Some books suck ass and are completely worthless. This book is even worse. Parts of it are good.
Garbage is something I can deal with. Garbage mixed into fine cordon bleu is another. Cows has a good idea, and it’s written well. Unfortunately, it’s charley-horsed at every step by its own identity: it’s a transgressive fiction book full of extreme gore and sex. This book doesn’t need extreme gore and sex. It would have been better off without it.
It entails a young man (with a dysfunctional home life) who gets a job slaughtering cows at an abattoir, and how that job begins to warp his mind. His meathook-inspired self-actualization is simple. At home, he’s a downtrodden worm. At work, he has the power of a Biblical god over an endless procession of animals. But he’s the same man he was at home, so why doesn’t he bring Muhammad to the mountains, as it were?
Cows is never more powerful and unsettling than in quiet scenes of the main character watching TV, dreaming of a better life. Cows is never so cartoonish and boring in its scenes of the protagonist shitting into his mother’s mouth and raping cow carcasses. The shock value soon stops being shocking, like a ten gallon drum of sugar will soon stop tasting sweet. Cows soon sickens into something annoying and even a bit comedic, like a Paul Jennings book for the William S Burroughs crowd.
Starting halfway through, Cows starts going off into various surrealistic directions, which damages the plot integrity still more. Cows works fine when it plays things straight. Talking animals, however, queer the pitch.
Cows illustrates an interesting fact about transgressive fiction: it is hard to get right. For a book of this kind to succeed, it needs something extra…whether that something is a sharp poetic edge (Aldapuerta’s The Eyes, Havoc’s White Skull, or Guyotat’s Eden Eden Eden), an umbilicus to reality that denies the reader the safe distance of fantasy (Peter Sotos’s books), or satire and social commentary of some sort (American Psycho, some Palahniuk things I suppose).
I think Stokoe was going the satire route (parts of the book read a little like Fight Club), but the outrageous OTTness is the least successful thing about it, and tends to spoil the more subtle and textured parts of the book. The result is something like a dark Chopin movement drowned out by random blasts of white noise. There’s moments of genuine depth juxtaposed by ridiculous scenes where not just a single bull is crashing through a china shop but a whole herd of them.
Cows never delivers on its potential…but it never disavows its potential, either. Parts of the book are effective. The character’s sense of alienation is real. Cows could have been great if Stokoe had been satisfied with something milder, but he piles on tired “transgressive” stuff as if he has a quota to meet, and the result is a corresponding disappointment. It’s a shame to see a book ignoring its own strengths.
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Mark Twain once made a funny joke about “idiot member of Congress” being a tautology. I could make a joke about “Aerosmith comeback album” being another tautology. It wouldn’t be funny, though. The joke has been going on for thirty six years, and repetition is the enemy of humour.
Basically, Aerosmith cut some albums in the mid seventies and have spent the next four decades trying to escape their shadow. Nearly every Aerosmith album since Rocks has been considered a comeback effort by someone, somewhere…each comebackier than the last, and each more easily forgotten by the time the next one rolls around. The band has been unable to make lightning strike twice, with their output ranging from okay (Draw the Line), to uninspiring (Done with Mirrors) to revolting (I do want to miss a thing…that hellish song…).
To be fair, they managed a fairly legit comeback with Pump, which had the scorching “F.I.N.E.” and “Janie’s Got a Gun”, a song that even people that hate this band often like. But given their track record, does Aerosmith really have the air (aer?) of a rock and roll legend? Honestly, they seem more like a decent band that sometimes gets lucky.
Music from another Dimension is AC/DC’s Black Ice all over again. It’s clearly written by the same band that once put out classics, and it’s clearly not destined to join them. “Love XXX” sports a catchy main riff but doesn’t really go anywhere. “Legendary Child” has Perry reaching into his bag of tricks and coming out with an interesting harmonised lick. This song sounds greasy and driving and would have made good filler on Toys in the Attic.
