The Darkest Part of the Night

cuckooMy attitude toward the Harry Potter series was nicely summed up in Jane Lynch’s recent interview with Marc Maron on his WTF podcast.  They described some of the various social events they’ve been invited to but declined to attend. “I’m sure it’ll be a lot of fun,” Lynch said. “I just don’t want to do it.”  And that pretty much captures my ambivalence about J.K. Rowling’s wizard.  I’m sure the books are good; great, even.  I don’t know a single person who doesn’t love them.  My wife has all the books sitting on her shelf, and I bought her the new one a month ago.  It would be so easy to pick them up.  I just don’t want to do it.  I’ve got too many books of my own to read to even consider committing to seven books and however many thousand pages Rowling’s series represents.  But when the three Robert Galbraith books – written under Rowling’s pseudonym – showed up on Barnes & Noble’s “cheap books” shelves, that seemed much more manageable.  A quick text to, and an enthusiastic recommendation from, one of my former students whose taste in mysteries runs parallel to my own clinched it.  My first experience with Rowling wouldn’t be with Harry Potter but with her schlubby amputee detective, Cormoran Strike, in The Cuckoo’s Calling.

Regular readers of this blog (or my Goodreads feed) might recall my love for two other U.K.-based mystery writers, Ian Rankin and Mo Hayder.  Their series – Rankin’s Edinburgh-set mysteries featuring D.I. John Rebus and Hayder’s grittier stories starring the tortured D.I. Jack Caffery – are, for my money, the best ongoing thrillers today.  So how does Strike stack up against Rebus and Caffery?  Not bad, although it feels as though Rowling is still growing into a genre she’s not yet comfortable with.

Strike himself is a compelling character.  Rowling hasn’t finished delving into his backstory, but we get enough of it here to want to know more. Illegitimate son of a groupie and a rock star, Strike served for a time in Afghanistan as part of the British military’s Special Investigations Branch.  While there, he was caught in an explosion and lost part of his leg.  He returned to England, resumed a highly dysfunctional relationship with his ex-girlfriend, and became a private eye.  When we first meet him he’s hit rock bottom, living out of his office and with only one client to his name.  In a fortuitous turn of events, he’s gifted a plucky new receptionist and a wealthy client on the same day.  Robin arrives fresh from the temp office, excited to be rescued from another stultifying turn in a cubicle.  The client, John Bristow, has a childhood connection with Strike: Bristow’s brother Charlie was Strike’s best childhood friend before dying in a freak cycling accident. Bristow has now arrived to ask Strike to re-investigate the alleged suicide of his sister, supermodel Lula Landry.

Strike begins his investigation with reservations, essentially taking Bristow’s money only because he’s deep in debt.  The case takes him through the pretentious upper echelons of London’s fashion scene, and Rowling has a lot of fun contrasting Strike’s hulking, disheveled bulk with the sleek, trim models and designers he comes into contact with.  Rowling’s obvious strength and the book’s great joy – and honestly, the one reason I’d be willing to check out the Potter series – is her dialogue.  Her characters come from a range of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and as a long-time Anglophile, I could hear the different regional dialects leap off the page.  The supporting characters are all finely drawn, from Bristow’s rodent-like obsequiousness to film producer Freddie Bestigui’s bullish thuggery to homeless addict Rochelle Onifade’s crude desperation.  And receptionist Robin – clearly positioned to play a larger role in the next two books – is the most fun of all, an adventurer bristling against her role as an office worker engaged to a banker.  From this book alone, it’s easy to see how Rowling created a world in the Potter series that people wanted to live in.

