BOOK REVIEW: Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishan

Temporary PeopleTemporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book gathers twenty-eight pieces of short fiction, poetry, and creative writing – some surreal and others realistic – all with the overarching theme of the life of a guest worker in the United Arab Emirates (UAE.)

I picked up this book as my literature selection for the UAE (I’m working on reading at least one work of literature from each nation I’ve visited. I find it informs my experience with each country in a way that greatly complements the visit.) I wasn’t sure how useful this book would be for my purposes (which is in large part to gain insight into a culture that might pass me by as a traveler.) I wasn’t concerned about the fact that this book is about non-citizens who are temporarily located in the UAE, and thus the cultures I would be seeing would largely be from abroad. [The predominant ethnic group presented in these stories is Malayali, from Kerala in India, but one reads of Filipinos, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, and many others.] For many countries I’ve visited this dislocation might be an issue, but the UAE and other Gulf States (e.g. Qatar) present a unique situation in that most of the work gets done by workers from South Asia, Southeast Asia, and – to some degree – other places such as Africa and even Europe. Seeing how this melting pot works was definitely more interesting to me than reading about the lifestyles of rich and unknown Emirati’s who live off their petro-welfare checks. My concern, early in the book, was that there’s a lot of surrealism (including the opening story) that would offer some level of metaphorical insight but little direct insight. However, by the end I felt that I did gain a taste of life in the UAE from reading this book.

While the bio-blurb suggests there are “twenty-eight linked stories,” this isn’t really an accurate statement. There are twenty-eight “chapters,” divided into three parts, but many of these chapters wouldn’t be considered “stories” in any conventional sense of that word. [To elaborate with an example, one “story” is just a three-page list of different careers / states of being of foreigners in the UAE. Some of the works are poems and others are micro-writings.] Issue might also be taken with the term “linked” as well, there are a couple tales linked by characters or events, but mostly they are only linked by the theme of being a stranger in a strange land. This isn’t to say that there are no stories. There are, and several of them are excellent. Personally, I got the most out of the longer pieces of short fiction. These are the works that really stuck with me. The short, experimental works will surely find a readership that loves them, but for me they were mostly just a kind of palate cleaner.

The stories that most gripped me were:

-The tale of a woman who rides around fixing [and sometimes finding] construction workers who fell off a building. This one effectively presents the idea of the foreign laborer being treated as a disposable commodity.

-The man who destroys a phone belonging to a small business owner when he goes into a jealous rage. This is one of the stories that really hammers home the trauma of familial separation and long-distance relationships.

-The story of children molested by an elevator. [I warned you that some of the stories are wildly surreal and / or symbolist. The book’s blurb relates the work to Salman Rushdie, and one can definitely see shades of that author’s influence.] What struck me about this story was the idea of growing up too fast in this life as a guest worker’s dependent.

-A boy whose bicycle is stolen undergoes a series of traumas. This one has a lot to do with being ground down and then lashing out to save face. The boy whose bicycle was stolen didn’t speak Arabic and thus stood out to the police as someone they could treat as they wished, and this spurs him to want to pay the unkindness forward.

-The man who takes a job selling laundry detergent, literally dressed as a clown. This story is about the humiliation suffered by one who has to take whatever job he can get, and – once in the job – he’s seen as someone who can be tread upon by others, having lost all dignity.

-The Malayali man who returns home to India rumors that he’d been to jail for something that his neighbors find unconscionable. Another on-going sub-theme of the book is life in a highly moralistic society, and the troubles that that creates for the common man – particularly when there are extremely few available women of a status that one can approach.

This is by no means a complete list. There are other good stories as well. These are just the one’s that I found particularly resonated with me. The idea that the guest worker is not only temporarily a person but partially one as well runs through the book.

I’d highly recommend this book if you enjoy short fiction, and / or you are interested in life in the UAE.

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BOOK REVIEW: Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan

Pride of BaghdadPride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

I generally dislike books for adults which anthropomorphize wildlife. Except for “Watership Down” and “Animal Farm” I can’t — off the top of my head — think of another book oriented towards adults that I liked that did so. However, Vaughan’s book tells a stirring story that could pretty much only be told by anthropomorphizing its wildlife characters – because those characters are the only characters through most of the story and the intensity of the story revolves around their internal experience.

