View from a Shaky Ladder

BookshelfSix months ago I began the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project.  In early September I realized I had accumulated 150+ books on my “to read” shelves.  A lot of them were fairly recent acquisitions, but some of them had been sitting there for years, following me from Santa Barbara to Atlanta six years ago and not getting any closer to being read.  The larger problem was that I was still buying books so frequently that the situation would only ever get worse, even if I increased my reading pace.  So, in the tradition of the desperate addict, I decided to go cold turkey.  No more buying books until I completely cleared the shelves, and, in the process, this blog was transformed from solipsistic musings on pop culture and politics to solipsistic book reviews.

Six months later, I’ve read 48 books and made a decent amount of headway, especially if you compare the picture here with the photos at the link at the top.  I wish I could report that my attitude toward book consumption has undergone a sea change, that I’ve realized I don’t need to buy books as frequently to satisfy my literary jones, but I’d be lying if I claimed my eye wasn’t so firmly on the prize because I’m so keenly aware of how much good stuff I’m missing out on.  You have no idea, for instance, how much it pains me to know that this project has prevented me from reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.  But I’m fully committed to seeing it through to its conclusion.

And it is fun.  Of course it is.  I’m reacquainting myself with a few authors I hadn’t read in a while and introducing myself to some new voices, and my extended chronological exposure to both Elmore Leonard and Ian Rankin has been one of the project’s true pleasures.  So, 48 books in, what’s made an impression?  Here’s the scorecard for the first six months.

Favorite Book(s): I’ve read a lot of good stuff, but nothing has made quite as much of an impact as the very first book I read back in September.  J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S. is sort of ingenious, an experiment in multiple voices told in the form of marginalia recorded between two readers in a library book.  David Peace’s bleak and brilliant 1980 is another high point, and both Elmore Leonard’s Unknown Man #89 and Ian Rankin’s The Hanging Garden stand as my favorite of the several books of theirs I’ve read so far.

Least Favorite Book(s): It’ll take a lot to top Andy Weir’s The Martian, which I found tedious in a variety of ways: the artificially chipper voice of its narrator, the superfluous scientific tangents, the rice-paper-thin supporting characters, the Crisis-of-the-Day contortions of its plot.  Jonathan Maberry, whose Joe Ledger series I adore, struck out with Dead Man’s Song, the second book in his Pine Deep Trilogy.  Mark Z. Danielewski’s Only Revolutions is a failed experiment that never rewards the effort it takes to read it.  But at least I remember all three of these, which is more than I can say for Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist.  Goodreads tells me I read it, but I’ll be damned if I can remember a thing about it.

Biggest Surprise, Positive: I’ve never been a science-fiction guy, so Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is the most unexpectedly pleasurable thing I read.  Shades of Philip K. Dick and James Ellroy in a story about an android seeking her freedom.

Biggest Surprise, Negative: David Sedaris’ Holidays on Ice is an uncharacteristically  mean-spirited collection of sketches.  The author’s typically affectionate tone is missing, replaced with misanthropy and cruelty.  I don’t mind a little misanthropy and cruelty, but it suits Sedaris like a sweater that’s too tight through the shoulders.

A Book Everyone Loves That I Had Problems With: I took a break from writing reviews for a while, and I wish I’d written one about John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  I completely understand why this book is a juggernaut in the world of spy fiction.  It’s a labyrinthine tale of Cold War intrigue, full of well-drawn characters working at cross-purposes with a variety of motivations.  It’s a classic.  Totally.  But after a while it got to be too much work – a case (for me, at least) of diminishing returns as I just waited around patiently for le Carré to tie up all the loose ends.

A Book I Loved that I Don’t Think Everyone Else Will Love but I Think Is Worth Reading Anyway: I was sort of blown away by Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods.  A mystery without resolution, a curdled romance, and a rumination on the effects of war, it’s a book that invites argument.  The fact that O’Brien tells it in stark, spare prose makes it all the more haunting.  It isn’t for everyone – especially for readers who need a satisfying, definitive conclusion – but anyone who appreciates ambiguity as much as I do will find a lot to love.  And, even though I still have a hundred pages to go, I can say with some certainty that Russell Banks’ Lost Memory of Skin is a powerhouse of a book that dares you to love it.  That review will be coming along in a day or two.

So: six months and 48 books down.  I should have cleared all my shelves in a little over a year and a half from the start date.  Call it June 2016.  Place your bets now.


Current listening:

Fall this

The Fall – This Nation’s Saving Grace (1985)

Waste of Sunshine

The_Martian_2014Sometime in the late 90s, in my third or fourth year teaching high school, I thought I would be a novelist.  I was emboldened by Stephen King’s experience, how he wrote his first works in the evenings and summers while he was teaching, but the true tipping point was when I read the last book I would ever read by Dean Koontz.  I vividly remember turning the last page, closing the cover, and thinking, “Well, if this hack can do it…”

After about a week, I gave up.  This pattern has persisted for nearly twenty years.  Every so often I’ll get a brief jolt of inspiration, sit down to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), struggle manfully for a few days, and then realize I don’t have much to say.  I still think I can write at least as well as Koontz – and I want to make it clear it’s not because I think I’m that good but that he’s that bad – but the crucial difference is that he has more faith in his shitty writing than I do in mine.  I always find the act of trying to write a novel to be an interesting experiment, but I soon find myself frustrated and depressed – which I know proves to some degree that I actually have the perfect temperament to be a writer.

