Book Review: Stiff

December 3, 2010

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

By Mary Roach

Published April 21, 2003

W.W. Norton & Company

304 pp.

ISBN 0-393-32482-6

Reviewed December 3, 2010

It’s the great mystery in the universe that we can never know what happens to us after we die. It’s the journey that no one has ever sent a postcard from after taking, the question that has spurred countless philosophers and religions to great discussion, and one that everyone ponders at least once a day. Try as we might to get past it, we can’t avoid the fact that some day we will all find ourselves passing on to something we can never get a hold of, leaving nothing behind but the piece of meat and bone that carried us through our daily grind.

But while the fate of our consciousness after death is one that cannot be measured, the fate of that piece of meat is one that’s easier to quantify – and as Mary Roach shows in “Stiff,” just because a body is dead doesn’t mean its experiences are over. Over the course of history, human corpses have been boiled, mashed, stuck in stews, chopped up, shot to pieces and put to ten thousand other uses across the spectrum of morality. In “Stiff,” Roach unflinchingly explores the myriad and grisly uses these cadavers come to, and in the process weaves a quirky and unique narrative of life after death.

Beginning with a simple curiosity about what happens to human bodies that aren’t simply buried – a “foreign land between the cracks” as the author puts it – “Stiff” follows cadavers through a plethora of final fates. Roach travels to cosmetology schools, decay research facilities and shooting ranges, chronicling how scientists and doctors are using the cadavers to learn and teach things no live subject would ever consent to. She also expands her search to the shocking and bizarre events of the past, going back to experiments to replicate the circumstances of the Crucifixion and just how long a head can survive after it has been severed by a guillotine.

As Roach mentions early on, once a body is donated to science it has no control over where it eventually ends up, and “Stiff” similarly goes in all directions as it explores the various possibilities with a mix of contemporary studies and involved historical research. One chapter that begins in an anatomy lab memorial service for cadavers jumps into a discussion of body snatching in 1700s England, while the next switches between a body left in the sun for three weeks and the origins of arterial embalming. The breadth of the subject means that no stone is left unturned – that is, unless the stone is on a cadaver and being unturned is part of the experiment.

Roach however manages to keep all these disparate links together, chiefly through her entertaining writing style. Thanks to various quips at the historical subjects (the “father of embalming” asked not to be embalmed himself, “though whether this was a function of sanity or insanity was never made clear”) and a legitimate curiosity about those who spend their time around human bodies (“What I do is, I think of them as wax” is one option), it’s hard to ever feel bogged down or lost on her journey. Special praise goes to the transitions between sections and chapters in the way they establish common threads: One chapter ends talking about an organ donor (“H has no heart, but heartless is the last thing you’d call her”) and the next begins by discussing the idea of souls, which leads to brains as their resting place, which leads to the idea of human head transplants.

If anyone does have trouble going from section to section, it will likely be because of the subject matter rather than the writing – much of “Stiff” is not for those with weak stomachs. The breadth of topics makes it very engrossing, but it regularly teeters to the “gross” part of the equation by turning up experiments like the creation of a two-headed dog (a “lively, puppylike, if not altogether joyous existence” for the new head) and just where human excrement falls into the medicine cabinets of ancient civilizations. “Stiff’s” subject matter tends to be far from polite dinner table conversation, and the odds are good that readers will take a break in between sections such as this decay research observation:

“Arpad walks around to the corpse’s left foot. It is bluish and the skin is transparent. ‘See under the skin? They’re eating the subcutaneous fat. They love fat.’ I see them. They are spaced out, moving slowly. It’s kind of beautiful, this man’s skin with these tiny white slivers embedded just beneath its surface. It looks like expensive Japanese rice paper. You tell yourself these things.”

But despite being confronted with these observations, Roach never backs down from getting close with the cadavers – either whole or in part. While she frequently turns to a dry, Wodehousian black humor there’s also a strong respect for the choice these people made when alive to commit their earthly remains, and observes the bodies with a quiet fascination. She strengthens this commitment by including interviews with several truly devoted experts in the field, ranging from an injury analyst who studies corpses after crashes to a Swedish woman spearheading a movement for human composting. None of her subjects are ghouls who get off on manipulating the dead, but matter-of-fact individuals who happen to work with dead bodies to learn something new.

