The Delicate Art of Death: A Review
Carolee Schneeman, “Eye Body #11”
I’d be remiss here if I didn’t qualify this essay with an apology. Rocker, novelist, and Brownsville denizen Ryan McGinnis released his third novel The Delicate Art of Death about 9 weeks–March 1st to be precise–and its popularity has since rocketed the first novel of his Xavier Greene series (Tears of the Dragon) into the top selling spot, I’m told, for five different categories on Amazon’s best seller lists! It’s a killer turn of events for a writer working so hard at his craft to finally see some financial return on time investment and a growing readership, as well as the dozens of reviews the new novel has received in writing and video format. So, with the semester’s grading behind me, I thought it about damn time I offer my thoughts on this newest installment of McGinnis’s work, surely his finest and most tightly scripted and executed novel to date.
The newest volume of the Xavier Greene series is an engrossing vignette in the life of Stacy Martinez, set in the wake of events from the previous novels. As Stacy returns back home and tries to re-integrate, to some degree, back into everyday life and to re-establish a rapport with her friends and family, an odd series of murders, a black car whose tail she can’t seem to shake, and an unnerving sense that things are awry increasingly awake her to the reality of her situation: that her experiences of political cabals and power’s underground operations have changed her, marked her, and made her unfit for civilian life. After Stacy’s sister’s friend Jenn dies under mysterious circumstances, Stacy begins to notice a black sedan all over town and another outsider, a woman named Natalie, who keeps appearing everywhere that Stacy does. She begins to suspect that the murders are connected, wondering naturally whether they have something to do with the downfall of Axion or the Citadel’s restructuring post-Osiris Initiative.
Everything seems to point, at least at first, toward a paranoid reading of more governmental rackets and international cabals. However, the twist comes out of left field and makes for a compelling and unexpected read reminding us that assassins and government agents are not the only arbiters of death, not the art of death’s sole practitioners.
I originally read this novel alongside other paranoid political thrillers like Jeff VanderMeer’s Hummingbird Salamander and Cormac McCarthy’s newest novels The Passenger and Stella Maris. While McGinnis’s work is more standard political action thriller fare that has less to say about ecology and ontology, it is nonetheless a production that mirrors concerns of major authors in our contemporary moment: principally in how the pursuit of truth queers our own positionality in regards to world. Like Jane Doe and Alicia Western in the aforementioned works, respectively, Stacy Martinez’s pursuit of the truth paints a target on her back and attunes her to the traces of violence and disorder that abound, even in a rural Kansas town like her sister’s.
While Stacy’s methods of evading the cabal whose money she has stolen mirror those of Llewelyn Moss in McCarthy’s earlier crime thriller cum border novel No Country for Old Men (Both are compromised by stealing from organizations more powerful than themselves, and both notably hide their duffel bags of cash in air vents), I detect shades of John Fowles’s The Collector, as well as a feminist undercurrent whereby the damsel in distress is replaced with powerful female figures who resist male attempts at capture or control.
A novelist’s first work often tends to be semi-autobiographical to some degree, and for male novelists this registers in coming of age stories where the protagonist undergoes a demystifiying operation or an existential quest to better comprehend their relation to the world and to their ideal and actual selves. For McGinnis, his outsider assassin Xavier is instead an older character who has already undergone these kinds of narrative shifts and is instead learning to reckon with his past. Stacy Martinez, too, is haunted by the loss of an old partner and suffering from the effects of PTSD. That McGinnis can write compelling, realistic characters like this is a testament to the maturation of his work. And if I’m really honest, the occasional wordiness or typos of that first novel are rapidly disappearing as well (as he’s transitioned to self-editing: a surprisingly great improvement). For a independent author without the institutional structure of editors and copy editors, this is no minor feat.
I hear also that his fourth novel is in the works and developing quite rapidly, so if you’ve enjoyed the Xavier Greene works so far, you can expect more very soon. I know I’m champing at the bit to find out how some of the plot lines McGinnis has laid down will resolve.
I’d like to end on a note on the photo I’ve chosen to place at the beginning of this short review essay: Caroline Schneeman’s “Eye Body #11.” Rather than re-purposing the female body as a destructive canvas ala our male Dada artists, McGinnis has headed off what amounts to a fait accompli in the works of many male writers. Hell, even McCarthy’s serial killer novel Child of God trades in female objectification and mutilation to attain its narrative kicks or sense of transgression. Furthermore, whereas Stacy has hitherto been pitted against the occasional female mastermind or feminine force of evil–even this newest novel sets up that possibility–and has typically been allied to male protagonists, The Delicate Art of Death‘s denoument charts new territory for McGinnis in the development of a homosocial bond that is enticing narratively just as it is progressive in that political domain we call the interpersonal.
Schneeman once advised that we “Be stubborn and persist, and trust yourself on what you love. You have to trust what you love.” As long as us readers continue to state our support and McGinnis continues to trust the development of his craft, I expect we’ll continue to be privy to the unfolding of his talent for years to come.
