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We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us: A Better World by Marcus Sakey

With his Brilliance series, suspense writer Marcus Sakey is doing for adult science fiction what Suzanne Collins did for YA science fiction in the Hunger Games books and George R.R. Martin did for epic fantasy with Game of Thrones: He’s making it accessible to people who aren’t fans of those genres.

A  Better World

A Better World, A Better Book

Actually, I’m hesitant even to tell you that the Brilliance series is science fiction because you may decide not to read it on that basis alone, so try not thinking of it as science fiction. Think of it as a series of suspense novels that will have spectacular special effects when they get made into movies. The words “science fiction” create certain expectations in people’s minds, like starships and latex-faced aliens, and you won’t find any of that in Sakey’s work.

What you will find, as I discussed in my review of the first book in the Brilliance series — appropriately entitled Brilliance — is lean, muscular, intelligent prose with interesting characters and deftly executed plot twists. For those of you tired of the all-too-often bloated prose of fantasy writers like George R.R. Martin and Stephen King (both of them excellent authors who just never got the message that less can sometimes be more), you’ll find Sakey’s tight plotting and no-words-wasted descriptions a refreshing change. And if you’ve read the first book in the Brilliance series, you’ll be thrilled to discover that, after a somewhat slow opening caused mostly by the addition of some new viewpoint characters, A Better World is not only as good a book as the first in the series but actually a better one. The second half of this book is one of the most gripping thrillers I’ve read in recent years and Sakey sets up the third book in the series — yes, this is going to be at least a trilogy — so perfectly that I’m already wishing he’d finish it already and put it on Amazon, because I really don’t want to wait as long for it as I’ve been waiting for new books in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Fortunately, not only is Sakey a less verbose writer than Martin but a faster one.

In A Better World, the protagonist is once again government agent Nick Cooper, but he’s on leave from his job with the DAR, having developed serious doubts about their mission to keep watch on so-called brilliants, super-intelligent mutants of which Cooper is one. (If you’ve read the first book, you’ll know why Cooper is having doubts.) That doesn’t mean he’s sitting on his hands, though. He’s offered a job as a presidential adviser and he takes it, because he thinks brilliants deserve a voice in the White House. So, fortunately, does the president. Alas, this makes Cooper some powerful enemies, because not everybody who works in the West Wing is exactly who they seem to be, no matter how nice they all seemed during those seven years Martin Sheen spent as the PoTUS.

Cooper also returns to the city of Tesla, high in the Colorado Rockies, a town designed especially for brilliants to live in and therefore seen as a threat to normal humans by certain political advisers who want the president to take executive action of a particularly dangerous kind. As Sakey winds the plot tighter and tighter, the story heads into Tom Clancy political thriller territory, the kind where the fate of nations hangs in balance. Though several of Sakey’s characters are human beings that the reader feels deeply about, the climactic scenes of this novel involve a spectacular situation that I wouldn’t dream of spoiling for you.

I don’t want to go into more details about the plot because you shouldn’t be reading this review. You should be reading the book. You can buy the e-book for $5 from Amazon.com and it’s worth three times that much. Then again, you might want to wait until the third novel is out so that you can binge-read them in sequence, but I don’t have that kind of patience. Once I’d read the first book, I knew I’d read the second one the day it came out — and I did. (It’s taken me a while to review it, though. Life keeps getting in the way.) If you’ve read the first book, you should read this one as soon as you possibly can. You won’t regret it.

 

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Too Smart for Their Own Good: Brilliance by Marcus Sakey

It’s only fair to say this up front: Marcus Sakey’s Brilliance reviews itself right in the title.

Brilliance by Marcus Sakey

Brilliance — Well, yes.

Not that it’s likely to win the Man Booker Prize or whatever the top book award is these days — it’s a popular thriller, after all — but the brilliance of Brilliance is that a lot of people are unlikely to notice just how good it is because they’ll be too busy enjoying it. It’s ironic that my favorite whipping boy, Lee Child, has the novel’s cover blurb, because Brilliance is written in the kind of fast-paced, muscular prose that Child’s Jack Reacher novels reach for (sorry) but never manage to get any weight behind. Brilliance’s prose has so much weight behind it that, ironically, you won’t be able to put it down.