And that leads to the real strength of “Stiff” – it’s certainly full of fascinating data and presents itself well, but it still carries the appropriate gravitas its subject material deserves. Roach is at all times aware of the fact that her subjects were once alive, and that at the core what’s on the table in front of her is only a few degrees separate from each of us: “We are biology. We are reminded of this at the beginning and the end, at birth and at death. In between we do what we can to forget.” In “Stiff,” Roach shows us that maybe we shouldn’t try to forget it, because even after we’re dead – and possibly destined for a biology class – we’re still innately fascinating.

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Book Review: The Imperfectionists

December 1, 2010

The Imperfectionists

By Tom Rachman

Published April 6, 2010

The Dial Press

288 pp.

ISBN 0-385-34366-3

Reviewed December 1, 2010

In my time working for the Daily Cardinal back in college, I probably crossed paths with over a hundred individuals who played some role in making the paper. Some of them remain very close friends of mine, whom I exchange updates with on a regular basis. Others I haven’t seen for years, but I know I could meet up with and fall right back into a familiar groove with or at the very least be offered a couch for an evening. Still others I couldn’t identify by face or name now, but I know if I found myself in conversation with them and we learned that we shared that connection, we’d fill at least five minutes going over old war stories.

A newspaper tends to both attract a wide variety of people, and inspire a mix of emotions in the people who work for it – and that psychic pull is just one of the things that Tom Rachman manages to do so masterfully in “The Imperfectionists.” Centered around an unnamed English language newspaper in Rome, operating in what may well be the twilight of print media, “The Imperfectionists” is a brilliant debut novel that understands the most interesting thing about journalism. It isn’t the circumstances of the business or its efforts to stay relevant in changing times, but the multifaceted and frequently damaged people who make it their trade.

“The Imperfectionists” is split into eleven chapters, each of which focuses on one of the staffers at the unnamed paper. Editor-in-chief Kathleen Solsen struggles to do more with less in the face of the home office’s apathy, while the nitpicky copy editor Herman Cohen lambastes his three-headed copy desk – particularly the wallflower Ruby Zaga – for amateurish edits. The financial officer Abbey Pinnola reluctantly embraces her role as hatchet man, while the business reporter Hardy Benjamin tries to assimilate someone new into life outside her office. Abroad in Cairo and Paris, respective correspondents Winston Cheung and Lloyd Burko are either so far out of their comfort zones it approaches farcical or so mired in their comfort zones they have nothing left to offer.

Readers with journalism backgrounds will certainly find the chapters engagingly familiar – with each character embodying the professions’ archetypes at least in part – but “The Imperfectionists” is by no means restricted to that group. The chapters are focused on each character’s personal dramas, with the newspaper merely lining the cages of their doubts and revelations. Herman eagerly embraces a visit from his oldest friend and tries to get him to write for the paper, only to find that neither of their lives have turned out precisely as they thought – and they come to some surprising realizations about it. Katheen reengages with an old boyfriend in public service, tempted to use him to get inside information on the prime minister’s office – or just get back at her cheating husband. Each vignette is well-fleshed and original, and manages to come to meaningful conclusions all around.

The plotting makes each chapter interesting, but what makes them gripping is how well each character is defined. None of the chapters are in first-person, and Rachman’s voice is apparent in each of them, but you really do feel like you’re hearing a brand new person’s story each time. In some instances, particularly Kathleen’s and Abbey’s, the dialogue continues to flow for pages at a perfectly natural rhythm – these read like conversations real people would have, with small talk skirting around an elephant in the room and reaching conclusions neither party likes. Conversely, chapters on Lloyd and Ruby are more about internal monologues, their insecurities eating away at them as they desperately try to find some validation in work or in life. Ruby’s chapter in particular, mixed with internal asides to herself, has particularly poignant moments:

“To eat or to sleep – the perennial night-shift conundrum. She confronts her dilemma as always, with a tub of Haagen-Dazs on the couch and Tony Bennett on the stereo, volume low. The CD came free with a magazine and has become part of her after-work routine. She has the TV on, too, with the sound off. She watches Ballando con le Stelle without seeing, listens to Tony Bennett without hearing, eats Vanilla Swiss Almond without tasting. Yet the mix is the most splendid she knows.”

