Why The Muppets Doesn’t Work For Me

Last week, I had a chance to watch the pilot of the newest version of the Muppets, this time a prime-time sitcom called (creatively) The Muppets. In many ways it’s a setup taken from the beloved Muppet Show of the 1970s – our gang gets together and puts on a show every week, with backstage wackiness providing grist for the comedy mill. But something didn’t sit quite right about it with me:

There were a few good jokes, and it’s always good to see Dr. Teeth and crew back on TV, but the whole thing just didn’t work for me. I thought about it for a bit and finally figured out why. There’s one important difference between the classic Muppet Show and the new one, one that kind of ruins the whole thing for me.

If you look closely at the old Muppet Show, you’ll notice that it doesn’t take place in our world. Obviously, that’s true of any TV show with talking puppets, but what I mean is that it’s a Muppet world there – we’re just invited in every week. Look at the audience – it’s all puppets! It’s truly a fantastic thing, something that exists outside of reality and the humdrum of the real world. Human guest stars were clearly playing along for the fun of it.

By contrast, The Muppets is set in our world, modified slightly by the presence of a late-night talk show hosted and run by felt creatures (sort of like the kiddy morning show in that puppetastic episode of Angel). We’re not visiting their madcap, zany, confusing world – they’re visiting ours. And ours, well, kind of sucks in comparison.

I agree with David Sims, writing in The Atlantic:

But entirely gone is the manic energy of The Muppet Show, the classic behind-the-scenes formula that gave Jim Henson’s creations their big break. In its place is sardonic drudgery that makes for very unenjoyable viewing.

Dan Caffrey at the AV Club kind of hits on the same thing, from a different direction, when discussing a scene from that first episode:

Sometime later, there’s a flashback to the demise of Kermit and Piggy’s relationship . . .. The breakup itself isn’t anything surprising—Kermit has, quite fairly, grown tired of dealing with the constant bouts of vanity, jealousy, and anger from his famous partner—but then something unexpected happens. After he delivers the bad news, the handheld camera hangs on Piggy, shaking ever so slightly. Her breathing gets labored, her snout scrunches up, the camera continues to wobble. It looks like she’s going to cry—not the dramatic sob she’s done plenty of times in the past to get what she wants, but a stoic, painful, honest-to-goodness cry. Suddenly, we’re viewing Miss Piggy in a sympathetic light, thanks to the use of a convention we’ve seen in so many mockumentary breakup scenes before. Her character expands into something much more complex and—I’ll just come out and say it—human.

I don’t disagree with the technical aspects of the scene – they’re well done, even moving. But I don’t care because I don’t want Muppets who have real world problems. That’s the whole fucking point of the Muppets in the first place, isn’t it? If you’re telling stories that could just as easily be told with live people in their place, it seems kind of useless.

Let me say, at this point, that I’m talking strictly on a subjective level of “quality” here. The calls in some quarters for ABC to cancel the show because it’s “indecent” or whatever are just silly. Muppets dealing with some real world situations does not equal smut. You want smut with puppets? I’ll give you smut with puppets:

I’m clearly in the minority on this, but that’s OK. Over the years I’ve concluded I’m very hard on reboots for jettisoning what I see as the essential elements of the property being revived. Don’t care for Daniel Craig’s Bond flicks because, to me, they seem like generic action flicks, without the charm of the Bond flicks I grew up with. Don’t care for JJ Abrams’s reboot of Star Trek, which takes a thoughtful sci-fi property and turns into yet another excuse to blow shit up while being cool (I have more hope for his take on Star Wars, however). Just chock this up as another example.

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Moore Hollow Monday – A Little History

Let me be very clear – Moore Hollow is a complete work of fiction. It takes place in a town I made up, Jenkinsville, which is the county seat of the equally imaginary Vandalia County. Still, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a little truth tucked away in there.

There are stories – rumors, in most instances – around elections in which people say that the dead continue to vote. It’s so pervasive that it led one small investigator to proclaim:

Oh my God! The dead have risen and are voting Republican.

Seriously, the problem arises because voter rolls don’t get purged very often, or very well, resulting in people who have died remaining eligible to vote (in a very hyper technical ignore the stink of rotting flesh kind of way). A Pew study in 2012 found that as many as 1.8 million dead people were still on the voter rolls. Still, there’s a pretty good gap between dead people still on the rolls and dead people actually voting.

In the wake of the 2012 election lots of officials in South Carolina asserted that hundreds of dead people had voted, an assertion made mostly in the context of the GOP push for stricter voter ID laws. More than 900, they said. As one lawmaker quipped:

We must have certainty in South Carolina that zombies aren’t voting.