It’s the story of a pride of lions that escaped from the Baghdad Zoo during the Gulf War. The four lions were – for a time – roaming the streets of war-torn Baghdad looking for food. The story blends fiction with way-points of fact established from the accounts of soldiers.

Vaughan does inject some of the harsh reality of the natural world into the book, and so it doesn’t fall completely into the pit of anthropomorphization, and — by doing so — he creates a more visceral experience in the story.

It’s a short but gripping story. Vaughan succeeds in facilitation of the reader’s consideration of what it must be like to be an uncomprehending creature placed in humanity’s most incomprehensible condition – warfare.

An appendix to the book includes the proposal and notes, which clarifies some of what was actually known to have happened as opposed to what is either speculated or fiction.

I found this book intriguing and would highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Batman, Vol 1: Court of Owls by Scott Snyder

Batman, Vol. 1: The Court of OwlsBatman, Vol. 1: The Court of Owls by Scott Snyder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection (Batman #1-7 of The New 52) shows Batman’s discovery of a shadowy and age-old nemesis that has managed to cling to the darkness so well that it’s known only by a creepy nursery rhyme / folksong. The Court of Owls not only predates Batman’s father, Thomas Wayne, but we learn it goes back at least to the time of his [great-]great-grandfather, Alan Wayne, a railroad magnate largely responsible for Gotham’s look.

The story opens with a grizzly murder involving a large number of well-placed throwing knives, positioned to allow the victim to survive for some time. However, it’s Bruce Wayne’s meeting with Lincoln March, an apparently magnanimous man running for mayor, that brings things to a head. During the meeting, March is stabbed by a costumed villain claiming to be carrying out the sentence of the Court as he goes on to attempt to assassinate Wayne. While the Court of Owls connection is clear, Batman concludes that it’s just another villain using the symbolism of the nursery rhyme in the same way he uses the symbolism of the bat. However, as his investigation goes forward, that theory becomes less tenable.

I greatly enjoyed this collection. While we see Nightwing, Red Robin, and the current Robin, this story is very much a solo outing for Batman. The past and present sidekicks serve only to join Alfred in reminding Batman that he’s burning the candle at both ends, and to facilitate [skillfully delivered] exposition. While we see Batman as the pragmatic master detective and as the butt-kicking caped crusader, what I really enjoyed (and what set this edition apart for me) was a trippy, surreal piece of the story. There’s a section of the book that reminds me of Grant Morrison’s “Batman: Arkham Asylum – A Serious Place on Serious Earth.” While it draws on the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, it gets mind-bending as Batman finds himself trapped in a labyrinth and his only water source is provided by a conveniently-existing fountain in said labyrinth.

I’d say this is definitely among must-reads for fans of Batman. It sets up what will be an on-going battle, but it was an intriguing in its own right.

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BOOK REVIEW: Matilda by Roald Dahl

MatildaMatilda by Roald Dahl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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[The Sarah Walsh illustrated edition comes out October 13, 2020.]

 

Matilda is a precocious child with parents who are negligent and verbally abusive. The story picks up shortly before Matilda is set to begin kindergarten, presumably so that we can learn that she is a preschool autodidact and that she has crappy parents. We also witness how she takes to “punishing” her parents whenever one or both of them behave in a particularly vile manner, using what might best be described as pranks. The empowerment of children, girls, and bookish people is the central theme of the book

Matilda begins school and is at once delighted to find a kind and caring teacher, Ms. Honey, and dismayed to find that the Principal, Mrs. Trunchbull, is a horrible woman. While Ms. Honey recognizes Matilda’s brilliance, she cannot get the girl advanced to a suitable grade because both Matilda’s parents and Trunchbull refuse to recognize the girl’s intellect. Dahl takes on both the cause of feminism and the plight of nerds. In the case of the former, we see how Matilda is disregarded by both her parents because she is a girl and they don’t see much value in her education and can’t fathom that she would be good at learning. While Matilda’s brother doesn’t exactly get top-notch parenting, at least some effort is made to advance his education. In the case of the latter, Dahl shows the derision for reading and studiousness that is all too common in society.

