Fiction Writing and Other Oddities

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Outside the Zone

Lost my first attempt at this blog so...buyer beware.

I recently had reason to remember my own advice about reading outside of your comfort zone.  I get a lot of books for free in exchange for reviewing them, so sometimes I select book I wouldn't normally read.  This is fabulous for finding new authors and sometimes, if you are an author, you also get that buzz of creativity that convinces you to try something different.

Not that I really need to try anything different.  I already have a computer-full of manuscripts I will probably never sell because there doesn't seem to be a market for zany murder mysteries with a touch of romance set in early 19th century England.  Who knew no one else would like such a thing and publishers wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole?

Be that as it may, I recently agreed to review a book by Charlie Huston called "The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death".  It gave me a crazy new idea for yet another book that I'm sure will not sell--but what-ever. 

And although socially, I will claim until my dying day that Huston's book is totally outside my comfort zone, to be perfectly honest, it is not.

It is not the kind of novel a 15-year-old girl should admit to reading, especially to her parents.  (And no, I don't fit into that category.)  It is also not the kind of novel anyone would expect a fifty-something professional woman to be reading.  (And I'll never admit to fitting into that category.)  In fact, I can't think of anyone who could comfortably admit to reading this book to any member of his/her family.  Unless the reader is homeless and has no family members who can read.

But I loved this book.

I mean, any book that begins with the hero engaged in an argument about who is the bigger a$$hole is, well, it's funny.  I know it should not be, but it is.  (I'm trying to clean up my language so that it will match my prim-and-proper exterior, but it's hard when there is so much amusement to be derived from seeing the look on people's faces when a well-dressed, polite, soft-spoken fifty-something woman sprinkles in a few choice swear-words.  It is irresistible.  Sorry.  I digress.)

So I should start by saying, this book is not for you if...

If swearing is offensive to you.

If the thought of exploding bodies fills you with disgust.

If you have no sense of humor (but it has to be a sort of sick, cynical humor).

If you don't find yourself laughing at hopelessly inappropriate moments.  (This is a terrible fault of mine that I can't seem to control.)

If you can't stand to read books with experimental punctuation.

This book is not for the faint of heart or the remorselessly, politically correct crowd.  Or those who insist the normal rules of grammar be used.

And the book is about those marginal characters you see hanging around in the alleys behind tatoo parlors.  So if that disturbs you, this is not the book for you.

Did I mention that I love this book?

It is not, however, without flaws.

Flaw 1:  There exists a certain set of authors who believe that our existing rules for punctuation and grammar are not good enough for them.  They insist on creating their own rules.  (I read a great deal of experimental fiction, so I am not speaking from an uneducated, "never-seen-this-before" perspective.)  They believe this enhances the immediacy of their work.  Or whatever they believe in their supreme over-confidence.

They are always wrong.

Huston obviously believes his system makes the dialog "more real".  He is wrong.  It makes it annoying.  I liked the book in spite of this, not because of it.

In fact, although I got the hang of his punctuation after a couple of pages, there were several places where I had no idea, after reading the section three or four times, which character was saying what.  But, did I mention that I still loved it?  Despite this, I still loved it.

Note, however:  I loved it despite, not because of, the peculiar punctuation and grammar.  It did not help.  In fact, it hindered.


So anyway, in order to present a useful review of "The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death" I read a few of the other criticisms.  If at all possible, I wanted to present some new perspective to help potential buyers make the ultimate decision to plunk down their hard earned money.

Some reviewers remarked about what they considered to be a meandering, slow-to-start plot.  I have to disagree with this, vehemently.  Yes, if you only consider plot to be external events and "stuff" that happens to a character.  Web, the main character, is initially occupied with sleeping and sponging off his best friend.

The initial plot is to dig the hermit-like Web out of his comfortable stasis and make him face life.  While action-wise he spends an inordinate amount of time having extremely funny and snarky conversations with a variety of people, there is more happening than that.

He gets a job and realizes he actually wants to work.  He wants to live again.  And we see the process, in all it's quirky, funny glory as he begins to work, finds himself in a relationship, and is forced out of his shell.  We find out about the trauma he suffered that made caused him to escape into his shell to begin with.

It is about his character development, not about external events/action.

And as with any good novel, once he starts to try to re-enter the world, all sorts of bad things happen to him.  Hence the mystery aspect.

So I have to agree that the first part is slow.  It is what it has to be for Web to break out of his suspended animation and move forward.  In fact, I was so enthralled and jazzed by this book that I had to stop reading it at bedtime and had to actually read it during the day.

Web was endearing and funny and his predicament was so agonizing that I could not stop reading it.  And despite the exploding bodies and gore and things I know I should not laugh at, I read it with a stupid smile on my face and laugh at the back of my throat.

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