A.S. King – Please Ignore Vera Dietz

 

verdietz__spanJust a while ago, I read a Young Adult novel that seems to be the positive mirror of this. It was Jennifer Brown’s Hate List. Both novels deal with a tragedy, specifically a girl losing a boy to death and how it affects their lives. The relationship was big. Both happen to be outcasts in a Nowheresville. Relationships with the family is rocky and there is a sexually-active, supposedly hot chick that’s evil involved.

The difference is in how Hate List is darker, but more sympathetic whereas King’s book has more shocking content on the surface but less of the empathy which is truly disturbing. Therefore, at the bottom there isn’t much horror or insight. King lays out at the beginning who are the good guys and who are the bad. Nowhere in the novel do they get a chance to prove otherwise and we don’t get any view of their inner world. Dad figure swings from bad to good, and it’s actually nice to see a parental figure being allowed to be flawed but not a complete asshole. Sadly, this is where the good characterization ends.

I’m all for novels like this. Teenagers need books like these which deal with drugs, sex and death. They experience these things at this age and sometimes what they need isn’t the perspective of an adult, but a lot of perspectives similar to theirs. Books like this mention the important subject, but they offer such a narrow perspective. Perhaps for those for whom death and alcoholism ring close, this book can be some kind of an emotional outlet. For the rest of us, though, it’s too close-minded.

My issue is not with the content and not even that it’s quite wacky, moving away from the gritty-realism authors like this try to imitate. I can take the octagonal treehouse and teenagers burning shit down. I can even take the enigmatic, hot outcast male. Where’s the life in them, though?

Charlie isn’t as bad as Green’s females, but we still get a character with zero personal issues that we’re supposed to adore. He’s a dream boy – wild, untamed, skinny, always doing things, putting a tough exterior but is actually romantic and with some emotional issues. Of course, the romantic side and the emotional baggage is never let out – because men with emotions aren’t sexy. For some reason, too, love interests in these novels are always skinny and this is passed off as if it’s against the beauty ideal.

Eventually he goes to the dark side to be with ‘cool people’. King’s version of the Evil Cool isn’t jocks and football junkies for a change, but a bunch of druggies and a rocker girl. As for her, she happens to have a lot of sex and is nasty to people. Why she’s nasty to people, we never understand. Her sexual nature is also often painted hostile and morally low, but I’m not sure why besides the fact it’s ‘conformist’ – unlike Charlie who is really cool and builds treehouses.

She’s so nasty that she ruins everyone’s lives. I’m sure there are people like this, but if only King gave us a little insight into why she does what she does. Jenny ends up being nothing more than a plot device and someone we could hate. Besides breaking up between the main character and her lover, she has no role.

Many characters in this novel fit a scary template in fiction – characters whose main purpose is that we’ll have something to hate. Such characters contain some qualities that nearly everyone will claim as bad – cruelty, sadism, lack of empathy. On top of that the authors will put something else to make them uncool, like being stupid or doing too many drugs or being too conserative, or maybe just racist. We’ll be expected to really detest this character and hope for their downfall.

The problem is, we often feel this way in real life towards people because it’s all we’ve been exposed to. Sometimes hating people is justified, but what’s wrong is hating them while denying their humanity. Once we draw a too distinct line between us and the evil, we override the purpose of morality. Morality then is not decided by deeds or virtues, but by people. ‘A is just because of X’ becomes ‘A is just because B is unjust’. That type of morality leaves no room for redemption, and so no room for admitting when we’re wrong (since we can’t be – the other side must be wrong!). Once we adopt such a morality, nothing prevents us from becoming what we hate.

Sadly this is what King has to offer us. Jenny and the others remain an enigma – assholes without character. If only King would’ve developed further, maybe she could’ve conjured something more horrifying, more haunting. Evil is at its scariest when we realize we can do it, too. That’s why pictures of serial killers are so frightening. We look at them and see flesh and blood just like us.

Plot doesn’t matter much in novels like these since the psychological development of the character is important. King is better than Brown in creating a main character. The writing is utilitarian and doesn’t add much, but there’s a toughness to the writing, an edge that lets Vera be more than an outcast. She’s a tough person who bottles it all until it comes back out. While King is not the peak of minimalism, she lets just enough edge to let this psyche be expressed in the prose.

