November 26, 2014

Book 34: The Bully of Order

The Bully of Order
Brian Hart

Here's another good example of a book that I very much wanted to like. Brian Hart's historical set piece, which examines the seedier side of life in the Pacific Northwest around the turn of the 20th century, certainly maintains a clear thematic focus throughout, tracing the history of one of the fictional Harbor's early families and charting the effects of the various personal disasters that befall them. From the start, it seems like Hart is onto something by choosing to focus not on the town's leading families but on a man whose entire presence in the Harbor is predicated on a lie. And indeed, Hart does not flinch when exploring the terrible deeds that humans are capable of doing, in all of their complexity and, too often, horror. He clearly appreciates the many shades of gray between wrongs- those he presents run the gamut from a woman's catch-22 decision to abandon her family instead of facing a sadistic rapist to a cut-and-dried villain's cold-blooded murders, and from accidents to the coldest calculations- but he displays an unfortunate tendency toward the extreme. Whether his characters are bizarrely obsessed with a particular adjective (one that I hadn't encountered previously and that struck me as inauthentic every time it popped up) or admitting to heinous crimes that have absolutely no function other than pure, pointless shock value in a book that doesn't otherwise rely on gore porn, their author often drives them to the point of pure exaggeration, extracting nothing that adds to the story in any meaningful way.

With all of its repeated failures in this regard, it is surprising that The Bully of Order is as good as it is. Among the author's strange reliance on the irrelevant are some truly interesting explorations of human nature and moral ambiguity, set convincingly against his chosen historical backdrop. The fin de si├Ęcle Northwest is utterly believable, from its burgeoning towns to Portland's growing metropolis to the region's still-expansive wilderness. It's a shame, then, that the characters and plot can't quite match up to this internal gold standard. The plot itself has, as I mentioned, some engrossing moments and sudden twists both seen and unforeseen. When the characters do act in reasonably believable ways, they are appropriately sympathetic and/or frustrating, and their stories likewise hold the reader's sustained interest. Unfortunately, the book often feels inflated with unnecessary events and side stories, and it is unclear whether Hart is attempting to build a community-wide portrait or whether he intends to focus more intently on the members of the Ellstrom family.

The novel suffers for this indecision, and for Hart's uneven handling of the novel's necessary- but often awkward- chronological jumps. His use of varying narrative voices indicates a fair amount of authorial skill, with each voice sufficiently differentiated from the others, but his juggling of narratives and interests is not always as deft as his story demands and often contributes to the general feeling that the book, for all its strength of setting, ultimately lacks focus. Thus, too, with the ending, which is capped by an utterly unnecessary- to the point of baffling- epilogue and a return of the displaced loggers' narration that pops up occasionally, to varying effect. There is a lot to be said for Brian Hart's ability to weave an interesting tale and for his willingness to explore criminality and the downtrodden in an often-romanticized era, but the resulting book is just a bit too cluttered and self-aware to be truly effective. The Bully of Order has excellently rendered scenery and occasional moments of insight, but it ultimately cannot withstand the alternate tedium and chaos that, unfortunately, come to dominate both the book and its characters.

Grade: C+

November 11, 2014

Book 33: California

Edan Lepucki

As a longtime fan of this type of science fiction, I was excited to see a post-apocalyptic (or, as it turns out, sort of mid-apocalyptic and dystopian) novel get so much attention from the mainstream press. Lepucki has an interesting idea in fusing literary fiction's hyper-awareness of individuals and relationships with genre fiction's focus on plot, but the novel's great, and to my mind only, strengths lie in its science fiction elements and not in the relationships that the author clearly hopes will come to the fore. With its tight focus on main characters Cal and Frida, a married couple who have taken to the wilderness in the wake of a lengthy series of natural and man-made disasters (more on that below), it is obvious that California aims to be a close, domestic, literary take on how a series of unfortunate, quasi-apocalyptic events might affect such a pairing. Both Cal and Frida- and, to a lesser, extent, several of the more important secondary characters- are provided with sufficient backstory, although these revelations are often provided at a haphazard pace that diminishes their effectiveness. Lepucki is also wise to present the story in close third-person narration that alternates between Cal's and Frida's perspectives, although even this cannot compel the reader to particularly enjoy spending time with either- or both- of them. There is, of course, nothing wrong with a suitably gritty antihero or two in a post-apocalyptic narrative; it is, however, excessively tiresome to encounter a married couple who continually bicker without bothering to drive the narrative or their characterizations forward in any meaningful way.

The problem with Cal and Frida is neither that they are made of cardboard nor that they are unrealistic; theirs is certainly not the only marriage that would fray under the circumstances they face before and during the course of California's events. It is, rather, that they are two people who are simply unable to do anything for their own good, and who fail to do so in ways that are miserably boring. Time and again, each declares their love for the other (whether aloud or privately) or resolves to begin treating their spouse with respect (and each time, invariably, it is about damn time for that); time and again, they conveniently (and immediately) forget these proclamations and make the same damn mistakes, suddenly lacking the keen self-awareness they discovered equally suddenly at the end of their previous chapter(s). Saying that Cal or Frida is adjective is not, sadly, enough to make them adjective, particularly when their next actions are very un-adjective indeed. Compounding this error is that the author appears to think that this constitutes growth and change; for protagonists in what purports to be a fundamentally domestic story, they are awfully stagnant and often downright maddening. At the end of the day, Cal and Frida, who inevitably form the book's backbone, are not drawn well enough to carry a novel.

