Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Ex Libris: Warren Ellis' Crooked Little Vein

There's a war going on for the mainstream culture and it's happening right in front of you.

I've always been a fan of comic book scribe Warren Ellis, having read his initial run on The Authority (post-Storm Watch) as well as his Global Frequency and Planetary comic books. (Alas, I haven't read his other cool stuff like Transmetropolitan... yet!) Reading his work as well as his blog, you always get the idea that Ellis is keeping a finger on what's been happening on the edges of the world's culture via the Internet.

Coming on the heels of another comic scribe who wrote a book (Alan Moore and his Voice of the Fire), Ellis came out with a novel that somehow solidifies what he's been trying to do with his comic book work. Well, what I love about what he's doing with his work anyway.

Written noir-style, Crooked Little Vein is about a down-out-of-luck burnt-out private eye Michael McGill who's been approached by a coked-to-the-gills presidential chief-of-staff to find the US Constitution that's been missing for 50 years. McGill's been selected for his uncanny luck of finding the 'weird'-- in all sense of the word-- stuff in life: to put it bluntly, he's a veritable shit-magnet (pardon my French).

Unfortunately, this Constitution he's sent to find is the 'real' one created by the US Founding Fathers and has the power to change reality, whether good for ill. The shadowy group behind McGill wants to make America 'great' again using the power of this alternative Constitution. Together with the polyamorous tattooed girl named Trix Holmes as his 'subcultural guide' Virgil to his 'everyman' Dante, McGill plumbs the depths of deviant America.

Here, he discovers that-- with the introduction of the Internet and the spread of different ideas via the Web-- the underground cultures/subcultures has gotten quite stranger in the post-Millennium. And what's even flustering to note is that-- as Ellis notes in his afterword-- all the dirty laundry that he reveals through McGill's journey is real, from the bukkakes to the Godzilla fetishists to what some people do with warm salt water to their testicles (arrgh!).

Despite the McGuffin that gets booted around the American landscape, McGill's 'real' purpose is for Ellis to show that things are a lot weirder now than one might expect. Moreover, the idea of a war on culture is bandied around. What is mainstream culture, given that what we know and think nowadays was probably taboo 20 years ago? Is it still an underground culture if one can google them on the Internet?

Unfortunately, Ellis has too much fun revealing the dark wormy underside of mainstream culture that I thought the story suffers as a result: a straightforward dot-to-dot cross-country search soon gives the protagonists the location of the missing Constitution. I thought it would be a little harder than that, even with some of the troubles McGill and Trix undergo.

The prose is also straightforward though since this was written by Ellis, expect it to be foul-mouthed as usual. Tone-wise, one can almost see Transmet's Spider Jerusalem to pop-up in the narration to give the proceedings (and McGill's commentary) some added spice.

If one reads this as a mind-blowing story (in the same way that Sophie's World can be considered a story), it works. But if one expects a little more detective story in the mix, one might get disappointed. Personally, I liked it because this is the stuff I've always expected from Ellis and will want to read more from him.

On a final note, it does make me wonder: what is it about British comic book writers who make their first novels about the US? First there was Neil Gaiman with American Gods and then there's Ellis with this one. Weird. Someone should write a book about that. (Rating: Three paws out of four.)

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