I don’t get out much with my buddies anymore. Time marches on, they say. It just seems more and more difficult these days to coordinate. In fact, it’s a rare event indeed when my friends Julian and Greg can get their dates to line up. They don’t always agree. It is not that they are antagonistic to each other, but I guess you could say they just see the world from different perspectives. Julian, a tall guy with dark curly hair and a Roman nose, can be at times pompous, even a bit self-righteous; while Greg, much shorter and balding like a monk, is more practical and flexible; he can move dates around if necessary. Julian is older and won’t let Greg forget it. Greg is often solemn and spends a lot of time by himself, but still enjoys verbal sparring and likes to bait Julian whenever he can. I tend to just watch and listen because their conversations are usually pretty lively.
After mechanically circling the Old Town we found ourselves, by accident—but what is an accident anyway?—at our favorite basement bar, the Little Hand, situated under a fancy restaurant in that part of town where the wet, worn cobblestones shine like twinkling lights in the dark of night. A curled steel railing, cool and wet to the touch, led to a dark concrete stairway that descended past faded and damp posters of concerts few people attended. The massive wooden door at the bottom stood open like a maw, a portal to some distant place or time. Somewhere in the back a jukebox hammered out music; the dance floor was tightly packed, the atmosphere dim, though the feeling of energy rippled through the air. We settled into a table, certain of a good evening, a night out to fulfill that deep-seated desire for a chaotic universe.
“Where does the time go?” Julian said, staring fixedly at his freshly delivered beer bottle.
“The better question would be why,” Greg said, after setting down his already half-full bottle.
“Ugh.” Julian frowned and I smiled. Greg was trying to upstage him.
“No,” he said, waving it off. Then he began speaking in a rhetorical tone that demanded no interruption. “Time – what is it?” he mused. “Is it some long slender thread that ties us all together, endlessly looping around us, binding us together forever? Is it linear; is it circular? Can we cut it? Can we untwine it? Separate it into elemental parts?”
He paused for a moment; his words quickly drowned and swept away by the noise. Before Greg could answer, he resumed. “Others say it flows like a river; it rushes in flood, but must it always flow in one direction? Is Time like the slow accumulation of an hourglass, will it end?
“What,” I asked, “are you afraid of dying?”
“No, no, no. That’s not what I’m getting at. I am talking about Time, in general. Will it run out someday? Or can it flow back and forth? Endlessly refilling and emptying the hourglass?”
Greg, who had been fidgeting during Julian’s rant, finally burst in. “How is time supposed to look?” His eyes challenged his adversary. “Honestly, Julian. Are we here to talk or relax? I know you. Your head is filled with all sorts of mathematical equations and theorems. You see fractals all over the place. You spout probabilities and limits; positives and negatives, irrationals and infinities. You want to transform energy and matter into some sort of fate and destiny as if that were some kind of help. Time just is. Let it be.”
“Are you saying it doesn’t matter,” I asked.
“Precisely,” he said turning to me. “Time, whether it runs forward or back, is what you make of it. I’m just here for the fun.”
In the dim light, I could see Julian’s jaw clench. I knew what would come next. Their conversation was not over, not by a long shot. I guess I felt more like Greg at the moment, though I wasn’t really in the mood for a long discussion. My attention was soon drawn by a young woman at the next table. She was there with two of her friends, all three leaning over a large caldron of margarita, containing tiny paper umbrellas and three long straws. She had a pretty way about her, eyeing me with just the lift of an eyebrow. I knew right away she was not ordinary. Now, logic suggests that life is simply an unbroken chain of future occurrences. But, I could see she never played it safe. She knew.
I stood up almost without knowing it and walked over to her table. Nodding politely to her two companions, my focus was nonetheless clear. I spoke to her with a firmness that gave pause to my friends.
“You and I will play some pool,” I said.
Without hesitation, she got up and walked to the tables in the back, twisting through the network of bodies. “But, I get to go first,” she said with a smile over her shoulder as she slowly swept her long, disorderly brown hair from her eyes and strolled up to the table. The green felt looked so vast, so void, as her fingers ran lightly along the bumpers, which in the dim light looked a slightly deeper shade of green than the table. The bare skin of her arm glowed with a mesmerizing affect. Her movements were soft, yet deliberate. Her every action caused a sensation in me that gave me no choice. I knew how this would end.
From the rack on the side wall she carelessly chose a cue and glided along the edge of table, trailing her fingers across the felt, catching the cue ball softly in her hand. At the far end of the now empty table, she placed the shining white cue ball back on the felt with a studied look. I have to say there is nothing like watching an attractive woman play pool.
Choosing her shot carefully, aiming at this pocket or that, she slid the cue back and forth slowly between her fingers; her hair reached nearly to the felt surface, as she leaned over the table, one leg slightly bent.
She gave the ball a sharp jolt to start the game, sending it nearly the length of the table, toward the left side pocket where you knew the ball had no choice but to leap to attention, spring from the pocket and meet the cue ball with a resounding crack. The balls careened away from each other and came to rest at opposite ends of the table. This is how the game is played. Choose a corner or a side pocket, it didn’t really matter, but whichever you picked, you were locked into the game until the end. The chain of events was laid out in advance; all you had to do was anxiously wait for what you knew was your destiny.
“My name is Anthony,” I felt compelled to say.