California's protagonist pair isn't helped, either, by writing that is often clunky and a narrative that itself cannot successfully navigate the divide between narrow-scope character drama and grandiose conspiracy theories with their attendant political discourse. If The Road (and other books of its ilk) proves that an apocalyptic story needn't be terribly concerned with the bigger picture, and countless explosion-laden romps prove that the Michael Bay brand of science fiction also has a kind of appeal, then California proves that it requires a certain kind of precision to successfully unite the two, particularly in a novel of relatively limited length. One gets the feeling that Lepucki cannot quite decide what kind of book she wants to write, which is a damn shame because she absolutely nails so many of the genre-heavy points. Her slow-burn apocalypse is a nice, timely antidote to the asteroids, zombies, and other sudden disasters in between that saturate the field; it is a problem of our own making, in the making, and while one might argue that it is a bit preachy the argument is made all the stronger by the little details that make this particular future so terribly plausible- and so plausibly terrifying. Lepucki bungles few, if any, of the story's speculative elements and, even more remarkably, displays a keen understanding of human nature that is so spectacularly lacking in her treatment of her romantic leads.

Though Lepucki misunderstands, over-explains, and just plain gets its wrong with Cal and Frida- both as a couple and as individuals- she deploys an obvious fascination with human nature as she explores the causes and ramifications of the country's eventual, gradual demise. She clearly understands how such events can give birth to as many types of responses as there are people involved, and her brief forays into the secondary cast are usually more compelling, and more realistically portrayed, than her deep dives into the main characters' minds. The economic moralizing can come off a bit thick at times, but Lepucki at least has the good sense to place much of the rhetoric in extremist characters' mouths. The book also manages a fair amount of tension and a surprisingly effective balance of plot-heavy moments and more introspective lulls. Readers want to know more about Cal and Frida's history, more about Frida's mysterious brother and the Group that captured his attention, more about those with whom they come into contact in the wilderness, more about the true nature of the settlements they encounter and hear about. To a large extent, these questions are answered, usually to a satisfactory degree, with one blaring, unforgivable exception: the book's ending is a cheap mess that completely undermines all of its good worldbuilding and is acceptable, and only barely just, as a lead-in to a hypothetical sequel.

The ending, in fact, concentrates so much on plot- the area where Lepucki deploys her greatest talents- that it is almost unbelievable that she bungles it so badly. The idea itself is actually somewhat interesting, steeped in stereotype and lazy expectation as it is. The problem is that it emerges as though out of nowhere and resolves nothing, and the book does not prepare the reader to decide whether they are meant to accept or question this seemingly happy ending. One wishes that Lepucki had simply made up her mind about this and so many other elements of the book, as she is clearly capable of writing compelling, probing fiction when she lets go of her aspirations and simply lets the story flow naturally, uninhibited by outsize expectations. But, alas, the ending exhibits the same fundamental errors that plague the rest of the book, caused largely by a reliance on overanalysis when the subtle moments are the ones that truly stand out. In the end, I'm not sure what to think of California; despite hating the main characters, I was immediately enthralled by Lepucki's dire vision of our future and found myself continually eager to follow them as they sought to understand their surroundings and their situation, understandings that proved far more interesting, and rewarding, than any overwrought, hollow understanding the author thinks that they- or readers- achieved of themselves.

Grade: B

November 5, 2014

Book 32: Terms & Conditions

Terms & Conditions
Robert Glancy

This is another one of those books that I grabbed on a whim from the Champaign Public Library's new books area, and I am ever so glad I did. Robert Glancy absolutely nails the delicate balance of irreverence and heart that defines this particular brand of satire. In Terms & Conditions, Glancy traces the recent history of mild-mannered corporate lawyer Franklyn Shaw, who attempts to reconcile his subconscious feelings with reality as he regains his memory after a mysterious car crash. As he tries to piece together the events and emotions that led to the “little episode” that caused the crash (and, by extension his amnesia), Shaw must come to terms (ha) with the condition (haha) of his life, which is, as he correctly assumes, a bit more complicated (and, inevitably, much more depressing) than the version he gets from his wife and brother. Though the novel relies on very little plot- focusing more on backstory and a general sense of Franklyn (or, more accurately, Frank), the man- readers can easily follow along as Frank traces the paths that led him to his crash and, more importantly, lead him to a series of revelations about his life.

The narrative structure can get a bit fragmented- it is at times difficult to discern which events are occurring during Frank's post-amnesia awakening and which are solely in the past- but the book is generally easy to follow. Moreover, it is chock-full of sarcastic asides, often delivered in the types of footnotes that might punctuate Frank's own contracts. Some of these are better integrated than others- many should really be part of the text, as the next part of the main narrative relies upon them- but many take advantage of the format, sometimes referring to further footnotes in a downward spiral. Glancy avoids most of the pitfalls of what could be an annoying gimmick by successfully varying the types and content of footnotes: some are true, tangentially related asides; some are straight-up jokes; and some represent Frank's inner dialogue. Less consistent are the chapter titles (all offered in the unnecessary format “Terms & Conditions of X”) and the aphorisms that accompany them; occasionally brilliant, they are often missed in favor of a direct engagement with the chapter proper.

Glancy's ability to maintain the book's tone and, much more importantly (and impressively), land most of his intended jokes is remarkable; books like this often fail because they cannot sustain the high standards of their most uproarious gags. Glancy, however, engages all of his ideas with equal parts gusto, wit, and heart, and the book is better for it. From a brother's profane (yet appropriate, we learn) e-mail handle to Frank's increasing frustration with the direction of his life, the book is equal parts hilarious and profound, without trying too hard to be either. Readers may be frustrated by Frank's eternal middle child-ness and his reluctance to sustain important confrontations, but his faults make him far more realistic and relatable, providing the novel with the emotional core that ties it all together. Glancy expertly leverages both levity and gravity, making profound statements about modern life without preaching, either to his characters or through them. I thoroughly enjoyed Terms & Conditions (no footnote necessary), which proves that humor and gravitas can be just as moving as their straight-laced counterparts.

Grade: A