Exile and the Kingdom

Author: Albert Camus

Translator: Justin O’Brien

Type: Fiction, short stories

Published: 1957

I read it: November 2016


I read The Stranger because it was a short one to check off the list, and then around the same time I found Exile and the Kingdom in the closest Little Free Library to hour house. The battered paperback was all too attractive (that yellowed smell) and it comes in right around 200 pages.

The collection is six short stories, all centered around isolation, foreignness, responsibility, and home. In “The Adulterous Woman,” the title character does not commit conventional adultery but rather steps out of her hotel room and into the night to have a spiritual experience with the universe itself. Unsure of her place and purpose, she reflects on the nomads she observes.

Homeless, cut off from the world, they were a handful wandering over the vast territory she could see, which however was but a paltry part of an even greater expanse. … Since the beginning of time, on the dry earth of this limitless land scraped to the bone, a few men had been ceaselessly trudging, possessing nothing but serving no one, poverty-stricken but free lords of a strange kingdom.

“The Renegade” is a loopy, stream-of-consciousness account of a man hiding along a trail and waiting to kill another man. He is a former missionary, at one time caught up in all the possibilities of his work (“I dreamed of absolute power, the kind that makes people kneel down, that forces the adversary to capitulate”). Instead, he is overwhelmed by the crazy cult that he thought he’d be able to convert, and then becomes so enamored with their effectiveness he becomes one of them before striking out to take action into his own hands. Frightening.

The workers in “The Silent Men” are much more recognizable. They are part of the working class, bending steel and shaping wood to make barrels, and their strike has just failed. The humanity is palpable, and even the boss comes across as identifiable. The men themselves are a sad sight as they try to grapple with their unchanged existence.

Yvars now felt only his fatigue and his still heavy heart. He would have liked to talk. But he had nothing to say, nor did the others. On their uncommunicative faces could be read merely sorrow and a sort of obstinacy.

No rest for the weary. The person coming to rest in “The Guest” is a foreign prisoner handed off at a schoolhouse temporarily shut down due to snow, though the schoolteacher still resides there. The schoolteacher must decide whether to let the prisoner go or turn him in, to trust him or fear him, as it is just those two in the schoolhouse for one night. The ethical implications are intriguing, but thankfully this story is not too harsh on its characters.

The artist in “The Artist at Work” has it kind of rough, though the story feels very specific to a certain kind of French art culture and way of life. The main painter’s followers are humorously obsessed with him, “remaining faithful to his esthetic” even though he himself “had only a very vague idea of his own esthetic.” If anything, the story is accessible in its depiction of a busy husband and father feeling claustrophobic and without aim. (It must be mentioned that his wife is a valiant character who does all the real work.)

“The Artist at Work” and the final piece, “The Growing Stone,” together make up about half the book. This final story, about an engineer sent to a remote village to redirect water, wasn’t the most interesting to me. It deals with culture clash, expectation, and the history and mystery of a place.

It seemed to him that he would have liked to spew forth this whole country, the melancholy of its vast expanses, the glaucous light of its forests, and the nocturnal lapping of its big deserted rivers. This land was too vast, blood and seasons mingled here, and time liquefied. Life here was flush with the soil, and, to identify with it, one had to lie down and sleep for years on the muddy or dried-up ground itself.

Six pieces, related by theme, often bleak but with streaks of humanity throughout: this book is a precursor to Black Mirror. There’s definitely a lot of ourselves to look at in Camus’ collection. The title seems all too appropriate, in these gray days when we contemplate our own kingdom, what may come of it, and who might be forced to go where. We have a long way to go before we figure out how to reckon with the strange ways of time and place.

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Posted by on December 2, 2016 in Short stories


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The Stranger

Author: Albert Camus

Translator: Matthew Ward

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1942

I read it: November 2016


Mersault is a man adrift in a life that moves around him. The novel opens with the death of his mother, and he goes through the motions to put her to rest. Other people do most of the work for him, and he spends a lot of time dozing off (the guy must be narcoleptic) and avoiding the blazing light and heat (the sun seems to have it out for him). He doesn’t have a bad life otherwise: steady job, girlfriend, interesting neighbors. He is self-reflective but has no particular stance on his existence:

Then he asked me if I wasn’t interested in a change of life. I said that people never change their lives, that in any case one life was as good as another and that I wasn’t dissatisfied with mine here at all. He looked upset and told me that I never gave him a straight answer, that I had no ambition, and that that was disastrous in business. So I went back to work. I would rather not have upset him, but I couldn’t see any reason to change my life. Looking back on it, I wasn’t unhappy.

The rest of the plot gets kicked into a gear because Mersault befriends a complete jackhole who plans revenge against a woman he hates. For some reason, the protagonist becomes his ally and even goes on vacation with the guy. And then, for some other reason, he commits a murder on the dude’s behalf. It’s partially due to that infernal solar influence: “It was this burning, which I couldn’t stand anymore, that made me move forward. I knew that it was stupid, that I wouldn’t get the sun off me by stepping forward. But I took a step, one step, forward.” And blam.

