Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Going and Going and Going...

Gone Girl is a hit and likely due to suck up a whole slew of Academy Awards. This is warranted by the first third of the movie, a haunting and at times skin-crawling examination of the All American Marriage.

Nick Dunne - Ben Afleck at his commendably least Afleckiest - is just any other suburban self-centered oaf. He doesn't know as much about his wife as he should, spends more time on ESPN and beer than any deep and contemplative thoughts, and just can't stop looking like a jackass when the national media needs to depict a grieving husband. In Nick, David Fincher presents an Everyman with the very unflattering warts of every man thrust into a crisis with the whole world watching and judging.

"Llladies..."

It's a mystery not just of what happened to wife Amy Dunne but also what happened to the happy couple that had once been Nick and Amy. As the police, represented by the smartest detective in the South and her doltish sidekick, uncover more clues so does Amy's diary reveal more and more of just what went wrong between her and Nick.

That's the first third of the movie. Then everything blasts off to Bizarro World.

Amy not only faked her death - spoiler alert - she did it in such a way as to frame Nick for murder. And not just frame him, she intentionally cultivated a friendship with the bubbly baby factory so as to both provide a counter-narrative to Nick's after she disappears but also to harvest pregnant lady pee, so that the whole world will think Nick Dunne murdered his pregnant wife. She even contemplates suicide just so as to further implicate Nick. It's a brilliant and alien cunning that feels utterly detached from the slow boil that has been Gone Girl up until this point.

It could almost work if it served as the finishing twist of the film. A great big "Gotcha!" on both Nick and the audience as the last anniversary scavenger hunt clue she leaves him essentially explains her whole grand plan. If we'd faded to black just as realization dawn's on Nick's big stupid face, this would be an okay movie.

But it keeps going. And going. And going...

Amy runs into a snag in her grand scheme when she gets mugged by reality. Reality in this case being a young couple at the motel where she's hiding, the better half of which delivers the fantastic line "You look too rich to've ever really been hit," and then proceeds to really hit her. If the movie had stuck with this brutal logic it would have been great but no, Amy gets Doogie Howser to come rescue her not just from poverty and privation but from the implosion of her schemes.

While Nick's affair with a hilariously dense girl becomes national news, Amy forges a new narrative in which she escapes from Doogie's sex dungeon. This involves sticking a wine bottle up her hooha to simulate rape trauma, which Amy is adept at faking. She did it once to a boyfriend because, despite being invented by a woman, Amy Dunne is a caricature of every MRA fear.

"I shall rule them all with my hypno-vagina!"

This latest narrative takes hold because Amy's disappearance - and stinking rich parents - have made her the nation's sweetheart. Nick goes along with it because, like any mediocrity who lets slip his latent misogyny from time to time, he is absolutely worthless. And Amy had kept some of his frozen sperm, just in case she needed to manipulate him with pregnancy. Seriously, a woman wrote this?

It's utterly laughable by the end, not because of Amy's psycho-bitch evil but because it all started out so good. David Fincher is turning into the second coming of Kubrick with his camera work, infusing the early scenes with both the flat emptiness of the American heartland as well as the creeping dread not only of what could have happened to Amy but how the media gleefully scrambles to graft a narrative onto a tragedy with little regard for the truth. Plus the best cinematic use of an orange tabby other than Inside Llewyn Davis.

Then it all goes so far off the rails. And what most worries me is that this sort of ham-fisted madness isn't just hailed as brilliant, it's viewed as acceptable.

Fincher maintains a studiously realistic tone all through these shenanigans that would have been better handle by a blackly comic satire like Schizopolis. To reiterate - Amy fakes rape claims as a matter of course, outright murders Doogie Howser, and it's hardly a secret between her and Nick by the end, with even Tyler Perry and the hyper-competent Southern detective having a good laugh over it all. As someone on Twitter put it: "Help me famous lawyer and detective!" "Nope, that would undermine the plot."

