Monday, July 30, 2012

Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn

I had heard good things about this book before Gone Girl came roaring out of the chute. After devouring that book, I picked this one up too.

Not as good as Gone Girl, but nicely astringent and a solid fast read.

Camille Preasker is a middling reporter on a fourth rate newspaper in Chicago, not quite living up to her potential when news of two sensational murders in her small Missouri hometown comes across the wires. Her editor sends her off, hoping to inspire her to the greatness he believes her capable of, and boosting the paper's reputation as well. The murders--two thirteen year old girls, killed about a year apart, and all their teeth pulled out. To secure her future, Camille has to return to her past.

It's a nasty place, Wind Gap, Missouri, in the boot heel of the state, full of generations of nasty cliquey girls who grow up to be nasty, cliquey women, travelling the same roads as their mothers had. Really, there are hardly any men in this story at all--it's like a cross between Mean Girls and the ABC Family show "Bunheads" with murder thrown in.

Flynn is a taut writer, and she doesn't tip her hand too early generally. We learn that Camille has a distant relationship with her mother, but we experience the odd formality between them before Flynn gives us the downlow. We are gently teased with hints of the family pathology--just who is this "Marian" that appears in a photo with a young Camille? What is the story with her father? What is going on in this town and this family?

There is a little flabbiness--the town sheriff mostly disappears after having been introduced and doesn't seem to be very engaged in solving these murders. There is a detective on loan from Kansas City who becomes a love interest, but the attraction between them is not really well developed to the point that when Camille accuses him of using her to get information you can't help but think "Well, duh!" And also, "I'm rubber, you're glue." Because really, there was no softer feeling between them--they drank hard together, tried to get information without giving to much away, and had sex. Pretty much equal opportunity opportunism.

Slowly, Camille reacclimates to the town, and as she does, she loses her precarious confidence, sliding back into her childhood role at home and by the end, basically doing whatever she is asked in hopes of being loved and accepted by her mother and half sister. And so we see her move from simply writing words on her arm, to having to actively resist cutting, to hacking at the last bit of unmarked skin (other than her face). She wrestles with unresolved grief over the death of her sister Marian two decades before, with meeting her much younger half sister (born after Camille moved away to college) and developing a relationship with her. Flynn takes her time, showing the rampant alcohol, drug, and sexual abuse that everybody seems to engage in to deal with the overwhelming dreariness of small town life.

Meanwhile, the murder investigation takes place mostly off-stage: Camille isn't tasked with solving the case, just with finding stories to report. It's a decent solution to the "amateur detective" problem, which is that police don't tend to allow just anyone to meddle in an investigation--because they have to preserve the integrity of the evidence in order to get a conviction. (Most mystery novels are concerned with just solving the puzzle of whodunit--police actually have to know the "truth" and be able to prove it up in court.) So Camille wanders around town, talks to different people, giving us a view into the hierarchies that get established in middle school and play out the rest of these people's lives.

In the end, we see the madness that dominates Camille's mother--it's Munchausen's by Proxy, the systematic infliction of illness of a child so the mother can look like a saint and benefit from the attendant approbation and attention. Of course, Camille's mother is a textbook case of it, and that's what killed Marian. Adora (the mother) is also arrested for the murders of the two girls, and Camille takes her young half sister Amma back to Chicago with her.

There is a brief coda in Chicago that really could have been fleshed out more, and would have been in something that was attempting to be more literary than this book, where Camille has to confront her own potential for repeating her mother's pathology. Amma gets sick, and Camille wages an internal battle over whether to give the girl aspirin for her fever. Is there an unhealthy joy she is experiencing from being able to take care of this girl? Amma makes a friend in her new school, but that friendship quickly sours and Amma starts remaining in her room when Lily comes around. Then Lily is found dead, six teeth missing, shoved in a space similar to that of the second girl back in Wind Gap.

That's right--Amma killed those two girls with her clique of three precocious blonde minions. There were a lot of hints that it must have been Adora, which is obviously not the answer, since this is a novel and so there has to be a twist. The teeth? Amma had a dollhouse that was designed to be an exact replica of Adora's house, and Adora's bedroom had an ancient and rare ivory floor--Amma used the teeth to replicate the tile in the corresponding room of the dollhouse.

