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There should be a name for that genre of literature that makes you want to keel over and die from a brain haemorrhage or at least have you weeping uncontrollably in a strait jacket in some safe padded room of a mental asylum. Irvine Welsh has the dubious honour of hitting that peak in ‘Filth’. Chuck Palahniuk is pretty much tuned into that frequency in almost all his works. Warren Ellis’ first shot at the full-form novel, Crooked Little Vein is supposed to be yet another proud addition to the shock-lit Hall of Fame but doesn’t quite transcend that line convincingly.
Ellis isn’t new to the ruthlessly depressing and horrifying form of writing. He does a good job in his graphic novels (particularly Desolation Jones and Fell) as well as his columns where the non-fiction platform lends authenticity to some fairly unpalatable ideas. Then again, Ellis is a writer who builds his stories on strong research and solid ideas, no matter what the form.
The main premise of ‘Crooked Little Vein’ rests on a vital question that plagues both Media and Culture Studies- What is the Mainstream? Before the advent of the Internet and allied technologies, this answer, like most other answers to life, was simple— anything on the Primetime was Mainstream. Now, with highly segmented niches being the order of the day, the Mainstream becomes a problematic concept and with it, its lines with the Fringes get blurred.
Ellis explores this question using the dipstick of pornography set against the festering American cultural landscape. Michael McGill is a thoroughly non-descript shit magnet hired by the heroin addict Chief of Staff to hunt down an Alternative Constitution. It all goes awry when McGill hires ultra-liberal academic, Trix as his filthy assistant and they begin an unpredictable Trans-American adventure.
Ellis’ over the top humour (rats humping sandwiches) and almost magic realism situations (McGill killing a fellow passenger mid-air while Trix is sleeping) are in fine form. With novels, writers generally tend to wander off on tangents. Ellis is fairly restrained on that count and thus, makes Crooked Little Vein a nice and easy read. In fact, I can’t remember the last time that I finished off a book in a single sitting. The additional material in the paperback edition, simply titled ‘P.S.’ includes a soundtrack to the book and recipes— total value for money.
Ellis’ characters generally have a tense and marvellous chemistry which was sorely lacking in the case of McGill and Trix. Although, Ellis did some thorough research to include some of the most perverse and disgusting kinks, it somehow never had the full impact that it should’ve. In fact, a column that he wrote for Suicide Girls was a lot more bile-inducing than the sum total of the book.
On the whole, Crooked Little Vein is an interesting and fun read but I wouldn’t bung it into the Essential Ellis collection.
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