It’s hard to say exactly where Brilliance excels, because Marcus Sakey doesn’t wear his talent on his sleeve. It doesn’t excel in style, though the writing is strong and sufficiently subtle in both metaphor and syntax that you won’t notice it being subtle. (Shouldn’t subtlety always be subtle?) Sakey specializes in crime novels and Brilliance has the lean, stripped-down prose of a detective novel without quite being one. It doesn’t have an extraordinarily original plot. When I tell you, in a couple of paragraphs, what it’s about, you’ll mutter that you’ve heard this one before and you probably have. It doesn’t excel in characterization. The characters have just enough depth that the reader cares about them — especially the protagonist, who has the most at stake — but not enough to bog the novel down in description. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, George R.R. Martin.)

Where Brilliance excels is in structure. Sakey has an uncanny sense for the moment at which the reader’s attention is going to flag and fires off a revelation or plot twist just in time to keep his hooks in you. And, believe me, he sinks the hooks in early and deep. Sakey’s novel is so beautifully structured that the story always feels fresh, with perfect pacing and no scene held for even a beat too long — at least until the end, when the reader gets the denouement the book deserves, tying up loose ends so nicely that I was surprised to discover that this is the first book in a series. Believe me, it functions perfectly well as a standalone story.

Brilliance is what I like to call science fiction for people who don’t like science fiction, a genre I’ve come to enjoy more and more as I’ve gotten older. Here’s the plot: Brilliance takes place in an alternate version of our present, where back in the early 1980s special children called brilliants (or abnorms if you don’t like them) began to appear, mutants with unusual mental powers that manifest themselves in various and unexpected ways. By the 2010s these mutants have begun dividing up into two groups, those who live separately from the rest of the human race and those who just want to get along. And the U.S. government is starting to become disturbed by the possibility of an abnorm terrorist underground that could destroy normal society as we know it.

If you’re muttering that this sounds like a lot like the X-Men, both in comics and in movies, I’m with you. It does. And it’s to Sakey’s credit that this doesn’t feel the slightest bit like an X-Men film. Part of that is Sakey’s crime novel background, which makes this feel more like an action thriller played out on a large scale than a comic-book movie (which is not to knock comic-book movies, something I very much enjoy when they’re done well). Another thing that keeps this from feeling like the X-Men is that Sakey’s mutants don’t have what one would think of as superhero powers. None of them can fly, cause objects to burst into flame with their eyes, or shoot adamantium claws out of their fingertips (though there is a little girl who can pick up on body language cues so well that she can effectively read minds, a marvelous throwaway touch about halfway through the book). Sakey’s brilliants can do things like calculate cause and effect so rapidly that they know what’s going to happen two seconds in the future or distract your attention so deftly that they become effectively invisible. Sakey makes this all so thoroughly convincing that you never feel like like you’re reading science fiction, even when you notice the technological differences that brilliant inventors have introduced into consumer technology, like holographic televisions.

The protagonist is Agent Nick Cooper of the DAR — Department of Analysis and Response — a government agency founded to keep an eye on brilliants and given extraordinary powers by an equivalent of the Patriot Act inspired by this world’s abnorm equivalent of 9/11. The irony is that Cooper is a brilliant himself and he makes no attempt to conceal it. He’s sincere in his desire to keep the peace with normal human beings and even has two children, one normal and one brilliant, by his non-brilliant ex-wife. Cooper is searching for John Smith, a brilliant terrorist responsible for a heinous act of mass murder in the nation’s capital. But he’s also worried about his brilliant daughter, who he suspects has abnorm abilities so powerful that she’ll soon find herself under the watchful eye of the DAR, which makes him uneasy. And it’s this uneasiness that provides the subtle impetus behind much of the plot.

It’s not hard, even in the opening chapters, to see where this novel will wind up in the end. The fun is in figuring out how it will get there and Sakey is always one step ahead of you. It’s no surprise that the novel has a big reveal, but I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t see how big it was going to be. Still, it’s the little reveals and wonderfully unexpected moments that keep this novel in almost constant motion, pulling the reader along like a monstrous wave yet rarely feeling overhurried or frenetic. Sakey tells this story so perfectly that, even though I was reading it during a period when I had neither the time nor the focus for a lot of reading, I never considered putting it down for a different book. And now I’m psyched for the next book in the series, A Better World, which Amazon says is coming out on June 17. You might want to read this book now so you’ll be ready to buy that one the day it comes out. Believe me, I’ll be buying it with you.

