Sunday, July 22, 2007

Crooked Little Vein

Read it. Loved it. Was left wanting more.

Prolific Graphic novel writer Warren Ellis's first prose novel is a marvelous piece of grimy reportage from the most extreme frontiers a weird nation can offer. It's the kind of clear-eyed look at sensation crazed America that probably only a foreigner could write. There's some Burroughs here, in a shotgun perversity reminiscent of Naked Lunch, but with Hunter S. Thompson's fiercely ethical observational judgment to give it a thematic skeleton.

It's also, despite being about the essential moral and aesthetic terror that is the only sane response to some of the extremes of human obsession, a bizarrely affectionate take for the weird yet quintessentially American spirit underneath all the Godzilla fetishism, saline infusion parties and bloody sputum. Ellis trades here in horror and disgust shading over into wearily cynical mockery, yet he has no patience for masturbatory nostalgia for a mythical 'simpler time'.

Burned out detective and self described 'shit magnet' Mike McGill is given an assignment by the reptilian, heroin addicted White House Chief of Staff to quest across America to find the secret other constitution of the United States, a quasi mythical 'reset button' for a nation grown dangerously strange, plunging him into a horrifying and bizarre journey into the surreal heart of the blackest most perverse American Dream ever put to paper.

If the book has a message, and I think it does, it's this is who we are now so we should look at subculture at it's most extreme with honest recognition and self awareness. The Splatterpunk horror pioneers Skipp and Spector jointly presented their law that if you can find it in a mall, it's not underground anymore.

Ellis explicitly makes the same argument, just substituting the internet for the mall. The tagline for Planetary, his graphic series tribute to our pulp dreams seems apropos here too: "It's a strange world, let's keep it that way."

Ellis covers a lot of the same territory he did in his brilliant gonzo cyberpunk graphic novel saga Transmetropolitan but benefits from leaving behind the trappings of the far future and from an undeniably greater maturity of insight. This book is the culmination of literally years of extensive freak monitoring chronicled in his graphic works and vast web presence.

This isn't some alien science fiction underground, this is the moral, sexual and cultural world we live in - very much in the tradition of the science fiction of the now explored by William Gibson in his increasingly near near future SF - culminating with his latest novels Pattern Recognition and Spook Country set in science fiction today.

Did I mention Crooked Little Vein is also hilarious, suspenseful, compulsively readable and, yes, freakishly charming? It is. It's also a tightly plotted and slyly quip heavy 276 pages that leaves you wishing it was longer.

It is grotesquely unfair and yet almost unavoidable to compare Crooked Little Vein to another literary love note to the American Road Novel by a British comic book writer: American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Next to Gaiman's bloated and rather twee magical realist take on an American underworld of ancient and modern gods battling for supremacy, Crooked Little Vein is a leanly written, ferociously hungry dark mirror held up to our own strange world.

And far more aware and unflinchingly honest about the dangerously crazy yet hypnotic glint in America's mad eyes.

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