Category Archives: sexuality

Books about sexuality.

Review 183: Habibi

Habibi by Craig Thompson

Here’s the thing about comics, and it’s an unfortunate thing: when you tell people that you read comics, the first thing they’re likely to think about is superheroes. You can’t really blame them, seeing as how superhero comics make up so much of what’s being printed these days, nor can you blame them for thinking that superhero comics are kind of lowbrow entertainment. A lot of it is, but that shouldn’t be surprising when you’re looking at a profit-driven entertainment industry that works on a tight deadline every month. I have a co-worker who can’t believe that I, a man of thirty-[COUGHCOUGH] still reads comics, because her vision of what comic books are and what they can do is stuck in that mode that says, “Comics are for kids.”

There are some superhero comics that exceed our expectations, of course, and show emotionally-charged, well-written stories with deep and interesting characters, masterful writing, and a keen insight into human nature and behavior. They’re more often exceptions than the rule, of course, and if you want the really good stuff then you have to go beyond the monthlies and the Big Two. You need to look at the work of someone who is working not so much because he has an editor or a company that’s directing his work, but because he has a story to tell.

Enter Craig Thompson and Habibi

It’s hard to encapsulate this book in a single sentence, much less a concise review. I can either go on for far too long or find myself lost for words and not say enough. I will say, however, that the moment I laid eyes on it I would say the word that probably best sums up the experience of reading this book: Wow.

The story takes place in a semi-fictional Middle East, the land of Wanatolia, and it begins the way all comics begin – with a drop of ink and the flow of words. We are introduced to Dodola, a girl of nine at the start of the book, who is married off to a wealthy scribe. Through her, we are introduced to this strange and exotic world and the dangers it holds. She ends up living on a boat in the desert with a young boy named Zam, and together they survive in a world all their own. He finds water and she finds food, and they fall asleep to stories every night.

This continues until Dodala is taken by travelers, leaving Zam to fend for himself. While she is made into a concubine for the rich and powerful Sultan, Zam is looking for her among the poor and the dispossessed of Wanatolia. Over the years, their paths diverge terribly, until good fortune brings them together again, neither of them the same as they were, but at least finally able to be together as adults who have loved each other for a very long time.

In large parts, this is a story about boundaries and borders. For one thing, Wanatolia is a place that seems to straddle ancient and modern, fantastical and real. While we have girls sold into sexual slavery, camel-driven caravans and a sultan in an extravagant palace – harem included – we also have automobiles and motorcycles, garbage-clogged waterways, and a great dam that blocks the river and provides electricity. It’s hard to hold the two truths of this place in your mind, because they’re so completely opposite. Even when they appear in the same panel, it’s still hard to believe they’re the same world.

The last part of the book straddles the boundaries between the developed and developing worlds. Wanatolia has a great river that’s been dammed, and is a city-state that is growing fat on oil money. There are great skyscrapers and modern condos, but they’re built alongside astonishing poverty and filth-clogged waterways. The great and mighty live a scant distance away from people who proudly hunt for garbage in order to stay alive. It’s horrifying to look at, but at the same time you know that places like this are not unknown in our world.

It’s about the boundaries between the mystical and the mundane. Early on in the story, Dodala gives Zam a talisman to wear around his neck. It’s a piece of paper folded into nine squares, on which are written nine Arabic letters. Together, they represent a magic square, and rest on the foundations of the Koran. With this talisman, Zam will be protected from the demons and the djinn – as he goes outside to pee.

The Koran, of course, is hugely important to the story, and Thompson tells some of the most iconic and important stories that feature not only in the holy book of Islam, but in the Torah and the Bible as well. Dodala tells Zam about Abraham and his sacrifices, about Job and his plagues, about Noah and his ark, and about Solomon and his riddles, and those tales go on to inform the larger story. They also tell of cleverness and sacrifice and submission to a God that can barely be understood by such people as they.

It’s about the boundaries between men and women as well. For a while, Dodola and Zam live very comfortably on their desert boat together, seeing as how he’s a boy and she’s a young woman. She treats him more like a son or a little brother than anything else, and it’s adorable. But as he ventures into his teens, their relationship becomes a lot more complicated and confused. Zam’s emergent sexuality provides him with nothing but trouble, and even when he and Dodola are no longer together, she has a great effect on how he views himself as a sexual being.

And of course, there is the Sultan and his harem, which has plenty to say about the man-woman divide. The Sultan is both the master of and a slave to his women, constantly looking for novelty and entertainment from them and constantly being disappointed. In Dodola, he sees not only a woman who can pleasure his flesh, but who can engage his spirit. Alas, he turns out to be just as terrible to her as we might expect from a Sultan, and all of her feminine wiles nearly lead to her death.

That does get us to one point of criticism: while Dodola and Zam are interesting, deep, and complex characters, they are pretty much the only ones. The others – from the Sultan to the trash-fisher – are fairly flat and seem to have been created by an Arab Character Generator. Mind you, the number of authentic Middle Eastern communities I have been to could probably be counted on the fingers of a snake, so I’m really in no position to make many judgments on this. But if I were writing a story and needed an Arab character as either an antagonist or a background character, I might have made some of the ones that are in this book.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that kind of writing, really. After all, the story isn’t about them – it’s about Dodloa and Zam. They are the two who need to be well-rounded and interesting. But it does open the door to discussions of racism in Thompson’s storytelling. Did he make the Sultan a power-mad misogynist because that’s who the character is, or is it because of Thompson’s own ethnocentric biases? Is Wanatolia full of calligraphers and robed assassins and street vendors with camels because Thompson wanted to instill a feeling of unease in the reader, not being able to reconcile the true nature of the kingdom, or is that his preconceived notion of what life in the Middle East must be like? How much of what he’s included is realistic and how much is assumption?

