Book Review: 42

January 25, 2009

42: A Novel

42By M. Thomas Cooper

Published June 1, 2008

Ooligan Press

325 pp.

ISBN 1-932-01024-4

Reviewed January 25, 2009

Of the many wonderful things that Douglas Adams provided the world in his five-part trilogy “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” the significance he bestowed on the number 42 is probably the most famous. He presents it as the calculation by Deep Thought, the most advanced computer in the galaxy, in answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe and Everything. Unfortunately, no one thought to ask what the question actually was, and as a result peace and harmony continue to elude all intelligent beings.

As a result of Adams’ seemingly random selection, the number 42 has taken on a heavy significance in popular culture, subject to a variety of interpretations and speculation – and many of those find a home in M. Thomas Cooper’s first novel “42.” Cooper’s take on the number however resembles the films “The Number 23” or “π” more than it does Douglas Adams, an unnerving and constantly aggravating novel where one number seems to hold the significance of an ordinary man’s spiral into madness.

The ordinary man in question is George Olson, a resident of Portland, Oregon who finds his comfortable routine of work and family upended when his wife and daughter disappear. As he tries to decipher the cryptic note they left behind while at the same time denying they have disappearance, he finds himself not only wrapped up in accusations of arson and murder but obsessed with the seemingly random connections the number 42 seems to have with everything happening around him.

“42” is written in a journal format of first-person present tense, breaking chapters up by each day and chronicling every single one of George’s actions and thoughts. It provides a complete view of how his life is unraveling, dodging phone calls and frantically looking around every time his pets disappear. The journal format also allows the book to make some interesting design changes, simulating sticky notes for George’s questions and blacking out the name of the woman he had an affair with like the crucial information in a CIA report.

But its style is also one of its most frustrating attributes. Never breaking from George’s inner monologue means no other voices come in, beyond his interpretations of others’ conversations, and his interpretations are hit-or-miss. He brushes over his inability to answer cryptic references to author Haruki Murakami (a point that begs for expansion) and dwells too much on being alone in an empty house. Also some passages – particularly the prologue – are so overwrought that it evokes an urge to throw the book against a wall just to make him lighten up.

The breaking of Olson’s mind takes a more interesting tone once his fixation on 42 enters, after overhearing a random conversation between two engineering students. Once it arrives his mind is seized, and Cooper has a breathtaking amount of examples he can weave in – birthdates and license plates fill his daily life, but historical connotations such as the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the Miami Dolphins and the film “Elf” all have a place as well. However, since it takes almost 200 pages for it to even be mentioned, the 42 argument doesn’t take root firmly enough to warrant reviewing previous chapters for references.

Perhaps fittingly for a novel that depicts a slide into madness, “42” has a very hard time coming to a conclusion. As more characters begin paying attention to his oddities the contrast between him and the world is more apparent, and attempts to connect are well done – including a total breakdown on the witness stand. George’s obsession with 42 does lead him to surprising discoveries, but those discoveries are made at the expense of discarding the questions of arson/murder/Murakami/location of his pets/why his family left him in the first place.

All in all, “42” is a book that depends more on the reader’s connection to the narrator more than any other factor. Hints of conspiracy and supernaturalism are scattered through the book, but we never learn if they exist or are merely symptoms of paranoia. It replicates the mental deterioration after losing one’s family very well, but as a coherent narrative it doesn’t add up – to 42 or any other sum.

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Text-to-Screen Ratio: Choke

January 24, 2009

(Editor’s note: This column contains spoilers for both the film and novel, chiefly because the ending of the film forms a major point of contention in the difference between both versions. Forewarned is, of course, forearmed.)

chokefilmcover

As I’ve mentioned previously in this publication, I share a love-hate relationship with the author Chuck Palahniuk. On one hand, I feel he is one of the most innovative and skilled writers currently producing content, with a truly immersive style and fatalism well-matched to his reader base. On the other, despite mastery of his style he doesn’t have much maneuverability, most of his novels featuring an apathetic young man with a crazy love interest and passive rebellion that gradually turns aggressive.