As the translator points out in the intro, the book is divided into exactly two halves. In the first half, Camus uses short, direct sentences to push his character toward tragedy. In part two, Mersault is detained and then sent to prison, and the writing breathes a bit. He runs through all the possibilities in his mind and basically admits that justice is being served to him as expected. In relaying a story from a newspaper clipping he gets ahold of, he sums it up as such: “I thought the traveler pretty much deserved what he got and that you should never play games.” Mersault is a traveler of sorts, going from free to condemned. Is he also the stranger? The title doesn’t seem to have a direct bearing on the story (unless I missed something big), but perhaps is meant to sum up being a stranger to oneself.

At the trial, Mersault’s friends and family all come to his defense, muttering to the jury, “You must understand.” (“But no one seemed to understand.”) As if the evidence against him wasn’t enough, he also undergoes a character assassination, with the prosecutor spending a large amount of time bringing up his mother’s funeral and Mersault’s apparently insufficient emotion at the event. The jury is convinced to try not a man, but a monster, even though Camus seems to argue that it takes only a normal man to commit a murder.

I wasn’t head over heels for the book, but I can see the attraction to studying it and picking it apart. I think I expected some sort of false-accusation story, but the crime itself was relatively straightforward. The twists and turns happen in Mersault’s head within those prison walls.

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Posted by on November 25, 2016 in Novels


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The World Without Us

Author: Alan Weisman

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Published: 2007

I read it: October 2016 (re-read)


Certain images from this book stuck with me after I first read it in 2008. Parking garages collapsing as the walls shear off; the New York City subway system flooding within 36 hours; cats hunting from the windowless rooms of skyscrapers; and my own personal visions of green overtaking the cement of every Midwestern street. On my breaks at Trader Joe’s I recall the bronze statue in the pedestrian plaza, from which I learned that “excelsior” means “upward”—a fitting inscription considering that bronze is one of the few materials that may last a long, long time.

Alan Weisman’s premise is simple: “Picture a world from which we all suddenly vanished. Tomorrow.” Not because of a supervirus or nukes or some other catastrophe which might in and of itself change the earth and other species, but just plain old disappearance. The ways in which the world changes without us depends can be glimpsed through how much we impact it now, and have impacted it in the past. One case study is the extinction of all the North and South American megafauna. Early humans crossed the land bridge into continents rules by various elephants, horses, large birds, dire wolves, giant ground sloths, saber-toothed cats, and the dreaded short-faced bear. As none of them evolved alongside primates, humans made relatively quick work of the beasts.

Aside from an ever-increasing wave of extinctions, what else will constitute the human legacy? Weisman alternately describes us as homo sapiens urbanus, homo sedentarian, homo sapiens petrolerus. Plastic, undoubtedly, is one giant signature that may last a while. Although plastic accounts for less than 20 percent by volume of buried wastes, with most landfills made up of far more construction debris and paper products (newspapers don’t biodegrade if they are buried far from air and water), plastics do end up in the ocean, in huge whirlpools such as the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre. Weisman also covers other types of non-biodegradable and toxic wastes, as well as the massive petroleum refinery landscape that makes up Houston, Texas. Get this: “Houston itself is huge enough to hold Cleveland, Baltimore, Boston, Pittsburgh, Denver, and Washington, D.C., with room to spare.” I’m not familiar with any of those cities personally, but I still had to read this sentence several times because it seemed so unbelievable.

Small experiments in what could fill the gaps that humans leave behind happen usually by historical accident. For example, there is a strip of land between the two Koreas called the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), where no humans have trespassed since 1953. These tiny natural preserves instantly gain biodiversity, which would happen worldwide starting the moment we are gone. Some architecture might remain for a while, but eventually “planet-wide piles of low bids come crashing down in a posthuman world, and do so even faster if the city is near a fault line.” Just as homeowners constantly do battle against nature to keep creatures, water, and other invaders from ruining houses, every manmade structure is subject to instant weathering and decay, unless buried far out of sight.

Of course, depending on our actual fate there could be evolved human survivors—or another species entirely—with enough intelligence to reflect on our one-time presence. This could happen in grand scenes, such as beholding Mount Rushmore, the granite of which erodes only one inch every 10,000 years: “Should some equally ingenious, confounding, lyrical, and conflicted species appear on Earth again in our aftermath, they may still find T.R.’s fierce, shrewd gaze fixed intently upon them.” Or, just as we dig up ceramic shards today, some of our tiny traces will still be evident:

Would geologists millions of years hence find Barbie doll parts embedded in conglomerates formed in seabed depositions? Would they be intact enough to be pieced together like dinosaur bones? Or would they decompose first, expelling hydrocarbons that would seep out of a vast plastic Neptune’s graveyard for eons to come, leaving fossilized imprints of Barbie and Ken hardened in stone for eons beyond?

