Women as Prizes (Daniel Suarez’s Influx)

Look, here’s the thing. Let me tell you what the thing is. If you say “sci-fi retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo,” I am going to read that book even if I have to go to several different libraries to get it, which is how Influx, by Daniel Suarez, became one of the oldest books on my TBR spreadsheet, which is how I came to be reading it in the car on a recent road trip.

(That’s not the thing.)

Influx

Influx is about a man called Jon Grady who is such a Maverick that he invents a thing called a gravity mirror. A Shady Organization called the Bureau of Technology Control (BTC) orders him to join them in concealing this scientific innovation from the rest of the world, because the World Can’t Handle the Truth. When Grady refuses (he’s a Maverick, remember), they ship him off to an isolated torture-prison called Hibernity, whence he must find a way to escape and bring True Science back to the world.

Sounds fun, right? (That’s not the thing either. That part is all fine.)

Along the way, he encounters the following woman, who was genetically designed by the BTC to be young and beautiful forever (as well as good at fighting, and fatally attractive to all men everywhere because chemicals):

Grady did a double take on the woman. She was incredibly beautiful, fair complected, with short jet-black hair and lapis lazuli blue eyes. She wore a tailored pantsuit and crisp white blouse–normal business attire. But in fact, she was so attractive it was difficult for Grady to take his eyes off her, despite his absurd predicament.

Since she’s the only female character we’ve encountered so far, this is already annoying. But it still isn’t the thing. Here’s an internal monologue from the preposterously attractive Alexa, right after she chucks the chin of a fat little baby she meets in the BTC halls.

It hurt. It really did. They’d made her the way she was, and in many ways she was grateful. But sterility was the price. Almost fifty years old, and she looked not a day over twenty-five. But she’d never menstruated. Never felt what it was like to be a woman. That look in the young mother’s eyes… She could feel the urge to be a mother. Even if she lived to be four hundred years old, she’d never know the joys and sorrows of motherhood. . . . The woman was chunky. Genetically inferior. But at that moment Alexa wanted to be her.

I don’t need my dumb adventure stories to also have magnificent character development. If they do, then huzzah, it kicks the whole endeavor up a notch in my estimation, and I’ll probably recommend the book to more people and with more enthusiasm. But if that’s not the author’s area of strength, that’s fine. I will be here for your revenge-motivated flattish characters doing a heist to save the world’s science using their varied skill sets. I love heists! I love team-ups!

But here, at last, is the aforementioned thing: it is maddening that we end up with three characters whose lives have been, in different ways, affected and damaged by this Evil Science Corporation, and one of them is a lady, so of course the author has to rush in and tell us a) how heart-stoppingly gorgeous she is; and b) her aspirations on childbirth. Great. Thanks, Suarez. Those things seem super relevant to her quest of blowing shit up and releasing hitherto-concealed science information to the masses.

At the end, when this is all over and the information has been released to the masses and the prisoners on Prison Island have been freed, we get a mindblowingly aggravating epilogue wherein Grady and Alexa have been married for seven years and have a six-year-old daughter. She is his prize, you see, for successfully bringing down the Evil Science Corporation. And her aspirations of motherhood have been fulfilled. Doesn’t matter how. Science probably!

When characterization is lacking (this is the thing), authors tend to default back to tropes, and the tropes about women are always ladytropes. It’s about our physical appearance. It’s about our ability to bear children. And we are, ultimately, there to be awarded as prizes to male characters who succeed at things. After we’ve been told that Alexa has never experienced or been interested in romance, Grady kisses her (without, by the way, permission) out of nowhere just prior to their final assault on the BTC; and in the epilogue, boom, they’re married. Is this a thing we were supposed to be wanting for these two characters?

If the answer to that question seemed like yes to anyone, it’s because that’s what girls are for. And that is the thing. The thing that makes me want to punch a wall. When all I goddamn wanted from this book was a fun fucking adventure story.

ODY-C, Matt Fraction (vol. 1)

Note: I received an e-book copy from the publisher for review consideration.

ODY-C: What.

