Thursday, April 28, 2011

Book Review -- THE THIN MAN by Dashiell Hammett

A thick web of lies and deceit. Bullet-riddled corpses. Mobsters knocking on one's door, packing heat. Police suspicion. A fortune in cash and bonds. Dope fiends and morphine addiction. Hysterical women and cunning femme-fatales.

Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man delivers, but not with the intense excitement and high-stakes of some of his other work, like The Maltese Falcon. (This, however, should come as no surprise, once the reader realizes that it was first published in 1934 as a serial in women's magazine Redbook--yes, that Redbook.) Although many of the female characters are conniving, treacherous, and often downright stupid and hysterical, Hammett provides a female character that is clever, trustworthy, and supportive of the main character--Nora Charles. This is a sharp divorce from the typical misogyny that runs through much of hardboiled detective tales. Indeed, the film version of The Thin Man is distinctively not very much film noir, and is actually quite lighthearted.

Greek American Nick Charles (an Ellis Island immigration officer changed the name from Charalambides), his wife Nora, and their schnauzer Asta, are in New York celebrating Christmas and New Years away from their company in San Francisco. Nick had once been a private detective before he joined Nora and went into business. Nora's keenly interested in Nick's past as a detective, and when one of his former clients turns up missing while the secretary is dead with four bullets in her, she gets her chance to experience a bit of the romance and adventure Nick used to inhabit. The couple was famously portrayed in 1934's film version of the novel by William Powell and Myrna Loy (notice below the dog is not a schnauzer), and in five subsequent films and a TV series that ultimately had nothing to do with Dashiell Hammett's books except the title.

The women actually make this book, and it is not surprising since the novel was written for (and serialized in) a women's magazine. Dorothy Wynant is a young airhead prone to hysteria and gratuitous overreaction. Her mother Mimi (ex-wife to the missing client) is vengeful, conniving, manipulative, and very much used to getting her way. Together, they do not provide a very positive portrait of women. However, Nora Charles, Nick's wife, is actually very much different from they, and are likely the primary character the female audience is supposed to identify with (despite the fact that the novel is written in first person from Nick's perspective).

Nora is problematic in that she's not an incredibly deep or incredible character. She's there, she's very prominent, and she has a very strong personality, but her weakness is that despite her strength, she's ill-defined. She's actually quite generic. She's smart--she helps Nick a few times by observing things that completely escaped his notice, teases him for being a lousy detective on occasion, and comes up with a list of suspects an motives. But her smarts aren't sharp. Of course, she lacks the experience that Nick has, and willingly takes a back-seat when he is doing his detective work. But in the end, she's just a glorified secretary. She doesn't play a pivotal role in Nick's solving of the crime. She's simply a pillar that holds him up. Nora complements him quite well, and they work very well together as a team. However, she doesn't really bring any special skills or abilities with her that Nick lacks save those traits a woman naturally has.

The book, however, is part of its time-period. I can honestly forgive its treatment of Nora. It isn't really chauvinistic, since Nora is definitely portrayed as a person of strength, resourcefulness, intelligence, and capability. One gets the impression that her and Nick are very much equal partners in both their business and their marriage. But the centerpiece of the book is not the business or the marriage--it is the mystery, and that's where Nick dominates the narrative and Nora recedes. She's still there, but she's a pace or two behind Nick. This isn't surprising. A powerful and dominant female detective would have been just as implausible to a 1930s housewife as it would have been to her husband.

The mystery itself is pretty convoluted. Hammett keeps the reader guessing through the immense web of deception that all of the women (except Nora) weave throughout the novel--including the deceptions of the deceased secretary (it seems that every female in the novel is a born liar).
"The chief thing," I advised them, "is not to let her tire you out. When you catch her in a lie, she admits it and gives you another lie to take its place and, when you catch her in that one, she admits it and gives you still another, and so on. Most people--even women--get discouraged after you've caught them in the third or fourth straight lie and fall back on either the truth or silence, but not Mimi. She keeps trying and you've got to be carefull or you'll find yourself believing her, not because she seems to be telling the truth, but simply because you're tired of disbelieving her."
Nick's character handles it with the adeptness, cynicism, and sarcasm of any early 20th-century gumshoe. His dialogue is dry and witty, and although he was played by William Powell in the 1934 film (and subsequent movie series), I couldn't help but imagine Nick as Humphrey Bogart.