What if the future beings are not human enough to really know what they are looking at, but are still on a societal trajectory more or less like our own? I love Weisman’s speculation on this point:

The chromium alloys that give stainless steel its resilience will probably continue to do so for millennia, especially if the pots, pans, and carbon-tempered cutlery are buried out of the reach of atmospheric oxygen. One hundred thousand years hence, the intellectual development of whatever creature digs them up might be kicked abruptly to a higher evolutionary plane by the discovery of ready-made tools. Then again, lack of knowledge of how to duplicate them could be a demoralizing frustration—or an awe-arousing mystery that ignites religious consciousness.

We don’t know exactly what they will find, and we certainly have no way of knowing how it might all be interpreted. So barring the magical vanishing of the author’s premise, how do societies actually fail and fade? Weisman’s primary example is the Mayans, where it seems that greed led the way. “An unleashed lust for wealth and power turned them into aggressors, resulting in reprisals that required their cities to abandon vulnerable outlying fields and intensify production closer to home, eventually pushing land beyond its tolerance.” It all comes back to viable resources, and large, successful societies forget that fact at their absolute peril. Today, we have a world society that could rise or fall as one.

Regardless of the bleak possibilities, I find the idea of a posthuman world fascinating and wonderfully peaceful. One thing that blips out of existence is human suffering, which is of a quality that no other animal has seemed to endure. In an instant, there would also be no such thing as waste or weeds. There would be no pressing against nature or pulling away from it, no struggle to keep the vines trimmed back from our doorframes. I can only imagine the immense sigh of relief that a tired and annoyed world might finally emit were we to be whisked away. If only we could watch it unfold from afar.

Addendum: I read this book and conceived of the review before November 8, 2016, but now it seems even more possible that we are living on a precipice. Climate change is a done deal; there’s no going back on this one. According to this book, it will take about 100,000 years for the geologic cycle to get CO2 back to prehuman levels, and that’s just based on the imbalance as of 2007, let alone the carbon output from of the next century or so. Weisman hints that we were perhaps never up to the task: “We may be undermined by our survival instincts, honed over eons to help us deny, defy, or ignore catastrophic portents lest they paralyze us with fright.”

In the shorter term, there will probably be a convulsion in population numbers based on our improper maintenance of food and water, the very real possibility of nuclear war, and the plain old tribal bloodshed that is already happening and may now rise even in first-world countries. If we don’t go extinct entirely, there will at least be a lot fewer of us at some point, which in and of itself will change the world in unforeseen ways. Weisman’s book mentions a movement about humans undergoing a voluntary extinction project, which seems quite attractive given the alternatives. The world without us: coming to a planet near you sooner rather than later.

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Posted by on November 18, 2016 in Non-fiction single subject


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Mycroft Holmes

Authors: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anna Waterhouse

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2015

I read it: August 2016


I received a free copy of this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway.

The brother of Sherlock Holmes gets his literary due here. It’s best to put the Mycroft from the show Sherlock out of your head, as the one in this book is a younger, stronger figure. Confusingly, he’s referred to as “Holmes” throughout (and Sherlock is referred to as “Sherlock”) which is a poor choice—why not call him Mycroft? It’s such a cool name, plus “Holmes” is forever branded to the main brother. Whatever.

Mycroft is a rather successful government employee who is friends with Douglas, a black man from Port of Spain, Trinidad. When rumors are stirred up of people going missing in Douglas’s home city, Mycroft travels with him as a representative of the Secretary of State for War, with Douglas as his assistant (who must sometimes appear as his servant to the suspicious eyes of other citizens and passengers). They are also on the trail of the mysterious Georgiana, Mycroft’s girlfriend who runs away urgently ahead of them to the same destination, but without explanation.

The story is cohesive and fun, with a lot of time spent on the ship between the countries and then in the larger drama that ends up being about slavery. The old standard is that historical fiction says more about the year it was written than the year it purports to be about, and to that end it’s clear that the authors wanted to wade into some heavy territory. It also feels like they did their research, though as a common reader I can’t be certain of the veracity of the historical tidbits.

As a character, Mycroft is a somewhat more level-headed version of Sherlock, and almost as smart as him. Sherlock is described as “one of the most singularly self-centered individuals anyone could ever meet” and mocks his brother for his tendency to “look at social inequities not as curiosities to be catalogued, but as wrongs to be righted.” Mycroft is easier to cheer for because he’s more human and idealistic, and is often as confounded by his brother’s characteristics as a reader of classic Sherlock stories might also be. (Mycroft also has  a fine taste in cigars and tobacco, but a disapproval of the meerschaum pipes that are coming into fashion.)

The writing suffices for the purpose and the period, with amusing lines like describing the characters running with “a pace that threatened to send them both tumbling arse over turkey.” I’m curious about the quantity, or angles and aspects, contributed by both Abdul-Jabbar and Waterhouse, though I imagine it was quite the mixed effort. The sense of place in both London and Trinidad is probably the best success, as well as the glimpse into the mind of an ambitious, cocky young man too smart for his own good: “Know this, Douglas—I believe fervently in an afterlife, and I am not afraid to die. Nevertheless, I find great confidence in facts, in the rational mind—most particularly in my rational mind.” As in other Sherlock stories, Mycroft is at the intersection of history and modernity, superstition and rationalism, and we get to see how he unravels it all.

