July 2007

Liz Miller

fiction

Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis

Dragging the noir genre kicking and screaming out of the 20th century and onto a cross-country road trip (with the fate of the nation at stake, of course), Crooked Little Vein is Warren Ellis's big novel debut, and it's a double shot of America at its craziest, served without a chaser.

Mike McGill is a "shit magnet" -- a person to whom oddity is somehow drawn. And that's why it's him the White House Chief of Staff hires to track down the "other" Constitution, a book with mysterious physical properties that the Founding Fathers assembled in case their great experiment called America proved to be a failure. (The book was traded by Nixon for sexual favors from an Asian prostitute -- this is by far one of the least bizarre things to happen over the course of the story.)

Armed with unlimited cash and an ultra-fancy handheld computer, Mike teams up with the polyamorous Trix to trace the book's path through history, and along the way, he finds himself confronted by our country's very finest in weird. But while the Chief of Staff plans to use the book to bring America back onto the righteous path, it's Mike's time among these subcultures that ultimately leads him to the solution to the problem called These United States.

Written with sharp staccato style, each brief chapter stings like a slap, the prose tight and brutal with details and emotion both. McGill, our humble narrator, is very much the beaten-down descendant of Sam Spade and Mike Hammer -- a descendant, though, not just a cheap rip-off like so many others. And it works surprisingly well for the genre, especially given that the classic detective stories always dwelled in the fringes of society -- The Big Sleep is in part about the distribution of what was then highly illegal pornography. In short, Crooked Little Vein reads like the next logical progression of noir, albeit deeper into the fringes than before.

In fact, it's a true showcase of weird, to the point where it almost overshadows the rest of the story. Vein features an episodic structure: McGill arrives in a city in search of new information, is confronted by odd physical/sexual/criminal act, reacts badly to it, has his face rubbed in it, eventually gets information he needs, moves onto next location. Really, though, everything is weird to Warren Ellis, who makes a visit to a Texas steakhouse seem as grotesque as Godzilla bukkake. You more often than not want to believe he's making up some of these things -- but it's a belief shattered once he mentions something you know for certain exists (for me, it was the video of the two Asian girls with the eels, which, four years post-viewing, still makes me cringe). To see America through Warren Ellis's eyes is to see a wasteland of bizarre sexual practices and apathy, humanity masked by monstrous behavior. It is, needless to say, an outsider's perspective upon our fair nation, and in its way, an alarmingly accurate one.

But the most subversive thing about Vein is that it's also a sweet little love story, boy meets girl. It's just that the boy is in search of a book bound with alien skin, and the girl likes to get saline injected into her labia to simulate the sensation of having testicles. Crooked Little Vein is a tale of the fringes, the strange things people do to themselves and others. But there's something refreshing about it, something raw and real behind all the oddity. Perhaps it's as simple as this: Ellis's characters are honest -- unflinchingly honest -- about what they think, what they feel, what gets them going and what turns them off.

The heroes, that is. Ellis has little patience for liars.

Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis
William Morrow
ISBN: 0060723939