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A Scanner Darkly

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick

Officer Fred's job is to watch people and to be watched.

Fred is a police agent hunting for dealers of the highly addictive Substance D. He is also deep undercover as Bob Arctor, a small-time dealer of Substance D. Fred cannot be seen because he wears a suit that conceals his identity; Bob is being watched constantly in his home because Fred put in hidden cameras and bugged it. The police want Arctor caught so that they move up to the next highest rung on the ladder to get that much closer to the origin of Substance D.

Fred much catch himself. But who is he? One of the side effects of Substance D is it splits the left and right hemispheres of the brain into distinct entities that battle for domination of the self. Is he Fred watching himself? Or is he Fred watching Bob? Or is he himself watching Bob? In between these struggles of the self, Bob floats among his demented, drug-addled friends -- Barris, a hyperactive know-it-all; Luckman, an easygoing layabout; and Donna, his girlfriend -- while they slowly destroy themselves.

Drug use and abuse has been written about an untold number of times. However, A Scanner Darkly is not just about the drugs. (Although that is a big part of it -- the novel takes plenty of influences from Dick's own life, and in the author's note, he dedicates the book to friends of his whose lives were obliterated because they "wanted to have a good time ...") This is a drug novel dealing with many of things that predominantly interested PKD throughout his literary career -- the essence of reality, and our construction and perception of it; our perception of the self and the mind; and paranoia, dealing with who can and cannot be trusted in the world.

PKD is almost never pointed to as a master of the English language, but the more I read his writing and think about it in the context of the stories, the more I am impressed with it. He writes perfectly for what he is writing about -- his style is fluid, frantic and visceral, always on edge. When the story focuses on Arctor, thoughts pile onto the reader, splintering off in different directions and float there to be pondered. Officer Fred's sections are cold and factual until Substance D seizes his mind and erodes his grip on reality. PKD really knew how to write.

Something that definitely does not come across in my synopsis of the plot is the novel's dark humor. Arctor's associates are a bizarre bunch -- Barris always has something to say, whether it's about how to have sex with people for 98 cents or how to build a cheap silencer from ordinary household items. Luckman is like a sad dopehead in a teen movie. After a botched suicide attempt, one of Arctor's friends has a hallucination involving a many-eyed creature that reads him a list of every major and minor sin he ever committed. These are very funny, but it's strange, guilty sort of funny, as if the reader is always on the outside looking in. It's a laughter that comes without understanding.

The novel is definitely not all about laughter, though. At heart, it is a tragic story of loss of the self and reality. Substance D warps Arctor's mind; he doesn't know who he is and watches himself obsessively, not knowing he is doing so or why he is doing it. His friends disappear into themselves and betrayal; more than one is completely different than his perception of them. The biggest tragedy, however, is Arctor lives in a self-defeating system that sets him up to fail from the start. His mission is to capture himself. There is no other way it can end. He went undercover and lost himself to capture himself.

This novel is a classic of science-fiction and one of PKD's best stories (it's actually my favorite of his that I've read).

The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

The image of film noir is burned into the minds of millions because it is such a distinctive movie genre -- the look, all dark shadows and bizarre angles; the feel, tough and more likely to hit the streets than waltz with the upper crust; and the sheer energy, moving along to get through a tangled web of lies, murder, sex and corruption. But it wasn't the movies that came up with this, of course. The stories that changed the face of crime fiction the world over sprung from the minds of authors like Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler, whose character, Philip Marlowe, is practically a god of American crime fiction.

The Big Sleep starts simple, as many crime stories do. Marlowe, a private detective, is hired by General Sternwood to uncover the source of a blackmail note and to get the blackmailer off Sternwood's tail. While investigating, Marlowe discovers an entirely different racket going on -- a pornography dealership. The scheme behind this leads Marlowe down a trail littered with double- and triple-crosses and more than a few corpses.

Chandler's story is infamously complex (one murder is left unsolved because even Chandler himself didn't know who committed it), but it's about much more than the "Whodunit?" at the end. (I would actually argue that the outcome of the mystery is sort of unsatisfying.) Of much more importance is how Marlowe wades his way through the crime to its conclusion. Marlowe deals with the police, with shady criminals and with General Sternwood's two bizarre daughters, Carmen and Vivian. Reading the way the crime unfolds and how all these characters fit in with each other is much more entertaining than the actual mystery itself. Marlowe might not always solve a crime to his satisfaction, but he sure as hell knows how to investigate it.

And he does it with such style. This is the kind of writing I love -- it's direct and to the point, but the way the language is used gives it such a wonderful voice. Marlowe is a tough guy; however, he's not averse to cracking wise every now and then in a show of bravado. And, in particular moments, he just seems to go crazy for the hell of it. Marlowe's personality lives and breathes through the writing. He's written about as well as a character can be.