Cover art corner: This book feels good. It’s got that ultra-smooth texture, and the linked chains are raised so you can run your finger along the pattern. The chains evoke the slavery issue, obviously, but also add a touch of the mystery and intellectualism of Harry Houdini. The curl into a skull at the top is a great touch.

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Posted by on November 11, 2016 in Novels


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It Takes a Village

Author: Hillary Rodham Clinton

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Full title: It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us

Published: 1996

I read it: September 2016


I found this book on the Salvation Army shelves and figured I should learn a little more about our future president, as I was already supporting her with my votes. I was in elementary school when Bill first got elected, and middle school when this book was released, so really didn’t know much about the Clintons while they were most active in the public arena.

This subject matter is obviously a passion project of Hillary’s, which makes the book part memoir, part research, and all advocacy. She chose the title “because it offers a timeless reminder that children will thrive only if their families thrive and if the whole of society cares enough to provide for them.” Early on, she underlines how all issues involving children are societal issues at the core, and we must improve society if our goal is to help future generations.

We learn how the author was raised (her father an old-fashioned Republican) and her accounts of being an ambitious young woman in many areas of her life. She explains the stability of the hardworking adult community she thrived in, and acknowledges the ways she saw young girls and women being stifled in various pursuits. But even throughout these lessons from the past, her book is about looking ahead: “We cannot move forward by looking to the past for easy solutions. Even if a golden age had existed, we could not simply graft it onto today’s busier, more impersonal and complicated world.” Her definition of the village is not a quaint one, but the larger village that stretches out beyond every type of home, town, and city.

I appreciated how she brings some science into the conversation by discussing then-current views of the brain. At one point, she responds to the idea that intelligence is fixed at birth and unchangeable: “This view is politically convenient: if nothing can alter intellectual potential, nothing need be offered to those who begin life with fewer resources or in less favorable environments.” She goes on to sum up the complexities of the issue: “It is increasingly apparent that the nature-nurture question is not an ‘either/or’ debate so much as a ‘both/and’ proposition.” (And when it comes to nurture, it seems we put all the burden solely on the parents.)

Of course, in all the talk about families comes the idea of family planning, and a requisite mention of abortion. Here, Hillary must acknowledge the tiresome battles waged over this topic, battles that only obscure the real issues and rational approaches to them. She explains: “The irony is that sensible family planning here and around the world would decrease the demand for legal and illegal abortions, saving maternal and infant lives.” Ease up on the logic there, lady. You wouldn’t want to deprive a good portion of the population from their precious chance to scream about murdering babies.

On the broader topic of what children do with their young lives, she writes: “Children should be encouraged to learn in all sorts of ways, not just scholastic ones. They have a natural sense of curiosity and a love of discovery that needs to be nurtured to sustain itself. Applaud and encourage learning for learning’s sake, whether it’s cloud-watching or understanding what keeps a kite in the sky or mixing paints to make new colors.” This deceptively simple concept of learning for learning’s sake continues to need explained and defending even today, as is happening in more recent books like The Importance of Being Little. It’s the type of learning that you can’t easily quantify in school progress reports, because children are “more attuned to the present than the future, the process than the product” and “are not afraid to fail or to make fools of themselves.”

Willing to wade into complexity, Hillary mentions the difficulties of raising our kids in a capitalist economy. Although acknowledging, as a politician must, that our system depends on people buying things, she’d like to draw a line on advertising that targets kids. She warns against the creeping influence of TV and video games, with some classic 90s examples that seem a bit quaint now, such as the brutal fighting of Mortal Kombat. I grew up in that TV and video game era but I didn’t grow up with the internet, and the point remains valid that onscreen images are a fierce influence on young child’s mind. (Let’s be real, they’re a fierce influence on adult minds as well.)

Toward the end of the book, as if she hadn’t already laid out a hundred other challenges, she describes a phenomenon that seems more salient now than perhaps it did 20 years ago: “the middle class, the backbone of our nation, is splitting, with more and more falling into ‘the anxious class’ of honest, hardworking Americans who go in debt every time a child falls ill or a family car breaks down.” The lack of universal health care for children is one of the great failures of our species, and medical bills are just one of the many reasons that families are sitting on the knife edge of stability. As Hillary reiterates again and again, it’s children who suffer most from these financial strains.

Despite all the interesting points brought up, I’m not claiming that this is a perfect book. One thing that baffles me is the complete lack of bibliography. There are plenty of stats and statements referenced throughout the book (if these didn’t exist there would be no argument to make at all), yet there is not one source cited. On top of that, it’s simply hard to know how similar or different any given fact is when updated to today’s reality. There are also the silly slogans peppered throughout, such as the need to “get us and our children to shut the refrigerator door and open the front door.” (The flip side are the bite-sized tidbits that ring more true, such as the promotion of community service being “the rent we pay for living.”) And finally, there are a lot more references to church and religion than I was expecting, though nothing seems to suggest that she would ever promote anything that threatened the separation of church and state.

