Sunday, March 25, 2012


I enjoyed my return to Christopher Moore so much that I immediately followed it with another one, The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove. That's always a risk, and I think I'll give myself a bit of a breather before I try another - it may not be a coincidence that the one Moore book I didn't absolutely love, Fluke, was one that I read in close succession to several other of his books. Still, this time it paid off: Lust Lizard was absolutely hilarious, and had Moore's signature combination of wit, style, and surprise. Oh, and without getting too spoilery, I'd like to point out that the title is a bit of a misnomer. It isn't actually called "Melancholy Cove."


Nope, this book sees us returning to Pine Cove. I think that Pine Cove was technically the setting of Moore's first book, Practical Demonkeeping, but I don't recall a whole lot of overlap between that book and the latter ones. Perhaps Mavis was in both. There's much more overlap between Lust Lizard and The Stupidest Angel; the latter book combines a whole bunch of characters from disparate Moore novels, and it's fun to get introduced to those characters after having seen them in latter form.

As usual, it's hard to decide whether the plots or the characters are the better feature. The plot is really fun: it nominally starts off as a bit of a mystery/whodunit investigation, with Constable Theo Crowe looking at a somewhat suspicious suicide. From the early pages, though, that storyline runs up against an eldritch horror story, very clearly indebted to H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos. These two stories are joined and somewhat resolved through a mash of small-town California zaniness, including a lackadaisical psychiatrist messing with peoples' meds, illegal drug operations, disjointed economies based on seasonal tourism, and so on. Things don't proceed as you would expect, and though the tone can veer wildly from scene to scene, that's part of the fun.

The characters are great as well. I initially kind of linked Theo to Tucker, in that both are male protagonists who are marginally more sane than the people surrounding them, but they're pretty different people. I like Theo a bit more... in my mind, he has an earnest, hangdog, buzzed-out look to him; he's fundamentally a really good guy who is beyond the end of his rope and doesn't even pretend to be competent at what he does. I also absolutely loved the relationship between Theo and Molly, which totally inverts the stereotypical male/female roles in this kind of book; instead of Theo the strong, brave constable being the man who saves Molly from the ancient creeping horror, it's the insane buff female action hero who saves the soft-spoken and vulnerable constable on multiple occasions. I also totally loved Gabe the biologist and Skinner his dog; we got to see both of them in The Stupidest Angel, but they get more page-time here, and both are hilarious: Gabe in a somewhat stereotypical absent-minded nerd way (he never thinks about his clothes or appearance, and while being a generally amiable decent person he totally obsesses on whatever problem he's currently working on), and Skinner is just awesome. We're treated to a few passages told from Skinner's perspective, and so we learn of his loyalty and admiration for the Food Guy, his protective fondness for the Tall Guy, his secret desire to ride in the Big Red Car, and other doggy dreams. Let's see... the Black bluesman feels like a character who belongs in another novel, but he's still a fun character, the only one with any dialect, and the one who provides the most exposition in the book. We only catch a glimpse of H. P., but it's a great one that kind of consummates the whole Cthulhu thrust of the book. The sheriff makes a great villain. The most mysterious character for me was Val; early on it felt like she was being set up as the villain of the book, and she definitely bears a lot of the blame, but I couldn't possibly stay mad at someone willing to date Gabe; even though she's... not the most admirable person in the book, she's still on the side of the good guys at the end.


Once again, I need to set Moore aside to make sure I don't overdose (and to make sure that more remain when I finish reading my next Big Book). I'm really glad to have these two titles to carry me through, though.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Big thanks to Eric for loaning me his book of The Walking Dead. This collects the first 12 issues of the comic series that formed the basis for the current television series. The comic has a great reputation, and I can see why - it's a great story, with gorgeous art, and while it doesn't have the same level of social commentary and satire that's sometimes associated with the genre (see "Dawn of the Dead") it gets at some deeper and more profound emotions. Since it has a wider canvas to work with than a typical 90-minute zombie flick, it's less about the immediate horror of a zombie attack, and more about the long-running dread of life in a post-apocalyptic environment.

I kind of wish that Patton Oswalt had brought this book up in his excellent Zombie Spaceship Wasteland. In that book, he mentions that the Zombie world is the early stages of a Wasteland world; Wasteland is what's left after the Zombies have finished. It feels like The Walking Dead is about the middle stages of that process: the fight is still going on, but you feel like the fight is probably lost. The group is coming to terms with Wasteland ethics while pre-Zombie morals are still their center; they steal canned goods because they need them to survive, and rationally understand that this is acceptable, but can't help feeling bad about it.

