Archive for April, 2012

The title says it all.

Which is not to say this will be immediately apparent to everyone.

Or even that the authors themselves are aware of the clever double extenders that make the title equal parts blatant pulp (and I mean that in the bloodiest sense) and self-servingly kitsch. The book’s real intent falls so neatly between crass commercialism and apparent satire that the line is blurred. But blurring, it would seem, is the operant theme here.

The authors’ peculiarly gathered concoction plays fast and loose not only with traditional literary form, but with that which makes literature readily available: publishing. For that reason alone it warrants our scrutiny. It’s easy enough to write the whole thing off as a sophomorically prurient exercises in money grubbing, sexually-charged egoism (as the clergy once said of Elvis); the trick is knowing when and whether these exercises are mere fodder for the gore-hounds or are a carefully conceived lampoon. The literary merits of Kilborn (J. A. Konrath’s horror pen name) and Crouch’s tome may be up for discussion, but clearly these are anything but stupid guys. This is not just a novel, friends, this is a marketing machine. The real question is: are the boys parodying as they pander—pedagogues as they prosper?

Look at that wonderful title again: there are exactly three (omitting my own ‘review’) words in the entire hilariously long heading that are not unabashedly sensational: ‘the, ‘the,’ and ‘complete,’ and even ‘complete’ is made attention-getting by its artless overuse. It’s like a one-sheet movie blurb Hitchcock would have loved to have used: SERIAL KILLERS UNCUT! Or even better: THE COMPLETE PSYCHO THRILLER! And just in case it missed a pore or two on your face: THE COMPLETE EPIC! Hey, can even a serial-killing-uncut-psycho-thriller be all bad if it aspires to be an epic?

Konrath and Crouch are the eReader equivalents of William Castle (a compliment). “If you suffer from anxiety attacks, nervous disorders, or nightmares,” warns the forward to the book, “you should …try…something else.” Isn’t that what the sign says just above the rollercoaster entrance? Not a warning as much as a dare. Yeah, maybe you should, but you sure as hell won’t!

To my mind the authors share an even more common antecedent in Bret Easton Ellis. More on the Bretmeister later, right now let’s quickly review the legendary tale of young bravado and colliding forms of publishing that seeded this infernal tome and labored through its gestation. It began as a 7500-word eBook short story called Serial, given away for free online in what some may consider an act of madness but which has, in fact, become a standard marketing tool. According to the authors, it garnered, in two years, 500,000 downloads, a film option and a garbage truck load of incensed reviews (but any review is a good review, yes?) This, reportedly, prompted the fleshed-out book version which came next: Serial Uncut. It should not go lightly noticed that NONE of this would have been possible under the straightjacket editing and edicts of a traditional publishing house. The Kindle eReader had arrived, and say what you will about the authors, they saw their moment and seized it. At this point, according to some, their little venture ceased being a short story or long novel or whatever and became a lyrically official milieu—at least in the minds of the authors. The characters (and there are plenty of them), if not intensely deep and intricately layered, are by anyone’s standards well-defined: “good” and “bad.” More importantly, they consist of mainly perused and reprocessed protagonists from both authors’ other novels (and there are plenty of them). To keep all this straight, each character is hyperlinked to a ‘Character Page’ which includes their initial appearance. This is neither a new nor a particularly bad idea—what IS new, and either bad or just cannily monetary, depending on your view, is the egregious use of whole passages and entire scenes of dialogue from the writers’ own previous works! Again, that niggling blur. Is this merely lazy writing or an authentic stretch of literary boundaries? Art or artless? Was it even preconceived one way or the other? In any event, these guys weren’t about to stop until they’d intertwined, reused and reincorporated “every major villain they ever created into one cohesive volume.” Not until they’d tweaked, reconstituted, dismembered, and outright plagiarized their own previous novels: DESERT PLACES, LOCKED DOORS, BREAK YOU (don’t ask) ENDURANCE, TRAPPED, SHOT OF TEQUILA, WHISKEY SOUR, BLOODY MARY, FUZZY NAVEL, CHERRY BOMB, SHAKEN, STIRRED (how’d 007 get in here?) SNOWBOUND, ABANDON, DRACULAS and RUN—wait a minute, this isn’t a book, it’s Saw VIII! (Ye gods, look at all the free advertising I just gave these guys!—each available at your local neighborhood Kindle store, by the way).

