Thursday, February 26, 2015

The 4400: The Starzl Mutation

The Starzl Mutation (episode 3.9)
Directed by Allison Liddi-Brown
Written by Amy Berg and Craig Sweeny
Guest starring Brian George,
First aired 6 August 2006
Rating 7/10

Previous episode: The Ballad of Kevin and Tess
Next episode: The Gospel According to Collier


When a male hustler is lured to his death, FBI agents Mulder and Scully are brought in to investigate. Confused at being called in for a random homicide, they are soon struck by the state of the corpse: this is definitely a case for The X-Files.

No wait. I made a slight error. Please allow me a re-take.

When a male hustler is lured to his death, NTAC agents Baldwin and Skouris are brought in to investigate. Confused at being called in for a random homicide, they are soon struck by the state of the corpse: this is definitely a case related to The 4400.

As season three of The 4400 progresses, we find ourselves firmly embedded in X-Files formulae. The opening of episode nine is mysterious as well as creepy, featuring some nice make-up effects. The victim seems to have decomposed overnight. It turns out [spoilers galore] after two more corpses are discovered, that someone is targeting the innocent carriers of the Starzl Mutation. This mutation is extremely rare, isolated to Seattle when it formed as the result of a flawed radiation machine that affected a number of patients at a Seattle hospital, who in turn passed it down to their offspring. The mutation was named after the company that manufactured the radiation machine.

Moreover, we learn that Ryland's new company is developing a branch of military with 4400 abilities via the promicen harvested from Isabelle. The soldier targetting the Starzl victims is hoping to eliminate them since it is believed that if someone with the mutation were to copulate with a 4400 and produce offspring, those children would be, in every instance, promicen-positive. This is a neat way of tying the 4400 to Seattle and to the importance of 2004, when the mutation is in its second generation.

The creating of abilities, however, pretty much ruins my attempt to keep track of the number of remaining 4400s, since they can be produced quite efficiently. Hitman Darren adds one, though his death then removes one. I suppose I can continue with the original members alone, though I'd also continue to include Dr. Burkhoff and Isabelle in the total, since they are more "natural" 4400s.

Along with all this drama the agents are getting closer to discovering that Isabelle is working with Ryland, and he even gives Tom a nice little clue: "Enjoy your nephew's wedding."

The story-line does have a major flaw. What leads our agents to discovering that there is something fishy about the death of Lieutenant Darren Piersahl is fishy itself. The soldier's father tells them that Darren was killed in a helicopter crash that killed six, yet the helicopter that was shot down could only hold a maximum of four. I believe that with so much being invested in such a major secret government plot, the players would have concocted a better story.

The secondary story-line featured is the escalation of the Isabelle threat, and in this episode it's well presented as we examine her union with Shawn from a different angle, removing Isabelle's bratty behaviour in the process. Thanks to the talents of 4400 member Claudio Borghi, who has laced a cigar with his unique ability to allow others to see the future, or at least a possible future, Shawn catches a glimpse of the world if he marries Isabelle, and this short vision transforms him to a daemon-looking Shawn as he strangles father-in-law Richard Tyler to death. (Why Richard doesn't telekinetically toss an object at Shawn is not explained--he cannot toss Shawn as we're informed in the previous episode that his ability only works on inorganic objects.) Yet when he attempts to walk away from the marriage, the future envisioned is one of apocalyptic chaos, and in the previewed moment, he fails to save the life uncle Tommy Baldwin. He confides these visions to Richard, and the two men continue to be deadlocked in their dealings with daughter-fiancee.


Yet a wrench is thrown in with the wonderful final moment: the return of Jordan Collier! I've been waiting for the moment of JC's return, and the show does well in bringing him in at such a fundamental moment. How does his re-appearance help shape the seemingly inescapable bleak future visions? Unfortunately we won't know since, conveniently, Shawn has finished the cigar. I'm certain a call to Borghi would produce another, but I'm also the series won't consider that fact as it might just end the built-up suspense.