MINI SPOILERS (both for the book and the show)

Like any zombie fiction, The Walking Dead isn't really about zombies; it's about the living. The zombies are a way to bring out the extremes of humanity. Those extremes tend to be disturbing, but can also show exceptional heroism.

The book's anchor is Rick, a policeman who was in a coma during the initial infection wave, who later joins his family and a group of strangers. The strangers are less antagonistic here than in the show (there's no equivalent to the white supremacist or the wife-abuser), but there's still a lot of variation among them, and nobody else can match Rick's centeredness. Shane, his best friend, is increasingly unhinged by all the changes, and shocks Rick with his violence. His son Carl learns how to shoot a pistol early, and has to start killing (or re-killing) things from a shockingly early age. (I'm not too surprised that this hasn't been a part of the show; well, the argument over whether to teach kids to shoot was, but I don't think we've ever actually seen Carl fire at an adult, alive or dead. I can definitely see there being consternation over that, even on cable.) Some people are actually kind of thriving after the change, even though they would give anything to go back to the way things were: Glen was a bit of a loser in real life (a pizza delivery guy under a mountain of debt), but is indispensable to the group now thanks to his resourcefulness. Many people have lost loved ones to the plague, and either shut down and drop out, or else replace some of the devotion they used to feel to their family with a determined devotion towards the group.

Quick commentary on the show - after reading this book, I now kind of wish that they had done it as a mini-series instead of a series. Almost all of my favorite things from the first season and a half of the show are adapted from the book, and most of the stuff that didn't work for me (the Hispanic Atlanta gang, the CDC episode) was invented for the show. I've felt for a while that the best parts of The Walking Dead are some of the best TV I've seen in a year, but the bulk of the show tends to drag. Going to a mini-series would let them just do the awesome stuff and skip the dumb stuff. That said, one of the most common criticisms of the show is how much of it is characters complaining to each other about how mad they are at each other, and there's a good chunk of it in the book as well. It definitely felt less annoying to me in the book, probably because a few pages are easier to take than twenty minutes on the screen.


Random note: I've noticed that the series is very careful to never call them "Zombies" (they're always "Walkers" or something like that), and while the book also usually avoids that term, it is used occasionally. So, it isn't like this is a world that's unfamiliar with the concept of a zombie; it's more like it's a world that's real to its characters, and they have a hard time thinking that the real people around them could possibly have become something that only exists in fiction.

I'm always surprised when I enjoy a piece of zombie fiction, but I think The Walking Dead may be the best I've encountered yet. It's a great story, very dramatic and moving, and I can hardly wait to see what happens next. I've only read the first twelve issues, and they're probably going to hit the 100th sometime this year. There's way more zombie mayhem yet to come!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

T'much fun

Another quickie update on The Old Republic:

I'm pretty happy with where Seberin, my main cyborg operative agent, is at now; after running a few hard-mode flashpoints (including a couple of long and hard but fun and ultimately successful runs through Boarding Party), I've been able to pick up some really cool pieces of equipment. I recently got my first set bonus: thanks to my Tionese helmet and my Columni gloves, I now get a 15% boost to my backstab critical chance. Together with all my other stats and abilities, that lets me crit more than 50% of the time. And, since I'm grouping with talented tanks, I can get those off as frequently as the cooldown finishes for long boss fights (at no energy cost, and with Acid Blade applied).

Sorry to be such a nerd, but as a damage-dealer, I'm really happy with that.

At this point, I'm going to keep checking in on the hard-mode flashpoints, but for the most part I'm waiting on operations. My guild is trying to pull together an 8-person group to do this, so I hope that in the next few weeks we'll be able to crack into Eternity Vault.

Most of my time and interest has been going into T'may, my Chiss powertech bounty hunter. She's such a fun, great character.


From a plot standpoint, the class storyline for a bounty hunter is radically different than that of the imperial agent. I've barely interacted at all with any Empire officials; everything has focused around The Great Hunt, a grand competition to identify the best bounty hunters in the galaxy. So, while I don't see nearly as many folks in uniform, I've seen approximately infinity percent more wookies... the Huntmaster is an awesome, probably 11-foot-tall wookie who runs the show with style and enthusiasm.

Bounty hunters have their own sort of code, though it bears almost no resemblance to that of the agents. There are sanctioned kills, and unsanctioned kills, and melees, and tokens... all sorts of stuff that builds up a fun, weird culture.

So far I only have my first companion, Mako, but she's been wonderful. We get along way better personality-wise than Seberin and Kaliyo  did. Mako is a lot of fun - she's enthusiastic, generally upbeat, with a sly sense of humor and a love of larceny (only against people who aren't her friends). She feels like a real person, though, and her generally sunny disposition gets clouded early on when her mentor is killed. I already feel much more attached to her story than I did to Kaliyo's, and am really regretting that Bioware didn't see fit to implement SGRAs at launch. Sigh...