That said, I still hold “Fight Club” as a favorite book and film, and also one of the benchmarks for adaptations – so naturally there were questions when Palahniuk’s later novel “Choke” came to film. I consider “Choke” a weaker book than “Fight Club” but with its inspired moments, and in those terms the films do not differentiate. In comparing the film “Choke” to its source material, it fares much better, snaring most of what made the book enjoyable.

chokebookcover

Plot-wise, there is little to no core deviation. Victor Mancini, failed medical student, sex addict exploiter and colonial reenactor, makes a living by pretending to choke in restaurants and collecting money paid by his saviors. With his mother dying in a nursing home, he is scrambling to keep her alive, until her new doctor proposes a treatment that will push the limits of his beliefs and morality. This story is unmolested on film, moving through chapters and only removing elements for repetitiveness.

Tonally the film “Choke” is much different from “Fight Club,” less of the latter’s brutal anarchy and more about apathy. Despite thematic similarities between the books it does not emulate its predecessor, going for more of a sitcom/real life feel. This turns out to be the right choice though, because the book’s tone was in the same area – Victor was never about beating a maître d’ into a bloody pulp, but about weaseling money and sex from people he faked a connection to.

Palahniuk’s writing has always been about bizarre vignettes and shock value, and the best of them make it into the “Choke” film. Victor and Denny wandering the neighborhood drinking warm beer from suburban slug traps to collect rocks, Victor’s mom inhaling drugs and setting animals free, Victor having anal beads trapped in their destination for a third of the text – all surprisingly survive. A particularly wonderful scene is transplanted where Victor, desperate to remain a bad person, answers a sex ad for a simulated rape, only to find his client a neat freak whose rules he breaks in a wonderfully explicit way.

About the only complaint here is the excision of the chorus element Palahinuk is expert in using, most famously “I am Jack’s [insert body part]” and the eight rules of fight club. “Choke” has two of these choruses: “See also:” and “[Insert term here] isn’t the right word, but it’s the first word that comes to mind,” and neither of them earns even one mention in the book.

This is a shame, particularly because Sam Rockwell would carry those lines quite well. Rockwell, a skilled actor who seems to find himself trapped in a series of average film adaptations (“Matchstick Men,” “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”), is tailor-made to play the unlikable angst-ridden young men Palahniuk’s canon revolves around. His character is played closer to Jason Lee’s “My Name is Earl” than Edward Norton, but again for the tone of both book and film it works. Victor (and Rockwell’s portrayal) is a weasel, squirming at the advent of morality rather than warring against it.

The rest of the characters are more hit-or-miss. Kelly Macdonald as Paige Marshall competently delivers the right lines, but her hidden craziness comes across solely as a monotone lack of expression. Brad William Henke’s Denny is softer than the book version but matches the film’s sitcom-esque tone, while Angelica Huston carries Ida with an unexpectedly regal air.

Despite small differences I found myself warming to the film, only to have cold water dumped on me by the excision of the last few chapters. The book ends when, responding to a news report, every single person who saved Victor from choking descends on Denny’s rock garden to contribute, only to realize en masse the scam he pulled on them. The film, by contrast, ends on a watered-down monologue and reunion between he and Paige that also extracts one of the book’s best lines (Paige’s “I guess that means I’m insane”).

“Fight Club” proved that altering a book’s ending can work – Palahniuk himself is on record preferring the film’s to his own – but it does not work in “Choke,” serving as a weak attempt to provide a happy ending where the original would have still worked. It’s all the more frustrating because they show the news report, building anticipation and then forcing an undercooked one down our throat. It may be an alternate ending on the DVD, but I view it only as a cop-out.

Final adaptation score: 7 out of 10. It comes surprisingly close to the mood of the book and a majority of the original text makes it onto the screen, but the watered-down ending takes away any possibility of a gold star.


Back Shelf Review: The Rum Diary

January 4, 2009

The Rum Diary: A Novel

rum-diarypbkBy Hunter S. Thompson

Published November 2, 1998

Simon and Schuster

224 pp.