Only, as with most things involving voting, the truth was much less sensational. The 953 votes found to have been cast by the (un?)dead weren’t cast in 2012, but in 74 separate elections over the course of seven years. In fact, the dead voters could be traced to a much more mundane explanation:

The report confirms what the State Election Commission had found after preliminarily examining some of the allegations: The so-called votes by dead people were the result of clerical errors or mistaken identities.

For instance, sometimes a son had the same name as a deceased father, and poll workers mixed up a dead father with a living son. (This happened 92 times in the initial probe, and then further investigation found seven more examples.)

That being said, examples of dead people voting pop up every now and then, as this article relates. In one instance in Tennessee, two dead people voted in an election decided by 20 votes. Still, there’s little evidence that it’s a problem that either determines elections or is part of a ploy used by the unscrupulous to win elections.

Which is where Moore Hollow comes in. West Virginia, southern West Virginia in particular, has seen its share of electoral fraud over the years. I even remember people joking about the dead continuing to vote (“early and often,” as they say) long after they shuffled off their mortal coil.

So it was natural to take the two strands and use them to create Thomas Owen Gallagher, aka King Tommy, aka The Cheat. King Tommy was the kind of politician who would do anything to win. Would he resort to voodoo, to strange instructions in a foreign book, to raise the dead and order them to vote for him? Of course he was! It’s what happened after that’s the crux of Moore Hollow, as Ben Potter returns to his great grandfather’s old stomping grounds to root out the truth. But what to do with it once he knows it?

Cover (KDP)

The hardest part of a mystery is deciding what to do once you’ve solved it.

Available next Monday, October 5, from

Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and Kobo

Weekly Read: Machine Man

A few weeks ago I wrote a review of the new 3rDegree album, Ones and Zeroes Volume 1, which is about great leaps forward in life extension technology, overseen by a powerful corporation, that ultimate results in the uploading of human consciousness into a computer. I have no idea of the guys in the bad are familiar with Max Barry’s Machine Man, but they really ought to talk.

Two key refrains from Ones and Zeroes kept running through my head while reading Machine Man. One is the plea, “tell me what it means to be human?” The other is the observation that “life is needing more.” Good science fiction, of course, deals squarely with “what it means to be human” and Barry does just that in Machine Man.

Dr. Charles Neumann – Charlie to those lesser beings he allows to get within speaking distance – is a research engineer at Better Future, the kind of soulless, mega corporation that would have to have a name like that (it reminds me, over and over, of Veridian Dynamics from the all-too-short-lived series Better Off Ted). One day he loses a lower leg in an industrial accident. He gets a prosthetic leg, but isn’t much taken with it (he’s much more taken with the protheticist, Lola). As an engineer is apt to do he starts  tinkering, building a better fake leg. So good, in fact, that he decides he’s really being held back by his other “good” leg. So off it comes.

Rather than being locked away in an asylum or left penniless and unemployed because of his antics, Better Future sees Charlie as a visionary, someone who can open up a whole new market for them selling medical products to people who aren’t actually sick. It’s a neat setup, but one that only really works because of a decision Barry makes that is both fascinating and limiting.

Machine Man is told entirely from Charlie’s point of view. We are in his head (or whatever passes for his head) from beginning to end. This works really well in putting us  inside the mind of someone who comes up with a nice justification for a desperate act and follows that down the rabbit hole. On the other hand, it means we’re stuck with Charlie. In addition to being kind of a dick (we will tell you what’s wrong with everything, including you), Charlie is incredibly naive. He never thinks twice about the broader problems that Better Future’s plans may cause – indeed, he frequently protests that he only ever wanted to build parts for himself and fuck anybody else. That allows Better Future to have a hold over Charlie that a more thoughtful character would be able to shake. It’s not fatal to the book, but it is kind of aggravating.

To Barry’s credit, the devotion to Charlie’s POV means there are no bits of the narrative that devolve into a pro/con argument about Charlie’s augmentation. The argument is there, but it’s more subtle and comes from his interactions with Lola and the fact that we can’t get away from his very selfish and limited view of the world. It’s argument by example, rather than rhetoric, and works pretty well.

Which makes Machine Man seem like a dour trek. In fact, it’s very funny. Darkly funny, but still. The opening chapter, in which Charlie’s resolve to find his cell phone (without which he’d be lost) leads to the loss of his leg, is hilarious. It gets less so the further things go, but Barry never lets go of the fact that he’s telling a story that is absurd and getting more so the longer it goes on.

It’s not perfect. It’s just not believable that the goings on in Charlie’s lab – his army of assistants undergo quit the transformation – could have stayed contained within Better Future in the YouTube age. Someone would have talked or tweeted or Instagrammed and all hell would have broken loose. Barry gets away with a setting that’s almost hermetically sealed from the rest of the world. And it goes on a bit too long, with the emotional punch of a potential ending giving way to a happier conclusion.

Nevertheless, it’s a good read. One that’s bound to put music in your head, whether it’s this:

or this:

MachineMan

Moore Hollow Monday – Another Free Excerpt!