Yet audiences and even the highbrow critics accept this lunacy at face value. "Well, it just illustrates how messed up Amy is," some say. A collection of human ears would show just how messed up Bree Van de Camp was, but the makers of Desperate Housewives had the good goddamn sense not to take such a cartoonish leap. So too does Amy's Hannibal Lector level of hypercompetence obliterate the excellent noir tone Fincher spends the first third of the film establishing. What could have been the best movie of the year turns into a kaleidoscope of plot holes and paranoid fantasies.

That it takes for fucking ever to resolve this nonsense is almost the lesser crime.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Swine Fever

No sooner does America work up a good head of crazy over ISIS than a real threat pops up. While both they and ebola are less likely to kill you than an enraged mime, the latter has managed to penetrate US borders. That alone has gotten the Fear from boiling over in ludicrous ways, from open racial hatred of West Africa to a lady in Newark refusing to leave her house without latex gloves and a surgical mask.

"Boo!"

But how did it get to this point anyway? Isn't ebola one of those Third World diseases that thrives in the absence of modernism and sanitation? Indeed it is, and you can thank good ol' capitalism for bringing it to the US of A!

Specifically, you can thank both a for-profit healthcare system and career pols opposed to any sort of public spending. Like Rick Perry, Texas governor and responsible for a state healthcare budget ranked 33rd in the nation despite being number 1 in ebola cases. Not that you can blame Perry for all of it - tempting as it is - as he's just following the party line. The Bad Guys - and yes, the GOP are pretty much The Bad Guys from now on - have worked rigorously to break the grip of Big Health on the nation's budget. Mostly by cutting the CDC's emrgancy preparedness budget by half since 2006. In their defense, it's not like they expected any of those brown people diseases to cross the Atlantic because they've never heard of airplanes.

Meanwhile at the local level, administrators with no patient care experience decide on not just who gets the HAZMAT suits, but whether it's worth the time to actually sterilize medical equipment. This is also how Duncan, the only poor bastard to die of ebola in the US so far, got sent home by the ER despite showing symptoms. They've since insisted it just looked like a viral infection.

Much like how your local high school hired a confirmed pederast, this is just more of that highly decentralized decision making Confederates conservatives claim to love so much. It's why they want more small government like Perry's and why they slash all federal spending except the hyper-efficient and meritocratic defense budget. The free market will take care of things, like it took care of that uninsured Ron Paul staffer.

"But there's no alternative to capitalism!" says any given stupid person. Indeed, every American schoolkid knows socialism leads to such horrors as longer life-expectancy, shorter workdays, and the most reliable spacecraft ever made. Better to stick with this neofeudal disease pit.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The New Normal

While Republicans were busy terrorizing Wall Street last year, a little story slipped through the cracks that says even more about that dementedly inverted hologram normal Americans treat as reality.

Kaitlyn Hunt, a girl with the poor luck to be a lesbian in Florida, plea bargained her way into a deal to serve time for having sex with her 15-year-old girlfriend without having to register as a sex offender. It's a familiar story involving statutory rape law but this time applied to a homosexual couple.

Quick legal aside - statutory rape is essentially any sexual intercourse between a legal adult and a minor, even if said minor gives consent. This is generally a good law because no matter how mature some snot-nosed teenager says they are, they're still a damned teenager. So no touchy.

Where it can  - and has - run into problems is when it's applied to a teenage couple where one is eighteen and the other is not. In Hunt's case, she was 18 and her girlfriend was at the time 14. Hunt has since moved on to dating a 27-year-old, whom the Daily News tries real hard to portray as a hardened ex-con, despite the fact that being black in Florida is even worse for your future than being gay.

What makes Hunt's case interesting isn't all these sordid details. Well it is, but not for the reasons the comfortable media class would have you believe: Hunt's relationships are reflective of a simple reality of life in America that is only rarely acknowledged.

