11.22.2015

Kamikaze L'amour by Richard Kadrey



If ever a novel needed its own niche, Kamikaze L'amour by Richard Kadrey might've been it. Dipping here, there, everywhere, from many subgenres inside and out of science fiction—dystopia, post-apocalypse, urban fantasy, cyberpunk, timeslipstream, satire, literary fiction, magical realism, it eluded a single label—a good thing—but also eluded sales—not so good; it's unclassifiable nature reminiscent to me of Steve Erickson's inimitable oeuvre, particularly his second novel Rubicon Beach, in which an encroaching jungle, a parallel reality Los Angeles, and a mysterious woman named Catharine, all figure prominently. Could've been coincidental, there being so many striking similarities between the two novels, though I suspect Kadrey was probably paying Steve Erickson some much deserved homage.

first edition, 1995
When Kamikaze L'amour opens, San Francisco and Los Angeles are in ruins. "San Francisco was on the verge of some discrete internal shift accompanied by subtle deviations in gravity, cellular tremors — like a city-sized snake getting ready to shed its skin. In an ecological experiment gone cataclysmically wrong, the Amazon Rainforest has inundated the California coast.  Hardcore defoliants have been no match for this super-sized rainforest. The Feds, running out of options, have resorted to dropping napalm on Hollywood (yes, napalm, such sweet satire), with little long lasting effects.  It's like the Vietnam War all over again, except it's in Los Angeles, where mutant jungle vines grow fast before your eyes like scabrous menacing erections. U.S. Highway 101 has become a barely passable corridor between the Bay and L.A., an overgrown concrete stand-in, say, for the Congo or Nung Rivers of Conrad's and Coppola's respective visions.

Ex-rock star Ryder and his hearty appetite for destruction (yeah, he knows Slash), having faked his own suicide in order to escape what he's deemed an empty existence of excess and ennui (because "Fame is just schizophrenia with money," he's reasoned in Kamikaze L'amour's fantastic opening line), takes the dangerous trek south for Los Angeles in search of an idiosyncratic personal "light" from his memory whose luminescence, if he can only recapture it—and the strange thing is the peculiar light emanates from sound—believes will somehow restore him.  Maybe save him.  Provide him renewed purpose.  Become his guide.  Or might the epic anti-heroic quest for the light leave him in darkness instead, disillusioned, damned, another abandoned husk of a human being sifting the ashes throughout the charred vestiges of L.A.?

Ryder's girlfriend, also a talented and nutty musician (and likely insane), has fled south through the jungle before him. Ryder's convinced, since she's spent so many secret hours on the fringes of the new rainforest, recording the jungle's animate sounds, that she knows the right combo of ambient tones and notes to unlock that resurrecting light within and without.  But will he find her before the jungle devours her whole? Ryder pursues her with reckless abandon, as obsessive in his search for the light and the sound (vis-à-vis Catharine) as perhaps Proust was his past.  Despite the untold dangers, and some scary setbacks along the way, involving mercenaries, wild beasts, and indigenous tribes of the new Amazon, Ryder arrives in L.A., having barely survived his harrowing journey.

"The new Los Angeles seemed remarkably smaller, and somber; the most extroverted of cities had turned introspective. This was the sleeping face of L.A.—its dream face. Under its jungle coat, all the fantasies that the city had birthed, appropriated, conceived or destroyed moved raw and wild beneath the luminescent green canopy of the kapoks and palm trees. When it gave itself over to Amazonia, Los Angeles had found itself—a hermetic fusion of city and rainforest, half construct and half dream—as solid as the omnipresent HOLLYWOOD sign still visible in the hills, and as fragile as a dragonfly's wings."

In Kamikaze L'amour's acknowledgements, Kadrey thanked those who helped him write "The Book That Would Not Die". I think it's unfortunate that Kadrey's underrated second novel did in fact "die," commercially speaking, shortly after publication.  Victim of false expectations, suffering from unfair comparisons to his, granted, dazzling debut Metrophage, considered now a cyberpunk classic—Kamikaze L'amour is nevertheless a good, often great, novel in its own right (so what if it's not a classic phenom like its predecessor, neither was In Utero after Nevermind, or Tusk after Rumours, but they were still very good) has been out of print now for almost twenty years. Perhaps Harper Voyager will one day reissue it as they did Metrophage in 2014 to acclaim and steady sales.  Regardless, I hope many curious intrepid readers will soon reconsider reading the more experimental Kamikaze L'amour—a paean, ultimately, to humanity's obsessive search for light or illumination throughout the ages, and what an elaborate suicide might've symbolized in such a quest—for when they do I'm convinced they'll discover, as I did, that Richard Kadrey's second novel has long deserved a second chance.

