Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Review: Bad Monkeys, by Matt Ruff

Bad Monkeys is, according to a back-cover interview with the author, Matt Ruff's Philip K. Dick book. That's great: I'll be the first to admit that I don't know Dick (ha) all that well, at least not at normal length (hee hee)--an interview and a short story I think is all I've ever read--but there have been enough adaptations and knockoffs of the guy over the years to make this one seem like it lays a credible enough claim to the throne. Bad Monkeys is a trip into the shadowy behind-the-scenes world where They watch you from, and then it's a chase through it. It plays on perceptions and on the deep game of creepy surveillance; it gets you looking over the characters' shoulders at all times. It aims for paranoia, and it hits that mark. It's just easy enough on the premises to be fun, and, as I almost never do, I finished the whole ting in a sitting. The main character, Jane, comes to us as likeable in a novel-esque way, a fast-talking and sassy kid who is nonetheless on the side of good, and Ruff is smart enough to take what are normally humanizing or even ennobling anti-authoritarian tendencies in her and examine them, mess with the expectations of that trope a bit. Jane, by the unfortunate circumstance of losing her (obvious homage of a) little brother Phil as a little kid, comes under the scrutiny of the Agency, which, we learn before long, is dedicated to nip the evil forces of the world (who Ruff gives to us as movie-grade sickos: serial killers, abusive perverts, bomb-throwers) before they get worse, and Jane's bad luck, set up against her quick and independent mind, eventually gets her on the team.

When the backstory ends and her training begins, we learn too of a counter-organization, the CHAOS to the Agency's CONTROL (Jane calls them the Bad Monkeys, based on some of their flyers), which runs cover for the forces of nastiness and discord. Both groups operate through deep and strange surveillance techniques (microscopic cameras that can be printed on any image with eyes), interact with their staff through dreams, duck through unexpected doors, and leave obscure signs as a means of communication (engineering clues in the daily crossword puzzle, seeding live scenes with telling iconagraphy and whatnot). The threatening ubiquity of it all strikes me as Dickish, but the telling of it seems a lot like an epically-tilted Stephen King novel. The juxtaposition of real life against the deep weirdness fits that mode. The goals and methods of these organizations seem much better suited to fantasy and the supernatural than they do to technology and philosophy, and it's where my mind tended to go. You can give magical assignments to a Team Good and a Team Evil that floats just out of humanity's regular sight--angels and demons, Seelie and Unseelie courts, whatever--and even introduce all the moral ambiguities into the characters that inhabit the opposing realms that you want--hell, a quarter of the sidebar is fantasy of this sort--but you it's harder to give absolute alignment to "realistic" human organizations, and it's a flaw in the foundation that the novel simply can't build its way past.

And with that, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to proceed to spoil the living fuck out of this one.

Look, that it's really explicit is the problem. I like the game that Ruff is going with: give us a flawed but sympathetic character and let's see how far he can stretch the reader's empathy, how long it takes for the flaws to win out.  How much evidence does it take for us to conclude that whatever side the protagonist is playing for, she's just a mean piece of work. Unfortunately, this whole exercise culminates with Jane, backed into a corner and confronted with knowledge of where she is and what actually happened to her brother, copping up. "All right, I'm evil!" she screams.  Hell, and maybe she is, but the problem I have is that she accepts the paradigm.  Even as her story breaks up, she seems bright enough to otherwise rationalize, socialized enough to act out shame, or bold enough to be defiant, and instead she confesses to the supernatural premises. But it's not even that, really, more that we readers should accept it.  Jane might have got there in the context of the story. The problem is that there's nowhere any condemnation of the good guys. Without supernatural validation of the absolute good (whether it survives in observance or not), we're left with the reality of the ambiguity of "good."  The agency that's allegedly keeping Evil in check, well, it's obvioiusly motherfucking evil it's own self. They spy, they infiltrate, they conspire, they judge with sparse evidence, and they kill with the certitude of zealots. And Jane fits right in to that. Jane's judged, but her employers are not.  No one watches the watchmen here, and how can you write a Phil Dick novel, or really write anything sincerely in 2007, where no one even wonders about that?

