Monday, February 23, 2009

Warren Ellis' Crooked New York City

In his 2007 debut novel, Crooked Little Vein, veteran comic book scribe Warren Ellis spends a good deal of time looking at New Yorkers as a species in the zoo that is modern American subculture. The lead character, private detective and self-described "shit magnet" Michael McGill, is a New York transplant, living and working on the edge of a "pre-Rudy zone" in Alphabet City.

McGill approaches NYC as a challenge, which in some respects puts him at constant odds with elements of the city he now calls home. He lives in New York, but is perhaps more properly a Chicagoan. His outside perspective on New York is well represented by Ellis, himself a Brit. The story plunges him into an absurd to the point of brilliant mystery, where he must track down the "Secret Constitution" of the United States, which has been lost since the Nixon era.

Ellis' New York City is one where any fetish has a place (this is true of other cities as well in the book, especially and most disturbingly Los Angeles, but we're focusing on NYC here). Our shit magnet protagonist follows one of the early leads in his investigation to a private club that specializes in Godzilla bukkake. I don't want to ever know if there is a factual basis for that. I am quite happy to pretend it is purely a product of Ellis' demented mind.

McGill's traveling companion for this cross-country journey is a thesis student, and native New Yorker, named Trix. She's his tour guide into the strange, opening doors to worlds of polyamory, saline-injection fetishists and more. Through these sub-cultures the get closer and closer to the secret constitution. Their rapport bristles with an awkward sexual tension, but is also used to highlight the differences between Trix's New York, and the more mundane parts of the country. 

Travelling in Ohio, Trix is particularly astounded at the presence of American flags outside of people's homes (for the record, I have had a similar moment travelling in Ohio). Mike is dismissive of her surprise on account of her being a New Yorker. Mike's response shows how he still perceives NYC as an outsider:

"People in New York are either New Yorkers, or they're Spanish, or Italian, or Irish, or  whatever. Who the hell moves to Williamsburg and says, Hey, I'm an American? Hell, even after 9/11, if you wanted to tell someone they were being a good guy, people were saying, 'You're a hell of a New Yorker, buddy.'"

There is something to that. Something which New Yorkers take pride in and many others  (particularly in Middle America) scorn. We frequently see our city as the center of our world,  and have, as John Updike famously said, a “secret belief that people living anywhere else had to 
be, in some sense, kidding.” Something that separates us from Sarah Palin's 'pro-America parts of America.' The 'Main St vs Wall St' line which echoed throughout last year's presidential campaign which only seemed to further illustrate the ontological differences between NYC and the rest of the country.

What is it about this city that inspires us to act that way?

This question isn't the focus of Ellis' novel, so he doesn't set out to answer it on a  specifically local level. But it, among others, is posed, sometimes literally and sometimes between the lines. The tension between normal, straight, vanilla America and the crooked social preferences of New Yorkers is embodied by the tension between Mike and Trix. Geographic and social boundaries are both examined in their journey. The lines between normal and abnormal are drawn, crossed, erased and redrawn throughout the novel, as Ellis pokes at the absurdity beneath the puritan hang-ups that still linger in American society.

Crooked Little Vein is an excellent first foray into prose fiction for Ellis. A worthy successor to his Transmetroplitan, one of the finest comic series I've ever had the opportunity to read.

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