This last twist was fast and sharp, but not entirely satisfying because it was presented as an epilogue, including the confessions of the other three girls.  In contrast, the last section of Gone Girl was the most harrowing--after all the twists, Flynn spent time exploring the emotional resonances in the aftermath of her characters' sociopathy. That would have been the Real Meat of this book as well--after Camille comes to the realization of just how messed up her own childhood was, she has to untangle Amma's culpability and her own feelings about it as Amma's deeds come to light.

So--definitely a fun read, and an exciting debut, but not the sure-footed work that Gone Girl is. If you only have time for one Gillian Flynn book--read that one.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

It Sucked and Then I Cried, by Heather Armstrong

If you know who "Dooce" is, then you already know all about this book. If you don't know, then I don't know how you found out about this book. How DID you find out about this book, anyway?

Heather has made a successful career from her blogging, and this is a real career, with real income, and real non-blogging ventures into things like television and design. And she does it because she has been uncommonly brave and forthcoming and funny about things that would have sent me into a cave of self-doubt and shame. I believe I am not alone in admiring her ability to say the things that happen, that are honest and \
human, if not particularly cut out for, say, White House dinner parties.

Much of this book has appeared--in daily journal form--on the blog. And the book hasn't entirely broken free of the blog form, while at the same time, it has sacrificed some of the immediacy and impact of the daily immersion you get from reading a blog. (Even--or especially--if you gobble up months and months of entries in a single greedy and ravenous gorge-fest of reading. Totally immersive.)

This book is a couple of years old now. I've had it forever, and couldn't quite bring myself to read it. I too suffered from a form of post-partum depression--possibly more accurately, depression triggered by pregnancy hormones that was turned up to 11 by life stress, financial stress, job stress, and then post-partum chemical imbalance. This book came out after I had more-or-less negotiated that on my own, and I wasn't sure if reading it would be like having a girlfriend who totally understood what I was going through and could give me some hope, or if the whole thing would be like a PTSD flashback to some of the darkest days of my life.

In the end, it was a little of both.

But to be fair, by the time she wrote this, Dooce herself had moved on and gotten some healing and some perspective, and so, unlike the blog, we already know the ending of the book. In fact, if you read the blog, you know that Leta does stop screaming, Heather does get to sleep again and gets her shit back, and even goes on to have another child who is currently three. (Three-ish?) So in some ways, the book is like a less successful version of the blog, because it condenses so much, is so clear about the looming happy ending. It's the same thing narrative of labor stories--it was horrible at the time, the hardest thing I had ever done, and I didn't think I could possibly survive it, but then I did, and it's kind of hard to recreate what made it so hellacious at the time.

This is parenthood.

The book covers a lot of ground, from the biological clock aspect of wanting to get pregnant to coming out the other end after getting treatment for PPD and confronting the ongoing problems of parenting. But because it covers all these things, the book feels like a mash-up of several genres, and never quite does any of them justice.

For example, Dooce writes a lot about pregnancy and it's effects on the body: the way your body suddenly (and I mean suddenly!) morphs into something you don't recognize and can't control. Food cravings, the incredible increase in pee-production and the simultaneous bladder shrinkage, the fear, the inability to sleep, the way clothes can stop fitting during the course of the day while you are wearing them. Pregnancy can be wonderful, but it can also be an experience that entirely warps your perception of reality, and it's very hard to recreate that experience over the course of a couple hundred pages.

Then there is the labor and childbirth, which are themselves entirely unlike anything you have ever done either. Then you get released from the hospital and you are trapped at home with a tiny alien being who you love distractedly, which demands all your time, energy and attention, and you still can't sleep, still have food cravings and now you're recovering and you still can't get any perspective. Again--this is hard to convey, especially as that time recedes, but it is fundamental to understanding why Dooce ended up voluntarily entering a psychiatric ward at the hospital in order to get help for the PPD. She was there for four days--which isn't all that long, except of course she had no idea how long is would be when she went in, and having to voluntarily self-identify with the people who were already there was itself a form of disorientation.

You can see how this book seemed like a winner--a memoir with a clear arc of wanting a baby, to struggling with what it takes to get there and then be a parent, capped by a trip to a mental ward and then recovery. but the book doesn't move in a straightforward fashion, but gets sidetracked by interesting stories, or funny turns of phrase, and so it feels like it's trying to be too many things at once. Part of it wants to be a book that throws you into the crazy world of sleep-deprivation, anxiety, and depression, so you can see just how hard this job is, and maybe you can be a little bit nicer to pregnant ladies and new parents. Part of the book seems to want to be a "Girlfriend Guide to Pregnancy and Parenthood," a book that will talk you through the things that nobody tells you about the whole experience. Part of it wants to share the genuine joy Dooce takes in life and it's absurdities, in the clever turn of phrase and awkward experience. Part of it is a love letter to her daughter and her husband (which is itself awkward, because we blog readers know they have separated, that Dooce asked him to move out.)

