Sunday, April 28, 2013

Zombi Ennui

Colson Whitehead

Reviewed by Carol
Pick a star, any star

Oh dear. Is it possible to make flesh-hungering zombies seem dull?

While I never thought so, AMC and Whitehead have both been giving it their all by enveloping them in navel-gazing Philosophy 101 monologues and odd series of pastoral flashbacks in the midst of life-or-death situations. Whitehead, at least, delivers his philosophy with amazing prose, while the writers at The Walking Dead (season two) rely on repetition of words like 'humanity' more times than Hobbes could shake a stick at. We get it: apocalypse stories are essentially about hope; how we create meaning in survival and and how we cope with a massive breakdown in society. While I'm optimistic for The Walking Dead, I'll take a pass on Whitehead's version of humanity--this is the Kafka version, where people are roaches--or mannequins--before transforming into zombies. Nihilism at it's most uninspiring.

As I began Zone One, I started falling in love with the language, the clear and exacting prose Whitehead uses to describe everything from technology to buildings. As I read on, it became apparent that while Whitehead can turn an apt phrase, he has no love or passion for his story; this is a chronicle of decay, both before and after the plague apocalypse.

There is little in Zone One for the fans of action and plotting, and only the barest of character development. Instead, we are given ink sketches in broad frames, all the better to hang the dirty laundry of Whitehead's social commentary. The setting is conventional plague apocalypse; 'something' starts transforming people, it spreads before awareness of infection, and society melts like a wet tissue, except for small encampments of people. The plot centers on teams sent out to cleanse New York City of the remaining dead once the Marines have swept through. The narrator is an Everyman, nameless until christened by his teammates, who relives his memories as he scours the city for zombies.

Darkness begins on the very first page when we read: "the camera was so backward that every lurching specimen his father enlisted from the passersby was able to operate it sans hassle, no matter the depth of cow-eyed vacancy in their tourist faces or local wretchedness inverting their spines." Descriptions of people before the plague strangely resemble those of people after, and it's not because of compassion for the zombies. Right there, I knew the level of disdain for the father, the mediocre, the simple, even for humanity.

Every word is selected with care, conveying decay and blight. Photos are "culled" for an album. The buildings of pre-plague New York aggressively "collided, they humiliated runts through verticality and ambition, sulked in one another's shadows." When they are redeveloped, "their insides were butchered, reconfigured, rewired according to the next era's new theories of utility... sweatshop killing floor into cordoned cubicle mill." The disdain carries over into people, especially lawyers. "If you'd asked him about his plans... the answer would have come easily: lawyering. He was berefit of attractive propositions, constitutionally unaccustomed for enthusiasm, and generally malleable... Hence, law." Likewise, design firms, receptionists, number-crunching bureaucrats, fast-food friers, soldiers--none are spared from the contemptuous voyeuristic lens.

Living characters are suspiciously similar to zombies. Gary, on Mark's team has "fingernails which were seemingly constructed of grime as if he had clawed out of a coffin," and Kaitlyn, the leader, is a clear "grade grubber before the disaster... maintain(ing) a grade-grubbing continuum." Even people at the camps. "Everyone he saw walked around with a psychological limp... the all-over crumpling, as if the soul were imploding or the mind sucking the extremities into itself."

This is one of those books that destroys a rating system. Technically brilliant, structurally competent and ultimately both cynically distancing and ironic, it lacks the heart and characters that truly engage me on a deeper level. Two stars for personal enjoyment, problems with world building (which, in fairness, I believe weren't meant to be resolved as it is meant more as a metaphorical tale), four stars for deft use of language and general conception, and one star for it's dim view of human nature.

Cross posted at

Debutante Detective Survives Psycho Armed with - how many Cliches? Think of a Number!


John Verdon

So John Verdon arrives on the scene with a cliche-ridden brick of a book about a genius detective whose obsessive behaviour is damaging his marriage and so he has retired from the NYPD to upstate NY where everything will be much better...if he doesn't get dragged into solving a mystery for an old college mate who is being sent freaky hand-written messages by a scary person who seems to know more about the recipient than is reasonable for anyone.

It's obvious where this is going to go and it does, but nevermind - Verdon has crafted a page-turner with vivid even if off-the-shelf characters. There's a technique he uses to show off his protagonist's skills. In group interactions he likes to set up a moron (always a bloke) and a sharply perceptive and well educated woman to compare and contrast with his hero. In fact he'll try to squash in several types of moron if he can. No wonder he was the most celebrated detective in NYPD history with all those other idiots about - in fact it's amazing any crimes get solved now he's retired - oh! They don't - he has to come back and do it for them...

