I want to start off thinking about Osama by Lavie Tidhar (Solaris Books, 2012) with what may seem like a totally irrelevant connection I made about thirty something pages into the book. We’re talking about Osama and the publisher of a book about him in this work of fiction is Medusa Press so, of course, I’m immediately reminded of The Medusa Touch by Peter Van Greenaway because of the cover to the first hardback edition. It’s not the Empire State Building but, as you can see below, the image on the dust jacket is strikingly appropriate. This has to be deliberate. If not, then it’s a spooky coincidence. The question I’m left asking myself is whether I want to know the answer to this question. Here I am living a relatively comfortable life. Do I want to disturb it by inquiring into the way this author works his magic? It doesn’t benefit me to know whether this is an example of the author’s arcane knowledge of modern firsts. Perhaps it’s better to live in ignorance. That way, I can say admiringly of the author, “Wow, fancy a young man knowing about that old book!” and have no-one disabuse me of the right to praise him. Did I mention the other day, as I was out walking, there were shots nearby. I ducked down. Not the most rational thing to do. After all, who would want to shoot me? I think it was men sent by the local council to shoot the crows. They didn’t seem to be looking at me. So I went on my way, unhurt. Although I did later think it was strange these men should be wearing polished boots like those worn by policemen. Yes, I know this is the stuff of paranoia and it’s completely irrational I should fear the possibility of death just because I thought of contacting the author. . .
Several reviewers have compared this book to the work of P K Dick so we need to deal with this early on. Essentially Dick was an ideas man and, since he was out of his tree because of drug use for much of the time, many of those ideas betray symptoms of mental illness. This includes thematic paranoia about the authoritarian surveillance state and the direction in which global capitalism was headed. In the midst of all this he questioned what it means to be human and what we should understand as reality. This was wrapped up in the politics of simulation, deceit, and self-deception. In 1960s terms, we should describe this as “heavy” but, because it was usually buried in a science fiction context, many people overlooked the philosophical implications of what he was writing about. He was a cult science fiction writer, not a cult philosophy writer. However, for all the fascinating subtexts in many of this novels and short stories, there’s one truth. He was not a very good writer of prose. It’s serviceable at best. Whereas Lavie Tidhar’s prose is in a completely different league, being elegant in the primary narrative and functionally factual in the quoted extracts from the books — yes, it’s another work of intertextuality in which the primary protagonist sets off the track down the author of books which are extensively quoted in the main text.
So where are we with this text? As a metaphor, let’s think of a mouse living in someone’s clothing. To the mouse, this is a pocket universe, kept warm and comfortable with food supplied at regular intervals. Mice are notoriously unimaginative and so rarely wonder where they are, what the heat source is, nor how the food is so conveniently delivered. So what would happen one day if the mouse decided to look out of the pocket? Such a change of view might force the mouse to reappraise its position in the world. Not that mice have beaks, but it would establish a new pecking order for it. Or perhaps the perspective might change if the clothing somehow because infected by opium. Although it’s not hallucinatory, the absence of stimulation provokes a change in mental state, helping our mouse to see things differently.
