Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Practical Demonkeeping

        In case I haven’t mentioned it enough already: I’m an absurdist. This could mean that I say absurd things like *let’s build a giant wall along the southern border and make Mexico pay for it*. This could mean that I do absurd things like sue a comedian for joking that I look like an orangutan. What it actually means is that I hold the following philosophical belief: it’s absurd to search for meaning because the world is inherently meaningless. In lieu of searching, I just accept that there isn’t any meaning to life and I move on and enjoy my brunch. It’s really less depressing than it sounds—especially if you find a solid brunch spot (shout out to Philip Marie). You can learn more about this philosophy by checking out my review on The Strangera novel by Albert Camus, the father of absurdism.

        So, you can imagine my excitement when I heard about Christopher Moore, an irreverent writer of absurdist fiction. I also simply couldn’t resist the irony of reading his seminal novel, Practical Demonkeeping, just a few days after the New Year when everyone else was frantically getting rid of their demons. Right from the get go, Moore makes it clear that he’s playing with traditional creation myths. He takes the dominant world religions, throws them in a mixing bowl, stirs them up, and adds some seasoning. But the final dish is less delicious than I’d hoped for. Let me explain…
        The world in Practical Demonkeeping has a different history than ours. The earth was once populated with the Dijinn—a genie-type people endowed with the power to create. God became jealous of the Dijinn because they created awesome things, so He banished them to Hell. Satan witnessed this process as an angel in heaven and subsequently asked God for the same creation-powers. Petulantly, God granted Satan’s wish but restricted him to Hell as well. To further piss Satan off, God created the human race and granted them free will—a move that taunted Satan since he clearly did not have control over his own destiny. In the book, there are two nether-worldly beings who are mistakenly inhabiting earth—Gian Hen Gian, a Dijinn and Catch, a havoc-wreaking demon. Gian Hen Gian solicits human help in an effort to send Catch back to Hell. By the end of the novel, a lot of humans have crossed paths in this effort and we learn about their complicated interrelationships. Each person is burdened by something (alcoholism, a murderous past, a lack of ambition, etc.) and they have a cross to bear through this demon-defeating mission.
       Christopher Moore belongs to the writer-realm of Tom Robbins and Kurt Vonnegut- two of my favorite authors in the history of authorship. He takes a fantastical story with religious intonations and science-fiction twists and then grounds it in the realistic life of the everyman with everyday problems. The protagonist is unwittingly stuck in a supernatural circumstance and Moore uses the ridiculousness of the situation to mockingly highlight everything that’s wrong with our world. For instance, Catch discusses morality with his human keeper, Travis:
“‘What’s morality?’ [-Catch]
‘It’s the difference between what is right and what you can rationalize’ [-Travis]
‘Must be a human thing.’ [-Catch]” (Moore, 73).
Nothing is safe; everything is subject to ridicule. I like that. I don’t take life too seriously and I think established beliefs should continually be questioned. It’s nice when those questions also make me laugh.
        And Moore is funny, truly. He embeds clever jokes throughout the plot and doesn’t pass up any opportunity to be sarcastic. On the other hand, it’s his first novel and it reads like one. At times he tries for quirkiness a little too hard and you can sense the desperation he has to be a witty writer. Additionally, the plot crumbles into a haphazard mess at the end. In my opinion, Moore makes the story excessively complex which distracts from the core of what he’s trying to convey. It’s as if he’s so excited about all of these bizarre and brilliant ideas, so he crams them all into one story and then nothing fits. Despite these flaws, I recognize his talent and I trust that he developed as a story-teller. I’m super stoked to read his sixth novel: Lamb, The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal and from my glance at Goodreads, it appears that most devoted readers attest to Moore's improvements. Still, Practical Demonkeeping had all of the elements of a good, funny narrative but its tendency towards incoherence knocks the rating down to 3 out of 5 camel humps.
*Moore, Christopher. Practical Demonkeeping. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. Print.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

A Visit from the Goon Squad

         Over the past few years, I’ve scoured through “best books to read before you die” lists with the frantic hope that I wouldn’t croak before reading all the literature and feeling all the feels. Maybe purgatory is for people who haven’t finished their current book. I note the books that reappear in multiple lists, thinking that I really have to read that one before dying because The New York Times AND NPR gods say so. One such title is Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad*. Goon is a funny word that reminds me of my days in Australia when the only thing we could afford to drink was boxed wine with questionable contents, affectionately called “goon”.

