Ha’Penny

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Ha’Penny is solid alternate history with some unexpectedly pithy things to say about combating fascism and creeping totalitarianism.

Ha’Penny is a grounded take on the perennial question of what the world might have looked like if the Nazis had won. The ascendant Nazism of the book does not embody an occultic or supra-scientific prowess of other depictions: there is no nightmarish Eternal Reich of the popular imagination. Instead, by dint of alt-historical happenstance, America never enters the Atlantic theater and the British, wounded by the Blitz, sue for peace – leaving the Nazis the Soviet Union as its great nemesis. It is a Cold War where Nazi Europe and the Soviet Union are the opposing superpowers.

But Ha’Penny hits closer to home – it is Britain’s slide into fascism that is the novel’s concern. Walton manages to make this alt-history period novel remarkably contemporary by addressing themes of terrorism and the stripping away of civil liberties in the name of security: except that in place of Muslim extremists, the scapegoats are Jews and Communists. In Ha’Penny, we see a Britain slowly sliding into fascism as public anger is honed against Jewish terrorists and communists, and public fear is used to legitimise the curtailment of civil freedoms.

Despite these overarching themes being constantly present, Ha’Penny feels remarkably intimate in its storytelling. There are two main story threads featuring two main protagonists – a stage actress, Viola Lark, who finds herself at the centre of a plot to assassinate Hitler and the fascistic British Prime Minister, Normanby, during a production of Hamlet,  – and a detective inspector, Carmichael, who is put on the case to unravel the plot before it happens.

The protagonists are set up as ironic foils to one another. Lark, a one-time child of aristocratic privilege, slowly becomes “radicalised” as she reconciles herself to the prospect of overthrowing dictators through force. Carmichael, whose homosexuality is used against him by his superiors as a Sword of Damocles to ensure his compliance, finds himself defending the very regime that would just as soon send him off to a concentration camp. While Carmichael’s characterisation is straightforward and compelling, Lark’s radicalisation process is more complex and murky – an odd cocktail of coercion, Stockholm Syndrome, self-rationalisation, and sexual attraction to her handler that seems like it could reflect the messy realities of today’s religious extremists.

There is a delicious tension, especially near the end, as the intertwined chapters balance reader expectations perfectly on knife-edge: will the plot to kill Hitler succeed or won’t it? The last fifty or so pages are unputdownable, more than making up for some slow moving parts of the earlier narrative.

And the ending is not as simple or final as you might expect. This is no feel-good revenge fest like Inglourious Basterds – there is no catharsis borne out of seeing vengeance served. The use of Hamlet as a motif strongly indicates the author’s bent, albeit in an after-the-fact sort of fashion. I really like Walton’s use of the ending to highlight the sobering reality of fascism: that it feeds upon violence, and is strengthened by crises it can externalise, onto groups that it can tell its citizens to blame and despise. A strangely apropos sentiment to read in a work – of alt-history  fiction, nonetheless – in this funhouse-mirror, post-Brexit future that we’ve found ourselves in.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 peonies

The Armageddon Rag

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A decently gripping, if somewhat uneven, early George RR Martin work.

Armageddon Rag is, for a GRRM book, surprisingly earnest. It’s a work quite unlike the multilayered cynicism of A Sword of Ice and Fire. It wears its rock-n-roll heart on its sleeve: a celebration, but also a introspective look, into the 1960s zeitgeist, with its hippie communes and rock concerts and student protesters and the Vietnam War.

Armageddon Rag is broadly about writer and former journalist Sandy Blair, a former student activist turned bestselling pulp author, as he sets off on a cross-American journey to uncover the truth behind the murder of the former agent to a once-famous (and fictional) rock band, the Nazgul, that disbanded after their lead singer was shot dead on stage. On the way, he meets with his old college friends, once youthful idealists like him, but all on wildly differing paths, worn down by the harsh realities of the post-Nixon age.

But then things get weirder when he gets to the root of the mystery and finds a charismatic former revolutionary who wants to bring back the Nazgul, believing that doing so will restore the zeitgeist of the 1960s and precipitate the revolution that should have taken place.