What's been really interesting and fun, though, has been learning to play another class, and more than that, another role. I actually held off for quite a while on creating a second character because I was worried about how hard it would be to juggle two different sets of abilities. Each class (and advanced class) has their own unique abilities, and there's very little overlap between the two... the bounty hunter doesn't have any stealth abilities, and has a lot more area-of-effect attacks than the agent did. That said, now that I've gotten into it, I'm finding it isn't hard; I'll play for an hour on Seberin, then switch over to T'may, and don't really have a problem. I do map some abilities to the same keys: X is always the interrupt, R is my resource recharge (energy probe on the agent and vent heat on the bounty hunter), Shift+R uses a medpac, etc. Still, the bulk of my abilities are different, and at least so far it's been fine.

More importantly, though, I'm learning how to tank. My server has a shortage of tanks, and so they're in high demand for groups. I've been way more social with T'may (meaning, I'm at least slightly social), and have been joining in with other groups to attempt heroic missions and flashpoints. I ran Black Talon three times when I first arrived at the Fleet, did almost every heroic on Dromund Kass (except for Friends of Old), and just last night ran with a great group through Hammer Station and Athiss. As a result, this has been a very different game experience for me. I'm already starting to add people to my Friends list (mainly competent healers and people who chat in complete sentences), and am getting as much fun out of solving difficult problems with a group as I am with experiencing the class story.

As a result, I'm seeing huge parts of the game that I'd never experienced with Seberin. Hammer Station and Athiss were AWESOME - huge, epic areas that set up the story for the evolving conflict between Republic and Empire, with echoes of the Infinite Empire, Senatorial treachery, archaeological malfeasance, other terrific stuff. Having done these flashpoints, I know I'll continue along this social route, if for no other reason than to experience the rest of the flashpoints.

So, back to tanking: I've read two phenomenal quotes that are funny, and also great, brief primers on how to approach the specialized roles of an MMO:
"If a healer dies, it's the tank's fault. If the tank dies, it's the healer's fault. If the DPS dies, it's their own fault."
That's perfect. DPS should always follow, never lead. They should stay out of the fire. So long as they do that, they will never die. Good DPS will let the tank build and keep aggro, and will maximize their damage while making sure they don't grab away threat.
The tank needs to make sure that every enemy is targeting him and only him. (Or her and only her.) If the tank loses aggro, the enemy will target the healer, and the healer will die (so everyone dies). A tank needs a combination of gear, stats, and skills to do this. It's easier to tank if you're powerful, but a tank needs to worry about tactics more than any other class in a fight.
The healer needs to spam heals on the tank. That's it. IF everything is going well, the healer can heal a DPS who stood in fire or grabbed aggro, but if the tank's in trouble, they need to be willing to let the DPS die. Occasionally, you'll get someone like a mercenary who wants to DPS but joined the group as a healer because that was the only slot available. If they can't resist fighting, then the tank will die (so everyone dies).

A different quote that reveals the same truths is:
"DPS is fun. Healing is a responsibility. Tanking is a job."
I'd agree with each part of that. Seberin was pure DPS, and it was a lot of fun - you're always fighting and killing things, which is what most people enjoy most in games. Other than beating enrage timers on hard-mode bosses, DPS doesn't really need to do anything special; most fights can be (eventually) beaten with only a tank and healer.
A healer only needs to do a few things (heal the tank, stay out of fire, apply buffs as available), which aren't terribly hard, but are incredibly important.
A tank has the biggest overall responsibility for a group. He/she often ends up leading them, setting strategy, assigning roles, performing ready checks. During a fight, the tank needs complete situational awareness of the entire battlefield, making sure he/she is keeping threat on every enemy, taunting back anyone rushing the healer, hitting each enemy often enough to keep them on you. I'm really enjoying it, but it totally is a job. DPS is along for the ride, and the healer is my co-pilot.

I'm now level 18, and have acquired all the skills that will be useful in my role. Some of these are fairly permanent: an Ion Gas Cylinder to build more threat and mitigate damage, and a Guard that I can use to protect my healer and lower his/her threat level. Others need to be applied thoughtfully throughout a fight. Death From Above is the single most fun attack in the entire game, and is also the perfect opener for any engagement: it does a massive amount of damage to everyone, what's not to love? My flamethrower is another great area-of-effect attack that I use to make sure everyone's mad at me; if DFA isn't available, I generally use it to open. Against normal enemies, stuff like Explosive Dart and Missile Blast will incapacitate them and act as a light form of crowd control while generating area threat. My core rotation against a boss is a combination of Rocket Punch, Rail Shot, Unload, and Explosive Dart, with my Rapid Shots filling in the holes. I'll continue to adjust it, but so far it's been working well.