Welcome to another edition of Moore Hollow Monday! It’s time for another excerpt from the book, which comes out October 5.

In this excerpt, Ben winds up the day by taking a drive near Jenkinsville and has an unsettling experience:

The road out of the town was a highway in only the loosest sense of the word. There were just two lanes which made sharing the road with the occasional huge coal truck that lumbered by a challenge. Regardless, it appeared like one of the Italian Autostrade they abused on Top Gear compared to the tributaries that branched away from it. Some began with several hundred feet of pavement but turned quickly into dirt roads. Others were little more than goat paths, winding back into the hills, into the hollows, until they disappeared, swallowed by the mountains. He toyed, briefly, with the idea of picking one at random and driving up it, but he quickly thought better of it. For one thing, this was probably not the time to arouse the ire of the locals by banging down private roads. For another, he wasn’t sure he could find his way out once it was dark.

Nightfall came about half an hour after Ben left town. He stopped at a small convenience store, fulfilled the tank’s enormous thirst for fuel, and grabbed a cup of coffee. It tasted like it had been made from the warmed-over remains of a small woodland creature, but it made him fully alert. He got back on the road and turned north, back to town and back to bed.

There had not been much traffic on the way down, nor was there much on the way back. At some point, however, Ben picked up someone following behind him. They weren’t close enough to be dangerous, but the other car’s headlights became a constant presence in his rearview mirror. Ben didn’t give much thought to it except when the undulations in the pavement shot the lights’ full brightness into his eyes.

A few miles from town, something caught Ben’s attention, something he didn’t expect to see on a road like this. It appeared to be a person walking slowly down the road on the right hand shoulder. Ben clicked on his high beams, then the ridiculously powerful fog lights to try to provide more light for the walker. At the very least, he didn’t want to run him over. Under the best of circumstances, anyone walking down this road was taking their life in their hands.

Ben lifted off the gas and slowed down, trying to get a good look at the walker. It was a man, but Ben couldn’t tell anything else about him—his age or whether he was black or white. His clothes looked rough and ragged, but beyond a general impression, Ben couldn’t tell much else. Then he noticed something odd about the man. It was his gait, the way he was moving. It wasn’t really walking in the strictest sense. It was more of a shuffle, a slow plodding step that fell somewhere between a limp and a gallop.

It hit Ben’s mind so fast he said it aloud. “Don’t zombies walk that way? Slowly shuffling along?” he asked himself. “At least they do in the films.”

He thought about stopping to try to talk to the man, who showed no interest in the presence of the tank near him, but that was impossible. The car that had been a constant companion behind Ben was now right on his bumper, brought near when Ben slowed down. He pulled around the shuffling figure on the side of the road and accelerated back to full speed. Immediately, he began to look for someplace to double back. About a quarter of a mile down the road was a small church with an equally small parking lot. It would do as a place to turn around, so Ben signaled, slowed, and turned into the church parking lot.

The car behind did the same.

Ben’s eyes fixed on the white headlights in the rearview mirror, which were quickly augmented by flashing blue and red.

“Fuck,” Ben said quietly. He brought the tank to a stop, put the transmission in park, and set the parking brake. The flashing lights stopped behind him at a rakish angle across the driveway as if to block any avenue of escape. Ben rolled down the window and heard the sound of a car door closing behind him, followed by the approach of slow, measured, solid footsteps.

“Good evening, sir,” said a controlled voice, one that oozed authority yet at the same time was calm and polite. Before Ben could see his face, a large, bright flashlight lit up the interior of the tank. It scanned Ben’s face, his hands as they rested on the steering wheel, and his lap before it moved slowly around the rest of the interior.

“Evening, officer,” Ben said. He did his best to get a glimpse of the man with the flashlight, but the glare made it difficult. He could make out an outline, one that matched his preconception of what an American lawman would look like. Large and barrel-chested, shoulders squared off as if he played American football, topped by a broad brimmed hat like one the Royal Canadian Mounted Police wore. When the light dipped from inside the car, Ben could see a tag on his chest underneath a badge that read “Rhodes, Sheriff,” in block letters.

“Do you know why I pulled you over?” he asked, as the flashlight beam settled on Ben’s face once again.

“No, sir,” Ben said. He honestly didn’t know.

“You crossed the center line back there,” he said, gesturing back up the road with the flashlight.

“I did?” Ben asked. “Must have been when I went around that guy along the side of the road.”

“I’m sorry, sir?” The tone of the sheriff’s voice made it clear he was not engaging in small talk.

“There was someone on the shoulder, back up the road,” Ben said, pointing. “He was walking along the side of the road, very slowly. If I crossed the line, it must have been when I drove around him. I didn’t see anyone coming the other direction, figured I should give him a wide berth.”

