TWO GREAT BOOKS
I’ve read two great books recently. They are God’s Middle Finger by Richard Grant, and the other is The Warren, By Brian Evenson. Reviews follow (the God’s Middle Finger piece appears on Whiskey Tit in my piece on October reading, and both of these are on goodreads).
WARREN is a new SF novella by horror/fantasy writer Brian Evenson. At 90 pages it is an ideal length and remarkable for its concision. The story is simple: an entity X awakens in a body with other entities and tries to determine what its ontological status is. It does so by questioning ‘the screen’. X and X’s fellow minds are in a place called the Warren. There is another entity, Horak outside of the warren. X asks the screen, “How long has it been since a person left the warren and how long did he survive?” Like all good machines the screen replies with a question of its own: “Query: what do you mean by person?” X turns the question around and the screen answers, Bipedal, an individual thought process enmeshed in a body, procreated through the fertilization of an ovum by a sperm and its subsequent development in a womb.” Only the first criterion is relevant. What follows is a puzzle of consciousness, and a mystery as to what the warren is, who Horak is, and who the other entities are. Evenson is a philosopher but he handles these questions and attendant paradoxes with the style, emotion and humor of a novelist. I’ve read one other book by him, The Open Curtain, a story that might be about a reincarnated serial murderer or about a schizophrenic. Evenson famously is an apostate Mormon and in that book he reveals forbidden Mormon ceremonies as a parting kick. Like Philip K. Dick he is absorbed in epistemological and ontological questions, the blurring of madness and mysticism. He has a novelist’s instinct for the emotions provoked by these questions, not the answers. Unlike Philip K. Dick he has a strong, coherent and disciplined narrative drive. There are no wasted words here and it is not at all a sterile philosophical puzzle but rather a touching search for identity and rueful recognition of the inevitability of death and the ultimate failure of absolute knowledge. Horak and X are melancholic prisoners of decisions made decades earlier, trapped in a poisoned world. One bleeds blood, the other a viscous yellow substance. They are equally convinced of their own reality. The reader quietly claps for the performance in a dark room with a comfortable chair.
I just finished the kind of book I devour with burning eyes and a dry throat, God’s Middle Finger, Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre, by Richard Grant. Grant is an English travel writer, a grand thing to be, and he sets off for dangerous situations ill prepared with tremendous cynicism, self-irony and energy. He wants to explore the Sierra Madre region of Mexico, a region of wild mountains, forests and canyons cut off from the rest of Mexico, with a long tradition of hiding outlaws and bandits and a culture based on an insane overdevelopment of Macho Honor. Since the 1980s the drug business has defined life for the ranchers, farmers and peasants there. The army and police are concerned exclusively with stealing drugs or extorting money and many are employed by the narcos as enforcers. Scattered in the area are Mormons, various indigenous groups, 3rd generation exiles from the US, well-meaning development people, and eccentrics. The violence is mind boggling as is the beauty. There are touristed areas, but Grant is determined to visit villages notorious for murder, following in the footsteps of the great explorer anthropologist Carl Lumholtz. And this is the true danger of a book like this: Carl Lumholtz spent 5 years traveling the Sierra Madre and living among the Tarahumara, an indigenous people who have survived despite extremely brutal circumstances, and wrote a two volume book about it called Unknown Mexico. Grant infects the reader, or at least the susceptible reader with a desire to read these books, if not to set off immediately for the Sierra Madre. Unknown Mexico is not out of print, but even the Oxford paperback is expensive and the original edition, gorgeous, and HEAVY (one is sitting on my desk right now, and it is the heaviest book for its size I have ever held), sells for about $350. It is very hard to resist reading these volumes. Grant travels by horse, with mules on narrow mountain passes, in pickup trucks and jeeps. The automotive figures heavily in the book, as do heroin, cocaine, beer, bootleg tequila, weed, AK47s. There are times when it reads like Blood Meridian minus the baroque prose. The book reinforces stereotypes about Mexican violence I suppose, but it doesn’t portray the entire nation and all of its people in this way. Many of the people he meets are appalled by the violence of the Sierra Madre and attribute it to a localized and virulent form of machismo that fused with the drug business. The book is hilarious, self-deprecatory, charming, and brilliantly written.