Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Unbowed, Unbent, Unbroken

I didn't exactly run out of material to review, just life in general catching up with me. As well as a little bit of laziness, I have to admit. But I figured I might as well review this latest one now as I'm watching the film version as I write this, and reading the book. But first, a rant. I make no secret of the fact that I read the Daily Mail on occasion, and I'll read the Sun if it's lying out and I have nothing better to do. But frequently the random talkspots exhibited in each of these 'papers' doesn't fall so much under the description of opinion pieces as they are useless grumblings of middle-aged men so ignorant of their subject matter and so out of touch with the world that it's a miracle such crap gets published in the first place. Then again, I may be giving the Daily Mail too much credit. I counted at least five typos in today's edition. I don't give the Sun any credit at all. First off, a boiled ham with squinty little eyeballs masquerading as a man named Rod Liddle wrote a sarcastic little spew about how he was going to become disabled so he could avail of the Disability Living Allowance. It was meant to be about people faking illness or pain to claim the allowance and avoid work, but he lost whatever little point he had when he said he wanted to get 'Fibromyalgia, or M.E. Something that makes you a bit peaky for decades." (Something to that affect anyway, the original article has mysteriously disappeared now). The amount of actual fakers on the DLA make up something like 0.8%, which is so insignificant that demonizing the sufferers of a misunderstood illness without considering that it's recognized by the World Health Organization takes some really startling ignorance. That, and sarcasm is the lowest form of wit. Lost on both counts. I heard Rod trying to defend himself on a radio show, in which he called a fibro sufferer a liar because she apparently got one or two statistics wrong (overcompensating?) and insisted that he wasn't attacking disabled people. (I'm totally on your side, you guys! How can you be so stupid as to not see that?)
Truly, this is the face of the disabled's champion. Reports were floating around that because of the bleating in the gutter press about disability cheats that hate crimes against the disabled were increasing. Then that nice Mr Littlejohn of the Daily Mail had to wade in with his two cents about how eight out of ten people on DLA had been found fit for work and that the disabled charity Mencap had 'squealed hilariously' about worries that resentment and hate crimes towards the disabled were on the increase. His point was lost from the very start; the 'fit to work' epidemic is plagued with mistakes, misinformation and outright lies about how capable the people being tested are. And how dare this twit dismiss the very real concerns that disabled people are being attacked! Hate crimes are the very apex of bullying and there's two things that a bully looks for in a victim: something that marks them as different, and vulnerability. The only way to beat a bully is to be tougher than they are in some way, and that's why I suspect these codgers end up getting their drivel published in the gutter press. If they tried it with a respectable publication, someone with a much better way of getting their point across would rip them to shreds. That's if it passed the vetting stage. And now onto my actual review, of a sort. Of the many different ways that you can be ill or disabled, fibromyalgia is one of the most unpleasant and also one of the hardest to describe to people. So, if I have to describe it to someone who knows nothing about it, I think of 'Never Let Me Go' by Kazuo Ishiguro and the words come more easily.
In Ishiguro's world, we follow a girl named Kathy as she reminisces about her unusual (to us) life. At first it seems like a rather standard tale of an orphan in a large boarding school with her friends, except that there's an eerie sense that something is off. Slowly we discover that Kathy is a clone, as are her friends, specially bred and raised to provide organs for 'real' people to continue their lives into triple digits. This is accepted as matter-of-fact, and unlike other tales with similar premises they don't fight their fate, they just accept it because it's how they were raised. They don't even question the morality of the situation they're in because they just don't have it in them. Kathy's true story is in the love triangle between herself, her friend Ruth and Tommy. As they get older and closer to making 'donations' (having their organs harvested; death is common after the third, but can happen at any time) Ruth steals Tommy from Kathy and their relationship becomes strained. In the end, Kathy and Tommy do get together, and they make a plea to have their time together extended, but it's futile. Tommy and Ruth both die after three donations, and Kathy is due to start hers at the end of the book. The story is achingly sad. It's told in a wistful, dreamy way by Ishiguro's beautiful prose and it's so subtle that you could miss the big twist regarding the donations quite easily. Great displays of love, rage and passion are fleeting and are mostly replaced by grim acceptance of their fate. Because, as Kathy says, everyone completes eventually. Some just sooner than others. This story could be about fibromyalgia, with a few words changed. Every time a flare-up happens, it takes away a little piece of you and you never get it back. You recover, but never completely. The only thing you can do is live your life while you still have strength enough to live it.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Punisher: MAX (The Slavers)...will always make you feel better about your crappy life.