I'm talking of course about white trash. I grew up in Woodbridge Virginia and got to see this up close. For every kid with two stable parents and a future there were about a dozen from broken homes with no greater ambition than an associate's degree from NOVA and a car built after the 1980s. A couple of them were parents themselves, while still in high school. This one girl in my 11th grade English class was a 19-year-old raver with an angel obsession. And she was Jewish because in modern America even Jews can be white trash.

Relationships with three to fours years age difference was not that uncommon. The Woodbridge kids - like all teenagers - were looking for affection and working off their hormones with whoever was willing. If one was 18 and the other was 14, so be it.

"But the 18-year-old is the responsible party! The law says so!"

That's the common defense of Hunt's sentence and it raises what I thought was an obvious question - Are you lying or just plain stupid? What 18-year-old has ever demonstrated responsibility? Isn't that why we make 'em wait three more years to buy beer?

But this world, this Real America, is stridently denied at all times. Either it's wrong for Hunt to touch her girlfriend because she was technically an adult at the time, or it's wrong to throw her in because fill in your preferred cause. "Love" was the most popular cause on display at the time, as if any teenager is capable of such a thing, and it likely doesn't hold much water now that Hunt moved on to an actual adult (who, at nearly a decade Hunt's senior, is doing even more cradle robbing but hey, legal age and all). The gay cause is sneered at more than it's actually cited, another standard of the flat normal in America. If anything, the popular response at the time was how only a lesbian would be so lucky as to not have to register as a sex offender for, you know, sexing up a minor:

"If this person was male, 20 years, no parole." ~ henrythe8iam

If you go digging through the various other articles from a year ago, you'll find that exact comment by someone. By a disturbingly many someones. This isn't just common misogyny or the bizarre double-standard of the homophobe - guy on guy is evil, girl on girl is hot - but representative of probably the most grotesque brainwave in modern America that nobody ever wants to talk about. It comes up frequently enough, whether in the latest outrage at Reddit for upvoting child pornography or pointing out that sexualizing an adult actress known for playing a minor is skeevey no matter what way you cut it, but the popularity of the sentiment is . When internet commentators like henrythe8iam say these things, it's because they can't say the simple truth of how they feel - "I'm a 30 something loser and I want to fuck middle schoolers!"

That's the dark desire at the heart of so many American men. Far more than we will ever be comfortable admitting. Whether because they never developed emotionally after the age of 15 or because the flat hell that is existence outside the coastalite enclaves has worn down their confidence when addressing fellow grown-ups, it doesn't matter. The result is this atomized culture has ever more lonely, desperate dweebs who will end up on To catch a Predator. Helps you understand why this rotten country needs a Mid-East war every couple years, keep itself distracted from its own miserable reality.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

March of the Pigs

#GamerGate is a thing now. For those of you thankfully not in the know,  it all started with some jilted ex posting some screed about how some indie dev was totally sleeping around the industry to get good reviews. This is what originally galvanized people, on the grounds that it's indicative of corruption in games journalism, though it's just as likely a bunch of losers were pissed off - again - about someone, somewhere having a sex life.

If you're unfamiliar with the business side of the arts, this may look like a proper target of outrage. If you've ever worked in publishing or film, you're having good laugh at all the #GamersUnited dopes because you know every creative industry is like this. Meritocracy is one of those comforting lies no one really believes, like Santa Claus or Jesus, and these sorts of chummy relationships are how everyone advances. Everyone. Particularly in publishing, where authors write glowing reviews of other authors who wrote them glowing reviews.

While such entrenched nepotism and its ties to an exploitative capitalist system is worth discussing, gamers naturally didn't go for that. They just called the accused dev a cunt and sent her rape threats. Kinda like they do to Anita Sarkeesian whenever she puts out a new video - and that particular hatedom got a second wind with this latest outrage over a successful woman having a sex life. The harried feminist critic had to flee her home and now the FBI is involved.

"I am not a misogynist! I'll prove it with rape jokes!"