         I quickly learned that “goon” in this case is not a cheap, disgusting libation, but rather a reference to the inevitable passage of time. Sigh. Time really is a goon, insidiously attacking us, mercilessly eliminating our ability to ward off hangovers, and forcing us to do adulting even when we’re woefully unprepared. Egan’s novel emphasizes time as a means to illuminate connections; characters interact at one point in time and then are inextricably linked thereafter. Instead of clarifying the power of connection through one point of view, the narrative bounces from one person to another every chapter. For example, one chapter shows Sasha, a kleptomaniac with a dark, ruthless past. A later chapter is about Bennie Salazar, a forlorn music producer whom Sasha used to assist. An even later chapter follows Alex, a one-time victim of Sasha’s penchant for stealing, who connects with Bennie years later for a shady job. The end result is a novel that actually feels more like a succession of short stories.

This structure is sometimes creatively satisfying, sometimes bothersome. Since each character has a different voice, we see Egan’s skill at portraying such a vast spectrum of personhood. While she emphasizes their interwoven connections in space and time, she also differentiates them with distinct personalities. My favorite chapter was that of Sasha’s daughter, who explained her feelings toward the family dynamic—specifically concerning her autistic brother—solely via PowerPoint presentation. Egan certainly wins creative points there. Yet, I was also annoyed by the novel’s ADHD arrangement. Just when I would get invested in a character’s life, Egan incidentally sapped my interest by moving on to someone else-- an unfortunate byproduct of her innovative composition.

So, the novel covers a range of characters, but what do they have in common--aside from a physical interaction at one point in time? They’re all going through some psychological agony. Some suffer from mental illness, some demonstrate drug dependency, some just can’t keep it in their pants, etc. As each person is affected by the passage of time, we see how time heals in some instances and time scars in others. Even when characters are depicted struggling in their youth, there is hopefulness inherent to their age. For instance, Stephanie, Bennie’s ex-wife reflects, “None of it was serious. They were young and lucky and strong—what did they have to worry about? If they didn’t like the result, they could go back and start again” (Egan, 139). When Egan circles back to old characters later on, we see whether or not “the goon won” or if the characters were truly able to go back and start again (Egan, 349).

Overall, I was pretty entertained throughout the novel, up until it fizzled in the last chapter. In the end, Egan provides a dystopian future where genuine connection is traded for efficiency and the only real way to interact with someone is through a technological medium. It reads as though she’s trying to be original, but that’s pretty much the track the world is on currently, so she lost creative points there. I found that the final chapter didn’t add any value. If anything, it detracted from the novel by disrupting an otherwise inventive storyline with a bland reiteration of what we already know to be true about connection in this age. In this light, I’m pretty shocked that A Visit from the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2011. Pondering time’s toll on humans is obviously relevant to any reader and I do think that most people would enjoy the first 90% of the novel. But I certainly wouldn’t absolutely insist that you read this before you die, nor would I sentence you to purgatory if you didn’t finish it. Thus, the novel levels out at a cool 3 out of 5 camel humps.

*Egan, Jennifer. A Visit from the Goon Squad. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010. Print.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016


                Today in Bar, I am going to play with Spout. Spout has a big goose on it that says “Goose Island”. I asked Ma what “Goose Island” was the other day and she said that I wasn’t old enough yet to ask questions about Spout. She said something quiet about how people can get married or go to war before they can use Spout because of a thing called the government, and then she rolled her eyes real big. I’ve only seen married people and fighter people on Bar TV so I don’t think they’re real, just TV. I saw Gilligan’s Island on TV once, maybe Goose Island is next to Gilligan’s Island on TV. Next, I go to Stools to play fort, my favorite game. I put Stools in line and then put Tablecloth on top so I can get under and Ma can’t see me anymore. I asked her what she would do if I went under Tablecloth and disappeared. She said I can never disappear because we’re in Bar forever. She said it with a sad face which confused me because I like Bar. I have everything I need in Bar. I have Barrel that I can roll around when Ma doesn’t have a headache. I have Dartboard that I can look at to help me count really high until I hit all of the numbers. I have Coaster that I drew a face on and now he’s my friend. When Ma gets sad like that, I tell her that she can borrow Coaster for a little bit and that makes her smile again.