So, I'm sick again. It's been happening a lot lately but it's rarely bad enough for me to need to take time off work, but that's what I had to do today after being up all night alternating between feeling pukey and feeling sore. I haven't eaten anything in over 36 hours and I can't even sleep the pain away. A bloo hoo hoo! But, whenever this happens, I think it could be a hell of a lot worse. Fibromyalgia sucks, but it's got nothing on Harlequin Icthyosis. Or Praader-Willi Syndrome, or Progeria, or Osteogenesis Imperfecta or any of the other things that can go wrong with your body that I've read about. Plus, as my little rant on about Antichrist proves, there are ways to feel better about your own pain while revelling in the fictional pain of fictional characters. And you don't have to be ill to have your life be totally ruined by circumstances. So apparently Frank Castle, the Punisher of the title, is a vigilante that exists roughly in the same universe as Batman, Superman et al. The difference between him and the superheroes is that he has no superhuman strength or millions of dollars or amazing gadgets, just his own war-commando know-how, grim determination and nothing to lose. His family were killed in a typical Deus Angst Machina by Mafia hitmen and now he lives to hunt down and destroy criminals. And when I say destroy, I mean destroy. Frank Castle is a cold-blooded murderer and he rarely takes pity on anyone or anything. The Slavers opens with Frank hunting down some goons for some reason, but the goons he's after are hunting themselves. They're trying to catch a woman who's escaped from them. So far, so humdrum, Frank steps in and kills them all but good, saving the woman. He would have left it there, except that the woman blurts out that her captors murdered her baby. After hearing that, Frank has to know more.
So then we hear all about the thriving slave trade in Frank's neck of the woods. It's headed up by three people who would be cartoon monsters if this story wasn't based in reality. Christu, the son, runs the business. He heads up the brothels that the girls are brought into and stops them from escaping. The old man, the father, runs the protection racket and he's crazy as a box of frogs. He kills off market competitors with bloodthirsty relish and usually by hand. It's mentioned that he fought in wars in Eastern Europe and has been responsible for some atrocities before he got into human trafficking. Vera, who may or may not be Christu's wife, heads up the money laundering, but was also responsible for breaking the trafficked girls' spirits through solicited gang rape. Even as we meet these people, we learn of the problems they're having with such an ugly business. Nobody can be trusted, the son is plotting against his father, the father knows it and they're all on tenterhooks. Viorica, the woman rescued by Frank, tells him everything she knows, including the details of her escape. After her initial kidnap and rape, she'd escaped and gone home to her father, only to find that he wanted nothing to do with her anymore. Recaptured easily, she found herself in New York and pregnant. Her baby, Anna, sustained her during her confinement but when another girl escaped and gave her the name of a social worker, she took the opportunity to escape again with the child and hide out with said social worker. Unfortunately, and true to life, the escape goes badly wrong because the social worker has no real resources to protect the girls she's trying to help. The initial girl who brought the number is caught again, possibly killed, and Viorica's baby is taken and murdered. The slavers email a picture to her afterwards. So, hearing this, Frank has no doubt they all must die. He even says that he's never hated anyone as much as he's hated these people, and coming from a man who routinely deals with scum that's a big deal. After taking out the mooks, he grabs Christu and tortures him for information until he bleeds out. Then he moves on to Vera, who he finds doubly despicable as a woman who spearheaded the treatment of the girls under her care and he kills her in a pretty horrific, but very well deserved way. The old man is last and the most difficult, as he seems to have little fear and is used to combat. But ultimately, Frank overpowers him and videotapes his murder to send as a warning to other slavers not to try this again. The epilogue is the real clincher. The slavers are dead and their business destroyed, but the social worker tells us that it's not that simple for the girls they rescued to get their lives back. Two have gone back to prostitution, one is dead, and several have disappeared. Viorica is doing slightly better, having found work as a waitress, but the book closes on her having a breakdown outside of the diner she works in after seeing a mother with small children. The Slavers is a very well-written story, Garth Ennis having clearly done his homework before popping his usual grim style on it. The great thing about slavery (did I really just write that?) is that it's a widely acknowledged taboo these days, and it's taken years of history for it to be considered a crime. That's a sign that it could only get better from here. It's not much comfort to the people who are victims of modern-day slavery, but when the developed countries that these people are brought into for business have funds and organizations to help them (as Ruhama (http://www.ruhama.ie/) does to the best of their ability) there's hope.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Axis Powers Hetalia: Happy Inside