For her next shot, she tried to pull the four ball out of the side, though she couldn’t get it to pop up. She gave me a playful sneer with her bright eyes and her lips slightly pursed, then it was my turn. I rolled the cue ball slowly down the along the bumper until the eleven ball drew it more quickly to the hole, until that point where the two balls joined just outside the lip, if only for a moment, and the eleven was freed again, returned to the order of the green felt. Its action carried the cue ball across the side of the table where I could use it again to free the ten ball with my next shot. I sent the cue ball to the corner where it pulled up the twelve and caused the ten to roll closer to the point where they were nearly touching.
“Beautiful shot,” she said, genuinely surprised as each striped ball drew so close to the other. She obviously could tell I wasn’t half bad. I felt a bit cocky and tried to bring a third ball into their sphere but missed. The shot down the length of the table only managed to force the ten and the eleven, at the other end, to drift back toward the cue ball. Again, she flashed a cruel little smile, and then took the easy opportunity to quickly return the one and the two balls to the table. You could see it in her stare; she was eyeing that chance to bring order to this chaos, to dispense with the formality of her solids for that all-important chance to make the rack. But I was desperate to be the one not only fill the table, but to return order to it first. That was, after all, the natural way of all things.
Thankfully, she missed her shot, and I swept in to bring all my balls to the table, at which point I could start thinking about how I could make my final shot. Each move I made seemed to bring the balls closer together. I was even able to draw up one of her balls. I was getting close. I thought I had it planned out perfectly; I thought I knew where to line up my shots, how to get the cue ball to affect the movements of all the other balls, to make them all come together. I was close, though one miscalculation, one stupid mistake on my part and my nucleus was shattered. It was her turn.
She picked up her last ball and, in two more shots, it was clear to everyone at the bar that she would win. With a final flourish, she gave the cue ball that extra energy she needed, and all I could do was watch in feigned anguish as the balls responded to their heightened energy, shooting off the various bumpers simultaneously as if in an apoplectic shudder to make the satisfying clack that brought everything together into perfect order, sending the cue rolling back to the far side of the table.
After two more games, we placed our sticks back on the wall, spit beer into bottles back at the bar, and went to her place. And broke up. Twice.
Sixteen-year-old Henry Fong pulled a black baseball cap from the bottom of his book bag and slapped it on his head. Standing at the door of the library, he adjusted the hat like he had seen other kids at school do it. He looked right, down the arching walkway, a tunnel straight to the parking lot where his mother would pick him up. Nope, he seemed to say to himself. He swung the heavy bag over his slender shoulder like a sailor with his duffel and walked left, out toward the baseball field that he could see from the library window. For more than a year now, since he came to the US, he had watched the boys gather on the grassy field. In the fall it was football, a thoroughly confusing game to him. But in spring the boys would flock to the baseball diamond in the afternoon sunshine. These activities, though, were closed to him. Yet, Henry wanted to be included; he needed to be included. Being alone, being separated from others nagged at him everyday as he looked out the window, maybe harder than his mother’s insistence that he study in the library after school.
The hot Oklahoma sun warmed the back of his neck, producing a pleasant acrid sweetness where the black strap pressed over his short-sleeved dress shirt. His dress shoes and khakis were fine for the library, but it did not occur to him that they would look out of place at the ball field. That was just it, looking out of place. What more could a sixteen-year-old kid from China look like in an American high school? In the aluminum grandstands the girls sipped their sodas, tossed their hair and pulled at their chewing gum—some things he would never adapt to. Surely they would laugh at him when they weren’t talking on their cell phones and waving to their boyfriends.
Henry walked up to the large group of boys wearing baseball pants, spikes and white cotton baseball shirts. The boys, chattering like a pod of sweating monkeys, clustered beneath a large yellow cardboard sign that said “Baseball Tryouts Today” on the backstop. The lettering had a certain feminine touch Henry could see. Girls in America—no doubt the girls with their sodas—had a way of making their letters express more than what they said. This little trick fascinated him. Like hanzi characters, each stroke of the pen—or in this case, black permanent marker—showed inflexion, whether it was just a tiny heart over the “i” or the B in baseball on the sign morphing into a little fielder with a cap on his head and stubby little feet. The boys’ handwriting, he noticed, lacked this effect, showing they cared little for such things. Instead their writing was dominated by a casual slovenliness, a freedom from rigid form so unique in America, which he immediately adopted because the last thing he wanted to do was stand out.
So he waited patiently as the other boys jostled their way to the front of the registration table. He did not want to cause a scene. When it was his turn, he picked up the stubby pencil with no eraser, certainly stolen from the library, and wrote his name in blocky, somewhat drab letters, though the signing itself was not without some sense of independence on his part. It was true beginning of this new life in America, that point where he might be able to say he was, or could be American.
“You realize tryouts are right now?” said the young man sitting behind the table. He looked older than the high schoolers, his face redder and fuller than the rest. His jersey had the name “Josh” stitched on it.
Henry looked at him puzzled.
“Ain’t you got a glove? No spikes?”
Henry’s head sunk a little as he said no.
“Go on home, kid, don’t waste our time.”
Henry stood firm and spoke in halting English. “I heard tryouts were open to anyone.”
“You can’t be serious.”
Henry stood motionless and as tall as he could. Just as tall as the other boys, he imagined his feet were planted in the ground and he, a sturdy-yet-yielding bamboo shoot, could withstand any force of wind. An older man, obviously the coach, stepped up behind his assistant. “Josh, give the kid a chance.”
