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06-10-10: Brett Easton Ellis Peers Inside 'Imperial Bedrooms'

Panic After the Year Zero

Following up is hard to do. This is especially true if the original work was not intended to have sequels. It's even more difficult if the original work spoke to and for, like, what might pass for an entire generation. Then, let an entire generation pass you by. Now revisit your characters. There's a good chance that some of them won't even be alive, at least if you're true to your vision.

Bret Easton Ellis started at the top, with 'Less Than Zero.' He's returned to his 80's-rock roots in a century that manages to be slightly uglier than that which preceded it, and brought back characters, who, if we didn't care for them, we somehow managed to care about them.

In the years since 'Less Than Zero' helped define a literary moment, or movement, Ellis has done a lot of interesting work, from 'American Psycho' to 'Lunar Park,' employing tropes from the genre fiction toolkit with easy aplomb. 'Imperial Bedrooms' (Knopf / Random House ; June 15, 2010 ; $24.95) is the sequel to 'Less Than Zero,' but it amounts to much more. Ellis is unafraid of his own work, and he fearlessly takes us back into the world of Clay, Julian, and Blair. More importantly, he takes us back to an LA that has had more than a generation to grow darker; ever darker.

With 'Imperial Bedrooms,' Ellis finds a surprising balance between the disaffected tone of 'Less Than Zero' and the more postmodern and genre-influenced novels that followed. The rather horrific lives he drew us into in 'Less Than Zero' have born the sort of fruit you might expect. Clay, Trent, Blair, Rip and Julian were fucked up then, and they're still fucked up, only older, and not necessarily wiser.

But Ellis' talent for making those lives matter to readers with prose that is beyond precise seems effortless now. Ellis has throughout his career made a habit of writing entertaining, involving novels about characters who, should we have the misfortune to meet them in so-called "real life," would seem repugnant. You might not want to meet any of these characters now, either, but they make for engrossing reading.

In many ways, 'Less Than Zero' was as much a part of the literary movement of "80's Horror" as it was of the "Brat Pack Lit." The author of 'Imperial Bedrooms,' like many of the horror writers of the 1980's, is still writing horror. (It was effectively satirized and honored by Douglas Winter's short story "Less Than Zombie.") As a horror novel, 'Less Than Zero' seems sort of prescient, and 'Imperial Bedrooms' mines the same emotionally devastating territory.

Horror often involves transformation, and the transformation of these characters is both subtly and in-your-face horrific. Moreover, 'Imperial Bedrooms' achieves as much momentum with mood as it does with plot. This is not to say that plot is secondary, but rather the dingy, grotesque vision of Los Angeles fuming slowly into a provably pointless future is a powerful and well-handled plot point.

Most readers who enjoyed 'Less Than Zero' were entirely different people when they read it. Perhaps the most horrific aspect of 'Imperial Bedrooms' will be the pull on those readers to go back and re-read the original, to become their old selves once again. It's not a bad idea, but it is not necessary. Ellis manages the transformative aspect of time well. His characters can't make the same claim.

06-09-10: Dan Dion and Paul Provenza Free the '!Satiristas!'

Bleeding the Comedians

It's well known that comedy is not easy. But beyond the more obvious, painful examples of how tragedy gets upended into comedy, the audience, particularly readers, don't often get any insight into the art itself. To a degree, that's necessary. Comedy is an involuntary reflex. But what this means is that the art of comedy, which certainly includes a large bit of writing, is not well understood beyond the surfaces we see. There's an entire underlying sea of craft of which most of us are unfortunately ignorant. Photographer Dan Dion and comedian Paul Provenza open up a door that most of us probably never even knew existed in '!Satiristas!' (It Books ; May 11, 2010 ; $29.99) which applies the methodic approach of Provenza's hysterical movie The Aristocrats to a series of interviews with comedians.