When people think of these pulp detective novels, one thing that comes to mind immediately is the dialogue. These people are mainly of the streets, and they have a particular way of communicating that is captured so well. The characters may not always be intelligent, but they have their special brand of wit that allows them to duel with anyone in the field of speaking. It's a way of toughening oneself up to match the hard nature of life on the streets. Nimble thinkers live longer than the slow.

Modern crime fiction owes a tremendous debt to Raymond Chandler -- The Big Sleep is a massive part of the detective novel's current template, and if you see a show with a detective satire episode, it's more than likely a few of the cliches came from Chandler's pen. This is far from a bundle of cliches, though. The pure energy exuded by the writing is something that's pretty damn special. Chandler was a gifted writer. The Big Sleep is proof of that.

Seven Seconds or Less

Seven Seconds or Less by Jack McCallum

Anyone who likes basketball probably has a soft spot for the Phoenix Suns, whether he or she's a fan of them or not. The subtitle on the cover above is a perfect description of this team -- they run mercilessly, they bomb 3-pointers all night long, and they often have the flashiest offense in the NBA. I often find myself simultaneously horrified and thrilled at the prospect of my Lakers facing the Suns in the playoffs; horrified because, when the Suns are on their game, they are capable of stomping anyone into the ground, and thrilled because they look so damn good doing it.

This book came about a couple of years ago because McCallum wanted to get an inside look at the Suns, a team whose style fascinated him to no end because it was a throwback to the NBA of the 1980s, when every team ran the court. (Not coincidentally, the '80s were by far the best for the NBA in terms of domestic popularity and overall quality of play.) What made this team tick? How did they deal with the ups and downs of the NBA season?

The 2005-06 season was a particularly dramatic one for the Suns. Early in the year, they lost one of their best players, Amare Stoudemire, for the whole year due to a knee injury that required microfracture surgery. In a decision that's actually kind of brilliant, McCallum intensifies the drama by warping past the regular season and going straight to the playoffs, where the Suns had to tough it out against some good teams throughout the postseason. I liked reading about how the coaches interacted with the players following epic wins and horrible defeats; the Suns are a laid back team, but they are nonetheless focused on winning. There is a good amount of focus on the assistant coaches, which is interesting because you never hear much from them around the NBA, unless you're watching a local sports broadcast.

In between series recaps, McCallum recalls various points in the regular season to highlight certain players so that the reader gets to know them better. It's an interesting way to construct the narrative, and it works pretty well. These little vignettes provide a nice look at how certain players got to where they were, how they approach the game, and how they help the team. Overall, the Suns come off as a likable bunch of guys, even with the occasional ego and paranoia that plagues nearly everyone on the planet. For instance, as a Laker fan, I despise Raja Bell because he is the type of player every fan finds annoying -- he plays tough defense, he hits shots when he needs to, and he does it against your team. But he actually comes across as an OK guy in the book, except when he's committing retarded flagrant fouls against Kobe Bryant.

One thing that I didn't like, though, is that the book is a little too biased toward the Suns. I can definitely understand a bit of bias -- as much as McCallum wants to remain even-handed, he spent an entire year with these guys, talking to them and sharing in their victories and defeats, so he's built relationships with them, for better or worse. However, while he's not afraid to point out their shortcomings, nearly every bit of information about opposing teams is filtered through the Suns' point of view. It seems like every time an observation is made about another team, the observation is pretty negative and made to contrast with the Suns, who are obviously a model organization. This isn't enough to make me not enjoy the book, but it does get kind of grating after a while.

This is a fun book overall. It's filled with funny stories, interesting looks behind the scenes of an NBA team, and it made me remember some good and not so good things about the 2005-06 playoffs. (How could the Lakers blow a 3-1 series lead?? How?? I will never get over this.) The book's a light read, so it's good if you just want to kick back and lose yourself in sports for a few hours.

Absent in the Spring (and other novels)

Absent in the Spring (and other novels) by Agatha Christie, writing as Mary Westmacott

My two all-time favorite authors are Haruki Murakami and Agatha Christie. While I'm always happy to sing the praises of Christie's mysteries, her non-mystery novels (originally published under a pseudonym) are arguably her best work. They've been repackaged in two collections, each of which contains three standalone novels. I read the first collection late last year and enjoyed it, but Absent in the Spring etc. left a much stronger impression on me. Every single one of the novels included in it is equally powerful, equally devastating, and reminded me just how brilliant and underrated a writer Christie is.

Absent in the Spring

A complacently well-to-do middle-aged woman gets stranded between trains on her way back to England from the Middle East. After running out of reading material and ways to amuse herself, she finds it harder and harder not to think about the uncomfortable truths that she's spent most of her adult life avoiding. Which sounds incredibly dull, right? But it's more suspenseful than most of Christie's whodunits--remarkable, considering that most of the story takes place in the protagonist's head via flashbacks.