ISBN 0-684-85647-6

Reviewed January 4, 2009

Originally reviewed at: Helium

Since acclaimed journalist and author Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide in 2005, there have been two schools of thought on his legacy. The most prevalent one is the “Uncle Duke” viewpoint of free-wheeling brilliant lunatic, dispensing acidic barbs while snorting cocaine and pausing occasionally to fire a shotgun into the darkness. This view is supported heavily by Thompson’s own “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and never-ending stories from his friends and editors, collected in the recent “Gonzo” book and documentary.

The other viewpoint, fiercely defended by his wife Anita in “The Gonzo Way,” is that Thompson was a writer in the purest sense of the word, a man who chose every word carefully and did so with the fervent belief that he could find truth and understanding in them. To find proof of this, one need look no further than “The Rum Diary,” the novel he began when he was 22 and which was finally published 40 years later. It’s an outlier from his journalistic body of work, which makes it all the more remarkable that it’s conceivably his best book after “Vegas.”

“The Rum Diary” tells the story of Paul Kemp, a journalist who heads to San Juan to take a job at the San Juan Daily News, a dying paper being put out by an eclectic group of drunkards and drifters. Kemp, who is coming to a realization of how long he’s been part of that group, finds himself pulled along in their binges and paycheck disputes, trying to find contentment and a sense of connection in a city that cannot figure out how to clean itself up.

Thompson’s early letters, reprinted in the fantastic collections “Fear and Loathing in America” and “The Proud Highway,” show that he approached this novel in much the same way most authors approach their first novels – their ticket to wealth and a place alongside literary icons. Emulation is clearly present here, with Kemp regularly engaging in introspections that match F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lyrically discursive characters. On the other side, several sentences clearly attempt Ernest Hemingway’s gift for grand meaning in a dozen words or less.

However, Fitzgerald would have never called a cocktail party “a dull sideshow full of quacks and clowns and philistines with gimp mentalities,” and Hemingway’s streamlined approach would founder in the decadent depravity of a St. Thomas carnival. “The Rum Diary” could never be called derivative, as Thompson’s voice – anarchic, observant and holding an angry sense of humor – is clear in every page. It’s almost purer in a way, free of the hallucinatory rambling that distinguishes his later work but still unafraid to call the swine by name.

Kemp’s reflections are helped along by the group of people he is surrounded with, who could be called eclectic if you wanted to be nice and degenerates if you wanted to be honest. Sanderson, a PR man whose constant wheeling and dealing hide a mask-like persona on par with Jay Gatsby; Sala, the staff photographer and Kemp’s drinking partner who sees himself at war with everyone else; and Yeamon, a prototype of “Vegas’s” Dr. Gonzo, ostensibly good-natured but with a mean spirit at the end of an evening. It’s an excellent cast of journalists, and Thompson fills them with that profession’s typical tension and drunkenness.

And like any good journalist, Thompson puts his thought to trying to understand them and their world. When not focusing on the excellent dialogue, the majority of “The Rum Diary” is given over to Fitzgerald-inspired musings on romance, living with “vagrant addresses” and just how long any one place’s peace can last. Even in the book’s weakest scenes, where Kemp is called to write articles promoting an upcoming resort, have odd and quiet thoughts on selling out.

It’s an elegiac tone in many respects, as Kemp – barely past 30 – looks back on his short life and marvels how quickly he became tired of it: “But it was pure masturbation, because down in my gut I wanted nothing more than a clean bed and a bright room and something solid to call my own at least until I got rid of it. There was an awful suspicion in my mind that I’d gone over the hump, and the worst thing about it was that I didn’t feel tragic at all, but only weary, and sort of comfortably detached.”

The final product is certainly not pure 1959 Thompson – years of letters speak of constant revision, and William McKeen’s “Outlaw Journalist” reports he stole the manuscript from his publisher for a final edit – but the fact that a young writer conceived of such a book and turned it into what it is speaks worlds of his talent. Anyone who reads this book for gonzo will not find that (at least to Thompson’s typical extremes), but if they continue they will find “The Rum Diary” deserves to be called literature.