Saturday, March 08, 2003

Cages, by Dave McKean

Dave McKean is probably best known for his Sandman covers, and his other work with Neil Gaiman. As a storyteller on his own, however, he's more or less eluded recognition. Which is a damned shame, because Cages is great stuff. With art ranging from two-color line drawings to photography to mixed media to amazing abstract work, it's a visual feast, and with subject matter ranging from gods both personal and universal to life on the streets and ratatouille recipes, there's an enormous amount of stuff to take in here. At times McKean's philosophizing approaches the pedantic, but even at those times his art saves him. Wonderfully weird and totally unpredictable, this is a gorgeous addition to any graphic library.

The Old Gringo, by Carlos Fuentes

In 1913 the satirist and journalist Ambrose Bierce disappeared, his last known whereabouts being in Chihuahua, Mexico. In this novel Fuentes imagines that Bierce went looking for Pancho Villa's army, and found the division headed by General Tomás Arroyo. They form two points of the triangle completed by an American woman, Harriet Winslow, who has traveled to Mexico to teach the children of the owners of the wealthy hacienda where Arroyo was born, and which he now destroys.

This is not a simple love triangle: Bierce sees Winslow and Arroyo as his children, and each of them sees him as a father figure, with all the attendant emotional baggage to accompany this. When Winslow and Arroyo come together--in scenes which are as frankly sexual as any I have read--there is an incestuous undertone to their coupling. And the "parricide" which Arroyo inevitably commits, as Fuentes's Bierce wants him to, seems to serve as a comfort for the fact that he was unable to in fact kill the hacienda owner who was his true father. Bierce's arrival is like a gift for Arroyo, as Arroyo's killing of Bierce is a gift for the old gringo. What Harriet Winslow gives and receives is more complicated and problematic. But while at times Fuentes seems to be speaking to the joint destinies of Mexico and the United States, the novel works best when it is about the intersection of these three people's lives, with all the attendant parallels and contrasts.

This is the second novel by Fuentes I've read: The Death of Artemio Cruz was hypnotic and engrossing, but once having surfaced I find I can recall very little of it. The Old Gringo is more accessible, as well as being much shorter. The translation, by Margaret Seyers Peden and the author, is (for the most part) smooth and readable.

Monday, March 03, 2003

The Invisibles, Book 6: Kissing Mister Quimper, written by Grant Morrison, drawn by Chris Weston and Ivan Reis

This is how stupid I am: I was convinced that I already had this volume, so I went out and bought Book 7 (The Invisible Kingdom) and read it before realizing I hadn't read Book 6. Was I confused? A bit, but then a certain amount of confusion is to be expected when reading The Invisibles. Morrison's storytelling is dense with information and ideas, some of which inevitably go over my head. But that's part of the fun; I know that when I come back to this series in a couple of years I'll understand a little more, and take away different things.

On one level, of course, The Invisibles is an adventure story. There are guns and monsters and costumes and bad guys. But there is also dark magic, and conspiracy, and extra-dimensional monsters trying to force their way into our reality and take it over. There's sex and death and cross-dressing, combat training and dancing and psychic possession. What it is, is a tapestry of high-minded ideas and lowbrow culture tossed in a Cuisinart and poured out as the sort of chaos the Invisibles themselves fight and foment. There would be little point in trying to explain the plot of this volume, so I won't. I'll just say that it's a technicolor roller-coaster ride through the mind of a mad genius. Pick it up--but read it in order. It's less confusing that way.

Sunday, March 02, 2003

The Third Alternative, Issue 33

This issue kicks off with a story called "With Acknowledgements to Sun Tzu," written by Brian Hodge, who's become something of a regular here. (Meaning that this is the third time I've reviewed one of his stories, not that he's actually visited here. For all I know, no one may be visiting here at all.) This time he's telling the story of a handful of war photographers in a city in Northern Afghanistan, recording the destruction wrought by America and the Northern Alliance. The picture here is powerfully bleak, and yet, as Hodge's protagonist confesses, there is beauty in the destruction as well. Beauty, but little hope. "[I]t frightens me sometimes," the protagonist reflects, "that if something like Nazi Germany could happen once, it could happen again, somewhere . . . I let a thing like that slip, though, and people usually just scoff. What are you worried about? You live in the only superpower left. I don't find that nearly as comforting as they intend it to be." This is a wonderful (and terrible) story.

Brian Aldiss is interviewed in this issue, and has a short story, "Commander Calex Killed, Fire and Fury at Edge of World, Scones Perfect." It's an odd piece about taking tea at the end of the world. A comment on Western warfare, perhaps? I'm not sure. Interesting, but I can't say it's stayed with me.

My friend Lynda E. Rucker has a story in this issue, her third in TTA, and it's a doozy. "The Chance Walker" is set in Prague, where a young American named Kathleen has broken things off with her boyfriend and moved into a flat in the old city. She has a job teaching English, but takes on another student, Renata, who appears at her door with an old edition of Gray's Anatomy and asks Kathleen to help her pronounce the English medical terms. Kathleen is drifting, fading, but she doesn't know what to do about it, and she doesn't want any help. The feelings of disconnect and solitude are powerfully rendered in this story, and it carries such overall impact that it stayed with me for days.

"Leon is Dead" by Simon Avery follows a man who possesses a talent he calls "The Tabula Rasa," which seems to act upon people when they first meet him--they see something in him which isn't necessarily there. When he runs into his old girlfriend Miriam shortly after his marriage fails, he discovers that a man named Leon shared this gift, and that the cult which was devoted to him is floundering in the wake of their spiritual leader's death. What becomes clear is that he's being manipulated into succeeding Leon, and that the end of his marriage and meeting Miriam may not have been coincidental at all. There's a wonderful oddness to this story, but I must admit some frustration at not really understanding "Tabula Rasa" as it's used in the story. Avery is an excellent writer, though; in this case the deficiency may be with the reader.

"Fleeing Sanctuary" by John Aegard is about a forgotten community, and the intriguing way in which a widower attempts to deal with the grief which has put so much distance between himself and his son. The mechanics of the plot become rather, well, mechanical at times, but there is a lot to like here, as in the end the intent of the protagonist becomes clear, and we are left to wonder if he can succeed.

The final story in this issue is Sarah Singleton's "Crow Man," a story about jealousy and refusal to accept death. Julian and Marie's marriage fell apart after their daughter died, and Julian wants her back. Laurie is an old friend of both, and she's been asked to check on Julian, who's cloistered himself in an old farmhouse. What's nice about this story is how the victim is not just a victim--it's her own baser instincts which get her into trouble. I also like that not a lot of effort is put into explaining the unexplainable--what Julian is up to is better hinted at than diagrammed and expostulated. Creepy.

Christopher Fowler's film column appears in this issue, as well as an essay by Mike Sutton on the films of Brian De Palma, and John Paul Catton's new regular column on Japan. Also Allen Ashley's "The Dodo Has Landed," and the regular review columns (which include a brief interview with Graham Joyce for his new novel "The Facts of Life").