Paul Provenza and Dan Dion re-invent not comedy (that happens almost daily) but the comedian in '!Satiristas!' The format of the book is appropriately, absurdly simple. Introduction, Interviews and Photographs. That's it. But — remember the maiden days of the Internet, when the cry was "Content is king!"? Those halcyon days when what people wrote mattered? Before your personal sales and demographic data became the content that was king? Those days, yes. '!Satiristas!' beings back those days with a bucketload of pure content that is meaty, smart, funny and offers readers insights into the world of comedy, of how and why it is created that simply have not been aired before.

What sets this collection off to start with is the diversity within; this is not so much a "Who's Who" as it is a Field Guide. Provenza has been quite meticulous in choosing to include comedians from a broad range of the art; yes, you get Matt Stone and Trey Parker, but you also get Randy Newman. I'm not going to do the laundry list, but it is important to understand that simply in their selection, Provenza and Dion have made a great contribution to understanding just what is included under the rubric of comedian.

Provenza is a smart writer himself and he displays this with, again not surprising for a comedian, a great sense of prose timing. He starts each interview not with his question, but with a comedian's answer. It's a fantastic hook to pull the reader immediately into the sensibility of the comedian as they talk about their art. Provenza also knows when to bring out his own happily twisted sense of humor in order to egg on his interviewees, but he never puts himself in the spotlight, other than in an overall sense as the curator of this wonderful cabinet of curiosities.

As wonderful as the interviews are, Dion's photographs complete the work. I mentioned above that comedy is in large part writing — but not completely. There's always a visual component to a joke being told to the audience, even if that visual component is conjured up from an audio-only track. We can hear what people look like. Dion's art as a photographer of comedians is analogous to that of Provenza. He shows us the artist without the artifice, the creator and not the creation. The portraits are those of working men and women, and they give a sense of the humanity, the compassion, behind the searing sensibilities.

Production is important in a book like this, and It Books has done one hell of a grand job. The photos are gorgeously reproduced, the layout is big and easy-to-read. The book flows and with it, our concept of comedy is actually informed. When we see a novel or a movie, it's pretty easy to imagine the work that went into one of the other, the preparation, the writing, the editing, the art itself. Comedy works best when it hits you upside the head and leaves you reeling, without any thought that craft might be involved, let alone how that craft is created. '!Satiristas!' steps in and show us that comedy is an art that can be engagingly explored without ruining the joke.

UK Version/Macmillan
06-08-10: China Miéville Unleashes 'Kraken'

Comedy of Tentacles

We only see one side of any given city; the tower, the buildings, the sidewalks, the people, the traffic, the shape and geometry of that which lies above ground. Above ground, we can get a hold on the shape of city. What lies underneath, between, inside the minds of those who walk the streets is equally important in shaping their lives. It's not grim, really. It's odd, and often very funny, even if it does get us a few steps closer to the End of Everything.

'Kraken' (Macmillan / Pan Macmillan; June 29, 2010 ; £17.99 ; Del Rey / Random House May 7, 2010 ; $26) is the newest novel by China Miéville, and to my mind, it is something of a gift to his readers.

It's set in current day London, and begins with an impossible theft when a giant squid is stolen is stolen from the Natural History Museum. Billy Harrow, who preserved the beast, finds that he now inhabits a London far stranger than he imagined.

It's as if someone peeled up the streets to reveal a bit of Bas-Lag festering underneath, a world of squabbling gods and the officiously religious cults who worship them. Every time you think you've seen the strangest bit, Billy and his new mates round a corner and find something even weirder.

Perhaps what's strangest is Miéville's instant transformation into a prose humorist, most evident in the opening sections of the novel. Yes, the baroque style is there, but it's pared back a bit and when it runs into the vagaries of modern life in London, proves to be quite funny.

This is abetted by Miéville's generous affection for all his characters, no matter how important it is for them to help bring about the end of the world. That affection carries through to the reader. Every scene in this book offers a new source of joy, wonder, terror, usually all at once. 'Kraken' succeeds in being a very odd comedy, with lots of tentacles and monsters.

US Version/Del Rey
Readers who found Miéville through his previous novel, 'The City & The City' may find themselves on more familiar ground than they might expect from this description. For though 'Kraken' really does offer readers an "all monsters, all the time" tour of a city at the edge of the world, it also contains a very meticulously plotted mystery.

