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Discharged from his service during World War II, Hazel Motes returns home to Tennessee in his early twenties, his childhood doubts over salvation, sin and his faith further shattered by the war, to the point he identifies himself an atheist, or anti-religion. A chance meeting in the city with a blind preacher, Asa Hawks, and his daughter Sabbath, exacerbates Motes’ detestation of the Church, and he vows to form his own ministry, The Church Without Christ, and he delivers impassioned sermons from the hood of his dilapidated car. All the while, a teenage boy, Enoch Emery, follows Motes on his blasphemous path, compelled by the ‘wise blood’ that runs in his veins, infatuated with the idea of The Church Without Christ.

wise-blood2Wise Blood is Flannery O’Connor’s first novel. Along with her second, The Violent Bear It Away (a dark and superbly challenging book) and several short story collections, it represents a small but powerful collection of writings of a woman who died tragically young, with an imagination so powerfully vivid she was willing to examine and dissect the ruminations of man’s relationship with God.

I preach there are all kinds of truth, your truth and somebody else’s, but behind all of them, there’s only one truth and that is that there is no truth… No truth behind all truths is what I and this church preach! Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place… In yourself right now is all the place you’ve got.

As to be expected with O’Connor’s work, there are the powerful themes of religion and faith, there are several flawed but deeply fascinating characters, and there are dark, violent, macabare twists and turns. Wise Blood is a simple tale, but O’Connor introduces us to several ignition points and has them dance dangerously close to one another. Motes alternates between an anxious, confused young man and a bitter, violent wretch, cast from the shadow of his preacher grandfather, and as the story progresses we discover Motes cannot completely reject God. False prophets and phoney preachers and corrupted teenage girls are ultimately too much for him to handle. His crisis of faith descent into religious fanaticism and while sad and at times, horrifying, there is black humour throughout. The scene where Enoch stabs a man in order to steal his gorilla suit is deliriously freakish, and just one of many intimate pieces of life and characters that O’Connor exposes to us in this strange city. “Her name was Maude and she drank whisky all day from a fruit jar under the counter.” 

“Do you think, Mr. Motes,” his landlady asked hoarsely, “that when you’re dead you’re blind?”
“I hope so,” he said after a minute.
“Why?” she asked, staring at him.
After a while he said, “If there’s no bottom in your eyes, they hold more.”

At times the narrative doesn’t flow, which I attribute to the fact that several of the scenes were originally released as individual, stand alone stories, but it doesn’t take away from the overall feeling I took from the book. O’Connor is a giant of southern gothic literature, and her stories never fail to shake me. Wise Blood is no different.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and A Scanner Darkly, arguably his most successful novels, Philip K. Dick mastered existential science fiction and the dark and personal hell of addiction and schizophrenia. With Ubik he created a purgatory of uncertainty and horror, and The Man in the High Castle is a spiritual and captivating piece of reimagined history. I’m a huge PKD fan – yet I was indifferent to VALIS. I’m sorry Phil, but for large parts of the book I didn’t really know what the fuck was going on.

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VALIS, which stands for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, and the titular VALIS, an artificial satellite capable of communicating with humanity and passing on intrinsic knowledge, is drawn from Gnosticism, and is Dick’s vision of an aspect of God. Horselover Fat (a schizophrenic personality of Dick) experiences bizarre visions and with his friends, the sceptic and cynical Kevin, and the Catholic David, they attempt to make sense of the information, in the forms of pink laser beams, Fat seems receptive too.

The distinction between sanity and insanity is narrower than a razor’s edge, sharper than a hound’s tooth, more agile than a mule deer. It is more elusive than the merest phantom. Perhaps it does not even exist; perhaps it is a phantom.

Meandering, ponderous, and at times incoherent and inconsequential, it’s a difficult read. The book is so heavy with Fat’s philosophical and theological musings, various interpretations of religious events and histories, that it can be hard to keep up. But at times, VALIS really shines. When Fat discovers a film (named VALIS) which contains imagery and references to identical revelations Fat has been exposed to, the group are stunned and for a second, the pieces fit. Amongst the thousands of words there is some semblance of shared knowledge. As the group speculate with excitement on every scene in the film, on every possible meaning and theory, it is hard not to share their enthusiasm and disbelief.