My Compliments to the Chef: The Dinner by Herman Koch

About a year ago, while making excuses for laying aside The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo after only about 40 pages or so, I discussed how much I dislike reading books in translation. The loss of the original text and the substitution of a new one waters down the author’s unique voice, destroys the direct sense of mind-to-mind connection that even mediocre novels can provide, and inflicts on the reader the voice of a translator who probably isn’t as good a writer as the one that he’s translating, else he’d be writing great novels of his own.

The Dinner by Herman Koch

The Dinner by Herman Koch

Herman Koch’s The Dinner, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett, proves how wrong I was. I don’t know what the author’s original voice was like, but I don’t care. Garrett has done such a fine job of rendering the book into English that it really doesn’t matter whether it’s Koch’s mind, Garrett’s mind or a combination of the two that I’m connecting with. The book’s prose is seamlessly readable and I find it hard to imagine that it could have been significantly better in the original Dutch. It reads as smoothly and as intelligently as any well-crafted English-language novel I’ve read in recent years — better so than most — and that’s certainly good enough for me.

My friend George, who brought the book to my attention a few weeks ago when he praised it on a Web forum I frequent, said that the book has been compared to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and I can see why. It has the same acerbic, observational wit, the sense of seeing the world through the eyes of someone who notices telling details about the way we live, details that ring with ironic and often caustic truth. Also like Gone Girl, it has a major plot revelation about halfway through, but it’s not the kind that snaps your head around and causes you to rethink everything that’s come before, as Flynn’s was. In fact, Koch prepares you so thoroughly for the revelation that it doesn’t even come as a surprise and certainly doesn’t qualify as a plot twist.

What Koch does is something much subtler. I suspect that there will be, and probably have been, reviewers who will describe the novel’s first-person protagonist as an unreliable narrator, but he really isn’t. Nothing he tells you is misleading and when he omits information — as he frequently does — he tells you that he’s omitting it and assures you that he’ll fill in the details later — as he also does. What Koch does instead is to take advantage of the reader’s automatic tendency to sympathize with a first-person narrator and gradually, so slowly that you almost don’t notice that he’s doing it, subverts that expectation. I finished the book almost unsure of what I had just read or what any of it meant and when it finally came over me I realized that I was almost reluctant to accept it. Not to give too much away, but in the end the novel amounts to a major political statement — something that sounds quite boring but isn’t in the slightest — that addresses an issue that I find myself pondering during every major election: Why do people vote for things that are almost inhumanly cruel and harsh and then assume that these things don’t — and shouldn’t — apply to themselves?

What happens in the course of the book is that Koch alters your initial perceptions of the characters until you gradually realize that they are precisely the opposite of the people you thought they were in the beginning and that the character you most disdained throughout the majority of the novel is in fact the only person at the table — as its title implies, the novel takes place during the course of a single dinner — who is worth giving a damn about, the only one who isn’t a hypocrite and certainly the only one who has something resembling a conscience. And Koch does this so scrupulously that he never at any point betrays the reader’s trust in the integrity of his storytelling.

But while it is these gradual realizations that make the novel great, it is the witty, sharply observed prose and vividly drawn characters, as well as the way Koch draws out his revelations while always letting you know that they’re coming, that make it readable, even riveting, from the very beginning. If anything was lost in the book’s transition from Holland to America, it probably wasn’t worth having in the first place.

Going, Going: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl cover
I had heard so much praise for this book (and one interesting demurral from an Internet friend) that I was prepared to be seriously disappointed by it. Yes, it would be a decent crime thriller, but like most decent crime thrillers it was probably being praised less because it was good and more because it didn’t totally reek.

God, was I wrong!