And look, I didn’t want to say What in that disparaging, not-really-a-question sort of tone. I wanted to say, Hooray! Matt Fraction! Trying things! So to be clear off the top: I support trying things in this bold manner. When you find yourself confronted with a comic that gender-swaps the whole Odyssey and transposes it to a science-fictional universe in which Zeus (a lady) prevented anyone from ever having sons ever again, you have to pause to admire the attempt.

I will give you a second to do that.

Admire. Admire.

Here is my problem, apart from hating the art (because in comics I do truly prefer the art to have nice clean lines and not all muddy blurriness with blurry faces because I have a hard enough time with faces in real life, let alone drawn ones, let alone blurry drawn ones): For all the boldness of the concept, the execution isn’t bold enough. It really is just the Odyssey, but in space and with ladies. The Circe creature lures them in. The Cyclops creature gobbles them up. The trappings are fresh, but the story is beat-for-beat the old one we already know.

I’ve talked about this before: Homer is Homer. If you are going to give us a new take on Homer, it should make us see Homer differently. Fraction’s trying to be Homer, albeit in a science fiction universe where everybody is female. Once you get past the startling and wonderful weirdness of the premise, there isn’t a whole lot more there except the attempt — which fails, I think — at the sound and feel of the original Odyssey. And it is just no use Matt Fraction’s trying to be Homer. Homer has already got that covered.

No one’s sadder about this than me. Matt Fraction is one of my favorite comics writers, and I wanted to love ODY-C. But so far my feelings to it are mainly an urge to reread my dear, dear Odyssey in my dear, dear Fagles translation.

Please congregate in the comments to tell me why I am wrong about ODY-C and should give it another chance.

A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara

Note: I received an ebook copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration.

Around page 150 of Hanya Yanagihara’s second novel, A Little Life, which follows four friends from their college years into their fifties, I wrote the following in my notes:

I am more excited about Hanya Yanagihara and her work and her career than I have been about any author in a really long time.

Around page 200 I wrote this:

Is Jude’s suffering perhaps a tad overwrought? It is starting to seem like everything bad happens to him forever. Maybe we should spend some time with one of the other characters.

Page 200 Jenny was right, and Page 150 Jenny was — well, hope springs eternal, and maybe Yanagihara’s third book will be back up to the standard of The People in the Trees. But as for A Little Life, describing Jude’s suffering as “a tad overwrought” is like describing Dolores Umbridge as “a tad unpleasant.” Yanagihara employs a plot strategy of which I was very fond when I was eleven, which was to think of as many dreadful fates as I could and heap them upon my protagonist one after another. Then when I ran out of ideas, I killed the protagonist off and wrote heartrending scenes of her friends-and-relations mourning her wretched life and too-early passing. I did this because I was eleven. I am not sure what Yanagihara’s problem is.

We learn early on that Jude is physically frail, due to an unspecified injury in his past, and that his family isn’t in the picture. Over the course of seven hundred pages, Yanagihara unfolds a cartoonishly woeful backstory to explain all of this. When you first start to recognize the way Jude’s abusive past is tearing him apart in the present, it’s heartbreaking. After two or three wicked villains have gotten through abusing him just because they’re evil, you start worrying that if the author doesn’t right the ship, you’re going to find yourself in the unenviable position of describing a depiction of child sex abuse as silly in your eventual review.

The maddening waste is that Yanagihara’s writing is elegant and evocative, and she’s able — at times — to capture with precision and delicacy the true, messy emotions between her characters. And the kind of story that she’s (I think) trying to tell is a kind of story I want to see more of. I want a story that doesn’t pretend there’s a straight path out of trauma into healing that you travel once and then you reach the end and you and your trauma have no further business to transact. I want a story that places serious value on relationships other than romantic ones. I want a story about loving someone who cannot always see his way clear to continuing to live in this world.

Ideally, of course, these stories would reach me unencumbered by several metric tons of lunatic melodrama. But in this I am evidently destined for disappointment.

A book I hurled across the room (plus some cheap shots at The Machinist)

Ugh, y’all, I was going to read Laura Kasischke’s A Mind of Winter for RIP IX, but it made me too angry. I did read it, and I can’t deny that, but I hereby did not read it for RIP IX. I just read it. RIP IX may or may not have been happening at the same time.

