An Evil Guest by Gene Wolfe

I’m not impartial when it comes to Gene Wolfe. He’s my favorite author, and I admit this. I’m one of those people who really like Castleview, about which I’d heard little but bad things. Even so, what seemed like an overwhelmingly negative reaction to An Evil Guest concerned me enough that I put off reading it until somebody eventually gave it to me as a gift. So I start reading it, expecting a 1920’s pulp pastiche, which is what everybody said it was, while finding something that’s treading the line between that and a parody of itself until the final act which becomes something akin to a men’s magazine adventure story and Lovecraftian horror tale in one. Somehow, it still reads entirely like Gene Wolfe.

The novel opens with The President of the United States of America and his counsel attempting to hire philosophy professor-wizard-private eye-problem solver Gideon Chase to track down Bill Reis, the former emissary to the alien planet Woldercan who is now interfering with United States interests. Chase sorta-agrees to do so for a price. He finds a thirty-something red-headed actress named Cassie Casey and enlists her to help him trap Bill Reis. In return, Chase is to make Cassie into a star, which he does... with magic!

The narrative follows Cassie from this point, as she closes one show and is immediately scouted for a new one, the (one assumes) farcical “Dating the Volcano God.” The producer of this show happens to be Bill Reis, hiding behind the name Wally Rosenquist. He immediately tries to take up with Cassie, who remains in limited contact with Gideon Chase who has also fallen in love with her. In spite of this, when Reis wants to whisk Cassie off to a South Seas island to rule as a queen, Chase advises that she should probably go. Chase is a wizard, but, you see, Reis might be too. He’s certainly scary and creepy as shit, according to Gideon Chase and the United States government. And he can make gold out of base elements and disappear at will.

Up to this point, Wolfe has been playing off the style of pulp thrillers. The dialogue is plodding, though appropriate to his stylistic purpose. There are ethnic stereotypes which fit what Wolfe is going for -- a Japanese character says “arso” enough to have made some readers uncomfortable and British dialect comes through as hilarious, nearly incomprehensible “pip pip, cheerio” silliness -- but they are among the elements that raise suspicions of the whole exercise being a self-effacing joke. The setting that seems to be a future trapped in the land of the fictional nineteen-twenties (Lamont Cranston gets a mention as a real person) is actually stranger than the fantastical elements, but not as strange as the number of government agencies working against each other with questionable tactics.

The novel shifts in tone and style when Cassie actually goes to the South Seas Island Reis promises her. The inhabitants of said island also come right out of the big book of potentially offensive stereotypes. The first two acts were a pulp thriller; the finale is an island adventure with Lovecraftian horror. Cthulu makes an appearance in the margins.

All of the government agency backbiting, wizardry, Cthulu gods, and casual misogyny really baffled critics when they reviewed An Evil Guest back in 2008. There are things that annoyed me about how the men in the novel treat Cassie, including the ones that claimed to love her. Both Reis and Chase are awfully condescending towards her. And again, it is part of the whole aesthetic thing, but it’s not like there’s any real set of rules that Wolfe is obligated to follow. After all, I don’t recall Philip Marlowe driving a spaceship car or doing magic.

But I think some critics treated Cassie unfairly. Adam Roberts claimed that “Casey is not a strong woman. She is a conservative's notion of a strong woman…permitted to explore to the very edge of her pedestal but not to step down from it.” No. Cassie is Adam Roberts’s assumption of what Adam Roberts’s idea of a conservative would consider a strong woman. I don’t say that to obfuscate, I say that because I don’t think that Gene Wolfe intended her to be read that way. Idnn in The Wizard Knight is probably closer to his idea of a “strong woman” (if we must use the quotes) or perhaps Ann Schindler from Castleview, to a lesser degree. I don’t think either of those women would let a man tell them that he was planning to destroy them just to make a point but would rather do the nasty with them instead. Cassie isn’t strong. She tries to be brave, and she’s rather charming in a ditzy way. But she’s nobody’s idea of strong.