The sheriff was not convinced. “License and registration, please, sir,” he said, holding out his other hand.

Ben fished the rental agreement and his International Driving Permit out of the glove box, then took his UK driver’s license from his wallet and handed the collection to the sheriff.

“Please wait here, sir,” he said without commenting on the documentation. Or even Ben’s accent for a change. He walked back to the car.

Ben sat in the tank for what seemed like an eternity. All of the paperwork was in order, he was sure of that, but he wondered whether a sheriff in West Virginia had any experience with international travelers. Ben didn’t like the idea of spending the night in jail if something went wrong. He’d been in jail before but on home soil. For away games, he always tried to be on his best behavior.

The sheriff returned with the same measured steps and handed the papers back to Ben. “Would you mind turning on the inside lights, sir?”

“Sure,” Ben said. He took the papers, stuffed them back in the glove box and after groping around for a bit, flipped the switch that lit up the myriad of lights inside the tank’s cabin.

The sheriff leaned down and rested an elbow in the window frame. “All your paperwork checks out,” he said with a somewhat softer tone. “Never had to run down one those IDPs before.”

“Is that right?” Ben said.

The sheriff nodded. “I’m not gonna give you a ticket. I didn’t see this guy along the side of the road, but you seem like an honest type. Just try to not go around weaving like that again, all right?”

“Yes, sir,” Ben said, breathing a sigh of relief. “Thank you.”

The sheriff tipped his hat. “So, you’re English.”

“That’s right,” Ben said. Everybody seems to make that point, but coming from a man of the law it was a little unsettling. It was as if he knew that Ben should be sent back from whence he came.

“What brings you to Jenkinsville then?” the sheriff asked. “It’s a long way from London.”

That’s for certain, Ben thought. “Trying to track down something historical,” he said. “Family business.”

“You’re not a journalist, are you, Mr. Potter?” The question was not friendly.

“Yes, sir, after a fashion,” Ben said. Why did everybody pick up on that about him? “But this is more of a personal trip, really.” It was only then that Ben thought he should have punched the record button on the recorder in his jacket pocket. Too late now.

“You have family around here?” the sheriff asked, chuckling.

“No, not anymore,” Ben said, reciprocating the laughter. “My great-grandfather came here to work years and years ago. I’m trying to find something out about his time here, about this place where he worked.”

“That a fact?” the sheriff asked. “Small world. ’Bout how far back was that, you think?”

“Early part of the last century,” Ben said. “About 1905, 1906.” He decided to float the actual year out in the air and see how the sheriff reacted. It might give Ben some kind of idea about the game he was playing.

“That is a long time back,” the sheriff said. “There is a bit of history in this neck of the woods, though. How long have you been in town?”

“I just got here yesterday, late,” Ben said. He anticipated the next question. “I plan on heading home by the day after tomorrow.” He was regretting the hole in his research about American police procedures. Was he free to go? Could he tell this officer he was tired and just wanted to go back to his hotel? Of course, even if the law on paper said he could, would that mean anything out here, in the dark, along the side of a two-lane country highway?

“I see,” the sheriff said. He paused for a moment as if he might be finished. He wasn’t. “Find anything interesting yet?”

“A few things,” Ben said, trying to remain vague. “Nothing concrete, just some background. It’s all from the public record, let me assure you.”

“Let me ask you something, Mr. Potter,” the sheriff said, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “Let’s say you find whatever it is you’re looking for. Then what?”

“I’m sorry?” Ben asked. He wanted to nail down precisely what was being asked of him.

“You say you’re looking for something,” he said, “something that your grandfather…”

“Great-grandfather,” Ben corrected him by habit.

“Great-grandfather saw or that happened to him, is that right?” the sheriff asked without skipping a beat.

Ben nodded.

“So if you find something about it, what your great-grandfather dealt with, what are you going to do with that information?”

Ben decided to lie. It was his best option at this point. “It’s mostly for my own piece of mind, really,” he said. “My father and I have a long-standing argument about our family history. To be honest, and I’m ashamed to admit this, I’ve been having this fight with my father for years. I’d like to win it.”

“I understand,” the sheriff said sympathetically. “So if you find what you’re looking for, you’re just going to share it with a few people, right?”

“I can’t think of anyone outside of my immediate family who’d care about our squabbles.” At least that much was true.

“All right,” the sheriff said as if satisfied. He shoved a large hand in through the window. “Well, enjoy your stay with us.” They shook hands. “And remember…,” he began.

“Don’t cross the center line,” Ben said. “Thank you, sir.”

“Have a good evening, Mr. Potter,” the sheriff said as he turned and walked back to his car.

Ben let out a large sigh of relief. He waited for the sheriff to move his car, then he pulled out of the parking lot and drove back to town. It looked like the sheriff headed back south, which allowed Ben to completely relax.