“Why? I’m just saving us the trouble. He’s not gonna be able to cut it,” he said looking up over his shoulder.
“Let him in,” the coach said.
Henry walked away from the table feeling a sense of unexpected excitement. He had not thought the coach would be so accommodating, but this was America, after all. This was a real baseball team. Not the television. He stood beside the bleachers, still somewhat apart from the boys, waiting to begin. Oh, he had met many people like Josh since coming here. They didn’t like his kind. Henry had grown to spot people like Josh quickly and avoid them as much as possible. You could see it in the forehead, that space between the eyebrows where the skin pressed together to form tiny folds, like paper after it got wet.
“Gather ‘round boys. I’m Coach Stevenson. First thing we’re gonna do is run the bases. If you can’t make it around in 22 seconds, you are out—you go home.”
Henry watched the boys, one by one, stand at the plate until Josh, stopwatch in hand, sent them careening off in exaggerated arcs around the bases. They each sprinted across the plate panting like thoroughbreds. So far, everyone made the route successfully until up stood a heavy-set teenager, his baseball pants filled with flesh. Josh made a crack which Henry couldn’t make out from where he stood, but the rest of the boys laughed. Then the boy was off. He loped off the plate like a circus bear unsteady on two feet. He too took the first base in a circular arc before his lumbering body began to pick up speed. In the end, he touched the plate just as Josh snapped at the stopwatch and called out, “24.8 seconds.”
Josh trotted up to the sweating boy and said, “I’m sorry, son.” The fat kid gathered his things and left the field as Coach Stevenson called out, “Henry Fong, you’re next.”
Henry walked up to the plate in his leather shoes. The book bag still hung from his shoulder. Josh stared at him a moment. “Gonna take the books around the bases with ya?”
Henry felt stupid and tossed his books in the grass. The textbooks slid out of the bag. Any other time that would have made Henry panic. His mother revered books. To her, they were sacred. One would never throw a book, much less on to the grass.
When Henry returned to the plate, Josh yelled “Go!”
Henry’s second step slipped uselessly in the silty dirt. By the third step he was off and running. Unlike the other boys he reached first base and took a hard turn, nearly coming to a stop as he changed direction. He looked more comfortable running to second, taking the base in full stride, but then his feet slipped from under him and he went down into the dust, his cap rolling away.
Josh nodded to Coach Stevenson, “See.”
Panic shot through Henry’s body like electric shock. His opportunity at this was ticking away. He could see in his mind the seconds rush by. Henry got up and sprinted, the dust trailing behind him like a comet. Taking the arc of third perfectly, he shot past home plate, stopping at the chain link backstop.
“22.5 seconds,” hollered Josh, who grinned, raised an eyebrow, and nodded to the others looking on as if to say I told you so.
He shuffled over toward the backstop. “I’m sorry, kid.”
Henry, his head pressed against the metal fence, felt ashamed. He had failed. Something so simple. He swatted at his trousers in a useless attempt to eradicate the dust, to remove the stain of defeat. This dream of his—to play American baseball—was a joke. He could just go back to his books, lying there in the moist grass. He could just pick them up and go home.
Coach Stevenson approached Josh, just a few feet from Henry. “Wait.”
“Coach, he didn’t make it,” Josh said, with his eyebrows clenched.
“And he’da made it easily if he hadn’t fallen.”
“But,” Josh said.
“Let him stay.”
“Why don’t I go get the fat kid while you’re at it?”
Henry felt puzzled again. What exactly was going on? The other boys in groups were talking low, talking about him. This wasn’t the way to fit in. How could he break in, but without being seen? There was just no way. The situation seemed hopeless, a paradox. To become one of the crowd, this new crowd, in a new land, he had to stand alone and demand admission. In the meantime, the coach tossed him an extra glove, and called out to the boys, “Next is fielding.”
The boys lined up behind shortstop and Henry followed after. The object, it seemed to him, was to field grounders and throw them to Josh at first base. Henry stood back, last in line. When it came to his turn, the coach tossed up the baseball and hit it sharply to his right. Rather than backhanding the ball, Henry moved right and gloved it awkwardly beside his right leg. The throw, though, arced high in the air and bounced twice before rolling to a stop six feet from Josh, who stood there with his arms wide as if to say this is ridiculous. The rest of the boys laughed.
“Give it a rest, Josh,” Coach said.
Henry was less confident after trying to catch fly balls in the outfield. He was sure one of those balls was going to hit him right on the head. What business was he doing out here trying to play baseball? Maybe it just isn’t a game for a guy like Henry. He never thought it would be this difficult. Watching the other kids, baseball looked so effortless, graceful in a uniquely American way. It was precisely this fluidity, this natural action that appealed to him. What would be better than to play this game, a game where each member of the team acted individually yet in concert?
Coach rallied the boys together saying it was time for batting. “Josh is gonna throw you some pitches.”
This time Henry watched more closely. He watched the way each boy stood in the batter’s box, the way they each held the bat, juggling it around like some martial arts weapon. Henry had little to compare it to. It wasn’t like playing the piano, with your arms stretched out on the ivory keys, or like wielding a bow playing his violin. Each ballplayer stepped to the plate and went through a little routine, swinging the bat, adjusting their helmet, digging in with their feet. They did it with a sense of purpose and concentration; their eyes squinting as the first pitch sailed in. That focus was the only thing Henry could relate to, it was the only thing he could understand, because it was the focus that his parents urged him to master everyday. It didn’t matter if it was a school day or not, they kept after him to concentrate on what was important. To his mother, this was studying. But, Henry had other ideas.
