Book Review: The Trouble with Peace

The Trouble with Peace by Joe Abercrombie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Presumably, the titular trouble with peace is its long-term untenability, and how goddamn treacherous everyone is.

A surprising number of loose ends got wrapped up in this one, which sets the stage of the third book in the trilogy focusing more on the labor disputes and the rise of the first real challengers to Bayaz’s power, the unwashed masses and their predilection for smashing the hell out of everything. As appealing as the Judge subplot is, and as entertaining as are the attempts at stick-and-poke anarchy made by all the dislocated skilled workers made irrelevant by the shiny new deathtrap machines, they don’t have anything that can challenge Bayaz’ pet demigod. No amount of rabble, no matter how roused, can overwhelm an Eater. They’ll just get ate.

On one hand, I can recognize the point of the allegory. Unmaking the foundation of society is supposed to seem like a pipe dream, no matter how broken the society might be. Bayaz is an institution unto himself, an immortal watchmaker who set the clockwork of the empire to spinning centuries ago and stops in every now and then to tune it up and sneer at the little people so they know just how superior he is. He has failsafes upon failsafes. It’s supposed to be impossible for young, morally upright idealists to try to effect change. You don’t need to be a poli sci professor to see the parallels.

But on the other, it’s a little dissatisfying. (This is the closest I have to criticism, this book is a masterpiece.) You want to root for the underdog, but the underdog is too realistic. We see the looters and rioters, warts and all, and though their cause is just, they’re nothing but warts. There’s not much character development in the Breakers and Burners, which was a deliberate stylistic choice to maintain the air of mystery around the organization. Consequently, the only things we see are them acting like animals, pillaging and raping and burning their way through the cities that have been grinding them further and further beneath their heel over the past 30 years (longer if you disregard the sudden-onset Industrial Revolution and think about the lot of the smallfolk under aristocratic feudalism).

In the third-person omniscient provided by all these perspective hops, the reader can recognize that the politics of the Empire are a Machiavellian nightmare, and the North is nothing but tribalist feuding, as the North has always been. You want to root for the peasants. You want the system to be burnt down. But the peasants are just so grotesque and fairytale-goblinoid evil that you can’t sympathize with them. Brod is okay, but only because he’s surrogate Logen, and even he can’t decide whether the uprising is the move.

All of this to say the revolution is the backdrop, with the main focal point of the story being the relationships between the main characters. I don’t want to go into it and risk spoiling anything, but it’s gripping. I can’t wait until the next one.

And Abercrombie can be relied on to pump out the next one before I die of old age. Unlike certain contemporaries I could and will name: George R.R. Marten, Patty Rothfuss, and Scott Lynch, for starters. It must be real embarrassing to be those bums, watching Joe Abercrombie, the new and unrivaled king of grimdark, just churn up an entire new trilogy in the 10-year silent expanses of time between each of their individual volumes.



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Book Review: Future Primitive and Other Essays

Future Primitive: And Other EssaysFuture Primitive: And Other Essays by John Zerzan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The issue with reading anarchist literature is that they’re laboring under the delusion that if their argument is sufficiently complex, they’ll win hearts and minds. Thing is, your reader’s heart and mind is already won, by virtue of their voluntarily choosing to read your impenetrable wall of jargon-heavy anarchist philosophical rhetoric.

It was engaging enough, for what it was, and brief. Future Primitive was the by now familiar call to abandon civilization and return to the shrub because the internet makes you stupid and alienated, which it absolutely does.

Hey. Hey, look at me. It does. It’s making you worse, right now.

The Mass Psychology of Misery is Zerzan saying all therapists are cops, and ACAB. That might be an oversimplification, but someone had better. He says psychology as we know it and psychiatry in particular is a tool for trying to make people forget their misery, and the misery itself is brought on by the absurd, abnormal conditions of data overload and treadmill consumerism that are supposed to constitute modern life. In this way, shrinks are distractions, like drugs, both street and prescription, like Netflix, to make you forget that you’re living directly counter to the nature you’ve been programmed for. He keeps trying to argue with Freud despite the fact that Freud essentially agrees that civilization took perfectly good monkeys and fucked ’em all up, hence the eponymous discontents. But Freud is on psych’s side, for better or worse, and who better to champion tribalism than an advocate for a return to the tribe?