I have no idea. As I said, my knowledge of the Middle East is frightfully deficient, so I certainly don’t feel like I’m in a position to judge. What’s more, my knowledge of who Thompson is as a person and as a writer is informed pretty much by this book. I have no other way of knowing how susceptible he is to his own biases or how much he tries to subvert his own preconceptions. I will leave that up to people who are better situated than me to do.

What I do know, however, is that he did a ton of research to make this book, and it shows primarily in the art and the stories that are told as the book progresses.

The art is, in a word, stunning. It is full of intricate, byzantine calligraphy, mathematically precise and almost obsessively detailed. Every page is full of brilliantly planned drawings, and where the pages are blank, they call attention to their blankness and to those things that are being left undrawn. There were so many places in the book where I just stopped reading for a while so that I could just look at it and admire the time and the planning that must have gone into drawing something of this scope. The art alone is worth spending a day or two admiring.

It’s a deep and complicated book that rewards multiple reads. The more you know about the story, the more you find out when you read it again, and if you get tired then you can just admire the artwork for a good long while. The work that Thompson has produced here is nothing short of monumental.

On top of that, it’ll look really pretty on your bookshelf.

———-
“If all the trees on Earth were made into pens, and the ocean supplied the ink, augmented by seven more oceans, the words of God would not run out.”
– Koran, 31:27

All illustrations by Craig Thompson

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Filed under alternate history, art, Craig Thompson, fantasy, friendship, gender, graphic novel, identity, Islam, religion, sexuality

Review 166: Sex at Dawn

Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

Hey! Hey, baby, baby, waitwaitwaitwait. Wait. Wait! Baby, don’t… don’t freak out

Okay, okay, I know what this looks like, but I can explain! Quiet, Chad, let me handle this. I can explain! I’m just – please, stop crying and listen – I’m just fulfilling my evolutionary heritage and helping to cement social bonds with… um… the pizza boy, but that’snotthepoint!! That’s not the point! Look, before you do anything, y’know, drastic, you just need to read this book….

Image from wearscience.com - buy their stuff.

Humans are really good at figuring things out. As far as we go, we have a real knack for taking things apart and figuring out how they work. Though determined curiosity and perseverance, we know what’s happening at the center of the sun, we know how the continents slide across the surface of the earth, how plants turn sunlight into potatoes. We can smash atoms and cure disease and peer back to the moment of creation itself. There is almost nothing that humans cannot comprehend if we put our minds to it.

Except ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong – we have made great strides in philosophy and psychology, and come very far in understanding human origins and our spread across the planet. But there is a fundamental problem that we have when we study ourselves, and that is that we cannot do so objectively. Try as we might, it is impossible to completely put aside our own biases, judgments and backgrounds when we study how humans behave and try to understand why they do what they do. They are still there, if you look for them, and nowhere are they more evident than in the search for the origins or foundations of human sexuality.

The standard model, as it’s often called, goes something like this: ancient men and women established a pattern of monogamy based on mutual self-interest. The man would keep to one mate in order to be absolutely sure that he was dedicating his efforts towards raising his own kids and not someone else’s. If a man had multiple partners, he wouldn’t be able to provide for them all, and his genetic investment would die out. So, in terms of efficiency, it is much better for the man to keep himself to one woman, focusing all his attention on the children he knows he has fathered and making sure they live to have children of their own.

Not all women need the protection of a man, however.

As far as women are concerned, they require the resources that the men bring. When pregnant, a woman’s physical capacities are reduced and she is in a vulnerable state, so by staying monogamous, she is essentially purchasing security and resources that would otherwise be unavailable to her in a world that brought quick and merciless death. If she slept around, the man wouldn’t be sure that the child she bore was his, and would therefore have less interest in taking care of the both of them. Thus, monogamy is the best bet to assure the survival of herself and her child.

This is the story that’s been told for a long time, and it’s considered by most to be the truth. Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, however, disagree. Not only do they think the standard model is wrong, but they think it is nothing more than a relic of our own modern biases and hang-ups. The process, they say, can be referred to as “Flintstonization.”

As you know, the characters in “The Flintstones” were more or less just like us. They went to work, they had houses and appliances and domestic disputes. They had the same issues and amusements as we did, because we overlaid our own society onto a prehistoric setting. Now in cartoons, that’s good entertainment, and in the right hands it can be used as powerful satire and commentary. In science, though, it’s just no good.

Ladies...

Starting with Darwin, people have imagined prehistoric humans to have the same sexual values that we have: a demure, reluctant female who is very choosy in deciding which male she will mate with. A bond forms, and they are faithful to each other until the end of their days. Later researchers, looking at our ape cousins, have plenty of observational research to support the idea that very early humans were monogamous. They look at chimps and gorillas and baboons and confirm what they had always suspected – that our natural sexual state is one of monogamy.

The logical conclusion, then, is that our modern attitude towards sexuality, with the rising rates of divorce and teen sexuality, represents a deviation from the way things “should” be, and must therefore be fixed. A loveless marriage, a man’s roving eye, a woman who cuckolds her husband, serial monogamists, all of these, according to the standard model, result from our attempts to go against our nature.

