Sunday, May 01, 2022

The Fu Manchu of Our Lives

 I am reading The Insidious Fu Manchu by Sax Rohmer. I have read several Fu Manchu stories over the years. I think. Rohmer wrote many books about this nefarious Oriental’s clash against Sir Denis Nayland Smith and all that is good. It doesn’t matter what title you select, tho, the books are all the same.

Racism shows thick in these stories. They express a solid, nay impenetrable, demarcation between races, and a surety that races exist in so clear cut and confining fashion, that I find obnoxious in their bland acceptance. And it is all wholly instituted by a lack of inwit. The contractual racism of good British life somehow fulfills the otherwise squalid meanness of colonial empire.

Fu Manchu’s aim never comes clear to me. Sure, world domination, like any good master criminal desires, but specifically what that entails never fully forms for me. Years ago while misspending my youth, a wrestling body featured a narrative concerning The Fourth Reich. The beat of this was that a goose stepping German wrestler and his cronies would conquer the wrestling entity (not one belonging to Vince McMahon). Having accomplished that, the free world would be a piece of cake. Against this dismal prospect stood some All American boy, I don’t remember who. Hooray for our side. Professional wrestling has played that key to a fare thee well, stoking the unexamined fears. Rohmer, I expect, merely saw readership nodding at the implicit horror of Other.

I read past the racism because in the end the stories propel themselves with nervy excitement. If any prose bristles, Rohmer’s does, mystery and foreboding on every page. His language sizzles.

Rohmer takes the tales of Sherlock Holmes exactingly as model. The relentlessly focused hero and his down to earth sidekick meet mystery and danger at every turn. Nayland Smith is far more bumbling than Holmes, however. In the end he never seems to defeat the insidious Doctor. Instead some Deus ex happenstance thwarts the evil one this time

Tho more upright and ascetic, Sir Denis Nayland Smith resembles James Bond, a dedicated functionary of the colonial machine. He evokes a Britain of caretakers thoughtlessly fulfilling the white man’s burden. The instinct to lift the primitive toward that creamy excellence called Civilization constitutes the soothing narrative implicit in all actions in these stories. 

The stories routinely begin with Nayland Smith breathlessly arriving at his friend Dr Petrie’s place fresh from some barely explained trouble in Burma. The name Burma itself oozes with danger and mystery. Always Smith is pursued by the lascars and dacoits that serve as minions of the Evil One. Lascars are sailors from Southeast Asia, and dacoits are bandits from the same region. Rohmer—real name Arthur Ward—makes them seem like mongrel races, certainly not the stuff of Eton. They are red shirts in the service of evil.

As this novel begins, Smith anxiously attempts to protect Sir Hyphen-Hyphen, Assistant Minister of Something About the Orient, from the fell plans of the acknowledged Master of the Yellow Menace. Alas, Smith is too late. The fiend has managed to kill this august personage, right under Smith’s nose.

Despite acknowledgement as a genius, DrFu Manchu’s methods always seem convoluted. The initial murder in this tale provides illustration. While the victim works in his study, a dacoit climbs onto the roof and lowers a deadly centipede down the chimney into the study. I may have the details skewed because the rush of prose causes my reading eyes to race ahead. But how to get this centipede to attack? Why, first send the soon to be victim a missive with a special scent infused in the paper. This inexorably draws the deadly centipede to Sir Hyphen-Hyphen, and Sir Hyphen-Hyphen to Death’s fell clutches. Conan Doyle has worked similar magic but perhaps never so outrĂ©.

In the Holmes stories, Dr Watson mostly serves as narrator. He may pull out his pistol but Holmes is the show. Dr Petrie does that but more. He is dazzled, and I mean dazzled, by Fu Manchu’s daughter. She shows up early on as branded Woman of Mystery. Petrie is smitten. Rohmer tempers not his adjectives in warmly describing her effect on Petrie. And the feeling is mutual. This provides narrative tension because her dad, you know, a confirmed murdering maniac. Also, he is Oriental. 

The two meet cute in this story but I am pretty sure they’ve met cute in other stories. They eventually marry in one of the books but I don’t think dad walked her down the aisle.

The Thames oddly plays a vivid role in these stories. Fu Manchu chooses riverside opium dens for his hangouts. Which makes sense what with all the shipping bringing new shipments of lascars and dacoits to do his bidding. In this story, the boys confront the evil genius in the comforting dampness of his den. Petrie leads the rush but the Doctor releases a trap door and Petrie like to drown. Sir Denis could not quite reach him. Is it up for Petrie? A chinamen that had been in the den removes pigtail and mask. It is Fu Manchu’s daughter. She gives the queue to Sir Denis, who pulls Petrie to safety, then disappears into the sinister night. Whew! More narrative will surely follow.

