Redeployment (2014)

Phil Klay

Along with Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch this was my favourite read of 2016. They both deeply affected me perhaps because I read each of them in hospital in very short time-spans. They were also both recommended by Bret Easton Ellis on his Instagram and though I don’t necessarily agree with all the views he has on his podcast I so far 100% back his taste in film and literature.

In a way, too this book reminded me of Holly Child’s No Limit’s (perhaps my third favourite read book of last year). The two books are worlds apart in subject matter but in reading each there is the sense that there has been extensive reduction in drafting and editing so that what is left behind is the boiled down essence and exactly what author wished to convey.

Redeployment consists of ten stories based around the Iraq war and/or its aftermath. Each story is narrated from a different perspective and these different perspectives range over various ranks military departments and stages of deployment, redeployment and return to civilian life. Klay has stated that his goal was to avoid creating caricatures and stereotypes of military figures and in this respect, as well as others, he is very successful.

I was drawn to this book in the same way that I have been drawn to other works dealing with the Iraq war such as Generation Kill, The Red Circle, American Sniper, Lone Gunmen and also biographies and the auto-biography of George W. Bush. It is the war of my generation but, unlike previous wars, history still doesn’t seem to know how to deal with it and whether to accept or reject its mission and legacy. Was the war necessary, successful or criminal? And if I have these questions, in Australia, how much more confusing must it be in America where the likelihood of knowing someone who served in Iraq would be much higher?

Redeployment doesn’t necessarily answer any of these questions but it goes a long way towards explaining why the questions and confusions and anger and sadness over the war exists in this way. The different perspectives which Klay utilises are nuanced and complicated. They show that there is no one war story or right or wrong sense of horror or alienation. They also highlight how far removed we in the Western world are from the field of battle and how easily we distanced and distance ourselves and the day to day reality of our lives from the horror of this conflict.

And so while it doesn’t answer my questions. While I can’t properly summate why this book is so powerful and affecting in the space of a short review what I can say is that this book goes a long way to providing the best reflection of the confusion and fog of war and the many lives which have been and are touched by its shadow.

Dead Until Dark (2001)

Charlaine Harris

I was obliged to read this as part of an undergraduate gothic studies subject and, well, while, I didn’t expect to dislike it I was a little arrogant and thought it would be pretty light (in the lite sense) and fluffy. This is, after all, the novel that was turned into the TV show True Blood. The TV show which imploded under its own premise of vampires being integrated into the real world and acting as an analogy for various civil rights movements. A series which then heaped upon the implosion crater the added insult of werewolves and fairies and shapeshifters.

But, TV series aside, this first book in the series is quite good. It takes a lot of pointers in tone and characterisation from Stephen King which works well with the refreshing perspective of a female narrative perspective. The premise is brilliant. The setting in the south is suitably eerie and steeped in gothic history.

This book could essentially be the screenplay for the first season of the HBO adaptation which was almost universally applauded. I’m tempted to read on further and find out if Charlaine jumped the shark into the world of fairies or if that was HBO’s mistakes. Judging by Game of Thrones though I feel like HBO has been reasonably faithful and that Harris’ later novels possibly suffer in quality and dilute the premise. Here though it is an almost perfect modern vampire novel.

The Founder (2016)

John Lee Hancock

What this movie has? Well… It has an excellent and flawless cast. One of the most entertaining parts of the film was the frequent population of so many known faces in almost every scene. No matter how big or small. It was as if only the best character actors had been cast. Everyone performs well even though some actors are cast against their type particularly a meek Nick Offerman and a quiet and powerless Lura Dern as Ray Kroc’s housewife. It was good too to see some well known faces being cast into greater roles. Notably, for me, B.J. Novak from The Office and Linda Cardellini from Freaks and Geeks.

That said the movie is fun and interesting but ultimately unrewarding. The story is at its most interesting while it covers the McDonald’s brother’s initial development of their speedy burger system and restaurant setup. The plot and pacing then suffers as the focus turns more fully back and onto Michael Keaton as Ray Kroc. The movie then seems a little lost as to how to portray his increasingly unethical behaviour. In the third act the movie misses beats as Kroc’s personal life changes as his wealth and power increases. The movie has set itself up as being about Kroc’s journey from struggling salesman to fast food mogul but can’t really maintain the audience’s sympathy. Told in this way the character development struggles and Ray Kroc’s financial rewards and success feel unearned and the true-life resolution of the film an anti-climax. Meanwhile much seems to be left out or glossed over. The film ends as the McDonalds corporation is beginning to expand across America and only hints at the coming international cult of Ray Croc as, in the closing scenes, he practices a speech addressed to Ronald Reagan.