Or is it the other way around?

Ryan and Jetha have put together a very compelling argument that the standard model of pre-agricultural human sexuality is not only wrong, but dangerously so. By looking at modern foraging tribes and the way they live, as well as doing a comparative analysis of humans against our nearest ape cousins, they have come to this conclusion: our “natural” sexual state is one of promiscuity. Back in the day, communities were small and tightly bonded, and sex was one of the things that held those bonds tight. Rather than one man and one woman struggling to protect their own genetic line, their entire community made sure that children were cared for and raised well. Everyone was everyone else’s responsibility, and in a world of plenty there was no reason to try and enforce any kind of sexual exclusivity.

MINE!

It was only with the rise of agriculture that it became important to know what was yours, as opposed to someone else’s, and that quickly extended from fields and livestock to wives and children. Now that people were keeping their own food and making sure to divide their lands from their neighbor’s lands, sharing went out of style. With so much work put into growing crops, that’s where the standard model of economic monogamy settled in, and it’s been with us ever since. The advent of agriculture changed everything, and not everything for the better.

In addition, the very biology of humans, from the way sperm behaves to the shape of the penis, to the anatomy of the clitoris to the noises women make in the throes of orgasm – all of these point to an evolutionary history of sexual promiscuity. The evidence of our bodies tell us that being locked into a lifetime monogamous pair-bond is not what we evolved to do.

Ryan and Jetha know that their view of the fundamental nature of human sexuality will not be popular, mainly because it completely undermines our vision of who we are. So much law, tradition, education, entertainment and just plain common sense relies on humans being naturally monogamous. It’s something that seems so obvious to us that we cannot imagine a society built any other way. Unfortunately, if Ryan and Jetha are right, society is the problem. We have established a cultural norm that goes completely against our biological and evolutionary nature, and which makes people miserable on a daily basis.

I bought this book mainly to stop Dan Savage from nagging me about it. If you listen to Savage’s podcast – and you should – you will soon realize that monogamy is something that a lot of people aren’t good at. We look at other people with lust in our hearts, we cheat, we stay in relationships where we’re sexually miserable just because that’s what we “should” do. For most people, our sexual urges are to be fought against, with everything from self-restraint to social shame to law itself. It seems like staying monogamous is one of the hardest things for many people to do.

This, of course, raises the question: if it were natural, would it really be so hard?

My mother is a SAINT!!

It is a fascinating read, which covers a lot of ground and makes some very compelling arguments. It’s also quite funny in places, which was quite welcome. In discussing the standard model the authors note that this is, fundamentally, prostitution, wherein the woman uses sex for material resources. This sexual barter system has been assumed to be true for years, leading the authors to write, “Darwin says your mother’s a whore. Simple as that.” They also put in some special notes for adventurous grad students in the field of sexual research (especially genital to genital rubbing, something popular in bonobo apes, but which is rarely studied in humans) and re-titling the extremely popular song “When A Man Loves a Woman” as “When a Man Becomes Pathologically Obsessed and Sacrifices All Self-Respect and Dignity by Making a Complete Ass of Himself (and Losing the Woman Anyway Because Really, Who Wants a Boyfriend Who Sleeps Out in the Rain Because Someone Told Him To?)”

I don’t really know what can be made of the serious information proposed in this book. No matter how it may seem, the authors are not proposing a dissolution of marriage or compulsory orgies or anything like that, nor is this book a “Get Out of Cheating Free” card. We’ve spent thousands of years putting these restraints on human sexuality, and they’re not going to come off anytime soon. The best we can do right now is to be aware of where our ideas about relationships come from, and stop to think about the difference between what is true and what we wish were true. This understanding might help to save relationships that would otherwise fail. People cheat not because they’re scum or whores, but because they’re human. Being monogamous is really hard not because we’re weak or flawed, but because it’s not what our bodies want for us.

The search for a better understanding of human nature should lead us to being better humans, and nothing should be left out. Not even our most sacred beliefs. Not even sex.

————————————————
“Asking whether our species is naturally peaceful or warlike, generous or possessive, free-loving or jealous, is like asking whether H2O is naturally a solid, liquid or gas. The only meaningful answer to such a question is: It depends.”
– Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, Sex at Dawn
————————————————

Okay? Okay, baby? So you see, I wasn’t really cheating – okay, I was, but you can see why, right? I was just acting in accordance with my fundamental humanity, following the biological impulses as determined by millions of years of evolution when we… Hey, where are you going? Where are you? Oh, hell, he’s going for the shotgun. Run, Chad, leave your pants, you don’t have time, run!

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Filed under anthropology, biology, Cacilda Jetha, Christopher Ryan, evolution, history, nonfiction, science, sexuality, society

Review 117: I Will Fear No Evil

I Will Fear No Evil by Robert Heinlein

One of the things I enjoy about Heinlein is that he likes to play with Big Ideas. While he did dip into the well of action and adventure, especially for his juvenile stories, he treated his readers like they were only slightly intellectually inferior to him, and so explored concepts that required a lot of heavy thinking. The need for war, the inevitability of messiahs, revolution, life, death, immortality – he’s not afraid to look at some of the greatest philosophical topics that reside in the human heart, and this book is no exception.

