Heart of Darkness (1899)

Scan 4‘Exterminate all the brutes” – Kurtz.

Joseph Conrad’s novella ‘Heart of Darkness’, written in 1899, is perhaps most well-known for having inspired Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film adaptation ‘Apocalypse Now’. If you’ve seen the movie, which I’m sure you have, then you already know the basic premise of ‘Heart of Darkness’ – a man’s journey upriver to find the elusive ‘Kurtz’, who has gone insane. The journey is both physical and metaphorical, in the sense that the closer the protagonist gets to Kurtz, the closer he gets to confronting his own demons. While the novella tackles the -ism themes of imperalism, racism, and barbarism, its main target is the inherent darkness dwelling in every human heart and how easily a well-adjusted and conditioned member of society can fall prey to its influence. This is a theme that was further fleshed out by William Golding in his groundbreaking ‘Lord of the Flies’, written 55 years after Heart of Darkness.

I first read Heart of Darkness in high school, many years ago, for my literature class. I had the choice to either write my final essay on it or ‘Passage to India’, and I chose the latter. The main reason was I found it difficult to really get into Heart of Darkness due to its stream of consciousness approach – the entire book is a monologue from Marlow, the protagonist, retelling his story of meeting Kurtz to his fellow crew in England.

It’s impossible for me to review Conrad’s masterpiece without comparing it to Francis Ford Coppola’s (arguably greater) masterpiece, Apocalypse Now. They’re both essentially the same, except the movie changed the setting from the Congo River in 1890 to the Mekong Delta in 1968, during the Vietnam War. In Heart of Darkness, Kurtz is an educated Englishman and ivory trader, and Marlow is sent to check up on him and his operation. In ‘Apocalypse Now’, Kurtz is a highly decorated American colonel who fled to Cambodia to lead a small army of natives outside of the US militaries jurisdiction, and Willard, the protagonist in the film, is sent on a top-secret mission to assassinate him. In both texts Kurtz has suffered from ‘jungle fever’ and has a large group of followers who look up to him as a sort of God-like figure. Both texts also share the allegorical journey to the ‘heart of darkness’, where everything that appears externally actually serves to represent the inner battle that they are constantly fighting; the battle for their soul.

“There’s a conflict in every human heart, between the rational and the irrational, between good and evil. And good does not always triumph. Sometimes, the dark side overcomes what Lincoln called the better angels of our nature. Every man has got a breaking point. You and I have one. Walter Kurtz has reached his. And very obviously, he has gone insane.” – Apocalypse Now

“Everything belonged to him—but that was a trifle. The thing was to know what he belonged to, how many powers of darkness claimed him for their own.” – Heart of Darkness

I have to say I prefer the film adaptation to the book, and that’s because it’s paced a lot better (Heart of Darkness doesn’t really pick up, or make much sense, until halfway through), and does a better job of capturing the dark tone that is paramount to the theme of the novella. The film’s combination of an excellent script, eery synth music, and the unflinching violence juxtaposing the beautiful jungle scenery, makes for a better synthesis of the book’s themes. I also found the PTSD suffering Willard to be a better suited character to be drawn to Kurtz’s descending madness, as he shares Kurtz’s resentment of the military institution and has the same seed planted in his mind that lead to Kurtz’s own disintegration. With Heart of Darkness, Marlow’s fascination with Kurtz never felt justified as there was no real similarities between the characters. Marlow felt more like a spectator to Kurtz, while Willard was in many ways linked to him.

That said, Heart of Darkness is still a fantastic book, and contains some beautifully poetic prose, especially in its descriptions of the Congo river and its surrounding jungle; the jungle in Heart of Darkness is very much alive, and its presence is so dominant that it is almost fair to say that it, and not Marlow, is the protagonist of the story. Without Heart of Darkness there never would’ve been an Apocalypse Now, and for that reason alone I have a deep respect for Conrad’s book.

* * * 3 stars 

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Echo’s Revenge (2012)

I was recently asked (and by recently I mean over a year ago) if I would be interested in reviewing a YA (young adult) book which was due for release in May 2012. Even though I don’t read young adult fiction I replied to the email anyway and said I would check it out. Here I am, writing a review, hundreds of days later, simply because I finally got around to reading it and thought it was actually pretty good.

The book is about two brothers, 11-year-old Jeremy, and 14-year-old Reggie, who are stuck in a life which they believe to be a far cry from normality – living in an unstable home with an abusive and alcoholic step father – something that sadly a lot of kids can relate to. These kids are too young to do drugs, and so their method of escape is online video games. The video game of choice for them is a first person shooter called Echo Hunt, which allows them to enter a temporary world where they can excel and be praised for their skills rather than be put down and told to take out the trash.