Tonality and the Totality was a screed in opposition of music that sounds good, as it sounds good for following a tonal pattern and the tonal pattern represents the interests of the elite. Or something adjacent to that. It sounded like a defense of bad punk music, but then he called out punk music right at the end for not being anarchist enough! There’s just no pleasing some people.

The Catastrophe of Post-Modernism is right on the money in saying postmodernists are a bunch of sketchy chameleon dickheads who play irritating language and symbol games in an effort to avoid confronting the reality of human emotion. It wasn’t hugely comprehensible, but you can’t write about postmodernism and be comprehensible, so I don’t hold that against him. He’s fighting the good fight, if only with the sticks and stones of his preferred collective.

The bits and pieces from the Nihilist’s Dictionary were a little too propagandistic for my tastes, but the effort, and any nod to Bierce, is always appreciated.

It was a good book, but the arguments felt kind of lateral, suggestive without directly suggesting anything. But then, if Zerzan was buds with Kaczynski, I guess that would make sense.

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Prague: Architectural Anarchy

November 22, 2017. Prague, Czech Republic.

There are different kinds of surreal. Barcelona was a psychotropic fever dream, everything outsizedly absurd, the kind of ridiculousness that even dream logic can’t slip by you. Fifteen-foot tall matadors burst from an alley to the sound of spirit flutes and you stop and say, “Wait, this is a dream. Obviously. Okay.”

Prague is different. It’s cooler, more refined and lucid in its creeping abnormality. It’s easy to understand how a place like this churned out a mind like Kafka. The city carries an overtone of dread, the subtle but implacable discomfort that comes in the strange vision quests that too much NyQuil gives you.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful city. It’s just, when you walk through it, you feel like it’s being made up as it goes along. The architecture is eclectic to the point of the random. You can stand on a single corner and look around a square and see three, four, five different styles of building, ordinarily separated by centuries, now jutting against one another.

That’s what’s so unsettling about Prague, I think. That’s what gives it the static buzz of a medicated dream.

Think about your last nightmare. You’re running down a hallway, maybe a childhood school or something, you get to the staircase, you run up the steps, two at a time, you throw open the doors to the roof and you’re suddenly in the middle of the woods.

It’s like that every time you turn a corner. The same jarring sense of something being wrong.

Good thing morbid absurdity is my bread and butter. I’ve been bumbling around Prague for two days now, fending off a chest cold in the rainy, 30 degree weather. I walk into a Baroque alley and come out a Gothic one. Roman churches suddenly give way to municipal buildings covered in arabesques. Down another alley, which gets so narrow that you can barely fit two people through it at once, and I walk out into an expanse of Soviet Brutalism that goes on for as long as my vision does.

I caught a snippet of an interview on a TV screen in some museum or other, a local architecture teacher was saying, “Builders just kept coming. We had some from Germany, we had some from France, we had many from Italy, from Portugal, from Spain, from the East, all these builders came to add something to Prague.”

Well, mission accomplished. It felt to me like a weird echo of the Great Bazaar, jumbled miscellany writ large and rendered permanent.

I crossed the bridge out of Old Town and climbed the hill toward Prague Castle, a standing complex that had been restored (and, in keeping with their whole theme, remodeled) since the 1300s. That’s where I found the crown jewel, a Gothic masterpiece called the St. Vitus Cathedral.

The pictures don’t do it justice. It was like a factory that mass-produces religiously themed nightmares. It’s like the Devil made a church as a joke, and it was so over-the-top that they decided to keep it. The whole big bastard looks like a 2-page insert from a gritty early 90’s Batman comic. I was so awed by it I didn’t even mind the Asian families doing noisy selfie-stick gymnastics next to me.

I climbed to the top of the South Tower. Allegedly 287 steps. Bull. 283. I counted.