“Street Jesus” is good – fast and furious, like “Rats in the Cellar”. The only thing that hurts it is the clean and slick production. Aerosmith’s music used to sound hard enough to cut a De Beers diamond, not nice and inoffensive. This is music that bows and scrapes and asks “Please sir, may I have permission to rock?” “Something” is a weird and sprawling thing redolent of Magic Mystery Tour-era Beatles.
By “Up on the Mountain” we’re on to the blatant idea recycling, with the band writing “Love XXX” all over again as if they’d forgotten that they’d already recorded that one. “Lover Alot” is silly fast rock with none of the old Aerosmith bite. Unfortunately, the band doesn’t restrain itself to “boring”, some songs here are actually repulsive. “Beautiful” has some brash swagger mixed with a godawful annoying chorus that sounds like Creed gone even more wrong. “We All Fall Down” is a slow dance piano ballad written by that chick who wrote “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”…good, just what Aerosmith fans want to hear.
That they’re still coasting on Rocks’ glory thirty seven years later is a favourable comment on the quality of their early albums. Will those days ever be revisited? I will never say never, but it hasn’t happened here. Forget writing the anthems of an age. Aerosmith is struggling to write the anthems of the next five minutes.
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Last year I read something online called “Ted’s Caving Page”. It was a short story about a spelunker exploring a cave, and I found it very, very frightening. Partly because of the story, but also because of how it was presented. It was long, unedited, and written in an rambly hands-in-overall-pockets style that took me off-guard. It was (deliberately?) amateurish, but that made it seem real.
If Ted’s Caving Page had come in a shiny new paperback with “CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED” on the front cover and “‘THE GREATEST SCARY STORY IN 10 YEARS … WOW’ – Ramsey Campbell” on the back…I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much, or so I suspect. It would have seemed crude, primitive, unworthy of its heraldry. And yet, hosted on a cheap Angelfire site, the story worked. It was a success not because of what it was but because of how it was. It’s popular to pretend that art is self-contained and is not affected by anything outside itself. In truth, art can be enhanced or destroyed by nothing more than its packaging.
House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski compares to Ted’s Caving Page in a number of ways, but foremost is that the presentation is an enmeshed part of the story. It is a story-in-a-story about a man who, apartment-hunting, finds an abandoned manuscript about a very odd house. The house is the real story, but it’s one we’re told in between periods of commentary from our narrator. He talks about his love life, and his mother, and the darkness that seems to be gathering about him with each waking moment.
The manuscript is about a man called Navidson, who owns a peculiar house. Its walls, measured from inside, have a greater perimeter than when measured from outside. Rooms appear and disappear. Soon, a vast chamber appears, and Navidson begins to explore and document it using an Arriflex camera. At the beginning, the house seems like a metaphor for Navidson’s madness, but soon others are capture. If the house is nothing but a noumena of Navidson, then he is a danger to everyone around him, most of all his wife and children.
The narrator is unreliable. The book is unreliable. Some pages have only a single word. Some of them must be read by holding the book up to a mirror. There are scholarly references to various real and fictional articles, and there are fake (but very convincing) interviews with folk such as Stephen King and Anne Rice about the nature of the document. Sometimes what you’re reading doesn’t make sense, but it works as window dressing, creating the impression that you are reading things that actually happened. Little details, like the main character’s, relationship with his mother seem simultaneously irrelevant and hugely important.
Although the story is as gripping as anything I’ve read, critical pieces of information are ambiguous or missing, even at the end. This is not a book of answers, but a book of questions. You have to work for House of Leaves‘ very occasional revelations, which makes them seem all the more worthwhile. The cryptic, byzantine nature of the book invites the reader’s exploration…rather like a certain house.
This book creates a unique and special atmosphere. It’s as structured and planned as any novel ever written, and it does seem artificial in some ways, but that makes me think of The Blair Witch Project. The first five minutes, all you can notice is the shaky camera. By the end of the movie, you’ve forgotten that things like cameras even exist.
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