The ultimate purpose of the game is to find and destroy a shape-shifting cyborg mutant called Echo, which is described in the book as a ’35-foot tall extreme predator clad in impenetrable armor’ that can de-cloak and materialise ‘out of nowhere, like a nightmare of shiny, sharp, shifting, glass like scales’. Sounds pretty scary, right? Well not for Reggie, who is somewhat of a master at the game and has built a reputation among his fellow gamers for being able to destroy this virtual tyrant with ease. Word of Reggie’s skills spreads like fire and soon he receives a letter by the game’s creators asking him to meet with several other kids just as good at the game to help with the brainstorming of an update to Echo Hunt. All the while Reggie feels a strange presence around him, like he’s being followed. As each of his gamer friends mysteriously disappear one by one, Reggie soon discovers that Echo is stalking him for real and that it is a lot different when you’re not playing a video game.

The premise of the book lends itself to the idea of blurring of the lines between the virtual world and the real world and does it quite well. As it’s aimed at a younger audience its involvement with video games makes it more relatable to kids today, but then again they are probably too busy playing games to read anything that doesn’t stimulate their attention in short meaningless bursts (e.g. anything that isn’t Facebook or a top 10 list of something). Unfortunately it doesn’t help that the book is a bit too long for most attention spans roaming the planet today. If you write and market a book for kids growing up with TV, computers, internet, iPhones and games, and not so much books, it better be a quick read, which this is not. Overall I rate this as a decent book that has the potential to become popular, and hopefully might encourage the youth of today to unplug themselves from the matrix for a while and sit down and read. If I were into young adult fiction I would give this book a 3 or a 4, but since I’m not, it gets a 2/5.

* *  2 stars 

Way of the Peaceful Warrior (1980)

peaceful warriorI haven’t been reading or writing much lately, but I did just finish Way of the Peaceful Warrior, a book that was given to me long ago by a friend of my brother. The friend was addicted to heroin at the time and had just pawned off my acoustic guitar I lent him in order to buy more junk. He came to me shortly after the event and told me he had something for me while reaching into his backpack.

I knew my guitar wouldn’t fit in the bag… and I wasn’t using heroin so I had zero idea what the hell he was about to give me. Out of his bag he pulled out a beat up copy of `Way of the Peaceful Warrior’, handed it to me with a smile, and said `I never give my books to anyone, but I want you to have this’. I glanced at the front cover, which boldly claimed it was a `Book That Changes Lives’, and automatically thought `heard that one before’, said thanks, and put it in my bag. In retrospect I noticed he was a lot calmer than usual, but I didn’t make any connection between that and the book he gave me. At the time I was so absorbed in my own little world that I had minimal awareness of other people and my environment.

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The Damage Done (1997)

Warron Fellows

A few years ago I was on my way to Thailand and wanted something to scare me out of doing something stupid that could land me in prison. I was also in the mood for something to read on the plane. I had heard about The Damage Done, which was described as being a sort of Thai ‘Midnight Express’, and I knew from that comparison that it was the book I was looking for. Warren Fellows retells the story of his devastating experience in several of Thailand’s most notorious prisons for trafficking heroin in the late 70s. The Damage Done (1997) contains twelve years of this man’s life condensed into roughly 200 pages, his words hauntingly remind you that unless you’re locked up in a Thai prison, you’re living a pretty sweet life. The Australian born writer has a way with words and once you start reading it you find yourself addicted. The author never drags on and also doesn’t play the sympathy card, but instead suggests that the punishment doesn’t match the crime. He tells it as it happened, and you have to admire his courage. A very good read, from start to finish… speaking of which, the way the book ends was very unexpected and has definitely stuck with me, it really makes you question the prison system.

★★★★ 4 stars 

The Search for the Dice Man (1993)

luke rhinehartThe Search for the Dice Man (1993) is the sequel to the groundbreaking novel The Dice Man (1971) by Luke Rhinehart. When I first read The Dice Man I knew I had just finished a book that would be very hard to top, and I made it no secret in my review that it was (and still is) the best book I have ever read. So it was with great excitement that I started reading its sequel… Dear readers, it saddens me to say that great excitement has a way of leading to great disappointment. That is not to say The Search for the Dice Man is a disappointment – I really enjoyed it – it’s just overshadowed by its giant of a predecessor. Nothing can touch the original novel, and this sequel is certainly no exception.

The story takes place 20 years after the original Dice Man left off, with Luke being on the run after his crazy dice rampage, however this time the reader is not placed in Luke’s shoes, but rather into the shoes of his whiney son Larry Rhinehart, who has grown up to be the total opposite of his father – a hotshot futures trader in Wall Street who reached the top by leaving nothing to chance. Larry seemingly has it all: a high paying job, a yacht, a beautiful woman, a high paying job, a yacht etc. All is well for Larry until he hears news of his missing father’s reappearance in a newspaper article, and predictably enough his world of order and routine is injected with a syringe full of chaos. If Microsoft Word ever had a feature to randomly generate plot templates, I’m sure this would be one of them. Plot cliques continue as Larry, who is clearly sick of therapy, goes on a quest to find his estranged father and tell him off for abandoning him all those years ago, all the while FBI agents follow his footsteps in the hope of catching the infamous Luke Rhinehart for themselves.