Two caveats before I begin my complaining:

  1. My opinion about The Mind of Winter arises from a personal preference that I have about the outcome of ghost stories. I have complained about this on the blog before, so it may come as no surprise to you.
  2. From here on out, I will be spoiling The Mind of Winter in ragey all-caps. And I will spoil The Machinist, that 2004 Christian Bale psychological thriller, as well, because I don’t like to miss any opportunities to complain about The Machinist, maybe my least favorite movie of all time.

The premise of A Mind of Winter is that Holly wakes up on Christmas Day feeling certain that something followed her family back from Russia, when they came home with their adopted daughter, Tatiana. All through the day, as she’s preparing her family’s Christmas meal, dealing with a medical emergency in her husband’s family, and quarreling with Tatiana, she cannot shake the thought that something malevolent came back with them from Russia, and that she has subconsciously known about it all along.

This year I am feeling more than normally affectionate toward creepy Russia stories, due to the excellent The Necromancer’s House, so I approached A Mind of Winter with great enthusiasm. A malevolent Russian magic something? At the holidays? That followed them home from Russia and is in their house? Nothing is bad about that premise!

Except then I read the end. And guess what.

(Here is the part where I spoil the book for you. Thus saving you the trouble of reading it and being disappointed.)

Holly is hallucinating everything that happens the whole day through, because actually Tatiana has died of a heart defect. There’s more to it than this, which would take too long to explain but it does make that ending more interesting and less cliche than how I’ve made it sound, but mainly, the protagonist is imagining every interaction she has with Tatiana, plus the feeling of malevolence around the house. It is all self-protecting hallucinations to shield her from the knowledge that her daughter died that morning.

I. HATE. IT. when the resolution to the spooky story is that someone was hallucinating it. Why did we bother then? If I am going to read a book about mental imbalance, I will just read a book about mental imbalance. Such books exist! I can seek them out! This very day, I started reading Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom, in which there is mental imbalance and it tells you about it right on the cover. The point of a spooky book is to be spooky. It is not to scare you with atmosphere all along to where you think there is going to be a ghost or something for them to fight against, but then at the end it is like, “No, actually, everything’s very mundane, and regular life is regular. Sorry.”

That is the “And then she woke up” of psychological thrillers. See also: The Machinist, a movie that scared me so badly and then turned out to be so stupid that it engendered in me a lifelong loathing of Christian Bale that has only deepened with the passage of time. I was so furious when I realized that was really, truly, honestly the direction A Mind of Winter was going in that I chucked it across the room (but carefully, to land on a soft chair, because it was a library book).

This. Exactly this.

HMPH.

I reiterate: This book bashed straight into a pet peeve of mine. If you do not have this same pet peeve, maybe you will love A Mind of Winter instead of wanting to hurl it across the room, alarming your puppy and mother.

Fuck you, The Flame and the Flower

Pardon my French. But really, The Flame and the Flower, fuck you.

I was reading snippets of Social Sister’s copy of Beyond Heaving Bosoms, which she got for Christmas, and it mentioned that the romance novel genre was kicked off by this one book, The Flame and the Flower. And I am interested in the ways genres develop, and I read and enjoyed Forever Amber a few years ago, so I decided to read The Flame and the Flower. I told this to Mumsy and she said I wouldn’t like it, but I didn’t believe her. I also had this conversation:

Jenny: I’m going to read The Flame and the Flower. I expect it will be extreeeeeemely rapey but I shall press on.
Captain Hammer: Well, how else would you know who the bad guys are?

I thought Captain Hammer was the naive one in this conversation, for thinking the rapist would be the book’s villain. But in fact I was nearly as naive as he was in my wild underestimation of the rapidity with which the rapeyness would commence. I was swiftly disillusioned. Like, 28 pages swiftly. No lie.

My notes for this post are massively indignant, because as I was reading and jotting down notes, I started noticing more and more things that pissed me off. A third of the way through reading it became clear to me that there wasn’t going to be any actual flames or actual flowers, and that the title in fact referred to the hero and heroine, respectively. That just couldn’t be any worse. In fact many things about this book just couldn’t be any worse.

