Books

Rowling Has Spun a Web of Publishing Mystery in a Fun Hall of Mirrors

Carolyn Kellogg
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

We’re reading a book set in a fictional version of the British publishing industry that’s about a book that mocks this fictional publishing industry.


The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike Series #2)

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Length: 464 pages
Author: Robert Galbraith, J. K. Rowling
Price: $28.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-06
Amazon

If J.K. Rowling had as much fun writing The Silkworm as I did reading it, she had a blast.

As the woman who created Harry Potter, Rowling became one of the most famous authors on the planet. But she was known as a writer for kids. Her first book for adults, 2012’s The Casual Vacancy, made headlines and was a bestseller, but critics were not impressed.

For her next venture, Rowling decided to write in secret. She invented a pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, and created a mystery under that alias.

The manuscript featured Cormoran Strike, a disabled veteran turned private detective; it was submitted to publishers without revealing the author’s true identity. Called The Cuckoo’s Calling, it appeared in 2013 with no special fanfare, getting scant, if positive, attention.

That all changed last July when Rowling was unmasked as Galbraith: People suddenly wanted to read the mystery. The months-old book shot up bestseller lists. Rowling admitted that she would have preferred her identity remain secret; some of her oldest friends hadn’t known about her alter ego, and she was “very angry” to learn it had been leaked.

With The Silkworm Rowling returns to Galbraith, framing a novel about a leaked manuscript, the turmoil it creates and its author’s grisly murder.

If this sounds like some sort of commentary, that’s part of the point, I suppose; “In Strike’s opinion,” Galbraith/Rowling writes, “the safest way of ensuring that secret information did not leak was not to tell anybody about it.”

At the same time, the strength of the novel is that this never gets in the way.

As the book begins, Strike is in demand after his last case but struggling a bit financially; he’s a big guy who lost the lower half of one leg in Afghanistan and the barely acknowledged illegitimate son of a recognizable rock star. He has an attractive assistant, Robin, and while she’s engaged and he has sworn off romance, there is a hum of possibility between them.

Despite his crowded schedule, Strike agrees to help a woman find her husband, an author who disappeared in a huff after his agent told him that his latest book, “Bombyx Mori”, was unpublishable. Rumors are flying about its contents, which supposedly trash everyone who works in publishing. The only known copy is locked up in an editor’s safe.

The missing author, arrogant and bitter, descended into writing lurid works after a promising literary debut. He wears an ostentatious cape and is not well liked. His wife’s chief concern is for their disabled daughter, a childlike adult who lives at home, and how she is affected by his absence.

Then Strike finds his body, gruesomely murdered in a manner that echoes the secret manuscript.

This puts attention on the unpublished book, which is a bloody, sexually explicit tale. It is also, we discover, not so secret: The editor, an absent-minded alcoholic, had shared the safe’s combination with his staff.

Strike ends up with a copy, which he finds nightmarish — “with the feeling that he was diving again into contaminated water, he re-immersed himself in the grotesque world of ‘Bombyx Mori.’” Yet he sticks with it because its targets are clearly the prime suspects: Some reader appears to have been offended... mortally.

Sorting through the possibilities brings Strike to a powerful publisher, a famous author, a friend who died too young and an anonymous satire that led to a spouse’s suicide.

The plot zings along, Strike marches through a wintry London that makes him increasingly vulnerable with his bad leg. Robin’s talents are essential, but she worries that Strike doesn’t see them, and her personal and professional life seem to be on a crash course.

Rowling is extraordinarily good at filling her mystery with fleshed-out characters. Even simple walk-ons — a nosy neighbor, Robin’s mom — have dimension, oddity, nuance.

She occasionally overdoes it on description: “When she expelled smoke from her scarlet mouth she looked truly dragonish, with her shining black eyes,” she writes of the domineering agent. But I’m inclined to chalk this up to enthusiasm: The world is so richly imagined, she’s trying to cram it all in.

At the same time, The Silkworm is set in the very real world of British publishing, which makes it tempting to look for corollaries. The famous author with a sour expression and a head too big for his body — could that be Martin Amis? Who is the hip young publisher who first gets the “Bombyx Mori” manuscript? Then, there is the dead man’s mistress, a self-published author of “bloody awful erotic fantasy novels.” Doesn’t she resemble E.L. James?

This is a fun parlor game that leads into a hall of mirrors. We’re reading a book set in a fictional version of the British publishing industry that’s about a book that mocks this fictional publishing industry. Everyone is trying to guess who is who. Next thing you know someone will publish “Bombyx Mori” for real.

All that makes The Silkworm swift and satisfying, especially when read through the lens of secrets and fame and the famous writer behind it all.

In the book’s acknowledgments, Rowling says that writing as Robert Galbraith “has been pure joy.” I hope she continues with the Strike mysteries, under whatever name she likes.

8
Music

The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

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8

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

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1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

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3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

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​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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