Gone Girl is one of the two or three best books I’ve read since I started writing these book reports three years ago and is quite possibly the best crime/mystery/thriller I’ve read ever (unless you count The Silence of the Lambs, which I don’t think will ever be surpassed). Why do I love it so much? Let me count the ways:

Plot: The plot of Gone Girl is a clockwork mechanism that unfolds so naturally that you never sense that it was outlined or planned in advance and yet so perfectly that Gillian Flynn must have plotted it within an inch of its life before ever putting words on her hard drive. It’s a continuing miracle of ingenuity and I was impressed again and again by the way Flynn develops the story. And did I mention that it’s utterly gripping?

Character: The two main characters, Nick (the husband) and Amy (the wife), are so well drawn that Flynn is actually able to turn characterization itself into a plot twist, something I’m not going to further explain. The minor characters, while not always depicted with depth, are always believable and almost always interesting. Nick’s sister Go, short for Margo, is the most fully realized and the most important to the plot, but Flynn’s portrait of the press corps is especially vivid, with a particularly venomous depiction of Nancy Grace, here referred to as Ellen Abbott.

Style: Every line of the novel is written with such incisive wit that, even when I wanted to swipe my finger across the screen of my e-reader to find out what happened next, I forced myself to read slowly just to enjoy the prose. Not only does it crackle, but it occasionally made me laugh out loud. And Flynn neatly avoids the cliched tone of the crime genre, producing something that reads like Jonathan Franzen could have written if Jonathan Franzen would lower himself to writing genre fiction.

But most of all I love it because, somewhere in the midsection of the book, Flynn pulls off the greatest plot twist I’ve seen since the TV show Lost switched from flashbacks to flashforwards. It’s the kind of twist that snaps your head around and makes you rethink everything that’s happened up until that moment. I love it when that happens in a book and I haven’t seen it happen that much lately (or at least the great plot twists seem to have moved from books to serial TV shows). There used to be writers — I’m thinking specifically here of William Goldman, Ira Levin and John Farris — who could do 180 degree turns in the middle of a novel and leave you gasping at the sheer audacity of their literary stunt work, but I was beginning to think that this was a lost art.

I guess I should do a brief plot summary, but I’m not going to dwell on it. Gone Girl is the story of a marriage gone sour, the marriage between the aforementioned Nick and Amy, and it turns on the disappearance of Amy on the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary. Flynn rather ingeniously tells the story in double first person, with Nick and Amy narrating alternating chapters. Nick’s chapters are set in the present time (which is some point in 2012, when the book was published) and Amy’s chapters, which are couched as diary entries, fill in the expository details, giving the reader the back story that led up to the present situation. This works amazingly well, once again reminding me of Lost in the way that Amy’s flashbacks illuminate Nick’s present time action, and it’s this narrative technique that makes the stunning plot twist possible.

If Flynn falters anywhere it’s in the final chapters, where the novel becomes a kind of chess game with players alternating moves and I began to sense that Flynn didn’t know which move to end on. I think she chose the right player to end with, but there’s a sense that she ends the story more because she has to than because she found the right moment to do it. At the very least I wish the final chapter had left more of a sense of what was going to happen after the book was over; there are hints, but I found them rather weak.

But the 95 percent of the book leading up to the end is so brilliantly conceived that I’ll happily forgive Flynn for any imperfections in the way she sums things up.

Manly Men, Feisty Women and Comma Splices: The Storm by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown

Book #15 for 2012: The Storm by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown

Cover of The Storm by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown

The Storm by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown

I can barely understand the New York Times Best Seller List anymore. It’s ceased to be a list and become a veritable library of lists — for fiction, for nonfiction, for e-fiction, for e-nonfiction, for self-help books, for mass market paperbacks, for trade paperbacks, for Children’s Bestsellers: Fiction, for Children’s Bestsellers: Series, for…oh my holy God! In the latest issue of the New York Times Book Review I counted 15 separate bestseller lists and some books seemed to be on at least a half dozen of them. It made me want to go into a seizure from sheer information overload.

Then, not long ago, I picked up a copy of Entertainment Weekly. (Yes, I subscribe to Entertainment Weekly. It’s full of light, readable articles on movies, TV, books, music, occasionally video games — roughly half the things I love on this planet.) They also have a bestseller list, which they call The Chart. It covers hardback fiction (10 titles) and hardback nonfiction (10 titles). Bless you, EW! A bestseller list I can make sense of!

