Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Mind is a Razor Blade

Kudos to Max Booth.  In The Mind is a Razor Blade, his second novel, he could have written a follow up to his debut novel Toxicity by doing more of what he did so well in the first book.  Toxicity is a dark but raucously funny crime novel with three or four intersecting plot lines, and as its story jumps from character to character, it gets inside the heads of several people.  It is told in the third person throughout.  By contrast, The Mind is a Razor Blade is a first person narrative, a novel that locks you from its opening line inside the brain of one man. That he's a man utterly confused, lost, is clear from the get-go.  He's disoriented because of memory loss, and since everything in the book is told through his perspective, we're as limited in our understanding of the events happening to him as he is.  We look for clues and search for meaning as he does; we try to make sense of the world he inhabits. It's a violent nightmare world that he moves through - a world Hieronymus Bosch would be proud of - and the whirlwind of bizarre incidents has some particular significance for him.  What is that significance, though?  That's the question the narrator and the reader need answered.

The trope of the amnesiac struggling to find out who he is and why he's so capable of certain actions (killing, for example, like our guy in this book can do easily) is an old and familiar one.  But Max Booth gives it fresh life.  The Mind is a Razor Blade opens in media res, with the narrator coming to consciousness naked in the woods, lying in the mud, near a corpse marked with bullet holes.  Within moments of realizing that he must've killed the dead man, the narrator shoots and kills a cop.  All this while he's trying to get his most basic bearings about himself and why he is in such a tense predicament.  In its immediacy and noirish mood, the feeling of a mind bursting awake but still befogged,  this opening reminded me of the film Memento. But where the author takes his story from this dramatic start goes well beyond mere noir or any one specific genre.  Our narrator, later called Bobby, is living in a world that's somewhat futuristic (in a post-industrial, anarchic, dystopian kind of way), but it's a world that also has soul-takers, demons, telekinesis, and spiders that live in people's necks.  All sense of civil, organized society seems to have collapsed; every conceivable type of degenerate has full access to the streets. The police may exist, as the first scene showed, but chaos and violence predominate.  Destruction, fear, and rottenness are everywhere. And over the entire insane spectacle hovers a chilling and mysterious word, carried by bums on cardboard signs, spoken by others to the narrator, a word that rings in our narrator's head - Conundrae.  What is Conundrae? Who is Conundrae?  And why do people refer to that name in tones of awe and terror, like the haunted people in a Lovecraft story whispering of the entity Chulthu?

In The Mind is a Razor Blade, Max Booth concocts a tale that is part crime story, part horror novel, part science fiction, part psychological thriller. He fuses these genres effortlessly into a coherent whole, an energetic and engaging work.  The pace is brisk; horrific and revolting imagery mix with black humor and moments of surprising tenderness.  And through it all, Booth takes a big risk.  It's extraordinarily difficult to craft a novel that for most of its length provides few answers to the myriad questions posed.  The reader really is in the dark as to the overall shape and meaning of what is happening, though the characters around the narrator all seem to have an inkling, or definite knowledge, of the general pattern.  At times, you feel as frustrated as the bewildered protagonist. When will we get some clear answers? you wonder.  Why do all those people know something, while I know virtually nothing?  Is the narrator in a half-dead, half-alive state, a twilight state like the hanged man's in Ambrose Bierce's "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"?  Or maybe he's merely getting closer to death and everything is happening in his mind like we saw happened to the woman Mary in the horror film classic Carnival of Souls.  These were among my thoughts as I read, and to be honest, I don't think I've read such a sustained exercise in hallucinatory mysteriousness since reading Iain Banks' great book The BridgeRazor Blade has a mood and feeling similar to that Scottish masterpiece.  It is both visceral and intellectual, and you never get the sense that the author doesn't know where he's taking us.  He is the true master of this universe. He's got the chops and the confidence to pull off the prolonged mysteriousness, and he trusts the reader to go along for the ride.  

The Mind is a Razor Blade is not as reader friendly as Toxicity.  It makes you work harder.  Its payoff, ultimately, is bleaker.  But what comes across is a person writing what he wants to write, what he feels he must write come hell or high water.  And no matter how harsh things get in the world depicted, Booth never slips into despair. His narrator and the small band the narrator connects with have too much energy for that.  Friendship is always possible, even love.  A joke made in a difficult moment can work wonders.  The struggle here, at bottom, is existential: the question is how to survive in a world so degraded, and how to retain some humanity.  Fantastical as Booth's world is, it feels oddly enough like our own.  All that pain, suffering, and torture, all that madness...How to deal with it?  Through his narrator's actions, Booth ventures a tentative answer that seems to be akin to Italo Calvino's in Invisible Cities: "seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space." 

Pick up The Mind is a Razor Blade here.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Troubled Narrators, Troubled Times

What do these novels have in common?

Ernesto Sabato's The Tunnel
Albert Camus' The Stranger
James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice
Les Edgerton's The Rapist

They are all first person narratives told by men in prison for murder.  Each book has a distinctly existential tone to it, and in each case, the narrator is self-serving and unreliable.  Fascinating novels, each one, great examples of prison noir.