"Do you know who I am?"
As in the previous episode, there is a nice Marco moment when he asks Diane about Maia, who responds that she asks about him a lot. A few seconds delivers good character consistency and series continuity.

Borghi is played by familiar character actor Brian George, who is perhaps best recognized as the restaurateur Baby Bhatt in Seinfeld, but also plays Dr. Koothrappali, Raj's father, in Bing Bang Theory, Dr, Bashir's father in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, another doctor in The X-Files, and numerous other projects since the mid-1980s. He's also done a good deal of voice acting, from various DC Comics and diverse video game projects, to Bob Fish in the highly entertaining Bob and Margaret.


Thursday, February 19, 2015

The 4400: The Ballad of Kevin and Tess

The 4400: The Ballad of Kevin and Tess (Episode 3.8)
Directed by Scott Peters
Written by Ira Steven Behr and Craig Sweeny
Guest starring Summer Glau, Jeffrey Combs, Neil Hopkins
First aired 30 July 2006
Rating: 8/10


Previous episode: Blink
Next episode: The Starzl Mutation

"My mind is not compromised."

A lengthy abstinence from The 4400 has led me to re-read my latest episode reviews in order to remember what was going on. Surprisingly only a few smaller details had slipped my mind, and impatiently I passed over much of my text (but I did look at the pictures). What surprised me most was that I was actually keeping track of the 4400 numbers, and at last count we were at 4,363 after learning in episode 3.6 that Gary Navarro had killed eight.

So far this third season we had a strong beginning followed by a couple of weak episodes which were highlighted by the welcome exile of human holodeck Alana. I am still most interested in nutty professor Kevin Burkhoff and his promicen experiments, and least interested in Isabelle's bratty whining. In this episode we get more of the former and thankfully very little of the latter.

The Re-animator returns in full misshapen form as the series decides to focus on its more interesting characters. The opening sequence once again recalls X-Files formula, as Burkhoff is kidnapped by shady government types, men in black, and mercilessly shot to death. Of course we'll recall that his fabricated promicen ability is instant healing (though according to him it doesn't always work), so we aren't surprised that his corpse disappears from the back of they shady van. Later we see the bullet holes healing quickly on their own, which presents a problem: the bullets are still inside him. You would think that being shot at such close range would cause the slugs to travel right through the good doctor's body, but there was no evidence whatsoever of this. So perhaps his body simply consumed the bullets altogether.

Along with the return of Kevin B, we are treated with the return of Tess Doerner, the schizophrenic girl from episode "Wake-Up Call" (2.1). There is genuine affection between this two and its nice to see them reunited. However, they shed their innocence from their time at the psychiatric ward and become a powerful pair of renegades, which is a great transformation. The two are experimenting on Diana Skouris, convinced that it is for the betterment of humanity, yet this is glossed over since we never learn by Burkhoff is so convinced of his research (whatever that is) to believe Diana would be among humanity's saviours. Whether brilliant and foresighted or downright mad, I found myself rooting for the pair. Overshadowed by their goals is the union of their abilities. The idea that a brilliant-minded man is nearly invincible with his Wolverine self-healing powers is travelling renegade with a woman with unbelievable hypnotic abilities is a threat of its own. The show did well in revealing Tess's ability by not telling us straight out as it normally does ("my power is..."; "John is a returnee who has the ability to..."), but by simply letting the story unfold and allowing us to catch on as we watch. Still we can wonder at the extent or limitations of her hypnotic ability. This achievement is one of the episode's strength. Believable also in that the unique beauty of Summer Glau is hypnotic on its own.

It's great that such a powerful pairing is kept distant from both the good guys and the bad. Schizophrenics cannot function within the boundaries of constructed society, so it's also appropriate that they are on the lam, Bruce Banner style.