I won’t delve into the details of the balance of the story except to say that when Matilda discovers that Ms. Honey’s life is even more harrowing than her own, the young girl resolves to use her talents and capabilities to help improve Honey’s lot.

I read the version of the book, illustrated by Sarah Walsh, that is coming out in the autumn of 2020. Dahl’s story is the same, but the art is different. Having seen the Quentin Blake illustrated books, I’m aware of the difference between the two. However, as a non-artist, I don’t have much vocabulary to give a detailed description of said difference. I can say the Blake art is more reminiscent of old comic strips and the Walsh work was more cleanly drawn and “realistic,” while maintaining a general sense of whimsy and a bright color palette. I enjoyed the artwork, though I don’t claim a particular eye for such things.

I’d highly recommend this book for fiction readers. It’s written for children, but if you’ve gotten to adulthood without checking it out, it’s worth going back to read it. While the villainy maybe over-the-top for adult readers (i.e. there aren’t any nuanced characters,) the story has emotional resonance and is satisfyingly concluded. As to the question of the age of children it is good for, I don’t have much expertise in that either. However, as a litmus test, ask yourself if you think the kid can assimilate the image of Trunchbull swinging a girl by her ponytails – as in the hammer-throw – and tossing her over a fence.

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BOOK REVIEW: Pericles by William Shakespeare [at least in part, maybe]

PericlesPericles by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Summary [Spoiler-laden]: Prince Pericles of Tyre visits King Antiochus to check out prospects for wedding the King’s daughter. Pericles confirms that the daughter of Antiochus is as beautiful as she is renowned to be, but perhaps too beautiful for her own good. In preliminaries to a courting process, Pericles learns that the King has been incestuously dipping his wick in said gorgeous daughter. Pericles says thanks-but-no-thanks, and goes on his way. However, Pericles – rightly – gets the impression that King Antiochus is a bit mafia in his approach, and isn’t the kind to rest well with his secret out in the open. Pericles narrowly escapes Tyre before the assassin of Antiochus arrives, and the Prince goes traveling, hoping Antiochus will calm down and (providing Pericles keeps his mouth shut) rescind the kill order. [Which is more or less what happens; the assassin questions one of Pericles’ Lords and it becomes apparent that his King’s secret is not in danger.]

Pericles first stops at Tarsus, and, bearing gifts, builds good relations with the governor, Cleon. However, his next stop is more tragic when a storm wrecks his ship and he is washed ashore at Pentapolis. While he has no gifts because they all sank, the King of Pentapolis, Simonides, recognizes Pericles royal virtue and offers the hand of his daughter, Thaisa, in matrimony. The happy couple marry, consecrate the marriage, and all is going along when Pericles finds out that his people (quite reasonably) think he’s dead and they’ve been pressuring Pericles’s right-hand-man, Helicanus, to lead. Helicanus is an upright fellow and not eager to usurp the throne, but he does recognize the need for a king. He tells everybody to wait one year, and if Pericles hasn’t shown himself, he’ll take the job. This puts a clock on things for Pericles and forces him to head home to Tyre with his pregnant wife. Pericles gets caught in yet another terrible storm, but – to make matters worse – his wife delivers the child. The delivery is successful, but Thaisa does not survive it, or so it seems. The sailors tell Pericles that, while they appreciate his sorrow, it’s bad luck to haul a body through a storm, and so they pressure him to make a burial at sea. Pericles seals a note and some jewels in the coffin so that if it should wash ashore the finders will be justly compensated for giving Thaisa a proper burial rather than kicking her coffin back into the water. Pericles recognizes that storm-ridden waters are no place for a baby, and so he drops his infant daughter, Marina (so named for her birth on the high seas) and Marina’s nurse at Tarsus with Governor Cleon and his wife Dionyza.

