Hostage, by Guy Delisle

Hostage, by Guy Delisle

I’m convinced that graphic novels are the perfect form for historical accounts and memoirs. Like film it’s partly a visual medium, but it’s free from the tropes, narrative boundaries, and language of film. It’s also firmly in the realm of literature, but free from the usual trappings of that medium as well. It has all of the strengths of both, and few of their weaknesses. The story can be presented in a simpler language, straightforward and raw, and this often gives it a lot more emotional impact. In several ways historical accounts feels more real, and more personal when presented in panels. There’s a long history of doing just that: Persepolis, Maus, and last year’s March for example were all exemplary, and Hostage belongs right alongside them.

Delisle has done admirable work capturing the disorientation of Christophe’s hostage experience. The language barrier between him and his captors keeps him entirely in the dark as to why he’s been kidnapped, where he’s being held, what the status of negotiations (if any) for his release are, etc. His world is reduced to 4 walls and a ceiling. The reader is kept in the dark right there along with Christophe, experiencing his story as he tells it. Noises and events occur outside of his view and understanding, and he’s left only to guess what they are; constructing his greater world from fantasy. His mind escapes through his love of military history, as he attempts to lose himself in some of the great battles of Napoleon and the American Civil War.

The illustration uses subtlety and simplicity to emphasize how slight the differences in Christophe’s day-to-day life become while in captivity. For example, the thin light moving across the wall shows how his perception of time has been drastically reduced. It’s absence after he’s moved to a more tightly controlled area, is devastating. This isn’t said, but subtly shown. There’s a story unfolding in the words, and more detail unfolding in the illustrations. They meld together, and create the greater story where they overlap. It’s fantastically well done.

Guy DelisleOccasionally a new person feeds him, or forgets to, or leaves him uncuffed at night. Sometimes he’s allowed a shower, sometimes his captors offer him a cigarette. The most heartbreaking part of this for me was the hyper excitement that Christophe experienced at the most basic of pleasures; things I take for granted every day of my life. Finding some Garlic in a storeroom that he’s kept in, and eating it after months of the same soup and bread day after day puts him into a state of euphoric bliss unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. That hit me really hard. When your life consists of being handcuffed to a radiator for months, any little deviation from the norm is the highest peak imaginable. At one point he’s given an omelette, and nearly forgets that he’s a captive, it’s so indescribably delicious to him.

Christophe obviously lived to tell his story to Delisle, but I’ll leave that resolution up to you to discover for yourselves. I will say that it’s quite a nerve wracking ordeal, and the most thrilling part of this book. I highly recommend checking it out. Hostage is available from Drawn & Quarterly.

 

 

Not the End of the World, by Christopher Brookmyre

Not the End of the World, by Christopher Brookmyre

A fundamentalist Christian TV mogul, an ex-pornstar, an awkwardly oversized Scottish photographer, a cop who doesn’t want the job, and a failed abortion clinic bomber walk into a foreign distribution event for American B-movies in Los Angeles at the tail end of the twentieth century. That setup alone sold me on this one, and it all plays out to hilarious effect. The fact that it’s written by the brilliant Scottish crime fiction/satirist Christopher Brookmyre, pushed it to the top of my to-be-read pile. Seriously, this writer is completely unknown in the US, and that needs to change.

Christopher BrookmyreI’m impressed with the depth of character development present here, especially in the antagonist(s). Most crime fiction I’ve read had fairly cookie cutter characters, or comically one dimensional bad guys. But Brookmyre took some of the people I despise the most, and made me empathize with them to some extent. That’s good writing. It’s still abundantly clear where they’ve gone wrong, but you can see why they made/make the decisions that they do, however misguided. In our protagonists, particularly in the retiring pornstar, he’s done a wonderful job of demystifying a profession that is generally demonized. And the writing during the sections dealing with her past, internal conflicts, and struggles are some of the best in the novel.

