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Wednesday, October 22, 2003

The Tetherballs Of Bougainville by Mark Leyner

Mark Leyner doesn't write novels, he writes Mark Leyner Stuff. MLS is a synthetic compound of pop culture, satire, observational humour and the kind of world view that evokes both psychology textbooks on schizophrenia and that one time you drank all the cough medicine when your parents were out.

Tetherballs, then, is a bit of a departure for Leyner as it includes a plot, pacing and a beginning, a middle and an end. Admittedly, the plot is insane, the pacing jitters like an arrhythmic speed fiend and the beginning, middle & end are from three different narrative strands - but it's a start. It is also one of the funniest books I have read in ages and had me living the old book jacket cliche of 'laughing out loud on the tube'.

The plot concerns 13 year old Mark Leyner - a brilliant, bare-chested, leather-trousered high school prodigy who is attending his father's execution for a series of food processor-based murders. Mark is finding it hard to concentrate on the matter in hand due to both his Game Boy obsession and the fact that he has won a prestigious screenwriting award (the Vincent and Lenore DiGiacomo/Oshimitsu Polymers America Award - a company that is product-placed hilariously through the book) and needs to get to the library and actually write the award-winning screenplay before the awards ceremony ("The advantage of having a powerful agent").

When his father's PCP-sodden body proves resistant to lethal injection and he is released under the New Jersey State Discretionary Execution Programme (the subject is free to go, but may be killed by ninjas at the whim of local government) Mark finds himself consoled, then seduced by the comely prison warden who has both a predilection for innappropriate workplace sex and access to enormous amounts of contraband drugs, liquor and antiques (don't ask).

Here is where it starts to get weird.

During their post-coital, drug-mashed come down, the warden advises Mark to write about what he knows. Thus the screenplay becomes about Mark Leyner, 13-year old, blah blah who is watches his father's botched execution and ends up discussing a screenplay he has to write with the attractive prison warden. In reading the screenplay, we come across a scene where Mark reads the warden a long and learned review of the movie of the screenplay that Mark wrote himself (while the screenplay was still gestating) to both act as a talisman for his future writing career and, more importantly to give him the satisfaction of reading a review of his work without actually having to be bothered writing the thing.

The intertwined plots, both real and imaginary (or imaginary, even more imaginary and frankly ludicrous if we are being honest) cover a lot of ground but take in military dictatorships, advertising, the morality of RPGing a passenger jet to execute one of it's passengers, the need for politicians to stop sitting on their hands and generate the political will to allow the FDA to approve some real lethal injection drugs and (of course) the giddy world of professional tetherball on the south sea island of Bougainville.

There book also raises a little known literary scandal involving a bonobo monkey that has been secretly writing novels on behalf of imposters playing the parts of 'Bret Easton Ellis', 'Douglas Coupland' and 'Donna Tartt' among others. But lets not go there.

Whether or not you like this book will depend a lot on your opinion of Leyner's style. I can imagine many readers being irritated by the book, just as others will love it. Personally, I think it is genius. The structure of the novel has been meticulously worked out and everything adds up at the end. Along the way there is some sharp commentary on pop culture and some of the daftest, deftest prose you will ever read.

Stuart 3:25 PM::link to this entry

Friday, October 10, 2003

Jack Faust by Michael Swanwick

In 15th century Wittenberg, the scientist Dr Faustus is crazed with discontent at the religious stodge and foolish superstition that is crippling his research and scientific progress as a whole. After burning his collection of academic works he cries out for the Demons he has been told must be prodding him with ideas to come and finish the job. On cue, he is visted by Mephistopheles - not quite a devil, more of a visitor from a parallel plane of existence. Mephistopheles' race are enraged at the thought of humanity outlasting them and thus Faust is offered a deal. Mephistopheles will provide him with all the knowledge he seeks, every scientific enquiry satisfied and more besides. In return, Faust will agree to share this knowledge. Mephistopheles believes that humanity will abuse this boon and bring about its own destruction. Faust agrees, confident that he will be able to turn these revelations into a science that, far from dooming the world, will make it an earthly paradise.

What follows is both funny and horrific and all proceeds with a crunching sense of inevitability as Mephistopheles whispers secrets into Faust's ear and slowly corrupts his sense of purpose, turning his pure scientific aesthetics into base, practical technology and commerce.

Swanwick allows this Faust his own Helen of Troy - in this case the lovely Margarette, whose father's business empire is soon turned to mass production of Faust's new inventions. With demonic assistence, Faust comes up with many technological marvels - from mass production itself to telescopes, ferris wheels, automobiles, zeppelins, refrigerators and antibiotics. Quickly, via some well written and amusing scenes, the Renaissance accelerates into a premature analog of the 20th century, complete with many of the social changes that Swanwick suggests would accompany the technology.

People being people, of course, the main demand for Faust's 'miracles' comes not from the medical and consumer goods sectors but from Governments who would use his expertise to develop ever more terrible weapons. Slowly but surely, it begins to seem as if Mephistopheles will have his way.

Much of the tech-driven social evolution is seen through the eyes of Thoroughly Modern Margarette as she negotiates high finance, (semi-)emancipation, the tabloid press and contraception. Some of her scenes reminded me a lot of the neo-Victorians from Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age. Although seemingly introduced as a pretty-but-simple object of lust to tempt Faust, Margarette quickly establishes herself as one of the most competent and level-headed characters in the book.

The book is great fun - there are plenty of jokes and subtle tweaks given to history as well as a sly gag involving a certain nursery rhyme that I wont spoil. Faust himself is a superb character - his sheer bile and capacity for cruel rages are well handled and his slide from scientist to technocrat is convincingly done even if the time frame for the social changes requires a pinch of salt.

Jack Faust is not without its flaws - it may seem daft to let an anachronism rankle in an alt-history novel but there are a few uses of language that seem too modern for the character's lips (e.g. one character is described as 'flunking' an exam, which to me sounds more Monkees than Marlowe) and you may find yourself wondering if the patterns of history are really as set as Swanwick suggests here but these are minor nits in an otherwise enjoyable and thought provoking fable.

Stuart 3:44 PM::link to this entry

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