11.07.2015

All Twenty-One of Stephen King's Books I've Read* so far (or Attempted to Read) Ranked from Worst to Best



Vulture released a worst-to-best ranking a couple years ago of Stephen King's sixty-four books and I thought they got it mostly right.  But I like this hardcore King fan's list better.

*I've read -- completed -- eighteen books by Stephen King so far in my life and have attempted to read three more.  The three I couldn't finish are the first three listed.  So, here's my personal worst-to-best ranking of the twenty-one books I've read or attempted to read by Stephen King.


Signet pb of original version
21. The Tommyknockers (1987).  A heartbreakingly bad reading experience that ended my then loyal relationship with Stephen King.  I made it 200-250 pages and gave up in disgust.  It's good to see I wasn't the only reader who thought this novel was tired, bloated, and just generally all-around atrocious.

20. The Complete & Uncut 1990 version of The Stand.  Three years had passed since I abandoned Stephen King.  Having such fond memories of the much shorter (by about 400 pages) original version of The Stand, I thought I'd give King another chance. But quickly realized there were valid reasons King's editors excised that extra baggage & overblown bloat more than a decade earlier.  It just sucked, and I was so disappointed, having been suckered in by the hype & hoopla regarding its re-release.

19. Insomnia (1994).  Another four years had passed.  I missed Stephen King!  He was my good buddy when I was a lonely alienated adolescent, like so many of us here.  I wanted him back.  But damn it, Stephen, your Insomnia put me to sleep!  Twenty years now have come and gone, and while I've reread a couple of King's books in the interim listed below (The Dead Zone and The Shining), I've yet risked reading anything new of his.  Am I wrong for no longer remaining current with the prolific output of King?  If I am wrong, which book of his, post-1994, should I begin with?

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18. Cycle of the Werewolf (1983).  Even though I read it in one sitting (it's a novella plentifully illustrated), it was just okay.  Of course, "okay" by Stephen King standards is pretty damn good for most anybody else.  It didn't transport me someplace special; I never got lost in the story; it didn't take me away outside of myself like so much of the finest work of King's once did.  Or maybe I was just too damn young and naive to know any better, could that have been it?

17. The Running Man (1982).  Forgettable. A race that never ends.  Last man running in the race doesn't win, he just gets to live . . . until the next race. I thought the Schwarzenegger adaptation bit the dust too.

16. The Long Walk (1979). I enjoy taking long walks. Walking, or even hiking uphill with a forty pound backpack is not Hell. Leave it Stephen King to take something really nice like a nice long walk and metastasize it into something monstrous. Bastard.

15. Rage (1977).  First of the novels written under the Richard Bachman nom de guerre, and a novel now most notable because King regrets publishing it, and has refused his publishers the right to reissue it. King is blessed (or in this case cursed?) with sometimes too prescient of an imagination. Rage is about a high school boy who walks into a classroom with gun and holds the class hostage all day.  I think he even killed a fellow student (or teacher) or two, though I don't remember for sure. When school shootings began occurring here in the States w/alarming regularity in the mid-1980s, one of the school shooters proudly proclaimed King's Rage as being his inspiration.  Copycats followed.  King took a ton of heat and soon disowned the book.  But it's still a good book.

14. Roadwork (1981).  Like his short story "The Woman in the Room, "this is one of King's rare ventures into literary fiction.  Real horror can be bureaucracy, red tape and not just a bloody vampire's fangs.  Real terror is the government acting like oppressive vindictive ghouls out of Stalinist-era Soviet Union come to clobber you and bury you alive with earth movers.  Eminent domain can be a major pain for some homeowners.

loved these Signet paperback covers
13. Thinner (1984).  The last of the five novels King wrote under the pseudonym "Richard Bachman" (at least up to that point, that is, when Richard Bachman was still a secret even to his most fanatical aficionados) and easily his best, for my money, under the Bachman nom de guerre.  If you're ever at a carnival and a real (not pretend) gypsy offers you a delicious cherry pie, don't you dare give into the temptation and take a bite of it, because otherwise you've just begun the cherry pie diet to end all diets. Funny how the first three letters in "diet" are d, i, e.