Whether all these athletic contortions signify a laudable achievement seems almost beside the point. It’s certainly marketing genius. Smarmy? Maybe, but then, let’s face it, so is the book, which is sort of the whole point. Smarmy as art. Listen, de Sade made it work, otherwise we wouldn’t still be discussed and debated his books in drawing rooms across the globe.

De Sade isn’t a bad analogy here in fact; not so much for his graphic level of sex and violence, but for the patchwork way he, and our two contemporary authors, spatter them willy-nilly throughout the book’s considerable length. One can, I suppose, make a case for the skill and intricacy—the sheer will–required to thread so many lives and convoluted events together into something like a cohesive form, but it’s ultimately an empty argument, and probably not even a germane one. Like de Sade’s Le Philosophe de Boudoir, this is a school for scoundrels, an unapologetic treatise wherein the bad not only win out over the good, but revel, shit, and bathe in it. A kind of highway safety film for your Kindle. How long, they seem to taunt, until you simply have to turn away, or when your own inner morality says you already should have? Just keep telling yourself: it’s only an iPad. Face it, titillation works. As with Hitchcock’s own Psycho, we’d all enjoy seeing Janet Leigh naked and helpless in the shower, trapped but for our own sense of decency and chivalry. Whether or not we’d then decide to take a knife and hack her to death with fiendish impunity is a matter of individual taste, I suppose–but, in the film at least, she is done in. And what’s left to identify with?–only the manically demented, sexually annihilated, flesh-hungry Norman Bates for the remaining three-quarters of the movie. Was this what Kilborn and Crouch had in mind: trap you in the belly of the beast until your nerves are so frayed you’ve lost all sense of direction (and morality?). Is the message here, that ‘morality’ itself is subjective? To paraphrase Dylan: “People are hungry, and everyone’s gotta cut somethin’.” Also: “The times they are a’changin.” Do we nowadays lock our doors front and back under the ubiquity of real-life serial killers?–or are real-life serial killers ubiquitous now because we (and the media) have helped them believe their own hype? Have we seen the enemy and he is us, victims of our own victimization? Is there something more sinisterly analogous in the authors’ blood-drenched book than might be apparent at first blush? Is there a cancer growing on the nation, Mr. President?

Or are the authors just laughing at our own base penchant for grand guignol, keyboard in one hand, more than a little old-fashion rebellion in the other? By his own admission Kilborn/Konrath has openly dismissed legacy publishing and its dubious contracts and spurious treatment of writers in general. Safe in their lifeboat as the publishing Titanic goes down, he and friend Crouch may be sticking it to the Man here with more than a little payback gleam in their gloating eyes, but perhaps sticking it as well to the oblivious nation of sheep that helped finance the Man lo these many publishing generations. And, just as clearly, the eBook format is allowing them to wallow a bit in this newly available climate as every fresh-born iconoclast is wont to do; and who can really blame them? Freedom of the press may well be our last real refuge from the DRM-obsessed greed of the corporate machine. Hollywood may control entertainment in anti-trust questionable totality–Theaters, Television, DVD’s, Streaming, Recording and your parents’ spinning brains–but not yet the printed word. Not yet. The publishing boat that sinks today may float an Amazon Titanic tomorrow. And nothing corrupts so absolutely as…

Some of this is old hat, of course. How many of you remember the initial publication of the then-scandalous Peyton Place? Hands? No? Okay, how about the 1957 release of Lawrence’s finally unexpurgated novel, Lady Chatterly’s Lover? Hmm, still no hands. Well, don’t tell me you didn’t read Playboy in college! You know, some would have it that Hefner only got away with that rag because he bookended the T&A centerfolds with pages of Hemmingway and Machen. And got away with it. Never, by the way, get into an intellectual or commercial argument with Hugh M. Hefner—you will lose.