And so, having been such a fan of the blog, I have come to see the difficult person that Heather B. Armstrong is, while also seeing what makes her worth all the trouble, and seeing how much she struggles which makes it clear that she is frankly heroic for doing all she does and keeping any kind of sense of humor about it. So I am happy I bought the book, because this is a person who deserves all the support she can get. She is living a vividly difficult life with transparency, which serves to show the rest of us that we are not alone in our struggles, and that's good for everybody.

But I like her blog better.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Long Earth, by Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett

This is not the Terry Pratchett book you are looking for.

Sure it's got some of the famous touches--the beginning of the book starts almost exactly the same way Going Postal does, Launching into several scenes in medias res that are explained much later. The first few pages have that deeply humanist character that marks the best of Pratchett, where the mechanics of the "science" and the "ideas" are firmly placed in the background to the development of the characters and their reactions to the situation.

This is not the Discworld.

It is also not Good Omens the delightful collaboration between Pratchett and Neil Gaiman.

This is a book where the characters are basically cardboard cut outs who do what must be done to explicate the "thing" that the book is "about." And then they re-explain it, over and over, in case you weren't paying attention. 

I assume that this is actually a Stephen Baxter book, although I haven't read anything else by him.  The idea here is "long Earth"--someone has discovered how to build a "Stepper"--a simple switch device you can build yourself and power with a potato, that allows one to "step" into a parallel Earth. And there are millions of parallel Earths, with different types of animals, different evolutionary histories, some with different geologies, all empty of humans. So of course, humans move into these worlds like 19th century Sooners, staking out homesteads, trying to exploit the now infinite resources.

It's like Little House on the Prairie by way of the Boy Scout Camping Handbook.  This is like bad Robert Heinlein by way of Horatio Alger, where a can-do attitude and some elementary handyman skills makes an "ordinary" lad more qualified for the New Frontier than anyone else. However, there is a soupcon of divine gifts and magical birth as well--a boy who is also The One (Who Was Foretold even?)

This Can-Do Boy's Life Great White Hope lad is Joshua Valiante, who starts the book as a "natural stepper"--when the kids of the world find the instructions for building a Stepper on the internet, and start disappearing, Joshua has taken the time to build his perfectly. When he activates it and finds himself in a new place, he is surrounded by kids who are scared, hurt, and sick. He keeps his head and leads them back, one-by-one. Fifteen years later, he is contacted by the mysterious Black Corporation, a plot device that serves to provide unlimited funding and the latest in high-tech gadgetry, to undertake an expedition to explore the new worlds. His only other member is "Lobsang," a Tibetan monk/motorcycle repairman (is this supposed to be a joke about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance? Because it's not funny.) who has been reincarnated into a massive computer memory bank. So he is ostensibly both "human" and "artificial intelligence." Lobsang has an airship and since he's the ghost in the machine, he can step and bring the airship (and Joshua) with him.

Have you read any Jules Verne? Yes, think back that far. Traveling by airship--and not the kind of G6 leather seats kind of luxury (although there is a private Lear jet at one point). No this is an airship with the kind of Victorian design sensibility of Captain Nemo's Nautilus. Staterooms, glassed in "observation decks," a large room used as a restaurnat and a cinema. (I mean, seriously? A cinema? Even now, with the ubiquity of DVDs and home theaters, they really try to make the presence of a "cinema" seem glamorous?) It's straight out of Around the World in 80 Days

Issac Asimov did this story in 1972 with The Gods Themselves where the discovery of a parallel universe offered the promise of unlimited energy. As I recall, the politicians were giddy with the idea that "Water runs downhill both ways!" The promise of unlimited resources was gobbled up uncritically, but then it was ultimately discovered that continued contact with the paraverse would cause the sun to supernova. Which is bad for humans, but we were already so addicted to the unlimited energy. . . .