Next it was Henry’s turn. Josh looked over at the coach, raising his eyebrows. Coach nodded back.
The first pitch came in fast, with a sharp pop in the catcher’s glove. Henry swung and missed. Josh eyed the coach again. Henry swung hard at the second pitch, which was way outside, and missed again.
“Give him something to hit, dammit. Stop toying with him,” Coach said.
The third pitch, a hard fastball, Henry fouled it straight back. Henry let the fourth pitch, a nasty curveball in the dirt, go by. “Come on, Josh. We want to see him hit, not you pitch,” Coach said.
Henry readjusted himself in the box, grinding in with his dark leather shoes. He still struck a funny sight, standing there erect as a flagpole in slacks and a collared shirt. But, he took a long tug at his baseball hat and stared right at the pitcher.
Josh went into his motion and delivered another fastball right down the middle of the plate. Henry uncoiled on it and sent the ball deep to left field. Everyone behind the backstop watched it as it flew, clearing the eight-foot fence by a few inches.
Determined to make a fool of Henry, the next pitch sailed high and tight, narrowly missing his ducking helmet. The next pitch, a change-up, meant to throw off Henry’s timing, promptly landed over the centerfield fence. Josh threw six more pitches—a slider, two curveballs and a few letter-high fastballs—all of which landed beyond the fence before Coach Stevenson stopped it, saying “I’ve seen enough. Troy, you’re next.”
“What the hell was that?” Josh said, stepping off the mound.
Henry grinned, filled with a euphoria he seldom felt. Most of the boys looked stunned by what they had just seen. Henry walked back toward the dugout, when the next batter lowered his bat and tripped Henry into the grass.
“That still doesn’t make you a ballplayer. Go back to study hall,” said the boy named Troy.
Coach Stevenson, consulting with Josh, didn’t witness what happened, but saw Troy standing over Henry with several others caught between laughter and amazement. Coach turned and yelled out, “What’s going on here? If I see any funny business, I’ll toss each one of you off the team.”
Trotting from the mound, he helped Henry to his feet. “So you’ve never played baseball, huh?”
“I’m Coach, not sir, okay.”
“Why do you want to play ball?”
“I want to be American,” Henry said.
“Where you from? What brings you to Oklahoma?”
“My parents move here from Beijing last year.”
“Ever seen a game before?”
Coach Stevenson put his arm around Henry and said, “With a little extra help I think we can make you into quite a good American ballplayer.”
He walked Henry toward the dugout. “Now, I just need to show you some of the basics. I think I might even get our assistant coach Josh to help you.”
But before Coach Stevenson could continue, a woman marched quickly onto the field from the direction of the library. “Henry Jian Fu, you come here right away. What are you doing here? I was supposed to meet you in parking lot half hour ago. You come home with me right now.”
Her face looked hard and crisp. She stomped through the grass without looking at anyone but Henry. She walked up to him, the top of her head barely reaching his armpit, and grabbed his arm and began leading him away. Henry was mortified. His eyes darted from the boys snickering at his situation back to the coach.
“Excuse me, ma’am. Are you Henry’s mother?” the coach said stepping forward.
“You no ma’am me. How dare you try to get my son to play your silly game.”
Henry finally spoke up, but could only muster, “Mother.”
She turned to him and spoke sharply. “No, you stay out of this. Go get your books.”
“But, Mrs. Fong. You don’t understand. Henry’s good. He could be a good player,” the coach said.
“He no be good player. He need go home and study. He going to be doctor. You ask him?”
“No,” the coach said.
“Henry want be doctor. Ever since little boy.”
With that, she walked away, dragging Henry by the arm. All he could do was look over his shoulder.
Tears of the Dragon: A Review
Xavier Greene is a high-level assassin for a worldwide secret organization–The Citadel–that operates the levers of the power behind the scenes. Known as ‘The Silencer’ he is known for his ability to go undetected through even the biggest jobs: political coups, counterterrorism, assassinations. His face is in no personnel system, no facial recognition can place him: He’s a ghost drifting through the floating world of modern political play where transnational political actors create destructive encounters, Realpolitik games, with little regard for loss of life. Xavier has tired of his work, retired to a remote monastery, and takes jobs intermittently as he contemplates enlightenment alongside complete retirement.
Then, a new job appears. A terrorist organization known as The Brotherhood has recently received a strong, financial backer. With their help, The Brotherhood have developed a contagion called “Tears of the Dragon.” They plan to release it at a large event within the week and to wipe out most human life on the planet in the process to prompt a hard reset of the unjust systems of power of the world: to fight political injustice with apocalypse. The allure of The Brotherhood is immediately apparent to all dissidents who read Ryan McGinnis’s debut novel. You can’t fight power within the system because it has always already co-opted its members and will rapidly absorb destabilizing tendencies to prevent the system from toppling. The only option left is economic or real violence. Despite The Brotherhood’s subversive appeal, Xavier’s actions and the narrator’s handling of The Brotherhood seem to respond no to both options: working within the system and working to destroy the system. Rather than engaging in political angst, in Nietzschean ressentiment, Xavier remains a counterterrorist and thwarts a factional uprising within The Citadel to restore this latter organization to its proper institutional spirit and to save the world.
