Secret History: A Review of Lavie Tidhar’s “The Violent Century”

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I know I’m a good writer. I’m also long-resigned to the truth that I’ll never be a great writer. Whatever literary merit my pulpy seriocomic adventure stories contain is largely the byproduct of having ingested enough canonically “great” literature that nanoscopic slivers of same will occasionally, mostly accidentally, sneak in between the many overwrought adjectives and adverbs of my purplish prose. Let me put it this way: if Stephen King is the self-described “Big Mac and fries of American literature,” I’m more like that slightly seedy neighborhood taco truck that a lot of people would avoid just on general appearance, but that an adventurous few would stumble across and consider a secret treasure.

For literary classicists and cultural gatekeepers, even in this enlightened postmodern age, it’s probably still hard to convince the bulk of them that any story containing superpowered people with offbeat costumes and absurd codenames could even aspire to literary merit. Sure, a few have tried, most notably Jonathan Lethem with his well-regarded Fortress of Solitudebut even Michael Chabon didn’t dare let Kavalier & Clay’s fictitious comic book creation, the Escapist, out into the real-world pages of his sprawling tale.

So kudos to Lavie Tidhar, who threw down the gauntlet when he published The Violent Century in early 2015. This is a swing-for-the-fences attempt at Big Idea literature double-wrapped in pulp genre, equal parts John Le Carre Cold War spy novel, Don Delillo-ish examination of cultural and political mores across the whole of the 20th century, and a healthy dose of Ed Brubaker’s The Marvels Project for good measure. Tidhar’s novel, as he describes it, is not alternate but “parallel” history, a world where powered Ubermenschen fought and spied alongside us through the major conflicts of the 20th century starting with World War II. But where a book like Watchmen shows us how the presence of supers drastically rewrites the landscape, technology and political climate of our world, Tidhars ubers have surprisingly little effect on the outcome, and reality more or less remains on track.

One of the dead giveaways that this book is taking itself, its themes, and even its supers seriously is evident the moment you start reading. Tidhar makes an unusual, at times confounding stylistic choice, to not set dialogue in quotation marks, or even break his paragraphs in a normal way. It’s easy enough to pick up on what he’s doing and mostly the story flows regardless, but at times it left me rereading a line once or twice to correctly assess who, if anyone, is speaking, and what sentence or clause is internal monologue or authorial voice. The motive for this mostly seems, to me, to be to set the book apart from a more straightforward novel, as if using a more conventional approach would render his story no more than airport newsstand fodder, Tom Clancy with caped crusaders. Whether or not this is the case, this kind of experimental gameplay with the “rules” of writing is a frequent tic of those with higher literary aspirations.

More than anything, Century is an espionage tale, not quite a thriller, but full of intrigue and betrayal and bait-and-switch, questionable moral decisions made in the service of a “greater good” or just pure self-interest. There are cloak-and-dagger field operatives, a handler known only as The Old Man whose motives are as questionable as his ethics, a damsel-in-need-saving, friends that turn enemy and vice versa, and some potentially colorful supporting and side characters, not to mention Russian, British and American superheroes and, most thrillingly, a Nazi werewolf and a Jewish vampire facing off in the Carpathian mountains of Transylvania. At times it’s exactly as entertaining as it sounds. At other times, it feels like a bit less self-seriousness could be taken with these big wild pulpy ideas.

While the novel is definitely an easily digestible page turner, with short chapters allowing for small bites until you can’t believe you ate the whole thing, and Tidhar’s prose is often quite lovely, the storytelling comes up short in the characters. The main protagonist is a former British intelligence officer/Ubermensch who goes by the name of Fogg (because he can control mists and clouds and such, y’see), and while we spend ample time with him and in his head, he never fully comes alive as a fleshed-out human being. His onetime partner, Oblivion (who can makes things vanish with a touch of his hands), gets even shorter shrift, and disappears for long stretches, as do most of the supporting characters. There’s a love story between Fogg and a young woman who might be the most powerful of all, but she is so thinly conceived and characterized it’s difficult to connect with the supposed depth of his feelings for her.

Likewise, Tidhar sprinkles in fascinating real-life historical figures like a young Alan Turing or Wernher von Braun, but doesn’t give them anything to do. I mean, if you’re going to drag as fascinating a 20th century figure as Turing into your story, at least give him one juicy moment that either propels the plot or sticks in the mind. The characterizations are so surface level, the book often reads more as pure allegory than gripping, globe-and-time-spanning epic. Which is fine, if you like allegory. Maybe I’m just too meat-and-potatoes when it comes to the narratives I’m drawn to, but the bulk of what I read, watch (and write) draws me in with a focus on well-written characters. A terrific premise and clever plot mechanics are all well and good, but I need a character I can hang my hat on while I take the ride. And while I don’t shy away from “challenging” reading, this isn’t that. It’s a pretty simple, possibly even flimsy tale that uses its genre trappings like curious adornments.