An interesting side-note to Diana's unwilling inclusion in Burkhoff's promicen-injecting experiments is that Maia present Diana with a drawing of her as a monster that visited her in her dreams. It's not just a clue to Burkhoff injecting her with promicen, one of many until the reveal, but also innately suggests that Maia believes members of the 4400 are monsters, and by extension that she herself is a monster. I doubt this was intentional but it is nonetheless there, and would have been an interesting angle to explore, yet I don't believe the show was interested in this idea. At least not at this point.

And in another corner of the 4400 universe... Richard's telekinesis is finally being explored, and it is undoubtedly clear that his special ability was not just his sperm. The neatest moment in this thread is the shot of Richard graduating his target practice from crumpled pieces of paper to kitchen knives, and that moment when a knife is thrown to reveal a photo of Isabelle, followed by a concerned look from daddy Richard. Is this a challenge? A consideration that he might need to end Isabelle's life? The notion that morally straight father Richard Tyler is the one who must take down daemon daughter Isabelle is a great detail, and hopefully we'll be taken down this path. With a romance potentially brewing between Richard and confidante Heather Toby, perhaps she and her ability will play a role in this hoped-for sequence.

Isabelle in the meanwhile is becoming increasingly annoying, though thankfully her presence in this episode is brief and well handled. Yet here too it is with Richard that our sympathies lie, and his response, verbal and gestures, are indicative of the talent of Mr. Mahershala Ali.

The episode's final sequence unites Isabelle with the shady X-Files characters, and ends with a distinct imitation of an X-Files moment: the reveal of a high security freezer stories a multitude of vials of promicen, all sucked out of Isabelle.


Maybe they sent you back to keep me alive so I can...
finish me album
.
There is a minor and unnecessary though nonetheless interesting thread involving Shawn and famous bad boy rocker Nick Crowley (quite well played by Neil Hopkins). The scene involves a drugged-out rock star that fanboy Shawn inadvertently saves, and who expects him and his healing hands to be around every time he overdoses. The final moment and Crowley's angry disappointment are a great character-revealing finish. Perhaps the story-line was needed to keep Shawn in the episode, or perhaps simply as filler. I do like the contrast between a story of a man needing a healer to constantly save him from peril, and the story of Dr. Burkhoff who requires no external hands as he is an instant self-healer. Possibly the intention of this side narrative is to illustrate how truly powerful Burkhoff now is; a greater asset in some respects as Shawn, due to the implication that while Shawn is vulnerable, especially with his ties to Isabelle, while Burkhoff is potentially immortal.

Finally, to cap off this lengthy article, there is a nice moment between Diana and Marco. We haven't yet seen them together since Diana broke off their relationship, and the moment they first do make contact, at Dr. Burkhoff's apartment, the awkward moment and Marco's "Hi" are all a nice testament to continuity. Marco's ongoing concern for Diana is appropriate and accurate to both the situation and the character.

Among the many episodes co-scripted by Ira Steven Behr and Craig Sweeny, "The Ballad of Kevin and Tess" is directed by The 4400 co-creator Scott Peters.


Friday, February 6, 2015

Casual Shorts: Robert Bloch, "Talent" (1960)

Robert Bloch, "Talent"
  • If, July 1960
  • Atoms & Evil, Fawcett Gold Medal, August 1962
  • The Best Science Fiction from If, ed. Frederik Pohl, Galaxy Publishing, 1964
  • The Oddballs, ed. Vic Ghidalia, Manor Books, 1973
  • Christopher Lee's "X" Certificate, eds. Christopher Lee & Michel Parry, W.H. Allen, 1975
  • From the Archives of Evil, eds. Christopher Lee & Michel Parry, Warner Books, January 1976 (reprint of above)
  • Such Stuff as Screams Are Made of, Del Rey, February 1979
  • Bug-Eyed Monsters, eds. Bill Pronzini & Barry N. Maltzberg, Harvest, March 1980
  • Last Rites, Underwood-Miller, 1987
  • The Complete Stories of Robert Bloch, Volume 3: Last Rites, Citadel Twilight, May 1991
  • The Baen Big Book of Monsters, ed. Hank Davis, Baen, October 2014

Rating: 7/10

For more Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Evan Lewis's blog.


