League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier

I shelve my Alan Moore books next to Thomas Pynchon, Umberto Eco, and Jorge Luis Borges, and I am sure all three postmodern masters would get a healthy kick out of this wildly imaginative third book to Moore’s Gentlemen series, which draws on a vast storehouse of influences and blends them into an ecstatic new whole. The last time around, I wrote “Just when you thought you understood the parameters of where the story can go, Moore pulls another fast one” — and that was when we were still with the original Victorian group of heroes (Allan Quartermain, Mina Harker, Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, and Mr. Hyde) and happily confined to Kevin O’Neill’s clear, appealing artwork.

Black Dossier explodes all that. Framed by a storyline set in an alternate version of the 1950s, the book concerns the theft of a book that, in the comic, looks like the one you’re holding in your hands. Along with the comic book adventure, the Dossier also contains a facsimile of a lost Shakespeare play (Fairie’s Fortunes Founded), fascist propaganda booklets warning of sexcrimes, the life of Viginia Woolf’s Orlando in nine illustrated chapters, a sequel to the erotic classic Fanny Hill, a few pages from a Beat novel featuring our heroes, reprinted postcards from Shangri-La, cutaways of the Nautilus, and section in 3-D (goggles are provided.) While the first two books concerned a Victorian team of heroes, Moore uses Black Dossier to sketch, through the various fragments, the history of several British incarnations as well as French and German teams that included the likes of Fantomas and Rotwang.

The ease with which Moore accesses high and low culture is truly mind-boggling: Ian Fleming, Herman Hesse, Charles Chaplin, H.P. Lovecraft, and George Orwell are added to the already impressive list of influences (and I’m pretty sure I missed a good third of them.) Any imaginary creation is fair play for Moore’s ambitious tale, and the density of ideas is absurdly high, as if Moore was cramming an entire series’ worth of characters and storylines into a single book.

A word about Moore and the movies: he’s famously taken his name off all adaptations, and rightfully so — most of them have been dreadful (worst of all, incidentally, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). Moore’s best effects are always inextricably bound up with the medium of comics, and this holds especially true for Black Dossier, which is essentially unfilmable (and wouldn’t work as a novel, either.) I positively dread Zach Snyder’s upcoming Watchmen.

Like The Tempest, Black Dossier ends with a monologue by Prospero (himself an Extraordinary Gentleman), who celebrates one of Moore’s grand themes: the power and paradoxical reality of imaginary characters. “If we mere insubstantial fancies be, how more so thee, who from us substance stole? On Dream’s foundation matter’s mudyards rest. Two sketching hands, each one the other draws: the fantasies thou’ve fashioned fashion thee. Intangible, we are life’s secret soul.”

The League of Extraodrinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier. Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, 2007. *****

The Rocketeer

Bill Campbell as all-American hero rocking an art-deco jet-pack, Jennifer Connelly in 30s evening gowns, Timothy Dalton as scenery-chewing Errol-Flynn stand-in onboard burning Nazi zeppelins — The Rocketeer is good old-fashioned serial-style action-adventure full of pulpy twists tempered by a wholesome gee-whiz attitude. Based on the comic book by Dave Stevens, the character also inspired a Cinemaware video game I used to play on my Amiga (screenshots). Not to be confused with Raketenmensch Tyrone Slothrop.

The Rocketeer. Joe Johnston, 1991. ***

Here’s a climactic scene at the Griffith Observatory:

Against the Day

Genius, pure and simple, and I’m fully aware that the concept hasn’t been in fashion for a good long while. Page by page — apparently it’s twice as long as Ulysses — there are more heartbreaking and/or absurd characters with outrageous names, brazen lies, bouts of bizarro sex, obscure mathematical in-jokes, densely textured descriptions of places real and imagined, stoner slapstick, and preposterous theories about history, science and time than I can remember reading anywhere, all rendered in fearless prose that is capable of the dumbest puns and the most jaw-droppingly gorgeous flights of fancy. Reading Pynchon expands the potential of language and makes everything it touches new — and it touches almost everything. To enter his funny, cruel, and endlessly mysterious off kilter world is to re-enchant our own, in order to “to fetch [us] through the night and prepare [us] against the day.”