Yes, yes, I know this blog is for talking about depressing media, and Axis Powers Hetalia is quite possibly the silliest piece of work to come out of anywhere since Kekko Kamen, John Waters films and the Mr Gum novels but there's a reason it's here. And that reason is that the controversy surrounding Hetalia's existence and popularity is depressing enough to cover it, as well as the apparent ignorance of some of its fans towards real life atrocities. It's incredibly depressing, though not the way I usually like. In as much as I think people who refer to 'stupid weeaboos' and 'fanbrats' are as bad as the people who they complain against (we were all young and made stupid decisions once upon a time) some of the things that have been said or done by Hetalia fans cross a line even for me.

But that's no reason to blame the work itself, rather I find the merit of a work lies in the work it inspires, and Hetalia inspires some really lovely work. I've been reading a lot of fanfiction and doujinshi lately (feeling sick and tired lately, trying to distract myself while stuck at home) and the quality of the stuff I've found is quite astounding. This doujinshi in particular (http://animoobs.tumblr.com/post/6166685477/dolfin-gerita) about a steady natural erosion overwhelming Italy and Germany taking it very badly is legitimately heartbreaking (as the comments will attest to) and the work of RobinRocks really deserves to be published if it was at all possible.

I don't say this lightly, I've been involved in fandom for donkey's years and I was spoiled early on by Gundam Wing fanworks. The work of Lorena of Furor Scribendi occupies a large part of my e-Reader over ten years since I first read 'Chiaroscuro'. I'm very picky about what I watch, even more about the fanwork I read and it takes quite a bit to impress me enough to spend a full day occupied with one product. However, Hetalia? Gushgushgushgushgush.

Hetalia is a history buff's dream, even moreso if you're a culture nut. Wars are ridiculously rendered as smacking another nation on the head with a stick,Italy's occupation during the Middle Ages are represented by the other countries playing football with the two provinces and it's all very tongue-in-cheek. The English dub of the anime takes it even further. Whereas the Japanese version was excellent, the nation's various accents couldn't be rendered properly for a foreign audience. The English is full of odd accents (Finland's is particularly spot on) and below-the-belt in jokes. Any and every stereotype is referenced and mercilessly skewered, from France's pervertedness to America's ignorance. No more is this more evident than the episode where everyone tries to do some shopping and their respective stereotypes make it very difficult:


For all its silliness, when it does get serious it can be very touching and heartwarming, particularly in special editions like the Christmas special when all the countries co-operate to prevent a disaster. And of course not everything about it is always correct or even sensitive, but the creator is just one guy and he gives his own country one of the worst skewering. And its fans are capable of some really awful things, but that's true of just about everything. The Bible inspires the kind of people that picket the funerals of AIDS victims, but without it there would be no Sistine Chapel, Pieta or indeed the entire Renaissance. Islam has been cited as the reason behind 9/11 and the London bombings, but without it we'd have no calligraphy or decorative glasswork.

In fact, if I was to compare Hetalia to anything, it would be to the film 'Baraka'. Baraka is a beautiful celebration of world culture, a hell of a lot more po-faced than Hetalia but equally as joyful. The first section of the film is dedicated to showing how different countries show their faith, from Sufi dancers in Turkey to monkey chanting in Bali and Jain priests praying in India. Also, both Hetalia and Baraka are not seen by the people who should really check them out, based on fan dumb or obscurity.

Recently, I sat some friends of mine down to watch Hetalia, which they were skeptical about given the awful things they'd heard about it. By the time they left, they agreed it was a good series. I've not been able to show them Baraka, but if you're reading this blog you need to check them both out. If you don't like either, take it up with me!