Johann Sebastian Bach Smith is a very old, very sick, very rich man. He built himself up from nothing and rose to financial prominence in what is a little more than a regular human lifetime. Smith had it all – a rich and exciting life, complete financial security, good friends and good memories in a world that had, frankly, gone to hell. He had very nearly everything a person would want to have.

Photo by openDemocracy

What he didn’t have was time. He lived in daily pain, kept alive by only two things: an ever-increasing number of machines and a plan to release himself from the geriatric horror his life had become. He knew that this plan would probably fail. He knew that he was facing death no matter what happened. He knew that it was crazy, and not necessarily crazy enough to work. But it was all that stood between him and suicide.

That plan was, in theory, very simple: transplant his healthy brain into the body of a healthy young person. By doing so, he would gain a whole extra lifetime to enjoy the fruits of his first lifetime’s labor. Not being a monster, he was prepared to do this in a legal and ethical fashion. With his legal, medical, and judicial contacts, he made arrangements with a medical advocacy group to get the body of a healthy young person who died due to some massive brain trauma. And – and this is important – who consented to having their body used for medical experimentation. Everything would be above-board, legally sound and ethically certain. All Smith had to do was stay alive until a body became available.

Now just put the two of them together... IF YOU DARE!

When it did, however, he was in for a double surprise. Not only was the healthy, youthful body that of a female, it was that of his healthy, youthful, beautiful secretary, Eunice Branca. Eunice had been murdered, but her body was in excellent condition. She had the right blood type, and had consented to have her body used for Smith’s experiment. The one doctor in the world who could perform the surgery was brought in to perform it, and against all odds, it worked. Johann Sebastian Bach Smith was reborn as Joan Eunice Smith, and her new life began.

But she was not alone.

By some means, Eunice’s mind survived to live with Joan, and tutor her in all the ways of being a woman. Joan dove happily into her new life, exploring her new femininity and sexuality as best she could.

In that sense, this whole book is an exploration of sexual identity. Here we have a man who is now a woman, even though that was never his intention. He soon finds himself thinking like a woman, though, bringing up the question of whether gender is determined by a person’s mind, or by the body it inhabits. If you put a male mind into a female body, with the vastly different hormones and sensory inputs, will that male mind start to act like a female? And even if it does, should it?

Smith makes a decision to, with Eunice’s help, be the best woman he can be, mostly because he feels that is what is expected of him. After a lifetime of conforming to male societal roles, Smith wholeheartedly embraces the female ones, up to and including seducing his best friend of many decades. Gender identity in this book is a tangled mess of biology and intention, and it looks at being female from a distinctly male point of view.

It was a different time....

Which brings me to my first problem with this book: the casual misogyny. I know it’s a pretty loaded word to throw around, and it’s not entirely accurate, but it was the one that kept coming to my mind. While Heinlein is certainly capable of creating strong and independent female characters, and emphasizes over and over again that both Eunice and Joan are actively choosing the lives they lead, those lives are almost entirely dependent on and revolve around men. One of Smith’s first actions when he goes from Johann to Joan is to latch on to a man – her old friend Jake Saloman. She views her identity as a woman as incomplete without a man to base it on, and spends most of the book trying to figure out who she is in relation to men – Jake, her security guards, Eunice’s widower, and more. She repeatedly mentions how helpless she is without a Big Strong Man in her life, and all of this culminates in what is possibly one of the most misogynist moments I have ever read in sci-fi: a spanking scene.

And not a sexy one, either. In a moment of adolescent pique that Jake won’t sleep with her when she wants him to, Joan throws a fit, disrupting their dinner plans. Jake proceeds to throw her over his knee and give her a spanking because, and I’m quoting here, “You were being difficult… and it is the only thing I know of which will do a woman any good when a man can’t do for her what she needs.” Joan accepts the spanking meekly, not only thanking Jake for his spanking, but also claiming that she had her first orgasm while he did it.

Wow. That’s nearly as bad as the other major female character, Winnie, who talks about a gang rape experience with what can almost be imagined as fondness.

Oddly enough, this is not my biggest problem with the book. I mean, it was written in the late ’60s, and it reflects the thinking of that era. For all his progressive beliefs, Heinlein was still a man of his time, and it really shows here. Legend [1] has it that he was really sick when he wrote this book, and that may have had something to do with the fact that no matter how many complex hot-button issues he touches (gender roles, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, overpopulation, government overreach), the fact remains that there is no story in this book.

This picture contains more conflict than this book

Let me explain. A story needs conflict. It needs not only a protagonist that is trying to achieve something, but obstacles that impede that achievement. There were so many potential goals and obstacles to be explored in this story – a man’s brain in a woman’s body – but Heinlein manages to artfully dodge all of them. The story of Smith’s inner struggle to resolve the gender he grew up with with the gender he now possesses would have been fascinating. But it didn’t happen. Smith pretty much accepts the change right away, with few if any reservations. Even so, he could have struggled with how to live as a woman – should he adopt the identity that a patriarchal society would confer upon him as a woman, or forge his own as a uniquely gendered person who has gone from the privileged to the unprivileged sex? Unfortunately, the conflict doesn’t even occur to Joan. She decided to be the best woman she can be, constantly asking others what that entails, rather than asking herself.

Or how about the concept of Identity itself? Smith is an old brain in a new body, so is he legally the same person he was before the surgery? That would be an amazing story as he tries to prove that Johann has become Joan, and that even though Eunice’s body is still walking around, she’s actually dead. But no – Smith has some powerful legal friends with ironclad arguments, and the legal proceedings are pretty much a foregone conclusion.

