Thursday, August 12, 2010
Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis
The world is a weird place. This is as true now as it was fifty years ago, but there's one big difference between us here in the twenty-first century and our primitive twentieth-century forebears: they didn't have the internet.
With the democratization of information, what was once only whispered about is now available to anyone who wants to see it. What few people knew, they can now share with the world. This is certainly true of science and history, culture and arts, but what concerns most people on the internet is not the finer, more cerebral aspects of culture.
It's the porn.
Have you heard of Rule 34, for example? The Rule states that, if it exists then there is porn of it somewhere on the internet. Remember your favorite childhood TV show? The one that you used to look forward to every week, and which perhaps you watched with your parents and/or siblings? You have fond memories of those times, I'm sure, and cherish the characters in your heart - characters that you grew to love and thought of as, dare I say it, family.
Well somewhere on the internet there's a picture of them engaged in acts that would make the Baby Jesus weep. Weep, I tell you. 
And that's not the worst of it. Warren Ellis is arguably one of the current superstars of the internet, with a huge online following. He produces content every day, and it's followed by thousands of readers all over the world. Much of the time it's talk about fiction and the industry of fiction, perhaps promoting up and coming artists or talking about the projects he's working on. Sometimes it'll be a commentary on the World Today, though that's less often. His output is varied and always interesting, and occasionally comes with a link that says, simply, "Don't look."
You looked, didn't you? Serves you right.
Well when Warren sends one out, the consequences are much more severe. He links to people who are doing things - usually to their bodies - that I would shudder to describe. There are graphic photographs and descriptions by people who willingly cut, mar, mark and sever things that (in my opinion) really shouldn't be cut, marred, marked or - and I'd like to stress this - severed. Should you be so brave as to click on one of Warren's links (these days usually reading as, "Conan! What is best in life?"), you will see something that you probably never wanted to see, and which you most certainly cannot un-see.
Keep in mind that Warren doesn't create these people. He doesn't find them and put them on the internet, unless he is far, far more diabolical than we give him credit for. He simply shows us where they are and lets us make up our own minds. To look, or not to look. To condemn, or not to condemn. Regardless, what he's showing us is a side of the world that most of us never knew existed, and were probably happy to have been ignorant of. The question then becomes, what are we going to do about it?
In his book, Crooked Little Vein, the U.S. government has the answer to the rising tide of deviation that seems to have engulfed the country in the latter days. There exists a book - a Secret Constitution of the United States. It was allegedly bound in the skin of an extraterrestrial and is weighted with exotic meteorite stones. The act of opening the book creates a sonic pulse that resonates with the human eyeball and forces you to read it. In it you will find the secret Constitution and its twenty-three invisible amendments that tells Presidents what the true intent of the Founders was. For nearly two centuries this hidden document governed the country, until it was lost in the 1950s. Since then, America has slid into perversion and degradation, and the White House Chief of Staff wants private investigator Michael McGill to track it down.
For his part, McGill wants nothing to do with it. Despite the huge amount of money that he stands to earn, he knows that taking this case will refocus the Universe's attention on him and he'll start to draw the freaks like iron filings to a magnet. And since finding the book is all about stopping the freaks, Mike is in for all of the weirdness that America can throw at him. Before he can find the book, Mike will have to confront the twisted, kinky and perverted side of the country and decide what is to become of it.
This book works on a lot of layers. For one, it's a fun read, and you'll probably get through it pretty quickly. Ellis is an accomplished writer, with a vivid imagination and an excellent ear for dialogue. He also has a very good sense of written rhythm, which probably comes from his main gig as a writer of comic books. Some of the chapters are single sentences, meant to be read and absorbed in a moment, but also to be thought on. When you get to Chapter 6, which simply reads, "I wish I still had that photo," you're meant to take a moment to think about what that means, both to the character and to the story.
What this means is that not only does Ellis know that he's telling us a story, he's vividly aware of the medium through which he is doing it and exploits that very well. It shows an awareness that most authors lack, or at the very least don't often take advantage of.
I have only one nit to pick about Ellis' writing, though, and I'm sure he will subject me to Horrors the likes of which you cannot fathom for pointing them out, but not to do so would mean I was shirking in my duties. This is how much I love you all.
While it is set in the United States, and is something of a dirty love letter to the country, there is a distinctly British English tone to some of the writing. Not too much, just enough to make you notice, if you're the kind of person who notices these things. His narrator uses the verb "trod" at one point, as in "I trod on her foot," which doesn't sound very American to my ears. Likewise, he refers to wainscot and leatherette, words which ring with a certain amount of Britishness. Maybe it's just me, but they kind of stood out. Your experience may vary. 
Anyway, beyond the simple entertainment of reading the book, there are some very real things to think about in there. For example, in an age where anyone can put up a webpage, what does it mean to be "mainstream?" What's more, what does it mean to be "underground" these days? Fifty years ago, homosexuality was something that most decent, God-fearing people didn't even know about, much less experience. Now there are openly gay actors, athletes and politicians, and the "gay next-door neighbor" is already a character so common that it's become a cliche. Is S&M, for example, "underground" when we've been making jokes about it in TV and movies for years? How about swingers? Hell even the pedophiles are mainstream, which you'd know if you were a viewer of Family Guy. How long with it be until we see saline injection fetishists, macroherpetophiles or functioning heroin addicts as being simply part of the endlessly variegated crazy quilt that is American culture?
What's more, should we allow all these people into the cultural mainstream? Is there a kink limit for society? Is there something that people can do to themselves, or to other consenting adults, that is just so Out There that we have to draw the line and say "No further, weirdo!" For those of us who are a bit more open-minded than most, can we turn around and decry the whitebread people who like their vanilla lives and sexual predictability?
Who will make that judgment call, and how? In this book, it's the U.S. Government that's trying to do it, and they'll roll the country back to the Fifties if they can. One of the wonderful and scary things about living in the Internet Age is that these cultural rules have yet to set in. We're looking around and seeing all the strangeness that we never knew was there and deciding in the moment what's acceptable and what isn't. Should we appreciate these unusual practices for their creativity and for the flavor they lend our culture, or should we snuff them out in the name of some notion of "Decency?"
Ellis' answer is pretty clear once you get through the book, and I have to agree with him. I've always been on the side of personal liberty, so long as you're not hurting anyone who doesn't want to get hurt. As for those of us who might be a little weirded out by knowing what it is that people get up to in their bedrooms, remember - you don't have to click on the link.
Either way it's a serious philosophical issue for the 21st century, and Ellis has done a very fine job of presenting it to us. Beyond the book, I have no doubt he will continue to do so.
"You don't get to keep the parts of the country you like, ignore the rest, and call what you've got America."
- Mike McGill, Crooked Little Vein
 Rule 35, by the way, states that the if no porn is found of it, it will be made.
 Warren's eels are doubtless on their way for me now. Run! Save yourselves!!
Warren Ellis on Wikipedia
Crooked Little Vein on Wikipedia
Crooked Little Vein on Amazon.com
Warren Ellis' homepage