It’s also clear that this book is a popularity tool for the brand of Hillary Clinton, which is more political fact than anything else. (Plus, who exactly was the audience for this thing? The godawful cover art suggests single aunts who indulge in large quantities of kitsch.) I’m not entirely blind to the criticisms against our current candidate, and there are valid points to be made for and against supporting her. Still, I believe her more than capable enough to have written a book on her own (even though apparently she didn’t, and there was some controversy around the fact) and that she really does hold the cause close to her heart.

In a prescient move, the final pages even warn against divisive anti-government views that won’t solve anything but instead plunge us further into chaos. While plainly stating that we should not overlook flaws in government because “critism and public debate are vital to a democracy,” she feels the need to further outline what we are trying to do as a society:

The idea is not to weaken government to the point of ineffectuality but to make it leaner and more supple in fulfilling its basic responsibilities: (1) to build a strong, globally competitive economy that grows the middle class and shrinks the underclass; (2) to bring the American people together around the shared values of opportunity for and responsibility from all, to support families at work and at home, and to build communities that fulfill their obligations to families, the environment, and those who need and deserve support; (3) to keep America the world’s strongest force for peace, freedom, democracy, and prosperity.

The success or failures of fulfilling these goals affects kids the most. This should be obvious, but it always helps to hear it spelled out again. And nothing should be more obvious that there is only one clear choice for president in 2016. We all have families, we are all struggling, and even those without children don’t want children to suffer. Are we skilled and compassionate enough to make these issues less urgent over the next 20 years?

Soon, we find out.

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Posted by on November 4, 2016 in Non-fiction single subject


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Through the Woods

Author and artist: Emily Carroll

Type: Fiction, comic

Published: 2014

I read it: October 2016


A coworker sent me a link to Emily Carroll’s site and for some reason I had forgotten that I actually read one of her stories (“Our Neighbor’s House,” from this collection) in BANR 2015. Either way, I enjoyed the online stories enough to want to check out the print book. It was a good call, even if the book was inexplicably shelved in the teen graphic novels section. I mean… I guess? A teen can handle this level of horror, but nothing about the author’s work indicates that it was written for that audience.

The earliest pages, as in before even the Table of Contents is presented, set a nice overarching tone and thread. A cloaked blue figure wanders a lone path through sparse trees, the moon and clouds trading shades of red. (The whole book is a master class in red and black.) In “An Introduction,” Carroll gives a presumably autobiographical three-page story of a young girl in bed reading and getting nervous about the darkness at the periphery of her bedside lamp.

Then we begin.

“Our Neighbor’s House” is a fine start, featuring three sisters left alone in a cabin near the snowy woods, after their father goes hunting and does not return. The major pieces of Carroll’s work are all here: a recognizable but unspecific time, the justified fear of a stranger, the feel of fable or fairy tale, and, of course, the woods. The story is brief and atmospheric.

“A Lady’s Hands are Cold” contains many of the same elements but with the added factor of gruesomeness. This is probably the most traditional ghost story of the bunch. Following that, “His Face All Red” is the sole story that features a male protagonist, a man who kills his brother because he wants a shred of the accolades that his popular sibling receives. This killing is a bad choice, as you might guess, because nothing stays dead for long in Emily Carroll’s visions.

Vision is an apt subject for “My Friend Janna,” possibly my favorite of the bunch. It has an added layer because the characters dabble in seances and communing with the dead, perfectly aware they are pulling off a big hoax. This nod toward realism makes the resulting haunting all that more interesting, and the outcome is creepily and subtly done.

“The Nesting Place” is less subtle, but that’s why it’s the last story. All of Carroll’s stories use a similar pace to build and unravel simultaneously, with a few startling images placed in key locations and the final pages tying a nasty little bow on the overall plot. This last piece takes up a good third of the book’s total pages, which allows for the most numerous and gruesome images of all. You can see how these ideas were built on nightmares.

The artful “In Conclusion” is a mini-story that shows the fate of our earliest protagonist, the girl walking through the woods. Does she get home safe? Carroll’s characters hardly ever do. The scariest thing is the inevitability of their red-bathed downfalls.

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Posted by on October 28, 2016 in Comics


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Mortal Kombat

Author: Jeff Rovin

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1995

I read it: June 2016 (re-read)


Yes, there was a novelization of the video game Mortal Kombat. Yes, I’ve read it… more than once. Let’s dive in.

To Bathe in Frequency

I’ve read a book or three in my day. I have favorites, but I don’t lean on them like a crutch the way I might with music. That’s mostly a practical thing: books take time, and I want to lean into the new. In a given year I might re-read a handful of titles, let’s say maybe four out of the 45+ I complete before December runs out. Even then, those instances usually mark only the second reading of a single book. I suppose there are some that have a larger count. I think I’ve read Lord of the Flies quite a bit, The Catcher in the Rye a few times way back when, stuff like that. Harry Potter for sure. LOTR at least four times and The Hobbit more than that. The list isn’t very long.

But then I was prompted to consider The Book I’ve Read More Than Any Other. And like the author of that post, I realized the answer was somewhat strange. A bit embarrassing even, though I’ve (mostly) outgrown the need to justify what I read or to waste time contemplating the low- and high-browness of anything. But the fact remains that the book I’ve read more than any other is Mortal Kombat by Jeff Rovin. I’ve read it eight times.

