Oscar Wilde once wrote that, “we are all in the gutters, but some of us are looking to the stars.” Warren Ellis definitely agrees with the first part of that statement. In the famed comic creator’s first stab at fiction, Ellis brings a painful clarity to his wit, cynicism, and unflinching explorations into the darker avenues of human nature. In Crooked Little Vein, he has turned over the rock of American culture to reveal the disgusting realities we’d prefer never see the light. To put it simply, and in the words of Joss Whedon, whose recommendation graces the back cover here: “I think this book ate my soul.”
Crooked Little Vein can be summed up in a few sentences (sentences I have used repeatedly and successfully to sell the novel at my book store):
Imagine a book written by the Founding Fathers of America, penned on the skin of an alien that Ben Franklin killed after being raped by it for six consecutive days, and whose binding has meteor fragments that cause it the vibrate at the same frequency as the human eye.
Then imagine that this book is the secret to America’s moralistic culture and the cause of our social greatness.
Finally imagine that the book was lost during the Nixon administration subsequently causing the rise of immoral and decadent culture full of freaks and perverts and that only a private eye whose qualifications as a “shit magnet,” which affords him the ability the navigate the dark recesses of out society, can retrieve the book so that the White House can put things back on the right path.
Talk about a nutshell, right?
The main character here is Mike McGill, the aforementioned shit magnet. He, and his sidekick and lover Trixi, must travel across the country trying to locate this lost book. Their travels take them from the dens of masturbators watching Godzilla porn, all the way to the rape parties of America’s social upper-strata. While traveling back and forth throughout the continent, the mapped crooked little vein of the title, Mike is forced to confront a culture whose decadence doesn’t just infect the ranks of the poor and crazy, but reaches into the upper echelons of our society. His travels lead him on a moral journey that forces him to confront which reality is worse: the current one with its depredations and perversions, or the authoritarian morality represented by the book, whose very use will destroy not only the bad elements but also the woman he loves with its soul-crushing rigidity.
Readers of Warren Ellis, particularly of Transmetropolitan, will recognize that his writings are not so much about plot and story, but are vehicles that allow him to present his ideas and beliefs in harsh, confronting ways. Mike and Trix’s travels, then, allow the author to explore larger issues and perspectives. While the book is filled with cynical appraisals and disgusting forays into contemporary culture, both sub and mainstream, there are enough substantive moments beyond the typical “the world is shit” arguments that make the book significant for readers interested in the direction our society is surely taking. One of the more gritty and challenging moments of this sort comes when Mike talks politely with a serial killer on a plane to Las Vegas.
The serial killer casually argues that so much of what is dismissed as “underground” is really the mainstream of American culture. The Internet and other mediums of mass communication that allow for debauchery and depravity to be readily at hand is the secret to the new synthesis between mainstream and underground culture. Porno, violent imagery, and other types of previously taboo things, are no longer on the fringe of society, but now reside in its core. In a line that is very reminiscent to Jack the Ripper who claimed that had given birth to the 20th century, the serial killer concludes that he is the true rock star of the modern age. Hard to swallow, but certainly food for thought.
Ellis’s book is well-written, painfully blunt, and even if you don’t agree with the conclusions and arguments presented, you can still find value in the discourse provided. Or you may just have fun with the book’s rich, dark humor and biting look at the world. Either way, at its conclusion you are forced to agree with the serial killer when he pontificates: “This is such a wonderful, rich country… When you look under the covers it holds to its trembling little chin in the night.”