It would’ve been better if she didn’t need a big event for the story to revolve on. Considering how Vera has enough depth to carry a story on her own – not much, but just enough – big explosions were unnecessary. All we needed was to see these characters go about their lives, how their worldviews and personalities – Vera’s detachment, will to be responsible and for escapism and Charlie’s adventurous spirit – collide, stray, collide again and eventually fall apart. She does it quite successfully throughout the novel. The relationship is convincing enough with how the characters relate and then go separate ways when puberty hits.

Scattered throughout the novels are other perspectives – the pagoda, the father. King doesn’t have the writing ability to give these a new tone. Don’t look at the heading and you’ll find the father and the daughter are speaking in the same internal voice. Still, it’s a refreshing addition that almost gets close to adding empathy to this story. Sadly, these are tidbits, not a choice of method that re-frames the whole novel. Most likely a young author will be inspired by this but will accidentally credit As I Lay Dying.

It’s quick and to the point, but mostly it’s an insulting collection of stereotypes. We all could use books, like music, that offer us catharsis but this is not a song that will carry on to future years. It’s more like your first local show, where the mere presence of sound and emotion is enough to inspire you to keep digging. You won’t remember precise details about that band, and the same goes for this book.

1.5 rocker girls out of 5

Ransom Riggs – Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

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The world has its outcasts. They often have unique talents, like creating fire out of nothing or transforming David Bowie’s music into worthwhile. This gives them power. Emma can burn you down, and Marilyn Manson has sold a lot of records. Power makes people to react to you in funny ways. Some hate you just because you’re weird, others because you’re a danger. Some follow you, either because they’re afraid or they think you’re some sort of badass God.

How the outcast manages their situation is a question for many authors to answer. After all, not all powers are the same. The hatred people have for Justin Bieber is vastly different than the hatred people have for Manson. People hated Manson because he ruined kids, told them God isn’t real and that they should remain weird. As for Justin Bieber, people hated him because girls loved him. How does this work I don’t know – maybe they were simply jealous. The X-Men series is supposed to be an exploration of this question. It’s about two factions with two different views on their position. Riggs’ novel features almost direct copies of these factions.

Now, the common platitude of “everything’s been done before!” will rear its head if you’re inexperienced in literature. That’s not how originality works. Copy a template, fine. Just fill it with different materials. For a while, Riggs is successful at that. His characters, in a way, live up to their ‘peculiar’ title. Their powers are small, often coming off as genetic defects. The levitating girl doesn’t control her levitation. She’s like a balloon and has to wear weighted shoes so she won’t slip off. The invisible person takes advantage of that, but it’s a radically different life when people can’t see you.

For a while, Riggs is interested by what being an outcast is like. Our hero is thrown into that position and everyone around him calls him mentally ill. They either feel sorry for him or reject him. He’s too confused in that position, so all he can do is shoot everyone including himself. His only solid connection is with his grandfather who’s an outcast like him. He can only connect to peculiar children like him.

There’s an interesting parable here to mental illness. Look at subreddits like Sanctioned Suicide. Many mentally ill people can only connect deeply to people in the same boat as theirs. Pro-ana communities develop their own culture and jargon. We’re so quick to judge them. X-Men was meant to parallel the struggles of LGBT people, but mental illness is different. Even with social acceptance, anorexia and suicidal thoughts and self-harm are weights people carry. Even with social acceptance, peculiar people are a minority. No amount of acceptance will give the floating girl the ability to control her power.

Too bad all these ideas are blended with a dull mix of genres. If Riggs wanted to write a multicolored story, hopping from genre to genre for fun then fine. It never feels like this. He never throws the story convincingly into the elements. There’s some conviction when he dabbles in horror. The spooky monster remains shrouded in mystery for a while, and even pushed aside for some pages. Focusing on the uncertainity of the spooky monster makes the horror aspect more convincing. Unknown things are pretty scary.