Pericles gets back to Tyre in time to reclaim his throne, and apparently there is a backlog of Kingly duties because he doesn’t head back to pick up his daughter until she’s in her tween or junior teen years. (I guess a nicer interpretation is that Pericles is scared to take a young child through waters that have proven storm-prone.) At any rate, before he can get back to Tarsus, the governor’s wife, Dionyza, asks a servant to murder Marina. Marina’s nurse recently died, so the girl has no protector, and it turns out the governor and first lady have a daughter about Marina’s age who is inferior to Marina in every way. Dionyza thinks her daughter will get more of Cleon’s attention (and perhaps have more luck with suitors) if the daughter doesn’t have a smarter, prettier, and more competent competitor hanging around. However, before the butler-turned-assassin can kill Marina, some pirates abscond with her, and sell her in the style of “Taken” (the Liam Neeson film) into the sex trade. However, unlike the brutality of “Taken” Marina thwarts the exuberance of all bidders by basically saying [wildly paraphrasing] ‘You know, raping a virgin isn’t a very Christian thing to do, and God is watching you.’ Among those she scares straight is Lysimachus, governor or Mytilene.

Pericles gets to Tarsus, and is shown Marina’s grave (which, of course, doesn’t contain Marina, but Pericles doesn’t know that.) Having lost his wife and child, all due to a decision to rush back to a title, Pericles becomes a broken man. Deep in grief, on the way back to Tyre, Pericles is oblivious when they stop in Mytilene to escape more foul weather. (It’s possible there is a divine hand in this particular fortuitous happening.) Lysimachus goes to see Pericles, but the grief-stricken man can’t even speak let alone hold a conversation. Lysimachus believes that if anyone can snap Pericles out of it, it’s the lovely Marina. (Not because he knows she is Pericles daughter, but rather because he finds her sweet and likeable – like handing Pericles a puppy – Lysimachus is sure Marina will improve King Pericles’ mood.) Marina does, in fact, get Pericles to speak, and from there they realize quite quickly that they share a common story. (Though, Pericles briefly thinks he’s lost his mind and is hallucinating Marina because he so trusted Cleon spoke the truth.)

Before Pericles can go rip Cleon a new one, the goddess Diana pops up and tells him that: By the way, your wife – who was revived by a bystander — is hanging out a shrine to me, and is ready for pickup. And, so, the family is reunited.

Analysis: If this play seems a bit unusual for Shakespeare in tone and story devices, you’re not alone. There is a prominent theory that this play had a co-author and that the first couple acts were not written by the same hand as the balance of the play. While this isn’t formally considered among Shakespeare’s “problem plays” (i.e. “Measure for Measure,” “Troilus and Cressida,” and “All’s Well That Ends Well,”) neither is straight-forward comedy or tragedy. As you can tell, it’s quite dark, though all does work out in the end.

I enjoyed this play, whether despite or because of its darkness, I’m not sure. It certainly does have a lot of intrigue to keep one guessing about how and whether it will be resolved. Diana’s deus ex machina appearance is forgiven as that is in character for Greek mythology / literature. (As is the fact that medieval English terms and descriptions seep in that are incongruous with the world of Ancient Greece. The work had to make sense to the audience who would be viewing it, only a fraction of whom would have been versed in Homer, Sappho, etc.) The bigger deus ex machina moment is when the pirates abscond with / rescue Marina, but it’s good drama and advances the plot.

Read it. It’s definitely worth your time.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

The Old DriftThe Old Drift by Namwali Serpell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel follows three Zambian families through three generations from before there was a Zambia (when it was Northern Rhodesia) into the near future. The nine chapters each correspond to a member of one of the families for a given generation. Throughout the first two parts — i.e. “Grandmothers” and “Mothers” — we occasionally see the lives of members of the three families bump into each other, but in the third (“Children”) we see them become entwined. The families are ethnically diverse. The grandmothers include an Italian and a Brit who married a black Rhodesian. And there is a mixed-race marriage involving an Indian merchant. While the diversity of the novel’s cast makes for some interesting considerations of identity (e.g. how one views oneself versus how one is viewed by others,) it’s not so much central to the story as it is a flavoring of the story.