The larger problem with The Cuckoo’s Calling, however, comes from Rowling’s mishandling of some of the genre’s tropes, which may simply be attributed to a first-timer’s rustiness.  A lot of the plot – and you can see it from the very start of the book, when Robin and John Bristow both arrive on the same day Strike is rendered homeless – hinges on coincidences and lucky twists of fate.  Rowling’s book is no less meticulously plotted than Rankin’s and Hayder’s books, but unlike those two writers, the internal logic she employs isn’t as consistent.  In Rankin’s Rebus series, you can clearly see how each plot twist rises organically from character and motivation.  In The Cuckoo’s Calling, certain plot points emerge only because Strike was in the right place at the right time or was able to make some enormous intuitive leap based only on an offhand comment.  And then there’s the book’s lazy climax, where Strike explains the entire case to the villain and waits for him to confess on a pocket recorder.  It’s a variation on what Roger Ebert called the Fallacy of the Talking Killer, where, at a movie’s climax, the bad guy could easily kill the hero but instead wastes valuable time explaining his motives, which of course causes him to be captured.  The generous view is that Rowling is paying tribute to classic mysteries where this kind of thing was normal.  The more critical view is that she just wasn’t sure how to bring the various plot threads together in any way other than the most straightforward.  No matter which view is correct, the climax doesn’t really work.

All of which is to say – as I usually find myself doing – that I didn’t dislike the book.  It’s a fun, fast read, and the dialogue alone makes it worth your time.  To be fair, the degree to which Rowling grows into these characters and this genre might cause me to modulate my criticism later.  It’ll be increasingly difficult to view this book’s flaws generously if they continue into the next two.  But again, its rocky final chapters notwithstanding, The Cuckoo’s Calling is strong enough overall not to feel exceedingly optimistic about the series’ promise.

*****

Current listening:

air-talkie

Air – Talkie Walkie (2004)

Fanfare for the Comic Muse

Time to play catch up.  Three books, one post, because I’m all about customer service.

familiarMark Z. Danielewski, The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May. After thinking about this one for a couple days, I came to the realization that Mark Danielewski may very well have written a book that’s unreviewable. This isn’t to say that it’s bad or that the content somehow puts the book outside the scope of a review – it’s just clearly incomplete. There are, to date, at least two additional volumes in Danielewski’s latest endeavor (with more to come, I think), and Danielewski being Danielewski, the first volume makes very little effort to tell a satisfying story with a conventional narrative arc. Usually the first book in a series sets the stage for what’s to come: introduces the characters, gets all the expositional business out of the way, ramps up the conflict, and so on. What the first volume of The Familiar is, instead, is a series of stories that I suspect will interlock at some undetermined point in the future. For now, we get only a taste of what’s to come: an epileptic girl who may have powers of healing; a Latino gang member; a couple on the run from government agents; a frankly incoherent story featuring (I think) Thai or maybe Korean characters speaking in a patois so thick I couldn’t really figure out anything that was happening.

And all of it is written in typical Danielewski style, with experiments in font and text placement, illustration and color, and shifts in perspective. It’s fun if you’re into this sort of thing (which I am), but anyone entering into it expecting a satisfying story is going to leave disappointed. But if you’re on Danielewski’s wavelength, there’s no way not to be really excited at the prospect of what’s to come.

*****

Your_Fathers,_Where_Are_They-_And_the_Prophets,_Do_They_Live_Forever-Dave Eggers, Your Fathers, Where Are They? and the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? Your Fathers, Where Are They? works more effectively as a thought experiment and an exercise in conversational flexibility than anything else, which marks this as minor Eggers. It’s a fun little thing, and a quick, relatively breezy read, but basically Eggers sets out to answer these questions: Why are white males such dickbags? (and) What’s missing in their lives to make them so angry and unsatisfied despite the fact they’ve had every advantage a person could want? I mean, it’s a compelling question (especially as one of the white males in question), but I find books that set out to do this kind of heavy lifting usually fail as solid narratives because they’re primarily concerned with responding to a thesis instead of telling a story. This one isn’t a failure – Eggers is too talented for that – but where a book like Eggers’ masterful Zeitoun works because the message is embedded in its heartbreaking narrative, the message is the narrative inYour Fathers, Where Are They?, and once that becomes clear it’s hard to get involved in the plot when we know that plot is just a means to try and answer a question.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around a man named Thomas. He’s 34 and disaffected, angry about the shooting death of a childhood friend, and someone so unstable we learn he once tried to burn down a hospital to make a point. But now he’s kidnapped half a dozen people and chained them in separate buildings in a decommissioned military base. The book is told exclusively in dialogue, as Thomas essentially interviews them (with the threat of violence right below the surface) about a variety of topics. From an astronaut, he wants to know what it felt like to work toward a shuttle mission for his entire life only to have NASA defunded just as he was on the cusp of career success. From a congressman he wants to know how and why even politicians with the best of intentions get sucked into the bureaucratic machine. From his 6th grade teacher he wants to find out if he and his friend were molested as children. And so on.

