John Corey Whaley – Where Things Come Back

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Someone decided to mix John Green and Chuck Palahniuk. He even decided to place his story in a dead end town that gave Local H their talent and their fear of failure. It’s a good thing I didn’t know all of this before I read the book. The disappointment would’ve hit harder.

Whaley borrows some stylistic choices from Palahniuk, but barely scrapes what made him worthwhile. He doesn’t borrow his shock antics, but that’s not much of a praise. Chuck’s choruses are here, only they’re not as inventive or informing as before. The purpose of this repetition is to inform us about the character. Victor uses the clinical “see also:” because he’s viewing the world in a detached way. Tender kept referring to cleaning because it was in his docile nature.

Cullen is an angry teenager, but this is where his personality ends. As an angry suburban teenager I recognize I was born to privilege, but it doesn’t automatically make for a happy life. You can give your parrot a safe environment and food, but ignore him and you might find that he discovered self-harm without Nine Inch Nails.

There is more to life than physical well-being. The psychological is just as important. Once we don’t have to fight for survival, we still need a reason to keep going. That’s one reason we get all these depressed teenagers. What do you expect when you put them in an isolated community where they spend most time studying and with little human interaction? Do you want to be the parrot who stares at people talking, joking and laughing while never noticing you exist for a second?

Other problems can strike suburban life, but this is a common one that’s easily brushed off as nothing by ignorant people (if they’re your parents, then the situation worsens). Cullen suffers none of that. He’s not a jock who gets all the girls, but he has a best friend with a girlfriend who feels comfortable kissing him. He has sex with two girls in this novel, one is slightly older than him and the other is the town’s main hottie (both of which make the advances). He also had a thing going on with another before the events in the book started.

Cullen’s life is kicking. Why he’s so angry is never made clear. He dislikes people, but no one is an outright asshole. Nothing about him makes him an outcast or a weirdo. He has no weird hobbies or habits. He can’t even get angry over being bored. If girls and driving around are available to you, then you have some joy in your life.

The whole disappearance thing is an external event that isn’t a part of Cullen’s personality. What’s important is not the tragic event but how it affects the character, and we don’t see it. Cullen stays angry without change. He doesn’t become more detached or more social. He manages his sexual opportunities like everything is fine. Sex is a positive force in his life. He’s neither encumbered by sexual frustration or relies on it too much like Palahniuk’s Victor Mancini.

The book is darker than John Green’s novels (excluding the cancer book). Whaley is more comfortable looking at the darkness and the story is less convenient. His characters are also more flawed than quirky. Whaley’s outcasts aren’t odd angels. Lucas has his Green-esque charms, but both he and Cullen are portrayed as stubborn kids who need to expand their horizons a little.

Whaley also questions Cullen’s hatred of everyone. Green tended to cast everyone out, put them on the bleachers so they’ll watch how cool the nerd is. Whaley has moments where we’re exposed to the others’ humanity and their flaws. A great moment like this is with John Barling. Cullen views him as a punching bag, but Barling’s scene shows he’s just another guy trying to find some value in his life. When the bully’s life gets wrecked, Whaley doesn’t celebrate.

In fact, the side characters are the best part here. Each has a little arc of its own, and a novel about them would be more interesting. Barling has a story about escaping failure and trying to do something big. If Quitman starred in his own novel, it could be a revealing one that gives us the bully’s point of view. How Cullen’s parents deal with grief is fascinating. Each deals in his/her own way and these means change with time. This is how Whaley brings a character to life:

“”Yeah, we used to fight over your cookies. And Dad would always come in and say, ‘Now, now, the only way to settle this is for me to eat the last one,’ and he’d snatch it before we could stop him.””

Such deeds can inform us about who these parents are. There are better moments here. If Whaley had so many, why aren’t they the stars of the novel.

It may be the brisk pacing. Every description of Cullen’s parents is insightful, but they’re not lingered on enough. Whaley moves quickly, as if afraid that lingering on characters will somehow boring. His story never resorts to lame action to make us feel something is happening. He knows better than that, but he doesn’t understand that a good enough moment is worth lingering on.

Unnecessary details still find their way in. Whaley gives a biography of a character whose only importance is its death. The specific details of his background, his time in Ethiopia have no effect on the story. Start from the death and drop a few mentions of his harsh family and you’ll have enough. At least Whaley’s antagonist doesn’t fit the role of evil asshole who ruins things for everyone. He couldn’t make the instigator’s madness understandable, though. Cabot felt more like a plot convenience. Again, Whaley should have slowed down and wrote more moments that define who this character is.