The irony is that Sarkeesian is giving gamers exactly what they want: the treatment of video games as an artistic medium. Her analyses place everything from indie games to Triple A cash cows in a cultural context, examining how things like Dragon Age and Braid reflect and interact with existing gender stereotypes. This is Critical Theory 101, applied to a body of work often dismissed as too immature to warrant such consideration. Tropes vs Women in Video Games legitimizes video games as an art form better than anything else.

And gamers hate her for it. Because even the most cursory analysis of popular games reveals reactionary gender politics from the bland to the brutal. So too with some of the greatest works of Western literature, but the gamer dweebs are too binary to understand the distinction between "This reflects retrograde aspects of the dominant culture," and "The thing you like is bad therefore you are bad."

Really, the biggest barrier to video games being accepted as art is the gamer culture itself. The past few weeks has seen a level of misogyny usually confined to Mad Men, with the the enraged horde demanding first that their hobby be purified of incestuous business practices - like that's even possible in America - then freaking out over one of the few attempts to grant video games the seriousness they insist on.

While the two may seem rather disconnected, they both reflect the immature entitlement of gamers. They expect the production of video games to be some pure, artistic process and then turn around and disparage any critical analysis that isn't fawning, two-dimensional praise of all the badass guns and titties. Which should come as no surprise because, for all their "serious art" pretensions, gamers understand nothing but dumb consumption. That's their raison d'etra:

Gamer identity is tainted, root and branch, by its embrace of consumption as a way of life. If gamers suddenly became completely inclusive, if all of the threats and stamping of feet went away and the doors were flung open, conspicuous consumption would still be the essential core of their identity. The mythical gamer who does not exist to consume is not a gamer. ~ Ian Williams, Jacobin

If the video game industry, from the indies to the Call of Duties, really did turn into some magical meritocracy for developers, it wouldn't matter because the same fools dreaming of such a thing would shout down any critical analysis. If the industry does nothing, it doesn't suffer one bit because gamer identity revolves around the consumption of games. #GamerGate is the apotheosis of a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.

Update 9/12/2014


Oh my fucking god, they hacked Tim Schafer! Tim "Psychonauts" "Monkey Island" "Grim Fandango" Schafer!!!


If you support #GamerGate to any degree, you are a despicable asshole and you are killing what you love.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

YA Goes Meta (God Help Us All...)

Two weeks ago, I attended the launch of Lev Grossman's latest book in Green Point. The third and final in a trilogy about magical kids, with pretensions of metafiction and being a proper bildungsroman, so I was expecting a congenial literary affair. Instead, it was a defiantly Fans Only event, with Grossman and a few "stars" of YA up on the stage and all us filthy nobodies relegated to folding chairs. That shoulda tipped me off...

I left in the middle of Q&A, while the fans - a smattering of twenty-something white girls, a few with scraggly boyfriends - were trading in-jokes with Grossman and his crew. It had the gross air of desperate flirting or a job interview. However, I did shell out for Grossman's first novel and spent the time since reading it so you don't have to. And you don't want to because The Magicians, celebrated as a new Harry Potter, is nothing more than an overlong angst-wank for the dweebs in Park Slope.

The Chosen One of this latest campbellian knock-off is one Quentin Coldwater, an overachieving coastalite like the majority of Americans never encounter in person. These people do exist, they're just a much slimmer majority than even they know, owing to a Manhattan literati that wants to read the same story over and over again, as exemplified in the works of Jonathan Franzen. Grossman is on record as a fan and he's learned his master's lesson because The Magicians has a central schtick to differentiate it from every other magical academy of whimsy: Quentin is a fan of a Narnia-knockoff series about these Anglo children adventuring in the magical land of Fillory. This allows Quentin to constantly compare his own muddling non-adventures to the heroic excitement of these kids' books.

This serves two stated purposes - and Grossman really did state this at his egopalooza. First, it presents Quentin as someone who already "knows" how these sorts of stories playout when he's invited to the Brakesbills post-secondary magickal learnatorium (accreditation not recognized in Trinidad).Which than leads into number two - "This is real life!" in which even this magical land he escapes to is just as dull and cruel as his regular life. It's not as exciting as it sounds...