It didn’t start to really suck until step 140, but that was probably just the chest cold. Probably.

I made my way back down the hill and discovered a “Medieval Tavern” with a row of blackened skulls across the door.

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Welp, my hands are tied. I went in, figuring that I’d grab something to eat here.

It was nearly pitch black inside, lit only by candles. Lots of rough-hewn stone, lots of weird haunted house decorations like skulls, chains, robed mannequins. I don’t know how prevalent robed mannequins were in actual medieval times, but I have to imagine they used more lighting and fewer bones in general tavern decor. Maybe it was a special dungeon-themed tavern. I wandered down some winding stairs into some dark, empty rooms, and then eventually into a well-lit modern kitchen, which is when I knew I’d gone too far. I wandered back up the stairs and sat at the head of a table, looked over the menu.

After maybe 10 minutes of alternating between looking at the menu and a candle, a beautiful blonde skeleton appeared and asked what I wanted to drink. The menu said “Home made beer with love”, so I ordered that. She slam-dunked it on my table on the way past and either didn’t hear my attempt to order food or ignored it.

 

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It was a porter, and it was okay. Nothing to write home about. Not particularly strong. A little light and hoppy for my tastes, but beggars and choosers; I hadn’t gotten my hands on anything darker than a lager since Ireland, and even that had just been knockoff Guinness.

Well, I finished it, and she never came back. Guess I was gonna eat somewhere else. I paid my 25 ckz (about $2) to a dour-faced young man in a shirt that was, for some reason, full of holes. Maybe it was supposed to be a peasant throwback, but the effect was ruined by the visibility of the Calvin Klein logo on his boxers.

I guess a porter is a lunch. That’s around 200 calories. That’s 2 bananas. Or 3 eggs. 3 eggs could, arguably, be lunch. I drifted through the spontaneously rendering streets calculating how much actual food could have taken the place of that mediocre beer with love when I happened upon a “Ghost Museum”. Well, those are some of my favorite things, and it had a student discount, so why not?

The upper floor was a collection of badly but wittily translated ghost stories printed on single sheets of giant fake scroll paper that was then pasted into giant fake books. The downstairs was advertised as “a walk through the ghost-haunted streets of the underground”, but was more of a long basement full of cheap haunted house decorations. I wonder if this part of Prague has a guy. Like, a Party City wholesaler, so they just wound up with all these lame Halloween decorations and went, “All right, what can do we do with this?”

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I found my way to the surface and walked the mile or so back to my hostel, then down the street to yet another pho place. I’ve been subsisting mostly on pho in Prague, partly because both hostels I booked have been in Little Vietnam (it is not that little, considering they’re a mile and a half apart), partly because pho is basically chicken soup and that’s as close as I can get to eating healthy here.

Here, let me walk you through Czech cuisine real quick.

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anywhere else it would be reasonable to assume “tatar sauce” is a typo

So far, I’ve only had the opportunity to sample 2 totalitarian classics in Prague.

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This one was right after I got off the bus, before I understood how much Czech money was worth. This was the first and last time I would pay $15 for three mouthfuls of deer meat and some tater tots.

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This monstrosity was much more reasonable, something like $7 all told. On the bottom, it’s around a half lb of chicken breast and all sorts of delicious peasant vegetables, broccoli, tomatoes, green peppers, onions, the usual. And then also, giant fried potato wedges. Then cheese. It’s like shepherd’s pie without any broth, and then instead of mashed potatoes, a gallon of cheese. It was called Žižkov, after a popular student district. It was cheese fries gone out of control.

I’ve done more than I’ve written since arriving in Prague, but since everything has felt so haphazard and disjointed, that’s how I’m going to tell the story, too. I’ll tell you one thing for damn sure, though, I’ve got to find a better place to get breakfast.

This morning I opted for the $6 hostel breakfast. “English Continental”, he said.

“Yeah, but what’s in that?” I asked. “I’m from the States, When hotels say continental breakfast, they usually mean coffee and a danish.”