Ultimately it comes to nothing. Maybe it never was anything. Schizophrenic hallucinations or visions from a damaging addiction. As a novel it is disappointing. As a series of ideas and beliefs, as a window to Philip K. Dick’s brilliant brain, it is fevered and frenzied and strange.

America wins the Vietnam War. The Watergate scandal is never exposed. Tension between the US and Russia and the looming threat of World War III. History has been changed by the emergence of costumed superheroes . . . but who watches the Watchmen?

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Watchmen is an American comic book series published by DC Comics in 1986 and 1987, created by the British trio of writer Alan Moore, illustrator Dave Gibbons and colourist John Higgins. Its primary theme, the idea of masked vigilantes into a gritty and realistic world, is something that marketed subsequent superhero fantasies to a more literary, mature crowd. With modern and contemporary fears of the time, such as the Cold War and threat of nuclear annihilation, Watchmen adds to this grounded layer, grounded superheroes. Superheroes that feel silly in their costumes, that question the very nature of what they do, that stubbornly resist or meekly bend, becoming puppets of the government or being destroyed by the insistence on their values.

In other words, these vigilantes are painfully human. The Watchmen are a former group of costumed vigilantes who have flaws, desires, dreams and fears, who must disband once the United States passes the Keene Act, which prohibits ‘costumed adventuring’. And the only member who can genuinely be considered a superhero is the iconic Dr. Manhattan, who through an accident at a nuclear plant becomes a superhuman blue entity who can control atoms and matter. The rest of the cast have no special abilities as such, but are compelling and memorable characters. Rorschach, Nite-Owl, Silk Spectre, the Comedian, Ozymandias. All play key roles with different views on the state of their world, and what they are prepared to risk to ‘fix’ it.

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There is plenty to like about this collection. Illustrations are detailed, realistic, and the structure is consistent throughout, with each page divided into a nine-panel grid, but for a few select scenes where the drawing takes a page and does the talking. A villain who isn’t hopelessly inept with a morally reprehensible plan that could save the world. A comic within a comic, Tales of the Black Freighter, which are intersected between panels in certain chapters of Watchmen and seemingly provide juxtaposition to events occurring in the real world. Within the panels of the comic there is genuine excitement, suspense, violence and tragedy.

Watchmen was adapted into a live-action film directed by Zack Snyder in 2009, which I admit I haven’t watched. But the comic collection is a classic and absolutely worth your time if you have any interest in graphic novels and the origins of gritty, realistic universes in which superheroes fight to protect.

It’s here!

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The first ever issue of 404 Ink has been released, and my short story, reboot, is published within. I haven’t fully digested the magazine yet, but from what I have seen and read, there is some fantastic work (not just fiction, but essays, poems, even illustrations and comics). It’s also really well put together. Editing, layout, print is all great. It feels ‘proper’.

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I’d encourage you to purchase it – not only to check out my writing, but to support the guys at 404 Ink. They have a lot of talent and passion and it would be great to see them do well. You can buy a printed version, or as an e-book, here. Cheers!

While hunting deer in the Texan desert Llewelyn Moss, a Vietnam war veteran, stumbles upon a drug deal gone south, with bullet ridden corpses and abandoned vehicles and a satchel containing two million dollars. In deciding to take the money he knows he has sealed an uncertain fate and changed his life forever. What follows is a cat-and-mouse chase as the county police department and drug dealers desperate for their money race to get to Moss first, while Moss himself desperately tries to stay one step ahead of an unfathomable and malevolent hitman who kills mercilessly to get what he needs.

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Stills taken from the theatrical adaptation of McCarthy’s novel.

I mentioned a cat-and-mouse chase, somewhat of a cliched description, but the plot of No Country For Old Men has been done hundreds of times before. Any originality to be found comes instead from the portrayal and viewpoint of the two central characters, and Llewyln Moss is not one of them. This book is about Ed Tom Bell, an ageing county sheriff who struggles to adapt and comprehend to the new brand of violence encroaching on the old West, and Anton Chigurh, a cold blooded and murderous entity whose nihilistic views on fate and choice are terrifyingly final and not up for dispute. The book contains several internal monologues from the point of view of Ed Tom, as he recalls law stories of days past and how it compares to what he sees and hears today. His clear romanticism of the past (Ed Tom recalls an older generation sheriff who never felt the need to even carry a weapon while on duty) and a fear of what he will have to do, and become, to continue to uphold the law in this turbulent and unforgiving climate, becomes all the more powerful when reading about the actions and mindset of Chigurh.