The other major flaw I think Ruff could have avoided with better writing. At the big reveal, the agents tell Jane the point where the story fell apart, the point where she stopped working for them, and became an object of study, where her whole story became staged. It's okay to do that, I think, in a novel with the the rules that Bad Monkeys gives us, and the vehicle for it (where are they really?) is telegraphed early enough. The problem is the supposed tell: there's just no way for the reader to see it, even after the fact. It's written like the classic joke: "We've got messages in the Jumble, agents behind every dialtone, evil clowns, and guns that fire heart attacks." "Oh hey I got one, what about drugs that change time, or a strange twin?" "Yeah right, that shit is just crazy."
The book was a very enjoyable escape, but it also had problems you could play T-ball with. If it was longer, I'd actually be mad.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Some Lesser-Known Presidential Achievements

Although we've had a number of them who veered toward the paternal, professorial, or patrician, Americans under (like most people in the world) powerful male leaders, are not strangers to masculine display from our presidents. Whether it was war-hero Harrison brazenly removing his coat and hat for a chilly inauguration, or the real reason big-shootin' Andrew Jackson was known as "Old Hickory," muddling our way inside a miasma of machismo is hardly anything new, but as contemporary ideals shift and change, and as the science of image management has grown more subtle and refined, the representations of presidential manliness have shifted over the years, and it's interesting to observe and note the progression of styles.  The military mode of expression has always been there, from George (Washington) to George (Bush), and we can argue who earned the uniform more.  Two things that I think changed the game very quickly, however, were (1) the development of quality photography and (2) the rise of popular sports.

Theodore Roosevelt is best rememered as the president who sold himself as an athlete, but there are a few others that most people know well.  Gerald Ford was a star football player, for example, and George W. Bush cheered football, and Ronald Reagan played the role of a football coach once, all of which are pretty much exactly the same thing.  And every last one of them inaugurated after 1950 golfed religiously.  President Obama moves like someone in smooth control of his body, and it's been odd that conservatives have occasionally tried to portray a man who's been known to drain a three-pointer on demand as an effeminate, uncoordinated wimp, but then, they seem to be the ones who put more value on alpha-hood.  Maybe the racists among them don't want to credit a "black" sport like basketball--more likely they just don't want to give him any credit for anything--but either way, it's been funny as hell to watch certain corners squirm at his recent photo release, firing a shotgun and looking good doing it.  It's not that I approve of the technique even a little--what he's doing here is not much different than Bush's flight suit--but on the other hand, I've got to hand it to the president: that's one hell of a good troll.

The fact is, there have been a lot of athletic presidents, and many of them even tried to campaign on it, even though success doing so was rare.  The problem is that it gave their opponents some grist too, and like Obama's hoops, it has had a way of getting subverted, eventually shelved quietly and rarely spoken of again.  Archival photos of our earlier sportsman/presidents are surprisingly hard to find.  I've been researching it carefully though, and I thought I'd share some surprising presidential trivia with y'all, along with vintage photos.  Every entry on this list is 100% historically accurate.

1. William Howard Taft
America, desperate for a diversion after the war, caught baseball fever in the 1860s.  (Baseball fever, though evidently contagious, proved much less deadly than yellow fever, scarlet fever, rheumatic fever, grippe, ague, cholera, smallpox, or consumption.  It bears repeating that the nineteenth century was a septic, tubercular shithole.) The sport became spread out and standardized during the conflict, and afterwards grew rapidly all across the nation, becoming a fully professional enterprise by the turn of the century.  Bookish, portly, and from an aristocratic family, William Howard Taft seems hardly the type to have made a showing in the scrappy small-ball leagues of the late 1800s, but after graduating Yale (where he'd wrestled), he moved back to the midwest and tried to get his weight behind a bat for a couple of seasons. 