One of Christie's greatest talents is how merciless, accurate and convincing she is when it comes to portraying characters whose conceptions of themselves go totally at odds with what they are really like. You can find examples of them in almost all her books, including the following two, but the main character of Absent in the Spring takes the grand prize as far as I'm concerned. There is an almost savage--yet disciplined--thoroughness in how Christie makes her unwittingly expose herself to the reader. Personally, I put her on suicide watch pretty early on, but the denouement Christie goes for is less sensational, and more believable for it.

Giant's Bread

Quite a few of Christie's mysteries include artist characters, usually in side roles (although she has few rivals when it comes to sketching a fully realized personality in a few plainspoken sentences). The male protagonist of Giant's Bread, however, is not just a composer but a genius, a revolutionary, the kind of person who gives meaning to the idea of being ahead of one's time. Structurally, both Giant's Bread and Yew Tree (below) are novels where the prologue gives away the end. This is a tired device, but Christie does right by it. In both cases, the structure is key and ultimately feels more active and important than a simple choice to arrange the story one way or another. And again in both cases, its full significance does not become clear until the final chapter (which is of course not the chronological endpoint)--perhaps not even until the final line.

The Rose and the Yew Tree

Christie goes some pretty dark places in her mysteries, but always with a clean, sensible, very British touch. None of her famous detectives are especially interested in Justice with a capital J. They solve mysteries because they enjoy being good at it or because they find murder distasteful. For her criminals, she favors petty motives--petty money, petty jealousy, emotions that everyone experiences once in a while, things that everyone would like to get a hold of. This book is different; it focuses on rarer kinds of passion and rage.

Unlike the other two novels in the collection, The Rose and the Yew Tree has a first-person narrator, a decent if somewhat self-centered man who was crippled in an accident. He serves as our navigator through dark waters. The story itself revolves around a man he hates, an opportunistic first-time politician, and a young woman named Isabella who is one of the most unusual, fascinating and opaque female characters in the Christie canon. The darkness of emotion shown here is more striking because it doesn't lead to murder.

When I finished Absent in the Spring, I thought, "Man, she isn't going to be able to top that." Then I finished Giant's Bread and thought, "Man, that was just as stunning in a different way, but there's no way she can do it for the third time in a row." Then I got to the ending of The Rose and the Yew Tree and was left pretty much speechless. You can probably tell by now that I'm a huge Christie fangirl. I've tried to keep the proselytizing somewhat restrained here, because these really are damn good books and don't need her name to support them. Reading up to the end of each one was like getting punched in the stomach (in a good way!). Doing that three times in a row in one day... well, I think I need to go watch some mindless anime or something...

Death of a Red Heroine

Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong

One of my friends recently took a class on ethnography and detective fiction (while I got waitlisted--curses!). Ever since, she's been recommending all kinds of mystery series to me. Fair enough; it's long past time that I start expanding my horizons beyond Agatha Christie...

Clocking in at 464 well-packed pages, Death of a Red Heroine is a fairly massive novel, at least as far as mysteries go. One shouldn't dive into it expecting a tight-knit whodunit-type plot or constant suspense. The pacing is leisurely, but this is one of Red Heroine's biggest strengths, because where it really shines is in its detailed, fascinating depiction of early-1990s Chinese life and political intrigue.

The protagonist is Chief Inspector Chen of the Shanghai police department. Despite his youth, he's a rising star in the Communist bureaucracy, but he first became a police officer almost by accident and continues to have mixed feelings about his job. He's an academic at heart: he spends his spare time writing modernist poetry and translates Western poems and detective novels for extra cash. Chen's cultural literacy adds an extra dimension to the richness of Red Heroine's narrative--many of the situations he encounters bring him to recall a line or two of classic Chinese verse. (This makes Red Heroine reminiscent of traditional Chinese and Japanese literature like The Tale of Genji, whose characters frequently quote poetry).

However, Red Heroine is totally accessible even if you know very little about China, past or present. The only part of it that tripped me up were some of the government position titles and other vocabulary, but I got used to it pretty quickly. The victim of the murder case Chen is investigating is Guan Hongying, a national role-model worker. Her death has instant political implications, due to her position as a widely known Party symbol. Eventually, Chen finds himself trapped between the pressure to solve this high-profile case and the pressure not to solve it. The truth could cast the Party in an undesirable light at a delicate political time.

I would definitely recommend Death of a Red Heroine to people who enjoy books that immerse them in another place or culture. At times the mystery takes a backseat to the flow of the characters' everyday lives (it's in third person but takes a variety of viewpoints). Food often becomes a point of emphasis, and the descriptions of meals--plain and exotic--are mouthwatering. Qiu Xiaolong's writing style is straightforward and restrained but evocative nonetheless, and from time to time he uses startlingly resonant images.

I typically read books in quick gulps, but I spread Red Heroine out over several weeks, a few chapters at a time. It's one of the few novels I've encountered that invited that kind of unhurried exploration while still being interesting enough to keep me going. Although it's standalone, the author has written other mysteries with the same main character, and I'm looking forward to seeing more of him.