Moore Hollow – The hardest part of a mystery is deciding what to do once you’ve solved it.

Preorder now at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and Kobo

Cover (KDP)

Weekly Read: A Consternation of Monsters

A group of crows is a murder. A bunch of lions hanging around is a pride. So what do you call a group of beastly, ghostly, ghoulish things all packed into one place? A consternation, of course.

In this short story collection Eric Fritzius introduces us to a whole host of supernatural creatures, some more monstrous than others. In fact, he does a really good job of weaving in stories full of humor and cleverness among the more serious and terrifying. It would be easy for a collection of monster stories to devolve into variations on the same them. Fritzius studiously avoids that.

In fact, my favorite story in the collection is a funny one, “. . . to a Flame,” which stars (although that’s not the right word) one of West Virginia’s native monsters, Mothman. Particularly, it involves a local who accidentally kills one. There are problems of disposal and the lurking possibility of a visit from Men In Black, but the heart of the story, for me, is the conversation between the shooter and the narrator in which the shooter goes to great lengths to explain his error.

My other favorite is less directly funny, but has a bit of comedic irony at its core. In “The Wise Ones” we meet an old woman and her dog who are, naturally, not quite what they seem. The story works so well because this mystical woman, when stripped of her powers, is still clever and ruthless (and, one suspects, has a killer sense of humor).

A pair of stories, “The Hocco Makes the Echo” and “Puppet Legacy” involve the same character in a different way. Aaron is a child in “The Hocco . . .” when the titular beastie makes its appearance. Then in “Puppet Legacy” we see an older Aaron who discovers a monster of an entirely different type in his own family. It’s interesting to see the two stories play off against each other.

Add to all that stories about the real fate of Elvis, the strangest boating disaster you’ve ever heard of, and a wolf with a view of some very human monsters and there’s a lot to sink your teeth into here. It being a short story collection some stories work better (as I’ve said before) and some just don’t land, but the ratio of what worked for me versus what didn’t was very high.

A Consternation of Monsters is well worth the time if you like weird tales filled with weird creatures. Just don’t read it alone with the lights off!

Consternation Cover

Moore Hollow Monday: Win a Free Copy!

You’ve probably said, “JD, I really want to read Moore Hollow right now! Do I have to wait for October 5 to roll around?” As luck would have it, you’ve got not one but two chances to do just that – and do it for free!

Between now and September 21 go to LibraryThing or Goodreads and enter to win a free copy of Moore Hollow! Even better, you’ll get your book before it’s released on October 5!

If you’re one of the cool kids and want en eBook version of Moore Hollow, head on over to LibraryThing. Check their giveaway list and do a search for Moore Hollow (if it’s not near the top). I’ll be giving away up to 100 copies in various electronic forms (Kindle, ePub, and PDF). The giveaway runs for a week, which means you can have Moore Hollow in your hot little hands by September 22 or 23, depending on how long it takes to process the winners!

Or, if you’re more of the vintage type, head on over to Goodreads. There you can enter to win one of two paperback copies of Moore Hollow signed by yours truly! Just check their giveaways page or the Moore Hollow page itself, which will have a button where you can enter. This one also runs until next Monday, so it’ll take a bit longer to get your signed copy to you, but it should still hit your doorstep before October 5!

Until then, look forward to another excerpt and some of the history behind the book on the forthcoming Moore Hollow Mondays!

Cover (KDP)

Weekly Read: The Water Knife

There’s a scene deep in Kevin Smith’s Dogma in which Rufus, the thirteenth apostle, explains to a credulous Bethany who she can be a descendant of Christ. “Mary,” she points out, “was a virgin.” Rufus explains that while it’s true Mary was a virgin when Christ was born, she was married to Joseph for an awful long time after that. Why assume she stayed a virgin? He concludes:

The nature of God and the Virgin birth, those are leaps of faith. But to believe a married couple never got down? Well, that’s just plain gullibility.

That scene popped into my head late in The Water Knife, the new novel by award winner Paolo Bacigalupi. It’s set in the American southwest, mostly Phoenix, Arizona, in a near future where climate change has displaced populations and fueled droughts that have made water the most precious commodity on earth. Life is pretty much lived to find water, either by scrambling with other refugees at a pump set up by the Red Cross or by being part of the upper crust that lives in high rise arcologies that are self contained recyclers of water.

It’s not the setup that’s the problem. Like any piece of science fiction there are certain things that are, to borrow Rufus’s term, “leaps of faith.” Bacigalupi isn’t leaping very far, to be honest. The world he creates is terrifyingly plausible, if not without its blind spots (the role of the federal government in all this, which still exists but allows states to war on each other, is never really explained). It’s rich, in a gritty, ugly sort of way and is fully convincing even if one might be able to pull at some of the details.

No the need for gullibility comes when the story requires us to believe that characters won’t behave like people or submit to the basic laws of biology.