Eight times? Yep, and I know that because after the first time through, I wrote “6th grade (95)” on one of the inner pages and the list began. I kept track ever since, reading it throughout middle and high school, continuing inexplicably the first couple years of college, and then letting over a decade pass until realizing it deserved a post on my blog. Eight readings is not an enormous amount (Mr. Hanagarne of the linked post read the Terminator 2 novel a hundred times) but it still tops the list. Only Bilbo follows close behind.

Of Blood & Guts

This book was released in 1995 (I must have read it when it was brand new—I have no recollection of actually obtaining it), the same year that Mortal Kombat 3 came out. That means the original MK and MK II were fully established in the culture and in my life. What the hell was up with the Mortal Kombat phenomenon?

I remember the arcade version at Pizza Hut. I remember playing it at our daycare provider’s house, whose son owned it. I remember borrowing either the original or the sequel from him and biking home with the cartridge. I remember the finishing moves and the “Toasty!” and the raised eyebrows from my parents. We brushed off the violence as nothing.

It wasn’t nothing; it was interesting. I’m not going to attempt some grand statement about video game violence generally or MK’s influence specifically, though at the time this was considered a pretty intense piece of entertainment. There was a hint of realism to the games due to the graphics being based on in-studio actors, but the violence itself was highly cartoonish. Blood spurted in fountains, but the combatants’ powers were all magical. It was fantasy violence, if you take “fantasy” here to mean “of the fantastic; unreal,” not “I’m fantasizing about killing people.” One might argue that the latter is what first person shooters opened the door to. MK should probably bear only a partial burden as a stepping stone to more violent games. Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty this was not.

Still, the crunching of those digital bones had to have been offputting to a ton of parents at the time. It was a strange video game, Mom and Dad.

Art as Commodity as Art

Let’s get to the book! How does one write a book about a popular video game? Well, you choose to start with the skeleton (heh) mythology laid out in the games themselves. (A note on the cover explains this is “Based on characters created by Ed Boon & John Tobias for Midway Manufacturing Company.”) Then, you decide what kind of author you are. Are you churning out sheer product? Obviously this book, being officially sanctioned, was going to have the iconic dragon symbol on the cover (“the dragon of Shimura Island, with its horse-like head and sharp frills that curled up from its long neck, was a treasure dragon”). This puppy was meant to move units. But could it be artful? Is there a way to add quality to the whole scheme?

The first page is the Author’s Note, in which we are told that in addition to the specific characters from the video game, “most of the gods, dragons, heroes, alchemists, curs, and folk characters described or mentioned in this novel come from the rich mythology and history of China” and that readers can learn more by consulting two listed texts that were a big influence on this book.

Hold up. Was 1995 not yet entirely swallowed in marketing cynicism? You’re telling me that this thing kicks off by recommending two non-fiction books that the author turned to for guidance so he could write an actual novel?

Turn the page, and there’s another readerly surprise. An epigraph:

The roots of a thing may be well balanced, but its branches may be deviant.
– The Nei P’ien of Ko Hung, A.D. 320

Is this a genuine attempt at story?

Rockin’ Rockin’ Prologue of the Gods

The prologue continues in the honorable vein of establishing a mythology. How can we get to a story about otherwordly fighters? It makes sense to start with deities. The first being was P’an Ku, whose birth and death marked “the beginning of all things physical, the start of growth and change and decay—the beginning of time.” Next came the multi-limbed god T’ien, whose heart radiated auras from four separate chambers: one that led to our world, one to T’ien, another to the world of the dead, and the final one to Outworld.

Outworld, of course, is where strange demons dwell.

Kung Lao & Co.

Oddly, the first MK-brand character we meet is Kung Lao, who wasn’t introduced in the games until Mortal Kombat II. There, he appeared a solemn character with little flair, his sole signature being his hat, the circular brim of which was ringed with a razor-sharp blade. (It was a lot of fun to fling that hat across the screen.) Here, he is a willful young Chinese man who, in the year A.D. 480, is arguing with his Aunt Chen about wanting more from life. His aunt wants him to be safe, but Kung Lao blasphemously wants to seek the truth about the god T’ien, whose very visage is not allowed to be rendered.

I’m not sure how much I dwelled on this in past readings, but the early theme of knowledge is refreshing, not to mention wonderfully stated. In convincing his aunt of his passion, Kung Lao supports the increasing skills of the local monks and states that “we grow by learning, and we learn by doing.” A few pages later, Aunt Chen reasonably asks why he can’t just “enjoy being human” and do things like court a woman, read, and tend plants. It’s not enough for him:

“I would prefer to know how and why the sun moves than to watch it set. As for the others, love fades and trees die. Paintings fade or become quaint relics. Knowledge is all we can truly pass on, all we can build on.”

So Kung Lao sets off in search of truth. Along the way, he notices the figure of a stranger tracking him… a stranger who is preceded by lightning, wears a conical straw hat, and has a blue sash around his waist. He speaks to Kung Lao of duality and mysteriously guides the youth forward, yet for now goes unnamed.