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Javier Bardem as the terrifying Anton Chigurh.

Chigurh is an incredible villain, up there with Judge Holden as an almost demonic entity completely incomprehensible to the poor men and women that find themselves in their path. Chigurh is a hitman, or a bounty hunter, and in No Country For Old Men his role is to reclaim the satchel stolen by Llewyln Moss. Little is known of his origins, his background, his nationality. What makes him terrifying is the way he views himself as a deliverer of fate. Chigurh kills with little remorse but will often deliberate before doing so. After inconsequential small talk with the owner of a gas station, he implores the owner to call on a coin toss, presumably for his life.

You’re asking that I make myself vulnerable and that I can never do. I have only one way to live. It doesn’t allow for special cases. A coin toss perhaps. In this case to small purpose. Most people don’t believe that there can be such a person. You see what a problem that must be for them. How to prevail over that which you refuse to acknowledge the existence of. Do you understand? When I came into your life your life was over. It had a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is the end. You can say that things could have turned out differently. That there could have been some other way. But what does that mean? They are not some other way. They are this way. You’re asking that I second say the world. Do you see?

I actually saw the film adaptation (superbly directed by the Coen Brothers) before I read McCarthy’s novel. While extremely faithful to the source material, Ed Tom, played by Tommy Lee Jones, is very much a backing character. The film focuses far more on Chigurh and his relentless pursuit of Moss, which works fantastically well. The film is tense but moments of action are generally few and far between. Yet it remains gripping due to haunting, menacing and inherently violent performance by Javier Bardem as Chigurh.

Somewhere out there is a true and living prophet of destruction and I dont want to confront him. I know he’s real. I have seen his work. I walked in front of those eyes once. I wont do it again. I wont push my chips forward and stand up and go out to meet him. It aint just bein older. I wish that it was. I cant say that it’s even what you are willin to do. Because I always knew that you had to be willin to die to even do this job. That was always true. Not to sound glorious about it or nothin but you do. If you aint they’ll know it. They’ll see it in a heartbeat. I think it is more like what you are willin to become. And I think a man would have to put his soul at hazard. And I wont do that.

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Tommy Lee Jones as the overwhelmed Sheriff Ed Tom Bell.

No Country For Old Men is a compelling, disturbing thriller, and yet some distance from the peak of McCarthy’s works. I see it as the perfect book to introduce yourself to McCarthy – hidden from the bleak nihilism of The Road, the rambling auto-bio-tragedy of Suttree and the brutal savagery of Blood Meridian.

TheOutsider

Albert Camus was a French writer and philosopher whose principal school of philosophy was absurdism, and the study of the Absurd. From my very basic understanding* the main conflict posed by absurdism was the human mind’s tendency to rationalise and assign meaning and value to the meaning of life, and the inability to do so. His works often explored man’s desire for significance and meaning in the face of the silent and cold existence of the universe. While many of his works and essays are linked to existentialism, Camus was always keen to point out that he was not an existentialist.

*Having only read Camus’s The Plague and The Outsider, I am keen to pick up The Myth of Sisyphus next, in which Camus explains his understanding of the absurd in more detail. From the little I’ve read on the subject it seems fascinating.

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L’Étranger was published in France in 1942, and was later translated into English in 1946, published as The Outsider (or The Stranger in the US). A philosophical novel, its outlook centres on the Absurd, and an odd character named Mersault, the narrator of the book and the titular ‘outsider’. The very first line reads “Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.” Immediately Camus introduces us to a protagonist who is distant and does not conform to the same emotions one would expect a man in society to do.

The first part of the book details the funeral of Mersault’s mother, and Mersault’s general indifference and lack of grief is noted by several characters. Just days after the funeral he meets with a female colleague, Marie, who he begins a sexual relationship with, as well as becoming acquaintances with his volatile neighbour. On a weekend at another friends beach hut, Mersault carries out a spontaneous act of violence and shoots a man dead. The reasoning for this is never explained in certain terms by Mersault. The second half focuses on Mersault in prison and standing trial for his crimes. To his surprise the prosecutor focuses not on the murder itself but Mersault’s lack of empathy, his quietness, his passiveness. He believes this points to his guilt, and through further trials, accuses the defendant of lacking remorse. As such, he believes the only appropriate punishment is death.