Prose like this is reminiscent of some of the finest short stories, and indeed the almost insular feeling of each chapter makes it very feasible to take each one as a single serving without digesting the narrative. As the book progresses, names repeat and the connections become more apparent – the same man ricochets off the paper’s editor-in-chief, copy editor and fervent subscriber in very different ways, a broken friendship indirectly tips over a line of dominoes to start an affair – but for the most part those connections matter because they evoke memories of just how good that character’s chapter was, and poignancy at how damaged they remain.

For as good as these character studies are, there is a central narrative – the origins and future of the paper, the great edifice that churns on oblivious to its staff’s problems, where “what was of the utmost importance yesterday is immaterial today.” The chapters are split up with vignettes on the origins of the paper, the mysterious industrialist Cyrus Ott who abandoned his family in Atlanta to become a publisher and founding editors as damaged as any off the current staff. The reason for the paper’s genesis comes in the last chapter, opened for personal reasons as tragic as any its existing staff has for staying with it – but the revelation is lost on the chapter’s subject, Ott’s grandson, the weak-willed publisher dwelling in an empty mansion with only a basset hound for company. It’s a tragic hammer strike, made even harder by the denouement of the final fifteen pages.

In those last pages, the observation is made that the paper is a “daily report on the idiocy and the brilliance of the species” – and that’s a label that can easily be applied to “The Imperfectionists.” By farming the tightly wound, diverse world of a newsroom, Rachman has created some of the strongest character studies in recent years. It’s heartfelt and complex, all its considerable parts adding up to something greater – much as its staff’s contributions inexplicably bring a paper to life. This is, quite simply, one of the best books of the year.


Announcement: TLOTE Goes On Hiatus

November 10, 2010

Normally I spend a little time in the first paragraph or two building up to the arguments I’m going to make in this pieces, but here the title’s already given away my core point so I’ll just get to the meat of things. It’s an announcement I have a hard time putting into words, but one that’s been coming for a while and I feel needs to get out there before I find an excuse not to make it.

As of today, The Lesser of Two Equals will be taking an indefinite hiatus. This does not mean that the blog will be shutting down operations – the archive remains completely intact to all visitors – but it does mean that for the foreseeable future I do not plan to write new content. This is also not meant to imply that there will never be any new content for the site, as my contributors do still have some things in the pipeline, but that I am no longer able to say when my next bit of content will show its face.

Some (or hopefully most of you) are asking why I’d take such a drastic step after over two years of operation and 165 posts, especially when there are so many varied topics to cover in the realm of literature and its varied adaptations. Well, this isn’t a decision I’ve made lightly – I’ve been considering this for a few weeks now, and while I don’t know how many of you are out there who have this blog in your regular or semi-regular rotation, I felt I owed it to you to take a few paragraphs and explain why I’m shelving TLOTE operations for the time being.

The first, and most obvious one to me, is simple burnout. Since it’s a book review blog run without ads and on a standard WordPress design, it probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone that I don’t make my living off this site. I have a rather engaging day job to pay my bills in addition to writing this, and as a consequence the majority of my writing time tends to be on nights and weekends. And as much as I enjoy what I do here, sometimes after a particularly long day one would rather slump down in front of last night’s “Boardwalk Empire” rather than dissect the latest memoir. With responsibilities piling up at work, paired with a recent move to a larger apartment and an inexplicably full social life, those nights are becoming more and more frequent and it’s been harder and harder to make writing a review feel like something that isn’t invasive surgery.

I’m hoping that a little time away from the writing desk, rather than hitting my keyboard until the fingers start to bleed a bit one or two nights a week, will help me recapture a bit of the zest I feel for writing about writing. If I ever want to get this site up to my original ambitions of at least one review a week with regular columns, Text-to-Screen analyses and a thriving contributor base, I need to be in a mindset where I’m not simply content to average a month between reviews with other coverage that gets done when it’s done. Originally I thought I could just push myself to complete them on time, but I’ve got to be realistic: there’s only so much processing power inside my head, and it’s outside my abilities right now to get the site moving at the pace I seek.