There are zillions of other books out there about psychos and genius detectives but most of them are far less worthy of your time than this one.

The difference between justice and murder

Death Note
Written by Tsugumi Ohba, illustrated by Takeshi Obata
English publication by Viz Media

Reviewed by Sesana
4 out of 5 stars

I read a lot of comics, and a lot of manga. The genre conventions can get a little old after you've read, say, a few dozen magical girl series. So I find myself re-reading older books that I have an emotional attachment to (Don't ask me to be objective about Sailor Moon. It's too late for that.) or ones with unique, even thought-provoking premises. And believe it or not, Death Note is one of the latter.

The Death Note of the title is a notebook, normally the property of a shinigami (think "death god"). If your name is written in a Death Note, you die, in whatever way and at whatever time is written. A totally made up example: John Smith will be hit by a bus at 2:37 on March 24 and die two minutes later from massive internal injuries. One particularly bored shinigami, Ryuk, has dropped a death note into the human world, just to see what would happen. One could say that this makes Ryuk the single most effective troll in history. It's found by Light Yagami, a brilliant high schooler with a strong sense of justice. As soon as Light realizes the power he now has, he sets out to eliminate criminals, one by one, using the Death Note, while Ryuk sits back and enjoys the show. But criminals or not, a hundred or so inmates suddenly dropping dead is going to attract attention, and not just from the police. The rumor mill invents Kira (a Japanese attempt at pronouncing the English word "killer") to explain all the deaths, and naturally the police take notice. Murder is murder, after all, and I imagine they're concerned at the potential loss of information if all the suspects die before interrogation. And a case like this, with a seemingly total lack of leads, is also going to attract the attention of the world's greatest detective, the mysterious and never seen L. This is the central onstage conflict of the series, Light vs. L. 

This is the simplest summary of the series I can give, because it gets very complicated, very quickly. This is a very wordy, internalized series. Most of the panels show the thoughts of the characters, mostly Light and L as they continually plot and counterplot against each other. Both Light and L are smart enough to think several steps ahead of everyone else around them. At one point, Light's plot becomes so complicated that I would need a flowchart to explain it, with L just one tiny slip away from exposing him at any moment. It's an effort to keep up, and this is not a series for people who require constant action. That's all aside from the many convoluted rules on how the Death Notes actually work, some of which never become relevant to the plot.

This is the kind of series that sparks debates. What's the difference between justice and murder? Is Light's vigilante justice morally right? Or is he just another crazy killer? Does the criminals he targets deserve death? Given that, by the end of the first volume, he's responsible for the deaths of hundreds, what does Light himself deserve? Does it make a difference that L is less concerned with justice than in solving a particularly tricky brain teaser? What would drive someone to worship Kira? Would Light's utopia really be a better place? For whom? Luckily, the manga is as neutral as possible, making both sides (and their representatives) sympathetic and flawed in roughly equal measures.

And are they ever flawed. L is the sort of character who can be fun to read about in fiction, but who would be very hard to take in real life. He's wildly eccentric, frequently rude, seems to lack empathy for people around him, and, significantly, is more interested in the case as a battle of wits than as a chance to stop a murderer. Light is much more polished on the surface, and a lot less likely to offend people around him, but there's something deeply off about him, more and more so as the series continues. Other characters are little more than background to their conflict. The character of Misa, Light's pseudo-girlfriend, has struck a nerve with a lot of readers. She is indeed pathetically subservient to Light, easily taken in by even his cheapest lies, and pretty dim and ineffective compared to him and L. But then, this is a series where almost every character is dim and ineffective when coming up against Light and L, and most characters are completely taken in by Light's surface charm. In the end, it's a game of chess, with massive stakes. Light and L are in control, and everyone else are just pawns. And both Light and L are well aware of that.

There are twelve volumes of the manga in all, and the ending is spectacular. Sure, the basic result is all but inevitable, but the details, the exact way it unfolds is often unexpected, with more than one character surprising me. For me, it was a deeply satisfying ending, true to the characters and the plot to that point. And well worth reading through a dozen volumes to get there. It's an extended battle of wits between brilliant, flawed, and strong-willed characters, and one of the most memorable manga series I've ever read. There are certainly flaws (particularly the reliance on giant walls of text), but the series as a whole is more than worth it.