Here's a trailer to help you along:


Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Shigurui: Seven showers a day and still not clean....

There's no way to watch this series or read this manga without being immediatly confronted with how different Japanese culture, and Asian culture as a whole, is to Western culture, particularly the Christian way of life that permeats most of Europe and the USA. I don't know if the author was trying to give an accurate representation of how crazy it really was (from a baka gaijin's point of view) or if he was trying to point out the fallacies in the bushido way of life and how destructive and wasteful it could really be. Either way, it's a hell of a read. And not for the squeamish.

The story starts with the daimyo, or clan lord, organizing a tournament for samurai to fight each other with steel swords rather than the wooden boken they should have been using, mainly because this guy is a bloodthirsty creep who enjoys watching people die. His vassal objects, but ultimately does nothing to stop him, and that's the first instance of a hole being poked in the samurai way, whether deliberate or not. Fealty to your lord trumps common sense, and in this case it was common sense that could have saved a lot of lives. This daimyo is also shown to kill servants on a recreational basis. Anyway, the tourney is an opportunity for two old enemies to confront each other, despite both being crippled.

The cripple in the blue corner is Gennosuke Fujiki, a very traditionally-minded samurai
who's missing an arm. To compensate, he's trained his back muscles to put the extra strength into the arm he still has and therefore is allowed to compete. He's supported by Mie Iwamoto, the daughter of his master.

The cripple in the red corner is Seigen Irako,a less traditional samurai who violated several of

the bushido rules and was punished for it by having his eyes sliced. Yep, he's a blind samurai. He also walks with a limp because of a mysterious wound in his foot, later revealed to have been self-inflicted to enable a counter attack to a battle move thought to be unstoppable. He's supported by Lady Oku, the former mistress of the master who blinded him and now his mistress. So that's what's driving this story, right? He screwed around with his master's girl and he paid the price, right? That's only half the story. Whoo boy....

The rest of the story is told in flashback. We see Seigen attempt to leave his beginnings as the son of a syphilis-ridden prostitute behind by joining the Kogan-Ryuu school to learn the unbeatable technique, Nagare Boshi (Shooting Star). Gennosuke is already a student there himself, and the two are as different as night and day. Seigen neglects his practice to sleep around with random women and drink, relying on his natural talent to see him through, whereas Gennosuke trains so fervently that it's almost a mental disorder. Their teacher, Gonzaemon, is a big hulk (sometimes in flashes of metaphor, pictured as an ox) who wields a giant wooden practice sword as if it was a weapon and in his hands, it is. He also has a Chelsea grin that's disgustingly shown as being inflicted by his master.

And then we meet the master of this school, Kogan Iwamoto.
This guy is, in purely technical terms, a fucking headcase. He's clearly suffering from either Alzheimer's or Dementia because the things he does are pure mental and a definite reason to get him removed from any seat of power, but he is of course the master and that's all that's needed for people to get away with just about anything in this story. Let's catalogue his misdemeanours, shall we?

* Splitting his second-in-command's face open over a mild slight.

* Having his mistress' two fiancees killed and having the woman herself ostracized from the community.

* Molesting his only daughter and ordering his students to hold her down so she can be forcefully impregnated.

* Driving his wife to suicide.

* Ordering his second to kill his fiancee back home so that he wouldn't have attachments.

The man is a monster, but therein lies the problem people have when reading Shigurui. Whose side are we meant to be on? Kogan blinds Seigen after Seigen offers Lady Iku some compassion and when Irako trains up to counter the Nagare Boshi, he comes back and kills Kogan, and all of his students except for Gennosuke to wipe the technique from the world. Sounds reasonable. Then Mie recruits Gennosuke to take revenge for her. Wait, what? This is the man who ordered her rape, who drove her to anorexia, who drove her mother to suicide. Why does she want him avenged? They're also partially taking revenge for the other students and for Gonzaemon, although Gonzaemon killed the only morally upright person in this story, a guy who was only in the manga for five panels, because he was in the way.