You know what? I'm not going to try to trace the heritage of all the ideas in this book. Suffice it to say, it's a disappointment. It's fine, it's a nice idea and all, but it's undercooked. Under-populated. There is too little actual, believable humanity in this book, and so it's just a travelogue to an imaginary world. There are some hints--the British Cabinet meeting where the Prime Minister tries to figure out how to manage this new situation, for example--where you see some Preatchett-ness, some attempt to look at the human response to this incredible reordering of our idea of the universe. But it's too little, too underplayed, too quickly discarded for "oh look, giant jawed thing rising out of the ocean and almost eating Our Hero!"

It's basically boring, spiced with some clunky bits that bring the book nearly down to a one star. (Oh yeah, in this case, two stars is generous.) Behold my bitching:

  • Kids don't build things anymore. They just don't. Plans for something called "A Stepper" show up on the internet, and do you know what happens? Nothing. Kids don't keep copper wire and transducers and shit like that around. They post cat videos, they rip music from YouTube onto their iPods, they go play Angry Birds. They do NOT build stupid "Steppers" out of parts found lying around the house, ESPECIALLY if there is no reason to do this. Honestly--build this thing, it's run by a potato, but what does it do? Just build it and find out? Nuh-uh. I don't buy it for a minute.
  • Does Joshua HAVE to be the coming of the next Jesus Christ? No known father, mother a young (very young) teen, who steps to the next world while in labor? Joshua has "special gifts" for world stepping? Are we going to have him played by Keanu Reeve in the TV adaptation?
  • Except, what is Joshua's "special gift?" Turns out that about 20% of the population can step without a box. For nearly the last third of the book, Joshua travels with Sally Linsey, the daughter of the man who invented the Stepper, and apparently most of her family, dating back to great-grandma or something have always been able to step. Plus Sally knows about "soft spots" that let her step across multiple worlds at once. So why is Joshua the Big Hairy Deal?
  • Lobsang--what a disaster. Pratchett has a character named Lobsang Ludd, from Thief of Time. That is a character with an interesting arc, who becomes quite complex and wise by the end of the story. This is not that character, and has nothing to do with that character, except the coincidence of the name. This Lobsang is never believably human, not remotely believably Buddhist, and is not even a very believable AI.(As well as not believable as a motorcycle repairman.) He is kind of an ass, frankly, given to pontificating smugly about everything that he can access in his memory banks, while simultaneously betraying any possible humanity, since he repeatedly reports that he is adopting voices and tics in order to seem more trustworthy and human. I might have believed something like that if he was supposed to be born an android, but as a reincarnated Buddhist? The whole point of that was to make this scary robt thing more human, so why throw that out the window for a couple of feeble "jokes" about imitating actors in order to appear to be empathetic? Inconsistent with his own backstory, and obnoxious to boot. 
  • The Big Bad is. . .so what? It's a blob, from outer space or something. Supposedly, it's such a horrible oncoming thing that it is driving other life forms in front of it, as they flee it's inexorable progress toward Our Earth. Joshua senses it, like a giant migraine before a thunderstorm, or something, from thousands of worlds away. Yet when they encounter it--so what? He doesn't have any noticeable discomfort in its presence, there is no real threat to it. It's a lonely blob looking for interaction. It "talks" to Joshua, Sally and Lobsang, and then swims away. This is the big scary monster? Hell, the Abzorbaloff from Doctor Who was much scarier than that!
  • Lobsang decides to just go join the blob, fully merge his consciousness with hers--why? Why not send a portion of that consciousness and have it report back, so the scope of the threat can be communicated? This is where the lack of any believable characterization for Lobsang is the most devastating. I don't believe there is any motivation for this decision that arises from the character: not religious belief, not intellectual curiosity, not a mission imperative. Furthermore, it's handled in a single conversation with Joshua and Sally, like "oh, by the way, you are over 2 million worlds away from home, and I've been the program that ran the entire airship and you've never seen any of the controls, but hey! It'll be a fun challenge for you to get yourselves home! I've decided to join the blob and I'll probably never come back again because I am fully committed." The end. Turn the page and Joshua and Sally are towing the damn airship by hand. Why did this happen? Is it just a sloppy replication of the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey? Because that's what it feels like. Sloppy and derivative and pointless.
  • We Need To Talk About Tilda. Dr. Tilda Lang Green is a problem, but part of a larger problem of the women in this book.  This is a bullet point, but the discussion is pretty long, so I'm going to break it up into paragraphs.
The story of the Greens is that Dr. Green decides that the best way to procure their children's financial future is to hop a Conestoga wagon train (literally!) and homestead some land in one of the new Earths, out past Old 100 K. This requires a 9-10 month journey through the other Earths, after putting together a team of people who have all the skills needed. It's like playing Oregon Trail! So Dr. Tilda browbeats her husband into setting out for the new frontier. But see, the reason Husband doesn't want to go is because they have a son who can't step. (In classic bell curve fashion, about 1/5 of the population can't step at all, even with a Stepper, while about 1/5 don't need the Stepper.) So Dad kind of posts a mild objection along the lines of "Um, Honey bun? What about our 13 year old son who can't Step and so can't come with us?" Dr. Tilda for some reason isn't deterred in any way, and palms her son off on a relative so she and the rest of the family can go play Laura Ingalls Wilder or something. They go ahead, they homestead far away, daughter Helen Green becomes the Laura Ingalls Wilder by blogging on the radio by reading from her paper journal, they write letters back to Abandoned Son but they never hear back.