Little context is given for what Ray Kroc means when he urges the McDonald brothers to ‘do it (franchise their business) for America’. The movie doesn’t’ explain that Kroc was a staunch republican and thought that the export of American burgers could help in the fight against communism. This kind of partisan view is carefully kept out of the film as if it is seeking to appeal to everyone even as it tells the tale of ‘the founder’ essentially stealing his business from the McDonald brothers. While the movie is fine, very good even, and extremely watchable, well-acted and well shot it may have worked better if it had concentrated solely upon the origin story of the McDonald brothers as they developed their business where too it needn’t have had to skirt around or lessen certain events. Also, it had been that story and their initial journey it could have coincided with a changing America in the fifties through to the sixties and seventies. Instead these cultural changes were actually minimised and ignored in this film. Of course, too, by the same token a whole other film could have been made about the latter period in which Ray Croc takes over and the modern international colonial style expansion of the modern franchise. Both or either of these films could have been great. This film though which seeks to encapsulate these two very different stories and time periods does its best but cannot help but feeling disjointed and so too also, unfortunately, powerless in its portrayal of all parties and events.

I Am Alive and You Are Dead: A Journey into the Mind of Philip K. Dick (1993)

Emmanuel Carrère

4/1/2017

One of my guilty pleasures is that I love biographies. It’s a guilty pleasure because so many biographies are either bad, boring or unnecessary. But I try over and over. It began when I read Jackie Chan’s biography at a young age. Admittedly Jackie Chan’s story is reasonably interesting and, by comparison, a lot of other biographies are boring even, or despite, interesting subject matter. But the unexpected highs and lows of Chan’s story started something for me. And like any gambler who wins on their first try I’ve continued to search for the same reward. Yet it’s often difficult to gauge what will and what won’t be a good biography. Those who produced the most interesting work may have had dull lives.

Sure, though Phillip K Dick had an uninteresting life? Considering his fiction and Its breadth and influence. But really Dick’s life was remarkably mundane and this could easily have been a bad biography. He married several times, did very few drugs in general but lots of amphetamine in particular. Didn’t really travel or interact with other authors. He wrote, a lot, though arguably only some of it was great and much of his output, like his life, was merely mundane.

Nonetheless this is perhaps the best biography I have ever read and, I’d wager, will ever read. Carrère tackles the subject with a true passion and interest as well as the innovation of providing his own dramatization of events so that the book resembles a work of historical fiction. The book is built heavily upon facts and events but embellishes otherwise undocumented events in Dick’s with some conceit to fiction. Carrère delves deep and even in the mundane sections is innovative and relates Dick’s work and day to day existence to the world events and the rise and fall of the sixties counter-culture such that this book is about far more than merely the life of a prolific writer. The book is about philosophy, modern history, the birth and development of early modern science fiction, the nature and demands of creation, the counter-culture and its expectations and limitations as well as mental illness and the rewards and pitfalls of recognition.

It’s a sad book. Carrère tells the tragic life of a man who’s work touched, and continues to touch millions of people through the continual reprints of his novels and TV and movie adaptations. The book is not afraid to show the depths to which Dick fell and that he died lonely and confused and paranoid. Convinced to the end that he was trapped in just the kind of situation that he had written so much about. And Carrère in this work is not just providing us with the life of Dick, a genius. He is also asking what happened. At which point did the fiction consume and derail the writer and become his reality. Could he have been saved? Should he have been saved? Can he really be considered a hero or a genius when he was also seemingly so doomed and powerless? The book cannot provide answers to any of these questions. Nonetheless it does provide that perfect and poignant life and times story I’ve valued so much ever since my first taste.

Portnoy’s Complaint (1969)

Phillip Roth

1/1/2017

This is the first and so far, only Phillip Roth book I’ve read. Controversial at the time of publication (1969) for its depiction of masturbation, bodily fluids and obscenity. It’s relatively tame by modern standards though some would argue otherwise (including this Guardian article). The writing is solid, especially for a first novel, but I found it from a modern perspective bereft of controversy and so the book serves more as a well-done writing exercise in the (now) well known trope of Jewish neurosis. The book is narrated as one long monologue through the central character of Portnoy. While reading, I assumed this novel was a small side journey from Roth’s more serious works in the same way that Gore Vidal wrote Myra Breckinridge and Mailer wrote Barbary Shore. Although looking at the publication dates it seems as if Barbary Shore was a similarly early work of Mailer’s and so perhaps Gore Vidal was the only one making side-journeys while the other two were evolving as writers in these their earlier, lighter books. Or perhaps I’m completely wrong in my idea of Roth and all his writing is similar to this, but that’s a realization for another day.