10/29/14

Perfidia by James Ellroy

Perfidia is James Ellroy's 14th novel and the first in a third cycle: a prequel to his "L.A. Quartet". Again set in Los Angeles, it opens with a radio broadcast two days before the attack on Pearl Harbour and ends some 688 pages later on December 29, 1941. A family of Japanese has died by not-quite-seppuku and LAPD officer Hideo Ashida is on the case.

Also on the team is nearly everyone Ellroy has thought of. The novel includes characters from his previous seven "as significantly younger people." Central are the patrician fiend Dudley Smith, who never seemed young, and Kay Lake, who was also old but in a different way.

In an age of TV and movie prequels and reboots, the prospect of an origins cycle featuring younger characters must have excited Ellroy's publishers and anyone else who missed Star Wars Episode I. But the L.A. Quartet and the so-called "Underworld U.S.A." trilogy were not a strict sequence. They overlapped unpredictably. At their excellent best there was always a sense of the author digging wildly to get himself out of the last plot hole -- there was risk and haste and moral ugliness and more good work than you could shake a stick at. The Black Dahlia, White Jazz and American Tabloid are peaks: The Cold Six Thousand was hard-edged even for him; Blood's A Rover warmed things up.

In seeking to pre-determine those sprawling storylines, Perfidia feels subdued. We have always known where history was headed in Ellroy's stories but now we know where the characters are going as well. If they seem dewy and tearful (there is a great deal of weeping) perhaps it is because their creator is equally aware. The capitalised ephiphanies, the rhetorical hectoring of facts, the atrocities stacked up and in the plural: no matter how grotesque, Perfidia is wistful. Ellroy has transitioned from voyeur to architect; from heckler to team manager. Even the real-life characters feel like guest spots. (How do estate lawyers react to his gleeful smears? Poor old Barbara Stanwyck.)

Perfidia took me a long time to get through, not least of all because it's a pig to balance on the breakfast table. There is even more than usual to unpack in his sentences (ye gods) and the reappearance of characters sent me back to the bookcase. (The edition includes a five page dramatis personae.) The narrative is soothed at intervals by the diary of Kay Lake who writes in the purple style the author enjoys when he is not stapling verbs to nouns. (Remember how he camped it up in Silent Terror?) And there is a midichlorian moment involving Elizabeth Short: a stupid idea. He may or may not make up for this in the next two in the series. I will read them all.

-- Sunday Star Times, October 2014

Consumed by David Cronenberg

Director David Cronenberg has writer's credit on 33 of his 42 films. Consumed, his first novel, shares much with some of the works he has adapted: in particular J.G. Ballard's Crash (which Cronenberg filmed in 1996), William Burroughs' Naked Lunch (1991) and his 1986 remake of The Fly (1958), the entire franchise of which, kids, was based on a 1957 short story by George Langelaan.

This comes as no surprise. Over his career the filmmaker has sought out stories of infection, decay and the normalisation of afflictions, the sub-culture of which is often infiltrated by a couple. Sure enough, the intrepid investigators of Consumed are Naomi, a reporter, and Nathan, a photojournalist, each as functional as the Nagra and Nikon which they respectively wield. Naomi and Nathan record rather than respond, collecting experiences without being changed by them. Some reviewers have criticised the characters as two-dimensional but they sit comfortably alongside the Mantle brothers in Dead Ringers (1988) or Ted and Allegra in Existenz (1999): emotionally centered, even if the center is a bit off.

The first question one asks of Consumed is whether it's a screenplay or a novel. It's the latter (even if digital filmmaking means anything can built onscreen now). For much of Consumed Naomi and Nathan occupy separate locations, constructing a sequence of events rather than a driving plot. They have an open relationship, natch. Like the Marquise and the Vicomte in Laclos's Les Liaisons Dangereuses, they take conflicted interest in each others' conquests; like Cayce Pollard in William Gibson's Pattern Recognition, they and the author rely greatly on modern connectivity. Lots of Skyping.

Naomi is investigating the disappearance of French philosopher Aristide Arosteguy, who has been accused of eating his wife Celestine, and Nathan has contracted a rare STD after sleeping with a cancer patient who has been shot through with radioactive pellets. (Kids!) Although Aristide's disappearance is set up as a mystery, this soon falls away. An authorial decision to break into the first person when the couple's exchanges begin to stall keeps the tale buzzing, its protagonists chronicling this horror and that in a jolly Steed-and-Emma sort of way.