There was the much-hyped school-banned Catcher in the Rye, of course, but the major literary audacity in recent memory (not counting the short-lived Eros magazine) was Bret Ellis Easton’s American Psycho. Roundly trounced by critics and readers alike (no pun intended—some critics also read), American Psycho, with that ever dependable Passage of Time, has since found great favor among academia, become a cult classic on campus, and (no doubt to his chagrin) now is considered Ellis’ magnum opus (he was just 27 when he wrote it). The book, which uses surrealism to convey a sense of postmodern dread, mixing absurdist comedy with a bleakly violent personal vision, is certainly noteworthy, warts and all. A member of the literary Brat Pack that included Tama Janowitz and Ellis’s “toxic twin” Jay McInerney, Ellis has always considered himself a satirist, his trademark technique “the expression of extreme acts and opinions in an affectless style.” He also shares, here along with Kilborn and Crouch, the concept (gimmick?) of linking novels with common, recurring characters. American Psycho’s chief protagonist, Patrick Batemen (motels, anyone?) is based on Ellis’ own abusive father and, again, reoccurs in other of his works in various guises and forms, a major character in one novel, a minor walk-on in the next. It’s that blurring again, what is real, what is not?–mixed with a healthy dose of disassociation and outright contradiction. This novelistic blur maintains a high level of ambiguity: devices such as mistaken identity are the norm, for instance. “Hero” Batemen also comes off as a, presumably intentionally, unreliable narrator who, like Norman Bates, keeps the reader uncomfortably off-balance and at loose ends: what’s a sane  mind to do? Whether any of the unspeakable acts in the book actually happened or were mere fantasies of the delusional psychotic Batemen is never satisfactorily addressed. Or is that also intentional? Is it also intentional, even the point, of Kilborn’s and Crouch’s work? Or do I give them too much credit? In his novel Less than Zero, Ellis includes a reference to Tartt’s forthcoming Secret History with the throw-away line: “that weird Classics group…probably roaming the countryside sacrificing farmers and performing pagan rituals.” Like serial killers? But is it the characters–as in Kilborn’s and Crouch’s Serial–who are contradictory, psychologically damaged and disengaged, or the fission created by the novel’s quixotic and sometimes disengaging staging that causes discomfort? It’s worth noting that, after the death of his lover, Michael Wade Kaplan, Ellis was obliged to infuse Lunar Park (2005) with an uncharacteristic and wholly new (some would say refreshing) tone of wistfulness. For their part, Kilborn and Crouch eschew even the vaguest notion of wistfulness throughout the entire 120,000 blood-drenched words of Serial Killers Uncut. Can artistic style turn on a crisis of faith?

In the end, whether Serial Killers is a “good” book may be of secondary importance: what the hell kind of book is it? There’s no doubt it was written as an attention-getting device (no shame either; what book isn’t?) but to what extent and eventual evaluation does that have to do with any work’s essential worth? Someone once said, “A writer’s heaviest task is simply getting out of his own way,” finding that dream-like state which, like a sunny screen door,  lets the novel breeze-in without purpose or thought, guileless as an unexpected and probably undeserved gift…and always from “somewhere else.” It is possible Kilborn and Crouch were in such a commercial-hungry writing fever, donned with mental blinders, that they inadvertently blocked out all conscious affectation in the process? Or were they just having too much fun to notice or care? Like Ellis’ much-damned magnum opus, will Serial Killers—twenty years hence—be looked upon as a work of (albeit naively unaware) genius?

Or will the world’s ongoing brinksmanship of desensitizing anything and everything around us finally reach some unimagined point of diminishing returns, rendering literature itself as moot as the dinosaur, the corset and the evolutionary stunted eight-track? Along, naturally, with the eBook itself?