While we learn in a prologue that the title is a term used by the locals living near Mosi-o-Tunya (Victoria Falls) regarding the Zambezi River, it takes on another meaning as the book’s theme. The thematic meaning has more to do with impotence to fix the country’s problems. In other words, the momentum of Zambia’s “drift” simply can’t be overcome. A central idea in the book is squandered potential. Each of the three grandmothers shows a potential for greatness that is wasted not only because they are women in a patriarchal society. Sibilla is afflicted with a condition in which hair grows over her entire body at an incredibly rapid rate. Agnes is a skilled tennis player until she goes blind. Matha is smart as a whip, but she becomes caught in the orbit of men who are dim.

Each character is caught in this inexorable “drift” that is littered with detritus like poverty, AIDS, technological dependence, and weak governance. By the time it comes to the third generation, they are not only loaded with potential but (to a large extent) have access to resources but they still can’t manage to advance on solutions. In fact, they can’t seem to help but to contribute to the problems they are set against. In a crucial scene, a confluence of the work of the three (Joseph’s vaccination, Jacob’s drones, and an embedded communication device worked on by Naila) all come together in an action that is just what they are trying to create a revolution against. [Not having control or autonomy, but rather being colonized in an entirely new kind of way.] The problem is so amorphous and vast that a consensus of what it even is can’t be agreed upon.

I picked up this book as part of my project to read literature from every country I visit, and I’m glad I did. It’s hard to imagine a book that is more useful for that purpose because it covers so much ground in terms of the history of the country and the lives of a range of Zambians from prostitutes living in shacks to the wealthy elite — not to mention the various minorities.

The book is literary fiction, centered on the characters, but a story does unfold as well as a powerful thematic exploration. The book isn’t easily classified. There is even an element of science fiction in that “beads” [imagine a smart phone built into the human hand, using neuro-electrical energy for power] are an important plot device and are relevant in the resolution of the story. There is this technology being made available to Zambians, free or at low-cost, but they are guinea pigs and have no say in how it works, when it works, or how it’s used. (In a way, that is the story of us all and is not unique to Zambia, Africa, or even the developing world.) This technological dependence is presented as a kind of neo-colonialism, and – in that regard – it’s railed against, even as people are addicted to the tech in the same way people are to their phones today. While “Bead” and advanced drone technology are central to the story, one wouldn’t call this science fiction, per se, but it’s hard to ignore the salience of technology as an element of power (and how that plays into the story.)

I’d highly recommend this book for fiction readers. While it may be particularly intriguing if you have a special interest in African or Zambian literature, one need not have a particular interest for the book to be engaging and a worthwhile read.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu

The Hidden Girl and Other StoriesThe Hidden Girl and Other Stories by Ken Liu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Out: February 25, 2020

 

This smart collection of speculative short stories by Ken Liu is mostly science fiction, but includes a few works of fantasy (including the titular story, which is what one might call “martial arts-fantasy” – i.e. imagine “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” with more magic.) Depending how one counts up the stories, one could call the collection nineteen stories or sixteen stories and a novella. The novella, broken into three parts, is “storified” enough that its sections are interspersed among the other stories.

Liu doesn’t neatly contain his stories within boundaries of genre. In some cases, he jumps through time — including historical fiction, contemporary / near future, and distant future within a single story. He also takes on social issues like the Japanese internment during World War II in “Maxwell’s Demon” and the blight of technology on social interaction (best shown in “Thoughts and Prayers.”) There are hard sci-fi stories that show intergalactic travelers in a distant future, such as “The Message,” but there are even more that peer into the worries of the near future, such as artificial intelligence or the replicating of human consciousness in computers.

The novella imagines a world in which companies have captured the consciousnesses of great, but dying, minds for their own purposes. It then explores considerations such as: what happens when a great mind gets tired of being trapped as an acorporeal intelligence for the benefit of a company, and what does humanity mean in the context of fully replicated human minds?

I found these stories to be both intriguing and thought-provoking. I enjoy a good story, but stories that make one think deeply hold that much more allure. I’d highly recommend this collection for fiction readers. Whether or not you read genre fiction, you’ll find stories of great appeal.