Apparently Kathleen Woodiwiss gets praised for writing strong heroines? Says Wikipedia? How can that be? Heather, the “heroine” of The Flame and the Flower, decides to help bathe her husband so he won’t rape her quite so hard because she’ll be a dutiful wife or something. And then she’s sad that she’s such a coward. Heather, we are all sad about that. But for, like, five hundred pages. In the first sixty of which, be it said, Heather gets raped like four times and her mean aunt inexplicably rips her clothes off in front of a bunch of people to reveal her nakedness. The book talks about her nakedness a lot. She’s always trying to cover up her breasts because all her clothes are badly fitted and/or translucent so she’s constantly popping out of everything. Oh, and also? The “hero”, Brandon, tells her he’s going to teach her about pleasure, but the book’s from 1972 so he just means, like, nipple-tweaking. Heather’s not that into it but she’s too scared to tell him so because he flexed his jaw muscles and she finds that very frightening. I can’t even begin to tell you how unsexy the sex scenes are.

The cardinal sin, though, is that the whole book’s boring. I will forgive a book many many flaws if it’s got an engaging plot. Forever Amber had many of the same problems with gender issues, and rape specifically, although at least Amber did things on her own initiative and made everyone uncomfortable by wearing too-sexy clothes. But Forever Amber was so over-the-top packed full of plot that I hardly cared. The Flame and the Flower is sooooooooooooooooo boring. Even describing the plot points, predictable and idiotic as they are, makes them sound more interesting than they actually are. Heather gets kidnapped off the streets of London after accidentally killing her uncle, and as I was reading that part I was like, yawn, ho hum, when are we going to get some action up in this book? There’s no reason for that. Really. A murder and a kidnapping in quick succession should not face heavy competition for the reader’s attention from the motionless cows the reader can see out of her car window.

How, how, how is this the book that launched a thousand rapes? How did anybody read this book and say, Wow, this book’s so great it should be a whole genre? It’s so relentlessly boring and awful. It’s awful and it’s boring. Everyone in it is awful and boring. Everyone! If you ever think some character is going to be unawful and unboring you can think again, because I promise you they will turn out to be awful and boring in the end.

If you’re wondering why I bothered carrying on in this ranty way about a book that was published in 1972 in a genre that has moved miles past this rapey bullshit, I will explain that to you right now. It turns out Kathleen Woodiwiss is from Louisiana. Her and her rapey historical romance novels are apparently my state’s fault.

Fuck.

You.

Review: Psychic Blues, Mark Edward

There are two main threads of subtext (well, not always so sub-, as examples below will prove) that run throughout Mark Edward’s memoir of being a psychic, and they are these:

  1. All psychics, including Mark Edward, are frauds, and some of them do harm by being deceitful and wicked.
  2. Mark Edward does no harm but always tries to do good.

That sounds okay, except that Mark Edward fails to distinguish between the deceitful and wicked psychics and himself. Whether this is because there is no difference between them, or because Mark Edward is incapable of articulating the difference that exists, I do not know and could not discern from reading his book. He talks frequently about psychics (including him) being frauds, but only rarely does he seem to worry that he, himself, in a specific instance, a specific reading, is being shady to the point of immorality.

I know that part of my problem with the book arose from the Dreaded Expectations Gap. The subtitle of this book is “Confessions of a Conflicted Medium,” and that made me think Mark Edward was really going to wade into the ethical dilemmas inherent in being a psychic. I’d have loved to read a book like that! I love ethical dilemmas! As someone who reads Tarot cards for fun and precedes every Tarot card reading with a stern look at my readee and remarks along the lines of “Remember, this is a pretend thing that somebody made up,” and who still feels the qualms about doing Tarot card readings because people still take them seriously and then I feel like I’m deceiving them, I am especially interested in the ethical dilemmas of fortune-telling.

But in fact, this isn’t something Mark Edward is interested in exploring, at least not in this book. Instead he tells anecdotes about different beats in the psychic world he’s worked in his time — psychic hotlines, Hollywood parties, private readings — and the kinds of readings he’s done, the kinds of clients he’s encountered with the attending quirks. These stories aren’t uninteresting, but Edward doesn’t have a talent for dialogue or setting a scene, so the stories often come off more whiny/indignant than funny/self-deprecating.