Okay, there are lots of things wrong with this story. I'll start enumerating them here:
  1. It is NOT AT ALL CLEAR how this homesteading is supposed to be securing anybody's future, either the pioneers themselves or those they have left behind. Since when is subsistence farming a dynamic economic future for anybody? What are the economics of this new frontier anyway? I mean, it's not like they are creating gentrified neighborhoods and can reap the benefits of increased property values. We are told there are enough new worlds that everybody could have their own planet--what's the financial plan here?
  2. Did any of these people have ANY plan for handling dangers--for example, weird animals, like the scary differently evolved animals Joshua and Lobsang keep coming across--or the murderous baboons Joshua ran into on a Congressional tour that killed everybody in his party? The whole process of finding a team and a leader and a plan for settlement was handled like a Airport Holiday Inn seminar on Time Shares and Limited Partnerships. There were absolutely NO stakes or risks conveyed in this story--it was more like a decision to take a vacation on safari in Kenya versus going to an all-inclusive resort in Cancun. Can't take the kid, because he's got soccer camp and can't miss that many practices. 
  3. What is Dr. Tilda's story that she is so eager to be on the economic and geographic frontier? What is the appeal for such an upper middle class couple anyway? After all, the economic point of colonialism was that the people who stayed behind in the mother country benefited from the new resources/raw materials imported from the colonies. In the Gold Rush, the people who made money were the ones who sold things to the miners, not so much the miners themselves. There is absolutely no convincing story about why a doctor would abandon her own child--just sort of a vague conversation about "securing financial future" and "the best thing for all of our children." 
  4. The emotionally resonant and powerful story was completely shoved off the page. Why did Dr. Tilda want to leave so badly? What was she thinking to leave her son behind--was it really as cavalierly as represented? How did she tell him. What was his reaction? What did the aunt think? How, in a 21st century culture, can this just happen? Maybe (and only maybe) back in the middle of the 19th century this kind of thing happened, where families would head west, and leave some members behind. But it's pretty clear that this kid resented being left behind, that this was a case of the mother being at best indifferent to the emotional damage she was inflicting on a kid. That relationship is the interesting one, not the banal diaries of the sister describing their journey. We get a lot of pages from the sister, we even get some entries from the dad. Nothing from the mother, and nothing from the kid left behind until the end, when he's roped into some reactionary political protests that end up planting a nuclear bomb to discourage Stepping. Is this believable? Well, I imagine that a kid left behind like that would be pretty pissed off. But that's all I have--what I imagine the story might be. Baxter and Pratchett never actually tell this story.
  5. This is an example of the kind of gender awkwardness of this book. If Baxter and Pratchett are re-spinning stories of the Great Westward Expansion of the mid-19th century, then the gender politics were very clear. The man decided to move west, and the wife and kids went along with it. It wasn't like there was any social support system for a woman who wanted to stay behind: when Pa Ingalls was ready to move further west, Ma packed the wagon and went too. This is not a story that can be simply transplanted into the 21st century--women's equality has made too many strides for that. But even less believable is that we can take that 19th century narrative, plus switch the gender roles and accept it. I certainly expect that a mother will care about a child beyond mere financial stability. The book doesn't show us a world where gender dynamics have changed so much that women are now the equivalent of Victorian men, unilaterally deciding these things for their families. It's not supportable socially, the personalities of the characters can't support it because we don't see them handling this situation, and so it's just weird. Similarly, there are a couple of references in the book to national figures--I believe both the British Prime Minister and the American President--who are off-handedly referred to as "she." Again--awkwardly handled. They seem to be only mentioned in order to make a point of their gender, without actually doing anything within the action of the story to demonstrate gender equity or female dominance. It's like some editor somewhere mentioned that the story was very male-centric, and suggested they add a strong female character or two. So they did. Sort of. But didn't really get the thinking right at all.
Maybe it's unfair to pick on the story of the Greens, since almost none of this book is well thought out or well written. One of the Pratchett-y elements is the periodic interlude with a character who makes a cameo appearance to illustrate a different angle on the main plot, and then generally disappears. In the Discworld books, these are often just introduced with a new paragraph, along the lines of "Sergeant Pepper hated walking the portion of his beat that took him past. . . ." The in medias res thing again. In this book, however, too often the cameo is preceeded with a clunky exposition introduction--usually by Lobsang--along the lines of "I don't think this is the first time humans have encountered this phenomenon. There is a story about [fill in name here]. Sit down and let me tell you all about it."