Grossman is trying to deconstruct the Harry Potter formula into a much darker coming of age tale, complete with drinking and curse words. Problem is, this was already done years ago in Peter Straub's magnificent Shadowloand. Further, Grossman can't divorce himself from his characters long enough to do a proper psychological novel. A Brooklyn native himself, it's hard not to read Quentin as thinly veiled autobiography, mixed with wish fulfillment. Grossman is either too honest or just lacking in imagination to make Quentin into the all-conquering champion he wants... but he won't stop pointing out just how special Quentin is either. He's unique because he still believes in magic, even though all his classmates are turning fashionably cynical and the headmaster doesn't really give a damn. This sort of solipsism kills the broader metafictional point Grossman is trying to make, but it's exactly the sort of nonsense that drives the YA market so he's getting a SyFy series.

Let's hope they re-work the characters because the ones on display here are damned atrocious. Quentin and his childhood friends, Julia and that other one, are the sort of overachieving knobs you never met if you went to a real high school. New York City has this deal where kids test into certain advanced placement schools and New Yorkers are annoyingly oblivious to the fact that this is not the norm in American eduction. Rowling's approach of making Harry some suburban nobody was one of the few things she did right because that makes him relatable to the reader; Quentin already has fantastical and alien life, illustrated in dozens of little details you only pick up if you live in Brooklyn. His friends, first in the muggle world and then at Brakesbills, are equally from the same overachieving coastal enclave background, making them about as relatable as Donald Trump Fuckface von Clownstick.

Then there's Elliot, the sort of interesting non-New Yorker that New Yorkers of limited imagination always imagine. A romantic archetype of the gifted but cast out farm boy, resentful of his hayseed family who assume he's at some hoity toity art school for homosexuals. There's so much wrong with this characterization - for instance, a real rural America dirthead would say "fags" or "queers" - and it turns out Elliot really is homosexual. But it can't be the boring, "I just like cock," sort of homosexuality that, y'know actually exists. Grossman has to give this poor kid an elaborate domination and submission fetish.

Julia shows up as a hedge witch during one of the occasional Back in the World interludes, usually devoted to Quentin feeling ever more alienated from his parents because they just don't understand. Julia is rather competent at her hedge witchery, even though she had to go all goth to get it - though this further indicates Grossman's gross ignorance of contemporary trends as she's a fellow Park Slope overachiever and the goth thing was too old for such kids in Charlottesville, Virginia circa 2007. Further, her pursuit of witchery, while just as successful as Quentin's advanced sulking studies, is nontheless looked down on by the folks at Brakesbills, illustrating a class distinction which Grossman naturally doesn't bother to explore.

And then there's Alice. Child of a magical family, the highly-capable natural to Quentin's muddling everyman - at least I think that was Grossman's intention. And because this story is supposed to be for grown-ups as well as tweens, we get to read about 'em fuckin'. A lot. Sometimes they drink before or after, along with the rest of their social circle named Janet and Josh and there may have been others but I stopped paying attention somewhere in Book II. At least when little Frankie McCourt got into the champagne and sherry, it was low and funny enough to be interesting. Grossman, like so many typical New York writers, insists on making a big deal out of twenty-year-olds having a few drinks and shooting the shit.

It's a juvenile approach to sex and really juvenile sex is what this is all about. Some reality bending Beast makes an appearance to give the illusion of something threatening or interesting, but only after a hundred pages of Quentin's quest to fuck Alice. Which he does, and in keeping with this unconscious representation of a spoiled yuppie, he finds no joy in the long-awaited rutting. It all soon becomes just one more thing which Quentin finds to be so empty and wah wah Evanescence lyrics.