Or how about rejection by society? Regular transgendered people have a hard enough time getting society to accept the modification of the body they were born with – what about when someone takes on an entirely new body? Joan could have struggled to get her friends and family to accept who she has become, to stand before the world with her head held high. But no…. She has enough money that she doesn’t really need society’s approval, none of her friends have any trouble with what she’s become, and even Eunice’s widower has only a moment of uncontrollable emotion before accepting that his wife is dead, but still walking around. And he might get to sleep with her again.

Imagine this in your head ALL the TIME.

One last one – the soul. Joan hears Eunice’s voice in her head, but it’s unclear whether it is really Eunice or if it’s just Joan’s imagination. What’s more, they never fight. They never have a serious disagreement and have to resolve their differences so that they can continue to occupy the same skull. Eunice and Joan live together like wisecracking sisters and never have to deal with the problem of living with someone you can’t get rid of, even if you’re not sure if they’re real.

In other words, there’s no there there. It’s a long, talky, philosophical exploration of some fascinating topics, but as a novel, it’s incredibly dull. You keep waiting for the blow-up, for the accident, for the Big Problem that Joan and Jake have to struggle to overcome, and it never arrives. Everything works out either through money or force of will or Heinlein’s trademark Sheer Damn Reasonableness. Between that and the constant thought of, “He did not just say that,” I found this book rather stressful to plow through. It offers up a lot of big ideas to think on, raises some very important questions, and Heinlein’s gift for dialogue makes some fun conversations, but I think I would have liked it more if it had been completely different.

——————————————————
“Sir, if you want to give me a fat lip, I’ll hold still, smile happily, and take it. Oh, Jake darling, it’s going to be such fun to be married to you!”
“I think so too, you dizzy bitch.”
– Joan and Jake, I Will Fear No Evil by Robert Heinlein
——————————————————

[1] Wikipedia

Robert Heinlein on Wikipedia
I Will Fear No Evil on Wikipedia
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Filed under afterlife, bad, death, existentialism, friendship, gender, gender roles, ghosts, homosexuality, identity, Robert Heinlein, romance, science fiction, sexuality

Review 107: Wizard and Glass

Wizard and Glass by Stephen King

So. Now that we’ve put three books behind us, and sit at the pivot of the series, it is time that we settle down and have ourselves a little palaver about Roland, the Gunslinger.

We know little about this man, the protagonist of our epic series. We know he’s a hard man, the kind of man who can cross deserts, brave oceans, and kill entire towns if need be. We know he’s a dedicated man, who will follow his quarry wherever they may flee to. We know he is single-minded, the kind of person who would allow an eleven year-old boy to fall to his death if that meant getting another foot closer to his precious Dark Tower. He is a hard man, Roland Deschain is. He is the Gunslinger.

But who is he really? Who was he before he started on this mad quest for something that may or may not exist? How did he get set on this path that could determine the fate of worlds, this quest that led to the deaths of everyone he ever loved? Who is he?

Blaine the Mono (art by Revenant42)

Well settle down, boys and girls, because this is where we get to find out. In between destroying a sentient monorail at a rigged game of riddles and facing off against the darkest Dark Man there is in a mock-up of the Palace of the Emerald City, Roland tells his ka-tet the tale that shaped him and set him on his path. It is a tale that begins with his entry into manhood – a trial by violence where he bested his teacher, Cort, in a duel to the pain, and ends with Roland’s soul nearly destroyed.

Roland and his companions, Alain and Cuthbert, have been sent by their fathers to the most out-of-the-way place they know – a small village called Hambry in the Barony of Meijis. Their alleged purpose is to count things, more as a punishment than a mission. They seem to be three boys who got into trouble, and who now must pay by spending their summer doing menial work. They don’t want any trouble, and they hope that no one will give them any.

They say there is a monster in the Citgo fields. Green, mayhap.... (photo by Cogito Ergo Imago)

That’s the story, anyway. In reality, they’re looking for evidence of the workings of John Farson, also known as The Good Man, who is leading a popular revolution against the established order in Roland’s home country, In-World. Hambry has an oil field, the work of the Great Old Ones, which is known to locals simply as “Citgo” Should Farson get enough oil – and the means to refine it – he will be able to revive ancient war machines and bring death to all of In-World. With Roland, Alain and Cuthbert as spies for the Affiliation, the Gunslingers in Gilead hope that they can stall, if not stop, Farson’s rebellion.

That would have been great if only Roland Deschain hadn’t met Susan Delgado, the daughter of a deceased horse-breeder and soon to be the promised girl of the mayor of Hambry. As soon as they meet, their destiny is clear: it is true love. No more able to stand against their fate than a tree in a whirlwind, Roland and Susan do as all young lovers have done, and risk discovery and death in the process. In every corner there are those who would stand against them: Susan’s spinster aunt, Cordelia, who hopes to make some money selling her niece off to the mayor; the Big Coffin Hunters, three mercenaries who work for Farson and who mean to see every last drop of oil gets in his hands; and Rhea of the Cöos, a horrible witch who possesses a crystal orb that lets her see all the malicious things that people do. Against these arrayed forces, Roland and his friends must not only foil the plans of John Farson, but also escape Meijis with their lives.

With the first, they are successful. With the second, not so much.