All mysteries dissolve when a character just spits out exposition. In fact, no information is actually discovered or figured out. People just hand over the answers to the questions when it’s time to advance the plot. It’s like a Game Master telling you the background and name and disposition of every NPC. The knowledge descending on your character makes it stronger, but also makes the game more boring.

The bad guys want to take over the world and subjugate humanity. That’s fine, since a lot of people in real life actually did that. Why, though? Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Caligula were real people. They had philosophies, personalities, and inner lives. They didn’t laugh maniacally when they ordered massacres but saw their vision of their bright future taking shape. The villains may view themselves as right, but we never get the philosophy behind their desire for power. The reason they want power isn’t because power is attractive, but because that makes them evil and useful antagonists.

Their disease infects all other characters, too. Very few characters have unique reactions or talk style. Some are silly quirks that can’t be taken seriously. The two rapper dudes are straight out of a horrible John Green novel. The natives of an island talk with broken English because that’s how people in the sticks must talk like. Others fare a little better, but Enoch’s cynicism is never elaborated upon.

He’s a great potential wasted. His power is to put actual hearts in material and make it kind-of alive. That’s the sort of power that leads one to view the value of life differently. He can bring back people from the dead but only halfway. He uses hearts as tools. Enoch often slides into a cynical, detached speech. Even among the peculiars he’s an outcast. Yet Riggs never expands on that. What is his philosophy? To which kids he relate to more, to which less? What kind of things did he do besides building a miniature army?

The protagonist is the worst insult to character development. Again, there are seeds of something worthwhile – a little cynicism, insecurity and pessimistic worldview that might lead to something. It plays instead like a side-quest in a cheap RPG game. Person meets dying man, dying man leaves some clues and person goes on to explore these clues to discover a bigger mystery. Video game protagonists are rarely well-written since it’s the player doing all the acting. Fifty pages or so into the novel, Jacob loses all personality and follows clues. He’s sometimes not sure whether he can do something, but the only drive for his decision is the reader’s desire to know more. There’s even a silly romance there that doesn’t pretend to be profound. Green mined the trope of weird girl loving a skinny dude who’s sure he’s ugly (despite skinny people being all over magazines), but Riggs merely puts a few make-out scenes. It’s too boring to be creeped out by the fact the girl is actually 80 years old or so.

The last pages of the book are a long-winded action scene. This is too sad to talk about, because it makes the book seem entirely worthless when it isn’t. The idea of a loop is quite brilliant. These kids may live long but they haven’t matured a bit, and here you have a chance to mediate about time. Riggs occasionally paints a pretty picture in his prose. The few paragraphs about the bombs and reset have enough to suffice for a short story. Why does he fill the last pages with chasing the bad guy, shooting people and a cliffhanger that relies on reading the rest of the trilogy?

Riggs’ prose is easy and pleasant enough. It’s fast, sometimes slides into introspection but never too much. That makes a decent story bearable. It’s not offensively boring, just kind of ‘there’. If Riggs did something wild with his ideas and failed, fine. He barely tries since it concludes in info dumps and shoot-outs. The photographs are actually real, which is cool but doesn’t add anything. Riggs intergates them by saying “here’s a photograph” and showing them. It’s like illustrations, only pictures instead. Maybe if Riggs tried to write a single short story surrounding them, he’ll have a safer but wider space to work his ideas.

It’s not a terrible book but not a great one, either. Maybe, as a distraction, it’s good enough. There are good ideas that may stick around and the prose is pleasant. Life is too short for distractions, though. If you like X-Men or stories about hidden strange worlds just beneath our own you might enjoy this. It’s too inoffensive for me to tell you to avoid, but also too unremarkable to offer it to anyone.

2 photographs out of 5

Iain M. Banks – Consider Phlebas

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Is this really the person who wrote The Wasp Factory?

You can feel it’s the same mind for a while. Banks’ world is weird and unstable enough. The basics of it are simple at heart, focusing more on cool ideas rather than an abundance of details. Often, there are bits of madness that bring the world to life like the small tribe arc. The prose is worse than stiff though. It’s so invasive it literally turns a rollicking adventure with great characters into the word ‘kilometer’ placed between references to violence.

the story isn’t a dull travelogue with Banks showing off his worldbuilding skills. Banks uses the smart technique of showing bits and pieces, emphasizing the size of the world rather than just writing an encyclopedia. The structure is a simple one. Man goes on a mission, things go wrong and he has to solve the problems. Each problem is different and each setting is different. Even without character development the novel could give you a good time.

