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Crooked Little Vein

by Warren Ellis

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating

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Crooked Little Vein
Crooked Little Vein is an ace put-up job. Comic-book auteur Warren Ellis' very funny first novel combines a mystery, a road trip, a romance, and extensive research into the darker corners of the Internet, and purports to be a descent into the Inferno of contemporary America.

Private eye Mike McGill is down on his luck, living in his New York City office and trying to kill the rat using his coffee cup as a urinal when he receives a visit from a mysterious government official bearing a mission, a handheld computer, and an extremely large expense account. The mission: retrieve the "Secret Constitution," which will enable the government to restore probity and decency to that slice of Sodom situated between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

The sordid details of that Sodom should be familiar to longtime readers of Warren Ellis' blog, where the author frequently posts eyeball-searing images of unorthodox body modification, such as scrotal saline inflation. Longtime readers of Ellis' comic-book work will recognize McGill as a variation of Transmetropolitan's protagonist, Spider Jerusalem, a Hunter S. Thompson-inspired gonzo journalist: McGill's role, like Jerusalem's, is ultimately to both indulge in depravity and to uncover it.
The crimes that Jerusalem/McGill uncover differ from the unseemly behavior that the protagonists themselves join in one crucial respect: when Ellis' heroes binge on drugs or sex, they don't exude the rank hypocrisy as when his villains do so, nor do the good guys impose morality on others.

Here's the put-up job: Ellis' supposed descent into the Inferno actually valorizes the degenerates and excoriates the duplicitous moralists who would limit their freedom. Crooked Little Vein contains a profoundly ethical worldview, from a radically libertarian perspective. Ellis is far less disturbed by macroherpetophile bukkake than by a hypocritical, manipulative government that would restrict it. The rage of his hedonistic antiheroes is primarily a moral rage at a world awash in dishonesty.

Truth-tellers in Ellis' universe, in addition to his protagonists, tend to be young women on the margins of society. Two such women appear in Crooked Little Vein, the first a shaman who prepares Mike for his journey:
There was a girl with blue hair sitting cross-legged on the corner of the street. Her hair fell down her back in thick, fuzzy dreadlocks, like someone had nailed a dozen baby aliens to her head. She was dressed in what I assumed to be an artful arrangement of fabric swatches intended to resemble rags, rather than actual shambling homeless/nutcase out-and-out rags. Tartan, paisley, plaid, things that looked like they belonged as wallpaper in a kid's room, things that looked like they'd been ripped off clowns at knifepoint. She had her back to me, and as I approached, I expected to see a hat in front of her, or a little cardboard sign with the hand-scrawled message NEED MONEY FOR FOOD/DRUGS/CLOWN-STABBING. As I walked around her, I saw that she was just sitting there, eyes closed, hands on her knees, perfectly still and calm.

She had... well, I thought it was Sharpie or makeup around her eye, at first. A wobbly circle, with stitch marks crossing it, drawn like the sort of roundish patch you'd see sewn into teddy bears or old denim jeans. She sort of came to as I walked around her, smiled as if she'd just woken up, and rubbed her face. The marking didn't smear. It was tattooed on. (pp. 19-20)
This solemn young woman listens for the future in the sound of passing cars, and prepares Mike for the journey ahead of him. This chapter is notable in that it's one of the few that can be excerpted without shame, but it's also decidedly less funny than most of the book.

The more outrageous, the more unprintable that Ellis is, the funnier he is as well. In this sense, Crooked Little Vein is its own perfect argument, evidence that freedom is more valuable than repression. But don't tell Warren Ellis that he's not a degenerate filthmonger; he doesn't want you to know.
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