But my own forays into failed novels always make me wonder how horrible writing gets written. (Side note: I never wonder how it gets published.  There’s always been a huge market for poor writing.)  Let’s take Andy Weir’s bestseller, The Martian.  It’s a compelling story told in the most graceless, self-conscious prose I’ve read since encountering Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a book whose artlessness I blame at least in part on the translation.  But Weir’s writing in English, which makes its clunky stabs at humor and obsessive attention to scientific detail even more unforgivable.  Did he ever doubt himself along the way?  Did none of his friends have the nerve to say, “Um, Andy, your main character is a dolt and the supporting cast are speaking dialogue that appears to be beamed directly from some early 1960s Coleman Francis b-movie”?

But I get ahead of myself.

Like I said, it’s a compelling story.  It’s going to be a hell of a movie when Ridley Scott’s version hits the big screen later this year, and it’s the white-knuckle nature of the plot that drags the reader across the book’s bumpy stylistic terrain.  To describe it simply, astronaut Mark Watney has been left behind on Mars.  The rest of his crew believe him to be lost and fatally injured in a freak dust storm, and they must evacuate the planet’s surface before they’re killed, too.  Watney wakes after they’ve left and makes his way back to the small command center, called the Hab.  The rest of the book details his struggle to stay alive until NASA can rescue him.

Good stuff, right?

It would take multiple problems to botch such a set-up, and that’s exactly what Weir’s given us.  Let’s start with the Watney character, since that’s who we spend most of our time with.  Much of the book is told in Watney’s voice, in the form of logs written on the planet’s surface.  We learn that Watney, a botanist by trade, was chosen for the mission for his professional prowess, but also because he’s a whimsical scamp who likes to keep things light.  This means we’re treated to some of the most insipid first-person narration ever recorded.  It happens early and often.  My first eye-roll happened on page 6:

I stumbled up the hill back toward the Hab.  As I crested the rise, I saw something that made me very happy and something that made me very sad: The Hab was intact (yay!) and the MAV was gone (boo!).

So impossibly twee.  And this is the kind of sub-Wes Anderson monologue we’re treated to throughout the book, where Watney bitches about disco and, rather than repeat the phrase “kilowatt-hours per sol,” decides to call them “pirate-ninjas” instead.  Because that’s wacky, see?  And Weir is all about the wacky.

Except for when he descends into byzantine science-talk, which I think he thinks is supposed to be fascinating and show the detail with which Watney must attend to his own survival, but it’s excruciating.  Try this on for size (and do your best to stay awake):

I hope you like drilling.  The drill bit is 1 cm wide, the holes will be 0.5 cm apart, and the length of the total cut is 11.4 m.  That’s 760 holes.  And each one takes 160 seconds to drill.

Problem: The drills weren’t designed for construction projects.  They were intended for quick rock samples.  The batteries only last 240 seconds.  You do have two drills, but you’d still only get 3 holes done before needing to recharge.  And recharging takes 41 minutes.

That’s 173 hours of work, limited to 8 EVA hours per day.  That’s 21 days of drilling, and that’s just too long … The drills expects 28.8 V and pulls 9 amps.  The only lines that can handle that are the rover recharge lines.  They’re 36 V, 10 amp max.  Since you have two, we’re comfortable with you modifying one.

And on and on and on until you want to scream, “I don’t need to know this!”  Virtually none of this scientific detail is crucial for the reader to know, and it happens a lot.  From the number of Joules in one food-calorie (4,184) to the exact formula he uses to determine how much oxygen is in his space suit (which he describes in five paragraphs lasting an entire page), no stone (no tedious, extremely boring stone) is left unturned.

Matters don’t improve when the action shifts to Earth.  The characters at NASA are virtually interchangeable.  Mitch, Teddy, Kapoor, Rich, Mindy, Annie – who’s speaking?  It doesn’t really matter, because they all sound the same, speaking in variations on Watney’s snark, and where we’re supposed to believe one of NASA’s supervisors would actually utter the sentence, “Sorry if I’m grumpy, I got like two hours sleep last night.”

I’m not against stylized dialogue, but if it’s not going to reflect the way in which real people speak, it better be entertaining (see my recent review of Elmore Leonard’s Unknown Man #89 for evidence of what I mean).  Weir’s characters, however, are unbelievably and unlikably sarcastic dummies with a penchant for spouting off unnecessary scientific details.  It is, in the end, this contrivance that got to me, which eventually extended to the plot.  I don’t want to see an author’s flop sweat.  If I notice the contortions of your writing, it’s not working.  As the book continues, Weir throws so many obstacles in Watney’s path – another dust storm, an emergency depressurization, a failed rescue launch, a near-electrocution, and so on – that after a while you can see the strings.  It reads less like a genuine story of survival than an author saying, “Let’s see how much shit I can throw at a character to pad this baby out to 400 pages.”

I haven’t even discussed the book’s main structural flaw (that some of Watney’s logs read like they’re happening in real time even though the central conceit is that he’s recording them after the fact), but even if the narrative form worked, there are so many other problems that it wouldn’t matter.  And so the question for me becomes, “Does an interesting story trump good writing?”  Or, put another way, is idea more important than execution?  In some cases, I think it must.  How else to explain the publication and popularity of The Martian (or Twilight or 50 Shades of Grey or any of the Nicholas Sparks books, etc., etc.)?  In those moments when my authorial confidence falters, I need to figure out how to tap into whatever hubris is fueling the people that keep writing the stuff that doesn’t need to be written.


Current listening:


R.E.M.  – Green (1988)