"It is perhaps a pity that nothing is known of Andrew Benson's parents."

The publication of The Baen Big Book of Monsters a few months back, a new anthology featuring reprints along with a couple of new stories (including one from editor Hank Davis), brought Robert Bloch's highly entertaining short story "Talent" back into print after a quarter century absence from the anthology scene. (The Mammoth anthologies had covered the monster genre with its 2007 anthology The Mammoth Book of Monsters, though it contained more original pieces and ignored Bloch entirely, while only digging as far back as 1973 for its reprints.) This is the second time the short story has appeared in a monster-themed anthology, having been included in the Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg edited work Bug-Eyed Monsters from 1979.

Yet the story can easily be included in a number of different theme-related groups, such as genre comedy, sci-fi/horror, movies, orphans, psychopaths and oddball characters (which it has been). among its many strengths, "Talent" encompasses a variety of aspects of genre fiction, including its approach.

The story deals with orphan Andrew Benson, a reclusive boy who awakens from a perpetual daze only when he performs mimicry. He is in fact so good at mimicry that people watching him perform are convinced he even looks exactly like the individual he is aping. When Benson discovers Hollywood movies, his penchant for imitation proves boundless. aside from his mimicry and dramatics, Benson has absolutely no interest in any other aspect of life, and his motivation becomes the story's final, surprising reveal.

"Talent" is structured like an informal investigative report. A hack journalism tries to piece together the life of Andrew Benson through little information and lot of hearsay, clipping together portions of interviews and the few facts surrounding Benson's life. Such a structure creates a specific character in the narrator: an unimaginative and strikingly unaware investigative reporter; an oxymoron in itself. This character is necessary to help build up to the ending otherwise the piece would would begin with the final line. The technique also allows Bloch to employ his gift of ironic storytelling.

Bloch's irony is present throughout the text, and his playfulness shines through the irony as he touches upon the various deaths surrounding Benson, all linked to some recent movie or movie trend ("you've probably seen something just like it in the movies a dozen times"). Centering his humour around the irony is what makes "Talent" such an enjoyable read. Bloch is charming, playful and very aware of the genre in which he is working.

Of course this brings us to the overwhelming fault in the story, which is unavoidable in Bloch's approach. (I will not spoil the story and hence risk being vague with this point.) The narrator is blindly unaware of Benson's nature to the point that it doesn't even cross his mind to speculate on connections between Benson and the deaths surrounding him which are more than obvious to the reader. In fact, the narrator rejects the theories brought up by one of the victims even though he is fully aware of Benson's eventual transformation. In fact, it is that transformation that leads the narrator to attempt to piece the details, fact and hearsay, of Benson's life into some king of chronological biography. THat opening line (quoted above) taken into consideration along with the various theories of Benson's identity that are discussed is alone indicative, related to the ending, that those theories should not be so carelessly rejected.

Of course the story is meant for pure entertainment, so the flaw is forgivable and in no way detracts from the story itself. Like much of Bloch's short work, it's worth a read.

On a side note, there is a reference to Jack the Ripper as related to a murder in conjunction with the Ripper-related film Man in the Attic. Bloch was interested in various serial killers and wrote several pieces dealing with the nineteenth century murderer, including "Your Truly, Jack the Ripper" (1943), "A Most Unusual Murder" (1976), and the Star Trek script "Wolf in the Fold" (1967). Bloch's association with the killer is so evident that any mention of the Ripper is welcome.


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Lorrie Moore, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994)

Moore, Lorrie, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? at Goodreads
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? at IBList

Rating: 5/10

For more Friday's Forgotten Books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.

As an avid radio listener throughout my teens, I first came across Lorrie Moore by accident when I heard a live reading of her famous short story "How to Become a Writer." Normally, especially at that age, I would quickly seek out other works of newly-discovered writers I enjoyed, but in the case of Moore, though I continued to stumble upon the story throughout the years, along with one or two others, I never actively searched for more of her work. About a year ago I came across a bent copy of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, and finally read the book last week.

