In my To Kill a Mockingbird review, I talked about how classics, even when they fail, leave a lot to talk about. I was certain Mockingbird will be the classic that will offer the least interesting thing to say. How wrong I was. Along comes Appointment in Samarra, which doesn’t do anything beyond telling a decent, downward spiral type of story.
Downward Spiral Stories are great. They offer a chance for us to confront our flaws and the worst case scenarios. It’s one story type that should never be extinct. It’s also a story type that relies solely on the character. You can’t have an effective downward spiral if the character isn’t putting himself there. If it’s something from the outside that leads him down, then that’s just the author being mean.
Julian English’s downward spiral is well-written and is character-driven. Julian enters the spiral out of his own volition, and he keeps going downward because of his own flaws. When he reaches the bottom, he’s still offered a choice whether to hit it or stay afloat. O’Hara understands the structure, but he forgot to add themes to this story.
Compare it to the narrative found in Nine Ninch Nails’ album. In Reznor’s musical masterpiece, the character hits the bottom because of very specific traits. As shown in songs like “I Do Not Want This”, “Closer” and “Ruiner”, it’s an obsession with power, among other things that leads to the bottom. It may weird to compare a book to a music album, but even if The Downward Spiral doesn’t speak of events, it speaks of themes. The songs deal with the flaws that cause a man to enter a downward spiral. What were Julian’s flaws that made him go down there?
That’s an issue that hovers all over the book and prevents it from having an emotional impact. Perhaps O’Hara critiques the lifestyle of rich people who live in country clubs, but there aren’t enough moments to illustrate what’s wrong with it. He just shows people who don’t seem like very pleasant company, but if your charactes are plesant company you may be doing something wrong anyway. O’Hara fails to show something specific that is wrong with this society.
It’s an idea Ellis also explored, but Ellis used prose and events to create an atmosphere that made his whole society seem really awful. There is a moment, near the end of the book, where O’Hara says something about this lifestyle. By the time it comes, though, it’s too late. Julian is already too far down. You can’t add an event at the last moment to give the spiral meaning. The spiral gets its meaning by what causes the character to enter in the first place.
Since o’Hara only remembers to deal with his themes at the end – although the way he wraps them is satisfying enough – all the rest of the pages are just a fun, well-written story. O’Hara’s biggest strength is his prose. He writes in the same style pop fiction writers do. There are a lot of sentences without verbs, and he occasionally rambles on about a character’s background. He makes it work, though. That’s the only special thing about Appointment in Samarra. He takes an awful style of writing and makes it work. Nowhere have I felt the need to stop reading because the prose is too clumsy. Even when I was wondering what’s the point of the current details, they were well-written enough that they didn’t slow down the pace.
Good prose makes for a good story, but it wasn’t enough for a classic novel. It’s a fun downward spiral story that manages to have all events come from the characters. It fails to confront any of its themes until the end though, so it’s really just a pretty nice story. I neve thought that ‘just a pretty nice story’ could end up in Classics list.
3 bottles of whiskey out of 5