12. Misery (1987).  The last novel of King's I completed before leaving him as a dedicated, bought-his-new-hardcovers-the-day-they-came-out-fan for good.  How he could write such a compelling and demented novel like Misery and then follow it up with a colossal dud like The Tommyknockers just half a year later is beyond me.  Actually, it's not.  King later admitted it was  the drugs he was abusing that made him suck so bad as a novelist for a while.

11. Danse Macabre.  King's first work of non-fiction from 1981 remains a book I regularly reference for reading and movie ideas to this day, as it contains long lists of King's personal horror novel and terrifying film recommendations that often include obscure titles worthy of a larger audience.

10. Different Seasons (1982).  A collection of four wonderful novellas.  Everybody's seen Stand By Me, right, & The Shawshank Redemption?  Well, those two novellas' contemporary classic films made from them are as good if not better than their brilliant adaptations.  And I've yet failed to mention Apt Pupil too, and, and, what was the fourth one? ....

09. It (1986).  Despite It's lackluster and disappointing denouement, there's still well over 1,000-plus pages of sheer mesmerizing storytelling.  For a novel this huge, it didn't read like it needed an editor.

08. The Dead Zone.  King's fifth novel and the third one to examine, realistically, and in this case, politically, the far reaching implications of the paranormal in a person's -- and in their country's -- often very taken-for-granted liberties and ultimately, survival as a free society and as uncaged individuals.  I think it is overlooked and way underrated in King's canon.  The adaptation, and particularly Christopher Walken's haunting performance, is a rare exception of a movie based on a Stephen King novel that actually compliments the novel, and to the point where I can say the movie was as good as the book.

I remember lugging this first printing hard cover
 around from class to class my senior year in high school
07. Skeleton Crew (1985).  Buying it for the novella "The Mist" alone would be worth it, but this collection has some truly twisted & disgusting (yet oddly endearing) stories just as good as the novella its most famous for.  The story "Survivor Type" prefigured, I believe, the Survivor reality show.

06. Night Shift (1978). His first and probably scariest short story collection. "Jerusalem's Lot" scared the bejeezus out of me.  Demonstrated too that King could go strictly literary (the few times he's ever wanted to, I guess) as in the horrifically real "The Woman in the Room," a story inspired by the slow agonizing death of his own mother.

05. Salems' Lot (1976).  Much better paced and overall written if, granted, a hair less gothic and sexy, through certainly more ridden with terror and existential gloom, than its more famous forebear, Bram Stoker's Dracula.

04. Carrie (1974).  Told through diary entries, letters, news reports, its documentary-type style narration lent it a realism so real that reading it barely requires the reader's willing suspension of disbelief.  Next to The Shining, I think it was King's most literary achievement.

03. The Shining (1977).  Two of King's first three novels plunged deep into parallel realities where extrasensory cognition can be deemed as much normal in a person's life as touch or taste is, and not condemned as de facto psychological disorders or conjuring empowered by the devil, despite the whacko mothers or sicko fathers in the novels who might argue otherwise.  The potential for evil, King seemed to be ironically asserting (like so many literary luminaries preceding him -- even, say, Dostoyevsky), resides in the so-called "normal" and much less gifted, "everyday" human beings on earth, who, in King's bizarre harrowing takes on this planet, lean towards the soulless Jack Torrance's rather than the supernatural Carrie's.

02. The Talisman (1984).  Underrated dark epic fantasy co-written with Peter Straub.

01. The Stand.  The original, edited and cut (thank God!) 1978 post apocalyptic masterpiece.


11.01.2015

Nakamura Reality by Alex Austin




Reading Nakamura Reality by Alex Austin is like riding a perfect wave. In its exhilarating, grips-you-from-the-get-go prologue, "slabs of water, rhinos the surfers called them" are booming off shore. Closer, the shore break "sounded sharply like a gunshot."  As you read Nakamura Reality (and do know it will be difficult not to complete it in one sitting), keep in mind this dualism Austin first evokes here with the imagery of waves: inside versus outside, far versus near.  Incoming infinitely, ephemeral as they are, Austin's waves foreshadow and harbor clues in Nakamura Reality's epic prologue.