Mark Edward obviously has moral problems with some psychics and their behaviors. I know this from reading his Wikipedia page, which told me about all the scathing rhetoric he has unleashed upon psychics he considers to be con artists, and from reading his book. So okay, some psychics do bad things. We can clearly agree on that. But I could not for the life of me work out the line Edward perceives between himself and the other (bad) psychics. He admits to being a fraud, then says well but it’s just entertainment and anyway he gives people hope, not like some other psychics who are terrible and are taking advantage of innocent people.

Here is a perfect example. He’s telling a story about working with a psychic who purports to talk to dead people, and how before the show starts she asks this one guy if he has anyone in particular he’s hoping to talk to. The guy says, yeah, his father, Louis. Then during the show the psychic zeroes in on this guy and talks about a dead person named Louis, and the crowd is impressed. Okay. Edward says he has no problem with the psychic being sneaky in this way, and then says this:

When a mentalist or psychic makes use of this sort of thing, along with the many other covert ways employed to obtain information, it can be amazing and entertaining. But [it] gets a little legally fuzzy when you see people breaking down and crying. That’s not entertaining, it’s sad….It’s a nasty business from start to finish. I consider if my personal and professional responsibility to tell the truth about what’s really going on behind these contrived scenes.

But then in another part of the book, he says:

Although I’m seldom called upon to talk to dead people….to admit to not having any other-worldly connections in this admittedly far-fetched branch of my craft would be to decrease my marketability….And as much as I would like to stop and take the time to educate each audience member as to what is truly going on with this whole psychic business, that’s not normally included in my job description.

And anyway,

A disclaimer is a declaration that “disclaims”…that everything is being done through purely natural means, including trickery….To initially discount any mystical possibilities that may occur, either in the mind of the sitters or through any events that are revealed through this natural process, is in my opinion a waste of time. Plus, it takes the mystery and much of the fun out of the experience.

So I guess you shouldn’t make people sad on purpose? And the whole talking to dead people thing can take a turn for the emotional so that one’s probably a dick move? Unless the money’s good? And it’s wrong to deceive people, so Mark Edward to the Rescue! But undeceiving them takes all the fun out of it? Y’all, I don’t even know. The thinking, it is fuzzy.

There was one incident where Mark Edward gets a letter from someone he had talked to on the Psychic Hotline, where she says she had been going to kill herself and then she didn’t because he gave her a hopeful reading. And he feels really good about himself:

Though I was…playing a small part in a huge commercial system that sold compassion and exploited human misery, as I looked around at the colors of the autumn leaves and breathed in the fresh morning air, the warmth of a new illumination dawned on me. I had an awesome responsibility.

What? No! No autumn leaves! No fresh air! Dude, this is so ick. Take away the first clause in that sentence and put it in the mouth of someone who volunteers at a suicide hotline, and I would still think it was kinda gross. It’s real gross coming from a guy who makes shit up in the employ of a shady psychic hotline that charges sad desperate people (as well as, of course, people who are neither sad nor desperate) $3.99 a minute for a message of hope. This happens early on in the book, and it was so gross I needed Edward to make it up to me. I wanted him to show me that he had become more self-aware about his work, that he had grappled with the implications of his job and figured out where his personal moral lines were, that he had a code and stuck to it. Or at least to tell stories that were funny and interesting.

But he didn’t really do that. I still have no idea what his moral code is, and I still feel icky about him, and I didn’t like his boring book.

Review: The Lambs of London, Peter Carkroyd

Five bitchy remarks in response to The Lambs of London:

1. I cannot keep Peter Carey and Peter Ackroyd straight in my head. Both of them write books that sound like I would love them, and then I never love them. So I am doing like Mother Jaguar. I graciously wave my tail, and I shall call it Peter Carkroyd. And I shall leave it alone.

