Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Filth

Warren Ellis isn't exactly Neil Gaiman, but if you squint you can see the similarities: both are English, both made it big in America with their personal, idiosyncratic limited-run comics, and both branched out into regular novels. Gaiman has gone on to become the master of all media, while Ellis is content to mostly stay in the graphic novel world with occasional forays into script-writing.

As far as I can tell, Ellis has just published one novel so far, Crooked Little Vein, and it's a doozy. The language and thematic content will be familiar to anyone who has read Transmetropolitan (which I'm tempted to call his opus, except that probably isn't fair since I haven't yet read Planetary). It's about moral decadence and the breakdown of contemporary society, and primarily revolves around sexual perversion, drug abuse, misuse of power, and cringe-inducing physical injuries. All of this is channeled through a kind of refracting lens; in TransMet it was the gleeful hedonism of Spider, in CLV it's the jaded resignation of private investigator McGill.


Speaking of McGill, the book also centers around a MacGuffin: in the impressive first chapter, we meet both McGill and his unexpected employer, the heroin-addicted White House Chief of Staff. The job: track down the "secret Constitution of the United States." This vaguely seems like a DaVinci Code-esque bit of history-inspired creativity. According to the Chief of Staff, after writing the famous Constitution, the founding fathers got together and secretly penned ANOTHER document that laid out their private vision for the country. It includes several "invisible amendments," and has guided the actions of Presidents throughout centuries. It also resonates at the same frequency as our eyeballs, which somehow compels you to read it? And it turns people into upstanding and proper citizens? None of this actually matters at all: it's a very entertaining MacGuffin, but for all that it affects the plot, it might as well be a nuclear launch code or a bag of jewels or incriminating blackmail photos... it only exists to motivate the characters to go on their journey.

McGill is a fairly likeable, fairly blank character. His only really distinguishing characteristic is his rotten luck; bad stuff always seems to happen when he's around. Early on he joins forces with a polyamorous girl (who I couldn't help thinking of as his Filthy Assistant), who navigates him through the landscape of bizarre sexual peccadilloes and other corruptions. They embark on a fascinating tour of America, starting in grimy New York, moving on to featureless Cleveland, down into smug San Antonio, over to tacky Las Vegas and finally ending in soulless Los Angeles. I don't think any of the later cities topped the craziness of New York, but the overpowering blandness of many suburban landscapes are even more offensive to the protagonists than, say, Godzilla fetishists.


The book is a really quick read; I polished it off in a few days, but you could probably do it in a single sitting. It's entertaining for most of the same reasons that Transmetropolitan was entertaining: it's dirty, dangerous, funny, and direct; it gestures at the filth in our society without making you feel bad about it. Like Transmetropolitan, I personally feel a bit uncomfortable about that mental perspective; it's tough to tell when Ellis is glorifying something, or condemning it, or just gleefully observing.

I can't say that Crooked Little Vein is high literature - this ain't no American Gods - but it's a great modern noir-ish adventure detective story, and if you can stomach the subject matter, you'll have a blast.

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