The next couple chapters swiftly introduce us to the opposition: Shang Tsung, holed up in a crumbling Shaolin temple and devoting his decades to study. Not unlike Kung Lao, he’s on his own search for the truth. Here the author again ties in references to actual philosophers and scribes to give scraps of mysterious writings that Shang is following so that he can tap into the world of gods. He’s trying to open a door to Outworld, the home of Shao Kahn, the big boss from MK II and Shang’s ruler. Shao Kahn can’t yet cross through to earth, he can only demand his slave demon, Ruthay, to act as messenger to Shang Tsung. The initial exchange between Ruthay and Shao Kahn always stuck with me (I have a vague memory of reading it in the backseat of the car on a summer day). Not a character from the games, Ruthay is a fearful, groveling creature meant to repulse: “beads of bloody sweat erupted on the demon’s parchment-thin yellow flesh.” Poor Ruthay.

Back to Kung’s journey. He finally realizes that his new friend is Rayden, the thunder god. Curiously, his description of Rayden’s fighting skills include one of the only times in the book in which moves from the game are explicitly mentioned: the Lightning Throw, the Torpedo Attack. Kung Lao does not use his hat as a weapon, but he does undergo martial arts training and Rayden bestows upon him a magical amulet. The fighter travels to Shang Tsung’s island once a year and competes in the mysterious tournament of Mortal Kombat. With the help of the amulet, Kung Lao becomes the returning champion, winning for thirteen straight years. But one year he senses a new evil, and hides the amulet so that in the case of a loss it won’t fall into the wrong hands. Four hands, actually.

Goro was probably the coolest character of the original Mortal Kombat game. The four-armed beast was the sub-boss, Shang Tsung’s lackey. Many will remember getting caught in his grip and pounded. He was immensely strong but seemed dumb. In this book, we are reminded he’s a Shokan Prince. He arrives at the tournament with confidence, and between snacking on reptiles, keeps up with regular conversation along with the rest. This is a very active Goro.

Kung Lao loses Mortal Kombat without the amulet. Goro wins the tournament on behalf of Shang, and that’s that for Part I.

Choose Your Fighter

A good 1500 years later, in the present day, Shang and crew are still alive because the tournament’s victors do not age. He still needs to figure out how to get Shao Kahn through the portal, and can do so by collecting souls. But it’s slow going, so he hires someone to seek out the ancient amulet. Hello, Kano.

Here we meet the regular players in swift yet efficient introductions. Kano is contracting for Shang Tsung, leading a group of mercenaries through the Chinese foothills. He’s trailed by Sonya Blade in disguise, who is out for revenge. Sonya is a partner to Liu Kang, both of them super-skilled martial artists. These three take up a lot of page space. Kano becomes a bit too integral to the plot, but he does have the butterfly knives and the red eye (there’s a nice bit of detail where he is able to read a map at night).

Apart from the first third of the book, which does the most with the smallest number of characters, the Scorpion and Sub-Zero rivalry is the next-best thing. These two were always fan favorites in the game, dressed the same but in different colors, one fire and one ice. According to Rovin’s take, Scorpion is the good guy and Sub-Zero is the baddie.

Scorpion’s origin story is super cool. A poor fisherman is murdered by an assassin, and the assassin throws the body in the canals. The demigod of the canals is not okay with this dishonorable disposal. He lifts the spirit of the dead man out of the water and floats him to the bedroom of his son. The spirit of the father merges with the body of the son, and powered by supernatural revenge they become Scorpion. Even the name and weapons are explained: the new father-son will use the hooks and barbs of the fisherman’s trade, the sting of which will be like that of a scorpion.

The assassin, of course, was Sub-Zero, a ninja’s ninja who resides in a cliffside cave and whose his icy powers are drawn from his soulless center.

So Scorpion joins Liu and Sonya under the guidance of Rayden and these are the good guys. Oh, and there’s also a new Kung Lao, descendant of the first and a peaceful priest. Sub-Zero reluctantly works with Goro, Kano, Shang, and a cameo Reptile to be on the bad side of things. Yin and Yang were mentioned early on in the book (“the interaction of these qualities was what influenced the destinies of events and creatures”) and there’s a nice sense of closure to know who exactly is on which team in this interpretation. (Scorpion is a good guy!)

Of all the faces from the first MK game, only Johnny Cage is absent here. And thank the dragons that it’s so. Clearly the lamest character, there would have been no logical fit. Kano is annoying enough in his own right, and Liu Kang has a bit of American cockiness to at least partially fill the Johnny Cage gap. No one is weeping for this exclusion. There is a mention of Jackson Briggs being Sonya’s boss, though, which is nifty.

Also: Baraka. The fan favorite makes an appearance as a demon priest who cuts up bodies as sacrifices and then uses the blood to paint on a cave wall in reverence. It actually kind of works, and at least gives some reasoning behind the big blades.