The effect of this construction is to distance the anecdote. It's not happening, it's being told. And it's being told by Lobsang, who usually has a blindingly obvious point to make about the story, which he then exposits to Joshua, thus increasing the awkwardness of the whole narrative.

There is also a glaring disconnect between the Joshua/Lobsang story and the experience of the rest of the pioneers. Every time--every single time--Josshua and Lobsang stop on a planet, they have a near-fatal adventure. Malevolent humanoids, enormous predator carnivores, toxic insects, radiation poisoning--disaster after disaster. Meanwhile, 20% of the earth's population has wandered off to homestead or just be itinerants, and there is no panic. Even in 19th century Manifest Destiny, there were stories about Indian attacks. People died before reaching their destinations. Diseases, hunger, hostile natives, dangerous animals--these were all real problems for pioneers, and they knew it. There were also dangerous people who wandered west to evade criminal prosecutions, and who were desperate types who would steal, rape and murder homesteaders for what they could take.

Not in the Long Earth. In fact, we are assured (too many times) that once people are away from overcrowded cities, they all behave decently--no need for police or courts. With enough room and natural resources, people all live in harmony! Just like in Deadwood, right?

At the same time, there is a town far off the grid called "Happy Landings" which seems to be a place where inadvertent Steppers throughout human history have ended up. There are hints of Greek or Roman foundations underlying the buildings, an oral history of residents that predate the current colonization of the Long Earth. As described, it's like a sci-fi Lake Woebegon--practical people who behave well, don't call attention to themselves, are strong, good looking, and all above average. Yet Joshua doesn't like it. No reason why, beyond a form of "It's quiet here. Too quiet." So--no explanation for the inconsistencies. It's like Baxter (who I am blaming, since none of this is apparent in Pratchett's books) just tells us, so it must be so.

A lot of this book is like that--telling, not showing. Joshua has "special powers" and is "legendary" for his ability to step without a Stepper. But then it turns out that over one billion people on earth can also do the same thing (based on current population)--so how special is he? What can he do that Sally didn't do earlier and better? Baxter never tells us.

What is wrong at Happy Landings? What are the signs that Joshua sees that make him uneasy? Baxter never tells us. We just know that he does, and Sally confirms it--"You noticed it too?" Noticed WHAT??? I yell at the book, but I never get an answer.

Then there is the finale. We get one scene of a spittle-flecked power-hungry reactionary political wannabe, who objects to "your tax dollars" being used to support pioneers, and suddenly there's a nuclear bomb planted in Madison Wisconsin as--what? Domestic terrorism? A plan to end Stepping by destroying the supposed hub? Who is involved and why did they do it? How did they do it? What are the resentments that built up to lead to that sort of action--which is more a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face than any kind of savvy political move.

After all, what happens when a nuclear bomb goes off? Radiation. Who can easily escape radioactive fall-out? People who can step to another Earth. Who has to live (or die, really) of radiation poisoning? People who can't step. Why was this any kind of a good idea?

It wasn't. It wasn't set up well, it wasn't explained at all, and then it was stupidly executed as a storytelling device. And then--THEN what happens? Oh, well, Joshua and Sally hear about it from frickin' Helen Green, the Laura Ingalls Wilder of the 101K Earth. And then they panic, and have to quick-step all the way back to Earth because---

Now stop for a second and think about this. A nuclear bomb has been detonated near your home, where you haven't been for months and months. How did you hear about it--from somebody a long long way away from the bomb site. How did she hear about it? Well--we know that it takes 9-10 months for ordinary people to travel that far away, so can we assume that there was mail? Or maybe a messenger? So this bomb must have gone off more than 9 months ago. What the hell do you think you could possibly do, Joshua and Sally, once you got there, to handle a disaster that had to have happened the better part of a year ago?