I'm guessing it must be a cultural thing and the author is making a comment on how crazy the situation is too, because even from a Japanese perspective I can't exactly see Gennosuke as a hero and Seigen as a villain, but that's how they've been painted. Mie is very sympathetic but her motives are astounding, and although filial piety was highly regarded at the time the original story was circulating it's hard to imagine wanting to take revenge for such a monster. It doesn't help that Gennosuke is a total cold fish, bordering on autistic spectrum. Seigen is more charismatic and he's shown doing good things along with the bad, treating the battered Iku with great gentleness and saving a starving child, but he killed his master and therefore must die.

All the death in this series (and it's a real bloodbath) is shown not just in detail, but anatomical detail. The creator, Takayuki Yamaguchi, draws with medical knowledge and in such detail that I'm convinced he's not right in the head. He does x-ray shots of his characters to show the damage they're inflicting on each other and the cross-hatching and shade work puts a lot of Western comic art to shame.

Also, the comic is quite educational. I learned things about the samurai way of life I never knew before, and some things were things I didn't want to know. For instance, if a samurai thought he might be ordered to commit seppuku by his lord in the morning, he'd take an arrowroot solution to clear out his bowels so they wouldn't smell bad when he cut through them. Though I think at that stage it wouldn't really matter, it was to avoid offending the lord who ordered the suicide, but again at that stage I'd be happy enough to defile the nostrils of a guy who just ordered me to cut myself open.

Anyway, it's worth a read. Go read it, or watch it. Just do something!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Song of Ice and Fire: Guuuuuush!

Some background info: I'm just out of hospital. As of two pm yesterday. Still made it into work today though, booyah! It started last Tuesday when a twinge in my back became full-blown excruciating pain up and down my spine, all over my lower back and down my legs. I couldn't get off the sofa without screaming, as my poor housemate will testify. So I got to the doctor who gave me four different medicines, two of which were Diclac and Valium.

So started five days of varying degrees of pain, interspersed with sleep and boredom. To stave off the boredom I played Earthbound, did Nom-Con work, made some beaded crowns and re-watched Game of Thrones. Watching that back to back was one of the best things I did that week.

When I finally felt well enough to leave the house, I went to see Harry Potter with two friends of mine and afterwards, Game of Thrones was casually mentioned. I suddenly went off on this great big gushing session about how it's the best fantasy to ever fantasy while my friends just nodded and waited for me to shut the hell up. I don't think I've gushed about anything so thoroughly since I was seven and ponies were the best thing evar!

Two days after the gushing session, I had a delayed reaction to one of the medications I was on. I know that now, at the time I thought I was having a stroke. I called the hospital in a blind panic begging them to send me an ambulance. they told me they had no ambulances. So for a moment I gibbered madly and then spat out '....so what do I do?' 'Call a taxi,' they told me. Well, shit. I did. I even managed to throw some clothes on whereas I would have hopped in the ambulance in my pyjamas (this was 6:20 am, by the way) but then I was in so much pain and in such a panic I left the house and paced up and down the road waiting for the taxi, completely forgetting to bring my phone and something to read. I thought with the pain I was in, I'd get seen pretty quick. Especially when I started having breathing trouble in the taxi.

So I got to the hospital, where the receptionist clearly didn't give two shits whether I was dying or just there to bug her about a sniffle, and she took my details ever so slowly as I writhed in pain in front of her. Then I went to triage where they gave me a pill to suck, where the nurse put a load of metal doodads on my chest and then rolled the monitor not towards me, but AT ME! As in, she shoved it so hard it slammed into me. She muttered 'sorry' and took my details, sort of. She kept wandering out of the room while I was describing the pain I was in.

So by now you're probably thinking 'this isn't a review of SOIAF, it's some moany bint talking about healthcare reform in Ireland! It's been done!' I'm getting to that. The waiting room had several people in it that had been there all night and I waited around for about three hours with nothing to do. By now the pain had died down, but my back pain had flared right back up again and sitting in the crappy waiting room chairs was a special kind of torture. When I did get seen finally, it was because I ran into my ex-employer there (who happens to be an A+E doc) and he let me in. Turns out they lost all the info I'd given them, and I'd still be waiting there now if I hadn't gotten so lucky. I got seen, they gave me new meds and established a plan to get my back working again, and now I'm at home internetting and watching Supernanny. So what has this got to do with Game of Thrones?

