“Labyrinth? More like BLAH-byrinth” : James Dashner – “The Maze Runner”

 

Image result for the maze runner

ABOVE: NOT a-maze-ing; run away.

Let’s not wear out my fingerprints typing too much about James Dashner’s “The Maze Runner,” part one of a YA trilogy that raises one of the most important questions of our time: : how does one get that hallowed, masonic Brandon Sanderson endorsement that seems to get these unpublishable  hack-works published? This is the story about a blank-and-bland Chosen Boy with amnesia who wakes up in sort of a Maze where there’s other equally generic boys  living in a “dystopian” community that leans heavy on cussing for communication; naturally, this is clunking mother-shucking “future” slang, least the book land on a banned pile at the middle school library that is its preferred habitat.

Any blurb that refers to this as “‘The Hunger Games’ meets ‘Lord of the Flies’ meets ‘Divergent’ meets ‘What-Have-You'” needs to clarify: that’s not a compliment but a condemnation. “The Maze Runner” is fan fiction without the fun element of enthusiastic incompetence that makes fan-fiction so much fun – unless one argues that there’s a certain transgressive charm to the way the author disregards all sorts of literary rules, like “show don’t tell” or “a character needs CHARACTERISTICS to be considered a character” or “don’t have the solution to a central mystery come to the hero in the form of a convenient dream.”  From that angle, this is a brazen post-modern experiment.

Positive things: this IS a quick read (but then so is “The Hungry Caterpillar”.) Dashner knows not to insert any polysyllabic words or complicated nuances that might slow down the book’s intended audience:  manly young men who fear that there are too many girls with cooties getting lead roles in our YA post-apocalyptic fantasies. Weirdly enough, they prefer to read about imprisoned sweaty boys being catty to each other, running around in their maze like hormonal hamsters, being probed by robots, and then retiring together to their bunks after a day of intense aerobic exercise. When the novel’s ONE female character finally appears in the midst of these lawless post-apocalyptic teenagers, you would think she triggers intense battles for the girl’s affections. Indeed, any realistic psychologists would be brazing themselves for a rapey “Game of Thrones” episode, or at least an increase in involuntary erections. But, none of that. Instead, the threatened boys conclude that the  incoming womb-bearer is a sign of the REAL apocalypse. This is the way the world ends: not with a gang-bang but with a wussy whimper.

ABOVE: “Holy crap! Is that what’s called a feemail? RETREAT”

 

SPOILER: Eventually Chosen Boy (I honestly forget his name a mere 24 hours after I put the book away) gets out of the maze by LITERALLY falling into a Hole in the Plot, but then the truest of all horrors is revealed: the trilogy has MOVIE VERSIONS that guarantee this amateurish mess will haunt TBS for at least another decade.

RATING: SHRUG

In Theory : Georges Bataille – “Literature and Evil”

All-purpose theorist Georges Bataille: Christian brothel-goer,  compere to the surrealists, ancestor to the post-modernists and post-structuralists, Nietzche’s descendant and Sartre’s rival, influential on Michel Foucault as well as on “the two Jacques” (Lacan and Derrida), and an authority on the so-called literature of transgression. After some nudging I thought I would pick up “Literature and Evil,” a slim collection of cryptic critical essays profiling notorious defenders of the dark side: Emily Bronte ( with her devotion for the satanic Heathcliff); Charles Baudelaire (possessor of a childish belief in his own uniqueness); William Blake (and his hermetic mythology that has no consistency and does not withstand logical scrutiny); Marcel Proust (too deep a socialite to do more than dabble on socialism), and the Marquis de Sade.

The chapter on de Sade is both the most accessible and most entertaining because it gives us historical ambiance, indulges in prurient gossip, makes a case for the Marquis’ supreme importance, and still points out that the pervert-monk-litanies of “Justine” and “120 Days of Sodom” are as frequently boring as they are shocking.  (“Literature and Evil” also contains pieces on Jean Genet and Michelet; I’ve not read either of those authors, and in fact had never heard of Michelet before.) The translation I read was not without some inelegant phrasing that I won’t blame on the original text; the clunky use of alliteration on a few places does seem traceable to Bataille’s poetic pretentions. His purportedly daring statements about literature’s “Evil” can and should be greeted with skepticism. Bataille’s dogmatic altar boy kneels before the overwrought shrine his own  impenetrable prose, and prays earnestly: the words should resound like Gospel, and perhaps they do in French, but will strike modern English ears as tinny, minor Apocrypha. There are interesting observations throughout, though: for instance, when Bataille suggests that God lacks the quality of Freedom, (since Freedom means the ability to act beyond, outside, and/or against God’s Order, which obviously God is unable to do.) An all-powerful God that is nonetheless powerless to overcome its own Godliness? Hmmmm.