preview copy
Alex Austin is a practiced illusionist in words and images. He's been a playwright; he's witnessed his words and images staged in Los Angeles and New York.  He's published many stories both online and in print, including publication in two issues of Black Clock.  You could safely say, as I will, because yes I know Alex, that he has a special way with words and images; employing them both to pull the wave over your eyes! Tricking you over and over again, for 272 mesmerizing pages — I wished it would never end. For Nakamura Reality amazes me, as I consider how many intricate, interwoven, parallel dramas, realities, and confabulations of fiction and fact are introduced already in action simultaneously.  Even seemingly insignificant details Austin includes are imbued with foreboding, or longing or loss, like those pesky seagulls we'll see "swooping down" and "mewing insistently" throughout the mysterious narrative(s) of the novel.  I just can't help wondering what the seagulls portend.

We meet at least three (but maybe more) of the major players in the prologue: Hugh and his twin sons Takumi and Hitoshi.  They are on the beach in a supposed paradise in southern California, surveying those "rhinos" whose "chaotic" enormity is reminiscent to me of those magnificent rhinos in the grand finale of Big Wednesday.  Once in a lifetime day.  And what a likewise rare day for two boys and their Dad. To surf, or not to surf? That is the question; the question that preoccupied the double-minded indecisive Hugh who must decide for his eleven year old sons.

Twelve years pass from the prologue to chapter one. Hugh's sons, you probably figured, are long gone.  Presumed dead.  Disappeared.  Likely drowned.  Hugh's Japanese wife, Setsuko, resultantly divorces him.  How could Hugh, she must have thought even if she never exactly stated so, though her relatively swift abandonment of Hugh clearly implied as much, be so reckless, so irresponsible, so stupid as to let Takumi and Hitoshi, her only sons, her defenseless children senselessly put in unnecessary danger for crying out loud!; how could Hugh let them paddle out into the surf that goddamnable day? And if it wasn't the recklessness of that dangerous surf, it was bows and arrows, and who knows what else!  How could Hugh — a schoolteacher for junior high punks because he couldn't make it as a writer; couldn't make it like her father —let her boys play at archery unsupervised?  What a dunce!  Ergo, divorce was predictable.  Perhaps her return to Japan, where she had first met Hugh at the university, was inevitable too.  Home to the house of her famous father, a man of unimaginable power and influence as we'll soon find out; and whom, if we're to believe the boasting of his bodyguard, has "fans among the Yakuza — big fans," Japan's most popular literary author next to Haruki Murakami, the magical realist, Kazuki Ono.

Once we meet Kazuki Ono, Nakamura Reality goes rogue wave.  A novel-within-a-novel emerges. Fingal's Cave, Kazuki Ono's novel-in-progress, the novel we get to see him write and we get to read as we turn each successive page in the parallel kingdom of Kazuki Ono's malicious realityfiction.  A manipulative realityfiction as believable and plausibly enacted as, say, The Truman Show's realityfiction.  I can't help being reminded also of the cosmic puppeteers in Frank Herbert's The Heaven Makers, jaded and bored by eternity, playing God in the finite realities of pathetic little earthlings.  Let's just say Kazuki Ono treats his former son-in-law, Hugh, like a pathetic little earthling and leave it at that.

What an experience, reading a novel that's really two novels in one, the second novel (Fingal's Cave) like some experimental commentary on the first novel (Nakamura Reality); the former serving as both a biography and fantasy future history in the fated life of an unfortunate and unjustly bereaved man who did not deserve, no matter how many idiotic and impulsive and regrettable flings and affairs he had, the cold and bewildering punishment served him by that shady conglomerate we never really see and can only imagine, known as "Nakamura Reality".

~~~~~

Nakamura Reality is slated for publication by The Permanent Press in February, 2016.  Heartfelt thanks to Alex Austin for titling the novel that was Fingal's Cave's predecessor what he did -- I like it a lot! -- and for thinking enough of the novel (was it Kazuki Ono's tenth?) that Kazuki read an excerpt from it at Pasadena's revered independent bookstore, Huddle's (I think that was 2010 or 2011, right?), when Ono's book tour arrived in Los Angeles.  May that novel of Kazuki Ono's, the one preceding Fingal's Cave, come out of realityfiction someday soon and shine like the brilliance that is Nakamura Reality's.