While I was sitting in the torture devices that pass for chairs at Beaumont, I passed the time by mentally compiling the family names and mottos in the Ice and Fire books. When I did that, I traced their family lines and notable battles and schemes. Sounds boring, doesn't it? That's because it is boring, but it was the closest to a state of Zen I could achieve. It actually kept me amused for the eight hours in total I spent in A+E.

ASOIAF is fantasy for people who don't like fantasy, and that's me. I like the idea of fantasy, but I find it all a bit 'listen to me describe this tree for 68 pages in a language I made up' while the author sounds like he's narrating the whole thing from a deckchair while drinking sherry. It's the best of deconstructions, all the fantasy elements are in there (direwolves, dragons, princesses, magic) but done in a way that makes them both realistic and grimly suitable to the medieval setting. The princess has her fairytale prince who's handsome and charming, but he's an inbred amoral creep and as soon as her protection is stripped from her, she's reduced to a twitching nervous wreck. There's a cheeky tomboy princess too, but that situation is given the grimdark treatment too. When we last saw her in Storm of Crows, her path to achieving Robin Hood-style outlawhood takes her to a guild of the most dangerous assassins in this world, and her training requires a total loss of her personality so her initial thoughts of revenge for the havoc wreaked on her family have to be put away.

The other 'classic' princess in the story, Daenarys Targaryen, stays that way for about five minutes. The first time we meet her, she's being married off to this world's equivalent of Genghis Khan by her creepy brother, and although the marriage ends up being a surprisingly happy one it's not long before it all goes tits up. Last time we saw her, she was sacking cities and recruiting an army to take back her throne, which will likely bring her into conflict with the other heroes of our story.

That's the crux of this whole tale; there are few good characters, and the ones that are good are on opposing sides of the conflicts running through the narrative. Our hero in the first book is married to a woman that's a bona fide villain by the end of the fifth book. The most morally upright person with a claim to the Iron Throne is relying on blood magic performed by an evil sorceress to get him there. The exiled princess on her way to reclaim her throne has possession of three out of control children that burn up friend and foe alike. If you're a knight, you'll die a horrible violent death in a pointless battle that you're probably on the wrong side of. If you've taken the black, you're under threat from wild barbarians and zombies and will die of frostbite if they don't get you first. If you're a noblewoman, you'll likely be married off to some slobbering degenerate, especially if you live near a Frey. If you're a nobleman, your lands will be sacked by roaming bands of thieves or rogue knights. If you're a peasant, hope for a quick death because every roaming band of everything will be gunning for you and your children first. If you're a peasant woman, expect the same but expect gang rape first, especially if the Dothraki are anywhere nearby.

What makes the books special is their sense of scope; the grim feel is pretty accurate to what you'd expect of plague-era Europe, and the world GRR Martin writes in is similar to ours to keep a sense of realism but with the fantasy elements placed perfectly to seem natural where they are. His most compelling characters are the ones who make the best of their circumstances, such as Tyrion Lannister, the outcast dwarf who's cheated death several times by talking his way out of trouble. The real genius is the way the book has the magic, the dragons and the like as a sort of footnote, and the story is based around schemes, revolution and scandal. And who doesn't like a good scandal?

The fans of the series had a bit of a bitch fit lately because Feast for Crows took the viewpoint away from the more popular characters like Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister and Daenarys Targaryen. I thought this was a genius move, one of the reasons I never read Harry Potter and preferred the films was because I never warmed to the three main characters, I found the side characters more interesting. ASOIAF as such fascinating side characters, it was a delight to get their perspective for a full book. I wish more authors would do that kind of thing. It's like he wrote fanfiction for his own novel.

Martin has been described as the American Tolkien. He's so not. He's the anti-Tolkien. His Orcs and Urukh-Hai would run screaming from the Dothraki and the White Walkers. His snooty elves wouldn't last a minute before Littlefinger has them all killed in the most convoluted way possible. And as for Aragorn, son of Arathorn, I don't care how rugged he was when Viggo Mortenson did him, Daenarys Targaryan is half his age at least and ten times as tough.