In doing so, I’m also hopeful that I’ll be able to take what writing energies I can muster and spend a little more time using that ability to write outside literary criticism, applying myself to some of the journals and other projects friends of mine are getting together. This might not seem as much of a gripe to people who have championed my efforts on this blog since its inception, but other than this blog I haven’t written anything for publication in over a year, and to someone with eventual aspirations of making a living at this such a statistic is completely unacceptable. As Hemingway put it, I hate the feeling that the instrument I write with is “bright and shining with nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closet, but unused.”

The second major reason for hiatus is a little more complicated, and it’s a little harder to state without sounding like a massive egotist, but it has to do with the site’s readership. I certainly don’t expect my site to command the readership of sites such as The NYT Book Review or The A.V. Club, but other than a few pieces that keep my stats in at least tolerable range there’s a lot I’ve written that I don’t think gets the attention it deserves. Many pieces, such as my centennial review of “The Abyss of Human Illusion,” apparently go unread if the stats are to be believed, and it’s a bit of a shiv in the side when those are the pieces I’ve lavished the most attention on. I know there’s at least a small audience for the content I write – an audience for which I’m profoundly grateful – but the increased effort I’ve had to put forth to get articles written recently hasn’t felt like it’s worth the effort.

But don’t think this means that I want to stop taking the effort – rather, for the time being I think it would be better for those efforts to go towards a little more networking. There is a vast community of book reviewers who work specifically online – unsurprising given the fact that most print publications would rather add an extra sudoku puzzle than a dedicated critic – and it’s a community that TLOTE has only put minimal effort into engaging. I’m going to be doing a lot of gliding through that community over the next few weeks, seeing just what everyone else is doing and getting into those blog’s discussions to a depth that I hope will expand both my readership and horizons, and that’s a project I’d rather undertake without trying to generate new content at the same time. (Though this could itself lead to future posts for the blog as I share my favorites with you, so there’s some hope for you.)

And in doing this, I’m likely to get some of my passion back for reading – which really gets to the main reason why I’m taking this time off. Over the last few months, I’ve been reading far less than I have in the past, spending more time with television shows and video games – both mediums that are growing as storytelling mediums by leaps and bounds, so I can defend my interest in both easily. However, this means that my bookshelves are starting to gather dust, currently stacked high with titles I haven’t had a chance to read yet, reminding me more of a collection of mint action figures than a toy box full of beloved and slightly battered favorites. I can’t be the critic I want to be when all the books I have are being back-burnered, considered for articles rather than actually digested.

So a large part of this sabbatical will be devoted to clearing off the majority of the shelf. To name only what I see when I turn my head to the left, two Neal Stephenson books haven’t even been opened, I’m only halfway through “Blood Meridian,” one book of five through “2666” and classics like “One Hundred Years of Solitude” are gathering dust on my end table. I think that if I take a bit of time to read for reading’s sake, it’s going to remind me why I started doing this so many years ago and why for all the marginalization of the medium I still think that what I do is worth doing.

I know there are some of you who want me to keep doing this regularly, and of course I welcome all your comments and feedback below or through my other means of contact. Just know this is something I think I have to do, if I ever want the site and my skills to move past where they are now.

However, maintain some hope: the amount of reading I plan to do in the near future, paired with my often mercurial temperament, may well mean that I’ll be struck by inspiration in the next few weeks and some new content will spill out of me, rendering the above paragraphs moot. As the site’s founder and editor, I reserve the right to be inconsistent in everything but my quality.

Thanks so much for reading. I’ll see you when I see you.

Les “Is More” Chappell


Book Review: Mogworld

November 3, 2010

Mogworld

By Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw

Published September 14, 2010

Dark Horse Books

350 pp.

ISBN 1-595-82529-0

Reviewed November 3, 2010

Anyone taking a first glance at “Mogworld” could be forgiven for not knowing exactly how to take it. First, it springs from the mind of Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, best known as the creator of the video series Zero Punctuation, where the emphasis is less on dialogue and narrative flow and more on seeing how many obscene game-related jokes can be packed into five minutes. Secondly, it’s published by Dark Horse Books, a company whose stables are populated by legendary comic series like “Hellboy” and “Sin City” but are virtually devoid of non-graphic novels. It seems like an outlier within an outlier, and even with the impressive resumes on each side it remains uncharted territory for both.