Whaley shows potential. His view of Young Adult is more mature. He wants to be up there with Catcher in the Rye (which is name-dropped, of course) and he wants to reach its depth, not just quirkiness. It’s halfway done. Whaley left enough annoying cliches, but the good stuff that remained are just seeds.

2.5 woodpeckers out of 5

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Vacation (2015)

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The film opens with a series of photos from a family vacation. Something wrong goes in most of them, something that is supposed to be funny. ‘Going wrong’ here means things like a horse urinating, or a child seeing animals having sex.

I don’t go to movies to look at hot women. If I wanted hot women, there’s plenty of places to see them without distractions. In fact, whenever a film tries to dazzle me with how beautiful the actress is, I get the urge to message a philosophical question to a friend so he’ll entertain me. When I find myself enjoying the presence of a hot woman in a film, it’s clear it has nothing else to offer.

Vacation also has Chris Hemsworth showing off his muscles and lack of fat. I appreciate this stab at equality, but I’m not sure it’s worth sitting through an hour and a half of terrible jokes for. Couldn’t they just shot a short video of him flexing and put it on his Facebook page?

There’s an attempt here to make a dark comedy, only it’s not really dark. Like a lot of shitty comedians who use ‘shocking’ content, they’re afraid of going all the way. They gross you out, but it’s just unpleasant.

There are two ways to go about it. You can either go complete light and pretend it’s not dark. That’s hard to pull off, but it worked brilliantly in Borderlands. You can also confront the darkness. Use the jokes not as a way to cheapen the darkness but to magnify it. Make it both dark and funny. That’s why Catch-22 and the anime series WataMote are funny.

The creators put the characters through a lot of hardships, but none of it is meaningful or interesting. They bath in raw sewage, which goes on for 3 minutes. Someone actually thought that extending that scene to 3 minutes was a good idea. It was kind of funny at first when they didn’t realize it, but the scene goes on and on. We see them rubbing shit over themselves for a few minutes, which feel like they’ll never end. How does that extra length contribute to anything? Even splatter films don’t linger so much on the ugly details.

Some people die in this film, which is supposed to be funny. I’m not sure where the joke is in the scene with the suicidal guide tour. He kills himself after his fiance breaks up with him which is pretty sad, but where’s the joke? Wikipedia has a list of unusual death which is both hilarious and terrifying. What’s funny is not that these people died, but that their circumstances are so absurd.

No situation here even tries to be absurd. Things just go wrong. They want to go to hot springs, and they end up in raw sewage. Debbie tries to prove she’s wild at heart but she vomits pitcher of beer she just downed. The older brother finds a pretty girl and along comes the dad to make things awkward.

What defines absurdity is that it’s unpredictible. How funny can you be when every joke is so obvious? It would be easier to stomach if it wasn’t so cruel, though. When your jokes are cruel but lack wit, you just come off as a sadistic bully. Vacation is no different from the Saw films in that aspect. You see characters having a hard time and trying desperately to get out of it.

There’s no joy in here, no pain. They can’t even rely on joyful/depressing contrast to make jokes. The creators are so cruel they don’t allow the characters even a small victory. At least the Saw film have a unique visual style and a killer soundtrack. Vacation can’t justify all the pain it inflicts on its characters.

Ed Helms tries hard to make something good out of the material. Maybe that’s the joke. Maybe I was supposed to laugh at him trying to be funny with such weak material, but at this point I’m sad. The guy stayed for three Hangover films. Can the Coen Brothers take him to one of their movies now? There’s an almost effective scene where his characters break down. Helms tries to inject a little darkness to that scene. Seeing a character breaking down would’ve been truly shocking, but you can hear one of the executives telling him to stop. We’re here to gross out the audience, the executive says. Then Helms walks away like he should’ve done long ago and the car blows up. That’s a clever metaphore for his career.

There’s no reason for this film to exist. The kid behind me laughed a lot, but I also used to find shit and sex funny when I was younger. Now, I found life to be much more crazier and weirder than just these two subjects. Sex and shit can be funny. I have a personal anecdote involving shit, but it’s not just the shit that itself is funny. Mainstream comedy is just as terrible as it always was.