And then I read it. What I saw kind of scared me. Here are the top five fiction titles from that list:

1. The Storm – Clive Cussler and Graham Brown
2. 11th Hour — James Patterson and Maxine Paetro
3. Stolen Prey — John Sandford
4. Calico Joe — John Grisham
5. The Innocent — David Baldacci

What do all these books have in common? They’re all by authors who have been publishing fiction for more than a decade, most of them for several decades. Baldacci, the youngest of the group, published his first novel in 1996. Cussler, the oldest, published his first in 1973. Patterson started in 1976, Grisham in 1984 (though he didn’t have his first bestseller until 1991), and Sandford in 1989. There are plenty of good new authors around. Why then, for that one week in 2012, did these five relative geezers (yeah, I should talk!) have the same kind of lock on the EW bestseller list that the Beatles had on the Billboard Top Ten in early 1964?

A lot of people, especially authors who don’t have books on the best seller list, will tell you that it’s because the publishing industry is collapsing under the weight of a sagging economy and because younger people are increasingly moving away from reading books, leading to a desperate reliance on tried and true brand name authors. I think there’s some truth to that, but not as much as some people want us to believe. Books don’t sell only because the publishing industry is pushing them. Books sell because the authors are delivering something that the public wants to read. I decided I wanted to know what that thing is.

Thus began Project Best Seller List.

My plan, if I have the endurance to go through with it, is to read through all five of those titles in order and figure out what the authors are doing right. I already have some idea of what they’re doing wrong. I read Cussler’s Raise the Titanic back in the 70s and thought that all inspiration in the book began and ended with that brilliant title; the writing itself was stiff and the characters flat. I read Grisham’s The Firm when it came out in the early 90s; portions of it were clever and the ideas were good, but it made a much better film than novel and Grisham’s writing style gave me a bit of a headache. Patterson and Baldacci never looked interesting enough for me to bother to read. Even a quick skim of their opening chapters suggested that they wrote about cliched premises in mechanical prose. I started reading John Sandford’s first novel when it came out and thought it looked promising, but my attention span was shorter then and I never picked it back up, which suggests that I didn’t find it that promising.

So now I want to give these guys another chance, see what they’ve learned since I last checked them out, and with luck discover virtues in their writing that I’ve overlooked before. I want to find out why they have that lock on the bestseller list.

We’ll start with The Storm by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown, because it’s the only one I’ve read so far. The Storm is an action novel. I hesitate to call it a thriller, though I suppose it has its thrills, but it’s mostly about manly men and feisty women doing manly, feisty things and cracking the kind of wiseass jokes that comic book superheroes crack while punching out villains. It’s really what I call a stealth science fiction novel, inasmuch as it’s based on a science fictional premise (microscopic nanobots being used to alter global weather patterns) but isn’t labeled as science fiction on the cover. I have no problem with that. Genre labels are based less on a novel’s premise and more on which genre’s cliches are being deployed in the text. This one deploys far more action-adventure cliches than science fiction cliches.

Does it have a good plot? Well, let’s just say that Cussler and Brown have some interesting ideas here. They aren’t all new — nanobots have been all the rage since K. Eric Drexler published his seminal nonfiction book Engines of Creation back in the 80s — but Cussler and Brown have come up with an interesting new use for them. And they keep the plot moving at a brisk pace, dividing the book’s multiple heroes into multiple story threads, throwing obstacles, complications and plot twists into their characters’ paths at nicely timed intervals. It is, I think, this aspect of the book — pitting resourceful heroes against resourceful villains and capricious fate as they, yes, try to save the world — that has put it on top of the best seller list. There are even some mildly clever scenes, like the one where a trio of characters trapped on a sinking raft find themselves washed up on an island occupied by a native cargo cult left over from World War II.

But what Cussler and Brown never managed to do was to make me care. Good fiction is character driven and The Storm doesn’t so much have characters as it has templates for characters, archetypes like the muscular hero, the treacherous beauty, the eccentric millionaire inventor, the gloating villain, who exist merely to fill necessary positions in the plot. The Storm is driven more by Cussler and Brown’s need to have gainful employment than by any trace of humanity in the people caught up in its action.

