Review: Warren Ellis – Crooked Little VeinPosted: October 20, 2007
The other day at Borders, on an impulse buy, I picked up Warren Ellis’ novel “Crooked Little Vein,” released back in the summer. I was only familiar with his work in “Transmetropolitan,” or at least, the volumes I had borrowed from our ever-generous webmaster (and a few other people) back in high school. I definitely enjoyed “Transmet,” so I figured I’d flip through his book. The opening paragraph, describing the narrator’s vendetta with a rat living in his office was solid enough to hook me, so I went ahead and bought it.
Having finished the book, I know I enjoyed it, but I’m still not sure if it was actually a good book or not.
To say it was a quick read doesn’t really do it justice. I read it in three days, while at work. If you’re the kind of person who reads books in the store, here’s your golden opportunity. However, its speed and brevity works both ways. On the upside, the action moves quickly- the stage is clearly set in the opening chapter. On the downside, the plot is at best threadbare and you’ll only just begin to feel attachment to the characters by the time to book is over.
Here’s the basic idea: Deadbeat P. I. Mike McGill gets a visit from the White House Chief of Staff, asking him go on a search for a magical back-up Constitution, one that has the power to force anyone who hears it read aloud abide by its rules. The made-up American history at first made me cringe with memories of “National Treasure,” a movie I’ve never seen but feel perfectly entitled to hate. But Ellis makes the story distinctly his style by showing all of the things that the White House finds wrong with America in gleefully sadistic detail. If I gave you all the examples, I’d pretty much have to recap the book page by page, so I’ll just say “Godzilla porn” and “saline shots to the testicles” and leave you with the assurance that these are some of the least weird scenes.
Sometimes the book becomes just that- just plain weird. When Ellis is in his element, he can use the shock and humor of these moments to springboard into something a little more profound in the subtext. Other scenes, like a black cab-driver who believes in everything Charles Manson said and an airline stewardess handing out box-cutters, might be funny, but could also be filled out a little to gain some sort of purpose.
Which brings us to my only real complaint about the book. Pacing. Every once in a while, Ellis really accomplishes something with a occasional single sentence and single paragraph chapters. More often though, the new chapter headings are pointless. A chapter will end in the middle of a scene and pick right back up exactly where it started. For the most part it’s disorienting, and it seems designed to fill up pages more than anything else. There are moments where Ellis (as a comic writer) is clearly used to having artists take liberties with his story, and as a result forgets to paint a visual picture. He gets lost in dialogue and doesn’t let us know what characters are doing or give us some clues as to how they’re delivering their lines. It’s not that I want the story to get bogged down in voice tags, but I would like a few hints at body language to give me a better visual picture. This is really a shame, because in the handful of moments when Ellis really lets loose with prose, it’s really, really good. The opening paragraph is one example. Another scene, where the main character describes listening to a pirated radio station, is sublimely uninterrupted by dialogue until the very end, where it actually helps the scene end on a jarring note.
It is moments like this that are the book’s real surprises, not the shockingly gruesome and imaginatively pornographic scenes. Ellis manages to round out the main characters where I expected them to remain loyal to an archetype. When Mike meets Trix, a student writing a thesis on the extremes of human sexuality, it seems like their relationship will be pretty obvious. Boy (arrogant asshole) meets girl (free spirit) and she helps him to appreciate life and see beauty in blah blah blah. But Ellis throws a few curve balls in this formula. Trix’s rebellious nature sometimes proves ignorant, and in those moments it’s “shit-magnet”, cynical Mike who proves more intelligent than his character appears. It’s a more believable understanding of a successful relationship than most stories give- where both people involved are getting something out of each other rather than one being an unrealistic perfect being.
The real core of the book, the real point Ellis is trying to make, is to blur the distinction between the underground and the mainstream. It’s got a strong “power to the people” message, even while displaying that all most people can do with freedom of expression is satisify a bizarre or horrifying fetish. The plot might wrap up more tidily than it should, and there might not be much of a plot of a plot to begin with, but the book has some great moments and a solid, but not preachy, sense of purpose.