Dark Tower fans that I have talked to generally agree that this is the best book of the seven, for many reasons. First, we get to see Roland before he became all tall, gritty and scary. We see him as a callow youth, a boy of fourteen who is in way over his head, tackling responsibilities that would be better handled by a grown man. They’re on the losing side of a terrible war as it is, as they’re up against the combined cunning and guile of some very bad people. In many cases it is luck as much as skill that leads them to their eventual victory.

Roland and Susan (art by Jae Lee)

What’s more, we get to see Roland in love, and this is really where King shines in this book. He says in the afterward that he was dreading writing this book, mainly because he knew that he would have to portray teenage love – first love – in a realistic fashion, which can be hard to do when you’re several decades removed from being a teenager. All the madness that comes with teen love – the longing, the furtive trysts, the absolute certainty in what you are doing and that no one can stop you. The way that the person you’re in love with is all you can think about, and the only thing you want is to be with them again, if only for a moment. The way you freely and willingly lose your mind for love.

It’s something which, thankfully, we grow out of as adults. Frankly, if I ever felt like that again, I’d probably throw myself under a train.

King has done a fantastic job with the relationship between Susan and Roland – it’s as realistic as he can make it, without being mawkish and overly romantic. We are never allowed to forget that, like so many doomed lovers before them, they are risking everything with their love – their mission, their friends, and their lives – and we know that even the slightest misstep can mean disaster. Mixed with the other, more adventure-driven elements of the plot, it’s incredibly tense, and it’s handled very well.

The romance aside, there are some wonderful characters in this book, and as is the case with so many Stephen King novels, the best ones are the bad ones. Susan’s aunt Cordelia is a bundle of jealous paranoia, and you can feel her mainspring winding up every time she shows up on the page. Eldred Jonas is a laid-back killer, an old man who has buried countless young men, and means to bury Roland and his friends. And Rhea is just palpably foul. You can almost smell her when she shows up, which is a great accomplishment – and you can’t wait to see her again.

Rhea of the Cöos (art by Jae Lee)

As an aside, Marvel Comics has been doing comic book stories of Roland’s youth, and the first one re-tells this tale. It’s called The Gunslinger Born, and while it’s not bad, there is a certain emptiness to it. It’s not easy to compress hundreds of pages of character and plot development into a seven-issue comic series. I don’t know how it would read to someone who hasn’t read this book, but to me it looked like it was missing a whole hell of a lot….

As I said, this book is the pivot on which the series turns, and it is essential to understanding Roland. We have to know who he was and how he became who he is. While there are still questions to be answered, and stories to be told, the big story is out. Now he and his ka-tet can continue in their quest for the tower, confident that they know a little more about this man who yanked them from their worlds into his. For us, the character and his world become richer, more full of meaning. Things that we might not have thought about in the first few books become more meaningful, and we can better appreciate the history of his dying world. Most importantly, we can begin to understand why it is so important that he find the Dark Tower, and we pray that he knows what to do when he gets there.

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“I’ll pay ye back. By all the gods that ever were, I’ll pay ye back. When ye least expect it, there Rhea will be, and your screams will break your throats. Do you hear me? Your screams will break your throats!
– Rhea Dubativo of the Cöos, Wizard and Glass

Wizard and Glass on Wikipedia
The Dark Tower Portal on Wikipedia
Stephen King on Wikipedia
The Dark Tower homepage
Wizard and Glass on Amazon.com

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Filed under adventure, coming of age, Dark Tower, death, fantasy, friendship, murder, quest, romance, sexuality, Stephen King, teenagers, witches, wizardry, world-crossing

Review 83: Crooked Little Vein


Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis

The world is a weird place. This is as true now as it was fifty years ago, but there’s one big difference between us here in the twenty-first century and our primitive twentieth-century forebears: they didn’t have the internet.

With the democratization of information, what was once only whispered about is now available to anyone who wants to see it. What few people knew, they can now share with the world. This is certainly true of science and history, culture and arts, but what concerns most people on the internet is not the finer, more cerebral aspects of culture.

It’s the porn.

Have you heard of Rule 34, for example? The Rule states that, if it exists then there is porn of it somewhere on the internet. Remember your favorite childhood TV show? The one that you used to look forward to every week, and which perhaps you watched with your parents and/or siblings? You have fond memories of those times, I’m sure, and cherish the characters in your heart – characters that you grew to love and thought of as, dare I say it, family.

Well somewhere on the internet there’s a picture of them engaged in acts that would make the Baby Jesus weep. Weep, I tell you. [1]

And that’s not the worst of it. Warren Ellis is arguably one of the current superstars of the internet, with a huge online following. He produces content every day, and it’s followed by thousands of readers all over the world. Much of the time it’s talk about fiction and the industry of fiction, perhaps promoting up and coming artists or talking about the projects he’s working on. Sometimes it’ll be a commentary on the World Today, though that’s less often. His output is varied and always interesting, and occasionally comes with a link that says, simply, “Don’t look.

You looked, didn’t you? Serves you right.

Well when Warren sends one out, the consequences are much more severe. He links to people who are doing things – usually to their bodies – that I would shudder to describe. There are graphic photographs and descriptions by people who willingly cut, mar, mark and sever things that (in my opinion) really shouldn’t be cut, marred, marked or – and I’d like to stress this – severed. Should you be so brave as to click on one of Warren’s links (these days usually reading as, “Conan! What is best in life?“), you will see something that you probably never wanted to see, and which you most certainly cannot un-see.

