Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The Violent Century

(June 2015)

Atmospheric. Metatextual. Short sentences. No quotation marks. Evocative of McCarthy. Evocative in general. Europe descends to war. People fight the Nazis. The Nazis fight back. Also Vietnam. Also superheroes.
Following on from the world Fantasy Award winning Osama, The Violent Century is another excellent novel from Lavie Tidhar. You can look elsewhere for summaries of the plot or whatever, because we’re all busy people. So let’s get into the spirit of the thing and indulge the urge to brevity with some bullet points.

l  Noirish pulp. Again. He’s very good at this, the whole atmosphere thing. That’s a bit of a double edged sword though, to be honest.
l  The vibe works when it enhances the setting and character. Down-at-heel British secret agents during WWII, say, are served very (very) well by it.
l  Women, not so much. The needle on the Bechdelmeter once more rests untwitchingly at 0.
l  This stems naturally from the generic conventions Tidhar is manipulating here, of course. But, equally of course (go with it), if you’re going to manipulate some conventions it’s reasonable to ask why not others.
l  Am I being hard on this aspect because I recently ragged on a (much, much worse) book for similar failings? Probably. Lots of good stuff here otherwise.
l  Strong characterization; interesting central conceit committed to completely and to striking effect; compelling plot; nicely conspiratorial use of the first person plural; skillful intercutting of the frame narrative to manipulate tension.
l  Really, great characters. Particularly enjoyed the understated ambiguity of the relationship between Oblivion and Fogg, the central pairing.
l  Also enjoyed the admittedly slightly hackneyed comparison between the muted behind-the-scenes operation of the British superheroes (empire in decline, best days have been to pass; Bureau of Superannuated Affairs; an entire nation being pensioned off. Ha!) against the loud, flashy, rising power of the Americans.

In summary: it lacks a bit of the “I’ve never read anything like this” smack that defined Osama, but perhaps that’s to be expected. It also lacks for some of the former book’s quotable linguistic riffs; nothing especially springs to mind as being worth hunting down, as the linguistic flourish is cumulative instead of exemplary. Still a great book though, in a way that’s both similar and quite different to its predecessor, which is very encouraging; artistic growth and what have you. More importantly, it’s been a while since I’ve felt compelled to find a quiet corner at work to sneak in a few pages of reading, so it was a joy to find a book which made that necessary again. Anything which can motivate me to finish the marking quickly so I can steal some time to read must be doing something (several things) right.


  1. Like you, I found it quite nicely atmospheric (particularly the fact that the head of the British service worked out of an office where time literally stood still) but I'm not sure it did anything that hadn't been done before in actual deconstructive comic books. As someone who likes those kinds of comics, I found it all rather staid and safe. Well within my comfort zone as a comic reader.

    I also lost patience with the book when the Nazis caught up with the Allies and the book decided to follow the mistreatment of the obvious pathos-font Tank rather than the Jewish character whose name escapes me but who had turned himself into a monster by embodying all of the Vampiric qualities that the Nazis assigned to Jews in their propaganda. Tank had obviously been set up for a fall right from the start and that undermined the impact of his actual fall.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting. If I'd known someone else was going to engage with I'd have made a bit more effort than just throwing bullet points at the screen.

      It's definitely less, what's the word? Gratuitous? than something like The Boys, that's for sure, but then I'm still getting my ears wet wrt comics in general so couldn't make more of that comparison. Now you point it out I'd have to agree that the Tank busines wasn't especially subtle (perhaps unsurprisingly, given he's called Tank), It's basically a fridging, isn't it? Though with a male character, natch...

      That said, I came to this off the back of a couple of books which seemed to expect me to sympathise with the main character simply because they were the main character, so even some manufactured pathos represented an improvement. Timing is everything, eh?