8.29.2015

Exhuming The Body by William Sansom




Considering William Sansom's short fiction was once widely anthologized in frighteningly titled story collections (e.g., London Tales of Terror, Ghosts in Country Houses, The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, as well as several installments of The Pan Book of Horror Stories), with a novel named The Body, readers already acquainted with his better known, more diminutive, phantasmal forebears, could understandably conclude that Sansom's first novel The Body was likewise macabre.  Honest mistake, that. And perhaps also disappointing for those mystic connoisseurs of the obscure with a taste for Sansom's peculiar style of understated extravagance -- a style similar to yet not quite as distilled as that of those refined denizens of the fin de siècle, nor as baroque as the later Lovecraft crowds he was often lumped in with (peruse any of the table of contents of one of the dozens of anthologies Sansom contributed to in order to better see my point) -- who naturally approach the The Body expecting the same disquieting ambiance of his eerie short stories.  But the worms and the flesh's imminent decay, from which chilling wisps of (of what?) might soon materialize and emanate in sun dappled shadows in the woods, are absent.  Such ghastly expectations are soon dashed, reading The Body.

1959 Penguin reissue of Sansom's first novel
The Body rises out of a different ground.  It is a novel that William Sansom essentially made out of a molehill.  It is seeded in what amounts to a sandbox, rooted as it is in an immature husband's absurd overreaction to a neighbor's leering glance. The novel flourishes swiftly, like a prickly weed, from the uncommunicative cracks of this self-hating husband's heart, feasting on his doubt and festering insecurity.  Over another man staring over the wall at his attractive wife.  The Body, then, is about a marriage that may soon be buried, because of a husband's jealousy and profound paranoia.  A paranoia so profound its become perverse as the husband repeatedly "goes out of town" that he may spy on his wife and that ungodly garrulous, lascivious neighbor-paramour.  Alleged paramour.  Watching this extraordinarily double minded husband as he deviously befriends his wife's envisioned lover for pints at taverns all over town, concocting elaborate traps to prove himself a cuckold (and a cuckoo cuckold at that) in the very company of the vile offender, demonstrates exactly how pathologically overpowering and perverse the husband's paranoia has become.  He'll do just about anything to contrive some future indiscreet incidents between the pair to "prove" there's been an affair, even as he's the one orchestrating it.  Is a single unreciprocated glance, in the first place, automatic grounds for a spouse's jealousy and suspicion?  That's the molehill William Sansom turned into a novel.  A novel that may have been better executed and more believable as a long short story. Because even as I'd rate it a good but not great novel (perhaps "great" for a first novel, I won't quibble over that), it's still a novel at heart that's as shallow as a sandbox upon first inspection.  Upon introspection, however, the novel gains major mass.  One could say it embodies the depth of dunes. Holy shit, though, God forbid that such measly weaselly husks of human beings otherwise known as men indeed exist in this world who are as idiotic and insecure as the husband in The Body.   And what could possess a wife to remain true to that, anyway, to her husband's faithlessness in her faithfulness?  Are there really wives that forbearing and angelic in this world, willing to put up with such unjust and unfounded barrages of bullshit?  What are the odds that this marriage, on the verge of being embalmed, can bounce back and survive?

Yet somehow, The Body has survived, barely, since its publication in 1949, even enduring decades of being out of print; survived largely, I suspect, because of both the reputation of William Sansom's short stories and on the hard won approval of Anthony Burgess, who included The Body in his influential 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939 (published in 1984) and wrote, in part, about it:

"Sansom's ear, matching his eye, renders the idioms and rhythms of post-war lower-middle-class English with a frightening exactness.  The final image that emerges in the self-tortured brain of the husband is of the human body growing old and unsavoury -- the broken toenails, the rough skin, the bad breath -- and the sexual urge as a kind of insentient insanity.  It is what the sharpened eye is led to observe at last and it leads, in its turn, to a kind of resigned philosophy.  By a paradox, Sansom mines into the human spirit by staying on the surface."

The surface of my tattered 1959 Penguin Books copy of The Body has sure seen better days.  The cover, in fact, is held on by scotch tape.  Who knows for how many years it languished, in the dust and dimly lit glory, on a long crowded shelf at the late great Acres of Books in Long Beach before I salvaged it, thanks to Anthony Burgess, in 2008, just before the store closed.  The Body remained out of print until Faber and Faber reissued it in 2011.  I believe it's worth the steep price to obtain, or I'd be happy to send you my copy.