I wrote a piece about these books, focusing on Sabato's novel, for the Los Angeles Review of Books. You can read the piece in its entirety here:

Friday, October 10, 2014

Review of Crashing Through Mirrors by Anonymous-9

Male rock stars are known for their sexual transgressions, so it's quite ironic when Bern Aldershot, Long Beach California guy made good, guitar man for the band that performed the great tune Crashing Through Mirrors years back, gets raped.  It's ironic, but not funny.  He is raped before dawn in a parking lot, in a vicious act involving wire cords, and like so many rape victims, he's loath to report the rape to the police.  That is, until he realizes that he is one among a series of victims.  In the months before his attack, two women were raped, and two months after his ordeal, a woman gets raped and killed.  The man committing these crimes is escalating.  Horrified and humiliated by his own violation, Bern didn't tell anyone about it, but after he sees a TV news story about the woman murdered by the serial rapist, he knows he has to tell the cops.  He does, but in a twist that must confront many female victims of this particular crime, his story is doubted.  His motives for why he took so long to come forward are doubted.  He shows up at the police station unwashed and with booze on his breath, with his rock star reputation preceding him; you could say that in the cop's eyes he's the male equivalent of a "loose" woman.  Who is going to believe his story?  So he's forced to take action on his own, and what we then get in this novella by the fearless Anonymous-9 is something rather unusual - a male rape revenge story.  The female rape revenge tale has become a familiar enough staple, but the different angle here adds a charge, a frisson.  And when you throw into the mix, a teenage girl (named London) who Bern comes across and eventually befriends, his connection to her putting her at great risk from the rapist, you have all the ingredients in place for a suspenseful novella with characters you care about.  You keep reading fast to the end.

Crashing Through Mirrors is the first thing I've read by Anonymous-9, the pen name of Elaine Ash.  She writes the Hard Bite series about a paraplegic who kills hit-and-run drivers with the help from a monkey named Sid.  That premise may sound farfetched, but if Crashing Through Mirrors is any indication, Anonymous-9 is one of those authors who can take the outre and make it plausible.  Her prose is sharp and economical in the hardboiled manner, but it also has an oddly light touch.  Bern can be self-deprecating in a way that is both humorous and endearing.  And the author is not afraid, even in a novella, to take a brief detour that doesn't advance the plot per se but adds wonderful tension and flavoring: Bern and London have an encounter with a motorcycle gang that shows how celebrity, for all the annoyances it brings with paparazzi and such, can also be a saving grace.  Tatty parts of Los Angeles and Long Beach are evoked well in this novella, and one gets the sense throughout that Anonymous-9 is quite familiar with Bern's world.  She needs just a sentence or two to set a scene, create an atmosphere.

Crashing Through Mirrors is a swift read that you should pick up.  It entertains.  My only quibble, if I can call it that, is the slight annoyance I felt at its brevity.  I could have spent more time with these characters.  I'd like to know more about Bern, his brother, and Bern's music scene, about London and her life, and even the killer.  Why exactly did he rape one man and three women?  What's his deal?  The guy's a rapist/killer bastard, okay, but the author has got the makings of a striking, monstrous villain here.

Grow this thing, Anonymous-9.  Give us more.

 Crashing Through Mirrors is available from Amazon.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

A New Review of Jungle Horses

Sometimes you get a review so lovely, you have to post it. Here's one I just received from the great crime writer Les Edgerton:

I'd like to recommend a fantastic book I just read, Scott Adlerberg's JUNGLE HORSES. Here's my review of it: 

Every great once in awhile, as a writer, I come upon a book that serves as a wake-up call as to why I originally wanted to be a writer and reignites that original fever. The first books I read that excited me about literature were novels that created entirely new worlds out of whole cloth. The Jules Verne novels, the Edgar Rice Burroughs tales, the stories set in places like nowhere on earth. And then, as time went on and I became more and more inured into writing professionally, I kind of forgot that original excitement. Well, it was just reignited. I picked up a copy of Scott Adlerberg’s newest novel, JUNGLE HORSES, and instantly felt like I was 7 or 8 again, racing through 10,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA or TARZAN OF THE APES. I was immediately transported into a world that had never existed before and it was just plain exhilarating! This was a writer who was obviously the kid the English teacher back in the eighth grade singled out when she announced to the class that this kid had a wonderful imagination. Too often, as we get older and more jaded, we keep using the same old settings and same old plots and when you happen on a story like JUNGLE HORSES, it feels like it does when a Santa Ana comes down out of the mountains in L.A. and blows all the smog out to sea and the air gets crisp and clean and your lungs feel like new.

I’ll leave it to others to describe the plot, except to say that it involves a degenerate gambler, a weird sexual triad with one of the players impotent, and an island that I think broke off from the island of Dr. Moreau and drifted a few leagues away. And horses. It almost doesn’t matter what the plot is—it’s a dream and you enter into it immediately and willingly. Because of its atmospheric quality, it will be tempting to call it a work of noir, but it has a higher and reaches it—this is literature and literature of the highest quality.

I’ll leave the plot details to the cover copy, which describes it as:

Arthur lives a quiet life in London, wandering from the bar to the racetrack and back again. When his pension check dries up, Arthur decides to win it all back with one last big bet at the bookie. When that falls through, Arthur borrows money and repeats the process, until he's in too deep with a vicious gang of leg-breakers.

The plan to save his skin will take him far from his home, to a place where a very different breed of horse will change his life forever.

I have no idea why, but the entire time I was transported into Adlerberg’s tale, I kept thinking I was reading a story by William Goyen. I think it was the voice he employed.

I’m just thankful for coming upon a story that reminded me of why I wanted to be a writer. I feel like my own roots have been rejuvenated. It’s a wonderful thing to be reminded of the possibilities of story.

Pick up a copy--you'll be glad you did!

Blue skies,