Moore's second novel, currently bookended by Anagrams (1986) and A Gate at the Stairs (2009), is a short work that reads like a memoir, a narrator's personal guide through a specific time in her life. (Memoir, however, is simply another kind of fiction, another kind of fabrication; while there are certainly elements from Moore's own life present in the work, it does not read like autobiography.) The narrator is on vacation in Paris in the midst of a seemingly failed marriage, and interspersed with brief conversations with and thoughts of her husband, hearkens back to a summer in the 1970s during which she was obsessed with popular best friend Sils.

The work focuses on the relationship, the narrator's insecurities and very much on the decade. Though it is well written (very well written), it is lacking. The plot is incidental and awakens late in the work, which generates an uneven read. (Ironically, this is one of the threads running through Moore's "How to Become a Writer," as protagonist Francie is being criticized for her lack of plot.) The ending is rushed through, acts as an epilogue and is unnecessary. I would have liked to have been left in the uncertainty of the past as mirrored by the uncertainty of the present, as the two narratives should coincide. Or perhaps the present should have also had its own epilogue? But not really.

While I did not care much for the work as a novel, it is a fast read and worthy of a read for Ms. Moore's writing skills are impressive. The characters are solid and real, and the small town universe they live in is constructed with great care.

Now to seek out more of those fine short stories...


Thursday, January 1, 2015

Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus (1604)

Marlowe, Christopher, The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus, 1604

Doctor Faustus at Goodreads
Doctor Faustus at IBList

Rating: 7/10

For more Friday's Forgotten books, please visit Patti Abbott's blog.


This past year, 2014, marked the 450th birthday of Christopher Marlowe, an event overshadowed by the 450th birthday of a rival playwright, a certain William Shakespeare. While I studied the latter quite a bit in school, I managed shockingly to survive both a bachelor's and a master's in English without having read the former's important and renowned bit of theatre.

Most interesting about Marlowe's Faustus is not that an open atheist can write a work that at a glance matches the overt morals of The Summoning of Everyman and other medieval morality plays, but that critics can wonder why an atheist would write such a piece. Though on a surface level the play appears to be retelling the Faust legend with the purpose to scare Christians (and non) from practicing sin (and magic), it is the struggle and inner turmoil the play is most concerned with, and not on damnation. Granted the focus does shift, as Marlowe weaves base comedy into the work. That inclusion, however, assuming he did write or commission those particular scenes, is a reflection of stylistic conventions of the period, such as the use of a chorus narrator, rather than an attempt to illustrate the play's main ideas.

The story of a brilliant intellectual with few worthy lifelong prospects sells his soul for a handful of years of pretty much anything he wants cannot ignore either the concept of Christian salvation/damnation nor the idea of an individual's terrible sacrifice for seemingly so little. In light of this the attempt of scholars to figure out exactly who wrote which parts of the play seems to add little value to understanding the work, though it has other significance. The central ideas concern the desire for higher knowledge, so that the inclusion of works on magic are not an attempt to link the supernatural with the almighty, or to denounce medieval notions of magic, but rather part of a man's search for knowledge beyond that of the corporeal world. This idea is highlighted by Faustus's questioning Mephistophilis on astronomy, and later his continued attempts to seek truth from a science that takes us beyond the world that encases us physically.

Important to the play is understanding the controversies of astronomy at that time. For many centuries to openly theorize about new ideas of the solar system and beyond was challenging to the point that the theorist was risking his life. How humans viewed the solar system and the Earth's place within could easily contradict the doctrine set forth by the Vatican. Was Marlowe using astronomy to illustrate that his protagonist was seeking ideas beyond the realm of the known physical world, or subtly commenting on the different views, Catholic or otherwise, of man's place in the greater universe?