A Queue By Any Other Name

With multiple readings come at least a few ingrained memories, one of which is the first time I came upon the word “queue.” There on page 10 I can see eraser marks from where I had once circled the word, and then at the end of the paragraph wrote “pronounced: kyu.” The definition here is the type of ponytail that Kung Lao wears. Until Netflix eventually made the word popular stateside, this was the only usage I came across.

(I remember marking words to look up while at my desk before class started in high school. Whoever sat in front of me noticed what I was doing and idly commented on it. He said he’d never do that voluntarily. Not in a mean way, but just that in observing me studying this book [even then, I knew it was a pretty corny one to be carrying around] it occurred to him that I was the type of person who would look up words I didn’t know, while he was not. I went to school with some pretty civil young people, all told.)

Other things that always stuck with me from the book: Liu Kang’s recollection of a game he played with his brother in which they would surprise each other and attempt to wrestle the other down, which went on for years while a tally was kept; the first Kung Lao’s pre-fight ritual of scraping thorns over himself so that he would be that much more hesitant to let his opponents land a blow on his tender skin; Sub-Zero being raised by the dreaded Lin Kuei, who snatched kids at a young age and put them through brutal trials in which only the best survived to become deadly ninjas.

These backstories made the book worthwhile, and were more memorable than the fighting because the fighting, although plentiful, is rather tame and mostly bloodless. Instead, there are some brief reflections on the experience of injury:

Nothing kept one from dying like intense pain. On the contrary, it brought one to life—from the burning agony of the wound itself, to the raw insides of one’s screaming throat, to the hate in one’s heart for the one who was doing the killing.

This balancing act of telling the story of deadly fighters while not detailing too much of the gore is similar to the strategy that moviemakers took when they explored Mortal Kombat in yet another medium.

At the Movies

I’m pretty sure I saw this movie in the theater. It was a big deal, at the height of MK mania, released in (you guessed it) 1995. Comparable perhaps to Batman Forever in the same year, this was a surprisingly serviceable live action video game adaptation.

For those on a nostalgia wave, I’d recommend reading this oral history of the film. Sounds like they had a blast making it. Hewing to its own take on the mythology, the movie centered on Liu Kang coming to terms with the death of his brother and being drawn to the mysterious tournament. It’s about as logical and loony as can be, and not all that different in tone from the books. Quick comparisons here:

  • Liu Kang was solid, played by a good actor, and fit the part well. Book Liu is alright but kind of forgettable. Both of them summon exactly one fireball in a dire situation.
  • Sonya is decent, driven by her one-dimensional motive of hunting down Kano. Same as in the book. No bicycle kicks or pink energy balls in either though.
  • Kano is great in the movie, though he appears only briefly. This is the exact type of Kano I picture in the book.
  • Rayden is lame in the movie. I know, he’s probably the biggest name they wrangled, but he’s way too genial and not believable as a commanding demigod. Book Rayden, described as inhumanly tall and depicted in the single graphic in the book as having the glowing eyes, is way better. Why is he kind of old in the movie?
  • Opposite goes for Shang Tsung. In the movie, why is he so young? Old Shang, also depicted accurately in the painting at the beginning of the book, is the way to go.
  • Goro was kind of neat in the movie (he was obviously a guy in a suit or some big animatronic creation, but they did what they could and it beats CGI). He’s a lot dumber than book Goro.
  • Scorpion and Sub-Zero are mindless foes in the movie. Their main fight scenes against the protagonists are actually kind of cool, but they have no backstory.
  • The movie has Johnny Cage and a painfully unforgettable line about his sunglasses. It’s like a cinematic punch to the nuts.
  • Kitana was also in here for some reason.

I saw this movie a lot (probably at least eight times, heh) and the sequels were crap. But it’s still cool they pulled it off. And let’s not forget the song that quickly came to define not just the movie but the games themselves.

Wherefore Art Thou, Jeff Rovin?

Our implicit question here is the same we might propose for all books, but perhaps jumps to fore quicker for this odd cross-medium attempt: “Is the book any good?” A quick yes or no can never suffice (otherwise the posts on this blog would be very brief indeed), so then we lean on the related question: “Is the book any good given what it set out to do?” That is, is this a worthy novelization of a goofy video game?

I lean toward yes. The issue of whether this should ever have become a book at all is totally valid, but the finished product is not from the bottom of the barrel. There is real writing here, as seen in the original Kung Lao’s journey to the tournament (“he had managed to capture and cook a pheasant… a molting, ancient thing that seemed to welcome the broken neck he gave it”) or a brief description of a ghostly yet tangible being (“his voice unheard yet heard, like the sound of reading”). There are a few philosophical nuggets scattered throughout, which were effective  when I was in the target audience: “Behind every myth there is some truth, and behind every truth there is more myth.” Not just fluff, that. Jeff Rovin seems to have done the artist’s baseline duty of at least taking the project seriously.

And where are you now, sir? I can’t even try to weight this question with mystery. You are alive and well, for our Goodreads tells us so. I still have a paperback with your name on it, cracked and worn and an odd sight amongst the other books in my collection. I honestly don’t know what to do with the copy now. But I can say that I read it. Did I ever.


Posted by on October 21, 2016 in Novels


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