So gush, gush, gush, gush, gush. A Song of Ice and Fire is the second coming of Christ. I'm going to stop now because I could go on, but I'm tired of typing and methinks you're tired of reading. So stop reading this and go read book one, Game of Thrones. Or watch the series. Or do both. Just do something!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Rape: A Love Story..........Oh Dear.......

That title means as much as I love this book, I can never read it in public unless I cover it with something or upload it to my e-reader (which is missing right now T_T). Even innocuously sitting on my bookshelf it attracts attention. The word 'rape' usually instills one of two reactions: an 'Oh God, look away' uncomfortable reaction or a nervous giggle. Of course, this is completely deliberate as Joyce Carol Oates likes to make her readers uncomfortable, it's how she gets them to think.

It's a short book, actually a novella to be precise, so it reads quickly but it stays with you for a long time after you've read it. There are a lot of books out there that deal with rape, but I've never come across one that deals with it the way Oates does. Even in her earlier novel 'We Were the Mulvaneys,' a slightly more accessible title for those who want to get into her oeuvre, she deals with a similar subject in a wildly different way. The only thing the two have in common is that they explore the nature of love in traumatic circumstances, as many of her books do. (As I write this, I'm aware that she has a memoir in shops right now that was published after the tragic death of her husband, but I haven't read it yet and I'm not sure I want to. Fake misery I can do, her real pain might be a touch intense for me.)

Rape: A Love Story begins with an act of brutality described in painful detail. Teena Maguire and her young daughter Bethal are walking home through a park after a party when they are attacked by a group of young men who've spent the day drinking and smoking crystal meth. Bethal escapes them with a dislocated arm and manages to squeeze into a tight spot where they can't reach her, but her mother isn't so lucky. She is gang-raped, beaten and left for dead, all within earshot of her terrified daughter. When the men finally leave, Bethal runs for help and manages to flag down a passing police officer, John Dromoor. When he finds Teena, the damage done is so bad he's convinced she's dead.

So far, so awful, right? It gets worse. Teena does pull through, arrests are made and the case is taken to court, but the expensive lawyers that the men's families have hired paint Teena as an irresponsible mother, dragging her child from a party late at night through a possibly dangerous area, while also painting the men involved as merely misguided. They get suspended sentences, and almost straight away launch a campaign of intimidation against the frightened Maguires. Teena loses all will to live and drowns her sorrows in alcohol and isolation, and Bethal is left to cope on her own, with classmates who don't know what to say to her and relatives of the men who attacked her making threats in her school.

So, you been driven to drink yet? Things then start to get better, thank goodness.

Bethal calls Dromoor after a two of the attackers drive by her house shouting for Teena. Dromoor, who fulfills the love part of this story, is sickened by how easily the attackers can get away with this, and out of compassion for Teena and Bethal, he plans to take out the attackers in the most subtle fashion he can manage. One man he encounters in a bar and he manipulates the man into making threats, at which point he is able to shoot the man in self-defense in front of credible witnesses. One by one, he takes them out.

Oates veers off at one point to show how the family of two of the rapists are doing. Quite rightly she pegs that far from being amoral psychopaths, the two young men just don't care enough about Teena or Bethal to feel bad about what they did while under the influence of drugs. What they do feel bad about is how their father had to sell his prized boat to pay for the lawyer, and how their mother ostensibly forgives them but won't let them near their young female relatives. Perhaps the anti-rape campaigns should focus on this approach, given that the average rapist couldn't care less about the welfare of their victim but likely do care about how their families would react. When the two men go missing, their father is devastated. He assumes they escaped prosecution across the border, leaving him to pick up the pieces.

Teena slowly begins to put her life back together and Bethal, knowing full well that Dromoor was behind the disappearances, has her faith in humanity restored. It'd be a happy ending except that someone had to commit murder for it.

A film was in production from 2010 onwards, starring Heather Graham as Teena and Abigail Breslin as Bethal, as well as Samuel L Jackson as Dromoor. They also replaced the word 'rape' in the title with 'vengeance' due to the afor-mentioned knee-jerk reaction. I've been looking for details about it everywhere, it's undergone two major role casting changes and seems mired in development hell, but according to the internet it's in theatres in the USA. Here's hoping it makes its way here soon, if it's as good as the book it's worth seeing.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Road: Zombie Apocalypse without the Zombies

The Road by Cormac McCarthy is well known for being one of the most depressing books ever written, so naturally as soon as I heard about it I was all over it.