Rohmer expends some prime prose describing the river’s beauty and threat. In the end, tho, the lurking presence of the evil green-eyed doctor remains. It is the fear of fear, a fear that we all know.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Some Flann O’Brien

 I’ve read three novels by Flann O’Brien, each multiple times. At Swim Two Birds shows an extravagant imagination, as well as the influence of James Joyce. I shall read it once again. It is a power of writing but almost too much so.

The Dalkey Archives nearly seems ordinary compared to its mates. It is fun and silly and surely shows O’Brien’s gift. Maybe he has tempered his wildness for readership’s sake. 

The Third Policeman never met publication in his lifetime. Possibly Dalkey tried to answer that. I find The Third Policeman brims with wonders. It is dark, extravagant, humourous, eerie, strange, folksy, and furtherly described by adjectives, including unsettling, and more. O’Brien presents some wild ideas. One such is the Atomic Theoryin which it is explained how people can become bicycles by the trading of molecules during bumptious rides. I don’t read with scholarly might but I enjoy the breadth and wonder of singular works. Those are the sort that O’Brien wrote. He should be read breathlessly.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

The Idiot by F. Dostoevsky


I am reading *The Idiot* by Dostoevsky. Doing so on a tablet, I didn’t grasp how long it is. That I remain vague about the book’s length disconcerts me. That the pagination changes according to the orientation of the tablet leaves me a trifle wobbly. That the novel is part of a collection of D’s work leaves me unsure where I am. However, read I do.

I have read and appreciated *Crime and Punishment *. *The Brother Karamazov * is another matter, having thwarted me twice so far. I never caught a sense of its trail so the collection of irritated characters just kind of stand there for me. I feel similarly about the characters in *The Idiot* but at least I perceive plot machination or manifestations. The prince and Natasha will dance somehow, and maybe Aglaya.

I am less than keen about characters as directed forces. I see a molecular way the characters bounce against each that creates the plot. The random acts create intention. Acts and consequences will happen in the next—good lord!—several (I think) thousand of pages left. I wouldn’t bother reading on but that Dostoevsky makes the effort worthy. At least to the degree that he has a keen eye and an unexpected sly humour. You can wish me luck in this endeavor, I may not be equal to the effort needed. I still have a bio of Rasputin to return to.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Clash of the Titans, the Movie and the reproach

 This past summer I watched both versions of the movie Clash of the Titans. The movies follow the adventures of Perseus, famous Greek hero. Unsurprisingly, the plot is the same with both movies, save the city, save the girl. A considerable difference in storytelling stands between the two efforts. One notes the dramatic technological change in movie making between the one made in 1981 and the one made in 2010. Movies don’t seem to age well. Not just technologically, either. One becomes aware of attitudes and mores of the older era. Still, a common thread runs thru the two movies, heroic quest.

As a title, “Clash of the Titans” sounds good. Really, tho, it should be Clash of the Gods. The Olympians were the generation following the Titans, tho sometimes gathered under the Titan name. The battles of Cronus, Saturn, and the rest, that was the real Clash of Titans. It would be a good movie if someone tried. Avengers End Game almost does that job, but the life of the franchises powered that too much. Even the Apocalypse needs a sequel. But anyway.

The older version of Clash should have been a doozy with hero and quest. The trials of Perseus offer cinema-ready action, and special effects were by Ray Harryhausen. Harryhausen created the skeleton warriors, animate bronze statue, harpies, and the other monstrous threats that Jason battled in Jason and the Argonauts. That all mesmerized a certain adolescent, the perfect adventure movie. Clash 81 proved a tepid affair, however.

Harry Hamlin plays the lead role, Perseus, the hero. I know he starred in that popular lawyer show sometime after, but I have no more than that. I suspect that the director or producer chose him mostly for his yum factor. Unfortunately, dreamy eyes and hairless chest don’t provide enough zing for playing the Number Two Hero of Greek myths behind Hercules. Thru out the movie his quest seems merely like something to do till he can get to a club. I vaguely recall that he and the older but by no means creaky Ursula Andress became a Hollywood item. Forty years, I could be wrong about this exciting tidbit, but it does provide a meta look at Hollywood’s own Olympian playground.

The director had no interest in delivering what the Jason movie had in abundance: eye-popping action. Instead, it seems more like a drab philosophical inquiry about the world. I mean, he’s got Sir Laurence Effing Olivier as Zeus but the whole Olympus thing looks half-hearted and merely cheesy. The hero should be energized by his quest but instead strolls about his business. In the meantime, Olivier, Claire Bloom, and the aforementioned Ursula Andress all pick up checks for a few hours in a smoky studio. As gods, they just stand there. Now there is some strong commentary. No hint of the exaggerated egos of the immortals we know from the tales. They merely look uncomfortable waiting for the director to tell them what to do. The director, the real god here, doesn’t know. The pleading rashness of the gods has been set aside. They function as deus ex machina in drapes. Timeless mannikins. 