The prose is closer to the horrifying George Martin prose. Saying it’s better doesn’t say much. While Banks isn’t as offensive (and the story is overall better), it’s hard to ignore how crippling the writing is. The third-person omniscient writing is so detached. The epilogue features some dry history about the world. That section is more interesting since such writing fits when you look at things from a distance.

The story is an adventure. Why does Banks tell it like it’s a history book? It sucks out all the excitement and it’s more offensive when the story is very close to being fun.

The distance ruins any character development Banks was attempting. They never become psychological or grand-mythic, but even a little personality injects life. There’s something about Horza being a badass, Wubslin being an obsessed engineer and the drone being unpleasant to everyone. I’m not sure what it says about the novel when only a drone has unique reactions to things.

How characters react to the world around them is too generic. One is a little more apathetic. Another is more confident. There are no quirks, no special modifiers to these reactions. Unimaginative authors should at least be capable of repetitive archetypes. Banks’ characters don’t even qualify as that. If one character had a trait where they’d swear more than everyone, they’ll be more lifelike than everyone else.

Banks also has a weird obsession with exactness. The world ‘kilometer’ repeats itself often. The exact measures and structures of everything will haunt you in your sleep. Not only Banks is into writing history books, he also enjoys writing instructions manuals on how to build a ship.

Now, such manuals have no room for exciting or beautiful prose. Their purpose is to give the exact details. How exact can you be with fiction? Banks forgets something crucial. All these ships and planets aren’t actually real. Describing their exact size doesn’t make then any more so.

We don’t experience the world in measuring units. First of all, we perceive things as ‘big’ or ‘small’, as ‘long’ or ‘short’. Fiction is human thought and it should connect our thoughts. You use descriptions to make the reader understand what it feels like to witness the destruction. Some authors use a pile of details for this, but the good ones never gain their strength from being exact. Shopping list as a writing technique is about creating a variety of images.

The writing isn’t shopping-list style. It simply relies on being very exact. All it does is making you either feel confused (Because the exactness doesn’t give a proper image of what it feels like) or sucking out the life out of the prose. I’m not sure which is worse and it often happens at the same time.

The epilogue is perhaps the best part of the novel. Although it’s dry history, the prose works there. Maybe Banks is more interested in huge stories thna small adventures. After all, this series became huge. Sadly he was too scared to write a full book in this style and instead we get this dry adventure.

If you’re into shenanigans about traveling in outer space, explosions and weird cultures there’s fun to be had here. It’s buried under layers of dull prose. Nothing about is offensively bad. I never got the urge to put it down but I never got much of one to pick it up. Make of that what you will.

2 kilometers out of 5

Eshkol Nevo – Neuland

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Israelis love to escape, or maybe they just need to. It’s a country constantly under the threat of war. The fear of an attack is always upon us whenever we go outside. Even if we don’t consciously think something might happen, it’s in the back of the head. The news is constantly informing us about who died and who got injured. While everyone else in the Western world is having sex at the age of 18, we’re learning how to use a gun.

The desire to escape is all over the country. Not everyone actually experiences the army, but they’re well aware of it (and aware they were completely useless). Nevo isn’t any different. Addressing this escapism can be a recipe for a great Israeli novel. It won’t be good just in the traditional sense, but also provide insight into the Israeli psyche. Every country needs literature that can define it. Nevo takes the idea of escape a little too far though. He doesn’t explore the idea so much as trying himself to escape into his own book.

Bad things happen, so? There’s a reason schizophrenia, depression and discriminated sexual orientation are among the top reasons for suicide. Nevo’s main problem is that, while he can write about terrible things happening he cannot write inner troubles. How events affect us is what’s truly important. Read stories of people who’ve been through horrors. The transformation, their new point of view is what’s so harrowing. Read Dylan Kebold’s mom article. The horror is in her inner struggles, how the Columbine Massacre made her question everything.