Faustus's greatest sin from a Catholic perspective is perhaps denying that God will forgive him his sins if he were to repent and embrace the Lord. If he were clear on Catholic teachings, and at the time any literate scholar such as he would undoubtedly be clear on all the major Catholic points, just as Marlowe himself was certainly aware. Questioning the idea is therefore an important point in the play, particularly since he seems to be rejecting not God but the earthly teachings related to God. Moreover, assuming he is aware of Catholic doctrine, he nonetheless believes his own sins are beyond the power of God's forgiveness, which is perhaps, in a Christian world, the vilest form of hubris possible.

At this time I would argue that Marlowe is presenting the idea that man is moving away not from God, necessarily, but from the church. His exploration of astronomy and questioning of one set of contemporary beliefs, along with his act of incredible hubris, takes Faustus and his struggle away from the church.


Sunday, December 28, 2014

Peter Straub, Mr. X (1999)

Straub, Peter, Mr. X, 1999

Mr. X at Goodreads
Mr. X at IBList

Rating: 7/10


The publication of Mr. X in 1999 proved to be Peter Straub's return to supernatural horror, a genre in which he'd established himself throughout the 1970s and 80s and for which he still most recognized. The work received general acclaim from critics, as well as the Bram Stoker Award in the novel category. It's the third of Straub's novels I've read, following Shadowland (1980; read many years ago) and its follow-up Floating Dragon (1982; read in 2013). Though I tend to lose interest in far-flung supernatural elements, I enjoyed all three books mostly for their character development which surpasses that of most horror-labeled authors. Though I haven't yet tried any of the thrillers he was focused on during the 1990s and later, these might appeal to me more, and I understand they were quite well received.

The main plot and its related threads begin well into the novel, as protagonist Ned Dunstan returns to his home town of Edgerton, Illinois, sensing that his mother is in danger. In Edgerton he takes on the task of discovering his father's identity, a man seemingly obsessed with Lovecraft to the point that he believes his works are fact. Over the course of a few days, Ned is being pursued by a dark entity he refers to as Mr. X, meets his doppelgänger, gets to know his eccentric family while learning their many secrets, and discovers that he has some latent supernatural powers. Amid all this he finds the time to fall in love with the wife of one of the town's wealthier and more influential personages, and thereby becomes embroiled in town affairs. A busy man, this is a busy novel to keep any character occupied.

The novel contains a general mix of family mystery, the supernatural, Lovecraft parody and some horror violence to transcend genre (it is a supernatural horror mystery, with strong elements of family drama along with small town life, which Straub presents with great realism). The novel is complex in both genre and plot, its mystery quite enmeshed in detail, and is quite a fascinating read on many levels.

What is most interesting is that in a novel whose plot is based entirely on some wacky supernatural possibilities, the characters (and the town) are presented with plain realism. Supernatural abilities aside, relationships are presented in complex terms and personalities are attentively delineated. An example of the complexities is the treatment of Ned's lover Laurie Hatch, and here I will offer up some minor spoilers.

Like any standard youthful crush, Laurie comes into Ned's life and, through his eyes, is presented as a kind of female ideal: a beautiful woman, highly compatible, who proves to be actively supportive, sympathetic and great in bed. Yet the ideal wears away as Laurie, over the course of mere days, falls from her the pedestal Ned has placed her on through some remarks from her almost ex-husband that ring believable. As the ideal dissipates, she becomes a real person in Ned's eyes, and our hero must contend with certain aspects of her personality that are not only non-idealistic, but downright threatening. Ambiguities abound around sweet mistreated Mrs. Hatch, who might in fact be an active treasure hunter. Moreover, the complexities with an inheritance set up for Laurie's son Cobden intermingled with her active involvement in Ned's affairs eventually point to the possible truth of Hatch's accusations. At the end we are left with an ambiguous portrait of Ned's lover, and whether she is innocent victim or treasure hunter, their relationship, should it continue, is irreparably marred by the possibilities suggested in the theories that Ned assembles regarding the timeline of Laurie's involvement in his affairs. Perfectly clear, no?