There's this forced refrain through the book of how Quentin isn't really such a two dimensional crybaby. How he's the only one who really finds magic to still be magical and it has to do with his fixation on the Fillory books, but Grossman would much rather tell than show. Even at four hundred pages, this reads like a rushed job. I swear a whole year passed between chapters at one point, with nary a comment or an episode of interest. As much as I scorn the marketing gimmick, Rowling still had the right idea of dedicated one book to one school year. Grossman glosses over anything that Quentin can't sulk over or that doesn't involve him and his rowdy friends saying "fuck" enough.

Of course, Grossman has to spell out this conflict: how Quentin's personal fairy land has heroic conflict, unlike the ugly fight with The Beast which is gruesome and disastrous. That sort of revelation happens long before the college years for anyone living in Gaza or Ferguson. Hell, anyone who's ever been in a playground fight.

And of course the Not-Narnia books turn out to be deeply relevant, with Fillory being a real magical land where those fussy Anglo kids have gone mad and mutated like Artorias the Abysswalker. Shit's not allowed to be random and meaningless in YA fiction, despite the past hree-hundred and some pages saying otherwise. Though Grossman does try to keep it real in the climax - Alice dies so Quentin can angst.

There. I saved you two weeks and four hundred pages. Watch the Syfy series if you really want or, better yet, just read Shadowland. It does the coming of age via studying magic with a dash of horror bit ten thousand times better than this overwritten wank.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Ferguson: Activism beats Slacktivism

It's appropriate that last week while Wired was publishing glamor shots of Eddie Snowden, the people of Ferguson were reminding America what real resistance looks like. Outraged at the local police and their cavalier attitude towards killing yet another young and unarmed black man, this community went quickly from somber candlelight vigils to raging insurrection in less than a week, scaring the local police into exposing themselves as the heavily armed and terrified crackers they are.

"Meine Ehre heißt Treue?"

And there's still nary a libertarian to be seen. Which if you know what animates them deep down, you expected - Jacobin has an excellent summation of the economic factors driving this rebellion, how the capitalist system extracts wealth from minorities whether through ticketing and bail money or through the very same businesses the protesters burned down. That's what really scares the privileged in this country, not the murder of an unarmed man by government employees but people rejecting the hierarchy of wealth that places minorities in the free fire zone of people too dumb or racist to make it into the infantry.

Since that night, the Ferguson PD has doubled down on the sort of police state malarkey you usually see in tin pot dictatorships: tear gas, mass arrests, and one desperate smear campaign against Michael Brown after another. It's gotten so bad the governor called in the state cops and even President Oreo is finally suggesting a federal investigation into the shooting, rather than just echoing the tone trolling of the rest of the ruling class. Because  these protesters, even when looting a local McDonald's recuperating from indiscriminate police tear gas, remained a disciplined and organized force to be reckoned with. They scare the ruling class.

Coastal liberals and internet libertarians do not scare the ruling class. The latter buy into the capitalist system, sanctioning any affront to liberty as long as it's committed by your boss rather than the state, and the latter are too busy with their fucking puppets. The massive and massively ineffective protests of the Bush years should have driven this point home, that the ruling class knows the economically comfortable have no stomach for the long fight. That people bitching about civil liberties online are just letting off steam and, no matter how many likes or upvotes, remain utterly inconsequential.

The slacktivism of the internet age doesn't threaten the ruling class. At all. Because it reveals the disgruntled citizens as too atomized to properly organize. Libertarians, perfect marks that they are, support this sort of solo activism because they've not only internalized the supposed individuality of capitalism but also the power fantasies of a million bad sci-fi and fantasy stories. They imagine themselves the stars of Ender's Game while confronting a Jack Vance world. So they fixate on the conveniences of their own lives as the full extent of human liberty, seeing freedom from government bureaucrats reading their boring emails as the ultimate freedom, and thus spending more time dithering over police state products like Tor and other means to sneakily say "Fight the power!" to equally isolated inconsequential milquetoasts.

You don't fight the ruling class with encryption, you fight it with a megaphone and hundreds of your friends and neighbors at your side. Like the people of Ferguson are doing. And they're winning.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Down and Out in Youngstown

Noah Cicero is the best goddamn thing to happen to American literature since speed. And now you can see it all - or most of it - in two slim volumes from Lazy Fascist Press.