Who would be left to save? Nobody--they all would have left or died by then, dontcha think? But of course, the J&S Brain Trust scurry back to view the wreckage, because there isn't any other character with a point of view who could show this to us. Because radiation poisoning is no big deal when you are the Hero and Sidekick--much more important to go see the emptiness with your own eyes. Instead of, for example, checking some of the surrounding areas for your family and friends to see if they survived.

And then--AND THEN--we just stick a period on the end of the sentence and pretend that this is the ending. At least, as much of an ending as readers have come to expect from a planned trilogy/quadrology/as-many-books-as-we-can-possibly-squeeze-out-ogy.

Honestly. How many Discworld books has Pratchett given us? Something like 35 already, and each one is complete in itself. Each one has a beginning, a middle and a frickin' END.

Look, I get the appeal of a travelogue--Pratchett did it with the Rincewind books, mostly, sending his terrible wizzard on tours through Discworld. I get the appeal of a "build a new world with only the most rudimentary of supplies." Pratchett did it with Nation. I get the appeal of an evolving story. Pratchett has done it in spades with his City Watch novels--the maturation of Sam Vines. He also included a lot of other things that this book is missing--plot, characters, humor, big ideas expressed thoughtfully and well.

This book has Terry Pratchett's name on it, but it is not a Terry Pratchett novel. Read it if you must, but you have been warned.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Oh man, was this a fun read! Yes, I know, I usually hate everything, or find it all so disappointing, so many books that just don't live up to their hype. Why did I take a flier on this one? I don't know, but I am glad I did.

This is a tart read, with sharp characters who reveal their layers slowly. Is it a thriller? Sort of, but even more, it's a biting look at relationships between people who are all too human and fallible.  Just go read it, and then come back and we'll talk about it in depth, complete with spoilers.

Go. I'll wait.

Back already? Yeah, it's a really fast read. And one that stings.

The book opens on Nick and Amy Dunne's fifth anniversary. It seems idyllic, but there is something off, something wrong. Nick wakes up to hear Amy downstairs in the kitchen banging around making crepes.

Amy peered at the crepe sizzling in the pan and licked something off her wrist. She looked triumphant, wifely. If I took her in my arms, she would smell of berries and powdered sugar.

When she spied me lurking there in grubby boxers, my hair in full Heat Miser spike, she leaned against the kitchen counter and said, "Well, hello, handsome."

Bile and dread inched up my throat. I thought to myself: Okay, go.

This isn't the first thing we learn about these people, but it's close. They met and married in New York City where they were working as writers in a magazine industry that is now dying. Both lost their jobs, and then Nick's sister called with the news that their mother was dying as well. With the arrogance and impulsivity of youth, Nick announces they are moving back to his small home town in Missouri. He assumes Amy will get used to it and everything will be fine. Two years into the move and it's obvious things are far from "fine." But how far? What is the particular misery of this existence? That's the territory when Flynn plays.

The first half of the book tells the story of basically ordinary misery, with the volume turned up a bit. Nick leaves after breakfast, returns in the middle of the day to find things overturned and his wife missing. Has she fled her unhappy existence? Has she been kidnapped? Murdered? In alternating chapters, we see Nick slowly reveal himself as a less than ideal husband as the investigation begins to focus on him and the most likely culprit of whatever happened. Meanwhile, Amy's story is told in diary entries dating back to the first time she met Nick, moving forward from their days of incandescent happiness in New York to the curdling state of their relationship.

This is writing with an enormous degree of difficulty. In competing first person narratives, we see Amy and Nick present their best selves, making their pleas for understanding, and we can see how they were attracted and how live stresses made those selves impossible to sustain. In Amy's chapters, we see how love can lose its luster, how financial difficulties, family illness, dislocation, unhappiness can create a corrosive drip that undermines a relationship. In Nick's narrative, we see how his desperate need to be likeable leads him into elisions, lies of omission, and active dishonesty as he attempts to cover up the flaws he can't bring himself to confront. Layer after layer peels off, and by the end of the first half, I was convinced that he was selfish enough and fundamentally weak enough that he could have killed his wife in order to avoid disappointing her.

