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Monthly Archives: August 2011

Untrue Lies: Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box

Book #20 for 2011: Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

I wanted to like this book. I really, really did. I wanted to like it because everyone on Amazon seems to like it and the professional reviewers did too. Heck, even the New York Times gave it a rave review when it came out back in 2007. (They had Janet Maslin, who at the time was one of their movie critics, review it.) But for some reason me and this book didn’t get along. About halfway through, I could feel the book starting to fall apart (plot-wise, not literally) and two-thirds of the way through it took a leap down the toilet (once again, not literally). But it started out very, very well.

Some background: Horror writer Joe Hill is actually Joseph Hillstrom King, son of that other horror-writing King, Stephen. He writes prose that’s very reminiscent of his father’s and he gives every appearance of having the potential to be quite good at it. (He also has the funniest Twitter feed — @Joe_Hill — that I subscribe to, though you probably have to be fond of somewhat geeky subject matter, like comic books and Joss Whedon, to appreciate the jokes.)

This is his first novel (he’s subsequently written a second) and it has a clever premise: An aging heavy metal musician, sort of a less-addled version of Ozzie Osbourne named Judas “Jude” Coyne, buys a haunted suit on an Internet auction site so he can add it to his collection of macabre memorabilia. It turns out that the suit really is haunted and that the ghost who comes with it is eager to collect Jude’s soul and send him down the “nightroad” (i.e., the road to some presumably unpleasant afterlife). In an early plot twist, Jude learns that he was suckered into buying the suit by someone who wants revenge on him, apparently because they believe that he was responsible for the suicide of one of his former girlfriends.

This is a cute idea and it gets cuter. The ghost is that of an old man who devised systems of occult-based psychological warfare for the Army during the Vietnam War, hypnotizing captured Viet Cong into doing things like cutting off their own fingers and worse. Now that he’s dead, the ghost (whose name is Craddock James McDermott) wants to convince Jude to kill himself. The novel is as much about the psychological warfare between Jude and Craddock as it’s about a typical ghostly haunting.

Hill has a strong sense of style and the book, at least in the beginning, is fun to read. I think it doesn’t hold up in the long run because Hill makes two mistakes. The first is that this plot would be adequate to fill a novella or maybe even a shorter novel, but not a novel of the length that publishers seem to demand these days (which is to say, more than 100,000 words). There are sequences, especially in the second half, where Hill seems to be padding the book’s length, stretching out scenes that would have benefitted from tightening. This is a common problem in popular novels, one that the elder King has committed on more than one occasion, and is more annoying than it is fatal.

The second, fatal error is that Hill never lays down clear rules for how his supernatural universe works, leaving Jude free to guess methods by which he can protect himself and his current girlfriend from harm by Craddock’s ghost. And, surprise, his guesses are always right. Jude guesses, based on scant evidence, that dogs can protect him from the ghost. (Who knew?) This is convenient, because Jude owns two large dogs who turn out to be remarkably hungry for ectoplasm. Jude guesses, based again on scant evidence, that ghosts can be fought with music. This is convenient because Jude is a singer-songwriter.

Pretty soon, Jude’s guesses (along with his girlfriend’s) become the primary engine with which Hill drives the plot and, frankly, this is a little tedious, not to mention unbelievable. But where my suspension of disbelief really went out the window was about two-thirds of the way through, when Jude and girlfriend face down the book’s main (living) villain, the sister of the former girlfriend. Jude guesses, based on similarly scant evidence, what really happened after the former girlfriend left him and returned to her family, and the sister, who is so evil she almost cackles, obligingly confirms it for him. It’s like that scene in every other Agatha Christie novel where Hercule Poirot pulls some ridiculously detailed solution to the mystery out of his little gray cells and confidently brings the killer to light. I never believed that scene when Agatha Christie wrote it and I don’t find it believable from Hill either.

From that point on I was reading just to get the book finished. It’s an odd thing when suspension of disbelief goes away. Before it goes away you feel like you’re reading about real people and real things that happened to them. After it goes away, you feel like you’re just reading some sort of contrived story invented by a person with a word processor. The joke, of course, is that that’s what you’ve always been reading, but suspension of disbelief has conveniently hidden that fact from you so that you could enjoy the author’s contrivances. Without suspension of disbelief, those contrivances are just well-written lies preserved on paper (or in static RAM).

And yet I still think Joe Hill has potential. He writes with wit and a certain degree of charm and at some point I’d like to read his second novel, Horns, which came out last year. (It seems to be about a guy who wakes up one morning to discover that he’s grown, well, horns.) At the moment, though, I don’t think I’m quite up for it.