The prose is nothing to write home about. Hammett writes in this clear, matter-of-fact style, but sometimes he lets some dry wit slip from his pen.
Morelli hit the fat man in his fat belly, as hard as he could without getting up. Studsy, suddenly on his feet, leaned over Morelli and smashed a big fist into the fat man's face. I noticed, foolishly, that he still led with his right. Hunchbacked Pete came up behind the fat man and banged his empty tray down with full force on the fat man's head. The fat man fell back, upsetting three people and a table. Both bar-tenders were with us by then. One of them hit the fat man with a blackjack as he tried to get up, knocking him forward on his hands and knees, the other put a hand down inside the fat man's collar in back, twisting the collar to choke him. With Morelli's help they got the fat man to his feet and hustled him out.
In case you didn't notice, the fat man is fat. That's an example of how Hammett's arid humor emerges through deadpan prose. You have to be paying attention to catch it, but when you do, it's hard not to cock a smirk in amusement.

The Thin Man was Hammett's final novel. I've only read 1930's The Maltese Falcon and found it to be far darker, cynical, and despairing of human nature than The Thin Man. The latter novel is much more uplifting and the tone is overall hopeful. Nick and Nora Charles are never really in any serious danger of being accused, arrested, or separated. The dramatic tension increases only slightly when the police briefly suspect Nick. There's not much truly at stake throughout the novel for Nick and Nora, with the exception of their vacation plans. As a result, the tension throughout the novel is really sustained through simple curiosity and Nick's natural desire to clean up a mess (which occasionally wars with his desire to simply go back to San Francisco and not be bothered).

With so little at stake, its not surprising that, although a delightful little mystery, I find it has less in common with Hammett's earlier The Maltese Falcon or Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep, and more in common with one of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple stories. It's not a bad novel, but it certainly doesn't pack the nihilistic punch that a hardboiled noir mystery would. And here I reveal my bias--far and away, I prefer the sort of fiction that punches me in the gut. I enjoyed The Thin Man, but there was never any point in the book where I sat up and felt like Hammett was really nailing something about human nature or the human condition like he did with the end of The Maltese Falcon, where Spade tells O'Shaughnessy that he can't trust her and sends her off to prison. I guess my bias is toward the more painful and negative aspects of the human condition. I don't recall ever reading great literature and noticing a recurring theme of happiness and good times.

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
Style B
Substance B-
Overall B-

Sunday, April 17, 2011


I've been wanting to review this novel for months, but haven't been able to get quite around to it. However, this is a book that screams to be read, and is perhaps one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

There are a number of other reviews of the novel, one by Goodreads, another by The New Canon, a further one by Bibliolotry, and Harold Bloom analyzed the depth of the work in his How to Read and Why. There is almost too much for me to review here, but I'm going to give it my best try.

Also, I'd suggest one look up Blood Meridian's wikipedia entry, although I'd skip the "Plot Summary" segment as it's full of spoilers. And if one's already read both, there's a fascinating article comparing Blood Meridian and another McCarthy novel, The Road at LibraryThing.

People love to hate this book. Why? It is difficult. Possibly the most difficult book you might ever read, barring Tolstoy or The Bible. Its returns are far from obvious. It has been described as an orgy of violence on an epic scale. The book appears to revel in nihilism on the frontier between the United States and Mexico in the mid-19th century. The language is thorough, thick, and difficult to decipher.