That's when Flynn throws her first major twist. Amy isn't dead, and her diary isn't real. She is angry, as well as brilliant and more than a little bit nuts. She knows about Nick's mistress, a 23 year old college student, and affair that has gone on for well over a year, and she has carefully plotted her revenge. She has carefully stage managed the scene of her "abduction/murder" using everything she knows about Nick and how he will act to tighten the snare around him. Her thoroughness is unnerving--she cut her own inner arm and sat watching herself bleed. She then mopped up the mess, calibrating her cleaning to the precise level she knew Nick would have cleaned, counting on the police to find the blood traces and suspect her husband. The diary was a work of fiction she constructed to make her story look appealing, while making Nick look more and more dangerous. In an annual tradition, she has put together a treasure hunt of clues from their year together, leading to a final gift. This year, the clues are somewhat easier (since Nick is never able to solve her usual clues), but they have double meanings, each one leading to a damning clue for the police to conclude that Nick has murdered her. In important ways, the book is a treasure hunt for the reader as well, as we move from memory to incident, seeing how these two people have failed each other, over and over.

Nick is not as brilliant as Amy, but he does realize that he is being framed, and that Amy isn't dead. Now his story is the race against time--can he find the clues before the police do? Can he convince the cops that Amy isn't dead? During this period, Amy's story is a bit slow--she's hiding in a run-down Ozark resort and the only question is whether she can be patient enough to allow all her traps to spring, or is she going to become impatient and out herself with calls to the police tip line.

It turns out that the answer to that is "neither." She's a little too deeply immersed in her role and gets all her money stolen by two of the other residents. Now she has to come up with another plan on the fly, and she turns to a man who has idolized her for decades. He's conveniently close, he's fabulously wealthy, he adores her. She thinks she can use his adoration to regroup and relaunch. This turns out to be a major miscalculation. Desi squirrels her away in a lakeside mansion, but she's actually a prisoner--she can't operate the security gates, she has no car, no money, only his gentle (and genuinely creepy) insistence that he will give her everything she needs. As the days go by, Desi makes Nick look ideal in comparison. Nick let her do what she wanted. Now she has to come up with a plan for escaping this gilded prison.

Meanwhile, Nick has decided that the only way to save himself from capital punishment is to flush Amy out of hiding. He has started posting videos and interviews of himself saying what he knows Amy wants to hear: I love you, I was wrong, I want to make it up to you, Please come home. We know the extent of his fury at her, how much of an act this is, how making these making these videos makes him want to kill her. Each one increases his fury and hatred, even as we see her falling in love with "this Nick," the Nick she thought she marrying. The Nick who was no more real or sustainable than the Amy she was when they first met, the spontaneous Cool Girl. She comes back dramatically, spectacularly, appearing on the doorstep of their home in front of the camp of paparazzi, bruises and twine ringing her wrists and ankles, bruised, cut and damaged, but alive.

Here is the place where Flynn's storytelling reaches meta heights. Nick knows the narrative that will keep him alive, and so he has to play the stunned and grateful husband, while at the same time he knows that living with Amy is life-threatening. After all, she murdered Desi, cutting his throat and watching him bleed out in order to return. Any time Amy becomes convinced that Nick is insufficiently devoted, she could easily kill him as well. So Nick has to play a devoted husband for the public as well as for Amy, while keeping eternally alert to signs that she is plotting against him again. Meanwhile, Amy sees that Nick doesn't really love her the way he portrayed in the videos, but he comes close enough for her--most of the time.

And then we see the final twist of this twisted book: neither one can really leave the other. They are caught up in the challenge of dominating the other one. Nick realizes that a normal life with a normal girl would quickly become boring--he is increasingly addicted to the challenge that Amy poses. She makes him smarter, faster, she pushes him to do more than he would without her. Sure, it's a dangerous and sick method, but it's something he can't actually give up. So as Amy attempts to remake him into the kind of husband she wants, he's engaged in a counter effort to expose her as a murderess, to get her locked up so he's safe, but he can still engage with her. Physically safe, but mentally challenged. (Not unlike what Desi had already done to her.)

Then Amy outmaneuvers him by becoming pregnant. Now he's trapped by his desire to save his son from her machinations. The two of them a dangerous, toxic mix, each getting just enough from the other to be locked and unwilling to let the other one "win."

This is not a story that will end well, for Nick, Amy, or their yet-unborn child. There will be collateral damage as well--mistresses, family members, neighbors. It's a sickly heightened reality they are constructing for themselves--it's dangerous, it's heady, it's addictive.

Unqualified recommendation from me.