2. Can’t not mention this when talking about Peter Carkroyd because it is horrifying. Peter Carkroyd is also notable for writing the book Oscar and Lucinda, which was made into a movie starring Cate Blanchett and Ralph Fiennes. The film is narrated by someone who calls Oscar “my grandfather”, so all the way through the movie you assume that awkward Cate Blanchett and awkward Ralph Fiennes are eventually going to get together, to produce the father of the narrating grandchild. But does that happen? NO! Awkward Ralph Fiennes gets very ill taking a church-on-a-raft to the Amazon or the Australian outback or someplace and finally flops limply and near death into a settlement, and a woman in the settlement is like “Oh, poor dear, I will take care of him,” and he’s all “I’m near death” and she takes him home and rapes his semiconscious self and the next morning he goes into the church-on-a-raft to pray for forgiveness for seducing the woman (this takes place way back in the day before they knew about sex), and the church-on-a-raft sinks and he drowns. And then the end of the movie is, like, the narrator turns out to be this old guy telling this story to his own granddaughter, who is, like, ten years old. Not cool, Peter Carkroyd and assorted film people. Not cool. And scarred me and Social Sister for life.

3. Charles and Mary Lamb, the fictionalized subjects of The Lambs of London, are people who just don’t interest me. I don’t know why. Mary Lamb went crazy and stabbed her mother in the throat, and Charles Lamb had to look after her for the rest of his life. I love craziness, and I love devoted brothers. Why I wouldn’t be interested in a) them or b) a novel about them is beyond me. But it’s true. I don’t care about Charles and Mary Lamb. I just don’t.

4. The other historical storyline in The Lambs of London is about William Henry Ireland, the famous Shakespeare forger who forged a ton of documents in Shakespeare’s hand and eventually got caught. I actually am interested in this, but Peter Carkroyd dealt with it so boringly and with so little insight or novelty that by the end of the book I was actually less interested in William Henry Ireland than I was when I started.

5. Peter m.f. Carkroyd. Why do we even let you write books?

Gypsy Gypsy, Rumer Godden

Okay, I’m going to ruin the whole plot of this book for your sake to save you from reading it yourself and possibly judging Rumer Godden based on this book which you should not, she is actually wonderful. She just is not wonderful here.

Gypsy Gypsy is about this girl called Henrietta who lives with her mean aunt Barbe. Yes, the lady’s name is Barbe, and she’s very sarcastic to everybody. It is a trifle on the nose, and I’d like to make some excuse for Rumer Godden like she was only 33 when this book was published, but you know what, Alexander had conquered the whole Mediterranean by the time he was 33, so no pass for Rumer Godden! Henrietta has a boyfriend but inexplicably refuses to marry him because she — I don’t know why, this is never explained. I guess she isn’t yet ready to leave her life of weird, awkward servitude to her amoral aunt Barbe. Aunt Barbe owns a fancy mansion and all the peasant folk hate her. You keep thinking they’re going to rebel against her and come raid the mansion Beauty and the Beast style, but they never do and this plot point doesn’t really come to anything.

Aunt Barbe is a sour old cow, and one day over dinner she tells Henrietta how in the olden days they thought that having sex with a virgin would cure you of diseases, and Barbe has the brilliant idea that maybe you could apply this same basic principle to a diseased soul. She figures if she can corrupt a purely innocent soul, she’ll be clean again, instead of being a miserable bitch that everyone hates. So she starts being really nice to this gypsy family that she lets move onto her land, and everyone’s like, “Hey, no, don’t invite gypsies here, they’re bad news!” Aunt Barbe gives the gypsy kids candy and plays stupid games with them, but because she’s doing this from a malicious motive, it ends up ruining their lives. Henrietta keeps fluttering about going “They were happy before! Stop giving them candy!” but nobody listens to Henrietta because she’s a cipher of fluttery nothing. Then Aunt Barbe shames the gypsy father about his poverty, and he stabs Aunt Barbe’s old Nanny in the neck (yeah, she still has a Nanny. I know, right?), but they all work really hard to get him off the murder charge. Nobody ever hesitates about helping a guy who stabbed an old lady in the neck get off a murder charge. He gets convicted of a lesser charge, and everyone’s unhappy about everything. The end.

I will start by saying, because I love Rumer Godden and I want you to think well of her, that she wrote a book called The Diddakoi later in her life, about a little gypsy orphan girl. The Diddakoi is pretty merciless to the characters who are prejudiced against gypsies. So I know that Rumer Godden does not really think that gypsies are a) pure innocent souls in the wilderness of the world or b) dirty scum of the earth thieves.