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BOOK REVIEW: 100% by Paul Pope

100%100% by Paul Pope
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Despite the gritty, futuristic-noir setting of this graphic novel, it’s essentially the intertwining of three love stories. The story opens on the corpse of a dancer found in an alleyway. I thought this was going to be part of the story’s inciting incident or foreshadow it, but — in reality — it just served to establish that we’re on the wrong side of the tracks. The same might be said of a scene involving the purchasing of a gun. [I’ll let the reader figure out whether it was a “Chekov’s gun.” i.e. Chekov famously said, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.”] The fact that the story set in and around a strip club is apparently insufficient to convey how seedy this neighborhood is.

The love stories are between a dancer and a dishwasher, the club manager and a fighter, and the manager’s best friend and a sound artist. These love stories are nicely woven together, even if they are clichéd. The relationship with the prize fighter is probably the stalest. However, fear of commitment and standing up for one’s art are the well-worn heart of the other two stories. As I think about it, it’s not that those clichéd themes form the heart of the story (one will see the same themes replayed out in great works, past, present, and future,) but instead I think it’s the way we are pummeled over the head with them. It’s much like aforementioned set up of the seediness of the setting. By being so blatant, one can’t help but feel it’s a bit hackneyed.

That said, it’s a fine story, that might have benefited from a little bit of subtlety.

The artwork was well-done as far as I’m able to tell. I have no particular expertise in art, so my only criteria is whether I could follow what was happening, and I could.

The “100%” that is presumably meant to apply to the lengths the characters go to for what / who they love, unfortunately is exceeded in telling the story in a way that draws attention to itself too much for its own good. That said, if you’re looking for sweet stories of love in a seedy setting, this book has got you covered.

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BOOK REVIEW: Hogg by Samuel R. Delany

HoggHogg by Samuel R. Delany
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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If you’re familiar with Samuel R. Delany, it’s probably as a writer of science-fiction. His most famous works are “Dhalgren” and “Babel-17.” However, this book isn’t science-fiction, and I’m not sure that there is a consensus term for the particular genre that would categorize it. Astute readers will point out that it’s described as “erotica” right on the cover. But, in as much as erotica is a genre whose dominant intention is to evoke feelings of arousal, I’m not sure the majority of people would classify it that way (though I have no doubt there is a fetish community that would.) This isn’t to say that the book isn’t loaded with sexual activity. It is, across virtually every page, but the way those acts are presented — I suspect — will be found more cringe-inducing than arousing to the average reader. I’m specifically talking about the extreme unhygienic behavior that takes place throughout this book – much of which is tied up in sexual activity, but not all of it. Let it be known that I’m not commenting on the nature of the sexual activity, which is pansexual. I’m not even talking about the moral disgust of the fact that most of the scenes in which a woman is present involve rape of a particularly vicious nature, and that child molestation takes place throughout. By the same token, horror isn’t a good classifier either, though the book does have many horrifying scenes, and might best be categorized by a type of horror subgenre. If horror is a genre designed to evoke fear, “Hogg” is a book designed to evoke disgust – and it does so with great success. So, the first thing a reader should be aware of before taking on this book is that you may throw up in your mouth at one or more points during the reading of it.

So strong is aversion to disgust that probably most readers will have given up on this review by now and given up any intention of reading the book. Those who are still here, however, may want to know whether the book has redeeming qualities. The answer is: Yes. It has a smart story, psychological intrigue, and skillful use of language (even if much of that skill is directed at making one physically queasy.) While “Hogg” is often painful to read, it is adroit storytelling.

The book tells the story of the unnamed narrator, a boy who is known throughout only by a slang term for “giver of fellatio.” The narrator spends much of the book in service to the titular character, Hogg. Hogg is about as loathsome a character as one can imagine, and he needs the extra “g” because to call him a hog wouldn’t be an insult to swine. He exercises little control over where he urinates and defecates, and prides himself in unhygienic behavior. His job is contract work, but instead of murder he rapes and beats women who’ve run afoul of despicable and cowardly men. The lead character seems to be motivated by a need to please and / or capture the attention of an individual who has no capacity for human connection. The psychotic Hogg seems perfect target for such “affections,” and that’s why after bouncing from master to master, the narrator ends up with Hogg for such a time.

