Monday, August 20, 2007

Book Review: Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis

In the fantastic posthumous collection of Terry Southern's writing, Now Dig This: The Unspeakable Writings of Terry Southern 1950-1995,editors Nile Southern and Josh Alan Friedman include an amazing little screenplay fragment titled, "Proposed Scene for Kubrick's Rhapsody." Fans of Stanley Kubrick will know that the director spent decades trying to adapt Arthur Schnitzler's Rhapsody, a Dream Novel to the screen, and the novel ultimately served as the basis for Eyes Wide Shut. In the early 80s, Kubrick asked Southern, who had worked with Kubrick on the screenplay for Dr. Strangelove among other projects, to help with Rhapsody. Southern's idea for the story, about a man whose quest for sexual fulfillment sends him deeper and deeper into the sexual underground, was to make it a comedy.

The one scene that Southern wrote is hilarious: the husband, Brian (in this version, a gynecologist) describes to his wife how he helped a patient with a particular problem with physical sensitivity. The scene is classic Southern, and it leads me to imagine a perfect alternative universe where Kubrick followed Southern's advice and turned Eyes Wide Shut into a broad sex comedy (I do think Eyes Wide Shut is a comedy, but that's an argument for another day).

While reading Warren Ellis's recent first novel, Crooked Little Vein, I was reminded about this imagined Kubrick/Southern dream project, because I think that such a project would greatly resemble Ellis's novel, in tone and theme if not in detail. Crooked Little Vein, in fact, reminds me a lot of another Terry Southern work, the novel Candy, co-written with Mason Hoffenberg in 1958. Candy is about a young female college student on a failed quest to lose her virginity, which leads to a series of comic misadventures that expose the sexual deviances and hypocrisies of Americans in the late 50s. Crooked Little Vein, published almost 50 years later, is about a private detective in search of the secret, second Constitution of the United States, and his quest leads him to explore the sexual deviances and hypocrisies of Americans in the 2000s. Both novels are picaresque in structure; both are satires; both contain scenes that would offend even the most jaded readers; and both are absolutely products of their time.

In Candy, which was banned in its initial publication, it often seemed like Southern had to invent terminology for some of the acts he described, as there was little or no precedent for such descriptions in prose, yet in my recent reading of it, I found the book to be almost quaint, sounding much like the way inexperienced adolescent boys talk about sex in the locker room. In other words, much of what was shocking in 1958 is no longer shocking today. In one of the novel's episodes, for example, a physician, Dr. Krankeit, extolls the virtues of self-pleasure in a way that would not be out of place in the "Masters of our Domain" episode of Seinfeld.

While reading Crooked Little Vein, I wondered how long it would take before this novel, with its Godzilla fetishists, saline-enlarged scrota, and ostrich abusers, would seem as quaint and old-fashioned as Candy. Ellis invites such thoughts, as much of the detective Mike McGill's interactions with other characters involve discussions of what, exactly, represents the "mainstream" in American culture. Other characters insist, often to Mike's chagrin, that the Internet, as a medium, has moved much from the margins or underground into a form that is readily accessible to all Americans. The argument, then, is that the Internet makes everything it contains mainstream. This is an interesting alternative to the view that America has become increasingly conservative over the past decade, and it's an alternative that Candy must have presented for the conservative Eisenhower era as well.

Warren Ellis does himself a lot of favors by creating a main character and plot that can be used to feature a lot of short little vignettes. McGill's macguffin--the secret Constitution--takes him from east to west coast, and his leads bring him to experience many people and places that might be considered the fringe of American sexual practices. McGill is also a self-described "shit magnet," to whom strange things just seem to happen, and this gives Ellis unlimited freedom to put his hero through some extreme and unlikely situations. The cumulative effect of these vignettes, combined with the novel's rapid pace, can be numbing. By the time the novel gets to Las Vegas, and the Jesus-shaped casino named "Freedom" (complete with Christian sex toys in every room), I felt a bit worn out, but it's about this point in the novel where Ellis's "mainstream" argument kicks in, which gives the novel's picaresque structure a larger purpose.

To offer another comparison for this novel: it's like a Naked Gun movie directed by Takashi Miike. In the Naked Gun series (or Airplane, for that matter), the jokes come so fast, and in such large quantities, that he quality of each individual joke matters little. If you don't like a joke, just wait a few seconds for the next one to come along. The same could be said about the offensive or distasteful gags (and I don't necessarily mean those terms to be pejorative) that rapidly follow one another in Crooked Little Vein: some work better than others. For example, McGill's experience with MHP, or macroherpetophiles (a word that presents an etymological wet dream)is probably the funniest set piece in the novel. However, a running gag about airplane terrorism (a flight attendant upset about her boyfriend hands out boxcutters to boarding passengers so that they can drop the plane on him; later, McGill gets a woman kicked off a plane for "speaking Iraqi") just doesn't seem well-thought-out. Even within the creative freedom Ellis has allowed for himself in this novel, those gags lack an internally consistent realism: a flight where passengers were given boxcutters would surely be grounded, but it isn't, though extending this one-off gag into a larger scene would allow Ellis to play more with the theme of American paranoia and paralysis over terrorism. Also, a scene in a Texas steakhouse, where a waitress rolls out half of a raw steer as the "special," is just too easy a joke.

In general, fans of Warren Ellis's comic work will find much here that is familiar (Mike McGill seems cut from the same cloth as many other Ellis protagonists, especially Michael Jones from Desolation Jones.). But it also seems like all that earlier, similar work was a build-up to this larger, more encompassing satire about technology, sexuality, and contemporary culture (though Transmetropolitan probably does a better job covering those topics). And I'd be especially curious to see how this novel looks in 10+ years (or 50 years, for that matter, though it's unlikely that either the author or myself will be around to evaluate reactions then). Readers then might find it a quaint little snapshot of a time when we were just figuring out what technology like the internet could do, and the fetishes and acts in the novel may be read as signs of a more innocent time--a time before the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences devoted a special Oscar category to Godzilla Bukkake.

1 comment:

Maxo said...

Insightful stuff! I've been wondering whether or not to invest in "Crooked Little Vein" because, while I love a lot of Ellis's work, some of it just comes off as derivative of himself. A lot of other reviews were reinforcing that, but you've convinced me to give it a try after all.