Much has been made of Cronenberg's obsession with decay but very little with the necessary form of his subject: however shocking it might be at first, decay, by definition, tapers off. Consumed is built on this feature (or, perhaps literally, a bug), fading to a diminuendo that will be more challenging to a reader than its gore. Stylistically, it's is a fun read: Cronenberg the author takes tangible delight in precise description, especially the gross bits. But you knew that. His novel is an excellent footnote to his film oeuvre: a gleaming and swollen appendix.

– Sunday Star Times, October 2014

10/25/14

Flash Boys by Michael Lewis

Flash Boys opens in late 2008 on Spread Networks laying the straightest possible fibre optic cable between Chicago and New Jersey in an effort to reduce the trading time between two stock exchanges by five milliseconds. The connection will earn Spread $2.8 billion in rentals from traders who will use its advantage of five thousandths of a second to execute "flash" trades: to buy and sell shares in the time it takes traders on slower networks to press a key.

The numbers are dazzling but the principle is rock simple: if a trader is faster, he can beat others in the queue. As computers and software have improved in speed, the physical distance between exchanges has become the last mile. Flash trades rely on dedicated software (often adapted from open source) and hardware like Spread Networks' "Gold Route" to close the gap. It also helps that the majority of flash trades are made in exotically named "dark pools" -- exchanges where the transactions remain essentially secret. Whether high-speed trading is fair or not is part of a larger argument, especially if you employ Wall Street's tortured, relativistic language. But does the notion of secret exchanges give anyone pause? Isn't secrecy the weapon of capitalism's modern villain? The Enron? The terrible Madoff?

Lewis's most remarkable feat is to cut through the obfuscation and euphemism surrounding his subject and emerge firmly on the fence. While a lay-reader might call angry bullshit on the whole enterprise Lewis sees the debate as an opportunity to examine the market along capitalist principles. He uses the tools of fiction to describe lead "characters" (real people both named and anonymous) who believe a line can be drawn, not between but across the exchanges: a boundary that will regulate trading speed and ensure fair play. An honest working trader who cannot understand why his trades are blocked. A Russian programmer with an exceptional talent for designing financial software while himself having no interest in money. A financier who decides to set up a new stock exchange that blocks high speed trading. His youthful heroes come straight from the good-guy deck. Their fair-play solution? In part, coiling a length of fiber optic into a box to slow the signal down.

Many of the individuals' stories in Flash Boys turn on the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Is the author testifying to their patriotism or implying that, having survived one disaster, America is headed for another? Lewis's blindingly intelligent and well-written exposé ends with him contemplating the microwave technology that might outpace the Gold Route, but he stays mum about where it's taking us. Only the markets can decide.

-- Sunday Star Times, June 2014

9/15/14

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki And His Years Of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Tsukuru Tazaki is an engineer who designs railroad stations. Professionally concerned with ensuring the flow of commuter traffic, he has been personally devastated by the passing of relationships in his formative years. While growing up in Nagoya, he and four other high school students became as close as platonic friends could be. Aka ("re"), Ao ("blue"), Shiro ("white") and Kuro ("black") and Tazaki ("the only last name that did not have colour in its meaning") lived in each others' pockets until the day when the others expelled Tsukuru from the group. "They gave no explanation, not a word, for this harsh pronouncement. And Tsukuru didn't dare ask."

Banished to Tokyo, Tsukuru falls into depression before, as per his aptronym ("Tsukuru" is written with the Chinese character that means "make" or "build") he sets about rebuilding his life. After a series of unfulfilling relationships he meets Sara, who prompts him to confront the mystery he has been trying to avoid: why did his friends reject him?

The premise of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is as direct as its prose. The novel was translated by Philip Gabriel, who also worked on South of the Border, West of the Sun. Any effect that he or fellow translators Jay Rubin and Alfred Birnbaum has on Murakami's prose is a larger discussion: it's my impression that Gabriel smooths things out but the author's frankness still startles. Tsukuru can't picture Shiro "sticking her hand up the anus of a horse"; later, "These insistent caresses continued until Tsukuru was inside the vagina of one of the girls."

Tsukuru's dreams are also shockingly vivid and anthropomorphic, like manga. But it is only when the locale shifts to Helsinki that he becomes a foreigner. "Are you Chinese?" asks a local. "I'm Japanese," he replies: "It's nearby, but different."

Murakami's Finland is like Shusaku Endo's France in Foreign Studies (1965): uninformed, quaint, filtered through other fictions. The methodical tone of the action and the protagonist's tendency for conjecture and tangential self-examination is more than a little Auster-esque, as is the naming of characters after colours and the incidental mysteries. (What is in the box the jazz pianist carries with him everywhere? The answer may be a symbol of Tsukuru's ostracism.)