While I generally preferred Floating Dragon while reading, the ending of Mr. X was far more satisfying, and though I was more engaged with Floating Dragon, in a technical sense Mr. X is the better achieved book, and I believe through time it will grow on me. The way Mary Lawson's Crow Lake, which I enjoyed very much while reading, nonetheless grew on me over time primarily due to its complexities and character development.

The novel is certainly not perfect. There is a certain neurosis in the way characters are described via conversation. Straub feels the need to detail mannerisms to a point that it interferes with the story development and is at times genuinely annoying. Like Floating Dragon and many a supernatural novel, Mr. X does not need to be as long as it is. The lengthy development of Ned and his nemesis in the earlier parts of the book, from childhood to school experiences are utterly fascinating and well paced, so that when the older Ned arrives at Edgerton the change of focus and pace, along with the detail orientation, forces the second half to drag at times. Yet a minor complaint for a complex work.


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Charles Lambert, With a Zero at its Heart (2014)

Lambert, Charles, With a Zero at its Heart, Hammersmith: The Friday Project, 2014

With a Zero at its Heart at Goodreads
With a Zero at its Heart at IBList

Charles Lambert's Website

Rating: 7/10

Among the many talented contemporary writers I've discovered through the excellent periodical The Fiction Desk is Charles Lambert. Having read and reviewed (positively) his two contributions to the publication, the short story "All I Want" from TFD1: Various Authors, and the novelette "Pretty Vacant" from TFD2: All These Little Worlds, I offered him, via Goodreads, a review of his latest book at Casual Debris. Within a few short days I received a copy of this very attractive little book, and took it with me to London and Istanbul, starting it in the former and completing the last few chapters in the latter.

Because life is riddled with all sorts of minor experiences, along Charing Cross Road I visited the numerous second-hand bookshops there, and on the shelves of Any Amount of Books was a copy of With a Zero at its Heart, selling for 6£, just under half the cover price. (In excellent condition, if you're interested. It might still be there, though this was about four months ago.) Lambert's book is, like life, riddled with an assortment of experiences, major or minor, each equally significant to the bearer.

     24 themed chapters.
     Each with 10 numbered paragraphs.
     Each paragraph with precisely 120 words.
     The sum of a life.

Toss in a final paragraph of a hundred and twenty words and you have a work made up of 28,120 words total. In this oulipian challenge, Lambert's writing is precise, as each paragraph, whether detailing an event or describing an object, must resonate on an emotional level in order that each fragment carry its own significance. There are some sections I found to be stronger than others, with "Danger" and "Colours" being among the weaker, but overall the work is consistent and engaging.

These fragments make up a whole that features a sensitive man in search of self via objects, sex and a plethora of emotions and experiences. There is no traditional plot, but the style offers the opportunity to form character more vividly than most plotted stories would. Removing traditional plot removes the character-building limitations that a structured story-line normally requires. Removing structure also lends the work a sense of chaos, making fiction more like life (to paraphrase Virginia Woolf). This is particularly appropriate here since the work is most likely semi-biographical.

The title references paragraph two of the section on animals: "He's presented with three white mice in a plywood box, divided by a wall with a zero at its heart." (p.38) These sections ate like chambers of the heart, divided and yet connected by an opening, making the heart whole. The novel is like a set of chambers made whole by its protagonist, his life and self being the zero that connects the various experiences and emotions depicted in the book.

The book is attractively designed by Vaughan Oliver, and the internal formatting and design are great (too bad about that typo on page 60). Another error is more technical. On page 129 watching the excellent Psycho in the cinema, "[t]hey both spot Hitchcock pass in front of a car." In the actual Psycho the director is standing outside the door, silhouetted in the glass, when Janet Leigh as Marion Crane walks in. Minor but distracting, at least for a Psycho(tic) fan. Though perhaps he is only pausing as he is passing by a car.


Note that this review is late so as not to conflict with my review of the same book at Black Heart Magazine, which you can read here.



Today's Casual Visits

Free Visitor Maps at VisitorMap.org