But much as ZP’s rapid-fire simply animated style is only the shell for some truly well-considered gaming criticism, and Dark Horse’s comic book image might obscure the brilliance of its narratives, “Mogworld’s” murky origin hides what it really is – a remarkably clever novel that not only digs at the tropes of fantasy gaming but also tells a nuanced tale of unwilling heroism. It’s a book incredibly strong in both gaming humor and British humor, and while it might not win many audiences outside of that realm it’s guaranteed to please those within it.

“Mogworld” centers on the unwanted unlife of Jim, a sorcery student killed in battle and wrenched back to life by a necromancer bent on world domination. Unable to return to death’s embrace no matter how many times he throws himself off a tower, and put out of his rat-pit tending job by a series of cataclysmic events, he finds himself drawn to the mystery of angelic white “Deleters” that are reducing entire sections of the world to nothingness. As he follows them in the desperate hope of being deleted himself, he sees that not only does the rest of the world share his immortality but that the world’s very structure seems to be unraveling – almost as if someone forgot to finish it.

And it’s those cracks in the world that provide the book’s first layer of humor. “Mogworld’s” setting subscribes to the same sense of humor as fantasy webcomics such as Rob Balder’s “Erfworld” and Rich Burlew’s “Order of the Stick,” in that the world’s natural laws would better fit into a Dungeons and Dragons manual. The spirits of the dead have to float their way to temples to come back to life, and become understandably grouchy as they wait their turn. Resident adventurers approach anyone who’s standing still and demand quests, but are more concerned with “points” awarded than the actual gold.

These are standard tropes to anyone who’s played a roleplaying game, but when presented through Jim’s disbelieving eyes they take on an added dimension of absurd hilarity. Jim’s take on these events will instantly be familiar to ZP viewers or readers of “Extra Punctuation” columns, as “Mogworld” is written in the same first-person style – and even contains a few references to its shorter predecessors. The book retains Croshaw’s distinctive caustic attitudes, but it quickly dispels any notion that he can only work in a shorter medium. The narration’s fast-paced tone means that it doesn’t get bogged down in heavy levels of backstory, and his dismissive attitudes against romance and authority figures add a definite edge to the standard fantasy setting. The colorful analogies might fly a bit too freely for some – without the visual aids of a ZP video they border on repetitive – but they’re not detrimental to the narrative and never lack for inventiveness, such as “a noise like the enthusiastic mating of giant stone golems” or a comparison between zombie flesh and apple turnovers.

It also helps that as the story progresses, the analogies take a backseat to character interactions, and it’s here that Croshaw really surprises. Jim’s world-weary tones form the foundation of the conversations, but the cast of characters – ranging from a bubbly female zombie to a shifty rogue marrying a comatose adventurer to a psychopath killing himself out of sheer boredom – are all well-realized and bounce off each other in an unforced manner. The dialogue is sharply written, owing quite a bit to the dry British wit of Douglas Adams and P.G. Wodehouse but made its own entity by its very dark sense of humor. None of these characters are heroes or even vaguely heroic – they’re all just dealing with the world the best way they know how, and that makes them more convincing as characters.

And the narrative strength makes for the most satisfying aspect of “Mogworld.” Croshaw has long railed against the poor storytelling endemic to the video game industry, and the book’s character and setting arcs prove he’s taken their lessons of what not to do to heart. When the boundaries between Jim’s world eventually break and the truth begins to enter into his world, the transition feels far more organic than expected from such a drastic shift. There are a series of climaxes in the later chapters, each one more gripping than the last, and Jim’s observations in the final chapter form a satisfying and legitimately touching conclusion to the story.

It’s uncommon for any first novel to have such a well-conceived storyline – even moreso when the creator’s most famous achievement averages a dick joke a minute – but “Mogworld” manages to take Croshaw’s writing to a new level while maintaining the wit and spirit that makes Zero Punctuation such a success. The majority of its humor may be lost on anyone without at least passing familiarity with that series or gaming culture, but it will hook fans of those elements within the first three chapters and its story and language are likely strong enough to net other readers. It’s entertaining, it’s immersive and all the other words games so desperately try to earn from Croshaw’s reviews – a book that proves he has the talent to back up what he says about storytelling.

Extra Credit:


Reviewed Title Update: Mercury Falls Official Release 10/26/10

October 26, 2010

And now a public service announcement.