In a story of colours, music also assumes significance but, like a crime writer, Murakami makes easy reference to art and literature that may well have been enjoyed by someone not unlike himself. It's another casual touch in a novel lacking the conventional turns a marketing department might demand from someone whom the Observer describes as "the best author on the planet." Colorless Tsukuru has been written in spite of such hype. It's a graceful story of a life in transit. The novelist watches: his subject passes by.

– Sunday Star Times, September 2014

8/30/14

Cowboys


By way of civilised conversation with Paul Litterick, Stephen Stratford mentions that Wittgenstein was a fan of westerns. Who isn't? Simone de Beauvoir, writing in The Prime of Life:
I have mentioned elsewhere how Sartre steered me away from 'art films' and initiated me into the world of galloping cowboys and whodunits.
Sartre: always cool. She continues:
One day he took me to Studio 28 to see William Boyd in a classic Hollywood-type feature, the story of an honest, big-hearted cop who finds out that his brother in law is a crook. Big moral decision.
Simone de Beauvoir is probably being sarcastic here. Anyway:
It turned out that the curtain raiser to this effort was a film called Un Chien andalou, by two men whose names, Bunuel and Dali, meant nothing to us. The opening sequences took our breath away, and afterwards we were hard put to it to take any interest in William Boyd's problems.
The Prime of Life begins in September 1929. This is is early in the memoir and she is discussing films she saw over a two-year period. Although the synopses vary I think she's either talking about The Cop (1928) or Officer O'Brien (1930).

Boyd is most famous for playing Hopalong Cassidy, a character created in 1904 by author Clarence E. Mulford, a municipal clerk in New York. Originally written as a hard-drinking tough guy, Cassidy was cleaned up for later appearances in over sixty films and at least one TV series.
Boyd pic c/- Classic Images

8/10/14

Advice from a friend


Sent by a dramatist friend from London, on the occasion of the movie. From Adventures in the Screen Trade by William Goldman (Macdonald & Co, 1984)

7/17/14

Writing REALITi (contains spoilers)



My first produced feature-length screenplay REALITi will be showing at the 2014 New Zealand International Film Festival this month. Directed by Jonathan King and starring Nathan Meister, Michelle Langstone and Graham McTavish, REALITi premieres in Wellington and screens later in Auckland. You can book for the Wellington screenings here and the Auckland screenings here.

I'm biased, but I think you should see it. Jonathan has made a really good movie.

This is a blog about writing the screenplay and its relationship to my other work. If you want to avoid spoiling the movie, stop reading now.

*

Making REALITi has been a long road. Around 2005/6 after he had made the horror-comedy Black Sheep, Jonathan asked me if I had any movie ideas "lying round." I did. In 2004 I had written a short film called The Alibi Girl for the 48 Hour Film Festival. Directed by Clinton PhillipsThe Alibi Girl is about two women trafficking a street drug that alters the perception of time. You can see it below – again, if you want to avoid partly spoiling REALITi, don't.


 

The Alibi Girl was an idea I had been thinking about taking further. Using the short movie as the set-up for a longer story I wrote a treatment and then a feature-length screenplay, now titled REALITi. I wrote the screenplay very quickly. I liked it and so did the director.

The project was put into development. I wrote several new drafts of REALITi but they were never as good as the first. The project stalled.

(Americans call this development hell but it's more like limbo. I've had two features "in development" and the process – the "journey" – killed them both. For a long time REALITi was in the same hole. I just don't write that way.)

In the meantime Jonathan had had the opportunity to make another movie, the fantasy-horror Under the Mountain based on the novel by Maurice Gee, and I was living in London. Jonathan and I teamed up again online when he illustrated a comic I had written, City Lights. He raised the idea of making REALITi using that early, good draft. One of the strengths of that original draft is that it could be made for a low budget. When we couldn't get funding for the movie, we decided to go ahead and make it anyway.

*

In this blog I've referred to REALITi as both a sci-fi noir and a SF movie with no special effects. It's a drama about normal people confronting a surreal possibility. In that respect it shares something with my 1994 novel, Heaven, which plays with the idea of changing realities and emotional discord. Heaven was made into a movie by Miramax in 1998, directed by Scott Reynolds:


Like Heaven, REALITi plays with the idea of repeating, if slightly altered, personalities and events. It's about a media executive who begins to wonder what's real – an idea which also popped up in my 1994 science fiction story 'Somewhere in the 21st Century'.

