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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Space Oddities, Supercreeps & Spiders From Mars

or: Everything I Know About Science Fiction Worldbuilding I Learned From David Bowiedavid-bowie

Words, even Bowie’s own strange elliptical cryptic lyrical vocabulary, will never be sufficient to describe or define the shock and loss I felt when I woke up to learn that he was gone. As so many others have said so much more eloquently, I thought you had to be human to be mortal. And more importantly, I thought that David Bowie would always be around because in my world, he always had been. Of course, not only by virtue of being born terminal but in every crucial way that counts, the man born David Jones was as human as they come. It’s just that he realized from an early age that being human also meant that we all carried a little alien DNA inside.

I admit that when I was a young suburban Texas kid seeing him for the first time singing alongside Bing Crosby on a televised Christmas special, he was a mystery to me, an out-of-place ethereal character in this old-fashioned setting, where even Bing asked him about his holiday rituals back home as if he were an off-world visitor. And a few years later, when I caught his insanely inspired performances on Saturday Night Live, with the puppet bodies and the architectural cross-dressing, singing songs about transgendered folk heroes and carnivorous TV sets, I’ll confess that my tiny young mind was a little bit afraid of the guy.

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But a few years later, now a high school student just beginning to explore the significance of being a left-leaning, freak-admiring outsider in a world of preppies, rednecks, jocks and homecoming queens, I was more than ready when my friend Jim “Seamus” Moran turned me and my friends onto the exquisitely weird musical wonders of this boundary-pushing, genre-straddling, soul-weird superstar in the years just prior to the release of “Let’s Dance.” Sure, I knew “Changes” was a great pop song and thanks to Pink Floyd I had a rough idea of what a “concept album” was, but even the brilliant navel-gazing of The Wall couldn’t prepare me for the science fiction drenched plunge into the fully realized worlds of Ziggy Stardust, Halloween Jack, Aladdin Sane, or the Thin White Duke.

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Ziggy lit my inspirational fuse from the cover image on down, opening with his blearily apocalyptic promise that the world he was living in, maybe one dimension over from our own, had just five years left to exist, and everyone on the planet had to figure out how to wrestle with that knowledge. Ziggy wouldn’t be the last time Bowie played around with the image of an alien savior quite possibly too pure for this Earth, but it would be the only time he’d really lay it out in a series of interrelated songs that were brilliantly accessible pop rock while also serving as lovingly sketched micro-short stories about a fantastic and tragic reality he seemed to be perceiving within the confines of our much more mundane one.

Around the time we were assigned to read Orwell’s bleak, despairing, joyless “1984” (in the actual year 1984 no less), I had my limited edition picture disc of “Diamond Dogs” in frequent rotation on my cheap plastic turntable. Knowing that the songs had evolved from a planned stage musical adaptation of the book, I marveled at the way he exploded my notions of dystopia with characters, settings and ideas that had more dimensions in a few lines than Orwell’s characters gained over 200-plus pages. Could the glittering Diamond Dogs even co-exist alongside the gray-faced Winston Smiths of Oceania? While Winston sat in his drab flat drinking Victory gin or stood with his co-workers for the Two-Minutes Hate, could an eye-patched punk pirate really be sliding down a rope like some swaggering vigilante from his penthouse squat atop the Chase Manhattan building?

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I sure wanted to think so. The songs became the soundtrack for the drug-fueled story ideas my friends and I concocted on long stoned wandering nights in a world that was as drab as Orwell’s even if the lawns were lush and green. They were an escape into fantasy as fully realized and satisfying as Planet of the Apes or Star Wars had been a few years earlier. More so, because there was so much left to the imagination, and ours were literally exploding with ideas. Listening to Bowie was like experiencing cyberpunk before the subgenre even existed. We wanted to take that cross-country journey with Aladdin Sane and meet a man who “looked a lot like Che Guevara” in a burned-out war-torn Detroit. We wanted to head to an anarchic New York or London to see Ziggy play live, then flee in terror across Northern Europe from the ever-looming threat of the Thin White Duke, always just one train car behind us.

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So as much as I’ve ever been moved by Bob Dylan’s next-wave hobo troubadour stylings, or Tom Waits ragged vagabond Americana, or the Rolling Stones distillation of rock star excess, no musician, no songwriter, and few other artists in general, have ever had quite so much influence on what I write, why I write it, and how it feels-and sounds-in my head when I’m trying to squeeze it out, as David Bowie.

I’m not the first one to say it, and it’s just a weak paraphrase of a quote we all read on the day, but if David Bowie wasn’t strange enough to somehow exist forever, at least he was here at all. For that I will always be grateful.