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The Dice Man (1971)

dice man

[Taken from the blurb on the back cover]

If that dice has a ‘one’ face up, I thought, I’m going downstairs to rape Arlene. ‘If it’s a one, I’ll rape Arlene’ kept blinking on and off in my mind like a huge neon light and my terror increased. But when I thought if it’s not a one I’ll go to bed, the terror evaporated and excitement swept over me: a one means rape, the other numbers mean bed, the die is cast. Who am I to question the dice?

So Luke Rhinehart, novelist, autobiographer and bored psychiatrist, makes his first dice decision. Rape accomplished, he begins to live the dice life in earnest. With every move he makes determined by the throw of the dice, he rampages from one outrage to the next, from uninhibited promiscuity to murder…’

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American Psycho (1991)

american psycho bret easton ellis

 “I have all the characteristics of a human being: blood, flesh, skin, hair; but not a single, clear, identifiable emotion, except for greed and disgust. Something horrible is happening inside of me and I don’t know why. My nightly bloodlust has overflown into my days. I feel lethal, on the verge of frenzy. I think my mask of sanity is about to slip.”

American Psycho (1991) is a hallucinatory web of social satire spun by author Bret Easton Ellis about a psychopathic serial killer who works in Wall Street in the 1980s. The book examines the dark side effect of a society heavily absorbed in a life of passive consumerism and also its desensitisation to extreme violence through television. The magic of American Psycho is how the author manages to juxtapose these two threads seamlessly – “Dinner last night? At Splash. Not much to remember: a watery Bellini, soggy arugula salad, a sullen waitress. Afterwards I watched a repeat of an old Patty Winters Show that I found on what I originally thought was a videotape of the torture and subsequent murder of two escort girls from last spring (the topic was Tips on How Your Pet Can Become a Movie Star).” American Psycho is undoubtedly black comedy at its finest, and perhaps darkest… told through a first person perspective it details the day to day life of Patrick Batemen, a 27 year old who works in mergers and acquisitions at a company called Pierce & Pierce. Bateman is described as being quite wealthy and yet he does absolutely no work throughout the book, and instead spends his time bouncing between extreme ultraviolence and repetitive social outings. His life is completely void of passion and involvement and he even becomes numb to his massacres, which increase in scale like a rising wave throughout the course of the story.

The book has been scolded by many – feminists especially – for its misogynist and overly violent nature, and saw the author with a mailbox full of death threats. American Psycho was also praised for its daring exploration of the dark recesses of the human psyche, a timeless case study of a human soul completely fractured and devoid of social morals and values. What Bret Easton Ellis accomplished with American Psycho was the literary birth of a true monster – a monster that could very well lurk in the hearts of all ordinary people. The novel uses social satire to hint that this monster exists as modern consumerism, obsession with work, and a blending in with the environment and inability to stand out as an individual, as evidenced by Batemen and his colleagues total inability to properly identify their co workers, and even other characters inability to identify Batemen – “Owen has mistaken me for Marcus Halberstam (even though Marcus is dating Cecelia Wagner) but for some reason it really doesn’t matter and it seems a logical faux pas since Marcus works at P & P also, in fact does the same exact thing I do.” But let’s not get carried away with an analysis of the book, and instead cut right into the flesh of the review.

American Psycho is not pleasure reading (unless you’re a sadist of course) but is gruelling and tough to swallow. It’s hard to tell what is more torturous to read, pages upon pages of violent mutilation being described in vivid detail, or whole chapters dedicated to Batemen’s rambling reviews of his favourite bands and musicians (Genesis, Whitney Houston, Huey Lewis and the News etc). The book, while highly entertaining, borders on formulaic, and can be quite repetitive in its ‘murder scene, dinner scene, murder scene, endless lists of what people are wearing, what the topic on the Patty Winters show is, murder scene’ approach. The author loves to write the vilest, most disturbing stuff that could possibly exist in the human imagination, and then starkly contrast it with something completely mundane, such as a long argument over what restaurant to get a reservation at. However, this is what American Psycho is all about, and to take this element of the book away would be to reduce it from a powerful social commentary into something Marquis De Sade would read on the toilet. The only reason the repetitive nature of the book bothers me is that a lot of it felt unnecessary. At 400 pages, the book is like a never ending story that feels as though it should’ve achieved its goal in half the page length.

But perhaps the thing that disturbs me the most is how I eventually skimmed through most of the boring parts of the book and took my time reading the violent bits. I might even say the only reason I read and enjoyed American Psycho is because, like most people, I have a dark side, and it gets a thrill out of reading or watching things I would never do in real life. Why else do we read books or watch television if not to vicariously experience events outside our day to day routine? If nothing else, American Psycho might make you question your own reflection in the mirror. It might also make you start ending awkward conversations with “I have to return some videotapes.”

★★★★★ 5 stars