Monday, January 31, 2011

Ego and Hubris: The Michael Malice Story by Harvey Pekar

Michael Malice is a self-obsessed, lazy, arrogant, elitist, self-righteous and possibly deluded ass with a persecution complex whose social skills are so bad he could pass off as a high-functioning autistic person. As for this graphic novel that is based on his life? It is downright brilliant.

Sometimes a book, graphic novel or TV show is so good that you forget that you are being told a story, and you start reacting emotionally to the characters as if they were engaging with you in real life. This comic by Harvey Pekar, the creator of the award-winning American Splendour, is a case in point.

Based on a true story, this graphic novel tells the story of Michael Malice, a highly-intelligent person who moved to Brooklyn from the Ukraine while still a boy. In the ensuing years, he shows an unusual brilliance. "I have a 160 I.Q., which is four deviations about the mean (or a higher I.Q. than 99.97% of the population)," Michael smugly tells the audience. "[This] means that there are 240 people who are smarter than me in New York City."

Michael is convinced that he is smarter than everyone else. "If I were the tallest kid, it would be regarded as a mere statement of fact," he assures us. "So I'm not sure why it's regarded as arrogance when I say I was smarter than everyone."

One could respond that he consistently confuses the word "fact" with "narcissism," but this wouldn't do any good, given that Michael is absolutely convinced that he is right about everything (and he means everything), while everyone else -- whether his teachers at his Jewish school, his professors in college, or later in adult life his bosses at various temps jobs -- are wrong. He justifies his stunning arrogance and general asshole behaviour by using the following logic: a) I am smarter than everyone else; b) what I think is therefore right; c) insisting on my own moral and intellectual superiority is showing integrity.

Oh yes, the word "integrity". For Michael, a life is not worth living if you don't have integrity. That is why it's so ironic that someone as smart as Michael -- who was a spelling bee champ as a child no less -- consistently confuses being a "self-obsessed prick" with the word "integrity".

Among his particularly loathsome acts:

* His complete lack of empathy when he discovers that a friend has committed suicide and decides to use this as part of a comedy skit. "[I]f you can make people howl about suicide and brain cancer than you are talented."

* His wish that terrorists had blown up the Goldman Sachs building instead of the twin towers on 9/11, after getting angry at how he was treated during a temp job at Goldman; and

* His pleasure in getting people fired (including one woman on her birthday) while engaging  in a skewed morality play in his head that is inspired by the libertarian philosophy of Ayn Rand.

Pekar's telling of Michael's life, along with the wonderful artwork of Gary Dumm, is true to its title, as this work really is the tale of a man with a huge ego and breathtaking hubris. That is why one of the most ironic passages in this graphic novel is when Michael decides to write the story of a country band called Rubber Rodeo. "You can't tell if the band is putting you on or if they think they look cool and are deluded," he muses, while looking at a picture of the band. "Who's kidding who? The viewer or the subject of the photograph?"

One could ask Michael the same question, as he consistently deludes himself into thinking that being selfish is a form of integrity, while using his libertarian politics to justify his profound sense of entitlement. I disliked this character so much I couldn't help but marvel at Pekar's incredible portrayal that garnered this reaction in me, while being impressed with the excellent artwork.

5 out 5 stars

White Light by Rudy Rucker

Felix Rayman is a frustrated mathematics teacher at a state college in New York. "Some fool or misanthrope had acronymed the college SUCAS," sighs Felix, as he has to face the reality of an unfulfilling academic career.

His home life, meanwhile, is no bed of roses either. "When I got home April would always be lying on the couch staring at the TV with the sound off," notes Felix, as he thinks about his wife. "She would just lie there in silence until I came over and asked how she was. The answer was always the same. She was pissed-off, fed-up, and dead sick of it all. The hick town, the constant baby care  (of their baby girl Iris), the shopping in sleazy chain stores, the problems with the car, what the neighbor lady had said today, and so on and on.'

Amid this unhappy mix, Felix keeps himself busy by trying to find a solution to Georg Cantor's continuum problem, while experimenting with lucid dreaming and fuzzy weed, i.e. marijuana. After visiting a local bookshop, where he discovers a strange pamphlet about a world called Cimön, Felix experiences an out-of-body experience in which his astral body leaves his physical self. While travelling in the astral realm, he is almost captured by the Devil, only to be saved by Jesus. Felix is then asked by Jesus to take care of a ghost called Kathy, and to bring her to Cimön, where they can merge with God / Absolute Infinity.

While travelling in this astral world, Felix undergoes a surreal set of adventures that includes: transforming into Donald Duck before having his "Duck" heart cut out by an Aztec priest; befriending a giant beetle called Franx that is reminiscent of the bug in Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis; checking into an infinite hotel modeled after the famous mathematical paradox by the renowned mathematician David Hilbert; and meeting such famous thinkers as Albert Einstein and Georg Cantor. Within this surreal landscape the reader is presented with a vision (albeit a very weird one) of the mathematical concepts of transfinite numbers and Cantor's absolute infinity.

This is the third book by Rudy Rucker that I have read and it is the only one that I have enjoyed. Unlike the previous two novels, which can be described as poor parodies of a Salvador Dali painting, the characters in this book are not absurd caricatures, but rather interesting persons. The writing is also infinitely (no pun intended) better that his other works that I have read.

That being said, it is clear that Rucker's instinct is to be the far-out, weird math guy, and as such, this novel does contain the occasional bizarre rant. In fact, by the end of the book, I was starting to worry that Rucker was going to descend into pointless gibberish, like in some of his other books. To my pleasant surprise, however, this book did not become a bad literary version of an acid trip, but rather provided some interesting food for thought about the concept of infinity.

This book is definitely not for everyone, but if you want to read a novel that mixes math with hallucinatory images, then you will find this work interesting.

3 out of 5 stars