Rob Kroese’s “Mercury Falls,” which I reviewed a few months back, is being officially rereleased today by AmazonEncore, with a new cover design and edited content. I praised the title pretty heavily in my initial review – “quick wit and well-conceived plot” were some of the summarizing terms, and I may have also uttered phrases like “one of the rare books that deserves to be called a spiritual successor to the ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’” – and with the gap of a few months since the review I can still say it’s one of the most entertaining things I’ve read all year. So if you’re in the mood for a whimsical take on the End Times, head over to Amazon and book yourself a copy.


Text-to-Screen Retrospective: The Bourne Identity

October 6, 2010

In my younger years, during one of the many chats that my dad and I have had about books – even today we can quote Robert B. Parker plots back and forth without fail – he told me that there were three books he tried to read every year: Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo” and Robert Ludlum’s “The Bourne Identity.” I’ve read all three of these since he first told me that, but “The Bourne Identity” has always been the one that we’ve bonded the most over. I received a battered paperback from him freshman year of high school, and as I read through it over a month we’d have many discussions on the progression of the amnesiac assassin and the varied forces pursuing him.

It was for that reason that both of us were so excited when a film version of “The Bourne Identity” was released when I was a junior, and why we went to see it together the first weekend it came out – and it was for that reason that once the film was over, both of us looked at each other, shook our heads and said “Nah.” It wasn’t that the film was bad – quite the opposite in fact – but there was barely a single thing in it we recognized from the story we’d followed so closely. Even now, eight years later, I’m still unable to watch the film without a slight cringe, though now it’s less a purist’s rant and more a mourning for what could have been.

It’s interesting, because from the outset of the film it seems the differences will be negligible. Both open on a man floating in the ocean outside of France, riddled with bullet holes, a bank account number sewn under his skin and absolutely no memory of who he is. Following the number to Zurich, he learns four very important facts in rapid succession: his name is Jason Bourne, he has millions of dollars in the account, several unidentified men are trying to kill him and he is far better than anyone should be at fighting them off. Dodging both their bullets and the rapidly unfolding memories, he desperately tries to put together who he was, aided only by a woman who stars as hostage but becomes his lover.

While the exposition and loose skeleton of the plot is taken from the book, everything else has been stripped away in favor of more generic spy movie elements. In the novel, Bourne is pursued not simply by a government tying up loose ends but by “Carlos,” the most legendary hired killer in the world. His background does not lie in simply being a standard CIA assassin, but an ex-Vietnam black ops agent with an even darker past and motivations. And his search for the truth doesn’t just lead Bourne and his partner/lover Marie to past locations where Bourne was, but to connect the messages and implications of each action taken against him in often heated debates.

The film obviously simplifies the plot elements of the novel, but that’s not in and of itself a bad thing – screenplay writer Tony Gilroy was right in many ways when he called the 1980 novel “a very complicated, dated book.” The plot is driven by an interwoven conspiracy that would put “Rubicon” to shame, with agents playing multiple sides layered with different names and settings and sideplots as Bourne tries desperately to piece the secrets surrounding Carlos and himself. Even the most devoted fans can’t deny that a perfect adaptation would drag out for hours, and even if it was adapted to a miniseries it still would only work half the time.

That “half of the time” caveat however is the main issue I have with the film: it doesn’t matter that it failed to adapt the book perfectly, but it missed a lot of what made the book so good. The revelation that not only is Bourne a government agent, but was set up as a professional assassin to bait and snare the legendary Carlos, was a concept that should have survived first editing as it would have added a lot to the film. Not only does it create a more cat-and-mouse sense, but the personal dilemmas Bourne goes through over the course of the book as he realizes what his role means opens up the room for a strong psychological thriller, rather than a comparatively straightforward action film. There are many very good, very tense scenes in the “Identity” film, but not one of its revelations holds a candle to the novel’s scene where he learns he is the notorious assassin Cain – and the ensuing explosion of memories inside his head the revelation sets off.

Indeed, several of the book’s elements could have worked well in a cinematic framework. The first few chapters alone provide excellent scenes, none of which make it into the film – an alcoholic doctor talks him through all the physical signs that he is more capable than he appears, he beats an entire fishing vessel’s crew into submission uttering only monosyllabic martial arts phrases, and he parlays an overheard rumor about an unfaithful rich man into a cash supply. The book could have also supplied the film with some stylistic elements: the doctor’s advice would be well-served as voiceover narration when Bourne realizes his old abilities are coming back to him, and his supposed background as a ruthless any-dirty-job mercenary in Vietnam could be a lead-in to some very dynamic flashbacks.