Collected in The Man Who Wasn't Feeling Himself, 'Somewhere' is about a man who discovers he's the star of a TV science-fiction series. Here's an overlong excerpt:
As Miles left Larry's dressing room the clapper boy glanced up at him with a rapt expression, star struck. 'I don't care what the director says, Mr Despot.' The words pressed on him like a confidential hand. 'I think you're cool.'
'Well.' Miles looked at the star on the door, and then at the handle. 'I'm. Uh. Um.' He wondered if he should lock the door behind him in case someone tried to steal Larry's things. He broke with his thoughts and turned to the young man. 'How long have we known each other?' he asked in a too-shrewd tone, trying to sound as he imagined a TV star would.
'We've never really spoken before, Mr Despot. But my friends and I, we all watch The 21st Century and it's really...' He groped for the word. 'It's cool, Mr Despot. It's a cool show. You're just the coolest.'
Miles nodded. His reflex was to say thank you but he felt enough of a fraud simply standing at the door. The boy bit his lip, waiting for an answer. Miles fumbled. 'You're doing a great job of that floor there,' he said finally. It was all he could think of, but it seemed to please the young man enough. 
*
He was relieved to find large signs directing him to the car park. As he made his way through the building he was prodded by a chorus of similar pleasantries. Fabulous show, Larry, called a tuxedoed young executive from a European convertible. Loved it when you zapped the Martian, Larry, chimed in the slender young thing in the passenger seat. Enjoyed last week's show, Mr Despot, said the garage attendant and automatically Miles acknowledged the man with a thank you and a nod as if he really was the star of a show called The 21st Century, and it was a good show. Then he stopped: good for whom? For Steve the director? For Larry Despot? Who was Larry Despot? And his wife?
'Babe...' A woman motioned to him from a 1963 Thunderbird at the front of the car park. Miles leant down and peered through the passenger window. Her eyes were blue. She had a heart-shaped face and blonde hair tied with a scarf like Grace Kelly. Her chin was pointed, her smile sharp at the corners. She wore a white dress. He didn't even ask if she was Imogen Hush. He just got in the car. 
The highway was long, the traffic seamlessly fast. Gleaming beetle shapes, black windscreens, white, star-crossed lights. The engine whined like a jet.
Miles cleared his throat. 'You're really something,' he told her.
'Well, you have my worst side.' She reached behind the seat and pulled out a thick glossy magazine which she passed to him. Vogue Italia . He looked at the cover for what seemed like a long time.
'You're right,' he said finally. 'You look better from the other side. But that's splitting hairs. You're still really something. Are you a famous model?'
'I used to be. But marrying you meant I could give all that up. It got kinda boring.'
'Ms Hush –'
'Please. Imogen.'
'Imogen. Ms Hush.' He felt ridiculous. 'I don't know what all those people think, but I'm not your husband. I'm not Larry Despot.'
'You are now.' She held up her hand before he could interject. 'I know, I know – you're not Larry. But as from now you're positioned in the universe in such a way that you appear to be Larry Despot, to me and to everyone else.'
'But you can tell that I'm not Larry. Can't you?'
'Oh sure. But I'm a little closer to Larry than other people. And I've seen this happen before.'
Miles felt his head beginning to spin. 'You have?'
'Larry first changed about two years ago,' she said with a faraway look in her eyes. 'Now it's happening every few months. They all showed up like you did – in a club or a restaurant, middle of the night. I'd wake up and it wouldn't be Larry any more. Well, I mean, it would be Larry, but someone else at the same time...' She winced. 'I feel guilty about it, but what can I do?'
City lights flickered past, whipped by the wind. 'What happened to the other Larrys?' Miles said.
'I don't know. They passed, and their respective identities with them. The doctor diagnosed it as a series of paranoid schizophrenic episodes. That was what I thought too, that the strain had finally got to my husband. But it's happened so many times now that I've become able to discern physical differences between one Larry and the next. I believe what you're saying – and what the others said. You're not Larry. You're simply occupying his place in this reality.' Imogen squinted at him, hard, for as long a time as she could take her eyes off the road. Her gaze was acute, perceptive. It felt as if she was digging her fingernails into his skin.
'But I have memories of my life before,' Miles interrupted. 'I was standing in the Pavilion on New Year's Day in the year 2000... and then I was in a studio, and everyone's telling me my real name's my character name, that my life was really the episode in which I was acting.' Miles sank fitfully in the passenger's seat. 'Jesus.'