Mostly, I could tell, I made him feel uncomfortable. He didn’t understand me, and he was sort of holding it against me. I felt the urge to reassure him that I was like everybody else, just like everybody else. But really there wasn’t much point, and I gave up the idea out of laziness.

Mersault is described in sparse detail. If he has opinions he keeps them to himself. His actions and the consequences of those actions have little affect on him. The overall plot is simplistic and at around 150 pages The Outsider isn’t a difficult read, but this gives the reader a canvas upon which to prescribe their own ideals. Depending on your morals and understandings of human nature, this book could disturb you, it could anger you, it could depress you. At times I was sympathising with Mersault, at others I despised him.

Less of a story and more of a fascinating character study, The Outsider is an interesting introduction into the philosophical dilemmas that Camus and the Absurd pose. If you have any interest in the Absurd and existentialism, take a look.

for whom the bell tolls

In 1937 Ernest Hemingway spent considerable time with republican forces as a journalist, covering the Spanish Civil War. His experiences formed the basis of For Whom The Bell Tolls, published in 1940. It centers on the American Robert Jordan, a dynamiter and demolitions expert in the International Brigades, fighting for the Republic against Spain’s fascist forces in the country’s civil war. Tasked with blowing up a key bridge behind enemy lines, he travels to the camp of a republican guerilla group based in a cave hidden in the hills near Segovia. The former leader of the guerillas, Pablo, has become a drunk and has lost the respect of his men. Pablo fears the repercussions from the fascist forces if they assist in blowing of the bridge, leading to a clash with Robert Jordan, but Pilar, Pablo’s wife, usurps him and pledge their allegiance to helping the American. It is here that Jordan also meets María, a young Spanish woman who has recently escaped from fascist forces who murdered her family and raped her.

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Hemingway’s trademark writing is present here. The prose is simple, perhaps deceptively so, when dealing with some powerful themes, and his syntax is uncomplicated for the most part. At times For Whom The Bell Tolls is slow and laborious, its dialogue awkward and antiquated (Hemingway chose to use words such as ‘thou’ and ‘thine’). But apart from some initially jarring conversations, Hemingway’s style is present here and as readable as ever. There are extended sequences from the point of view of Jordan, where he internally considers his role in the war, his future prospects, his love for María. These thoughts are among the highlights for me, with Hemingway delving into his characters and exploring their fears. Having only read The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway, For Whom The Bell Tolls is more powerful, broader in scope, and packs emotional punches throughout.

Death looms over everything and death and sacrifice are arguably the main themes present in the novel. A celebration of life and love, and the fear and acceptance of death. So frequently does the writing switch between describing beauty and violence, love and brutality. One outstanding chapter which highlights the cruelty where Pablo and his republican men have captured a group of fascist sympathisers in the village of Ronda, and form a line of men who beat the victims before they are forced to throw themselves off a cliff into a deep gorge. Another is the final stand of El Sordo, the leader of another nearby anti-fascist guerilla group, who fight with bravery and resolve before being killed by mortar fire.

‘You have killed?’ Robert Jordan asked in the intimacy of the dark and of their day together.
[Anselmo]’Yes. Several times. But not with pleasure. To me it is a sin to kill a man. Even Fascists whom we must kill. To me there is a great difference between the bear and the man and I do not believe the wizardry of the gypsies about the brotherhood with the animals. No. I am against the killing of men.’
‘Yet you have killed.’
‘Yes. And will again. But if I live later, I will try to live in such a way, doing no harm to any one, that it will be forgiven.’
‘By whom?’
‘Who knows? Since we do not have God here any more, neither His Son nor the Holy Ghost, who forgives? I do not know.
‘You have not God any more?’
‘No. Man. Certainly not. If there were God, never would he have permitted what I have seen with my eyes. Let them have God.’

The finale is tense and a (welcomed) change of pace to the rest of the novel. Considering the story only covers Robert Jordan’s four days and three nights with the guerilla group, the emotional weight I felt towards the end was considerable. As so often is the case, there are no happy endings in war and Jordan is forced to say goodbye to María and the rest of the guerillas who have a great deal of respect and camaraderie for the American. For Whom The Bell Tolls is a compelling account of a dark but important era in Spanish history, and while not perfect, its slow and meticulous build up to its thrilling, beautiful finale wrought with emotion, is a more than worthy payoff.