RATING: COOL

Mangaboos and Love Magnets : L. Frank Baum – “Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz” and “The Road to Oz” (Oz #4 and Oz #5)

Our continuing journey through Oz… continues.

Image result for dorothy and the wizard in oz

ABOVE: “Never talk to strangers”- words no one never uttered at the Gale household.

In 1906, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit San Francisco, destroying, by some estimates, 80% of the city, and resulting in the deaths of over 3,000 people. Naturally, that WOULD inspire someone to write a cheerful children’s book, and who better than natural-disaster fetishist L. Frank Baum? “Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz” lives up to its reputation as one of the most violent, rousing, action-packed entries in a series that would afterwards become known for its bloodless inanity (er, “child-friendliness.”) But here we open with an earthquake that swallows Dorothy, her pet cat Eureka (apparently, Toto was asking for too much money), her cab-horse Jim, and a hayseed kid named Zeb.

They drop down a crack in the ground to the land of the Mangaboos (not to be confused with the Weeaboos, although that would make sense). Before long, they’re joined by the old Wizard of Oz, whose biggest trick is that he has somehow transformed into a bad-ass switch-blade expert; his blades can join to form a giant sword that he uses to battle a treacherous vegetable sorcerer in order to save Dorothy from being thrown into a garden of lecherous, flesh-eating, tentacled plants. Also, the Wizard now sports an entourage of comic relief kawaii piglets. (The land of the Mangaboos is looking more and more appropriately named with every word I type.)

Image result for anime giant sword

Image result for anime plant with tentacles

Image result for manga piglet

ABOVE: The Wizard of Oz turned into a hard-core anime so gradually I didn’t even notice.

Even more frantic action ensues when the gang is forced to fight the invisible bears that have been eating Mangaboo’s greatest heroes: one of those bears slices open poor cab-horse Jim, so that blood spurts from his ribboned sides. This isn’t even the big-budgeted fight in the novel: that prize goes to the epic stand against the wooden Gargoyles. (Or “Gurgles,” as Dorothy insists on calling them. Don’t be harsh on the girl; she’s survived tornados, tsunamis, earthquakes, lions, tigers, bears and oh who knows what the hell else. It’s a wonder she can function at all.)

Anyway, the Gurgles are monstrous winged stumps that attack brainlessly and en masse; the Wizard is ready for these kind of situations:

 “Right,” sighed the Wizard. “There’s going to be trouble, and my sword isn’t stout enough to cut up those wooden bodies — so I shall have to get out my revolvers.”

Image result for dorothy and the wizard in oz joseph r neill

ABOVE: Not only was he the Wonderful Wizard of Oz, he was also the Prominent President of the NRA.

Gnarly!

Image result for dorothy and the wizard in oz joseph r neill

ABOVE: Erotic Ozphyxiation was all the rage in the land.

Compared to the (relative) mayhem of “Dorothy and the Wizard…”, “The Road to Oz” is a veritable hippie love-fest, and not just because it’s all about throwing a birthday party for Ozma of Oz, or because the new characters include a dazed dancing girl who calls herself the Rainbow’s Daughter and a homeless “Shaggy Man” who carries around a “Love Magnet.” There’s just a lot of love going around, so much so that when official illustrator John R. Neill gets to the scene where Dorothy and Ozma finally meet up, he feels that this is a perfectly appropriate depiction of the moment:

ABOVE: Not even the frikkin’ Land of Oz is safe from the gay agenda!

Unfortunately, all those good vibes lead to minimal conflict: Since Dorothy is traveling with Shaggy “Love Magnet” Man (Dorothy, when WILL you learn not to run off with disreputable older men?) there are no big obstacles in her new journey to Oz. Potential enemies, like Dox the King of the Foxes and Kik-A-Bray the King of the Donkeys, simply “love” the crew and ask for nothing more than invitations to Ozma’s party. That’s pretty low-stake for a fantasy novel. In the book’s sole moment of excitement, (one reminiscent of earlier battles with the Wheelers and the Gurgles) our travelers duke it out the treacherous, two-faced, cannibalistic Scoodlers, who also “love” the travelers…but  for SOUP.

That excitement is too brief: a full third of the novel is dedicated to Ozma’s lavish birthday celebration, where characters like Queen Zixi of Ix and John Dough  awkwardly cross over from L. Frank Baum’s less successful fantasies  in a transparent sales ploy. By the time Santa Claus himself shows up spreading cheer and joy to everyone, readers young and old will be pining for Gurgles and Nome Kings and other mild monstrosities of the previous books.

ABOVE: “Excuse me, is this where they’re auditioning for ‘Shrek’?”