Seems to me Against the Day is Pynchon’s best book — he keeps getting better at what he does, integrating his ravenously encyclopedic range into a more and more complete whole. His control of sprawling themes has been masterful at least since Gravity’s Rainbow; Mason & Dixon promised more emotional truth; with this book, that promise has fully flowered: Against the Day is no cold-hearted postmodern brainwankery; it is easy and rewarding to get sucked into the emotional pull of a dozen or so very satisfying stories. The book spans the globe, from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair until just after World War I, and there’s a very large cast of adorable and twisted characters, including card shark Reef Traverse, outcast mathematician Yashmeen Halfcourt, airborne boy adventurers the Chums of Chance, evil tycoon Scarsdale Vibe, and Al Mar-Fuad, the Arabian hunter with the speech impediment. It all comes from an unmistakably counterculture point of view, perhaps slightly less paranoid and wiser than before, but still without illusions about the “capitalist Christers” who subjugate the land and everybody in it for their own dark purposes.

Here’s a paragraph, from page 942, that’s as close to the heart of the matter as anything:

“This is our own age of exploration,” she declared, “into that unmapped country waiting beyond the frontiers and seas of Time. We make our journeys out there in the low light of the future, and return to the bourgeois day and its mass delusion of safety, to report on what we’ve seen. What are any of these ‘utopian dreams’ of ours but defective forms of time-travel?”

Against the Day. Thomas Pynchon, 2006. *****

So far, I’ve stayed away from reviews and commentary, but now I’ll delve in and add links below.

Reviews seem to come in two flavors:

  • People throwing up their hands:
    • Louis Menand in The New Yorker: “What was he thinking”
    • John Haskell for the Village Voice: “As I was reading this book I was […] wishing it would have been smaller.”
    • Michiki Kakutani in the New York Times Book Review: “complicated without being rewardingly complex.”
    • Laura Miller, Salon: “It was just bad.”
    • Yvonne Zipp, Christian Science Monitor: “the most infuriating novel I’ve read in a year”
  • People engaging the book on its own terms:
    • Liesl Schillinger, New York Times : “Pynchon proves himself […] a matchless fantasist of the real.”
    • John Leonard, The Nation: “brilliant patter, fancy footwork, wishful thinking and a plaintive ukulele.”
    • Mark Feeny, Boston Globe

[tags]thomas pynchon, books, 5 stars, against the day, genius, world war i[/tags]

The Good German

I fully support all of Steven Soderbergh’s cinematic experiments, whether it’s highly personal weirdness (Schizopolis), big-budget romps (Ocean’s 11), remakes of Russian scifi classics (Solaris), or minimalist melodrama (Bubble). So when he makes a 1940s noir with period technology, I’m very much there. The Good German is set in the heart of what’s called “the Zone” in Gravity’s Rainbow: bombed-to-rubble Berlin in 1945, which is a place very much like Casablanca a few years earlier. Nobody can be trusted, everybody’s for sale, and everybody wants to get the hell out. Clooney comes in as war correspondent, Tobey Maguire plays a hometown boy who might not be as apple-pie as he seems, and Cate Blanchett is the German dame with a mysterious history. It all looks fantastic, and what Pynchonite wouldn’t be a sucker for a plot that involves rocket scientists, the Potsdam conference, and the Mittelbauwerke?

But The Good German has a deadly weakness, and it’s the script. We don’t feel for Clooney, we don’t understand Blanchett, there is little chemistry between them, the tangled plot is so confusing you have to figure it out over dinner afterwards, and Maguire (the best thing about the movie) leaves the story much too early. It’s ok if noir doesn’t make sense right away (Raymond Chandler famously had no idea who killed one of the characters in The Maltese Falcon), but at least the emotions have to be readable. In The Good German, it’s all a blur.

Finally, there are the Casablanca references, which overwhelm the movie. Sure, other films are also alluded to (The Third Man, Psycho), but The Good German starts as faithful recreation of a period movie with contemporary attitudes (more sex than they showed in ’45 etc), but by the end you feel like you’re watching just another post-modern pastiche–and by god, as much as I love Casablanca, it’s been copied, ripped off, and parodied enough. 

The Good German. Steven Soderbergh, 2006. **

[tags]steven soderbergh, film, 2 stars, noir, crime, berlin, germany world war ii, george clooney, cate blanchett, tobey maguire, the maltese falcon, thomas pynchon, rocket science, casablanca, psycho, the third man, raymond chandler, postmodernism, pastiche[/tags]