I was about halfway through Athiss before I finally "got" how to use my taunt, and now I love it. It was all thanks to Khem Val, who kept stealing threat from me. I'd mapped Neural Dart to V (the key I use for Acid Blade on my agent), then started pressing it, and realized that it solved all my problems. I'm really grokking tanking now, and loving it.

Leveling is going a lot faster this time. I'm mostly doing my class missions and grouping for heroics and flashpoints; I only do regular planet missions if they're in the same area I need to be for my class mission. For example, I totally skipped the entire Revanite branch of the Dromund Kaas quest series; I had plenty of experience already, and I'm not nearly as excited about repeating old content as seeing new Bounty Hunter or flashpoint stuff. Oh, but space missions are still a GREAT way to level. I had reached level 16 right when I got my ship, and was at 17 once I had finished all the initial space missions. Anyways... between me knowing what I'm doing, focusing on high-experience missions, and being able to spend virtually unlimited funds on my gear, it's been a blast so far. Good hunting!


Here are some pictures!

 Back to Seberin for a moment - here is the most money I think I'll ever have, at a hair over 3 million credits. Bioware has added an NPC on the Fleet who is temporarily selling super-high-end colored crystals, so I splurged and spent 250k on a +41 blue power crystal for myself, and a +41 blue crystal to be reserved for T'may's tanking once she turns 50. Since I got the Rakata implants and ears, I probably won't be running the dailies anymore, and so I expect a steady (but slow) dwindling of cash.

 Chatting with Mako on the fleet. I really like this customization, except for the implants. Pay no attention to the half-naked lady in the background.

Awesome bug! Someone forgot to cast their double to an int!

 T'may is the proud owner of a new space ship! Well, new for her, anyways.

The plane, boss! The plane!

I'm increasingly coming to appreciate Christopher Moore as a literary palate-cleanser. I almost always enjoy his books, they're quick reads, and their content tends to surprise me even while the quality remains high. It now kind of fills the spot in my rotation that Terry Pratchett used to fill before I finished reading all his books... something reliable and lighter to enjoy between the heavier stuff. It's also nice to jump into something like this after wrapping up a more epic book... I'll admit to feeling a bit of an ego boost when I breezed through "Island of the Sequined Love Nun" in three days after fiddling with The Savage Detectives for two and a half months. "That's right, I'm not a slow reader! I just take a long time when I'm reading Great Literature!"

As you could probably guess even if you weren't familiar with Moore, Island of the Sequined Love Nun is a comedic book. I'm reading these things out of order, so I had previously met a few of the characters (Tucker and Roberto) in a later book, the phenomenal work The Stupidest Angel. This is chronologically the first place where they were introduced, so there's a bit more background on the two (especially Tucker; Roberto still remains a bit of an enigma). The two stories definitely stand on their own, though.


The plot of the book takes the form of a romp through exotic locales. It starts off with the glamorous (well, at least exciting) life of the private pilot for a cosmetics magnate; after a comically painful accident, a series of events land him on a tiny Micronesian island under the sway of a cargo cult.

I've heard the term "Cargo cult" before, but had always mentally equated it with thuggee cults. They're actually totally different, and totally awesome. Apparently, back in World War II, while the Japanese and Americans were fighting over Pacific islands, many primitive island societies had their first contact with the developed world when an airplane would land on a beach, field, or other open stretch of land. The pilot would give modern gifts to the natives, perhaps get them to do some work (build an airstrip, etc.), and then fly away. Enraptured, the islanders would turn to religious devotion in the hopes that the magical god from the sky would return one day giving them more gifts. They would keep the airfield clean so it would be welcoming to him, would sing the songs they'd heard over his radio, and so on. After the war, Catholic missionaries and others would come to these islands, and found the cults incredibly resilient. Why should they worship Jesus, they would ask, when the airmen had actually given them stuff? Isn't a god who's present on Earth better than one who's far away? Sometimes, they would accept the new faith, but adapt it to their own; for example, they would start to wear crucifixes, but would attach propellers to the top end.

In this book, a cargo cult is going strong on the island of Alualu. Instead of straight devotion, though, a hierarchy has been imposed on them. A missionary doctor became frustrated when his efforts to convert them failed, and he and his lovely assistant (a nurse/stripper turned high priestess) set themselves up as the true representatives of Vincent, the pilot who saved them with cases of SPAM after their men had been killed by the Japanese. There's a whole set of rituals that the Shaman and the Sky Priestess carry out: Broadway show tunes, an airplane, "chosen" villagers... a whole bunch of trappings that come close to elevating the Vincent cult into a religion. This is a bad thing, of course... the two in charge do not have their flock's best interests at heart.