Meanwhile Perseus listlessly wanders into a few temperate battles against monsters and whatnot. His legion of red shirts, unnoticed by the gods, pass forgetably into oblivion, just like the middle class. At least Perseus scores the big payday as hero. He’ll be good-looking forever.

In contrast to the low-intensity aerobics of Clash 81, Clash 2010 embraces a vigorous sense of pesty gods, loud as rock stars. First we get some back story. Baby Perseus has been set adrift on the sea with his mother because the king her husband did not father the child. The child survives but mom does not. A kindly fisherman finds and adopts the child. The child becomes the short-haired and rugged star of the show. This Perseus is oddly muted. He has spirit but internalizes it. When he is grown to manhood the gods war against a city of uppity people. As collateral damage, the fisherman and his family, except Perseus, get killed. The smell of vengeance rises.

Visually, this movie is already way ahead of Clash 81. A god, a freakin’ god, bursts directly out of the sky. If that don’t make you jump... Well that’s Hades, pissed. Ray Fiennes plays him as if he was never satisfied with any of Shakespeare’s villains. Angry and mighty, yet with a touch of snivvel, Hades got some character attributes, as he wars against Zeus.

Perseus commits to being his own man. He learns that Zeus is his father but Perseus turns away from the god side of his nature. It’s like Jesus saying he’ll just remain a carpenter. Perseus ends up getting cajoled into his hero quest. As played by Sam Worthington, Perseus is grim and humourless. He gathers a much more lively crew than Harry Hamlin did. The crew that joined Perseus in the earlier Clash seem like those who gathered around cocaine lines at Studio 54. I mean, whatever!

2010 bobs along as a quest. Perseus reconciles with dad, played with vocal reverberation by Liam Neeson. The Hero loses most of his mates along the way, but the two funny, blundering guys survive. This is religion, right there.

Weirdly, we just don’t think about the things we think about. In 81, Perseus receives the various aids in his quest as needed. It resembles a scavenger hunt for him. The helmet of invisibility, the flying horse, the shiny shield all come serendipitously to him expressly to be useful. In 2010, I do not think he gets a helmet, and the shiny shield is just laying around and he sees a use. Zeus does give him something or other, I forget what, which helps bring victory. This gift is more a token of their reconciliation than help of the gods.

In myths, the heroes seem less self-motivated than just following the only path before them. You’ll need a helmet of invisibility, Perseus, someone says, and so he has the useful tool for moving on. Presently, heroes everywhere challenge the world with their belief or denial of the pandemic. In each case, the hero becomes firm to the point of combative to follow their belief. Yesterday at the store a man agreed with someone that the pandemic is nothing to worry about. “It’s bullshit,” he said. His 97 year old mother will be fine when the family gathers for Thanksgiving. Yes, and Perseus knows Medusa can be defeated, the sea monster can be defeated, the gods can be defeated. Confidence wins the day. The proof is in the movie. Even listless Harry Hamlin can beat the gods just by doing what someone tells him.

One feels satisfaction when the hero wins. The path has been followed, the quest finished. What follows the adventure may be diminishment. Jason and the Argonauts ends with Jason and Medea smooching, but the gods know there’s some hot material for the Greek playwrights as the love match progresses.

Clash 81 proved hard to follow because nothing in the quest seemed to matter, and Harry Hamlin is too good looking to die. Clash 2010 provides the tension and the zesty visuals to soothe the need for hearty heroics but ends with something akin to Field of Dreams dad hugs. Hollywood the God of Gods exerts control.

When Donald Trump became an actual candidate, let alone President of the United States, I despaired. He rode into all this on a flying horse called Bullshit. The rumble of his self-aggrandizing swagger sounded heroic to way too many people. The fat gaudiness of his image resonated in a populous way. He became a monstrance of hope for certain disenchanted people. Their disenchantment is real but his mission was never. A hero is the deed itself, not the bragging puffery. Trump exploited the urge and need that kept the tales of such as Perseus alive even now. Both movies are cheesy because Hollywood cannot do otherwise, but they still bespeak a human need for heroic endeavor. Trump just twisted that, and the gods just laugh.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Beyond the Pandemic a Bit

 A customer wished to redeem a handful of cans. I told him we cannot accept those of his that we don’t sell. He asked with dismay, “When will things be normal again?” I replied perhaps too vigouroudly: “Normal doesn’t exist anymore.” Seven months into the pandemic and we are still working on that.

The customer assumed this change in our procedure owed to the pandemic, as so much has these past months. In fact, beverage distributors have simply become more rigorous about what they’ll receive from us. Blaming the pandemic for the change proves easy enough, tho. A persistent narrative concerns how much we all have lost because of the virus.