'It's okay. Be cool,' she reassured him. 'What I think is, we're occupying parallel universes. Like the lanes on this highway. Now, for some reason, things have begun to change lanes. Maybe because the lanes have become similar. Maybe all these science fiction stories are making us catch up with the future, in some way.' She shrugged. 'Maybe some sort of space-time anomaly. Anyway, we're almost home.' She pointed out the window. 'That's where you live. We live. Together.' She seemed not unhappy at the thought. 'Have done for four years.'
'We have?' He looked across the highway to twin apartment towers sprouting from the low, serrated skyline. 'Is it a nice area?'
'Anywhere's nice from the fifteenth floor. You can see the ocean.'
'Wow,' he said flatly. He rubbed a contemplative hand across his chin and was rewarded with a palm full of studio makeup.
'Larry always washes before he leaves the studio,' Imogen stated. 'And he doesn't touch his face when he's wearing makeup. No TV professional would.'
'I was thinking about the apartment.'
'Well, that's the wrong expression for thinking. You're not holding your hand properly.' She demonstrated with her left, flicking her thumb up and down through her hooked index finger. 'Larry Despot always does this when he's fidgety or irritated. See? Like an imaginary cigarette lighter. It's a subliminal gesture – he does it when he wants to smoke. Do you smoke?'
'No.'
'Wrong. We both do.' She dug into the glove compartment and pulled out a packet of menthols. Keeping her eyes on the traffic she put the pack to her lips and drew out two cigarettes. She left one in her mouth and held out the other to him. 'Try the movement first.' He flicked his thumb very slowly. She shot him a bored expression as she tossed him the cigarette. 'You're not even trying.'
'I have enough to think about.' He depressed the car lighter and waited for it to heat. 'Half an hour ago I was standing in a different city at the beginning of a new era and now I'm a television star being driven around by a woman telling me how to wiggle my hand. I mean, Jesus. 1965 – I don't think I'm born yet.'
'I know. I'm the one who should be saying sorry.' Her tone was automatic. 'But really, this has happened so many times it's more tedious than anything else.' She sighed and leaned forward on the steering wheel. 'What a dumb-ass situation. Didn't you ever watch The 21st Century?'
The heated lighter popped out. He lit her cigarette, pressing the orange ring against the tip. Then he lit his own. It didn't taste bad. He didn't cough. He waited for the element's heat to disperse before answering. 'I don't recall any such show.'
'Maybe it doesn't exist in your universe,' she said, trying to prick her own interest as much as his. 'That's possible.'
'How many other Larrys were there?'
'Counting Larry? Five.'
'So I'm Larry six. Am I much different?'
'You're taller,' she said. 'The last one barely came up to here.' She indicated her nipples with a karate chop.
It was a grim lineage. And yet if what she said was true... 'Doesn't someone notice the height difference?' he wondered.
Imogen shrugged. 'I do. No-one else does. You know what it's like with TV stars: someone says they're short, someone says they're tall... If Larry's suits are tight the people in wardrobe assume he's put on weight. Too short and they figure they have the wrong suit, a bad tailor – something like that. I mean, would you accuse someone of shrinking?'
'I guess not.'
'Especially not Larry Despot.' She blew two lines of smoke and her nostrils flared. 'Nobody would dare say that to Larry.'
(If you want to read the whole thing, the e-version of the collection The Man Who Wasn't Feeling Himself is available on Kindle | Smashwords and iTunes.)

The idea of reality-altering drugs figured in Electric, in which chemicals cause different cities around the world to occupy the same space:
Dawn was coming up. The light was the colour of cornflour. The traffic sounded like gentle rain. Somewhere between sleeping and waking she had slipped out of bed and left me alone. Beyond the Chrysler Building the Eiffel Tower was fading in the sun. I was dreaming a lullaby: a girl singing 'Sweet Jane', her faint voice stretching to reach the notes. Na na na na na, sweet Jane. And then it really was a voice.
Chemicals influences are everywhere in REALITi. Four of the character names – Holly, Mandrake, Meg (nutmeg), Jessamine (jasmine) – are taken from plants with toxic qualities. There is also some nominative determinism in the lead character of Vic Long: he's not quite a Victor.

Although it's science fiction, REALITi is mostly a noir. It's a detective story, as was Shirker, Electric and Departure Lounge, in which the darkness and cold of the city mirrors the characters' lives. The plot can be read in two ways: one traditional, one meta. Either will do.

UPDATE: Some people have asked if the plot all adds up. It does. But you will have to watch it more than once.

Pic: Michelle Langstone in REALITi.