Freedom Is a Pain in the Ass: Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom

Book #19 for 2011: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Several months ago, a friend of mine wondered out loud what the difference is between a popular novel and a literary novel. I had some sort of response at the time that I don’t completely recall, but I think it had to do with the relative importance of plot and character. Although it’s hard to imagine a novel that could exist without both of those things, popular novels tend to emphasize the former and literary novels tend to emphasize the latter. I think now, having thought about it a bit, I’d go further and say that, in literary fiction, plot exists to illuminate character while, in popular fiction, character exists to motivate plot. It’s an imperfect distinction — What if a novel does both things simultaneously? What if instead of plot it emphasizes theme? — but I think it’s a valid one.

So, by that measure, is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom a popular novel or a literary novel? It certainly has plot. In fact, it has so much of it that I’d despair of trying to summarize it in fewer words than Franzen used to write the novel itself (which, having gotten fairly good over the years at estimating these things, I’d put in the vicinity of 200,000).  But it also has characters and they’re as vividly illuminated and three-dimensionally real as any characters I’ve read about during my last year and a half of frantic reading, maybe as vividly illuminated and three-dimensionally real as any characters I’ve read about ever. On that count, I think I can safely say that Freedom is a literary novel, a very entertaining, incisive, witty and ultimately rather moving one.

The four major characters, the ones who are given viewpoint chapters throughout the book, are Patty and Walter Berglund, a pair of yuppy-ish late baby boomers who were probably born around the same time as Franzen himself (which would be in 1959); their mutual friend Richard Katz, a rock musician who feels passionately about both of them, albeit in rather different ways; and their son Joey, who feels obligated to rebel against his parents in his mid-teens by moving in with the girl next door who adores him and by rejecting their liberal politics shortly after he gets to college.

While the plot of the book is too sprawling and complex to describe, I think I can rather neatly sum up what I’m pretty sure is Franzen’s theme, the one that’s inherent in the title. Freedom is something that Franzen clearly feels ambivalent about, or at least his characters do, and one suspects that were you to engage him on the subject at a party he might warn against an excess of it. As young Joey puts it about halfway through the book, “Freedom is a pain in the ass.” Freedom, or free will, is an important gift that life bestows on human beings, but those people who are the happiest seem to be those who dispose of as much of it as possible as quickly as they can. This includes the larger freedoms, like the freedom of corporations to grow without limits and destroy the environment and the freedom of people to breed until the planet is denuded by their consumption of resources; and the smaller freedoms, like the freedom of domestic cats to attack and kill birds who are evolutionarily unprepared for their predation and the freedom of human beings to live their lives unencumbered by a committed relationship to someone they love and who loves them back. It’s Walter, the driven, neurotic, environmentally conscious liberal, who inveighs against most of those freedoms, but pretty much everybody in the book has problems with that last one.

Surprisingly it’s Joey, the initially self obsessed and overly entitled son, who has an epiphany about that last freedom during a darkly comic and rather disgusting scene where he retrieves, through obvious methods, a wedding ring that he accidentally swallowed a couple of days earlier. He realizes that if he was willing to take such desperate and dire measures to retrieve the symbol of his youthful and rather impulsive marriage, which he was prepared to throw away on a meaningless sexual fling with the beautiful but shallow sister of his college roommate, that the only choice open to him is to throw away his freedom to have meaningless sexual flings altogether and make an absolute commitment to his marriage — and it’s at that moment, when he removes his own freedom, that he finally becomes happy.

It takes his parents, Walter and Patty, a lot longer to come to terms on this particular issue and I won’t tell you how their troubled marriage turns out, but there was a bit of a tear in my eye at the end. Franzen’s writing is so sharp and witty that what could be a rather dreary novel about people reaching out for happiness and not infrequently screwing up their chances of finding it is never for a moment depressing. Actually, it’s quite delightful. I had trouble warming to the characters in the beginning — self-obsessed yuppies have never been of great interest to me, maybe because they remind me too much of myself — but Franzen’s characters eventually won me over. I wish Franzen had spent more time on Richard the rock musician, a character I think was full of unrealized possibilities (and whose difficulty in finding a compromise between his need for committed love, his loyalty to a friend, and his profound sexual urges could be the subject of an entire novel in itself), but Richard ends up mostly being a device for setting up conflict between Patty and Walter and within Patty herself. Which, once I finally warmed to Patty’s somewhat-difficult-to-like character, was fine with me.