Keep in mind that Warren doesn’t create these people. He doesn’t find them and put them on the internet, unless he is far, far more diabolical than we give him credit for. He simply shows us where they are and lets us make up our own minds. To look, or not to look. To condemn, or not to condemn. Regardless, what he’s showing us is a side of the world that most of us never knew existed, and were probably happy to have been ignorant of. The question then becomes, what are we going to do about it?

In his book, Crooked Little Vein, the U.S. government has the answer to the rising tide of deviation that seems to have engulfed the country in the latter days. There exists a book – a Secret Constitution of the United States. It was allegedly bound in the skin of an extraterrestrial and is weighted with exotic meteorite stones. The act of opening the book creates a sonic pulse that resonates with the human eyeball and forces you to read it. In it you will find the secret Constitution and its twenty-three invisible amendments that tells Presidents what the true intent of the Founders was. For nearly two centuries this hidden document governed the country, until it was lost in the 1950s. Since then, America has slid into perversion and degradation, and the White House Chief of Staff wants private investigator Michael McGill to track it down.

For his part, McGill wants nothing to do with it. Despite the huge amount of money that he stands to earn, he knows that taking this case will refocus the Universe’s attention on him and he’ll start to draw the freaks like iron filings to a magnet. And since finding the book is all about stopping the freaks, Mike is in for all of the weirdness that America can throw at him. Before he can find the book, Mike will have to confront the twisted, kinky and perverted side of the country and decide what is to become of it.

This book works on a lot of layers. For one, it’s a fun read, and you’ll probably get through it pretty quickly. Ellis is an accomplished writer, with a vivid imagination and an excellent ear for dialogue. He also has a very good sense of written rhythm, which probably comes from his main gig as a writer of comic books. Some of the chapters are single sentences, meant to be read and absorbed in a moment, but also to be thought on. When you get to Chapter 6, which simply reads, “I wish I still had that photo,” you’re meant to take a moment to think about what that means, both to the character and to the story.

What this means is that not only does Ellis know that he’s telling us a story, he’s vividly aware of the medium through which he is doing it and exploits that very well. It shows an awareness that most authors lack, or at the very least don’t often take advantage of.

I have only one nit to pick about Ellis’ writing, though, and I’m sure he will subject me to Horrors the likes of which you cannot fathom for pointing them out, but not to do so would mean I was shirking in my duties. This is how much I love you all.

While it is set in the United States, and is something of a dirty love letter to the country, there is a distinctly British English tone to some of the writing. Not too much, just enough to make you notice, if you’re the kind of person who notices these things. His narrator uses the verb “trod” at one point, as in “I trod on her foot,” which doesn’t sound very American to my ears. Likewise, he refers to wainscot and leatherette, words which ring with a certain amount of Britishness. Maybe it’s just me, but they kind of stood out. Your experience may vary. [2]

Anyway, beyond the simple entertainment of reading the book, there are some very real things to think about in there. For example, in an age where anyone can put up a webpage, what does it mean to be “mainstream?” What’s more, what does it mean to be “underground” these days? Fifty years ago, homosexuality was something that most decent, God-fearing people didn’t even know about, much less experience. Now there are openly gay actors, athletes and politicians, and the “gay next-door neighbor” is already a character so common that it’s become a cliche. Is S&M, for example, “underground” when we’ve been making jokes about it in TV and movies for years? How about swingers? Hell even the pedophiles are mainstream, which you’d know if you were a viewer of Family Guy. How long with it be until we see saline injection fetishists, macroherpetophiles or functioning heroin addicts as being simply part of the endlessly variegated crazy quilt that is American culture?

What’s more, should we allow all these people into the cultural mainstream? Is there a kink limit for society? Is there something that people can do to themselves, or to other consenting adults, that is just so Out There that we have to draw the line and say “No further, weirdo!” For those of us who are a bit more open-minded than most, can we turn around and decry the whitebread people who like their vanilla lives and sexual predictability?

Who will make that judgment call, and how? In this book, it’s the U.S. Government that’s trying to do it, and they’ll roll the country back to the Fifties if they can. One of the wonderful and scary things about living in the Internet Age is that these cultural rules have yet to set in. We’re looking around and seeing all the strangeness that we never knew was there and deciding in the moment what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Should we appreciate these unusual practices for their creativity and for the flavor they lend our culture, or should we snuff them out in the name of some notion of “Decency?”

Ellis’ answer is pretty clear once you get through the book, and I have to agree with him. I’ve always been on the side of personal liberty, so long as you’re not hurting anyone who doesn’t want to get hurt. As for those of us who might be a little weirded out by knowing what it is that people get up to in their bedrooms, remember – you don’t have to click on the link.

Either way it’s a serious philosophical issue for the 21st century, and Ellis has done a very fine job of presenting it to us. Beyond the book, I have no doubt he will continue to do so.

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“You don’t get to keep the parts of the country you like, ignore the rest, and call what you’ve got America.”
– Mike McGill, Crooked Little Vein
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[1] Rule 35, by the way, states that the if no porn is found of it, it will be made.

[2] Warren’s eels are doubtless on their way for me now. Run! Save yourselves!!

Warren Ellis on Wikipedia
Crooked Little Vein on Wikipedia
Crooked Little Vein on Amazon.com
Warren Ellis’ homepage

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Filed under detective fiction, fiction, sexuality, The United States, Warren Ellis

Review 15: Confessions of a Mask


Confessions of a Mask by Yukio Mishima

From what I can tell, Yukio Mishima was not a very happy man.

