‘Explosions’ by Mathieu Poulin (Review)

QC Fiction pride themselves on publishing books with a difference, whether that means a collection brought into English by thirty-seven translators (I Never Talk About It), an epic Bildungsroman from the frozen north (Songs for the Cold of Heart) or a schizophrenic post-climate-change fantasy (Listening for Jupiter).  However, even by these lofty standards, the book covered today stands out with its bizarre blend of Hollywood magic, philosophical musings and cameo appearances.  Buckle up – there’s a lot to see, and you don’t want to miss a thing 😉

*****
The premise of Mathieu Poulin’s Explosions: Michael Bay and the Pyrotechnics of the Imagination (translated by Aleshia Jensen, review copy courtesy of the publisher) sounds like something you’d come up with after a few drinks at home with friends one Saturday night.  “Hey, Mathieu,” you might say, “do you reckon there’s a reason why Michael Bay makes mindless blockbusters with massive explosions?  You should write a book about that!”  And as the group explodes(!) into laughter, an idea begins to form in the writer’s mind: what if Bay, the ‘genius’ behind movies such as The Rock and Pearl Harbor, isn’t just bent on entertaining teenage boys with action scenes?  What if there’s an underlying philosophical line of thought underpinning his entire oeuvre?

(This, kids, is why you shouldn’t drink.)

Impressively, though, that’s exactly what Poulin does in Explosions.  In effect, the writer has mined the Hollywood director’s Wikipedia page and integrated what little information he found there into a novel that explores the art of the movie, the anguish of lost origins and a quest for true love.  Yes, there are a *lot* of explosions (and an impressive soundtrack), but it’s all to help poor Michael work through the loss he feels and achieve his dream of making films that allow us to understand the world, and our place in it.

The key to Explosions is the famous director’s background.  He was adopted at a young age, and Poulin places this action at the scene of an explosion, where the lost young child is taken in by two well-meaning souls.  Years later, young Michael becomes fascinated by big bangs, and when an ambitious experiment involving a toy train and some fireworks goes horribly wrong, the ensuing explosion brings back memories of his early life and sets him off on a lifelong quest to find himself.  As it turns out, there’s a Proustian element to all the movie fireworks, with the pyrotechnics acting as Bay’s Madeleine.  The explosions bring back memories and evoke smells from his childhood – of course, the bigger they are, the more he remembers.

Meanwhile, his cinematic career is about to take off, yet it’s philosophy, not movie-making, that’s his first love:

Plato’s influence on Michael Bay thus went beyond the themes of his works.  They encompassed the very notion of philosophy itself, which, more than the modern vision of the discipline as a space for reflecting on the mind itself, must espouse all the world’s knowledge – from literature to geometry to metaphysics – to give rise to meaning.
p.27 (QC Fiction, 2018)

Surprisingly, he’s not the only one who’s a sucker for philosophy as it seems like a common Hollywood interest.  It’s certainly true of producer and mentor Jerry Bruckheimer, who plays the Socrates to Bay’s Plato, and Will Smith is desperate for Michael to help him understand sensitivity in an attempt to make Bad Boys the movie on decolonisation they are all striving for.  It’s just a shame that despite all the intellectual firepower involved, the audiences and critics just can’t see beneath the glossy surface…

The other main idea in Explosions concerns Bay’s love for Daphné, a beautiful Canadian academic he bumps into in a book shop.  She’s his perfect woman, a natural beauty who believes in Michael’s quest to change the world through his art, and he can’t wait to involve her in his world.  However, everyone else seems to loathe her, leading to her being kidnapped the moment she arrives on set.  The reader is left to wonder what it is about her that Hollywood can’t stand and, more importantly, why Michael can’t see that she’s far more interested in his body than his mind.

Thanks to these three strands, Poulin successfully prevents what seems like a one-joke idea from running out of steam too quickly, putting together a bizarre, yet compelling, work.  In real life, Bay is the butt of many jokes, successful but critically ignored; Poulin’s version is a man of deep intelligence and sensitivity destined to be misunderstood.  It’s our fault, not his, that we overlook the way Armageddon shows man’s helplessness in the face of the mysteries of the universe, turning Bay’s thwarted academic into a clownish figure destined to be remembered as a maker of crap films.  In truth, it’s a tragedy.

There’s a lot to like about Explosions, but it doesn’t quite manage to keep the pace up for the whole movie book, and ironically, it was the action scenes that often found me skimming.  The opening scene with Bay and Ben Affleck in charge of out-of-control space shuttles was certainly impressive, but there are only so many ways you can make a car chase sound interesting.  Even here, though, Poulin manages to pull out a few gems.  Martin Lawrence, Smith and Bay using an ice-cream van to chase mysterious kidnappers is a highlight, and I also enjoyed the way our hero is easily distracted in the course of his adventures:

The walls of the Californian alley, from his bird’s eye view, were palimpsests whose surfaces artists and hoodlums constantly competed for, subverting, with varying degrees of finesse, the marks left by their most recent predecessors.  “Genette was right,” thought Michael, who’d always promised himself he’d one day explore the cinematic possibilities of transtextual relationships.  While he wanted to tackle them all, he admittedly had a soft spot for hypertextuality, seeing each new work as a potential hypotext. (p.164)

At this point, he’s about to crash into an enormous dumpster.  You can take the car chase out of the philosopher, it seems, but you can’t take the philosopher out of the car chase…

A comparison that instantly springs to mind when reading Explosions is Laurent Binet’s semiology thriller The 7th Function of Language.  Just like Binet, Poulin name-drops constantly, whether it’s sending Meat Loaf riding his bike through a wall (and then choosing Osso Bucco for his main course), having a drug-addled Sean Connery flying a fighter plane, or showing Neil de Grasse Tyson consoling Bay on an asteroid.  The difference is the nature of the celebrities chosen and the tone the story uses.  With Binet, it’s all a little tongue-in-cheek, but Poulin plays it straight.  There’s never a sense that Bay (or the writer) has any intention of diverging from their chosen path, to the extent that when someone does venture off-script and treats Bay like a loser, it actually comes as just as much of a shock to the reader as it does to poor Michael.

It’s all great fun, and in her first full-length translation, Jensen does excellent work in bringing across the humour that plays such an important role in the novel.  Some of this stems from Bay’s earnestness, much from his cluelessness, and eagle-eyed readers will enjoy the popular and philosophical references scattered throughout the book.  One recurring theme is Michael’s inability to give Daphné the kind of relationship she wants, culminating in his clueless refusal to apply sunscreen to her ample chest.  Her response?

“Can you move?” she said finally, more surprised than angry.  “You’re blocking my sun.” (p.139)

Now, where have I heard that before

Explosions won’t be for everyone, of course, but if an action movie/philosophy mash-up intrigues you, let me check with a few final questions.  Do you like the sound of Bay filming parts of Armageddon on location in space?  Are you keen to find out exactly what philosophical system Meat Loaf is referring to in his famous song when he rejects ‘that’?  Are you interested in Quentin Tarantino’s textual analysis of sexual orientation in Top Gun?  Most importantly, are you desperate to know if Bay will ever get to make his defining work on meaning and transformation? If so, this is your kind of story, showing now in a book shop near you 🙂

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