This novel received a remarkable amount of press last year and that’s fine with me too. It’s an extraordinary achievement and there were many times, perhaps several per page, when Franzen’s insights into his characters (and his ability to express those insights in highly readable prose that often borders on being laugh-out-loud funny) impressed the hell out of me. Even my literary idol Philip Roth, back in his heyday (which some people would say is still going on but which I would place in the late 60s through mid-80s) was never quite this good at looking at human beings with so sharp and satirical an eye, though he came close. And I can think of no higher praise than to say that, if forced to choose whether Franzen or Roth were the better writer, I might just go with Franzen.

Message in a Bottle: Stephen King’s Under the Dome

Book #18 for 2011: Under the Dome by Stephen King

I stopped reading Stephen King after the 80s. Partly that’s because I just wasn’t reading as much as I used to, but it was also because King seemed increasingly, after his heyday in the 70s, to have become a sloppy storyteller. (Misery, that perfect jewel of a suspense thriller, was a delightful exception.) It’s possible that he got his act back together while I wasn’t reading him, especially in that series of novels about the eclipse that included Dolores Claiborne, but I haven’t read those and I really can’t say. What I do know was that the last several King books I’d read prior to the 90s, Misery excepted, had been a chore to read.

In his nonfiction work On Writing, King confesses that he more or less makes up his novels as he goes along, starting with an interesting situation and working toward a vaguely imagined resolution with no concrete idea of how he’s going to get there. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I think I’ve seen more novelists admit that they work this way (George R.R. Martin is another) than admit to actually plotting their stories in advance. The problem is that too often King’s books feel like they were written this way, with King spending dozens or even hundreds of pages vamping until he figures out where he’s going, and the result is that a lot of his novels are bloated and wordy, limp and formless when they should be taut and compelling.

I had worried that King had only grown worse since I’d stopped reading him. The only novel that I’ve read by him from the last 20 years — Desperation, which I wrote about here a few months ago — seemed to confirm my worst suspicions. Despite a good start, the plot wandered and became uninteresting even as the characters, who had started out as vivid creations, degenerated into plot devices. This, I feared, was the direction in which King had been heading.

Under the Dome, published in 2009, proves me wrong. Not only is this a good novel, it’s a novel that can stand with the best that King has written. If it isn’t quite the brilliant psychological thriller that The Shining was or the masterpiece of precision that was Misery, it’s more ambitious in many ways than either, much more on the scope of The Stand. King bites off a hell of a lot with this book and he manages to chew pretty much all of it. It’s epic in scale — my Nook assigned it 833 pages and Amazon says that the trade paper edition is 1,088 pages — but it isn’t bloated at all. Every word in this one counts and every sentence contributes to character development and moving the story forward.

The premise is simple and high concept: A small Maine town suddenly finds itself surrounded by an invisible, unbreakable force field that allows no one to enter or leave. But the ramifications of that premise are complex — this is a town that contains several hundred people, after all, and each has a separate life that is disrupted by the dome’s appearance — and King doesn’t shy away from working through this complexity in scrupulous detail. Yet King explicates those details so carefully and clearly that the story never feels complex and King manages his huge cast of characters with marvelous dexterity. I was rarely at a loss for who the characters were or what their relationships were to one another and to the story itself. Every time a character reenters after an absence of more than a chapter or two, King deftly works in a detail to remind you who they are and, if they’re a really minor character, he just comes right out and tells you. Every now and then he drops into a present-tense, omniscient-author mode and sorts carefully through the current positions of all his principle actors, just to make sure you know what they’re doing. This is the kind of thing that only an author who has been writing ambitious popular fiction for several decades can get away with and King does it as well as I’ve ever seen it done.

The plot is a marvelous clockwork mechanism, tight, suspenseful, and intricate, and it never ceases to move forward. It’s hard not to keep turning the pages (or swiping the screen or pushing the button or however you propel yourself through your text delivery system of choice) for the book’s full length. (And it’s an indication of how I’ve been affected by reading all those George R.R. Martin novels earlier this year that now, when my Nook tells me that a novel is going to be 833 pages long, I think, “Oh, that’s not so bad.”) King admits in an afterword that he had an editor help him strip the book down from an even longer first-draft and make suggestions on how to speed up any sections that dragged. I think it’s a mark of King’s continued seriousness as a writer that after all these years he’s willing to listen to an editor, something that for quite a while it seemed like he wasn’t doing.