“Tears of the Dragon,” the contagion, is derived from the venom of the vampire bat: a substance touted for the past few years for its medicinal properties and potential usage in the development of drugs to combat diseases. However, with each new development there are negative externalities, downsides that the developers of the tech could not have foreseen. In Tears of the Dragon, The Brotherhood has developed a kind of blood coagulant that can be spread quickly and effectively worldwide with just one vial. Writing often mirrors life in unexpected ways and the parallel between the development of an apocalyptic pathogen with the apparently accidental mutation of a world-upsetting virus that led to our own pandemic is not lost on this reader.
Finally, as in all of McGinnis’s writing hitherto, dreams play an important role throughout the novel. At many crucial points in the text, Xavier dreams, day dreams, or hallucinates visions of the dragon. At times he tries to contain its power and it burns him, at others he seems to have a strong emotional connection and is warming up to the dragon. It is both his nemesis and a very attractive mystical object, which could bring him untold riches or power if he chose to keep it. All told, the novel is reflective but mostly active. The reader gets good doses of spy intrigue, political machinations, helicopter chases, firefights, and even a very compelling duel to the death between two of The Citadel’s most legendary assassins. Tears of the Dragon is a fun, riveting, on the edge of your seat kind of novel and a good first novel that bodes well for McGinnis’s future work.
To learn more about Tears of the Dragon or to purchase a copy follow the link here. To read about McGinnis’s short fiction follow these rabbit holes: Sketch and A Good Night’s Sleep.
“A Good Night’s Sleep” is Hard to Find
(See my previous review of Ryan McGinnis’s fiction here)
Sam and Kevin Woodworth are a well-adjusted, suburban couple in the final stages of the adoption process. Their domestic life includes an altruistic relationship with an elderly widower, Agnes, in their neighborhood; a good work-life balance; and a loving-lovable terrier Max who keeps them company. Domestic bliss seems inevitable with the arrival of their new daughter Lily. However, Max seems afraid of the little girl no matter how long she chases him around and vies for his affection. And in a small case, she keeps a set of dolls–one male, one female–whose appearance echoes her biological parents that disappeared under mysterious circumstances. When Sam and Kevin begin having night terrors, sleep paralysis, and experiencing other unsettling nighttime events, they begin to suspect that something is amiss in their would-be domestic tableau.
As with much good horror fiction, the fears and anxieties at the core of “A Good Night’s Sleep” (eBook available for free by joining the Ryan McGinnis mailing list here) are contemporary while simultaneously hearkening back to older, more primal notions of the self. There is first, the classic fear of the adopted child whose genes and past history are alien to the foster parents: the child who appears with a kind of psychic baggage it is the perceived job of the foster parents to absolve, to correct, to fix, or to come to terms with. What happened to the child’s parents? What trauma did the child experience through their loss? Can we really help the child? These kinds of anxieties can lead to self-doubt and fears of failure in parenting that are amplified for foster parents. In “A Good Night’s Sleep,” Sam and Kevin’s fears are internalized and received subconsciously through dream visions of a man who stands at the edge of the room or right outside the window: a man who beckons to follow. Or they are externalized by visions of Lily’s midnight wandering through the house or constricting nightmares of suffocation.
The Self is at its most peaceful when its surface, the conscious person, hides or abjects those things that pull at and create tension within the self. The dream of a domestic space of peace and tranquility and simplicity is aided by a self-formation that is limited, that does not reflect openly on the darker aspects of the self. Here, the fears of failure and of the dark past of the orphaned child bring to surface the multiplicity of the self with its abyssal, fragmentary, and self-destructive capabilities. A large change in life calls for a requisite and equal change of Self, which is self-dislocating, anxiety-producing, and terrifying, though necessary. In “A Good Night’s Sleep,” McGinnis reflects these fears in a narrative where the worst of them is actualized and the self is destroyed in the process of change and the foster parent becomes little more than a doll in a child’s scheme for their own self-formation: essentialized, always present, and nothing more than an object of the child’s will. In horror, our deepest fears are made real and that is definitely the case in McGinnis’s short story.
Read my review of McGinnis’s novel Tears of the Dragon next.
Ruminations on a “Sketch”
In “Sketch” (published online at Mandatory Midnight), North Carolina native and Brownsville, Texas denizen Ryan McGinnis crafts a sinister, Lovecraftian vision of cerebral horror befitting a New Weird moniker. In an introductory blurb we learn that Sarah, an aspiring sketch artist of landscapes and gothic architecture, has recently suffered from a hard breakup. Her friend Tracy attempts to help her by managing and staging an art exhibit of Sarah’s work on gothic castles from her travels in Europe. Sarah takes to the work well, at first, as she drafts image after image with her expressionist style of deep shadows and chiaroscuro contrast with attendant surrealist motifs and unsettling smudge-work. However, when an image of a man appears and then disappears of its own volition within her frames, Sarah experiences abject fear and her friends believe she is going insane. Half-horror, half-edge-of-your-seat-fugue-state, this tale draws parallels to the texts of Junji Ito. It’s gothic fixations remind one of the imaginative power of Mervyn Peake or Jorge Luis Borges.