I can’t believe my friends chose this over Inside Out.

1.5 suicidal guide tours out of 5

Jonathan Franzen – The Corrections

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There are three novels fighting for dominaton here. Two of them can have a conversation, while the third one just stands there. There’s an intimate, expansive novel of character exploration, sort of like Atonement. There’s a satirical novel where characters represent stereotypes and Franzen fools around with them. Then there’s one of those ‘hysterical realism’ novels, where the author piles on the details and goes off the deep end. He doesn’t go further enough to make it fantasy, but the weird section in Eastern Europe is far less realistic than that Planescape video game.

Perhaps if Franzen connected these three elements, I could have forgiven the swings of quality. Even if he didn’t connect the first and second novels, there’s enough common ground between them to make it feel they belong together. The third novel sticks out sorely.

Near the end of the book, we get outtakes from a DBC Pierre novel. Franzen hinted it would come to this at the beginning, but dropping it for 300 pages felt like it was because he knew it was hopeless. The decision to start the whole thing is consistent with the character making it, but not with the mood of the novel. Alarm bells dropped the bass when he made that decision, and I could see him turning from a live-action actor to a cartoon.

We’re only given the climax of this arc, which is good. There is something funny and amusing about the idea of putting a country at the stock market, but Franzen establishes himself as a person who writes about characters, not about society’s workings. The climax just shows us the result of this fiasco, which is a dragged out action scene that you could find on any Mystery novel.

This failure doesn’t seem so bad as what comes before it. The idea was doomed from the first line, anyway. Seeing that it’s not that bad is actually fun. It’s the biography of Denise that comes before where Franzen drops the ball at what he does best. Like a lot of male authors, he thinks that females see a random guy, decide they’re attracted to him, and immidiatley have sex. I don’t think that Friend Zone would have been such a big thing if this were real. This is an important part of Denise’s story, and that it makes it worse.

It can’t be anything else other than Franzen’s sex fantasy. It’s the one part he writes like a teenager too busy reading GameSpot to read The Red Pill. Whenever Franzen deals to other topics where he could make a clown out of himself, like lesbian sex or a bladder out of control, he maintains his dignity. The few lesbians scene here are completely different. They make sense for the characters. They don’t just land on them. We see the progress towards sex. When they do get into bed, it’s mostly to show us the dynamic of the relationship.

When Franzen goes scatological, he also displays a maturity so rare you forget we’re dealing with shit and piss. Whenever Alfred loses control of his bladder, the focus is not that there’s piss and that it’s dirty, but how it affects the characters’ lives. Franzen writes it not as the punchline to a joke or as material to captute the attention after so many boring pages, but as a natural part of life.

The best display of Franzen’s skills is at the last 100 pages. The Eastern Europe thing is over, and the arc with the Axon corporation which is gibberish is also done with. Franzen gets all his main characters in one room, and he shines. He jumps from satire to intimacy sometimes jarringly, but he hits the mark at both. His characters feel human and real. They’re messed up and pretty awful to each other, but they each function out of a coherent philosophy. He makes fun both of Enid’s refusal to get back in reality, but gives us plenty of moments to feel compassion for her. Alfred is at once a close-minded douchebag, and a person who just wants to be left alone. Gary is at once responsible, active, and hard working. He’s also sometimes completely blind to other people’s feelings.

If only The Corrections focused on this for all its length. Maybe Franzen should have just chopped half the book and chucked it. The long digression to explain to us all about the economy and Axon corporations and stock market stock market stock market are gibberish. That part could’ve been written in ancient Rapa Nui langauge, and the last 100 pages would still be just as meaningful.

It may have something to do with Franzen’s weak prose. He’s better at creating characters than McEwan, but his writing is much weaker. McEwan always writes like every line is full of meaning, even when the line ends as a gigantic non-sequiter. Franzen’s prose is dull and bumbles like a gorilla in a glassware shop. It’s not too bad when he has the content, but when he tries to write like what people hate about Thomas Pynchon and William Gass, you think maybe they should sue him for defamation.

The Correction is another typical canonical novel. There are brilliant parts, particularly at the end and the beginning. There are awful parts, especially the whole middle. How much it was worth, I’m not sure. The last pages were brilliant, but it took me a long time to burn through the middle. The last time I took such a break in reading was when I read the Game of Thrones series. Now that’s an awful book. This one is much better.

3 deranged families out of 5