Chewed-up-and-spit-out private eye Mike McGill is hired by a junkie Secretary of State to retrieve a lost book written by the Founding Fathers, a mystical tome containing an alternate Constitution of the United States of America. And that’s just the pitch? I like it.
Warren Ellis’s Crooked Little Vein lives up to the pitch, but holds back on character. The Book Mike McGill is after functions as a mysterious carrot dangling ahead of the protagonist, inducing a long, mercurial internet tour through American culture. The first two thirds of the book are like some of my early query letters, heavy on plot but thirsty for character.
To be sure, Mike McGill is immediately outfitted with a sultry female assistant/lover, named Trix. Since she has no last name, I hope the word play is not lost on you. Trix is a confident, autonomous, sexual female character who poses a threat to Mike McGill’s clingy self-loathing. I hesitate to call her a “strong” character only because I’d like to believe the gender equality paradigm has shifted enough that Trix can be perceived as actual, rather than “strong.”
Trix is a graduate student conducting research on sexual fetishes, the subaltern world of Internet-disseminated perversity, the lurid underbelly of human desire that no one speaks of publicly. Mike’s unconvincing checkered past coupled with Trix’s unabashed interest in sex and humanity lead the reader through a menagerie of the fantastic, dangerous, and unique ways that human beings try to gratify themselves. Give it a read, see if anything turns you on or creeps you out. Either way, you’ll want to know how it ends.
For the first two thirds of the book, Mike and Trix merely serve to escort the reader on the initial leaps and bounds of the narrative. Their dialogues are dating banter and social commentary. Just when I was really starting to wish something would actually happen between these two characters (besides kinky sex followed by Mike’s swampy, misplaced, monogamous impulses), they finally start arguing. Trix is free to have sex whenever she pleases – which also implies with whomever she pleases – even if she and Mike love each other. She is also irritated that he actually wants to do the bidding of the Secretary of State. Of course, Mike can’t handle these assertions and passive-aggressively walks out, only to finish the argument 3 chapters later. This “big” argument doesn’t happen until Chapter 45, mind you. If you like character development, you won’t get it for a while. Mike and Trix miss their chance to jump off the page.
Mike McGill’s “big” argument with Trix is too little too late for the characters. They touch on the theme of love, but shy away from exploration. Their long trip through the internet menagerie leads to a conflict between Mike and Trix that falls flat, though it is one of the few exchanges of substance between characters in Crooked Little Vein. Most of the other dialogues between Mike and every other character are dioramas, puppet shows of internet sensationalism, the characters delivering lines, segueing the reader into sometimes grisly, sometimes erotic, scenes of silicone poisoning, scrotal saline injections, lizard porn, serial murder, tantric ostrich date rape, or blue-blooded depravity secreted away on the estates of America’s obscurest wealthy families.
If you’re still wondering about the magical Book that Mike and Trix are after - the alternate Constitution written by the Founding Fathers – wonder on. The only thing we learn about it in the first couple hundred pages is that its binding has some kind of trippy electromagnetic resonance which – when opened flat and read aloud in the actual physical presence of a group of people – has the power to change minds, to literally rewrite the moral sensibilities of the listeners. Evidently the government wants this book so they can morally lobotomize all the hedonistic sickos out there which make the Right Wing’s skin crawl, even though a lot of the Right Wing are those hedonistic sickos.
The whirlwind tour culminates with Mike befriending Zack Pickles, Internet pornographer and eventual infowar trump card. Zack uses the sales from his porn warehouse – lined with cubicles producing all manner of sex and kink for internet consumption – to finance his global content aggregation enterprise. This is the part of the Vein that gives Ellis’s noir crime novel the tasty smack of science fiction.
“Add up all the viewers on my network,” Zack tells Mike, “and I have a bigger audience than HBO. This ain’t fringe anymore, friend. If you define mainstream as that which most people want to watch, then I’m as mainstream as it gets.”
Crooked Little Vein is powered by ideas like Zack’s, and its characters take hold later or not at all. But I love the ideas. They’re Grrrreeat! Another insightful idea in Crooked Little Vein, largely embodied in Trix and Zack Pickles, is that the freaky, perverse nooks and crannies of our society are what actually constitute America. This country was founded by Puritans conquering Earth-worshipers. Everybody’s a freak to someone. To Puritanically moralize American society through cultural erasure would destroy America.
Near the end, Mike’s brazen, hard-boiled private eye act is tired and he wants to quit. He can’t handle what he’s experienced, which is love for Trix. True plain love, unqualified by the presence – or lack – of sex, possession, and monogamy. For a time, he is able to remain inured to all of the cosmetic, sensual and sexual exhibitions of his journey. But the intimacy with Trix, a partner, a coworker, a lover – that is when Mike wants to quit. “Give me the Internet filth,” Ellis’s protagonist seems to say. “Give me the sex, drugs, and violence – that’s easy. Give me every indulgence but love!” Poor guy. Poor us, Ellis is saying, so afraid of love. Ellis touches the lonely nerve of identity embedded in each of us. Obscured in vain by every material distraction, there is still a person inside, yearning to know itself, yet afraid to be seen.