I have a few quibbles with the technical details of the dome itself — the final description of it in the book’s last pages suggests that there might have been a very easy way of dealing with it that for some reason nobody ever thought of — but in the end these quibbles don’t matter because the dome is essentially a macguffin, a way of getting the characters into a metaphorical pressure cooker where events can become extreme without becoming unmotivated or unbelievable. And the characters are very nicely drawn, especially the chief villain. King understands that the best villains aren’t those who are trying to act villainous but the ones who see themselves as righteous people beset on all sides by villains like you and me. It’s their naked self justification that makes them hateful and the villain of this book is as nakedly self justifying as any character King has ever created.

I’m excited about King’s upcoming 11/22/63, an epic novel about the Kennedy assassination. If King handles that one as well as he handled this (and I sure hope he works with the same editor), it will be a knockout. But anyone who wants to read a thrilling King epic doesn’t have to wait until that book is released in November. Under the Dome is here now and once you start reading it it’s unlikely that you’ll want to stop. And it reads so quickly that I doubt that you’ll have any problem finishing it before the next book comes out.

The Future as Interactive Children’s Book: Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age

Book #17 for 2011: The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson wrote one of the best, and certainly most surprising, science fiction novels of the 1990s. It was called Snow Crash and it started off with one of the most dazzling opening sequences of any book I’ve ever read in any genre. In the first two or three dozen pages Stephenson manages not only to introduce the main character (whose name is — get ready to groan — Hiro Protagonist) and dole out extensive exposition about the novel’s complicated premise (a post-nationalist future where countries have, in effect, been replaced by franchises), but also holds the reader almost continuously spellbound with one of the most audacious action sequences I’ve ever read, all of of it concerning…a pizza delivery.

But perhaps the greatest surprise of Snow Crash was Stephenson’s writing style, which at its best combines the balls-out head-over-heels velocity of Tom Wolfe with the Japanese-influenced geek hipness of David Mitchell. His prose is funny, satirical and deadly serious, pretty much all at the same time. In fact, Stephenson is one of those rare novelists who is equally at home with plot, character, style and — most importantly for a science fiction writer — ideas. And in the opening sequence of Snow Crash he manages, in an amazing balancing act, to excel at all of these things simultaneously.

The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer was his 1995 Hugo-Award-winning follow-up to Snow Crash and it’s one of the most impressive novels of ideas I’ve ever read. Unfortunately, he doesn’t repeat the marvelous expository balancing act of Snow Crash and he too often lets the ideas overwhelm the other aspects of the story. Instead of the high velocity introduction to the novel’s future millieu that Stephenson gave the reader in Snow Crash, we get approximately 200 pages (out of the 537 pages assigned the book by my Nook) of dense exposition, world building and character introduction, without any clear idea of the direction in which the novel is going. Once that direction becomes clear, however, the novel takes off and becomes as readable as anything I’ve had my hands on this year.

The Diamond Age (which is what I’ll call it from now on) is about a future in the process of transitioning to a nanotechnological economy. In layman’s terms, this means that almost any kind of object, from clothing to food to vehicles to buildings, can now be manufactured in a few hours from relatively cheap raw materials using a “matter compiler,” or MC, a kind of programmable mini-factory that everyone has access to. Poverty hasn’t gone away, but the poor are no longer hungry or shabbily dressed. Because the business of making things is now handled almost entirely by computer, the activity of human beings has shifted largely to the business of entertainment, mostly toward “ractives,” interactive diversions that are closer to a cross between a play and a video game than to current TV shows and movies (which in Stephenson’s future are known as “passives”). Much as society had balkanized itself into franchises in Snow Crash, the society of this nanotech-driven world has broken down into “phyles,” social groupings bound together by common ethnicity or philosophies. The most influential of these phyles are the Neo-Victorians, or Vickies, who have essentially reinvented the Victorian Age.

The plot of The Diamond Age, when it finally emerges, concerns a very extraordinary ractive called the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, which takes the form of a children’s book. The Primer is interactive not only in the sense that it interacts with the reader but in that it changes with the state of the world around it, and not always in predictable ways. The book is supposed to be one of a kind, commissioned by a high-ranking Vicky lord for his granddaughter, not only to teach her her ABCs but to instill in her (unknown to her stodgy parents) a kind of subversive mentality that refuses to accept the status quo of the society she lives in.

The book doesn’t remain a one-of-a-kind item for long. The programmer who designs it has a second copy surreptitiously (and quite illegally) made for his daughter. But that copy is stolen by a group of young thugs, one of whom gives it to his little sister. And the book’s existence comes to the attention of a benevolent Asian crime lord named Dr. X, who has copies made to give to thousands of orphan girls who have been abandoned in the wilderness by parents who simply have no interest in raising daughters.