Next I will say that when Rumer Godden got the idea for a book about a woman who tries the spiritual version of deflowering a virgin to get rid of disease, Oscar Wilde stood on the edge of heaven and screamed and lamented for two straight years because he had not thought of it first. This is such an Oscar Wilde idea in a Rumer Godden book, and that — though I love them both dearly — is not a recipe for success. I mean Aunt Barbe is basically a less lazy, female Sir Henry Wotton. Oscar Wilde would have done this book much better than Rumer Godden, but he didn’t have the chance because he died at forty-six and never was able to have this idea and write it into a book that would have been much better that Rumer Godden’s rotten book.

And finally, I will say what I was thinking this whole book long, which is, What the hell, Rumer Godden?

Never read Gypsy Gypsy. It’s awful, and it doesn’t even have the compensatory positive of being written in that excellent, distinctive style that Rumer Godden has. Traces of her style are visible, but they’re hidden behind a black cloud of smoggy awfulness.

Review: Survivor, Chuck Palahniuk

When my work book club met to discuss Empire Falls (which, oops, I never reviewed), one of our members expressed her dissatisfaction with the low level of sexiness in any of the books we have read so far, and her intention to choose for us something sexy like Anais Nin for the next book club book. Instead she ended up selecting three very unsexy options, of which we selected — I suspect — the least sexy option of all, Chuck Palahniuk’s Survivor.

I have discovered that I have very, very little patience with ennui in literature and film. If a character is not interested in things, it is difficult for me to be interested in that character. Survivor begins with Tender Branson preparing to crash a plane, empty except for him, into a mountain, and speaking into the recorder of the plane’s black box, to tell his life story. As the last survivor of a cult whose members mostly killed themselves, Tender became an object of frantic interest and devotion in America. The book, which counts backwards to the moment of the plane’s crash, tells his story.

Basically Tender is very ennui-ridden without even the benefit of an interesting backdrop, his cult being the most boring fictional cult ever. He has spent most of his life as a cleaner of one kind or another, a sufferer of one mental illness or another, and an occasional suicide counselor of the sort that urges people to go ahead and kill themselves. There are predictable suicidal-people jokes; predictable DSM jokes; predictable religious cult jokes; and stupendously predictable cult of celebrity jokes. Yawn. (That yawn may be my yawn, or maybe it is Tender Branson’s yawn. He is, after all, plagued by great ennui.)

By the time the book reached the point at which Tender becomes a famous religious figure and faith healer, I was already a bit sick of it. But the satirical treatment of celebrity made me roll my eyes so much I probably dislocated them. I think part of this is a function of the time I live in vs. the time the book was written: at this point, if you’re going to poke fun at fake celebrities and reality TV, it’s not enough to be like, “Celebrities! Those folks are superficial, amirite?” Twelve years on, we’ve heard that a zillion times. There has to be more to it now.

I don’t want to make it sound like I found nothing of worth in this book. There were moments and lines that I quite liked. It’s just, y’all, I don’t know. I just didn’t care for it. The jokes never landed, and I hated all the characters. I think there could be a good book written about the last surviving member of a suicide cult, but this wasn’t that book, is what I’m saying. The end was ambiguous, which meant I liked it better than I’d have liked an unambiguous ending, but although I liked the fact of the ambiguity, I didn’t like the ending itself. I thought it was silly. Boo.

Okay, guys, for September’s book club (or October’s if someone else at work book club desperately wants to choose the September book), I want to suggest three options, and I want to suggest all women, and I want to suggest some authors of color. So I am thinking Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop (for my coworker who wants a bit of sex in our book club), and then two of the following five books:

Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie
Leaving Atlanta, Tayari Jones
The Long Song, Andrea Levy or Small Island, Andrea Levy (but not both)
Glorious, Bernice McFadden

I want to read all of these books so it is hard for me to decide. Tell me in the comments which two I should suggest. Bear in mind, we’re not necessarily looking for the best book. We’re looking for a book that will yield plenty of fruitful discussion about the Issues and Themes and Structures. Everyone enjoyed Empire Falls but we didn’t have as much to discuss in that one.

They read it also:

The Octogon
Reading  Matters
Ace and Hoser
Books ‘n’ Border Collies
Kristina’s Favorites
Book Minx

Did I miss yours?