As a sketch, “Sketch” is the beginnings of a larger body of work: One in development and one I will be reviewing for the next few weeks here. The narrative style is simple and unadorned third-person narration from a relatively invisible narrator with direct access to the interiority of Sarah’s mind. The writing is straightforward, which aids the reader in clipping along quickly and building the sense of tension. Its central idea of note is the question of how our creative works can absorb us as artists? In Sarah’s case, she is offered the vertiginous possibility of her creative work bringing new life into the world and through her fears and anxieties she is unable to do so. Instead, Sarah stifles her greatest creative achievement (freeing the spectre of the gothic castle) and is, in a sense, consumed by her inaction.
The idea here is that creative endeavor is voidal, abyssal, aporetic by its very nature. That in the process of writing, the writer changes, evolves, and becomes a more complex entity. The attendant fear of psychological disintegration is so strong that it may block the writer from ever truly engaging a project or putting it out into the world through submission or private publishing. Yet, by not letting the creative work live and emerge into the real world, the writer risks a far more pernicious spectre’s birth: Regret, a beast much more able to consume the artist totally in the final analysis. In “Sketch,” the anxieties of a beginning writer are veiled through an engaging piece of horror short fiction that is harrowing, both metaphysically and on the gut level.
For more information about Ryan McGinnis and to receive a free ebook and access to his writings, please peruse his personal website here. (Check out my review of “A Good Night’s Sleep” next)
Anime Update: August 2019
In this month’s Anime Update, I am very sad to say that I have been able to find no interesting or classic manga being released into North America through any of my go-to publishers. Seven Seas Entertainment, as well as Viz Media, are both resting on their laurels with the usual serial releases of comics they’ve been distributing for some time now. While Dark Horse and Kodansha Comics’ respective manga divisions are releasing little in the way of noteworthy or new content.
Last month, I picked up an interesting manga title: Osamu Tezuka’s (the God of Manga) classic Dororo in a one-volume, 800-page plus tome from Vertical Comics. The release was handled well and the book served to fill some hours of my week with intense joy. I thought I might be on the verge of discovering a promising new manga distributor in Vertical who I might then be able to recommend here. But alas! Vertical has a very limited back catalog of titles that’s hit or miss (more of the latter tbh) and they have been inactive since April of this year with no real time frame for new releases forthcoming. Bummer…
On the anime home video release front, fortunately, prospects are much better this month. Discotek Media has hitherto been having problems with their warehouse and production situation, but has seemed to clear things up in the months since. As such, August comes with a whole slate of new release included DVD releases of Lupin III: Blood Seal of the Eternal Mermaid and New Cutey Honey Complete Collection, both on the 27th.
Sentai Filmworks is celebrating 2019 by releasing a 20th Anniversary Steelbook Edition of the great Chiaki Konaka mecha anime Big O on Blu-Ray on August 20th.
And if that’s not enough GKIDS has two new releases coming soon. The first is the only TV anime series produced and created by Studio Ghibli: Goro Miyazaki’s 2014 CGI Astrid Lindgren adaptation Ronja, The Robber’s Daughter (August 20th). For Ghibli fans like myself this release is instrumental to getting that complete Ghibli home video collection, so pick it up before they get cannibalized by uber-fans. The second is a Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack of Studio 4C’s compilation films Genius Party and Genius Party Beyond. Although the release date for this pack has not been decided upon as of yet, it’s definitely worth keeping an eye open for as it contains great work by directors like Masaaki Yuasa and Shinichiro Watanabe amongst others.
As for theatrically-released anime in North America, Funimation is finally back in the game with a new Pop Idol anime coming to theaters August 5th-8th for the kiddies. However, their stronger fare like the new Eureka Seven film and a new animated Osamu Dazai adaptation entitled Human Lost are still announced, but without tentative dates.
Fathom Events and GKIDS are working together to continue Studio Ghibli Fest 2019 with My Neighbor Totoro on the 25th, 26th, and 28th, as well as Satoshi Kon’s masterwork Millennium Actress on the 13th and 19th of this month.
Finally, there are only a few local anime cons of note this month for my particular region of the US, but they include the following:
Queen City Anime Con in my home city of Charlotte, NC from the 9th-11th. I will be there, so if you will too, please reach out and let me know!
Superstar Anime Con in Virginia Beach from the 17th-18th.
And the massive nerd and anime con Dragon Con in Atlanta, GA from the 29th of August till the 2nd of September.
Ciao for now,
P.S. Last night I saw Kiki’s Delivery Service in theaters for the second time. The film can be compared somewhat unfavorably to Yoshifumi Kondo’s masterpiece Whisper of the Heart . Both films broach the connection between magic/imagination and the artistic process. In Whisper, the narrative seems to say that each of us has an innate worth already there within us that we only have to mine through effort. This effort takes the form of working toward our artistic ambitions on a daily basis no matter how paltry the results at first, as it takes time to develop and hone our skills into their purest shape.
However, Kiki seems to conclude that occasionally our artistic impulse fails us insofar as inspiration goes. During these times it is difficult to work on any project and we find ourselves lethargic. Kiki concludes that in these moments, it is best to take a break, sometimes for weeks, and to wait around for inspiration to come once again. Though inspiration and the magic of creative work really does function in this manner, it is too easy to lose focus in these moments, which can and often do drag on into weeks, months, or even years of lethargy.