Watching Eggers play with dialogue and perspective in this way is fun, even if, as I said above, it becomes less satisfying once we clue in to what he’s doing. It ends ambiguously, as it must, which is probably only going to annoy people who aren’t already on board. I think Eggers fans will enjoy the exercise, but for the uninitiated, Your Fathers, Where Are They? will probably be more frustrating than anything else.

*****

To riseJoshua Ferris, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. I mean, I don’t know. Clever is good, right? It indicates intelligence (I think) and a certain sense of humor (I think). I like clever. Monty Python, Christopher Guest movies, Michael Chabon. But it’s gotta be effortless. If I can see the flop sweat, it’s not clever, it’s work. And Joshua Ferris sweat all over this mofo.

For a while, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour read like a worthy successor toAnd Then We Came to the End, Ferris’ previous book, which I loved. Paul O’Rourke is a dentist with some impressive anxiety issues, an unhealthy tendency to get overly attached to the women in his life, and an obnoxious devotion to his atheism. As a guy of comparable age who shares all three of those traits, I could relate. And Ferris is funny and unusually perceptive at times. I love this quote, which is going to haunt me every time I head into the classroom with students who grow farther and farther away from my age with each passing year:

The 1980s were thirty years ago. The people now following [minor celebrities] Daughn and Taylor thought of the 1980s as I used to think of the 1950s. The 1980s had, overnight, become the 1950s. It was unimaginable. I might as well have been wearing a Davy Crockett hat and cowering under my desk for fear of a Soviet attack.

Then Paul discovers someone is posting as him online. First appears a website for his dental practice where there hadn’t been one before. Then a Facebook account. Then someone using his name on the Boston Red Sox fan forum he frequently visits. Then Twitter. And at first the postings are innocuous and full of non-sequiturs. But then they become fixated on Judaism, and an ancient sect of religious doubters called the Ulm, and the tweets and postings start to sound more and more anti-Semitic.

And that’s where things go downhill. I love a good conspiracy novel as much as the next guy, but I shouldn’t see the gears and cogs of the conspiracy’s machinery at work. In To Rise Again at a Decent Hour the machinery was so obvious and laborious I could practically smell the grease and feel the steam. Where before we got wry humor, we suddenly get entire pages that go like this:

The Ulms’ origins were well documented by references to those books of the Bible where the Amalekites were mentioned, from Genesis through the Psalms. It was said that the Greeks called the Ulms metics and were known to them as anthropoi horis enan noi, or “the people without a temple.” There was a list of ways the Ulms had been systematically suppressed since the advent of Christianity . . .

And on. And on and on. And on. By the end of the book I was bored with the whole thing. I didn’t care about what happened to Paul or his practice or any of the other characters, really. And it’s a good thing, because the book ends with a damp squib of a resolution. I don’t mind vague endings – I’ll go to the mat defending the end of the movie adaptation of No Country for Old Men – but you’ve got to give me something. In this case, there was a story, and then it was done.

How did this get short-listed for the Man Booker Prize? The mind boggles.

*****

Current listening:

Beatles red

The Beatles – 1962-1966