It’s also not fair to read a pulp pastiche and then criticize it for actually being a fairly accurate pulp pastiche. Wolfe’s colossal reputation as a writer of depth probably skews expectations of An Evil Guest, which seems to lurch between segments that fit into the reader’s expectations and something spectacularly silly. To paraphrase a friend's reaction after my failed attempts to explain the plot to her, it’s difficult to tell in this novel when the author is going to be serious and when he’s just writing stuff for shits and giggles. Either the aesthetic isn’t living up to what Wolfe wants to say, or Wolfe can’t help but write his novels, even the silly ones, as a reflection of the way he apparently sees everything: a mosaic made out of fragmented classical myths, literary conventions, historicity and the broken, inadequate memories of his own characters -- all arranged in a way that evokes the icons of his intense Catholicism.

Wolfe’s novels draw only the negative space of what he’s really describing. It’s a labyrinth that he wants his readers to navigate and then see with benefit of distance, but reading him on a first try is like being lost in a maze. Re-reading helps. But while An Evil Guest was interesting and even fun at times, I can’t say that I want to go back to it any time soon. Part of that is because I can only see the fuzziest of pictures coming out of the way Wolfe has arranged his fragments this time. It’s worth reading for the same reasons as any of his other novels and stories. This one just didn’t work for me.

But I really want a hopper. In fact, I want Gideon Chase’s spaceship-car.


What's the Food Like in New Hampshire?

I treated myself, last Sunday, by eating Indian food. No doubt, for those of you living in places with rich culinary scenes (or India) this doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but there aren’t a great many options near my home, especially on a Sunday night, when I’m unwilling to drive anywhere. The local Indian restaurant is called Roti Grill, which is a bit pricey considering the food is only pretty-okay. Again, lack of options. Still, any Indian food is better than Indian food that’s twenty minutes away. And honestly, I like the place. It’s a good for a late dinner on a Sunday night, when you’re eating alone.

Eating alone is underrated. I checked my Yahoo news feed earlier that afternoon and read somebody’s guide to eating alone. It contained what I’m sure is somebody’s idea of useful suggestions: bring a book, pretend you’re a critic, be confident. Anyone who needs a guide to teach them how to enjoy eating by his or herself doesn’t deserve the pleasure of doing so. Anyone who writes such a guide should be strung up and humiliated for perpetuating an ignorant and stubborn expectation about an activity that too few people ever contemplate as they experience it.

I walked into Roti Grill a bit after nine, and ordered bhajia (onion fritters served with turmeric sauce), deliberating over what to order as an entrĂ©e. What is it that makes people think that they should make conversation with me when I’m alone in a restaurant? The young man taking my order inquired about my weekend, about my day, where I had come from, if I was working tomorrow. Shut up, kid, I’m trying to decide what I want to eat. I ordered a lamb curry -- simple, yes, but undoubtedly good and hard to screw up. The waiter tells me I made a good choice. Thank you and whatever.

Five minutes later I’m eating my bhajia, looking out the window at the moon. It looks small, and maybe, a bit sickly yellow hanging just over Whataburger’s steeple top. I’m not in a contemplative mood, but I don’t need to be. The fritters are delicious.

The waiter is coming with my curry. The dish looks deeper than it is, and accompanied by a generous portion of rice and naan, Indian flatbread. I’m not watching my carbs. I thank him before he can ask me about my parents or my girlfriend or whatever other small-talk he feels compelled to bring up.

CNN blares on the television overhead. It’s an old CRT; the sound is tinny, but it lends a certain something of interest to the talking heads of a news broadcast. I installed TVs in restaurants a couple of summers ago. It was miserable work, since it had to be done early in the morning, before the dining rooms opened. I spent weeks mounting televisions to walls and ceilings in restaurants where nobody would watch them, where they would collect dust and eventually go bad from neglect (if you have a plasma screen, dust it often). The money I made provided for that semester’s tuition and text books and everything except personal satisfaction.