Although “The Road to Oz” is the weakest of the books so far, there IS one thing to recommend it: by popular demand, Eureka the Cat is out and Toto the Dog is back in. If there’s an explanation for Dorothy’s fluctuating affections, it’s not in the book.

Image result for oz anime toto

RATING: COOL! and GOOD ENOUGH, respectively.

All About an Astro Boy : Osamu Tezuka – “Mighty Atom”

Image result for astro boy

ABOVE: Irritable Bowel Syndrome is a particularly big problem if you’re a robot.

Although “New Treasure Island” was a sizable hit for a debut, and “Jungle Emperor Leo/ Kimba the White Lion” had roared off the gate in 1950, it wasn’t until 1952’s “Tetsuwan Atom”/”Mighty Atom”/”Astro Boy” that Osamu Tezuka found the perfect mascot  in a lovable little robot that looked an awful lot like Betty Boop and could fart death rays from his butt… or something.

Image result for astro boy betty boop

From ’52 to ’68, “Astro Boy” delighted (and traumatized) Japanese readers, because it’s basically the story of a scientist who builds an android to replace the son that died in a car accident, and the horrible things that happen to that “100,000 horsepower” android as he deals with the despair and disappointment of existence, robotic or otherwise.

“Astro Boy” had it all: memorable characters that would form the core of Tezuka’s famous “Star System”; dramatic robot fights that would inspire mecha manga for years to come; and unabashedly depressing stories. It takes big anime eyes to cry the biggest of tears. Even if Tezuka’s heart wasn’t always in the overtly commercial material (as the author himself admits in his charming intros to the Kodansha editions) you would never know it from the surfeit of sentiment on display.

ABOVE: Mighty Atom and the Infinite Sadness

The manga’s impact wasn’t limited to impressionable kids growing up on post-war Japan and dreaming of becoming “otakus” before the word had come into popular use: otaku might as well mean “loser who likes things like ‘Astro Boy.'” The exported show introduced most of the civilized world to anime, (it was the first such thing on American television, even as it was heavily edited for our sensibilities.) There’s never really been a stop to the flow of Astro Boy material; every decade since the 50s has seen some sort of revival, spin-off, adaptation, or reincarnation. The 2009 big-screen version was shiny-looking but empty of intellectual circuitry; we’re now being threatened with an American 2016 live-action reboot from the scriptwriters of “San Andreas,” who clearly know something about disasters.

I actually came to “Astro Boy” through the off-brand “Jetter Mars,” Tezuka’s half-hearted attempt at colorizing the “Astro Boy” story for a late-70s audience, which I saw somewhere in the mid-to-late-80s. The re-designed Astro, there dubbed Jetter Mars, was virtually indistinguishable from the original: a fashionable red cape was added, and the ears were retouched for that “Batboy” look. The story was darker (“even darker,” I should say) and young me was quite traumatized by at least one episode dealing with the fun topic of parental death. If I recall correctly (I try to block these things) it was called something like: “Where did my Daddy go?” Thank you, Tezuka.

ABOVE: “Hey there, kids! In today’s episode, my entire family dies in a tragic car accident and I deal with the emotional repercussions!”

“Jetter Mars” wasn’t the only attempt to prolong that “Astro Boy” magic. Much like Superman got to collect Krypto the Superdog’s poop, Astro had to deal with an “Astro Cat.”

ABOVE: “I can totally catch that evil red laser dot!”

If only those bent on remakes and reboots would consider a new angle: that was what Naoki Urasawa did with “Pluto,” creating an acclaimed adult mystery out of Tezuka’s famous “World’s Greatest Robot” arc. Why not adapt THAT, instead of trusting the story to culture-appropriating gaijin?!? Urasawa is  the greatest working mangaka for my yen, and I hope to get to his series in the near future. Before the robot overlords gain consciousness and enslave us all. MEMORY INPUT: MUST READ ALL OF “PLUTO” SOON.

Image result for pluto naoki urasawa

ABOVE: “I used to be a lot more cartoony, wasn’t I?”

RATING: MASTERPIECE!!!

Needs More Cowbell – J. K. Rowling as Robert Galbraith : “A Career of Evil”

Career of Evil

ABOVE: “Evil Woman” is NOT a Blue Oyster Cult song, it turns out.

By far, the most surprising revelation in “Career of Evil,” (the third Cormoran Strike novel), is that J. K. Rowling / Robert Galbraith is a huge Blue Oyster Cultist, at least enough to appropriate BOC lyrics for the chapter headings. I will be excused for not using the proper Umlaut on Oyster, the way I excuse Rowling for not making better use of those lyrics, just like she didn’t make much of the Jacobean Revenge Play motif on “The Silkworm.” Agatha Christie used her unifying conceits, (typically, taunting nursery rhymes) to provide novels with both structure and rhythm; J. K. Rowling uses HER unifying conceits almost haphazardly, to basically remind us: “Hey, didn’t Agatha Christie do this? Therefore, that’s how whodunits go!”