As is often the case in Moore's book, it's a bit of a toss-up as to what's the best feature of the book: its plot or its characters. Both shine here. The plot is fun, fast-paced, and takes some unexpected turns. The characters are hilarious. There are some really good ones we only see for a little while - Vincent only makes a few appearances, but kills each time; Roberto is just so bizarre that I love him; the Mary-Kay equivalent (I forget her name) was a hoot. The main characters have a bit more depth, and are also great. Tucker's "nerdy hunk" character is really unique, and Moore gets a lot of mileage out of the combination of a great-looking and incredibly-awkward guy. The Chief is just a really great guy, not too funny but I really liked him. My favorite, though, has to be the Sky Priestess... partly because she's like four or five characters in one. That's a bit part of her personality, of course: she's able to pick and choose the persona that's most fit for the occasion. She's a consummate performer at heart, whether she's dancing nearly-naked in a scarf or packing a pistol or playing the part of a dutiful housewife.


Even though the book's an easy read, there's a surprising amount of stuff going on in here... lampooning of religion, the relationship between the first and third world, ethics, redemption, American media, and more. I can't really tell what's meant as satire and what's just funny, but it's all great.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


Heh... it's been a long time since a book has taken me as long to finish as "The Savage Detectives" has. I forget when I started it, but I was definitely reading it as early as last December, and only now finishing it. And it isn't one of those cases where I set aside a book for a few months or a few years before finally finishing it, like my multiple attempts at Gravity's Rainbow. No, I've been reading it pretty steadily, but my ongoing devotion to Star Wars: The Old Republic has definitely slowed me down, as has the structure of the book. Like Roberto Bolano's other masterpiece, 2666, this book is powerful and gripping, but its structure is also inherently episodic, deliberately broken down into fairly independent sections, which may run from a few sentences to a dozen pages in length. That's been absolutely perfect for picking away at the book a little each day, and has also kept me from getting sucked into an epic reading jag, as I do so often with authors like Neal Stephenson or Haruki Murakami, who write stories that demand your unceasing participation.

I knew nothing about "The Savage Detectives" going into it, so I'll try and preserve that same surprise for people who plan to read it. It's a wonderfully written book. I'd had an impression that 2666 was the masterpiece and this was a simpler book, but that's not the case; 2666 may be longer (though, at 650 pages, The Savage Detectives is no slouch), but there's just as much interesting technique on display here. The two stories intertwine in fascinating ways as well; even though The Savage Detectives was published first, I kind of appreciated having read it after 2666, since so much of the dread of the other novel accentuates the more suspenseful elements of this book.

It's impossible to assign a genre to The Savage Detectives. One of my biggest mistakes was thinking that it was a detective story. It isn't; there is a kind of investigation that drives a deal of the plot, but not at all the sort of investigation that you'd think of. I find myself most often thinking about elements of the book that are sinister or unsettling, but that's really a minority of what's on display here. There's just as much that's funny, or whimsical, or nostalgic, or exuberant. The book covers multiple lifespans, a variety of people and ages, and does a great job at portraying the highs and lows of the human experience. (That sounded WAY more pretentious than I had intended, or than Bolano would tolerate.)


So, a fun fact about Bolano (there really should be a tilde over that "n" in his name, but I'm too lazy to insert it): he was primarily a poet. He'd spent most of his life writing poetry and building relationships with other poets and promoting good poems. Late in his life, he essentially went, "Eh, I'd better write some novels to pay the bills," so he wrote prose that happens to be some of the most amazing, significant prose that anyone has written in decades. It's pretty amazing, and also really humbling... it's a little like Michael Jordan saying, "Eh, I should play baseball," and becoming the league MVP.

From the little I know of Bolano's life, this book is at least somewhat a fictionalized autobiography. Roberto Bolano's doppelganger is Arturo Belano; like Bolano, he's a Chilean who flees his country in the wake of a military takeover and settles into the Mexico City poetry scene. His close counterpart in this book is Ulises Lima - which, incidentally, is an amazing name - and who's also based on a real-life close friend of Belano. In real life, Bolano co-founded the "Infrarealism" movement; in The Savage Detectives, Belano co-founds the "Visceral Realism" movement.