I need not catalog that loss. Everyone has felt it. The narrative need not solely focus on the losses we have endured. We are learning along the way.

The lament about lost normalcy will remain a commonplace. Normal has changed yet we all still have things to do. A sales rep remarked recently that nearly 800 restaurants appear on the alcohol commission’s list of accounts in arrears for more than ninety days. I think twenty or less would be the typical number. A hotel association a while ago stated that ALL of Boston’s hotels face the risk of closure. One can add a touch of salt to the statement, the association wants to make a case, but obviously the pandemic offers no boon to the industry. Dominos tip in multiple directions at this time. Perhaps we can reset.

The forces unleashed by the pandemic, and I am okay with the drama of the verb, have revealed drastic weaknesses in our normal. world. We see many people and many businesses in straitened circumstances after just weeks of disruption. The economy is NOT GOOD, whatever the Wall Street soothsayers claim. Few back ups exist when things go pear-shaped. Public education, i.e. school as daycare, seems in mid-flub right now. Healthcare for this interconnected population clearly, clearly ignores the poor. The poor, according to any abacus, represent the vast majority of the population. Like such a majority could be ignored. Maybe the luxury of ignoring the problem has disappeared. 

I just today read that the University of Michigan issued a stay at home order to combat the spread of the virus. Student athletes, the money earners for the esteemed institute, stand exempt from the order. You have to believe the bottom line defines the mission to make that acception. I know some believe that we must keep the economy’s rockets firing. I get the thinking but not how such action meshes with the reality of doing so during a pandemic. The pandemic wants to win so badly.

While I believe some people really don’t accept the pandemic as serious, most do. Boredom and resistance to change seem like strong motivating factors for treating the situation as normal. We think the enemy is the virus but it is not. We have been treed by a culture of disintegration. The needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many. Humans are not isolatoes, however. We are all creatures of the same light. As such, we are empowered by our connections, not our divisions. Tear down the walls!

Monday, October 05, 2020

Masque of the Red Death Lately

 I just read “Masque of the Red Death”. I haven’t bothered to read Pandemic-themed classics (The Plague, which I read in high school anyway, or The Decameron) during our travail. I’ve read “Masque” before but a Facebook friend posted a link to it yesterday so I partook. 

The story offers little plot. Poe just paints a formidable atmosphere. Like Hawthorne, Poe sets scenes as a state of mind. And that state is of a nervous intensity. Perhaps Hawthorne shows more Puritan restraint while Poe works out of night sweats. Both have a sort of stoned fascination with morbid consequences.

As I mentioned, “Masque” presents little by way of plot. Prince Prospero has opened his castle to his thousand most intimate hangers-on as they ride out a plague. My mind’s eye uses the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in Boston to picture the scene. Once the residence of Gardener, the museum is a castle-like testament to the virtue of money transformed into courtyards, balconies, tapestries, and shadows. Poe describes the scene and the actors within it with an avid wildness of colour and detail. Think the shining nothingness of Studio 54. Poe’s story “Hop Frog” comes to mind too for its similar setting. That story has a plot, however, and the soothing delight of revenge. “Masque” simply brings Death personified into the tacky horror of Prince Prospero’s upper class playground, and Death don’t have no mercy. It is simply a consequence.

Poe’s language is lush yet lightly handled. The pulse of his heart pounds in each word. Words are not distant things to him. He knows each one he uses possesses ample charge. He was a learned but not schooled person. Last in his class at West Point, yet he often writes as if out to prove how brilliant he is. He writing is brilliant in its unsealed vigour. The vision he sees of the decrepit celebrants leaves him with eyes wide. Now slide partying college students into the picture, or avid participants at rallies, or any avoidable crush of people at the end of the world. See the child Trump enjoying his Halloween fun.

Monday, September 28, 2020

A Rushed and Indelicate Statement

The gaseous contents of the Republican soul sees no value but in ‘values’. These values carry nothing but a plutonic weight. They pretend toward a fixity that does not exist. They feature no moral compass beyond the cunning of Old Testament restriction. No doctrinal Prince of Peace provides comfort to this mindset beyond the great and welcoming Hell they envision for others.

The present administration shares no warmth or goal for the people, any people. The Heaven they intend for themselves bases it’s golden number in opposition. They enjoy the right side of the binary.

I use the word Republican but these feasters exceed the idea of party. The adepts just know that the world is a thing, a thing to corner, to collect, to devour. These words feel terrible to invoke. I mean, to consider such a ghastly register as the only view of the world and thus yourself. At some point we turn away, because we are alive. Alive just to autumn’s changes, wind in trees, abundance and sustenance in the mycorrizhal Earth, the mutual compact. None of your bullshit, then, this election year and in the world beyond.