He looked at me strangely, possibly because he was, himself, Danish, then showed me the list. Lunchmeats, bread, milk, eggs, omelettes optional, just ask the cook. I forked over some of the Czech currency and he said, “Okay, now go outside, across the courtyard, through the gate, to the other hostel on your left, and give them this voucher.”

Uh. All right.

I did that, and the man at the door was obviously displeased to see me. That seemed to be a recurrent theme in Prague, truth told. No one has seemed particularly excited to see me, but I’m trying not to take it personally. The dining room was full of three lazy German shepherds, which I approved of for reasons more moral than sanitary.

The spread. Ah, the spread. Three types of stale bread! It was great, if you ate around the mold.

Canned eggs, served chilled. Ice-cold, perfectly circular eggs, their yolks a distressing and unnatural orange color. A pinch of parsley had been applied to the top, presumably to simulate “preparation”.

Wet tortillas rolled up with apple jelly. Just like Mom used to make, during her psychotic breaks.

Some sort of single-serving spreadable ham.

Small, sad apples, their skins all withered and pruny and generally looking like grandpa testicles.

I looked at the angry Czech men. They glared back at me, as if daring me to ask for an omelette.

I ate an entire plate of tomatoes and lunchmeat, then more tomatoes, then a quantity of bread and butter that even I found sort of alarming. Feed a fever, starve a cold? Feed a cold? Then I went back to the hostel, where the possible Dane asked, “how was breakfast?”

“Fine,” I lied, then passed out for another 3 hours. I think that was more immune system than food, though.

If I get to the Kafka museum tomorrow, I’ll double it up and tell you about my Adventures in Communism!

Love,

The Bastard

 

 

Athens: Making My Escape

November 16, 2017. Athens, Greece.

I spent my last day in Athens wandering around, drinking Weißbier instead of the refreshing sparkling water that was Greek beer. I had discovered the potency of Greek wine the night previous, however, and let me just say, for 8 Euros a vase? Whoa nelly.

Outside the National Archaeological Museum, I stumbled into yet another enormous protest in a language I couldn’t understand. This time the anarcho-communists were well represented, as were some incorrigible teenagers in motorcycle helmets and facemasks who had jumped a spiked fence and were presently involved in occupying a university building.

Here’s something I’ve noticed in my years tightroping it across the fringe: If you give someone a mask, they will stare you down, 100% of the time. Doesn’t matter if it’s a gas mask, a bandanna, or Halloween. With faces concealed, balls triple in size like that scene in the Grinch.

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like this, but with the testicles and a Call of Duty LARPer

I asked my Greek correspondent on political uprisings and good restaurants what the deal was. Apparently, there’s a yearly national celebration that pertains in some way to Greek independence, though no one either could or would give me more information than that. In the late 60’s and early 70’s, there was a military coup d’état that the students protested. They were, perhaps unsurprisingly, gunned down. The junta broke in 1974 but particularly radical left-wing students have carried on a proud tradition of occupying universities, lighting things on fire, and breaking shit ever since.

(This is a gentle paraphrase of how it was described to me; I’m thinking my source might lean a bit right. That’s more common for university students in Greece than back home, for reasons you might be able to intuit.)

They were carrying around lead pipes and blasting Greek rap music out of what looked like a pretty nice guitar amp, and being the intrepid journalist I am, I decided to document the occasion.

This was not well-received.

“They were saying, ‘close your phone’,” she told me.

“Yeah, kinda figured it wasn’t a brunch invitation.”

Some local Suicide Girls were sitting on the gate in front of the occupied university quad / masquerade mosh pit, and I asked them what was going on. They looked at each other and giggled, went back and forth in Greek, then turned back to me.

“ἀναρχία,” they said, and that’s how it sounded when you heard it. It sounded enough like “anarchia” that I got the gist.

“Yeah, got that,” I said. “Me too. But like, what are they doing dancing and glaring in there?”

“Video?” one said, pointing at my phone.

“Video!” the other said excitedly.

“Probably not gonna happen again,” I said. “Already didn’t make many friends with that.”

“Video,” one said, persuasively, making a recording motion. I grinned.