There are three main characters in the book, united by a set of water rights with nearly mystical powers that could be a game changer for the whole Southwest. It’s pretty much a McGuffin, a genre appropriate version of Pulp Fiction’s glowing briefcase, but it does drive people to do some really awful things.

Before I go any further – this is really a brutal book. I’ve seen comments in various places from readers who just stopped and gave up at certain points. I don’t blame them. In addition to the horribles entailed in living in an arid, post-apocalyptic tableau choked with refugees and amoral operators, there are scenes upon scenes of pure savagery. In fact, each of the three main characters is brutalized pretty severely (and in detail). Yet they manage to shake it off, for the most part.

Said characters are Angel, the titular Water Knife, a local reporter named Lucy, and a teenaged Texas refugee named Maria. Angel is sent from Nevada to figure out what’s going down in Phoenix. Lucy is trying to do the same, hunting for a big story and trying to figure out what got a friend killed (and brutally tortured – detail we get second hand). Maria just wants to get out, constantly scrapping to figure out how to get north. They all orbit each other, though Angel and Lucy pair up about midway through the book for good.

And I mean “pair up” in the Biblical sense. The sexual activity between the two of them is so clichéd and obvious that it really disappointed me Bacigalupi went that route. Lucy has no reason to trust, much less desire, a man whose profession is strangling cities like Phoenix of their water (he has the book’s first scene, where he rides Apocalypse Now style in a chopper that attacks an Arizona city’s water plant). Nonetheless, she sleeps with him, because, why not?

She also betrays him, which sets up the true gullibility moment. As I said all three characters are brutalized (the women basically for fun, which says something). Angel’s turn comes when the car he’s sitting in is ambushed by his own people. He’s riddled with bullets and smacked in the head by an exploding airbag. Not only does that not knock him unconscious, he manages to crawl away, only to fall head-first into an empty swimming pool (an interesting recurring image of Phoenix). After all this, which should leave him bleeding profusely, concussed, and probably with a broken neck he’s miraculously saved by Lucy and some hand-waving med tech.

This is where, even in the oppressive Phoenix heat, my snowmen started flying. As I said, the other main characters also suffer horrible abuse and manage to shake it off, but not quite like this (a minor character is up and walking a few days after having his kneecap blown away!). Unless Angel is superman – and there’s been no suggestion he is – he shouldn’t survive. At the very least, he should be incapacitated for the rest of the book. After that, I simply couldn’t care what happened to these people.

That’s not true. I kind of didn’t care all that much about these people to begin with. Angel’s basically a gun for hire. Lucy wants a big story, but doesn’t seem all that motivated by anything else until the very end. Only Maria is really worth rooting for, which makes the rather abrupt ending work in a way that it probably shouldn’t have worked.

I loved The Windup Girl and have really enjoyed Bacigalupi’s short stories. Unfortunately, The Water Knife doesn’t measure up. That’s no crime, but it’s perhaps a missed opportunity. Worth a read, but not essential, and certainly not one to pick up if you’re looking to have your faith in humanity restored.

The Water Knife

As I Was Saying . . .

Talk about perfect timing.

Last week I republished a piece from my old blog in which I rejected the classification of art into “high” and “low,” the former being real and important and the latter being fluff and meaningless. That post was originally written in response to some stupid things said about music. How was I to know on the very same day someone would come along and provide an even better example from the world of books?

Jonathan Jones is an art critic for The Guardian, which should be a good indication that anything he says about books should be viewed with a grain of salt. I mean, he’s entitled to his opinion as much as any other reader, but he doesn’t really have any authority when it comes to books. Except that most amateur critics (myself included) at least clear the first hurdle – read about what you criticize, particularly if you’re going to talk shit about it.

Last week, Jones wrote a piece titled “Get Real. Terry Pratchett is not a literary genius.” It’s a provocative headline and, to be fair, probably wasn’t Jones’s (writers rarely get to pen their own headlines). In addition, while I and many others are big fans or Pratchett it’s perfectly okay not to be and to even think he’s overrated. As I’ve said before, all art is subjective and things either connect with you or they don’t. It’s not a crime to hold a minority opinion.

Having said that, you really can’t start your piece slagging off on an author like this:

It does not matter to me if Terry Pratchett’s final novel is a worthy epitaph or not, or if he wanted it to be pulped by a steamroller. I have never read a single one of his books and I never plan to. Life’s too short.

Jones does cop to “flick[ing] through a book by him in a shop,” but that’s hardly enough.