One of the most psychologically interesting elements of the book is its depiction of the bizarro morality of individuals who have an anarchic mindset. At one point, Hogg decides that he can’t tolerate a customer who insists on explaining his reason for hiring Hogg and his crew. In Hogg’s mind, the fact that the man can come up with a reason for the horrific act, other than the pure bliss of it, indicates that the man is crazy and will ultimately feel guilty and be the ruin of them all.

The story is swept along through its climax and resolution when Hogg’s most junior crew member (not counting the narrator who is only along for the ride) goes on a killing spree after an ill-advised penis-piercing. The reader never learns for certain whether this individual just lost his mind as a result of being drawn into Hogg’s world, if it was toxicity from the rusty metal he was pierced with, or some combination of both. However, we know from his chronic, public masturbation that he was never completely right in the head to begin with.

This book is not for everybody. Reading it is almost an act of courage and discipline. As a piece of literature, it’s intense and thought-provoking, but if you find any of the following intolerable to read about, you’ll not get through it: child molestation, rape, violence, the n-word, or coprophilia.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick

The Three Stigmata of Palmer EldritchThe Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This trippy sci-fi novel takes place in a future in which near colonization (e.g. the moon and Mars) has taken place, and life is so dismal that much of the population (especially on the colonies) take a drug that allows them to partake of a communal hallucination of a more idyllic life. This substance is called CAN-D, and – like many drugs – is largely illegal but widely available. But the CAN-D business is about to be turned upside-down, because the tycoon Palmer Eldritch is returning from the Prox System with a new drug based on a lichen that is indigenous to that solar system, a drug called CHEW-Z. CHEW-Z, it is claimed, is better in every way, but it has two readily apparent advantages: it’s cheap, and it’s not yet illegal. Beyond that, what CHEW-Z is is a question the reader will be forced to confront.

The book has shifting perspectives and isn’t focused upon a single central character through its entirety, but the lead character is Barney Mayerson. [If you’re wondering why the titular character, Eldritch, isn’t the lead, it’s because the mystery of him is crucial to the intrigue of the story. Throughout most of the story, Eldritch is more of a legend than a character, and the reader is presented with the question of whether the Eldritch coming back from Prox is the same one who left for it.] Mayerson is in the employ of the firm that runs the layouts central to the CAN-D trade. He has powers of precognition and his job is predicting whether potential products will sell or not so that the corporate powers-that-be can decide whether to invest in them. But two problems loom over his head. First, his number has been called in a draft to force him to move to Mars, away from his prestigious New York life. Second, his position is going to put him right at the center of the battle between CAN-D and CHEW-Z.

The book explores topics of religion and mystic experience. Mayerson, like most of the population, is secular and has little inclination toward religiosity. For many, CAN-D is a sort of pseudo-religion, or at least it frees them from their egos and helps the feel empowered in a way many seek through religious practice. One of Mayerson’s love interests (he has three over the course of the book, but this is the one he meets when he moves to Mars) is a hardcore Christian (by the standards of the day.) The interaction of these two characters brings the philosophical / religious component to the fore.

Much of the story plays out a product war between CAN-D and CHEW-Z, but, in the latter chapters, as the story plays out in large part in the minds of individuals on CHEW-Z, one starts to reflect upon just what CHEW-Z really is. And that reflection leads one into some profound questions such as: What is the nature of consciousness? What does it mean to be a god?

I enjoyed this book. I’m a fan of the work of Philip K. Dick, anyhow, but this book is among my favorites. Hopefully, I haven’t made it sound like a confusing or cumbersome read. It’s actually quite easy to follow despite the perspective shift from Mayerson to his boss Leo Bulero and back as well as the dreamlike quality of life for characters on CHEW-Z. In fact, I’d say its one of the most skillfully written mind-bending reads that I’ve read.

If you like trippy, mind-bending fiction, you should definitely check this book out, and if you like books that spur philosophical deliberations — all the more so.

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