But my God, is it beautiful. I only wish I could write in such a profound manner. I find myself desiring it more and more to revisit specific passages just for the dense eloquence of the prose. McCarthy can describe a scene in such a manner that will startle the astute reader.
What is true of one man, said the judge, is true of many. The people who once lived here are called the Anasazi. The old ones. They quit these parts, routed by drought or disease or by wandering bands of marauders, quit these parts ages since and of them there is no memory. They are rumors and ghosts in this land and they are much revered. The tools, the art, the building- these things stand in judgment on the latter races. Yet there is nothing for them to grapple with. The old ones are gone like phantoms and the savages wander these canyons to the sound of ancient laughter. In their crude huts they crouch in darkness and listen to the fear seeping out of the rock. All progressions from a higher to a lower order are marked by ruins and mystery and a residue of nameless rage. So. Here are the dead fathers. Their spirit is entombed in the stone. It lies upon the land with the same weight and the same ubiquity. For whoever makes a shelter of reeds and hides has joined his spirit to the common destiny of creatures and he will subside back into the primal mud with scarcely a cry. But who builds in stone seeks to alter the structure of the universe and so it was with these masons however primitive their works may seem to us.
This is a fantastic example of how McCarthy can wield the English language like a featherweight scalpel and generate an atmosphere of mysticism and darkness, of times long forgotten and lost. My own copy is dogeared at several points where the prose was so evocative, lovely, and profound that I found myself skipping back to those parts simply to read them again. One particular paragraph, perhaps 3/4 of the way toward the end, the characters contemplate the moon, and describe various theories concerning celestial phenomena. McCarthy does not simply report their words, but summarizes it in an almost mythical language that left my jaw dangling open in amazement.
By and by the judge rose and moved away on some obscure mission and after a while someone asked the expriest if it were true that at one time there had been two moons in the sky and the expriest eyed the false moon above them and said that it may well have been so. But certainly the wise high God in his dismay at the proliferation of lunacy on this earth must have wetted a thumb and leaned down out of the abyss and pinched it hissing into extinction. And could he find some alter means by which the birds could mend their paths in the darkness he might have done with this one too.
An earlier passage involved the character known as Judge Holden vindicating the reputation of a specific "black Jackson," a negroid character, by invoking everything from the Bible to Darwin and even giving hints at postmodern and racial theories to come. McCarthy renders this passage in an incredibly stirring manner, perhaps channeling the spirit of the Judge himself, his charm, eloquence, and genius, through his pen. His command of the English language is beyond description.
That dark vexed face. [The judge] studied it and he drew the sergeant forward the better for him to observe and then he began a laborious introduction in spanish. He sketched for the sergeant a problematic career of the man [the negro, Jackson] before them, his hands drafting with a marvelous dexterity the shapes of what varied paths conspired here in the ultimate authority of the extant--as he told them--like strings drawn together through the eye of a ring. He adduced for their consideration references to the children of Ham, the lost tribes of Israelites, certain passages from the Greek poets, anthropological speculations as to the propogation of the races in their dispersion and isolation through the agency of geological cataclysm and an assessment of racial traits with respect to climatic and geological influences. The sergeant listened to this and more with great attention and when the judge was done he stepped forward and held out his hand.

Jackson ignored him. He looked the judge.

What did you tell him, Holden?
The story follows the career of the Kid, a nameless protagonist who is a cynical stereotype of a Western antihero in the vein of Clint Eastwood's nameless protagonist in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. But instead of being a weakness, it is a strength. The Kid is an empty, vacuous person because he is meant to embody the reader. He is a both spectator and participant in the rampant violence, rapine, brutality, and slaughter that his gang of lawless scalp-hunters engage in.

We don't truly read the book to follow the actions and behavior of the Kid. We find ourselves reading it for one person and one person only: JUDGE HOLDEN. The Kid exists for us to live through vicariously, a mute and helpless witness to the profundity that is the Judge. This is somewhat supported by the use of the second-person at the opening of the book, describing The Kid's origins:
Night of your birth. Thirty-three. The Leonids they were called. God how the stars did fall. I looked for blackness, holes in the heavens. The Dipper stove.
The Judge might be human, but then again he might be something more. The man is a merciless killer, enormous, pale, hairless, a mutant perhaps. And brilliant. Whether or not he is an official judge is not important--the fact that, functionally, he passes judgment and sentence upon everything he comes across is far more significant. In his own words, things in this world exist with his consent. Those that do not, he destroys pitilessly. Life, to him, is cheap. But he is a brilliant man, steeped in all manner of lore, whether scientific, mathematical, historical, theological, or philosophical. But his knowledge makes him an implacable enemy. He is inevitable as the tide--when he has chosen to kill, nothing can stop him. And it might be possible that he is incapable of being killed.

The relationship between the Kid and the Judge is a fascinating one. The Judge is very much aware of the Kid, and as time passes and the Kid gradually comes to reject the brutality of his existence, the Judge and he become antagonists. The Judge exists to both uplift and subjugate those who surround him. He is not the leader of Glanton's gang, and indeed, is more of a vizier or a chaplain. His knowledge and wisdom paradoxically seeks to enlighten his fellow men, while simultaneously his wickedness and cruelty exists only to utilize them as he best sees fit. Though Glanton leads, he serves the Judge's purposes. The Judge embodies the horrific reality of the modern age--he is evidence that knowledge and wisdom do not demand that humanity become merciful and just. The Judge exists in a world where morals and ethics are man-made creations, and he is free to accept or reject them at will. Whether or not other humans consciously exist is not of his concern. From his perspective, he is the center of the universe, just as all of us perceive ourselves as the cosmic navel. The Judge differs from us by embracing that perception consciously, all the while aware that he is truly not the universe's center but caring little, because reality is what he makes it. Nietzschean philosophy and Existentialism coalesce within a character as viciously manipulative as Shakespeare's Iago (from Othello), as aloof and mocking as Edward (from King Lear), as brilliantly perceptive and reflective as Hamlet, and as strangely sympathetic as Milton's Satan (from Paradise Lost). Through Judge Holden, McCarthy has done the impossible--he has created a character that is as dynamic, moving, and indeed terrifying as Shakespeare's greatest.