8.25.2015

Arnošt Lustig's autograph (Lovely Green Eyes)







Recently found this signed copy at the Bookman in Orange, in near fine condition, affordably priced.  Not a huge Arnošt Lustig fan here. But grabbed this, one of his last works of fiction, Lovely Green Eyes, on somewhat of a whim, and I'm glad I did. Like his contemporary Raymond Federman, Arnošt Lustig's oeuvre was the Holocaust, and I've yet to read a novel or memoir about it that wasn't able to put my own life into purest perspective whenever I'd let its petty dramas and difficulties get me down.











more autographs

8.22.2015

Metrophage by Richard Kadrey



A few weeks ago I was in Pacific Grove and sauntered into what I thought was a coffee place (it was) but turned out to also be a bookstore -- Bookworks!  Pretty cool feeling to find a bookstore when you weren't even looking for one.  So, after enjoying our coffee and croissants, spent some time browsing the small shop.  I knew right away that Bookworks of Pacific Grove was an awesome bookshop when I saw the lone copy of Infinite Jest and its fat blue spine (the tenth anniversary edition) occupying a large slot in the bottom shelf of the CLASSICS section in-between the glossy sheen of brand new trade paperback copies of Lew Wallace's Ben Hur and Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men.  I told the gentleman manning the register how cool I thought it was that they stocked Infinite Jest in the CLASSICS section and he smiled, nodded, and replied that "it comes and goes often".

Ace Specials ed., 1988
Another book that comes and goes with even more frequency than Infinite Jest from the shelves of Bookworks, come to find out, if the kind tall man with a slight stoop in his step standing at the register was to be believed (and I saw no reason why he shouldn't be), is Metrophage by San Francisco-based freelance writer and photographer, Richard Kadrey.  "Couldn't keep those in stock when they first came in," he said, handing the copy of Metrophage I'd just purchased back to me in a white paper bag with handles.  I'd first heard of Metrophage in one of those science fiction best-of lists from yesteryear, and had never been able to find a copy.  Until walking unwittingly into Bookworks in Pacific Grove on the first Tuesday of August, 2015, that is.  Seems Metrophage had been out of print for years (it'd been published originally in 1988 by Ace Specials), until Harper Voyager reissued it as a "SIGNED FIRST EDITION" in late 2014.

Metrophage has essentially been my introduction to "cyberpunk" even though the genre has been around for thirty-one years since the release of William Gibson's innovative and instant-classic first novel sensation, Neuromancer, in 1984.  Of course elements of cyberpunk had been around since at least Mary Shelley's Frankenstein from way back when in the early nineteenth century (and I recommend reading Larry McCaffery's enlightening anthology on the subject, Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Fiction, for a superb and authoritative book-by-book chronological assessment of cyberpunk's genesis and evolution) but it was Neuromancer that pieced all the nascent elements of the genre's inchoate fragments together in such perfectly realized ways that it was obvious among the avant-garde science fiction/postmodernist crowds that something new in literature had just been born -- cyberpunk -- and its name was synonymous with Neuromancer, and it's father was William Gibson. I've no clue who could've been cyberpunk's mum.

"Storm The Reality Studio. And retake the universe."
~
William S. Burroughs, Nova Express
Enter Metrophage, stage left, four years later. Nearly thirty, Metrophage remains a vital novel; it reads as technologically and culturally relevant today as the day it was published (the latter I can only imagine); it is a novel that is not dated like the hair metal and synthesizers and Milli Vanilli lip-synckers that defined the music scene of the era in which Richard Kadrey's first novel was published. It's not dated probably because of its prescience on multicultural and sociopolitical fronts.  The intermingling of Asian and North American cultures is a prominent trope of cyberpunk, I've learned, from reading Storming the Reality Studio, which reminds us how well director Ridley Scott managed the America-Asia image-mix in so many of those futuristic scenes he artfully rendered in Blade Runner, but Kadrey tweaked the trope a bit adding Arab and Middle Eastern cultures to the mashup, and the imaginary Los Angeles (or "Last Ass" as the locals call their city) that he projected from the future back in 1988 bears an uncanny resemblance to the Last Ass I see and breathe today in 2015.