I tend to read a couple books at a time, usually one novel, and one non-fiction book on some subject that I’m interested in. I unintentionally started reading this one around the same time as We Did Porn, by Zak Smith, not knowing that the two books would inform each other splendidly while reading them together. Both dealt with the pornography industry, Los Angeles culture, fundamentalist Christians, and the republican party at length. I’ve heard others say that this book came off as too preachy for their tastes, and I can understand that sentiment, as the story was probably a bit too heavy on the wish-fulfillment for a general audience, but it satisfied my inner liberal, socialist, atheist, feminist, godless heathen heart to no end.

 

My Struggle Book 4, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

My Struggle: Book4, by Karl Ove Knausgaard

 

“…he would have to work out the social game for himself. He would have to learn he would get nowhere by whining or telling tales.”

Karl Ove isn’t talking about himself in this quote, but he might as well be. Eighteen year old Karl Ove spends most of the book whining about his inability to lose his virginity, and attempting to write short fiction (telling tales). You might think I’m joking, but I think the moral of this story is that people should masturbate more often, and especially in their early teenage years. Let me backtrack a bit…

Like book 3, book 4 doesn’t jump around as much as 1 and 2. It stays mostly focused on his life from age sixteen to eighteen, with an occasional leap forward to 2009; Karl Ove in his early forties writing the book you’re reading; his wife and children asleep in the next room. I have to mention that I’m a sucker for these sections where he reminds the reader of his present tense writing of the novel. I don’t know why, but I love it.

Karl Ove as a literary character, is a one of the most unusual protagonists I’ve come across, because he isn’t a protagonist at all. This is unheard of in memoirs. Usually when we tell stories about ourselves, we’re the hero, or at the very least we present ourselves and the situations we get into in the best possible light; painting others as the bully, or the one who deserved what they got, etc. Karl Ove is not like this whatsoever. He lays out every dirty detail, and is extremely hard on himself. He writes himself as the antagonist in his own life story. He also writes about his boner a lot. Like, a lot a lot. I started counting when I noticed the pattern, and eventually lost track at fifteen or so times around the middle of the book.

The main story in this volume involves Karl Ove as a young man who is lost, and his struggle to find the kind of world he fits into. His emotionally, verbally, and physically abusive father has left his mother, started drinking, and seems to be a completely different person than he was when Karl Ove was a boy. He’s starting to see that his father was never happy, and needed something different from life than what he was getting. Also, it’s appearing that he was always a very emotional person, like Karl Ove has always been, crying often, and begging forgiveness of his sons now that they’re grown. Karl Ove is still terrified of him, and doesn’t understand how to reconcile this new person that has replaced his father, with the father that raised him.

Karl Ove Knausgaard

At eighteen Karl Ove leaves home for the first time and takes a job as a school teacher in a small fishing community in northern Norway; rural in a different way than he’s familiar with. He’s grossly under qualified for the position, knows it, but wants to be alienated from the familiar. He wants to step a toe outside of his comfort zone. He’s using this experience to save money, and isolate himself so that he can focus on writing more exclusively.

He is absolutely obsessed with losing his virginity, and extremely insecure about his pattern of ejaculating before the act has even begun. In an effort to ease his nerves socially, he begins to drink heavily, which helps him to remain calm while courting the women in this new town he finds himself dislocated in. Drinking also gets him into several situations where he makes a total fool of himself. Even while intoxicated, every time he finds a woman willing to sleep with him, he gets stuck in his own head, and it happens again. This is a great source of embarrassment for him, and he takes it very hard.

 

We already know from the previous installments of his story, that he sees himself as being too feminine or “feminized” as he calls it. At eighteen, he’s scrawny and lanky, and in this fishing community he’s surrounded by what he considers men’s men: manual laborers, fishermen, tough skinned, strong and silent. He constantly compares himself to those around him, and finds himself lacking in almost every way. To make matters worse, his upstairs neighbors are constantly going at it. All of this and more adds to the feedback loop and reinforces his feelings of inadequacy and shame, which in turn reinforces his inability to do the deed.