The violence in the book has been labeled both "gratuitous" and "meaningless." I'd have to disagree. Yes, the book is full of massacre, slaughter, and murder. But it is certainly not meaningless. It is certainly not a plot vehicle, as violence usually becomes in many novels. Violence serves no purpose other than to be violence. But that's where its meaning is revealed. The violence is not symbolic of anything (except perhaps itself), but it is most certainly an integral part of the human condition. Glanton's gang exists in a Hobbesian nightmare world where might makes right and the weak suffer. Glanton's gang are always aware that there might be a stronger group of killers over the next hill. They do not exist in a vacuum. They are brutal and paranoid. One cannot help but imagine periods throughout history, from the Vietnam War to the Crusades and even further back when life might have been just as cheap. Indeed, Mexico is a feudal state throughout the novel, existing in an incredibly primitive and medieval world that is hundreds of years and thousands of miles removed from the "civilized" world of the cities to the north and east. The lawlessness of the frontier, the absence of borders, and the ease with which the strong may crush and ravage the helpless is reminiscent of a reality that we, in our quiet, comfortable, conformist, and consumerist lives are loath to remember existed for most of human existence, and indeed persists up unto this very day in parts of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, not to mention sub-Saharan Africa. The marauding horsemen that pound over the hills to slaughter the inhabitants of a small town in order to present the scalps to their own Mexican provincial governor (and claim they were Apache) are no different from the Mongol, Cimmerian, Hunnic, or Viking raiders that massacred unarmed noncombatants and warriors alike.

The violence is reality. A reality that people do not like to think about, but they should, and indeed they must. Those who do not appreciate this book for the inexplicable beauty of the language and the graphic horrors of human suffering and cruelty committed and experienced by the characters do not appreciate the comfort and safety in which they live their current bougeois existences.

This is an important book. It is not a celebration of the Mexican, Native American, or U.S. American spirits. It does not paint anyone as suffering from injustice or oppression except the townsfolk, who are often far from innocent themselves. Indeed, everyone is a predator, prey, or a scavenger, on some level, in the socially Darwinian universe that McCarthy crafts so eloquently. This book has no flaws that I could hope to even begin to reveal. If the prose is too dense for the reader, it is no fault of the book, but rather the reader who is not yet capable of reaching the text. If I had attempted to read this book ten years ago, I would never have made it past the third chapter. I had to spend several years reading voraciously and experiencing literature beyond the confines of post-Tolkien fantasy writers. At my current state, I can read the book and even a year later, I cannot help but sit back and ponder its profundity.

One of my close friends in graduate school, and an English Literature student, wrote to me about Blood Meridian. He said:
Blood Meridian is, IMO, the latest in the line of the great American novels, fully a descendant of Moby-Dick, Last of the Mohicans, As I Lay Dying, and Invisible Man. Moreover, it taps into the support/disavowal of colonialism binary that greats like Haggard and Conrad made their careers with. The violence is spectacular and repugnant, the characters loathsome and fascinating; Judge Holden is more creature than man, a concept made reality; in his words, he is the prima donna of a violent dance. He is both the culmination and argument against the logic that painted the Age of Reason, his words chilling to the bone:

The judge placed his hands on the ground. he looked at his inquisitor. This is my claim, he said. And yet everywhere upon it are pockets of autonomous life. Autonomous. In order for it to be mine nothing must be permitted to occur upon it save by my dispensation.

In a sense, he's the Great Scientist and the West is his laboratory.
Fascinating. My friend goes on to say:

Another element of the book that I found particularly satisfying was the tone of the narrative; the prose style is unparalleled but, more than that, there was a cinematic quality that felt like it was lifted straight out of a western film. When McCarthy talks of the Kid's initial traveling out West, you get a sense of great motion, rather Conan-like, where he journeys through strange towns, encountering even stranger people. When McCarthy speaks of the Kid fighting men from many different lands and feeling ill at ease among their strange languages, you get this wonderful sense of exoticism, of the sort of back room activities that you could sense in Casablanca or Raiders of the Lost Ark. Moreover, his descriptions of the landscape and the Glanton gang progress through it serves as a perfect prose companion to the sort of traveling scenes you would see in a Ford or Sergio Leone film.

I know we've talked about English, especially as it relates to Orwellian notions of its usage, and I feel that McCarthy's prose style is definitively American. It's bizarre, long winded, Neo-Biblical, lyrical at times. Absolutely amazing.
Definitively American is absolutely right. The weight of the Biblical is heavy on McCarthy's prose, and hearkens back to the importance of faith to the Puritan settlers and the elevation of the Bible as American legendarium.