And the writing style is barely serviceable, perhaps not even that, which is pretty much how I remember the writing in Raise the Titanic being. And someone should tell Cussler’s editors that comma splices (by which I mean sentences like “Kurt found the key and twisted it, the motor rumbled to life”) aren’t yet acceptable in American English. Or maybe by now they are. I feel old.

So the moral from Book One of Project Best Seller List is this: What makes a particular type of Number One Best Seller work is manly men and feisty women fighting against a long parade of obstacles and plot twists while they save the world. What isn’t necessary is decent writing and believable characters.

Remember that when I report back on Book Two.

Back From Hell and Seriously Pissed: Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Book #14 for 2012: Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Cover of Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey

There’s a certain kind of hardboiled crime story that practitioners of the genre, both writers and filmmakers, turn to when they want to tell a story that’s particularly violent and has a strongly motivated protagonist. It’s the one where the main character — you wouldn’t exactly call him the hero — is a guy who hung around with a rough gang of criminals when he was younger and was betrayed by them when they abandoned him to the police or just left him for dead. Now he’s back and he wants to get revenge on those bastards in especially gruesome ways.

Movie fans will recognize this as the plot of John Boorman’s 1967 film Point Blank, which starred Lee Marvin. Point Blank was based on the novel The Hunter by Richard Stark, a pseudonym for Donald Westlake, one of my favorite crime writers ever. The protagonist of The Hunter was a guy named Parker, no first name, who went on to be the protagonist of a whole series of books that Westlake wrote under the Stark pseudonym.

It’s also the plot of Richard Kadrey’s novel Sandman Slim and you can tell that he was influenced by Westlake’s novel because he names his protagonist Stark and one of the villains Parker. And to remind us that he’s not the only person who’s ripped off this plot — heck, even Westlake was probably ripping off this plot, possibly from Shakespeare — he makes reference in the text to other variations as well, like the Clint Eastwood film The Outlaw Josey Wales.

The difference in Sandman Slim, which is written in the tough-guy noirish style pioneered in the 1920s and 30s by writers like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, is that the thugs are sub rosas, magic casters who live among human beings but aren’t entirely human themselves, and they didn’t send Stark to prison or leave him for dead. They literally used magic to banish him to hell — alive. While there, he fought monsters in Satan’s arena for the amusement of Satan’s generals and learned the skills of hellion magic, which is a lot nastier than the sub rosa kind. Now, with the help of the demon Azazel, his sponsor in the arena, he’s back on earth, mad as, um, hell and prepared to tear his former friends into eternally damned pieces.

Sandman Slim (the name our protagonist somehow acquires) manages the not inconsiderable feat of being both what is currently called an urban fantasy novel (to distinguish it from the Tolkien kind of fantasy) and an extremely violent hardboiled crime novel. Having once been a huge fan of this sort of novel in its more conventional form, I enjoyed it, though I have to say that the genre doesn’t hold as much interest for me now as it did when I was in my 20s and used to gobble down books by people like Hammett, Chandler, Westlake and Ross MacDonald like they were popcorn. Still, Kadrey (who has also written more conventional science fiction and fantasy) comes up with an interesting enough fantasy take on the genre to keep the book readable and inventive throughout. (There’s even a touch of Lovecraftian horror as the story goes on.) I especially like the way he uses my adopted hometown of Los Angeles as the prime setting for a war between heaven and hell (neither of which seems much nicer than the other) and a major gathering place for the sub rosa. Peacekeeping in the heaven-hell war is performed by a group of supernatural cops called The Golden Vigil, who have been around longer than civilization itself and now work with Homeland Security, and by the end of the book they’ve recruited Stark, who is both a nasty fighter with conventional techniques and an even nastier fighter with magic techniques, to do some freelance work for them. This gives Kadrey an excuse to turn Sandman Slim into a series, and he’s already written two more volumes with more presumably on the way.

I’d recommend Kadrey’s work less to people who enjoy fantasy and more to those who like their crime novels fast-moving and violent. Kadrey does a very good job of combining the fantasy and crime genres, but Sandman Slim will go down a lot easier if you’re less into hobbits and more likely to enjoy seeing a wiseass crimefighter covered with ugly hellion scars decapitate a man who goes right on talking and making wiseass comebacks while unattached to his body. Yeah, it’s that kind of book — and, yeah, I guess I’m the sort of person who enjoys it.