He played in four separate clubs between 1880 and 1882, and while a prodigious hitter, he had increasing difficulty making it all the way around the bases by the end, and before long, he took up his role in the legal and political world.  (Designated hitters weren't common until the American League adopted the rule in 1973.)  Shown here is his baseball card from 1880, when he played first base for the Indianapolis Whoppers.

2. Woodrow "Woody" Wilson
Another president remembered for being scholarly, Wilson was a baseball prodigy as well.  Unlike Taft (whom he never played against), he was lithe, quick, and witty, known for chasing down balls and making daring catches.  Both had magnificent moustaches in their day, however, which, even more than a uniform, was a requirement for professional play before 1900, especially in New York.  Historians still debate whether the entire character of the Republic changed on the day Wilson shaved it.

He earned the nickname Woody because even with a big dramatic swing (Joe Dimaggio, it's been said, was inspired by early photos of the president, such as the one below), he wasn't a powerful hitter, but he could almost always make contact with the ball. 

3. Dwight Eisenhower
Ice hockey had not  penetrated very deeply into the U.S. in the 1920s, and it seems like an odd game for a kid from Kansas, and a West Point football player with a busted-up knee, to eventually gravitate, but that's exactly what happened with young Eisenhower.  He was a phenom on the ice for several years, nearly making it onto the first American pro team--the Boston Bruins--when they formed in 1924.  He is best known for making a dramatic overtime goal, but he retired from sport soon after.  It's a wonder, because even flying around like that without a helmet, he clearly enjoyed every second of it.

His early campaign buttons were meant to read "I Like Ice," but no one on his campaign team got the reference.  His friends started calling him Ike soon after, and it stuck.

4. Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter was a basketball star in high school, and later played football at the Naval Academy, at the position of quarterback.  For all the modern presidents who were known to play football, it's strange that Carter is so often overlooked.  With arms like iron beams, he could hurl the ball nearly level across the entire length of the field, earning the nickname "Le Sueur" from one of his Minnesotan teammates, who thought it sailed as if across the ice on the frozen lakes of his home city.  It wasn't for another decade and a half that the moniker could have any connection with stimulated emission light devices, but nonetheless, Carter has claimed for years that being called the "laser" is what inspired him to pursue nuclear engineering.

Carter was also notoriously vulgar on the field, even among sailors, constantly dressing down the opposing defense with his impressively foul mouth and large academic vocabulary.  Shortly after this photo was taken, he was quoted as saying "He's building a Disneyland?  Is that some kind of narcissistic mindfuck?  What a mouse-buggeringly stupid excuse for an idea." 

And a color photo in 1947 no less.  The man was a walking anachronism.

5. Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan played many hypermasculine roles during his acting career, and, arguably, in his old age, he would sometimes get them confused with his actual life story. But he never portrayed a boxer on film, despite experiences right in underbelly of the sport, and kept it impressively quiet even into old age. Many of his closest friends never knew when he was alive. Always intensely private about his experiences in the ring, it wasn't until the posthumous release of The Reagan Diaries in 2009 that his pugilist history was revealed to the public. Some surviving political opponents have recently speculated that the eventual onset of his dementia was exacerbated by a few too many blows to the head.

By his own admission, he wasn't a strong fighter, but he was steely-jawed with good features (this is an older photo), resembling a softer, thinner Jack Dempsey, and his managers would heavily promote him by looks alone, usually as an opponent to the local champ, a kind of record-booster for the hometown guy. He boxed professionally in several leagues, changing his name and moving on when his record inevitably would start to catch up with him. The experience of being a professional loser depressed him immensely, and he was unable to come out of that melancholy until he took a chance at a radio gig and met success in another field. From that point on, he took care to craft his image as a winner, someone on top, a man who manages, not one who gets managed.

[Edited to smooth out some uneven language.  You know, a whole lot of these guys really were jocks--figures--which kind of robs the joke.]