McCarthy's done something amazing with this book. It is probably one of the most important pieces of American literature in the 20th century. I daresay, it's better than Crime and Punishment.

Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy
Style A+
Substance A+
Overall A++

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Book Review -- THE JUDGING EYE by R. Scott Bakker

Almost two years ago, I sat in a coffee shop in Fukuoka Japan with a latte and a copy of R. Scott Bakker's The Judging Eye. I finished it there, at that coffee shop close to my hotel. Since the second novel of The Aspect-Emperor series has just been published under the title The White-Luck Warrior, I thought it was time to dust off The Judging Eye and post my thoughts on it. For my reviews of The Prince of Nothing trilogy, which precedes this book, see my reviews of The Darkness that Comes Before and its two sequels.

The first thing I'll say is that this book, though comparable in size to the previous three volumes that made up The Prince of Nothing, felt much shorter than they. Indeed, it felt as if more happened in the preceding volumes. Not to say that much of the book is filler. It is rather well-paced, and Bakker does this by shifting perspectives from chapter-to-chapter (and even within chapters, on occasion). He has three major plot threads in this novel--the Empress and the court intrigues of the New Empire against an ancient cult of a mother-goddess, the Emperor and his Great Ordeal to destroy the Consult, and Drusas Achamian and his search for the origins of Anasûrimbor Kellhus and the location of the secret Dûnyain fortress.

As usual, Bakker's worldbuilding is woven into his narrative and dialogue. The cultures and traditions of the various societies are played out through the tale, rather than described, and the reader finally gets to see glimpses of the mysterious Empire of Zeüm and the Nonmen, beyond distant rumors and passing references. Especially well-rendered are the Sranc hunters that range the north and northeast for Sranc scalps that they sell for the Emperor's bounty.

Interestingly enough, Bakker chooses to employ a (by now) old fantasy trope--the journey through the darkness (cf. the Mines of Moria in The Lord of the Rings or the Hall of Kings in The Sword of Shannara, for example). But it serves more than simply a point of tension--it serves as a journey into the psyche of the Nonmen, the pre-human inhabitants of Eärwa. The journey is into far more than darkness, and it breaks the sanity of most of the characters, who are all renowned Sranc-hunters and hard fighting men. The inclusion of the Judging Eye, the ability to see good, evil, or even damnation in the soul of another, as well as the fanatic mother-goddess cult and their White-Luck Warrior, are imaginative complications to the narrative.

The characters themselves are also superbly rendered. Each has deep psychological foundations that Bakker appears to have mapped out and developed, with each character revealing his own mind and heart through his actions and words. Although sex, sexuality, and sexual frankness of narrative are much more toned-down in The Judging Eye (which I actually appreciate), the gritty realism is still there--characters void their bowels when they die, and others urinate themselves when terrified, for example. But, tactfully, Bakker never lingers on these things. They happen, he moves on.

Unfortunately, the tale itself does not carry that psychological and philosophical experimentation that the previous novels provided. Although he repeats much of the questions that he raised (and perhaps answered) in previous volumes, this volume fails to tread new ground. It is really just more of the same. Unfortunately, when I was finished, though I had thoroughly enjoyed this work, I have to say that I was a bit disappointed. One reviewer posited that Bakker had "possibly...gotten a lot of his musings out of his system with his recent SF stand-alone Neuropath." If that's the case, in my opinion, The Judging Eye is actually weaker for it.

It also didn't have much of a buildup and/or payoff. Achamian's storyline, which featured the aforementioned descent into darkness, experienced a great increase in dramatic and psychological tension, which finally snapped to bring us a satisfying climax and exciting cliffhanger. However, the other two main plot threads really didn't peak in the same way. The plot thickened, but didn't achieve any sort of critical mass or breaking point. Achamian's story is mostly what carries the reader through the ending.

This doesn't mean that the book is not excellent. Indeed, it is very good. As a stand-alone novel, it is fun, intriguing, and thought-provoking; as the afore-mentioned reviewer commented, The Judging Eye is still "by some margin still the most intellectually-stimulating epic fantasy book since, well, The Thousandfold Thought." But in light of the intellectual challenge and progression-of-thought by which the novels comprising The Prince of Nothing were characterized, I couldn't help but be a bit disappointed. I am taking into account the fact that this is the first novel in a series, and the threads left dangling at the end certainly made me anticipate The White-Luck Warrior, which seems to be selling much better than The Judging Eye had. There's a lot of potential here with this series, and perhaps Bakker is just getting warmed up.

The Judging Eye by R. Scott Bakker
Style B+
Substance B+
Overall B+