Belano and Lima form the core of The Savage Detectives, and they're the nexus of a truly astonishing range of characters. I haven't kept count, but I would guess several dozen at least. Most of them are other members of the Visceral Realist movement: similarly minded avant-garde young urban Mexican poets. It also includes fellow-travelers: the architect father of two female Visceral Realist poets who helps design their magazines and provides generous, if erratic, funding; a prostitute who's a dancer and a close friend of one of the poetesses; the various lovers and family members of the poets; the critics who ignore and ridicule them; the publishers who are oblivious to the movement; and on and on. What's really cool, though, is that Belano and Lima are the two characters whose heads we can never enter. They're the most constant element through the book, with practically every one of the sections either including them in the action or having characters talk about them, yet we never get to see anything exactly from their point of view. The overall effect is really kaleidoscopic: we build up a really good picture of who these people are, but that picture is always shifting, and we constantly need to adjust our impressions of them based on the perspective from which we're seeing them.

The book is divided into three parts. The first, a bit over 100 pages long, is written as a series of diary entries by Diego Garcia, an incredibly precocious and opinionated young poet. I think he's in his mid teens, but he's currently attending law school, even though his main love is literature and poetry. A chance encounter brings him into contact with Belano and Lima, and he's delighted to be taken seriously by them; he proudly joins their Visceral Realist movement, stops going to school, and gradually grows more and more deeply engrained into their social circle, while never really becoming close to the two of them.

This part of the book feels a bit like a bildungsroman: along with poetry, Diego Garcia also gets really interested in girls, and over the course of a year he transforms from a slightly annoying kid into a bit of a man. He doesn't have a job, but he gets a steady girlfriend (arguably multiple, but that somewhat undercuts the sense of "steady"), creates a social routine for himself, becomes acquainted with a variety of people and lifestyles. This section ends on a relatively action-packed note, as guns and money and sex drive a fairly climactic exit from Mexico City.

The vast bulk of the book is contained in the second part, which abruptly switches away from Garcia's point of view. We are now treated to what seems to be a series of interviews with a variety of people, many of them characters we'd encountered in the first part. The "interviews" are actually more like monologues, told in the first person, but you get the sense that they're being prompted by an off-screen investigator. We learn about a truly staggering array of subjects, but once again Belano and Lima enter into virtually every remembrance, even if only obliquely.

Chronologically, this section starts where the first part left off (1976) and continues through the 1990s, or essentially up until when Bolano was writing this novel. We never hear exactly what happened to Belano and Lima after they left Mexico City; they eventually return, but their lives and the lives of everyone else seem permanently changed. They go their separate ways, Visceral Realism sputters and then dies out. Many of the former practitioners abandon their art and turn to business, while others continue to follow their muse. The scope of this part is really staggering, though, and includes lengthy sojourns in Europe, including scenes like an insane Austrian hunting for Jews in Israel; a lengthy accounting of a caravan of poor young adults on their way to pick grapes in Spain; a really chilling recounting from a talentless lawyer about when Belano braved the devil to rescue a lost boy from a crevasse; Lima's disappearance from a South American literary conference; a touching account of a beloved university woman who stayed on campus grounds during a coup. Over time, the interviews return to certain themes and voices repeatedly, and an almost mystical sense of foreboding begins to arise. The element that most sticks out for me is the interviews with Amadeo Salvatierra. This is actually kind of a nested interview, since what he's recalling (in snippets scattered through five hundred pages of other text) is his own interview, long ago, from Belano and Lima. The two bright young poets came to his home and spent hours, possibly more than a day, in his company; respectfully listening to his stories, learning more about his own history with poetry, and eagerly devouring any fragments he could provide of old journals, poetry magazines, or other evidence of an almost-vanished poetry scene.

Through this fragment, we get another fragment: glimpses of Cesarea Tinajero. I still get goosebumps when I write her name, even though (or perhaps because) we learn virtually nothing about her. She seems to have completely vanished from the face of the planet, and is recalled only by a single poem she published in one of Amadeo's ancient magazines. That poem is really remarkable, and I can't and won't attempt to reproduce it here. There is an aching void around her, though; Amadeo is practically the only person alive who even remembers her at all, and even he confesses that he never understood her one poem. Belano and Lima, though, are fascinated by her and determined to find her. We never learn exactly why, but I presume that they want to see if she ever wrote anything else, or perhaps they're simply hoping to speak with her and gain a greater understanding of her work.

And that, ultimately, finally, is where the "Detective" part of The Savage Detectives comes in. Belano and Lima don't at all look the part of detectives: they're young, poor, carefree, artistic drug-dealers. Yet, once they seize on this quest, they become determined to follow it. And so they do... for a month. The events of that month are never revealed in the second part of the book, but what we see is the way it changed their lives.