I came to know Cicero, like I came to know most of my favorites, in the book reviews John Dolan wrote for the now defunct eXile newspaper in Moscow. It's appropriate because Cicero's work brings to mind what Dolan said of another great author - "it's so true and so long overdue that you inhale it, reread it a half dozen times... so hungry are you for a little truth." Cicero chronicles life as it is lived for millions of Americans in nowhere towns with nothing lives, a demographic rising faster and faster as income inequality becomes more culturally normal.

For instance, there's the opener to Volume 1 titled "I Clean in Silence." A few pages inside the head of some white trash girl just smart enough to understand her desperate state. She's got no prospects beyond her body - which, like many Americans', is fatter than the emaciated ideal - and she knows she doesn't know enough to hold on to her college-bound boyfriend with her mind. So, despite being a neurotic neat freak, she let's him fuck her in the ass.

The alpha version of this desperate girl shows up later in "The Condemned." Kathy, a pregnant stripper full of piss and vinegar, makes a big show of being the one in control of her own life while being perpetually strapped for cash and making all the same horrible mistakes with her children as her own mother did with her. Though a terrible person in every conceivable way, Cicero nonetheless makes her sympathetic in her very familiar struggle to assert some kind of autonomy within the disinterested, post-industrial capitalism of rust-belt Ohio.

Cicero is very much focused on sex, though not to titillate but illuminate. There's nothing you can do but cringe as Kathy remembers getting french-kissed by her own mother as a child. It's a violation in every conceivable way. An Oprah book club would insist on this driving Kathy towards some sort of redemption but Cicero does not write for the Oprah's of the world - thank Christ - but for the miserable nobodies who populate places like Youngstown. There's nothing redemptive in Kathy's suffering, though it manages that rare balancing act of sympathy without sentiment seen previously in the works of Celine and DH Lawrence.

A lesser author - like, say, Palahniuk - would use these shocking scenes simply for the gross-out factor. Cicero has bigger fish to fry, wallowing in the grotesque not for shock value so much as shocking the reader into seeing the pain of normal American existence.

And that's just Volume 1. Volume 2 functions almost as a single novel, being dominated by the novella The Insurgent and followed by shorter pieces revolving around the same miserable narrator. Cicero chooses a Russian-American for this extended examination of failure and depression, seeing as Russians are such gloomy fucks in general, and uses his flat life to illustrate the flatness that is life in that vast swath of America outside the hyperachieving coastal enclaves. The same America explored in the books of Charles Portis and even in Cicero's own earlier novella The Human War (handily included in Volume 1).

The Insurgent really covers a lot of the same ground as The Human War but, like a good punk band, this repetition still works. The Human War covers a single night on the eve of the Iraq War and stirs in musings on Life, the Universe, and Everything; The Insurgent covers a good few months of a single loser's life, starting in Youngstown and ending out West. How Vassily and his neurotic friend Chang get there isn't some grand epic tale and that's the whole point. Even when stumbling upon a huge stash of oxy, these two don't so much live up the glamorous life of drug dealers as try to sell it off wholesale as fats as they can to finance their escape from Middle America. In the last pages, now far away from the familiar miseries of Youngstown, Vassily starts to find something like peace though one can't escape the concern that it will be fleeting. He's disconnected from all the people who stirred up his misery and resentment but just wait for him to meet some new people. They're Hell, to paraphrase Sartre and possibly Cicero.

Indeed, it's appropriate to compare Noah to those early to mid-century maniacs because he's absorbed their lessons so much better than fools like DeLilo who just write for the seminars. He's captured perfectly that feeling of the thwarted nobody and delivers it in a clipped, flat style that reflects the inner lives - or lack thereof - of his own characters. However this is always focused, purposeful - making Cicero a little like Beckett, but not up his own ass. He cuts straight to the awful horror of the everyday without ever getting lost in his own style.

So go buy his books. Now.