“Okay, I get it. Thanks, ladies.”

I waved, they laughed again, and I got out of there before I had to fight a bunch of teenagers like that Norwegian statue, “Man Attacked by Genii”.

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you know the one

The museum was impressive, especially if you’re big into pottery. I am not, but they had a lot of statues and the crumbling remains of statues, both of which I am big into. I got lost in there for three hours, then had to scamper out to a cat-infested terrace where they fed me build-your-own gyros and carbonara.

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just how i like my women

The next morning, Athena blasted me with another thunderstorm, sensing that I was trying to get out of Athens. I’m probably one of her most vocal modern keepers of the faith, and she obviously wanted me to stay. I absolutely would have, if it were possible to make money there.

Athens is my favorite European city by far. Everything in it was beautiful. Everything in Barcelona was also beautiful, but that was a deliberate, maintained beauty. The Athenian beauty was sudden and bursting and chaotic, the difference between a conventionally cool attractiveness with expertly applied makeup and wild, unhurried naturalité, its only accentuation flashing eyes and playful snarling.

I loved Barcelona for its poise, but I’m in love with Athens for its honesty. No matter what Diogenes might have said.

Still, couldn’t stay forever. I think that hostel might have had bedbugs. Time to go. I weathered the storm, taught myself how 2 Metro, and caught a train to the airport.

On the plane, I sat behind a dude who smelled powerfully of an unwholesome cheese. Of course. Of course I did. I had every intention of writing on the 3 hour flight, but the classical conditioning I’ve instilled in myself runs too deeply and I fell asleep as soon as we got in the air, laptop open in lap, brim of doofy but essential Wanderhut pulled over my eyes.

Turbulence woke me up shortly before the landing, and I looked out the window to see a city of ghosts. Fingers of mist trailed over the barren hills like prowling animals. My plane dropped out of the sunlight and into the massive wraith cloud, and I haven’t seen pure, natural light since. When we broke through the bottom of the cloud cover, the coffee-colored hills dropped away into the Bosphorous, which is as beautiful and imposing as you may have heard. The fog on the other side opened, and the metropolis of Istanbul sprawled as far as my admittedly poor eyes could see, the peculiar architecture of the skyscrapers warping and waving like an acid trip. 

End purple prose. The airport had no Wi-Fi, which I had been warned of.

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I’d made all my plans in advance, except my plan for a visa, which I learned was a thing.

IMPORTANT: If you roll into Turkey from pretty much anywhere, they’re going to make you pay extra money to be there. It’s sort of like driving out of New Jersey, but in reverse. I took a steep 25 Euro hit (the cost of 10 pork gyros in Athens) from a guy who spoke virtually no English. Obviously, I went to the ATM and pulled out the money in lira, because this is Turkey, and that’s the radically inefficient money they use here. My pockets have been heavy and jingling with 5 and 10 cent pieces since I arrived, even though a single coffee is 7 or 8 Lira, which equates to roughly 1.60 Euros (not quite $2).

I tried to give the guy 150 Lira (25ish Euros) and he just repeated, “25 Euros.” So I had to go withdraw more money, only this time it’s a kind that I can’t spend in this country. Now I’m walking around with 75 Euros that I can’t do anything with, and of course most of it is in coins because Europe cannot get enough identical silver-and-gold coins for some reason, so my first night was trying to pay out for my toothpaste and soap from a Scrooge McDuck pile of varying but visually similar coins while the dude at the market, who speaks no English, looked on in disgusted bemusement.

Still, Istanbul is gorgeous. My hostel attendant is always on a great deal of cocaine, but it just makes him friendly. Beats the alternative.

For most of the time I’ve been writing this there was a wailed call to prayer being amplified through the streets. It’s the kind of thing I would voluntarily listen to on Pandora. Too bad I’m a heathen.

Before I forget: Jeff Homscheck correctly guessed my new location. He is the best of us, and he will be remembered as such long after this world becomes a smoking crater.

See you tomorrow, beautiful readers.

Love,

The Bastard