Review by Annika Barranti
What if the light just went away? Not just sunlight, but all light. The whole world in darkness. All of us blind.
One man, after losing his wife in early days of blackness and confusion, turns to a fictional hero of his own creation. The hero, Brendan Omay, was born blind, and he navigates the fictional streets of Windsor in search of damsels in distress to rescue, children to save, and general good to be done.
by Alexander Zelenyj
Fourth Horseman Press
On the flip-side, the born blind of our world form gangs and move into the cities, raping and pillaging.
Our narrator (Stephen, referred to by name only when his younger brother calls him) alternately mourns and denies Maria's disappearance while recording Omay's journal onto precious audio cassettes. They both feel the desperation as plant-life fails to thrive in the newly sunless world, animals become violent, and people become more alone.
This is the world of Alexander Zelenyj's novella Black Sunshine.
Zelenyj is an excellent writer. Every sentence conveys emotion and hopelessness and hopefulness and fear. However, his characters do not go on much of a journey in the darkness he creates. The narrator takes time out midway through the book to venture out for more cassette tapes. This is his only physical journey, though upon his
return he indulges in physical comfort with the girl in the apartment below. We wonder throughout “Where is Maria?” and when we learn what happened to her it is almost a letdown, as not knowing makes the reader feel a part of the desperate world of Black Sunshine.
Likewise Brendan Omay begins to descend into the same desperation felt by the formerly sighted, but he recovers quickly enough that we do not feel any journey, emotional or otherwise. But then, what journey do we need from a doubly fictional man?
The trouble is that we bring our own agenda to everything we read, we taint others’ words with our own experience, and we find ourselves living in the worlds created by authors. So when Black Sunshine ends, we, the reader, are left in a world without light, but have not learned enough about the people we share that world with. For the story to run on emotions, we need better insight into those emotions. Barring that, we need more plot.
As I said, the writing IS excellent. The end of the novella comes as something of a shock. We are left waiting for the next radio broadcast, the next recorded journal entry of Brendan Omay.
The use of a fictional hero within a fictional world is welcome. This is a comic book in which every frame is black. (In the introduction, written somewhat unorthodoxly by Zelenyj, it is revealed that this was the original intention for the story.)
Black Sunshine stands as the prologue to a story that Zelenyj hasn’t yet told. It sets up the world. Now we need a story.
Of Hobbits and Musical Theatre
Review by Allison Kinsell
When I heard the announcement that the musical stage version of The Lord of the Rings was coming to Toronto, I was dismayed. After all, Peter Jackson couldn't consolidate all of the events of Middle Earth into three epic films with massive special effects. How could the producers meld them into a single stage production?
The answer is: they couldn't. In order to fit Tolkien's epic trilogy into 3 1/2 hours, the creators slash plot and back-story to the extent that it becomes largely incomprehensible to anyone not familiar with the story. The truncated result lacks nearly all of the emotional power of either the source material or the Jackson films. Which is unfortunate, because despite the drastic editing, I realized as I watched that it didn't have to be so mundane.
In many ways, LOTR cries out to be set to music. Effective musical theatre takes the key moments of a story and enhances their impact by adding music. Throughout the production, I saw countless opportunities to do exactly that. The Council at Rivendell would be perfectly set to music: with debate sung in musical counterpoint until the moment when Frodo's words "I will take the ring to Mordor. Though I do not know the way."--spoken, of course-- results in each member of the Fellowship joining the journey in song to a glorious finish. Instead, the scene is simply spoken over dramatic music and remains flat and uninspiring.
The problem seems rooted in the producers' inability to decide how or when to use music to good effect. At times, it seemed as if they had just chosen to set Tolkien's songs to music; a decision that might have good effect in a less-edited version; at other times, to use music as scoring to the dramatic action. The difficulty with both approaches is that the creators seem to be relying on the music to create depth and emotion without any underpinnings to support it. Other songs seemed rooted in musical theatre tradition, from a "rousing" dance number in the Prancing Pony to a frequently reprised love ballad of Arwen and Aragorn. Unfortunately, this hodge-podge approach fails to satisfy . The music in LOTR rarely takes its audience to the next level, framing scenes that remain firmly rooted to the earth when they should soar.
One musical moment in the show that has emotional connection is Frodo's and Sam's song in the heart of Mordor "Now and For Always". The song, reminiscing about the Shire, not only beautifully demonstrates Frodo’s and Sam's bond, it extends in musical scene to include Gollum’s struggle with the memory of Smeagol and his inner conflict. It is a lovely example of what could have been.