The sociopolitical zeitgeist of Metrophage took for granted the ongoing, ever present existence of the one percent/ninety-nine percent cultural divide/debate in the United States (I know I don't recall this reality in political discourse when the first Bush beat Dukakis in '88), and went so satirically over the top with the concept that when a young one-percenter, Jonny (I'd rank Jonny as a one-percenter, yet must acknowledge and allow for alternate perceptions that he's never explicitly described by Kadrey as being said one-percenter), the antihero of Metrophage; that is, when Jonny gets cornered by a poverty stricken septuagenarian gang of "discards and defectives" known as The Piranhas, wielding "the few weapons they could find, principally government-issued teeth--filed and set firmly in angry, withered jaws," he refused to shoot his way out through them with his high-tech Futukoro handgun/grenade launcher because he felt an irritating compassion/kinship for them -- imagine that, a one-percenter feeling compassion?, feeling sorry for and identifying with the poor beleaguered ninety-nine percent?) and so instead had to use his wits and his fists to escape from the septuagenarian's deadly dentures.  Does anyone now living in the United States who's not deluded, drugged out, outright crazy, a politician or overpaid C.E.O., doubt the reality of the one percent/ninety-nine percent divide in the U.S.A.?  The denizens of Last Ass were already taking the divide for granted when Richard Kadrey first envisioned them doing so in the mid-1980s, when Ronald Reagan was king; though, admittedly, the Last Ass denizens weren't even conceptualized then and so couldn't have been taking the one percent/ninety-nine percent divide for granted as early as 1968, when Reagan was just California's governor and J.G. Ballard, prescient as he was as a speculative pre-cyberpunky type of writer, somehow saw the imperialist danger lurking in plain goobernatorial (sic) sight a little over a decade away, and published his provocatively titled pamphlet that, to my knowledge, wasn't narrated by a real or fictitious woman named Nancy, "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan," but, man oh man, I have digressed. . . .

Suffice to say, the good publishing people over at Harper Voyager knew what the hell they were doing reissuing Metrophage.  Perhaps the next time I stroll into Bookworks in Pacific Grove, Metrophage will also be shelved in the CLASSICS section, where it belongs, and by CLASSICS I do not mean CULT CLASSICS.

8.01.2015

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson



I'm not appalled at all by the political incorrectness and sheer irresponsible lunacy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  Saying so, however, can't help but show, I fear, that the responsible-citizen side-of-me believes I should be appalled; that I should absolutely and incontrovertibly loathe Hunter S. Thompson's Savage Journey To The Heart Of The American Dream.  And yet I don't.  I treasure my posh, mylar-protected, Modern Library hardcover first printing of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  A book, I suspect, that has induced more side splitting, spittle spraying, laughter per page, in others -- I know it has in me -- than any other book in history.

frontispiece illustration in first printing
We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers . . . and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls. . . .

"We" being, Thompson, of course, and his high, high powered attorney. Driving under the influence through the Mojave Desert, or while intoxicated; loaded, if you will; out of one's mind (which is to say hammered, blotto, stoned, shit faced past Pluto, well beyond the rubicon of any possible recovery) isn't funny -- never mind hysterical -- or even remotely mildly amusing, correct?  Yes, correct.  DWIs are reprehensible, unforgivable, completely avoidable, correct? Correct, except -- for there is one exception and one exception only in recorded history -- when it was Hunter S. Thompson behind the wheel, gathering wild, outrageous, jaw dropping material as lucid as it was lunatic for what would become the plastered pages of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a masterpiece of pop culture and sociopolitical reportage that tweaked and freaked out even the California Highway Patrol in the research, with so much of Hunter's speedy shenanigans, aided and abetted at every wrong turn by the illegal assistance and conduct unbecoming of his attorney who should've been disbarred.

Getting hold of the drugs had been no problem, but the car and the tape recorder were not easy things to round up at 6:30 on a Friday afternoon in Hollywood.

While Hunter would not ultimately need that tape recorder for what turned out to be a dud instead of a scoop in the 1971 Mint 400 Desert Race outside Las Vegas, Nevada, the drugs would be a vital necessity in order for Hunter's plan-B option to reach its zenith after the Mint 400 Race fizzled: His uninvited yet impromptu attendance at the National District Attorneys' Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs that, coincidentally, was then ongoing in Vegas the very same weekend as the Mint 400 assigned to him for a paltry $250 by Sports Illustrated.  Hunter saw, as only a new gonzo journalist like Hunter S. Thompson could see, the gloriously subversive opportunities of such an anti-drugs shindig like that and struck, er, smoked, snorted, and imbibed, a motley stash of narcotics and dangerous drugs while the proverbial iron was hot.  Ergo, he got the hysterical, in your face scoop and then some, in his classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.