This is a gently melancholic book which has a private detective reluctantly leave his “safe” environment and venture out into the world on a commission to find the author of some books about Osama. As in all good PI novels, he follows the trail, asks questions, drinks too much, smokes endlessly, and gets beaten for his trouble. What he finds is disturbing. He begins to wonder whether something is nibbling at the reality of the world. Are all the people he sees really there, or are they, well, just a little fuzzy round the edges? In the end, it’s no longer clear who he is but, by then, in a sense, it no longer matters. No matter who he is, he’s not going to change. Indeed, the more fantastic his experiences, the less impressed he becomes. This could be because he has deep roots or, lacking any roots, he retreats into a kind of stubborn refusal to admit any alternatives to his version of reality. If we must think in P K Dickian terms, does it occur to Rick Deckard he’s anything other than human? He would be in full denial mode if even a hint of it arose. So, in Osama, Joe is so comfortable as a private detective living in his quiet unassuming backwater, he would always deny he was anyone else. This is beautifully written and a most thoughtful and engaging story that flirts with the conventions of science fiction and fantasy to think about what it means to be human and to resist the attempts of anyone else to make you into something you’re not. For the record this won the 2012 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
The question that lives in the mind some hours after leaving the cinema is what constitutes entertainment. If I wanted to see real life, I could sit on a street corner and watch it walk and drive by. Admittedly it wouldn’t be as exciting as in this film, but it would pass the time. So I just spent 109 minutes watching two youngish officers in End of Watch (2012) patrol around some of the more violent streets in South Central LA. Although it starts off with a car chase and, from the camera mounted on the black-and-white’s windscreen, we see the occupants of the chased car emerge with guns blazing when they are cornered, this is not completely typical of their days. Yes, there are moments of action but, equally, they simply drive around and keep the peace. This means telling people to turn down the volume on their music if they’re having a party, or remonstrating with an angry man who’s been threatening the mailman. Their view of the world is passive-aggressive. The law of search-and-seizure does not permit random stops. The team has therefore developed a number of strategies to tiptoe around the law with pretexts for the stop. It’s the same with entering houses without a search warrant. If they are able to see a possible offence from outside, they force their way in. Otherwise, they simply drive around, drink endless coffees and Red Bulls, and talk.
It’s the talking that features. If I was asked what the film is about, I would say the screenwriter/director David Ayer is interested in studying them as individuals and a team. They’ve been together for seven or eight years. Brian Murphy (Jake Gyllenhaal) was a marine. Mike Zavala (Michael Peña) is a second-generation Mexican, not as well educated, but passionate about his work. Despite their cultural differences, they have grown close. Unofficially, they relate to each other as brothers with Brian adopted into the extended Mexican kin group. In the cliché favoured by the so-called buddy movies, they’re like family.
So the question remains. Is it entertaining to spend almost two hours watching two men drive around in a car together, emerging every now and again to exchange fire with local criminals or save kids from a burning building? Ah yes, you see the catch. There are moments of excitement in the midst of the pervasive boredom of their lives. If they wanted, they could game the system and never get into any situation where their lives might be at risk. Only their feet or backsides would grow calluses. But, whether it’s their professionalism or a desire to “make a difference”, they always seem to be leading from the front. Sadly, this means they are noticed by the local representatives of a Colombian drug cartel. First, they tell them the music is too loud, then they make one of their stops of a “suspected” vehicle and find a small quantity of drugs and some gold-plated weapons. Then there’s a house full of people. But it’s the house they enter near the end that causes the real problem. They actually chose this job because it looked really boring. A daughter who was worried about her mother. Yes, such public service jobs always carry that extra element of commitment.
Anyway, back to this recurrent question. . . Is a film that shares in the boredom of its characters’ lives a legitimate form of entertainment? No matter how much we learn about these fine, upstanding members of the community, no matter how much we might come to empathise with them, they are doing a shitty and dangerous job. At any moment, some individual high on drugs might attack them and get in a lucky blow, a gang member with anger management problems might shoot one in the head. As we sit in the cinema, we’re in no better position than the wives who have to stay at home and pretend their husbands will come home safe at the end of each shift. Well, we’re probably worse off than the wives because we have to watch the dark shadows collect at the end of the screen as they drive around this neighbourhood. So what does that make the message of this film?
I think End of Watch as a phrase says it all. We have the chance to watch the lives and deaths of some police officers in LA. As the credits roll, it’s the end of this opportunity to watch. If there is a message, it’s that there will always be some people who will survive to carry on the fight. Some may retire from the force because they are disillusioned or afraid, some because they are permanently injured, and some because they are dead. But so long as we have a need for law enforcement, there will always be some people with enough courage to stand up for righteousness and carry on the fight. It could be inspiring but, in this particular film, there’s not a shred of passion in promoting propaganda to encourage us to sleep well in our beds. There’s a dry, factual quality to the delivery and, to be honest, I was mostly bored. The inclusion of a few body parts and a little heroism fails to prevent the general feeling of depression. You can admire men like this and bewail the awfulness of a society that allows itself to degenerate into this state, but films like this accentuate the negative without any obvious purpose. David Ayer could have delivered a film to provoke outrage and foster a political desire to leave the cinema and exert pressure on government to change. But I just felt like giving up and, despite the likeability of Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena, it’s not entertaining. As a final thought on the structure of the film. Much of the action is delivered through discovered footage from various cameras, some of which are part of a personal log being kept by Brian as a part of a part-time degree course. But there’s no consistency as to when the camera will switch from on-board and hand-held to third person. This is distracting and fails in what I take to be an intertexuality attempt to give the film some credibility as cinéma verité.