If that (very incomplete) description of the plot strikes you as a bit overwhelming, it’s nowhere near as overwhelming as it is in the book, and that’s the novel’s central flaw. Stephenson has no interest in making this story easy for the reader to get into, the way he did in Snow Crash. You shouldn’t even attempt to read it if you don’t know what nanotechnology is, don’t know what a Turing machine is or have no idea what makes a shape “fractal.” I do know something about these things and I still very nearly gave up on the book in those first 200 pages, where I wasn’t sure what characters I should be focusing on or what plot threads would turn out to be rewarding. But I didn’t and I’m glad I didn’t. The latter half of the book (much of which is a story within a story, based on the contents of the Primer) is often exciting and stirring and Stephenson ends the book on a hopeful note of revolution concerning those thousands of girls raised on the subversive primer. If The Diamond Age lacks the sheer pyrotechnic velocity of Snow Crash, it also shows Stephenson’s subsequent maturity as a writer, and I’m looking forward to reading the books — there are five of them so far — that he’s written in the 16 years since he wrote this one.

The (Not Quite) Lost Art of Crime Writing: Michael Connelly’s The Lincoln Lawyer

Book #16 for 2011: The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly

When I was in my 20s, I followed the work of several crime and mystery writers. Not just the classic hardboiled writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and drawing room mystery writers like Agatha Christie, but several modern (for that period) authors: Ross MacDonald, whose Lew Archer mysteries always started with the eponymous detective being hired to track down a runaway child or bride but ended with the discovery of the dark and tragic secret history of some Southern California family; Ed McBain, whose 87th Precinct procedurals were so breezy and compulsively readable that I’d sometimes go through two or three in a day; and Donald Westlake, whose Dortmunder series was a bit too repetitive for my tastes but whose standalone crime novels combined a darkly comic sensibility with a gift for Hitchcockian chase thrillers.

And then I sort of lost interest, both in reading novels in general and in reading mysteries in particular. By the 1990s I was seeing the names of new crime fiction writers appear regularly on the bestseller shelf at my local drugstore, names like Harlan Coben, Lee Child, John Sandford, George Pelecanos, James Patterson…and Michael Connelly. When I would grow curious about one of these authors and sample their work, I was usually disappointed. Much of what they produced seemed slight and superficial, or just a bit trite, compared to the mysteries I’d read when I was young. (See my earlier nasty comments about the novels of Lee Child.) But I figured that, somewhere among them, there must be one or two authors who actually knew how to write decent crime fiction.

Michael Connelly came highly recommended. Stephen King, an author I respect, seems to tout Connelly’s work every chance he gets. Amy’s brother has an entire shelf of autographed books by Connelly. And The Lincoln Lawyer was made into a fairly well received movie earlier this year. So I decided to give him a chance.

And what do you know? He’s not bad. The Lincoln Lawyer certainly towers above anything I’ve read by Lee Child and I found it meatier than the Carl Hiaasen novel I read earlier this year. It’s not perfect. The characters tend toward stock figures, albeit fairly well-drawn stock figures, but the novel has three things about it that work very much in its favor.

The first is that Connelly clearly knows a great deal about how the law works, and not just the textbook way in which the justice system is supposed to function, but the way it functions in practice, with lawyers making shady deals and pulling the wool over their client’s eyes with legalistic sleight of hand. Judging from the acknowledgments at the end, this isn’t because Connelly has any law experience of his own but because he interviewed a lot of lawyers and even, yes, judges before he wrote this book. (It’s also possible that Connelly is very good at making up the kind of things that people are talking about when they say “you can’t make that stuff up.”)

The second is that he has a very good plot twist that goes off almost exactly in the middle of the novel, one that completely turns the story around and lets the reader know that the story they thought they were going to read is quite the opposite of the story they’re actually going to get.

The third is the main character, Mickey Haller, who narrates the novel in the first person. This was the first in a series of novels that Connelly has been writing about Haller, a sleazebag criminal lawyer who discovers belatedly that he has a conscience. It’s Haller who tells the reader about all the shady tricks that lawyers play and Haller who rises above the stock character threshold. Not that some genre cliches don’t slip into Haller’s life. He has the requisite ex-wife who chides him about not spending enough time with his daughter, with the twist that the ex-wife is also a prosecutor who he sometimes faces off against in court.

The Lincoln Lawyer is a fast, entertaining read and if I were still in my 20s I’d probably decide that Connelly is the sort of writer I could read several books by in a day. But, seriously, who over the age of 30 has the time or the attention span for that kind of thing? I know I don’t.