Granted, the only works that I have read of this very prolific author are this and Kinkakuji, but I’m seeing a pattern already, and it doesn’t point towards Mishima being a cheerful, laid-back guy. Of course, his suicide by seppuku is also a good indicator that he took things way too seriously.

Published in 1948, Confessions of a Mask addresses a subject that would have been taboo anywhere, not just Japan. The main character, whose name is only given as Kochan, is a young man dealing with the fact that he is homosexual. He begins with one of his earliest memories, seeing a night-soil man and finding him beautiful, which he believes is what set his preferences for life. As he gets older, he doesn’t yet realize that he’s different from other boys, except in that he’s small and thin and gets sick a lot more often. He finds himself entranced by men, especially laborers, and not knowing if this is what he’s supposed to be feeling.

His sexual maturity is a sad and stunted thing. The pleasure and rapture that he sees in paintings of St. Sebastian hide dark urges of violence and despair. His boyhood love of a classmate is a secret that gnaws at him until he finally convinces himself that he was never actually in love at all. And his attempts to become “normal” end with nothing by emptiness and sorrow. Kochan has no friends to talk to, no family to lean on, and no way to know if what he’s feeling is good or bad. All he knows is that the other boys are fascinated by women, and he’s fascinated by other boys. In darkness and isolation, Kochan grows. What he grows into, however, is a pale, lonely and barren man.

Like many gay kids, especially in the pre-internet era, Kochan believes that he is unique. An aberration, a deviation from the norm. As far as he knows, no other boy has felt the way he did, and the only other one he hears of – Oscar Wilde – is long dead. His desire to fit in with the rest of the world leads him to play an elaborate game, to wear a mask so convincing that it nearly convinces himself. Being able to hide who he really is and what he really wants becomes a matter of hiding from himself. And as anyone who’s tried that will know, hiding from yourself only works for so long….

Such is the life of a young gay man in wartime Japan. While I’m sure what Mishima has presented here is not the average, it is a depressing picture of what it’s like to live in a society where such a deviation from the norm is punishable by societal exile. While I can’t claim to know what would have happened to a young man in that era who came out of the closet, the narrator doesn’t even seem to consider that as an option, good or bad. Thus I can only assume that the consequences would be dire.

There’s no doubt that this book is at least semi-autobiographical. A look at Mishima’s life shows a number of parallels, especially in the early days. Both he and Kochan were raised by grandparents and separated from their families. Mishima stared writing as a boy, an activity that his father deplored and which earned him beatings by other students in school. He knew what it was like to be different, and that probably fed into this novel.

Whether or not Mishima was actually gay is, it seems, debatable. He did marry, and had two children, which would seem to indicate against it, but if, like the character in this book, he fought against his own nature, such an arrangement could be understandable.

One of the things that I found difficult about this book – and Kinkakuji – was how very introspective it was. The narrator tells the story of his life from his older point of view, and dissects every thought and every memory in exacting detail. It creates a picture of a person who lives entirely in his own head, and attributes modes of thinking that one wouldn’t normally associate with, say, a twelve-year old. He appears to be very analytical, even from his earliest days. Though he tells us that he is not letting his adult mind get in the way of his memories of childhood, this great attention to detail proves him wrong.

The depiction of Kochan’s attempts to hide himself is yet another mask – the mask of purposefulness. The narrator would like us to believe that he made every decision with purpose, as part of a plan. That he really did choose this life of self-deception. Perhaps because the idea that all of this was beyond his control is just too terrible to contemplate. Perhaps because it is better to own a bad decision than to admit that it was an accident. The narrator shows us quite clearly how adept he is at hiding from himself, and so he cannot be trusted to tell us truthfully about how he thought when he was a young man.

This makes reading the book a challenge – the reader must evaluate every statement and judge every event for its possible veracity. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing how much is true and how much is falsehood. In the end, we just have to take Kochan at his word, all the while accepting that he’s probably lying – and doing it without being aware of what he’s doing.

Reading Confessions of a Mask today, sixty years after it was first published, is illuminating. In the US, we’re involved in a great societal discussion over whether or not gays should get married, and while being homosexual certainly isn’t something that is universally accepted, the prospects for young gays and lesbians in the modern age are much better than they would have been for someone coming of age in the 1940s. Even in Japan, where coming out to one’s family is still as hard as it ever was, there are gays and lesbians on television and the matter is open to discussion. A homosexual in Japan may not be as willing to kick down the closet door as his or her American counterparts, but the abject horror of being utterly rejected by society is probably much less than it was.

When you consider what happens in this book, the horrible mental contortions that the main character must make in order to hide his true nature from the world – and himself – you can appreciate how far we’ve come.

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“I had long since insisted upon interpreting the things that Fate forced me to do as victories of my own will and intelligence, and now this bad habit had grown into a sort of frenzied arrogance. In the nature of what I was calling my intelligence there was a touch of something illegitimate, a touch of the sham pretender who has been placed on the throne by some freak chance. This dolt of a usurper could not foresee the revenge that would inevitably be wreaked upon his stupid despotism.”
-Yukio Mishima, Confessions of a Mask
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Yukio Mishima at Wikipedia
Confessions of a Mask at Wikipedia
Confessions of a Mask at Amazon.com
Homosexuality in Japan at Wikipedia

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Filed under coming of age, homosexuality, Japan, memoir, morality, sexuality, Yukio Mishima