Karl Ove KnausgaardIn addition to all of this, he’s teaching kids barely younger than himself, and having some trouble not being attracted to the girls in his class, especially the ones who have developed crushes on him. Some of them as young as 13. Oh, Karl Ove. Buddy. Come on, man. You can’t do that! About halfway through the book he has a realization that maybe the reason he Is having so much trouble maintaining control of his ejaculations, and controlling is attraction to his students, and his horniness level in general, is that he has never masturbated. Ever. He sees it as something childish that he should’ve done when he was younger, but now feels it’s too late to begin. He knows that if he were to *ahem* practice on himself a little bit, that he would develop the ability to control himself a little better when he’s with a woman, but he still won’t do it! Good lord eighteen year old Karl Ove! Jerk it already!

So, that brings us full circle to my point from the beginning: masturbation, it’s something everyone should do, especially when you’re young and just starting to develop into the adult you’ll become. Most of Karl Ove’s troubles in this edition would’ve been completely avoided if he had just jerked it a little. So, like I said earlier, if there is a moral here, I think it’s a simple one: masturbate.

 

 

High-Rise, by J.G. Ballard

High-Rise, by J.G. Ballard

A disturbing/enthralling allegory – class struggle, self deception, and the animalistic brutality concealed just below the surface of human civilization.

I knew of Ballard from the new-wave SF of the late 60s / early 70s, particularly Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions compilations, wherein he’s described – by Ellison in his story introduction – as one of the few mainstream lit crossovers coming from the world of speculative fiction. He is an eloquently gifted writer, straightforward but poetically descriptive at the same time.

J.G. BallardHigh-Rise is one of those few short novels that could be the topic of a very concise thesis, that ultimately clocks a longer page count than its source material. There is a simple story of ascent/descent at play, but quite a bit of expressive analogy hiding between the lines. There are three main characters, each representing a differing class; lower, middle and upper. This isn’t immediately apparent, but becomes clear through their differing motivations and desires as society in the High-Rise begins to break down. Each of their stories play out to their logical, disturbing conclusions.

Poems, by Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod

Poems, by Iain Banks and Ken MacLeod

Unless someone seriously goes against his publicly (and hopefully legally) stated wishes, there will only ever be 30 Iain Banks books, including this one, his last and only posthumously published work. It combines his personally selected poems, mostly unpublished, with the poetry of his friend and colleague Ken MacLeod.

Iain BanksNow, I have to be up-front here: I know very little about, and have a hard time understanding poetry. I know enough to be fairly certain that my lack of knowledge concerning the form probably shares a strong causal relationship with my difficulty in appreciating it. I say this just to be clear. I think that like most folks who pick this one up, I read it more as a fan of Iain Banks, than as someone who knows literally anything about poetry.

The prose in his novels has often been described as poetic, which seems correct to me. He had quite a way with words, and his writing has a lyrical feel to it. Reading these poems kind of feels like looking at his novels through some sort of obfuscation lens. If you’re a fan of Banks, you’ll recognize some familiar locations and some themes that are obviously his, and I can assure you that the same wit, snark, and clever antagonism at work in his novels bleeds through in his poetry as well. The plot is stripped, the characters are simpler, but there’s still a story at play in most of them, and his signature lyrical prose is ever present.

What I can’t say for sure is if these poems have any merit to someone who is either unfamiliar with Banks, or themselves familiar with poetry. My entirely subjective, layman’s opinion is that I enjoyed several of them, and the rest were either not great, or went completely over my head. I would really only recommend this for die hard Banks’ completists. Otherwise, you can probably skip it and be just fine.

Ken MacLeodApologies to Ken MacLeod, I didn’t actually read your section in this collection. I am just not interested in poetry enough to want to read it for any reason other than already being interested in the author’s work, and wishing to read literally everything they’ve written. In the extremely thin chance that you are reading this: Hi there! I hope you understand and take no offense. Also, thank you for suggesting the changes made to Use of Weapons, we all owe you big time for that one.