Know this, in my creative pursuits, the only thing that can reign in my own lethargy has been discipline, even when I find myself uninspired. Take the advice of Whisper over against that of Kiki and worm a bit each day toward your goals, whether artistic or otherwise. Or else, you may never achieve them at all.
Anime Update: July 2019
Hello again! Its time for another edition of Anime Update, this time detailing the cool anime-related stuff coming to North American shores for the month of July. I hope you’ll check out some of the sites discussed herein and consider buying in the otakudom through the unique merchandise and/or experiences on offer this month.
My usual go-to manga distributors for the North American market are Viz Media and Seven Seas Entertainment as they release large numbers of manga each week. Unfortunately, there is little of note coming through their stores this month. Regardless, I recommend you put their names on a list somewhere and keep them in mind for the future.
On June 1st, Kodansha Comics is releasing a new 4-volume omnibus edition of the original Sailor Moon manga entitled Sailor Moon Eternal Edition. These four volumes are each around 300 pages and of a larger size than your typical manga. So pick ’em up if you ever felt the desire to read the source manga in its entirety. On the 16th of July, Kodansha is releasing a new Ghost in the Shell graphic novel entitled Global Neural Network. Although not a new work by GITS originator Masamune Shirow, it contains four new stories by younger manga-ka inspired by Shirow’s cerebral subtexts and kitschy iconography.
Dark Horse Comics’ manga division is releasing many interesting omnibus editions of some of the most gritty manga on the market. But their coolest new release, set to hit shelves on the 31st, is Start Blazers 2199 Omnibus Vol. 1. Again, this new story is not the work of Star Blazers’ (Space Battleship Yamato) creator Leiji Matsumoto, but instead it is comprised of new stories by younger manga writers and artists inspired by Matsumoto’s monumental influence.
The boutique anime home video release company, Discotek Media, has been experiencing some major technical difficulties as of late regarding their releases. They moved warehouses earlier this year and have been having trouble getting back into the swing of things. This is very apparent during this month when a new Cutey Honey release and a new Lupin III acquisition have both been scheduled for release and subsequently shelved until late August. Bummer…
Luckily, there’s always Sentai Filmworks as an alternative for the best in home video anime releases of classic and cult anime. On the 23rd, they are releasing the Cutie Honey Universe: Complete Collection on Blu-Ray. And exactly one week later, they are releasing a definitive steelbook edition of Elfen Lied: The Complete Series on Blu-Ray complete with tons of extra features and an artbook.
Where theatrical anime is concerned, Funimation Films is really slacking off. They typically show a film in the U.S. once every two months. However, they currently have a number of films slated for release with no tentative date attached. Since February, Funimation has been touting the release of Eureka Seven: Anemone , and is no closer to releasing it now than all those months ago. In April, they announced the acquisition of a Cyberpunk anime adaptation of an Osamu Dazai story called Human Lost that seems currently lost in the fray of planned releases. And now, they’ve released information regarding the premiere of a pop idol film called Love Live! Sunshine!! The School Idol Movie: Over the Rainbow. The former two of these prospects are at least vaguely interesting to the common otaku, but the latter seems so asinine as to turn away any but the youngest, greenest audiences from the theater. If they ever get around to releasing any of the films theatrically that is…
But thank Ohirume-no-muchi-no-kami that we have GKIDS! Together with Fathom Events, GKIDS is screening Studio Ghibli classics’ Whisper of the Heart on July 2nd and Kiki’s Delivery Service on July 28th and 29th nationwide. Also on July 2nd, GKIDS is releasing Ghibli alum Kitaro Kosaka’s new film Okko’s Inn on a DVD/Blu-Ray combo pack. On the 16th, they will be releasing a new French animation (from the studio that brought us Ernest and Celestine) called The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales. Finally, as of July 1st, GKIDS has announced its acquisition of Masaki Yuasa and Studio Science Saru’s new film Ride Your Wave set for theatrical and home video release in 2020.
Although I’ve already mentioned Fathom Event’s work with GKIDS on the Studio Ghibli Fest showings above, there are two other notable anime films being release through their cinema circuit this month. The first, playing on the 11th and 15th, is Sound! Euphonium: The Movie. The film is a sequel to a popular series by Kyoto Animation and is helmed by some of the same artists in the studio who produced great films like A Silent Voice and Liz and the Blue Bird. The second film, set for release on the 23rd only, is Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?: Arrow of the Orion. Unlike Sound!, this second film is more kid-fare than anything else and probably not up the alley of anyone who has made it thus far into this review.
Finally, in the last section of my monthly anime update, I like to take a few sentences to introduce the anime conventions coming up this month in my region: the South-Eastern United States.
Cosplay America, July 5-7th, Cary, NC
Anime Blues Con, July 12-14th, Memphis, TN
Blerdcon (a classic), 12-14th, Arlington, VA
Banzaicon, 19th-21st, Columbia, SC. I’m a regular at this one.
GalaxyCon, 25-28th, Raleigh, NC
& Otakon, 26-28th, Washington D.C. One of the largest anime conventions in the country.
Ciao for now
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