If you're not familiar with it, here's the plot in a nutshell: the world has been pretty much destroyed in what's hinted at a nuclear war. All the animals are dead, as are all the plants, even the trees are hollow husks that occasionally disintegrate or burst into flames because there's no rain and the air is dry as a bone. People have survived, as they always do in this kind of situation (and let's face it, there'd be no book if they hadn't) but the only food to be found is whatever they can scavenge from abandoned buildings and those supplies are, when we meet our protagonists, picked clean.

This is a pretty big nutshell, isn't it? On a tangent I should point out that I'm writing this as I watch the film version of Phantom of the Opera, so writing about the apocalypse while listening to Gerard Butler sing Music of the Night (he's trying, bless him) makes for some interesting dissonance.

Anyway, we meet our main characters, known simply as Man and Boy, just like in Antichrist. The man is one of those gruff survivalist types, and the boy is a boy. He's convinced that in this world he and his father are the good guys and they're at battle with the bad guys. The bad guys happen to be cannibals. That's right, with no more food to be found people are eating each other. And any random person they come across.

McCarthy pulls no punches with this, the novel shows several different instances of cannibalism in different forms. At one point the boy and his father come across a baby that's been roasted on a spit (and as with any media that shows small children in peril, I freaked out a bit) and at another point the father finds a cellar full of living people who are having their limbs harvested one by one by some 'farmers'. Every person they come across during the book, with the exception of an old blind man and a single guy who steals their stuff while they're distracted is a cannibal. That's how bad things have gotten.

To top it all off, the man is dying. He's got that cough that signals death for anyone in a work of media, and it's hinted that it's radiation sickness. He's trying to get himself and the boy to the coast for some reason. By he way, if you're wondering about the boy's mother, she walked out of their hiding place in a fit of despair. It's left up to your imagination as to what happened to her. The boy, despite the hopeless setting, is naive and unable to defend himself, so likely the father is trying to get him to some remote place before he dies. Even so they have a contingency plan; their gun has only two bullets, so they practice committing suicide in case they get caught by someone. This is what passes for a spot of hope in this book.

They get to the coast, relatively unscathed, but with the boy having lost some of his optimism along the way and finally the father collapses and dies. Despite everything that's gone before and how everything the father did to keep him alive, the boy just sits with his body until he's discovered by someone else. The person who finds him just happens to be not a cannibal like everyone else has been, but a family man with a wife, two children, a dog and a gun full of bullets. And apparently he has access to fresh fish, which means life could possibly be coming back to the world. And he wants to adopt the boy. It's the most depressing Deus Ex Machina in the history of literature.

Someone once suggested that the end is false and that the boy was hallucinating this new family as he was dying beside his father. It is just a bit too perfect to be true...come on, they have a dog! Probably a white picket fence too...

The film that was made recently did a very good job of capturing the bleakness of the novel, in fact I couldn't imagine anyone doing it better than John Hillcoat did. Viggo Mortenson is pretty perfect for the haggard survivalist father (and he cleans up so well for the happy time flashbacks) but I wasn't really feeling Kodi Smit-McPhee as the boy. He felt a bit old to me, especially when he kept calling Viggo 'Papa'. Kid looks about thirteen to me, it felt a bit off. Then again, given the material it's hard to imagine giving that part to a younger child so it's forgivable.

All in all, both versions compliment each other nicely. The book is sparsely written in McCarthy's usual minimalist style and the film fills in the blanks. It would be hard to imagine a film being made with this kind of desolate ethos unless there was a book behind it and that book happened to be very popular.

Even so, it's not the most depressing thing I've ever read. With dead parents, society crumbling and the world slowly perishing, how can that be possible? Because Cormac McCarthy isn't Joyce Carol Oates. If she ever decided to write a dystopian novel (and it's possible she started and finished one as I was writing this review) God help us all.

She's next on my list. Ad the novel I'm reviewing will be Rape: A Love Story. Hoo boy...