I’ll let Sam Jordinson at The Guardian take on Jones on the merits. I’m more interested in the way Jones sets up his argument, because it’s about more than Pratchett:

In the age of social media and eBooks, our concept of literary greatness is being blurred beyond recognition. A middlebrow cult of the popular is holding literature to ransom. Thus, if you judge by the emotional outpourings over their deaths, the greatest writers of recent times were Pratchett and Ray Bradbury. There was far less of an internet splurge when Gabriel García Márquez died in 2014 and Günter Grass this spring. Yet they were true titans of the novel. Their books, like all great books, can change your life, your beliefs, your perceptions. Everyone reads trash sometimes, but why are we now pretending, as a culture, that it is the same thing as literature? The two are utterly different.

In other words, there’s literature and there’s trash. Elitism doesn’t come any more stark than that, though I appreciate that Jones would at least allow everyone to read trash sometimes (if not, I’d never sell another book!).

Here’s a thought – maybe the passing of Pratchett or Bradbury caused more outpourings of grief because they were more popular that Márquez or Grass? It should not come as a huge shock that popular people are mourned more than others, regardless of why they’re popular. Popularity isn’t a marker of quality, anyway, so why does Jones care? Not to mention that history is riddled with artists (of various kinds) who died broke and unknown only to become regarded as masters years later.

I actually don’t disagree with Jones’s concluding thought that “we should stop this pretence that mediocrity is equal to genius.” But in this case, how the fuck would he ever know? He’s labeled Pratchett (and Bradbury and, one suspects, most others who write popular things) as mediocre without bothering to find out if they are.

In short Jonathan Jones – stick to art. And go fuck yourself.

Moore Hollow Monday – Free Excerpt

Welcome to the first Moore Hollow Monday! These posts will help you get excited about the release of my new novel, Moore Hollow, on October 5.

In this excerpt from the book, the main character Ben Potter meets with his sometime employer and editor Artith, about a potential job:

The book said nothing on the outside, its brown leather binding just barely holding up against years of abuse and neglect. It was about the size of a trade paperback with an afterimage of rough cowhide on the cover that had been worn smooth with age. He flipped open the cover and found the title page. The word “Journal” was printed across the top in barely legible gothic script. Underneath were a few black lines, spaces for the owner to write his name and the dates covered. The dates, written in neat, plain handwriting, were “July, 1905” and “February, 1907.” In the space where the journal owner’s name was written, it said, “Reginald Benjamin Potter.”

“Bloody hell,” Ben said.

“That’s you, isn’t it?” Artith asked, leaning back in her chair and looking extremely pleased.

Ben stared at the journal. “It’s my name, all right. But it’s not me. I’m the fourth poor soul to be saddled with it.” He closed the book and rubbed the rugged outer covering again. “Is this my great-grandfather’s?”

“You’ll have to tell me,” she said. I flipped through it, but I wasn’t really interested in the stuff he said about England. Did your namesake go to America?”

Ben nodded. “For a couple of years just after he left school. He went to some backwoods mountain town, coal mining country.” Ben shot her a dull look. “Only someone in my family would travel halfway around the world to wind up in a place that was just like home.”

Artith flashed him a confused look.

“Yorkshire,” Ben said, remembering that they had never really talked about his family before. “My family’s from just outside of Leeds. Been there for centuries. So leave it to my ancestor to go from English coal country to American coal country.”

“West Virginia,” she said.

Ben chuckled. “Where the bloody hell is that?”

“Somewhere west of Virginia, I suspect,” she fired back. “You know anything about what he did while he was over there?”

Ben shook his head. “Something with railroads, I think. The ones they used to haul coal out of the mines and to wherever it went before it got shipped off. He only spent a couple of years there before he came home and started the family business.”

“Which is not paranormal investigation or journalism, let me guess?” Artith said, chuckling.

“Much to my father’s chagrin,” Ben said, remaining stoic. “Civil engineering, actually.”

“How come you’re not an engineer then, Ben?” Artith asked, enjoying this little bit of torment. “Bad at maths?”

“No,” Ben said, more defensively than intended, “although that didn’t help. It just never did anything for me. To be a good engineer you have to be curious about how things work and why they sometimes don’t.”

“And you don’t care?” Artith continued.

Ben shook his head. “So long as whatever the damned thing is actually works, I’ve got no interest in the details.”

Artith thought for a moment like she had another prickly question ready but apparently passed on asking it. Instead, she shifted topics. “Did you know your great-grandfather then?”

“No, no,” Ben said, shaking his head. “He died before the Second World War. Granddad told me a lot about him, though.”

“He was an engineer too?” she asked.

Ben turned his head to one side, looked at the wall in thought, then said, “After a fashion.” Looking back to Artith’s confused face, he added, “He was a bit eccentric.”

She let that pass by unremarked. “Did your Granddad tell you anything about what his dad did in America then?”

“A little bit,” Ben answered without thinking. Then something tickled the back of his memory, something he hadn’t thought about for years. “Why?”