That TV was wonderful. If it had been playing old Bollywood movies instead of CNN, it would’ve been better. I like flat LCD, DLP and plasma screens, but God knows that they have all the personality of a Kindle or a Nook. The picture is clearer and the sound better and digital broadcast offers more viewing options and somehow these new TVs still can't compete with that buzzing, chirping distraction found even in the pockets of elementary schoolers.

In the background I hear Tejano music. Even the Indian food is cooked by Mexicans in this city.

In the window-view a gaggle of teenagers are coming out of the bubble tea shop next door. High school students. They’re all texting and tweeting or whatever, running around the parking lot staring at those phones that are more technically complicated than the computer I’m typing this at right now (seriously, I’m using notepad on a Windows 3.1 OS). Seven of them, drinking iced tea in the cold, surrounded by each other. None of them were focused on the people right in front of them, preoccupied as they were with sending high-tech smoke signals into the digital ether. Remember when that shit was nerdy?

More people should eat by themselves, and learn to enjoy something as simple as a lamb curry eaten in a restaurant with high windows, old TVs, and a highly inquisitive waiter.

Good Taste Exists Without My Consent

I wasn't going to direct your attention to this, as it's actually kind of a dick thing to do, but the person who reposted this sterling example of word-vomit decided to completely miss the point of Cormac McCarthy.

"His writing is worthless and an insult to everyone who writes." eh?

The person who wrote that about McCarthy decided to republish an article with the following sentences:

"Where else could we have found such art? Movies? Well, the Americans of my day didn't have Miyazaki's stuff on file, so that was out."

I can imagine it now. Hordes of plump and skinny losers of all races, howling like mad, whacking the chained unbelievers on their way to the Gulag of the Cool with their FF VI cartridges, while a grinning 'ice teeth' Hironobu Sakaguchi – Mao Suit, liberation cap – waves to them from the castle walls."

that man was our libertine, our Byron." ( Yes, he's still talking about Final Fantasy 6)

The saddest thing is that we still don't have the vocabulary – nay, the poetry – to celebrate Final Fantasy VI properly." (emphasis mine, lols)

The War of the Magi has never really stopped and Final Fantasy VI will no doubt continue its unseen jihad, unnoticed and unheard until our blessed day of reckoning. When the silly works of today will be nothing more than a footnote in the Final Fantasy-era of art history."

Are you embarrassed too, random blog reader, for the sake of the person who authored those statements? How about the person who thought it was good enough to share with a wider audience and compares favorably to Cormac McCarthy? What was that labored description of a totalitarian-nerd Tienanmen square supposed to even mean?

I still love hg101. It continues to be one of two game related websites I regularly check, and this inconsequential article couldn't change that. Nevertheless, the editors might help themselves by not straying too far afield of subjects they actually understand. There be dragons and cool people and bloggers for whom purple prose is a humorous exercise in those places unknown.


Tilt (Rudy Durand, 1979)

Tilt is a movie where the title character, a fourteen-year-old pinball whiz-kid played by Brooke Shields, is taken across state borders from her broken home in LA by an aspiring country music singer from Corpus Crispi, Tx, in an effort to hustle money out of pinball gamblers and ultimately humiliate his old boss, a bar owner called “The Whale.” And its screenplay was written by Donald Cammell.

Perhaps that last statement sets up an unfair expectation (of course it does) seeing as Cammell left the production when the studio refused his suggestion of casting Jodie Foster in the title role. Replacing him is Rudy Durand, a film maker of little repute (Tilt is his only film) but active in theater and commercials. His script neuters most of what one can see of Cammell’s influence. But it shines through, occasionally. Tilt’s shirt reads “trouble” and while hitch-hiking, she tells a trucker that she’ll go home and make with him and his wife.

It isn’t really what one would assume, based on the names attached to it. Tilt doesn’t exploit Brooke Shields nearly so much as Pretty Baby or Blue Lagoon. Some of the dialogue sounds like Rudy Durand wrote it so that the audience would in no way assume that the character Tilt is involved in anything other than honest pinball hustling. “I haven’t been down with anybody…” she tells Neil Gallagher as they make their way to a hotel on their first night of their pinball road-trip. “This is strictly business right?”