We finally get to peek into that lost month at the very end of the book, in the very short Part 3. This rapidly unwinds our chronological stack: we shoot from the 1990s all the way back to January of 1976, erasing twenty years of history and picking up the narrative diary of Juan Garcia, long after I had forgotten the sound of his voice. By now, we finally have a relatively clear view of what Belano and Lima are up to. They're chasing the ghost of a woman, someone who barely seems to have existed.

Honestly, I think a lot of the intensity I got out of the third part of the story was inherited by my time spent in 2666. Once again, Roberto Bolano is writing in the Sonora desert, on the verge of Santa Teresa (his fictionalized version of the mysteriously ultra-violent Ciudad Juarez). We don't have a cavalcade of murders this time, but there's still an ominous and omnipresent threat, in the form of the homicidal Alberto the pimp; this combines with the ongoing mysteries surrounding Cesarea Tinajero (a long poem vanishing from a gravestone, radical body morphism, shifting names and memories) to create a lingering yet undefinable unease that would be perfectly at home in the horrifying middle sections of 2666.

There's a nominal plot in this book, which is resolved in a surprisingly straightforward and somewhat satisfying way, but of course the book wasn't mostly about that plot. It's about writing, about lives, about webs of relationships and the search for understanding and the malleability of meaning.

Random thoughts:

I have no idea at all if this was intended, but when I think of "Cesarea", I think of "Caesura", which is a deliberate gap or pause in a story or poem. I'm a little surprised that this wasn't included in Diego Garcia's hyperactive vocabulary lesson. Anyways, Caesura/Cesarea is a perfect name for her, since her absence proves to be much more important than her presence.

Here are a few passages I particularly loved. Here's one from Barbara Patterson, an American who marries the poet Rafael. She's very high-strung during a potentially important with a Cuban literary personage, which leads into this amazing sentence:
... and then the Cuban looked at me even more seriously, his eyes seeming to say sweetheart, what does it matter, madness is madness is madness, and sadness too, and at the end of the day the three of us are Americans, children of Caliban, lost in the great American wilderness, and I think that touched me, to see a spark of understanding, a spark of tolerance in the eyes of that powerful man, as if he were saying don't take it to heart, Barbara, I know how these things are, and then, like an idiot, I smiled, and Rafael took out his poems, some fifty loose-leaf pages, and said here are my poems, friend, and the Cuban took his poems and thanked him, and then right away he and Rafael got up, as if in slow motion, like a flash of lightning, or two flashes, or a flash and its shadow, but in slow motion, and in that fraction of a second I thought: everything is all right, I hope everything will be all right, and I saw myself swimming on a Havana beach and I saw Rafael by my side, a little distance away, talking to some American journalists, people from New York, from San Francisco, talking about LITERATURE, talking about POLITICS, at the gates of paradise.

And here's another great one, from Joaquin Font's long time in the mental hospital:
When I opened them [his eyes - Chris] the circle of madmen who roved the courtyards of La Fortaleza had closed around me. Anyone else would have shouted in terror, begun wailing prayers, torn off all his clothes, and started to run like an American football player gone mad, withering under the gaze of the myriad eyes spinning like unmoored planets. But not me. The madmen circled around me and I kept as quiet as Rodin's thinker and watched them, and then I looked at the ground and I saw red ants and black ants locked in combat and I didn't say or do anything. The sky was very blue. The earth was light brown, with little stones and clumps of dirt. The clouds were white and drifting westward. Then I looked at the madmen who were stumbling here and there like pawns of an even madder fate, and I closed my eyes again.

Oh, and here's one of the most intriguing parts near the end of the book, gesturing towards the ideas in 2666 while making it very clear that the source of the dread in both books actually lies outside and beyond them:
And then the teacher had to sit down on the edge of the bed, although she didn't want to, and close her eyes and listen to what Cesarea was saying. And even though she was feeling worse and worse, she had the courage to ask Cesarea why she had drawn the plan. And Cesarea said something about days to come, although the teacher imagined that if Cesarea had spent time on that senseless plan it was simply because she lived such a lonely life. But Cesarea spoke of times to come and the teacher, to change the subject, asked her what times she meant and when they would be. And Cesarea named a date, sometime around the year 2600. Two thousand six hundred and something. And then, when the teacher couldn't help but laugh at such a random date, a smothered little laugh that could scarcely be heard, Cesarea laughed again, although this time the thunder of her laughter remained within the confines of her own room.