People die and everything is falling apart in this novel. One person commits suicide and the other suffers from PTSD. In order for our main characters to question, to struggle with something, they first need a personality. Unless there is a personality that reacts to the events, all there is generic sadness. People get sad over dysfunctional relationship and death, but that’s it? It can’t be that simple. I’ve read hundreds of stories of people who lost others to suicide and each one is more harrowing as the previous one.

It can’t be that easy, but Nevo wants it to be so easy. His main characters are both sex bombs, people who don’t actually struggle with anything. Dori is an idealist who never has an oppurtunity to doubt his idealism. Women fall for him, students adore him and his relationship with his wife is rocky. Nevo solves this conflict by dismissing her as a career-freak who doesn’t know what’s really important. As for Inbar, she’s also a sex bomb who wants the travel the world and see stuff. If you’ve been to Israel, you met these type of people – aimless, directionless, always horny and thinking that weed is profound.

What does it say about an author who pushes aside a PTSD victim and a suicide in order to focus on these two perfect people? It’s as if Nevo epitomizes what’s wrong with the world. We’re all so focused on the pretty and perfect people we forget the Nobodies. I thought literature and art in general meant to give voices to the weird, the strange and the surprising. There’s nothing gripping about this couple. Nothing about them is startling or odd. They’re exceptionally normal. Sure, they get sad over stuff but that’s it.

Later in the novel a paradise is introduced. Besides admitting that it’s not a utopia and that they’re still working on it, it’s as bad as it sounds. If you needed any other proof Nevo wants to escape, this is it. It’s a world where the mentally wounded (who are all happy there with no evidence of their ‘wounds’) can gather and heal themselves. It’s a self-sustaining community with no conflict and all peace. Why? I don’t know. It doesn’t reveal any flaw in the original Zionist plan. There is no philosophy that drives this utopia besides being nice to each other. It’s a cute idea that’s very hard to put in practice.

The utopia is also rigidly against violence. Why? Violence is an integral part of human nature. The utopia does feature sport games, which are an extension of violence. We enjoy competition and the adrenaline of hitting and being hit. A good civilization finds a productive way to use this drive. It’s ironic Nevo sings praise of sexuality while dismissing violence. Anyone can pick up a sword, but sexuality is also a world of losers and winners, where the Beautiful People are having fun while everyone else is cast out. If anything, violent games are more fair than romantic love.

Nevo’s vision of South America is your typical Israeli bullshit. There’s some poverty, but life is mostly peaceful and fun. The occasional view of the dangers is quickly swept aside. South America is mostly a place for new adventures and new perspective. If I were a SouthAmerican, I’d be offended. These countries don’t exist to provide Western people a new sense of purpose, to cure their emptiness. They’re countries with their unique histories and cultures and issues. Israel has a strong Leftist/Social Justice movement. I’m surprised no one called out Nevo about how South America isn’t an amusement park or a psychotherapist.

The prose is also horrid. Nevo rambles with no style or rhythm. There isn’t a word for this type of prose. It’s not a sign of uniqueness but a lack of focus. Nevo just spills a lot of words, going in and out of character heads. He puts no quotation marks around dialogues. That might make sense in minimalist novels but not in a gushing prose like this one. He also likes to ‘switch’ points of view. It’s the third-person-limited which is really third-person-omniscient and doesn’t add anything.

We even get long backstories about side characters. There’s that washy-washy thing about how our current couple re-create the secret and forbidden love of their grandparents. It’s kind of epic, but looks silly in a serious novel such as this. What does it have to do with the Israelis’ desire to escape?

I have read an interesting article about the symbolism and meaning. The novel isn’t without purpose. Nevo just took it too close to heart. Instead of examining the Israeli psych and its darkness, our desire to escape he just wrote an escapist yarn for himself. It sold a lot of copies, but that’s because Israelis will escape anywhere – to South America, to Game of Thrones, to the dream of getting rich off SmartPhone apps and to crap novels like this. If this is how one of our most acclaimed novelists write, we’ve got a bigger problem than the conflict with the Palestinians.

1 blue pill 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