The visuals are stunning, but the weakness of the production kept me overly aware of the technology behind it. I never found myself swept away. In fact, the elaborate hydraulic stage pieces had me frequently worrying about the actors, while the revolving stage and lights made me slightly nauseous at times. A pyrotechnic Balrog sequence at the end of the first act spewed black “ash” all over the audience but left me cold. The only effect that I found truly effective were the Black Riders, a combination of puppetry and stilt-work that worked brilliantly.
With two significant exceptions, the acting was so-so. Michael Therrault absolutely nailed his performance, creating a Gollum that was creepy, funny and pathetic all at the same time. He effectively erased any comparison to Andy Serkis's computer-generated characterization and made the character his own. The weakest performance, by far, came from Brent Carver as Gandalf. His high-pitched voice and meandering line readings made Gandalf seem more like a doddering old fool than a wizard of hidden power and strength. I commented to my friend that I never expected to see a version of LOTR where I was unhappy to see Gandalf's return.
The production is not without successes: The Orcs menacingly spring and gyrate on springy “feet”; Ents “throom” most effectively; a deliciously creepy Saruman menaces and Galadriel even presents her gifts to the Fellowship. These moments will satisfy most Tolkien die-hards. But Galadriel’s Space Diva headdress, an anti-climatic, poorly executed Mount Doom sequence and other ill-advised production decisions ultimately make this Lord of the Rings a failure.
I went with lowered expectations, but even so, I was disappointed.
Next Stop, the Zanesville Zone
Review by Karen Ratcliffe
Kris Saknussemm's debut novel Zanesville was published by Villard Books in October, 2005, and was described by The Austin Chronicle as "the most original novel of the year." It received similarly gushing praise from Kirkus Reviews and the Library Journal, along with a Starred Review in Booklist which judged it to be "brilliantly inventive black comedy" and
"one of the most creative, edgy and entertaining novels that SF has spawned in a decade."
Intrigued by a book that could garner such praise as both a literary novel and a work of science fiction, and curious about how a work of science fiction could also be a black comedy, I decided to take a trip to Zanesville. And what a trip it proved to be.
The book has the classical structure of a hero's journey-integrated in both amusing and sometimes frightening ways with the pursuit-by-enemies elements found in the action thriller or the increasingly interactive computer game.
A man with a damaged memory awakens to find himself in a New York City set 30-50 years into the future, in a troubled America ruled by a multinational "cultporation" (which is an unholy alliance of Big Government, Big Business and Christian fundamentalism). Forces compel the amnesiac (who is also hung like an elephant) to strike out across the country, searching for clues to his identity, his past and his destiny.
Along the way he meets a range of bizarre characters (and we're talking bizarre), some allies, some enemies. We learn that he has psychic powers that he can't always control, and we are treated to scenes of unique nightmarishness and hilarity, along with some of the most cogent and pointed satire on American culture to reach the page in recent years. (Not to mention a giant cartoon duck who demands a penis and begins preaching free love and commercial rebellion.)
But the sense of journey in the novel runs far deeper, wider and higher than the plot structure. The story is rich in complexities-not merely in terms of language or clever ideas, as with a writer like David Foster Wallace, or in its narrative threads, as with authors like David Mitchell or Michael Cunningham. Zanesville is in fact straightforward on the surface and "intensely readable," as several other reviewers have pointed out. Saknussemm carries formidable learning with ease, and never forgets his first responsibility is to tell a compelling story. But in the storytelling, he manages what very few writers are able to do-to create a new mythology. Although the mix of pop culture references and the literary, philosophical and religious elements are all familiar as individual ingredients, the whole that is created is fresh-shockingly so.
Yes, there are incidents in the book that are revolting. There are also moments that are laugh out loud funny. And there is certainly plenty to offend certain people. But it would take a thorough-going fundamentalist or a very dull reader indeed to deny that, confrontational or not, this is a genuine adventure of the mind, heart and spirit. Saknussemm has taken the denizens and debris of an embattled, imploded America and produced a glow-in-the-dark revival meeting of mutant unforgettables.
Annika Barranti (a Noneuclidean Cafe Contributing Editor) was born and raised in New York. She now lives in Los Angeles with her husband, their son, and several thousand books. She writes for blogging.la and maintains a personal website at noirbettie.com.
Allison Kinsell, former San Franciscan and current resident in the Greater Toronto Area, has finally adapted to a life featuring snow, hockey and Tim Horton's. She has been an avid fan of musical theatre and Tolkien since childhood.
Part New Zealander, part Irish, Karen Ratcliffe is a property investment specialist who drifted into arts administration, promotion and criticism by way of cultural tourism. She has written about the contemporary Australian visual arts scene and its connection with the literary avant garde, and has been involved in assisting and promoting international and metropolitan-originating exhibitions, readings and performance pieces into regional and rural Australia. She lives outside Melbourne in the scenic cultural center of Daylesford, Victoria.
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