When I first started The Savage Detectives, I was under the impression that this was one of only two books that Roberto Bolano ever wrote before his early, untimely death. Since then, I'd been glad to learn that he actually does have a larger corpus; those were the first two books of his translated into English, but since then most of his works have been translated or have been slated to do so. These last two books have been exhausting, both for their length and their psychological impact, but I'd still love to try more, and from what I can tell the others are closer to

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Family Ties

There's been a lot of interest lately around the upcoming update to Star Wars: The Old Republic. Bioware has been teasing us for a while about it, and this week they held a Guild Summit in Austin to announce, Apple-style, what would be ahead for us. The answer is a little for everyone. One of the nifty things about SWTOR is how broad it is; pretty much anyone can find something really fun for them to do, without needing to participate in activities they don't enjoy to advance through the game. For example, apparently one of SWTOR's most popular features is Player-versus-Player (PVP) combat, with something like over 80% of players doing it every day; but I've never done it once, and don't feel the lack. So, while I don't care too much about version 1.2's updates to PVP (player rankings, a new Warzone, removing faction restrictions from Warzones), there was plenty of stuff there that I found delightful that many other players won't ever bother with (dancing with your companion, fixing the stats on end-game PVE gear, being able to put endgame mods into custom pieces of armor).

Most of my personal interest with 1.2 has to do with the "legacy" system, which lets you share perks across all the characters you've created on a server. Bioware's been very vague about how this will work, but there are finally some specific examples. For instance, once you reach level 50 as one species, you'll be able to use that species for any new character you create, regardless of class or faction. This means that, for example, you could create a Chiss Jedi Knight after you had played a Chiss Sniper to level 50. We'll also be able to "inherit" abilities from other characters; for example, your Smuggler isn't a Force user, but she might be able to use Force Choke on her enemies. Down the line, you'll eventually be able to share a bank with other characters, and so on.

Part of what I love about this is how it's actively encouraging people to start new characters. While I love playing my Operative, I'm also keenly aware that I'm only experiencing about 1/8 of the storylines that Bioware wrote for all the classes. Going from a level 50 character back to a level 1 character could feel kind of pointless, but between Bioware's amazing writing and the fact that any character's actions will eventually benefit all characters, frees me up to enjoy the ride without worrying about short-changing my main character.

As you may have guessed by now, I've taken the plunge and created a secondary (or "alt" for alternative) character. I'd really been hoping to wait until the legacy system rolled out, and/or Bioware finally implemented the long-anticipated changes to the romance system, but now feels like a good time to start, in anticipation of the changes to come. So... meet T'may Cirion!

T'may is a female Chiss Bounty Hunter. I'm still not sure yet whether I'll make her a Mercenary or a Powertech; I'll probably check in with my guild and see what they need.

I'm trying really hard to pretend that I'm not playing dress-up with dolls, but I'm pretty happy with T'may's look. The character creation system is actually really quite good, and has great variations for each species. Seberin had a lot of choices for cybernetic implants, and T'may could pick between a lot of cosmetic options. As a Chiss, T'may could choose between various shades of blue for her skin, while Twi'leks have a wider rainbow available.

Oh, and here are a couple of fun easter eggs that I remembered from Nem'ro's cantina.

Hee hee... I love the droid gambling away his limbs to the Wookie.

And, hey, somehow I never made this connection before, but you can actually see Nar Shaddaa from the surface of Hutta! It's huge!

I'll get there soon!

Meanwhile, things are a bit quieter for Seberin these days. After a burst of activity with hard-mode flashpoints, there have been fewer groups forming lately and so less action there. I did finally get enough Tionese crystals and commendations to purchase a helmet, which I promptly hid because it was so ugly. Also, I swapped out most of the mods since it had too much Accuracy and too little, um, useful secondary stats. Still, I'm feeling pretty happy about my gear levels, and am eagerly looking forward to running something other than Black Talon Hard Mode. I should have enough Columi commendations soon to purchase a piece of that, too, and am just a few days from getting my Rakata earpiece. Several members of our guild have recently hit 50, with some others close behind, so I'm really hoping we can start doing semi-regular groups to tackle the flashpoints, and eventually the operations.

Oh, yeah: also, I (and every other subscriber) can give out three free 7-day trials to SWTOR, so if you're curious about the game and would like to try it out, just let me know! From what I've read, the trial lets you create as many characters as you want on any server; you're limited to level 15, and restricted to the areas that a character of that level could normally reach (basically your starting planet, your fleet, and your capital planet). It does include access to the Black Talon / Esseles flashpoint, which I think is one of the best selling points of the game. In practical terms, depending on how much you play, you could probably play through the origin story for about 3 characters during this time, or take 1 character all the way up to near the end of their capital planet's quest storyline. Bioware won't delete the character after you're done, so you could choose to subscribe and keep playing, or leave it alone and come back in a few months to pick up the story where you left off.