Thursday, April 28, 2022

The Hat That Did Not Quite Fit Him

One of several unexpected things to come out of my play-through of Disco Elysium was a fresh update to my reading list. The creator published an "Inspirations and Recommendations" guide that lists works in several media which had some influence on the unique world and game experience of Disco Elysium. Most of the books were new to me (other than China Mieville), and I've been feeling very eager for new experiences evocative of DE, so I got cracking.



First up is The Glass Key, a hardboiled noir detective novel from Dashiell Hammett. I've heard of Hammett, of course, but haven't read him before; in fact, as I think about it I've come to realize that I probably haven't read any noir novels. That seems a bit surprising since I say that I like noir, but that's probably based on me really enjoying a tiny number of specific movies.

The Glass Key was an excellent read. A few things jumped out at me about it. First of all, all of the narration is very surface-level and completely focused on physical descriptions. The book tells us what a character says, how he walks, where he looks, when his breath grows labored, when his hand twitches. It never tells us what he's thinking. That doesn't mean that the character doesn't have an interior life or isn't mulling things over! But it means that we're always at least a step behind, trying to parse meaning out of behaviors and not only figure out what's going on but what the character thinks is going on.

Reading this book reminded me a lot of watching a movie. Of course, movies also are very focused on surface appearances and, bad voiceovers notwithstanding, tend to show what characters do and let us infer how they feel. This similarity extends down to the periodic phone calls, which put me in mind of a classic Bob Newhart routine: we only hear a single side of the conversation, with periodic ellipses elliding the other party's responses, and try to fill in the gaps ourselves.


The novel's protagonist is Ned Beaumont, a sort of antihero. I was never completely clear on exactly what his deal was, but he seems to have played a big but undefined part in assisting the rise of a corrupt political/criminal machine system run by Paul Madvig. The novel is set during Prohibition and Madvig oversees a network of speakeasies and crooked government contracts, backed up by bought-and-paid-for elected officials.

Very early on a murder occurs, with Ned finding the body, and I spent much of the novel wondering whether he was trying to solve the mystery or cover it up. Ned has a lot of history with Paul and other characters, so even when he's talking with them there's a lot that goes unsaid and is simply understood between them, but not to us the reader. Ned is really unusual: not a private detective or another "typical" noir role, but he does use his clout to obtain an official commission as an investigator for the DA's office... and then proceeds to use that commission to further his own private financial interests.

There's a pretty sizeable cast of characters: Ned is present in every scene, a few others like Paul and Jack appear fairly regularly, some play large roles for a short time, and a few make brief but memorable impressions before disappearing forever.


I mulled over the possible culprits quite a lot over the course of the book. One early favorite theory of mine was that Ned himself was the murderer: that scene starts with him standing over the corpse, and it seemed somewhat plausible that he had done the deed himself to protect Paul, with their subsequent vague conversations communicating this situation without saying it out loud. The nature of those conversations was actually more reversed, with Ned at least somewhat suspecting Paul of the crime. I did wonder if the senator had done it, or one of the women in Taylor's life. Ultimately we learn that the senator did it himself, but the revelation of his motivations was still pretty surprising to me.

The book ends on a somewhat brutal note, with Ned revealing to Paul that he isn't just leaving town and their relationship, but also leaving with Paul's crush Janet. As is usually the case in this sort of genre and era, I have a really hard time believing the romantic decisions of women; Ned seems like an old and beat-up and not particularly nice man, while Janet seems like she's about nineteen, beautiful, rich, smart and tenacious. (I recently re-watched Casablanca and have a similarly hard time picturing the young ingenue Ilsa falling for crusty old Rick; I do wonder if expectations and standards were very different back then, or if it's a sort of fantasy built into these stories or what.) The last few sentences are kind of crushing, ending the book as a whole on a decidedly melancholy note.


The Glass Key was a pretty perfect book for my renewed public transit commuting lifestyle: short, punchy, intriguing without being overly complex, vivid and exciting. I can see why Robert Kurvitz likes it so much: it isn't directly evocative of Disco Elysium, but you can see how some bits of its DNA made its way into parts of the game.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Let's Get Kraken

I continue to enjoy China Mieville's works as I come to experience more of his range. He occupies an interesting position, with a deeply idiosyncratic and fully-formed sensibility on display in his seminal Bas-Lag books, much like I would expect from a top-tier genre writer; but he also roams far afield, with much more grounded novels and even really compelling non-fiction.


"Kraken" is an interesting entry. I'm tempted to describe it as a sort of crosshatch between his Bas-Lag books and The City & the City; it has the deep eldritch horror vibes of the former, but is set in modern Earth like the latter. It has a pretty different feel than either of those books, though, with much shorter chapters and a very kinetic style.