Armageddon Rag is a narrative triptych – a sturdy if somewhat by-the-book mashup of detective novel and classic road trip narrative as Sandy scours America searching for leads and meeting old friends, a weird second section that dabbles in the paranormal when Sandy gets involved in the attempted resurrection of the Nazgul, and a somewhat disappointing denouement that tries to mesh the metaphorical with the actual to round off GRRM’s thematic point, but does so in a way that strains credulity.

The first part is an elegy for the lost passion and naivete of the Flower generation, the youthful idealists espousing free love, sticking it to the Man, powered by the beats of a hundred rock anthems. Blair goes on a half-investigation, half introspective journey around America: a sort of masculine Eat Pray Love if you will: checking on his old friends and seeing how life has treated them. While occasionally a little overwrought, this is where the book is at its most thoughtful.

Where the second and third parts get weird is when Martin explores the prospect of the resurrection of that spirit through the resurrection of its anthems. In doing so, Martin tries to explore the consequences of unchecked revolutionary fervor, of resorting to extremist measures to achieve ideological goals. This aspect of the book has not aged well: it reads somewhat simplistically when pitted against the canvas of more recent times.

And it is in the final, somewhat bizarre act, when Blair is given a choice to set that revolutionary fervor ablaze, or reject paying its unsavory cost to embrace a more uncertain future, that the narrative breaks down in service to Martin’s contrived conundrum. The narrative jolts abruptly to magic realism and the villain is reduced to someone who has to rely on contrived rules of magic to make their plot work out. As such, the outcome of the plot narrows down to a narrow binary moral choice that Blair must make. It’s almost video-gamey in its contrived nature.

While this is only the first non-ASOIAF work of Martin’s that I’ve read, I certainly hope that he’s gotten better at his endings. But Armageddon Rag should not be judged solely by its deflated denouement: it’s got that quality of passion about it. It is a book about a subject that the writer cares deeply about. And it is that quality that gives it that value as a window into a timespace that only someone like GRRM can really articulate.

I give this book: 3.5 out of 5 hot air balloons

 

The Nice Guys

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The most fun I’ve had in a theatre in a while.

The Nice Guys is a rare unicorn in the action movie world, combining atmosphere, kinetic visual comedy and a taut, hilarious script that constantly confounds the trope expectations of period action movies.

It’s set in the 1970s Los Angeles, with all the concomitant bells and whistles that come with depictions of that timespace – wayward porn stars, ethnically diverse mafias, decadent pool parties, suspenders, smog, cars made by American companies cruising around the streets.

Amidst all this, washed-out enforcer Jackson Healy (played mostly straight by the very apropos Russell Crowe) and moping private eye Holland Marsh (a very  funny Ryan Gosling), accompanied by Marsh’ feisty daughter Holly (a very precocious Angourie Rice) find themselves working together to solve the mystery of a missing girl: a case that soon spirals wildly out of proportion.

Director Shane Black, known for films like Iron Man 3 and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, helms this effort. His characteristic virtues are on prominent display here – snappy, whip-smart script, lean pacing, and high-octane action with a generous dose of comedy.

The script, especially, is one of the film’s greatest strengths. It’s snappy but at the same time filled with twists, jokes and unexpected developments that actually feel fresh and inspired. In a wasteland of action movies so generic that you can hardly tell one from the other, The Nice Guys stands apart and distinguishes itself with its humor-tipped originality. The humor in the script also has a shockingly high hit rate, with one or two hilarious standout gags (involving an ankle holster and a bee) that made me laugh until it hurt.

Of course, the film’s script is brilliantly delivered by its three stars – Crowe, Gosling and Rice. Crowe is the perfect fit for the glowering, tough-as-nails Healy but he manages to inject some moments of humor in his straight man role. Ryan Gosling is about as far removed as it’s possible to be from his stoic Driver persona in his last Los Angeles actionfest, Drive. In his more recent films (like The Big Short), he’s shown an ability to play a variety of comedic roles. The Nice Guys only continues this trend – and it in, Gosling displays an impeccable sense of comedic timing, both in dialogue and in action. Angourie Rice is also very effective as the group’s conscience and affective core – the resourceful but cuss-happy sidekick who feels more like a positive asset than a liability, as is sometimes the case with the addition of child actors in such films.