The whole Blue Oyster Cult motif stems from the fact that P.I. Cormoran Strike’s late mother, a BOC-groupie, had a “Mistress of the Salmon Salt” tattoo hovering somewhere about her nether parts… And so this novel’s killer sends some BOC-related verses as a way to torment Strike (and his loyal partner Robin.) Oh, yeah: the lyrics come accompanied by the gruesome gift of a severed leg. (Think BOC’s “She’s as Beautiful as a Foot.”) Strike immediately decides there’s three or four people who could be the culprits and goes out to hunt, while Robin works hard to prove she’s more than a good-looking appendage to his detective agency (Again, think BOC’s “She’s as Beautiful as a Foot.”)

If the Blue-Oyster-Cult-inspired premise strikes you as contrived or far-fetched, consider this: supposing that you’re going to get ONE tattoo on your body. Now suppose that ONE tattoo is going to reference a BOC song. Are you HONESTLY telling me the tattoo is going to say “Mistress of the Salmon Salt” and NOT “Don’t Fear the Reaper”? Because I don’t believe you! THAT’s contrived and far-fetched! (“More Cowbell” would also have been an acceptable tattoo answer.)

There are a lot of little far-fetched, tortuous moments in this investigation, as Rowling piles up the shocking moments (abductions! amputations! rapes! pedophilia! more rapes! more amputations!)  in ways that try to be Grand-Guignol gruesome but go straight to being tiresome; it’s like being forced to binge-watch an entire weekend’s worth of “Criminal Minds” by a CBS-loving relative.

Throughout, the devoted fan of Rowling’s past  work (such as me) is faced with an odd irony. When the author was working with fantasy characters, she imbued many of them with subtlety and humanity, even the villains – PARTICULARLY the villains. N0w that her novels are supposed to be set in the real world, her villains are one-note sickos for whom we’re meant to feel nothing but contempt and disgust; and the same goes for most of the characters who AREN’T Strike and Robin. Those two are the best thing about this novel, (other than communally reminding us that we’ve let our copies of “Secret Treaties” gather a lot of dust.) Their interplay makes this worthwhile. We like them both because their flaws are balanced by their qualities; because it’s still rewarding to see them develop as friends, investigative partners, and potential lovers.

Less rewarding is the whole subplot with Robin’s insufferable  on-and-off fiance, who is perhaps the flattest character in Rowling’s entire oeuvre (and that oeuvre includes a couple of snakes.) This is  a guy whose every pathetic action is meant to be greeted by our laughter and jeer. Jesus, he’s an ACCOUNTANT and his name is Matthew Cunliffe, because Normo Twatsworth was taken. All the contempt and ignominy that were once hurled at Vernon Dursley are now aimed at Matthew. Is he too sensitive to Robin’s needs? He’s a crying wuss. Not sensitive enough to her needs? He’s a callous asshole. Is he texting Robin too much? He’s possessive and jealous! Is he not texting her enough? He must be banging his friends!  Matthew is less a person than the burning effigy of an ex-boyfriend’s perceived shortcomings. It’s a surprise that we don’t have a scene where Matthew gets caught sodomizing piglets while reading the Daily Mail; instead he does something else so dastardly that it eliminates any possibility that a reader might ever sympathize with him, and therefore feel any real ambivalence about whether Robin should marry Matthew, even as the novel barrels to the kind of cornball wedding finale that “The Graduate”  should have annihilated way back in the ’60s.

(SPOILER)

Reader, she marries him… OR DOES SHE? Buy the next exciting installment to find out! BUT WHO CARES? This isn’t 1847. If they have chat-rooms for elective-amputee-fetishists in England, I’m sure they have divorce lawyers too. Nobody expect or wants Matthew and Robin to grow together maturely as a great couple, least of all Rowling, so that won’t happen, although it would be the only genuine surprise this series can offer. More likely scenario? Instead of some prosaic break-up/divorce, Matthew can always end up murdered OR turn out to be a murderer. Sure, it would make no psychological sense whatsoever – but who cares, as long as there’s a Blue Oyster Cult song to head off that chapter?

(END OF SPOILER.)

I’m probably harsher on the Cormoran Strike series than I am on the average mystery series- and that’s precisely why: because this is an average mystery series from a writer who can do, and has done, MUCH better than average.

RATING: GOOD ENOUGH