           You’re probably wondering what the hell I’m going on about. I made all that up to give you a taste of the tone of Room*, a 2010 thriller-novel that recently came to life on the big screen in October 2015. I’ll respectfully not deprive you of the breathtaking experience involved in reading the book/watching the film, so I’ll use restraint and only give away plot details that would be available to you on the back of the book. The novel is aptly named in that the story takes place in a room. Five-year-old Jack lives with his Ma in a heavily insulated, soundproof garden shed, where Ma has been held in captivity for seven years. Because Jack was born within Room, he doesn’t know anything outside of it. Ma has chosen to shelter him from the realities of the external world on account of his young age and assumed inability to process. As such, Jack thinks that the only things that exist are he, his Ma, the objects within Room (including a barely functioning TV), and a mysterious male named “Old Nick”. Old Nick is Ma’s kidnapper who visits the shed on a nightly basis to bring basic amenities and wreak havoc on Ma.
          Obviously, this is not great. Ma, played by Brie Larson in the movie, was nineteen at the time of her abduction, and Jack is her only redemption. But her son won’t be a child forever; she’ll have to figure out the necessary next steps that ensure her and Jack’s physical safety as well as Jack’s psychological wellbeing…
          I offered my alcoholic rendition of Room in the first paragraph to show you all the manner in which Room is written. The story is entirely told from Jack’s perspective, which makes the book incredibly unique. This is not a regurgitation of your typical kidnapping; while readers can see the pain that Ma is in, they’re shown through the lens of an innocent child. Their horrific experience is rendered lighthearted and even exciting at times because of Jack is na├»vety.
 Readers gain insight into Ma’s frustration through Jack, thus the novel does not pretend that everything is hunky-dory. These insights may be masked by Jack’s point of view, but they are no less painfully heart-wrenching. Readers also get an idea of the kind of person that Ma is and the beliefs that she holds, like when my little guy above notices his Ma condemning prohibitive drinking laws. I scoped out a solid text example of this kind of interplay: when Ma answers Jack’s questions about Old Nick directly for the first time. She gently explains that he stole her. Jack thinks to himself, “I’m trying to understand. Swiper no swiping. But I never heard of swiping people” (Donoghue, 93).  Precious, but also depressing because Ma is like hiiiii, I’m pouring my heart out over here and you’re making an analogy to a fictional child with a magical backpack named Dora. Dick.
          I absolutely love the perspective that Donoghue provides. It gives the kidnapper the inattention he deserves and presents a life-affirming message --that people can overcome life’s setbacks --without being too cheesy or overwrought. I was concerned that this perspective would be lost in the film adaptation. How would the director effectively show us the mind of a child? Fortunately, Donoghue wrote the screenplay as well and she’d be damned before she let her creativity fall through the cracks. As amazing as Brie Larson was, I was completely shocked at how impressive Jacob Tremblay’s performance was as Jack. Tremblay is NINE. YEARS. OLD. and I thought I was witnessing Oscar-worthy material. He was everything I thought Jack would be and more. Now I’m going to have to check out his acting in The Smurfs 2 and Santa’s Little Ferrets (wut). Overall, the movie was true to both the novel’s voice and the novel’s content. The film had only minor tweaks towards the end—ones that I consider inconsequential.
          My last reservation, pertinent to the book and the movie, was that I thought I’d potentially be annoyed by the little kid voice. I can be a cold-hearted bitch, so a kid narrating sounded like a red flag. To my surprise, his narration was actually quite endearing and amusing. Jack is certainly childlike but he is also smart and inquisitive despite his stunted surroundings. It helps that he likes Alice in Wonderland, one of the few books in Room.
           I give the novel and the movie five out of five camel humps, and it seems like most critics agree. While I am obviously a more trustworthy source than Rotten Tomatoes, for the record, the movie garnered a 97% critic rating and a 94% user rating. I was so eager to figure out what came next that I read the entire book in less than 33 hours, similar to how I felt about Brain on Fire. Now, I can’t wait to read more of Emma Donoghue—a charming redheaded Irish novelist who wears little funny knitted caps.

*Donoghue, Emma. Room. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2010. Print.