Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Crooked Little Vein Review

This should appear in the next issue of the University of Windsor Lance:

Crooked Little Vein
By: Warren Ellis
William Morrow
280 pgs., $27.95

Crooked Little Vein begins with the best line you’ll read this year: “I opened my eyes to see the rat taking a piss in my coffee mug.” It’s brash, aggressive and practically dares you not to keep on reading.

Crooked Little Vein is famed comic book writer Warren Ellis’ long-awaited first novel and it falls in line with his comic work like Transmetropolitan, Fell and Desolation Jones. The novel begins with private detective Michael McGill waking up in his office (where he now lives) to find the president’s heroin-shooting chief of staff wants to hire him to find the Secret Constitution of the United States, which Richard Nixon traded for sexual favours in the 1950s.

This case launches McGill on a cross-country search where he encounters “people who want to fuck Godzilla,” men who like to inject salt water into their testicles and rich lawyers who host orgies with teenage virgins and then bet on which will end up with HIV.

Oh, this book may not be appropriate for more sensitive readers. Just so you know.

Accompanying McGill on his journey is Trix, a grad student doing her thesis on extremes of self-inflicted human experience. She is McGill’s guide into this so-called sexual underground and also becomes his girlfriend, sort of.

While extreme in some parts, McGill shares the presumed sensibilities of the reader and is as freaked out by almost everything he encounters. However, Ellis is careful not to take sides himself, giving opposing views equal time and equal weight. While some may think it’s weird and perverted to masturbate to giant rubber lizards that doesn’t make it so.

The entire search becomes a question of what is mainstream America anymore. Are these people sick freaks or are they normal? Why is a TV show with only a few million viewers considered mainstream while internet sites, which can reach everyone in the world considered the fringe? McGill is asked this again and again without any way to answer.

The Secret Constitution raises the stakes as the White House wants to use it to restore “morality” to America, bringing it back to the sensibilities of the 1950s before gay marriage and pop stars who dress like porn stars and, well, everything the supposed mainstream hates. For someone like Trix, the concept is horrifying, but McGill is torn between finishing the job and what he possibly thinks is right.

Ellis’ style is brisk and very, very funny. He creates a diverse cast of characters, all realistic in their various insanities and never seems to judge. He leaves all judgements to the characters, including McGill, our narrator. The use of first-person narration is a smart choice because it creates an easier access point for readers, especially those not used to this type of material.

One of Ellis’ best techniques is using short chapters for comedic purposes, like chapter three:

“An hour later, I walked into some freak bar on Bleecker Street and yelled, ‘I’m buying a hundred drinks--for me!’

“Oh, they beat the shit out of me.”

That’s the entire chapter, but its length adds to the humour and breaks up the action well. Ellis is smart to only do this once in a while, so it never gets overused.

Crooked Little Vein manages to take the Chandler-esque private detective and update him for the twenty-first century in this weird trip through the America you didn’t know existed. It’s a fantastic debut for Warren Ellis and one of the most entertaining book you’ll read this year.