The City & the City is modern, but also kind of timeless, and feels like it could be set any time between 1950 and 2030. In contrast, Kraken is very specifically a book set in 2008, and is filled with highly topical references: 3G networking, lolcats, Amy Winehouse's song "Rehab", and so on. I honestly found it a bit distracting, and reading this made me understand why authors generally avoid adding bleeding-edge references to their novels. I do wonder if it might work better 20 years from now when those references have all faded into a generic "past".


Billy is the protagonist in this book, and I was pretty annoyed by him early on. For the first hundred pages or so there's an endless loop where he sees something strange happen, he says, "This can't be happening!", he sees more strange things happening, says "This can't be happening!", and so on. To be fair, if I was in that situation myself I'd have a similarly hard time accepting it, but as a reader it's aggravating to have the protagonist just flatly deny things over and over without variation. By the halfway point of the novel, though, Billy evolves and becomes a more active protagonist instead of a mere observer, and he's actually pretty likeable by the end. He makes some really bad decisions along the way, but we can see that he's very loyal towards his friends, curious about the world, driven to figure out what's going on, and brave enough to put himself at risk to protect others.

We meet many other factions over the course of the book, one of the first being the police, specifically an X-Files-ish outfit called the FSRC. Their background is pretty interesting; their official remit is investigating cults and extremist religious sects, but they end up getting roped into any supernatural/mystical issues because London isn't willing to admit that such issues exist. They kind of seem like the "good guys", since they're trying to solve the case and protect the city against criminal elements, but most of what they do ends up making things worse. For example, Kath Collingsworth summons a bunch of cop spirits in what seems to be an earnest attempt to advance the investigation, but the only purpose those spirits serve is to harass Wati. By the end Kath comes off as pretty decent, while the other members of her squad do not.

There are maybe one and a half "good" factions, and dozens of "bad" factions. These bad factions lean heavily into horror. Goss & Subby are definitely the most memorable and scary of the bunch. Mieville does a great job with words in making these two vivid and terrifying: they have weird behaviors, and an incongruously jovial manner of speaking coupled with sudden, shocking acts of violence. It helps that nearly all of the characters in the novel already know and are terrified of them, which we as readers easily buy into.

Mieville is particularly good at evoking dread in his books, and gets to do so a lot in Kraken. Gunfarmers are mentioned early, and you get a sense of the scope of their menace but not why they are so feared. Eventually you learn, and it's very scary indeed! We keep meeting really vivid and bizarre groups of people, to the point where the novels feels like an extreme urban fantasy version of The Warriors. There are "Knuckleheads," people wearing motorcycle helmets concealing clenched fists where their heads should be. A faction of Nazis who embrace hedonism along with sadism. The gunfarmers, with cursed religious zealotry and a living nightmare for left-wing arms-control advocates. (I think there was also a handlinger reference early on? But it seems to be a different creature on Earth than it was on Bas-Lag.)

I suspect that a lot of people reading Kraken will already be familiar with Bas-Lag, and while this is a very different universe and fairly different style, quite a few things evoke those earlier works. The Tattoo himself and his Workshop feel very reminiscent of the Remade from New Crobuzon, the product of bizarre and sadistic magical surgeries. As with the world of Bas-Lag there's a sweeping range of distinct characters, but they're slightly more grounded here. Mieville does a good job at making his big cast out of memorable individuals, which avoids the frustration I sometimes feel in a book with many names to keep track of.

Likewise, the plot is twisty and sprawling, but I was able to follow it, and the various twists felt well planned rather than arbitrary. I enjoyed the progressive illumination of the storyline and backing mythologies, which went through quite a few fake-outs and reversals between villains and victims, as we come to learn who is actually the animating force behind things rather than merely reacting to them.


I suspected relatively early on that Vardy was behind the plot, grew more confident of that when he was conspicuously missing in action during the contrived apocalypse, and ultimately felt vindicated in my suspicion. My favorite aspect of the climax, though, was definitely the revelation of Grisamentum's plot. It's so weird but it makes a sort of internally coherent sense, more so since we're reading about it in this book; it would almost certainly feel less convincing in another medium like a movie. The final confrontation with Vardy in the museum wasn't as visually awe-inspiring as the Raw Shark Texts-ish battle with Grisamentum; but reflecting on the stakes of Vardy's plot made it more impressive despite the more static composition of that stand-off.


Overall, I feel like Kraken is one of my less favorite China Mieville books, but I still enjoyed it quite a bit, which says a lot about how I feel about him as an author. It's a kind of odd book to place: not a relatively approachable "in" to his writing like The City & the City, and not an iconic achievement like Perdido Street Station or The Scar; but people like me who've already come to enjoy his writing will likely appreciate the familiar-yet-original spirit of this novel.