It’s also disappointing because while the film did fail to explain the majority of what drove and made Bourne who he was, the character of Bourne was perfectly cast with Matt Damon. Not only does he look the part with features that lend themselves to Bourne’s trademark chameleonic appearance, he nails the wound-up tension that the situation has driven him into – while at the same time he remains a professional, his training so deeply ingrained that the tension never breaks him. The fact that he does his own stunts is also to the character’s credit, as he can snap off a flawless succession of martial arts moves and then gasp disbelievingly at what he was capable of without any need to conceal the use of a stuntman.

Damon manages to bring enough of his source’s conflict, but his partner Marie shows no signs of the spark that made her such a compelling love interest, regardless of how competently Franka Potente plays the role. Part of it is the character’s background – an economics professor in the book, an aimless European drifter in the film – but a bigger change is that she’s no longer smarter than he is. What made the relationship between Bourne and Marie so compelling in the novel was that she was frequently able to put the pieces of the conspiracy together before he could, and consequently set him on the right path. In the film however, she just feels like she’s along for the ride, without the loyalty or the fervent belief that the man she knew couldn’t be a professional killer.

The rest of the film’s cast similarly feels like they’re along for the ride. CIA chiefs Ward Abbott and Alexander Conklin have actors with the gravitas to carry their written counterparts (Brian Cox and Chris Cooper respectively), but the characters they play resemble the initial versions in name only – no history, no personality traits, no allegiances. Clive Owen, though his role as the top agent hunting Bourne does not come from the book, earns an honorable mention as his cold professionalism occasionally has some inklings of the gold-spectacled assassin who is Bourne’s adversary in the early chapters.

I haven’t yet mentioned either of the sequels to “The Bourne Identity” in this review in either of their incarnations, and there’s a reason for that. When I later went to see the “The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Bourne Ultimatum” I went in expecting no parallels to the books – no traces of Bourne hunting an imposter in China or final confrontation with Carlos – and as a consequence I feel I enjoyed those films more than the original. They are adaptations in title only, continuing the story of the Bourne character that the films created rather than the book’s version, and are much easier to appreciate when that consideration is taken.

And taking that consideration with the original film, I am not going to dispute that “The Bourne Identity” is also a good movie. As a straightforward action film it’s well-constructed and well-cast, and the elements it does take from the book allow it to be a cut above much of the genre. It had the right idea in not copying the original scene by scene, but it simply went too far in what it cut out, and in doing so kept a satisfying film from being a deep and effective story. In both stories, Bourne gradually fights his way back to his memories – but it’s the book that makes for a more memorable experience.


Back Shelf Review: The Wrestler’s Cruel Study

October 4, 2010

The Wrestler’s Cruel Study

By Stephen Dobyns

Published February 17, 1995

W. W. Norton & Company

432 pp

ISBN 0-393-31212-7

Reviewed September 29, 2010

If you ever go to see a wrestling match, it’s a fairly safe bet that you’re not going in with the belief that you’re going to see a serious athletic contest. Between the outlandish behavior of the participants, the vivid presentation of the ring as a stage and the exaggerated drama of the feuds that evolve between combatants, the image of the sport is geared towards providing a performance rather than any sort of resolution. It’s a long-standing conception that most professional wrestling is fake, the course of each match scripted body slam by body slam for the sake of turning up the cheers.

But is it all entertainment, or when we see two wrestlers grappling at each other are we seeing some form of Socratic dialogue? This concept is just one of many that Stephen Dobyns runs away in “The Wrestler’s Cruel Study,” a novel almost dizzying in how many genres and ideas it manages to cram between its covers. It’s almost impossible to put the title under one category: philosophy meeting pulp novel, a epic poem as enacted by volunteer theater, a book that might win and lose readers in equal measure but is like nothing else on the shelves.

