Thursday, June 23, 2011

Review: Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis

Crooked Little Vein
By Warren Ellis

Published: 2007

Synopsis (via Goodreads): A burned-out private detective is enlisted by an army of presidential goons to retrieve the U.S. Constitution...the real one. Following in the steps of Neil Gaiman, Crooked Little Vein is packed with action, adventure, and a wild cast of characters that are sure to appease not only hardcore comic fans, but a whole new slew of mystery readers waiting for a surprisingly surreal treat that infuses the madness of the graphic-novel world.

My god, I can't express how fantastically messed-up this book is, and how deliriously I devoured it.  I was a little worried before reading this (seems to be a bit of a theme recently) because not all comic writers are up to the challenge of a full-scale book but Warren Ellis did it with sickening style.

The book opens with a rat taking a piss in a coffee cup while the narrator, Mike McGill, Private 'Invest gator', drags himself through the doldrums of a morning routine with very little ease. Mike has an uncanny knack as a P.I and worked his way well up a private film before deciding to go solo. Ever since he's been plagued by the most revolting luck, he's a self-proclaimed shit magnet, finding himself investigating only the most perverse elements of underground America. Soon after waking and stumbling around his dirty and trashed office he's visited by the President's Chief of Staff, who is a smart-talking asshole who shoots heroin. (I think you can guess from just that how insane this book will be.) He gives Mike half a million dollars to track down a book, a book that contains a second constitution, "it details the real intent of their design of American society, and twenty-three invisible amendments to be read and adhered to only by the presidents, vice-presidents and Chiefs of Staff." Bound in the skin of an extra-terrestrial that hounded Ben Franklin, the book vibrates lightly at the same frequency as the human eye thereby forcing you to read it. It was lost when Nixon gave it to a woman living on a houseboat and the trail has been cold for many years. It's Mike's job to rekindle the trail and find the book for the president.

You find all that out within the first five pages, the next 300 follows Mike's descent into the seediest and most bizarre and disgusting of America's underbelly, as he hops across the country looking for the book. His first search point is a cinema for macroherpetophiles, people who get off watching videos of Godzilla spliced with porn scenes of people in Godzilla masks. That sets the tone for the rest of the hunt, some are a little more harmless, homosexual bodybuilders who inject their scrotums with saline and oil tycoons who hoover up cocaine with an altered diving tank and mask, while others are downright disturbing and vomit-inducing. (I'll save you from a description, you can discover for yourself when you read the book.)

During the lizard lovers movie night Mike meets Trix, a heavily-tattooed Polyamorist (read: bit of a slut) writing her thesis on the "extremes of self-inflicted human experience." Five drinks later she's signed up to come along, and the sex-starved Mike (his last girlfriend left him for a transgender with a hair transplant on her nipples) has to work hard to stop staring at her like a perverted freak. Rather obviously they have sex eventually but their relationship is complicated by the fact that Trix has sex with every and anyone and is all for bestiality (as long as it's an appropriate and loving relationship) while Mike apparently is a prude who should have been alive 50 years ago.

This book is completely insane and all kinds of crazy, but as Ellis himself states, he began it as revenge to get his literary agent off his back. As crude and as obscene as it is, underneath the wild and crazy bukkake, prostitution and sex-addicts is a rather simple message. Life on the fringe isn't on the fringe anymore and hasn't been since the invention of the internet. The fringe went mainstream. There are actually about three rather annoyingly overt monologues by 'fringe/seedy characters' (one's a serial killer) about how all the 'sickening' depths that Mike thinks he's plunged into aren't depths at all since they can be readily found within a 2 minute google search. America (and I imagine much of the Western world) is driven and governed by sex, and the question that seems to come up again and again, is that if it isn't hurting anyone and they're doing it away from general society, who's it hurting?

This prevalence of sex is combined with an abundance of violence, Mike elbows a small child in the face so Trix can get the window seat on a plane and when the mother makes a scene Mike tells the air-hostess she was speaking Iraqi and the mother and child are escorted off the plane. On another flight Mike meets another P.I who he knocks unconscious after the man went on and on and convinces the air-hostess he was trying to light something (read: a bomb) in his shoe, and by the end of the flight the all the crew and passengers have had a turn hitting him and his face looks like steak. The violence is far less prominent than the sex and it sneaks up on you and is mentioned in such an off-hand way that it strikes you even harder.  I'd like to say events like those would never happen but I watch the news, only a few years ago we (Australia) locked up a middle-eastern doctor for months accused of terrorism purely based on a bit of paranoia and rage and only last week Vancouver was over-run by hooligans after their team lost a hockey game. It may be exaggerated, but the events of this novel are frighteningly real all the same.

Ellis obviously thinks the world has gone a wee bit mad, especially when you consider that much of the content of the book (other than the compelling second constitution) is a barely exaggerated version of what really is readily available on the internet and on the fringes of society. Whether you believe it's as important, prominent or as likely to go mainstream as Ellis shows it in this book is up for debate, but the book reminds us of the dark and disturbing possibilities that linger in our future.

The message of the book does pack quite a wallop by the end of the book but it isn't as dark and as preachy as I maybe have made it sound. It's a hard-boiled detective story for the F'd up 21st century and it is equal parts brilliant, hilarious, and (humorously) disgusting. My only criticism lies with Trix. She's mainly there as a foil to Mike's conservativeness and as a weird and sick tour guide through the depths of America's scum, and I wish she'd have just disappeared instead of sparking the romantic subplot that she does. It actually reminded me alot of Harry and Ginny's relationship in Harry Potter. It had a use-by date and it never truly meshed so it should never last. Plus her brash, modern 'I'll sleep with whoever don't call me a slut' brand of feminism was a little boring (and ridiculous) to me, she was the only predictable part of the novel. That said she serves an important purpose, so in the end I can live with her over-the-top, in-your-face stupidity.

This book isn't for the faint hearted. I've tried to lay some of the more gory/disgusting details right out on the table for you so you have an idea what you're getting yourself into, but I still think this could be a novel enjoyed by most people. (perhaps not my grandparents!) Yes it's outrageous, and full of drugs, sex, violence and swear-words but so are your average action novels. At least this book has out of this world writing and handles the messy topics with a bit of fun and a wickedly dark sense of humour while still knocking your breath out with the message. Plus if you read this you can cross Godzilla Bukkake off your bucket list, don't lie now, I know it's there!

My rating: 4.5/5


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