Artith leaned forward in her chair as if she might pounce. “I told you I skimmed that over the weekend,” she said, pointing to the book in Ben’s hands. “Your namesake tells quite a tale in there. As he lays it out, one of the local politicians was in a very tight race for his seat on whatever their little local council was called.”

Ben whistled. “A hundred-year-old political squabble is the kind of thing that gets you excited these days, Artith? Better find a job at Sky.”

She waved the joke away. “No, no, no. What’s interesting is what this desperate pol did about it. Or rather tried to do about it. According to your great-grandfather at least.”

“Which was?” Ben asked. The memory was coming into better focus now. He had some idea where this was going.

“This guy,”—she paused for a moment—“the name escapes me, but this guy, according to your forefather, actually raised the dead so that they could vote for him.”

Something clicked in his head. “Ah, yes,” he said. “The zombie voters.”

“You knew about this?” Artith asked, obviously hurt. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It’s not as if I was holding out on you, Artith,” Ben said. “Granddad told me a few stories. They were fun, but I never thought they were real. Seriously, why should I?”

“And nothing about working for the Journal made you think, perhaps, in a moment of reflection, that the time was ripe to revisit these stories?” she asked. It was clearly a rhetorical question.

Ben answered anyway. “I don’t work for the Journal, Artith, or for you unless some checks have gone missing in the post.”

She put up her hands in mock concession.

“Look, I loved my Granddad,” Ben explained. “But he was a little, what’s the word? Off, you know? When he’d talk about things his father saw in America I just took them for what they were—fun stories. Besides, Artith, you know me at least a bit. Do you think that working for places like the Journal have made me a believer in all this shit?” He gestured around the room, taking in all the paranormal exotica on display.

She shook her head. “Of course not,” she said, not altogether convinced. “That’s not why I showed you that, anyway.”

“It’s not?” Ben asked. “Then why? It’s kind of neat, I guess, but—”

“I want you to check it out,” she said, cutting him off with a devious look.

Moore Hollow – The hardest part of a mystery is deciding what to do once you’ve solved it.

Preorder now at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and Kobo

Cover (KDP)

Weekly Watch: The Fifth Estate

The Fifth Estate desperately wants to be a movie about Julian Assange, the enigmatic founder and leader of Wikileaks. Problem is, it’s not really a movie about Assange. Instead, it’s really about Daniel Domscheit-Berg, who worked with Assange for a few years. It’s based on his book (along with one other) and he’s clearly the audience surrogate – the one who lets us in on the story.

But since The Fifth Estate wants to be a movie about somebody else, we don’t really learn enough about Berg to care about him or his motivations. It’s unclear why he hooked up with Assange (they knew each other when the movie’s timeline starts, although they were just meeting in person for the first time) and whether their eventual rupture was inevitable or the result of Assange really going over a bridge too far.

The biggest problem with this isn’t that Berg’s story might have been more interesting – maybe it isn’t – but that without a good anchor into the broader story of Wikileaks the person the film wants to be the center of attention, Assange, isn’t that interesting, either. Benedict Cumberbach (sp?) does pretty well with what little he’s got to work with, styling Assange as an aloof egomaniac with a messiah complex who may, nonetheless, be doing the right thing.

The shallowness of all this is evidenced via a running joke, in which Assange will relate some harrowing experience and then quip that’s why he has white hair. Late in the film Berg offers the real secret – he dyes it (no shit!) because that’s what the cult in which he grew up did. Assange has already told us about the cult, so this really isn’t anything new. What’s set up as some kind of big reveal – I thought, perhaps, Assange’s whole back story had been a lie cooked up to enhance his image – really isn’t. You shrug and move on, just as with the rest of the film.

It doesn’t help that most of the action takes place on computers and Hollywood hasn’t really figured out yet how to make that interesting. The great achievement of The Social Network was making a story about computers about people instead, so the (very brief) bits of actual computing we see mean something. Too many of the characters in The Fifth Estate spend too much time tapping out stuff on keyboards that we, the viewers, can’t even read (seriously – when the climax is happening it’s nearly impossible to figure what people are saying to each other). At one point it looks like, in an accommodation for dramatic purposes, that folks might read what they’re typing in a voiceover, but that only happens once. Somebody should have stuck with that instinct.

Amidst all that I suppose it’s no surprise that the central conflict, brought into sharp relief by the release of documents leaked by American soldier Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, almost comes out of nowhere. While there are earlier cites to the Wikileaks policy of never editing or redacting the documents they release, nobody really questions this policy or how it might run up against conflicting concerns (say, the safety of innocent third parties) until it actually happens. Some better philosophical and political groundwork would have made that climax more powerful and dramatic.

In the end, there are a couple of better movies waiting to escape The Fifth Estate, one about Assange and one about Berg. It’s a shame the creative team behind The Fifth Estate didn’t have the material to make the first one or the desire to make the second one. Don’t take my word for it – Assange didn’t like it either.

FifthEstate