A Night Not to Remember: S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep

Book #6 for 2012: Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson


For a relatively rare condition, anterograde amnesia — the chronic kind, not the occasional kind that results from popping an Ambien at bedtime or drinking too much 80-proof tequila — has inspired a remarkable body of fiction. This is the type of amnesia where you can’t form new long-term memories, where what happens in short-term memory stays in short-term memory and after that it might as well never have happened at all. I think the recent spate of stories about the condition began with Christopher Nolan’s remarkably clever 2000 film Memento, where Guy Pearce tattooed his memories on his chest in a Quixotic attempt to find the murderer of his wife. That movie was rapidly followed by Ellen DeGeneres’s memory-impaired clown fish in Finding Nemo and Drew Barrymore’s infinitely refreshable girlfriend in the Adam Sandler film 50 First Dates (which was so bad I barely saw enough of it to give it time to get past my own short-term memory). But there have been other attempts at turning the syndrome into fiction — for instance, the eminently forgettable 1994 Dana Carvey movie Clean Slate, about a man who woke up each morning having completely forgotten the previous day. (At least I assume it was forgettable, because I honestly can’t remember whether I saw it.) And the late science fiction writer Philip José Farmer beat everyone to the punch and probably produced the most ambitious variation of all with his 1973 novella “Sketches Among the Ruins of My Mind,” in which an entire town woke up every morning unable to remember what they’d done the previous day.

With all of those variations, you’d think anterograde amnesia and its many fictional variants would have been completely played out by now as a premise for fiction. Think again. S.J. Watson’s pop thriller Before I Go To Sleep is about a woman who, yes, wakes up every morning unable to remember what happened the previous day. In fact, she pretty much can’t remember anything that’s happened since shortly after she graduated from college, even though she’s now well into middle age. All she knows — and finds out again every day — is that she wakes up next to a man who has to explain to her that he’s her husband Ben, that she had an accident that left her in a state where she loses her memory when she falls asleep (so unusual a form of anterograde amnesia that even doctors seem to go a bit dull-witted when they try to explain it) and that maybe one day she’ll remember him well enough to want to have sex with him again. (Given that they never have more than a few hours’ acquaintance, you can see the problem here.) And she also has a doctor who’s both treating and researching her case, who for some reason doesn’t want the husband to know anything about him. He recommends that she attempt to create a kind of pseudo-memory by keeping a daily journal, sort of a more detailed version of Guy Pearce’s chest tattoos. This journal constitutes the majority of the novel.

Is it a good novel? Well, I can say several good things about it. I read it in a little over two days, which given my current case of anterograde attention span is pretty damned good. It’s hard to put down. And this kind of novel, where nothing is as it seems because it starts out with the protagonist not knowing a damned thing about how anything seems, not only has infinite possibilities for plot twists but for plot twists on the plot twists and Watson doesn’t stint on the unexpected narrative switchbacks. (It also has the built-in advantage of allowing the author to indulge, quite legitimately, in the tritest form of plot exposition imaginable: having characters explain the obvious to someone who, by all rights, should already know it).

But Watson’s characters keep vacillating between, shall we say, two-dimensional and two-and-a-half-dimensional. Sometimes I kinda believed that they were real people and sometimes I was all too conscious that they were just plot devices. And his dialog often has the stiff sound of obligatory exposition because, well, that’s exactly what much of it is. Still, I found that anterograde amnesia still has a remarkably powerful effect as a plot device and the premise alone held my attention through the entire book, right up to the last page, even when the plot itself didn’t (though to give the author credit his twisty plot pulled a lot of weight on its own). So, yes, I enjoyed the book and recommend it as quick-read-on-a-long-plane-flight material.

Toward the ending, though, it began to degenerate into a Mary Higgins Clark-style woman-in-peril thriller. (Does anyone still remember Mary Higgins Clark? Is she still writing? Is she still alive?) I’m sure there’s plenty of other similar suspense fiction on the market but probably not with anywhere near this effective a gimmick, which in the end is what makes it, well, kinda memorable. In a forgettable sort of way.