I’m still not entirely sure what Tidhar’s superpeople were meant to represent within this semi-conventional spy story framework. I think a deeper dive into their inner lives, and richer details in their relationships could have really helped. There’s an opaqueness to both motivation and action that left me wondering if I was missing something deeper, or applying profundity where it didn’t entirely exist. Case in point: despite their awesome elemental powers, characters frequently use guns, which makes sense against the backdrop of war and its aftermath, but also seemed to undercut both their abilities and the potential of the sparse action sequences. At one point, when using his eradication powers would seem to be the perfect solution, Oblivion instead chooses to strangle a man to death and dump his body. I was hoping there was significance to the choice, but in context it just seemed as if the author forgot his character could do that.

This probably all sounds more critical than it should. I enjoyed reading this (and might have enjoyed it as a graphic novel even more so), and honestly I don’t think I could even attempt what Tidhar has aimed for here. If I tried to render HandCannon a metaphor for male violence or the lingering damage of PTSD or anything much more profound than an aging enhanced thug with a redemption arc, I’d either get lost up my own ass or suffer failure-related panic attacks. So again, my hat is off to Tidhar for letting his Big Ideas share space with cleverly conceived super-powered do-gooders and do-badders. I just wish it was a little clearer in the end what the Big Ideas really were. While there’s a compelling, well-crafted story here, it’s a little bit like dining on $25 gourmet ceviche tacos and realizing you wish you’d just gone to the truck.

 

 

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Luke Cage’s symbol of justice

luke-cage-bulletproofCaptain America has his shield. Thor’s got his hammer. Iron Man’s got his full-body armor. Not just weapons that they wield, but iconic symbols of their mythic power. At first glance, all Luke Cage seems to have is superhuman strength, bulletproof skin, and some pretty cool street clothes. And while some purist naysayers may not agree, I have to say he looks a lot tighter in his chosen garb than if he was wearing, oh, this:

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But as the new Netflix series bearing his name proceeds, it becomes fairly obvious that while Cage doesn’t have red leather fetish gear like fellow New Yorker Daredevil, he does have an iconic costume of sorts–he just has to change it more often than even MCU Cap changes his. Luke’s armor may be his own black flesh (as powerful a metaphor today as when he was created in 1972), but his symbol of justice, as potent as Cap’s red-white-and-blue, as memorable as green skin or a spider logo, is his bullet-riddled sweatshirt. TINY SPOILER AHEAD: This becomes more explicit in a kind of “I’m Spartacus” moment late in the series, but it’s clear that showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker is well aware of the mythic power of his central protagonist as well as the imagery with which he’s chosen to adorn him.

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I don’t go need to go into too much real-world detail to explain the sociopolitical ramifications of that aesthetic choice. It’s not subtle, nor is it intended to be. The imagery of superhero comic book mythology is rarely subtle, and for all its nods to gritty street level realism, Marvel’s blaxploitation-savvy, issues-tweaking Luke Cage engages just as equally, and as crowd-pleasingly, with the immersive comic book multiverse from which it sprung. Case in point, during Luke’s origin story, Coker and company conspire to let us see Luke in this snazzy get-up:

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As in Daredevil and Jessica Jonesreferences to the MCU abound, from a corner kid selling DVDs that feature footage of the “incident” where aliens invaded New York in The Avengers, to villain Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes quite accurately calling out the stoic, righteous, cursing-averse Cage as “Harlem’s Captain America.” Dependent on the viewer, these occasional nods both large and small to the hyperfantastic “world outside your window” in which these stories take place may render their Bigger Ideas cheap and facile, and it may seem that Marvel’s adult-oriented Netflix shows are scratching at the surface of bigger social issues and ills as a way to borrow a deeper relevance than they earn. And it’s a fair argument, for sure. On the other hand, if these stories are functioning as a synthesis of pop art and cultural myth, isn’t it better that they stretch to imbue the narrative with some meaning, even if the reach at time exceeds their grasp?

For better or for worse, the Netflix shows are the equivalent of Marvel’s more challenging and engaging slate of comics, like G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. MarvelDennis Hopeless’ Spider-Woman, and Tom King’s Visionwhere creators are given a long leash to play in the Marvel sandbox and craft smart, compelling stories with relatable leads (in spite of their preposterous abilities) that reflect a bit of the real world and the way we live in it back at us. And they’re expanding the playground in a way the movies haven’t managed or even attempted yet, giving us a strong female lead confronting issues of abuse and disempowerment in Jessica Jones, and a nigh-unbreakable black protagonist who’s equal parts badass streetsmart John Shaft and steel-skinned Boy Scout Clark Kent. And in both cases, they’ve gone outside the white male box and hired showrunners (Melissa Rosenberg for Jones, Coker for Cage) with a uniquely qualified perspective on the issues they’ve chosen to address head-on. In a world brimming over with mainstream pop entertainment that often scrupulously avoids coming to terms with anything that might make us pop a social blister, there’s something refreshing, if not downright heroic, about that.

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When it comes down to it, the only downside I see in having a bulletproof sweatshirt as your icon is that it’s much harder to print on a t-shirt. Though I wouldn’t mind owning one of those hoodies.