Set in New York, the action is centered on Michael Marmaduke, a muscular blonde Adonis with a gentle heart – a heart unknown to the legion of wrestling fans who known him by his stage name of Marduk the Magnificent, reenacting the battles of ancient Babylon under the roof of Madison Square Garden. When his fiancee Rose White goes missing, Michael sets out to find her in a quest that leads him to get involved with a multitude of street gangs and religious cults (or some combination of the two) and grow to confront how much of himself he’d have to give up to become a real hero.

The plot presents itself as the typical hero-rescues-damsel scenario, but there is not a single thing that is typical about this novel. From the beginning scene where Rose is abducted from her apartment by two gorillas – one of whom is wearing a Walkman – it twists and turns its way through a variety of different sideplots and characters. Marmaduke finds himself traveling under the city in search of clues, battling ex-wrestlers who have so blurred the lines between their personas and themselves that they’ve nearly become animals. The detectives investigating Rose’s disappearance are the worst of partners, unable to stand the other man for a second, and yet the longer they’re partnered the more they resemble each other. A homeless man named Beetle mumbles a Greek mythology-shaded story that no one wants to listen to – when they’re not busy with their daily lives of hunting aquavit or begging or new apartments, they’re preoccupied with the whereabouts of an angel- and demon-headed golden coin.

Much as the book is full of random details, it’s also packed with various influences and homages to other styles of literature. Marmaduke’s quest has something of the air of a picaresque novel, if the roguish hero of that novel spent all his time trying very hard not to offend. The vignettes of its supporting cast make up an urban comedy in the vein of John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces” or Gilbert Sorrentino’s “Crystal Vision,” but it also has the exaggerated sensibilities of a comic book and the hard-broiled air of a dime-store detective novel.. Such a use of elements sounds unfocused on paper, but “Cruel Study” thrives on this mix because it never gives itself too heavily to one – whenever the book seems to slide into wackiness, a philosophical discussion adds an extra layer.

And thanks to its language, the layers of narrative manage to avoid collapsing on each other. Dobyns, who has written several books of poetry, infuses the prose of “Cruel Study” with an experimental, almost joyful spirit. Written in present tense the book’s language regularly feels as if the writer is addressing the reader directly, both leading the reader along the story’s path and regularly stopping to ask them why a character is pursuing this course of action. For example, take this view on Marmaduke’s character midway through his quest:

“For twenty-five years his life was a simple as a ball rolling down a hill. He had brains he never used, emotions he never explored. If vanilla was his favorite flavor, it was because no one had offered him tutti-frutti. One should feel sorry for those even-tempered people for whom puberty is no more than a mild merry-go-round ride. Their lives are as smooth as Nebraska. Instead of burning with a hard and gemlike flame, they simmer like a bowl of Cream of Wheat. But even to them something can happen – a child can die, a loved one can be taken away – and they change. ‘He became a different person,’ we hear people say. But has he intrinsically changed or has he dredged up something from his own unexplored potential?”

This passage also gets to the book’s central questions of duality and identity, a debate further accentuated by periodic first-person chapters ascribed to Primus Muldoon, Marmaduke’s trainer who spouts Nietzsche quotes and the philosophy of man’s “Gimmick” from underneath a mustache that would put a pushbroom to shame. Muldoon sees the persona of the wrestler – their “Gimmick” – as simply a more overstated version of the Gimmicks everyone carries in their lives, and waxes poetic on how you can peel away a man’s layers of Gimmicks like an onion. These sections are even more stylized than others, but work because they’re presented as coming from such a pompous character.

So do all these elements make “The Wrestler’s Cruel Study” a good book? Well, it’s certainly a unique one – the characters mostly distance themselves from conventional fiction archetypes and the philosophies are pleasantly varied – but it’s also a book that will likely alienate as many readers as it attracts. The stylized nature of the writing might strike one reader as too florid and distracting, while another will admire the interplay of wording. And characters like Marmaduke or Muldoon, presented in such a larger-than-life manner, could be reasonably interpreted as cartoonish and narrowly defined.

But really, that seems appropriate for the kind of book “The Wrestler’s Cruel Study” is – a book that centers on duality and questions of identity isn’t designed to please everyone who reads it. As much as it defies classification, it also defies a thumbs up or thumbs down rating, and one that will speak more to the personal tastes of a reader. But it is without question a book that deserves to be tasted, as colorful as an top-billed wrestling match and as varied as a Philosophy 101 reading list.

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