Semiotics considers the process whereby one person communicates meaning to another. Put simply, A formulates a message in which he or she encodes meaning. In some suitable way, this message is transmitted to B who decodes the message and extracts meaning. The problem for A in this system is to ensure that the meaning he or she actually wishes to transmit is the one that B understands when the message is decoded. So, as a no-doubt-apocryphal example from the days when battlefield messaging relied on human messengers, a General receives the message, “Send three-and-four pence, we’re going to a dance.” For the young lovers of decimal currency, the old pound sterling used to be divided into shillings and pence. The phrase, “three-and-four pence” was an abbreviated reference to three shillings and four pence: just the right amount to pay for tickets to the ball. But what the battlefield commander actually said was, “Send reinforcements. I’m going to advance.” This phenomenon is called Chinese whispers and has been captured in a party game where semi-inebriated people sit in a circle and whisper a message to each other in turn and are then amused by how mangled the words get as they pass through many different ears and mouths. So authors must take care to ensure that they say what they mean, and to say it in a way that can be understood by their audience (or something).
By cultural convention, some authors achieve universality. No matter when they created their works, they can still be read and enjoyed centuries later. As plays or adaptations into visual storytelling, the audience can still find enjoyment and appreciate how little people have changed. Whether this is the original story of how Leonidas held off Xerxes at Thermopylae as retold by Frank Miller or the film, 300, or Beowulf as endlessly recycled in television or cinematic adaptations, people still respond to heroism in the face of overwhelming odds. Perhaps the writer most accepted as transcending time is Shakespeare. His poetry and plays seem to have captured the widest range of human strengths and weaknesses, and resonate through the ages.
Muse of Fire, a novella by Dan Simmons, takes as its conceit, the notion that there would be a market for a troupe performing Shakespeare in the far distant future. I am using “conceit” ambiguously as being both an artistic device for the story itself and pride in an author like Shakespeare whose work has the ability to survive technological and cultural transformation. Like Jack Vance who has a troupe of singers traipsing from planet to planet in the appropriately titled Space Opera, Simmons has a group of travelling players endlessly touring planets where there are human remnants, and performing the Bard. Things like this happen in science fiction. What then follows is an exercise in what those of a technical bent call intertextuality, where selected works from one author are woven into and interpreted to advance the telling of the new story. On a smaller scale, Muse of Fire pursues the same methodology as underpinned the Ilium/Olympos duology.
Handled well, the mediation of one text through another can produce interesting synergy. But the danger is that the modern author inflicts his or her own research fascinations on the unsuspecting reader. Striking the right balance in fiction is always a challenge. In this instance, even though I used to be a regular ticket holder at Stratford-upon-Avon, I found the Shakespearean quotes and analysis slightly overdone. While there is no disputing the ingenuity of the plot to take such a cliché and convert it into something more interesting, the end product is only partially successful. Bolting on some super-science, if not fantastic, elements as the environments in which the plays are performed and contextualising these elements in a Gnostic framework does not rescue the whole. Indeed, if anything, this story as a spiritual allegory is somewhat heavy-handed.
So I am back to yet another moment of self-reflection to justify why I buy these expensive books from Subterranean Press. I suppose the answer is that some of them do prove their value in literary terms. Perhaps, if I was a bigger fan of intertextualism, I would have enjoyed Muse of Fire more. As it is, I am unlikely ever to pick this up again. The jacket artwork is quite pretty, but this is another white elephant of a book for me.