stylistically, Stark adheres to Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing stripped-down prose from which the author disappears.  Combine this with Parker’s lack of affect, and there is something positively Zen about a Stark novel.

So what’s the appeal, then?  In a review of the more recent Flashfire, the Wall Street Journal wrote, “The awful fascination in these Parker tales comes from knowing the protagonist will always do whatever is necessary to protect himself and to achieve his goals.  The tension comes from never knowing what might happen next.”  This isn’t exactly it, at least not for me.  Once you’ve read a couple of Parker novels, they become, frankly, fairly predicable.  So why do I still read them?

Part of it is pure pleasure in a heist story that takes itself seriously.  It’s impossible to go out to a caper movie these days without seeing George Clooney and Brad Pitt pulling off ludicrously elaborate scores and mugging for the camera.  Stark’s no frills narratives make an impressive contrast.  But the biggest part, the part the Wall Street Journal won’t admit to, is that every man secretly identifies with Parker.  Deep down, we all want to be the badass, the man who always gets what he wants, the man who doesn’t give a damn for the rules of society.  That’s who Parker is.  His blankness is a space the reader can inhabit, a safe and temporary sociopathy.

Stark has always had a cult following.  There is fierce competition on auction sites for his out of print titles.  I recently paid more than twenty dollars for a beaten-in mass-market copy of The Blackbird.  That’s why the U. of Chicago’s reprints are such good news.  According to Westlake’s official site, they plan to bring out three a year until the whole run is back in print.

In his most recent column for Entertainment weekly, horror god Stephen King names Stark as one of the best practitioners of “manfiction,” a term coined by King’s literary and biologic offspring Joe Hill.  Perhaps this, along with the attractive new reprints, will help win both Stark and Parker the larger audience they deserve.

Dave Hurwitz

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BBC’s Primeval and the Truth Behind Time Storms

Posted in Rotten with tags , on September 13, 2008 by davehurwitz

If you’ve tuned into BBC America lately, you’ve seen their new series Primeval. In short, the premise is that holes in time start appearing in England (so far only England, and specifically London). Prehistoric creatures pop out and wreak havoc in Briton. They have even hit some more realistic scenarios, with prehistoric diseases from a group of dodos.

Time travel is accomplished by “holes” torn in the fabric of time and space. They appear on screen as a glowing burst of light, a little like a gigantic flashlight shining to our reality. Orbiting around this portal are hundreds of glass-like shards, slivers of space-time reality.

Is this fiction? Of course. Can time travel be accomplished at all? The answer, at least theoretically, is yes.

Frank Tipler theorized the design for a time machine back in 1974, based on a hypothetical hyperdense cylinder. Apparently a hyperdense cylinder is infinitely long (a little difficult to fit into a Delorean) or filled with negative energy (so far, only theoretical). All this requires more than the average TV viewer can digest.

Now, could rips in the time-space fabric be already happening on Earth? So far, dinosaurs aren’t romping through London, or any other city. But time distortions could exist without having time travel.

Take Jenny Randles’s article, “Time Storms”, written for the latest issue of Fortean Magazine (issue 240). Here she postulates that many of our UFO encounter stories may in fact be encounters with so-called time storms.

One account comes from January 1976, the height of UFO media hype. A young girl, whom Randles calls Shirley, was coming home from work in Bolton. She saw two swirling misty lights low over a reservoir. As they closed in, she experienced a sudden increase in gravity, as if some pressure were pressing down from above. Her teeth came alive with vibrations. After the incident, all the fillings in her upper teeth crumbled to powder and fell out. Several lower fillings had been pressed down to hard that they embedded themselves in her gum (requiring extensive dental work to fix).

She also experienced a slow down of time. At lease 30 minutes passed as if in an instant. Common UFO advocates would say this was “lost time,” but this could easily be a jump forward of 30 minutes.

Hours after the incident, she became sick and vomited. She also developed a rash on all the exposed skin, red or purplish in color. These are the incidents that intrigue me the most. None of the time travel shows have ever explored the ramifications of time travel on the human body. X-Files and the short lived Theshold came close.

Chris Kalidor