One less-than-salutary point, though: while the dialogue is taut and the plot unexpected, the overarching theme – that of institutional corruption and corporate irresponsibility – doesn’t really come through enough, although it was clearly the film’s thematic core. One imagines that amidst the hijinks that more grounded essence got somewhat lost in the shuffle, only to emerge somewhat weakly at the end. This is not a particularly consequential shortcoming, however. Films don’t need to be important to be excellent.

In all, ff ever a film deserved a sequel, it would be The Nice Guys. Crowe, Gosling and Rice make a winning buddy-cop group with their weird but irresistible chemistry. And the film does set itself up for one, too. But given the film’s failure to make up its budget from its box office takings so far, a Nice Guys sequel is probably somewhat of a pipe dream at this point. And that is really a cryin’ shame.

I give this film: 4.5 out of 5 experimental-film reels

The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox

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The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox is a compilation of three novels by Barry Hughart that are set in a sort of Platonic idea of China: a timeless vision of an empire hewn together from a manifold of dynasties and legends and more than a dash of humorous whimsy, that seems to capture a mythic Sinic character without seeming culturally exploitative.

All the stories feature the principal duo, the ancient but spry Master Li Kao, a sage with a slight flaw in his character, as well as Number Ten Ox, a self-deprecating but strong peasant farmer turned Master Li’s assistant. The duo rove around China solving crimes and fixing problems, often of a supernatural character.

Hughart’s China is an eclectic mash of deep history, cultural complexity, and civilisational hubris – a China that still views the outside world as barbarians, who follow codes of behavior and conduct that hew to the most ancient of codices. The ostentatious draperies of a civilisation that is secure in itself gild Hughart’s China. Much of the humor of the books comes from this space – he lyrically and gently lampoons the civilisational tendency to codify its idiosyncrasies in the vestments of tradition and justify its cruelties as being the natural outcomes of an instituted hierarchical order.

And yet, despite the gentle humor throughout, the books don’t seem to have an element of cultural exploitation common in Western depictions of China. I attribute this to the fact that Hughart does not try to institute Western cultural sensibilities and mores as possible alternatives to the idiosyncrasies of his imagined China. There is no semblance of cultural judgement – Hughart accepts the uniqueness of his imagined China wholeheartedly. His narratives operate on a brand of causal logic that derives from the cultural and historical predicates of his vision of China. When Master Li Kao delivers his paeans of insight into a case, for example, he does not do so from a culturally removed place, but rather, he appears to derive them from a deep wellspring of esoterica unique to this version of China.

It’s all probably invented or bastardised or adapted, but it has an air of authenticity because it captures that essence, that feeling that China is a civilisation that has built a vast and validated knowledge base derived from an alternate epistemology. And that base is drawn from actual Chinese legend and myth – the legend of the weaver girl and the cowherd, Qin Shi Huang’s quixotic quest for immortality, dragon boat festivals – which lend that fantasy version of China a kind of chinoiserie feeling, completing the feel.

It’s doubly amusing when one considers that Number Ten Ox is perfectly placed to be our narrator and storyteller. As a peasant, he occupies a lowly but simultaneously lofty place in society as the bedrock of Chinese civilisation – but his erudition as a writer belies the fact that compared to the Li Kaos of this imagined China, he is actually deficient in the knowledge base and customs of this China. As such, he has license have all these things explained to him, and by extension, the reader.

 

Of the three books in this omnibus, Bridge of Birds is the most well-known and well-regarded, and for good reason – of the three, it is the most whimsical and ribald, the most fantastical, but also the most situated in Chinese culture and myth, and therefore has the most literary and anthropological value as an intertextualization of established Chinese narratives. It also is the most emotionally poignant, with a climax that actually sent frissions down my skin.

The other two books are competent enough romps but that extra zest is missing, because Hughart gets mired too much in crafting his plots and cases in ever-more convoluted webs of imagined-Chinese logic such that the plots lose a bit of their coherence. Much like a Star Trek episode where narrative causal flows are mediated by technobabble, except, in this case, Chinoiserie-babble. The Story of the Stone is better than the Eight Skilled Gentlemen in this regard. And the story beats get a little formulaic by the last entry.

In all, this omnibus is a rare treasure of a series of stories that expertly embrace China in its popular essence while not giving in to the cultural temptation to impose a lens of the cultural Other upon it.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 sacred stones