We're given a stolen object, a wonderful gallery of suspects, and even the FSRC, the most entertaining cop squad I've yet read tasked to deal with the more Fortean aspects of life. They're a great comic foil for the more serious movers and shakers from underneath, yet effective in accomplishing their deliberately nebulous goals. As far as I'm concerned, Miéville can pop down a rabbit hole and follow these folks for a good few novels. He even manages to mention Life On Mars, and I think somebody ought to give those folks a few bazillion pounds to film 'Kraken.'

For those who have followed Miéville's career over the past, erm, years, 'Kraken' offers a deftly-plotted, inventively humorous step up, one that draws from every strength he's shown us in his previously novels in a manner specifically designed to please. Kick back and enjoy the end of the world. There will be plenty of monsters on display, and more than a few reasons to laugh.

06-07-10: Cory Doctorow Gets By 'With a Little Help' :

Experimenting With The Economics of Hardcopy and Electronic Publishing

When is a book not a book? When it's Cory Doctorow's 'With A Little Help,' which manages to be a book, a dreaded, copyright-killing e-book, and about seven different kinds of publishing experiments all of which will be extensively documented in successive printings of the book itself. This is not exactly news; Doctorow laid down the outlines to his experiment in a column for Publisher's Weekly late last year. If you're looking for the details of the experiment, find them there.

Here's my précis of what's on order. First off, this is a collection of short stories, some already published, say, in the vein of 'Overclocked.' Doctorow will be giving away e-books as he always does (thus far, when contracts permit, and he generally makes sure they do permit). It's not quite out yet, but if you've practiced, breath-holding may in order.

Doctorow will also offer a POD trade paperback edition, with one of four (I believe) covers by artist friends of his, including Rick Lieder, who did the cover for the trade paperback proof that the ever-generous Doctorow graced me with during our interview. This is a very nicely printed book, as fine as an trade paperback you're going to get "straight outta New York," as it were. The print is a generous size, the production level is top notch — this is a fine, nay, perfect reading copy. It does lack blank spaces for readers to splash salsa or marinara sauce on, but that's an innovation coming down the road.

Doctorow is also offering an insanely hand-detailed limited hardcover for $250, which will include all sorts of fascinating stuff he obtained ... with a little help from his friends, who include Neil Gaiman, Rick Lieder, Will Wheaton, Frank Wu, Rudy Rucker and Kelly Link.

There's something for every level of reading obsession, from the iPhone readers all the way up through the people whom I may or may not resemble in terms of covering books with wrappers, storing them in glass cases, reading them with little white reading gloves, or that lovely between-step, the taqueria TPB, for rough and ready reading.

What's interesting here is not simply the great fiction, though it is hard to resist mentioning "Power Punctuation" or "Scroogled." That said, by now you should know that Doctorow's stories offer smart writing, engaging characters and a heavy dollop of mind-blowing-style science fiction, that kind of Heinlein high that you think cannot happen after you graduate from high school.

But beyond the real reason to buy the book in any state, the fiction, the book itself is an evolving story. Doctorow is soliciting searches for typos, and offering footnoted recognition. He's tracking what the profits he makes from the books and documenting them in the subsequent editions. As he observes in our interview, he made some money from his other collections, and doing this experiment will help him determine whether this mix of POD, e-books and limited edition hardcovers will do better than a more traditional route.

My take as a reader an inveterate book collector is probably predictable. As soon as readers can get the ebooks at, I'd say go for it. It's not too hard to read a short story on a smart phone, if you have one, or even on your laptop or desktop. Of course, the trade paperback is a fine reading copy to keep to hand, either to toss in a backpack and read on the train, or keep on your bedstand. Short stories are good in either environment. And then there's the to-die-for copy, which of course get handled with the Demco linen gloves and read in the parlour while listening to vintage 1980's ambient and electronic music. That's a lot of ways to read the same text, and that, readers, is why those paper things we love so much are going to be around a lot longer than the techmongers tell us.

New to the Agony Column

09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William T. Vollman : "...a lot of long words that in our language are sentences..."

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Erik Larson : "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

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