Shields is more awkward here than she would be even a year later. She’s a smart-assed runt who spouts innuendos which somebody must have thought were cute. In fact, tons of embarrassing witticisms and retarded pseudo-proverbs litter the script. My favorite: “Life's like a seagull. The more you feed it, the more it dumps on you.” Although, “watch your head, boy, because your ass always goes with it” is a close second. Actually, there’s one statement that really sums up the film quite nicely, stated by Tilt’s first pinball gambling manager, the owner of a bar where Neil finds her: “It’s okay to use people, if you throw in a little bit of love.” It’s really a very mean-spirited little movie.

And it’s bad too. It looks low rent and the theme song, “Long Rode to Texas” grates. It’s badly written and Ken Marshall, Brooke Shields, and most of the supporting cast act poorly. Some California scenery takes the place of Corpus Christi, and is wholly unconvincing. In fact, the premise itself is inherently uncinematic. How does one make pinball visually exciting?

Well, you can have Charles Durning (with extra padding on his already impressive girth) dancing around to cheesy rockabilly, hitting the flipper levers with his butt cheeks and generally being huge. Durning is a fantastic actor and he outperforms pretty much the entire movie. The interspersed close ups of rolling pinballs and actors trying to act like they’re interested somehow seem a little bit more enjoyable when Durning is hamming it up. He’s supposed to be the villain, but he’s the only character with anything resembling class and likability. I rooted for the villain.

So what is Tilt? It’s a bad movie. Really bad. But it isn’t too hard to watch. The local independent video store (which has everything) probably hasn’t rented their video tape to anybody else in years. Had Donald Cammell actually made this film, it would probably be playing on TCM Underground on Friday nights. But I watched it on video late at night and wished that I had found it on a UHF channel when I was thirteen. It’s the sort of bad movie that you wish you could remember so that when somebody talks to you about “Lipstick Jungle,” you can ask them, “ever see Tilt?” and laugh as they try to figure out what you mean when you talk about pinball hustlers and The Whale and the words written on the butt of fourteen-year-old Brooke Shields jeans.


Best VG Novelization Ever -- Eat that David Gaider!

Marketing perversity reaches new levels of silliness.

Actually, the new Dante's Inferno game has been bringing out all sorts of stupid. I recall seeing somebody on IMDb's Video Game board refer to The Divine Comedy as "Christian propaganda," which makes one wonder when something like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy will be labeled "naturalist propaganda" or if such a person would refer to Shakespeare's histories as "Tudor propaganda" under the impression that it's a relevant or unique observation.

The translation that's being used for this printing of The Inferno deserves much better than the fugly video game screenshot plastered on its cover. Since I don't own an Xbox 360 or a PS3, I won't be playing the Dante's Inferno game, which is probably for the best since it looks (honestly) hopelessly mediocre. Desecrating important literature that the developers and their audience probably don't understand is just an added bonus of being Electronic Arts, I suppose.

It'll provide plenty of opportunities for video gamers to show their intellectual and literary muscle on GameFAQs and IMDb's Video Game board, though. Oh, how I cannot wait.


Snowy Day

I’m drinking hot tea and typing on my computer in the middle of the afternoon while listening to “Life in a Northern Town.” I’m not being wistful, although it probably sounds like I am; it’s a snow day and I don’t have to work because of it. The Dream Academy just happens to be a favorite of whatever internet radio station my PSP decided to play for me.
Snow used to be an excuse to spend a day playing instead of working. For me, not having to go to my actual job means that I get to spend my time working on things that actually matter, like finding a new job that isn’t part of the construction industry. I suspect that young kids no longer know what a snow day should actually feel like, what with all the activities parents force their kids to participate in. I haven’t seen a single kid in the neighborhood building a snowman, and it’s a real shame. The snow is dry enough to ply and wet enough to pack -- perfect for play.
It’s rare to get that kind of snow in north Texas.