I wrote this review a little while back for GoodReads. However, since my last few reading choices were problematic, I thought I'd repost my thoughts on one of my favorite horror novels of the last few years. Here goes:
* I received a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. *
Suckers was one of the first books I'd read in months that wasn't a textbook and/or required reading. I was sent a copy of it in the middle an extremely busy season and I must admit that I put it aside for a while, reading a page or two at a time but never becoming immersed in the story. It was very sad. Then I caught a break and a few days to rest and decided I needed to read something for fun, remembering that I had an unread vampire novel on my Kindle.
Started from the beginning. That was this morning.
What I discovered was an extremely solid vampire story that ignored the cliches and made something beautiful from the characters and their relationships. Don't get me wrong: there is no sparkling to be had here. There is only grime and booze and music that growls, and the men who indulge in all three. This is the honest shit, heavy and funny and true. That isn't often found in bloodsucker pulp, but Rider makes the world of Suckers as real as it gets. As the book shifts from a Rod Serling-esque opening to an exploration of life on the road, to a hard-core junkie tale straight out of Irvine Welsh, to a contagion thriller, the friendship between the protagonists stays front and center, making something original and poignant.
I would easily put Suckers on the same narrow shelf as Steakley's Vampire$, Wellington's Thirteen Bullets, and Cronin's The Passage. It's not only superior vampire horror, but just plain good fiction.
I'm going to be honest. I didn't finish this one, so I'm withholding a starred review.
Look, I wanted to like this novel. Really. I've given up on Pynchon before, after Mason & Dixon, and swore I'd never go back. Then someone told me about a detective novel set in a beach town during the 60's and I was turned on to the idea enough that I picked this up. The ads for the film helped give me an idea of what I was getting into, so I said hell with it, give the old boy a second chance.
Mistake on my part. Pynchon will inevitably be Pynchon.
We all have authors we love, styles that play to our interests and intellect. I'm an iceberg theory kind of guy. Pretty language can give a story depth, but more often it only clouds the narrative and makes connection with the characters impossible. That's what happened between Doc and I. I wanted to like him, I wanted to dig his story, but every time I started to get into it, huge swaths of ungodly purple prose blew in until I wanted to vomit. So you like a little obscure flowery metanarrative? Okay, cool, this might work for you. I just wanted a detective story that served as a period piece. Instead, I got a lazy, pretentious storytelling and a downer experience like bad dope. That's what I get for going back to a dealer who has burned me before.
Shame on me. Now where's my Elmore Leonard?
There are a few books all authors should read, and a few that all humans should read, whether a reader or writer. The Awakening falls into the second category.
I've read this book 4 times now, twice for Literature courses, once for my own entertainment, but the first time was as a requirement to get a date. It wasn't a spoken "read this or else" sort of thing, but I knew the only way the date would happen was if I buckled down and read this piece of classic American lit. It just so happened that the date was with the girl I would marry several years later, the mother of my two children.
I can see why this was a requirement. I approve, and I hope my daughter will take similar steps when she gets older to filter out potential suitors.
I haven't found many books where you can get a personal study, an examination of gender roles, a feminist critique, and a pretty hardcore post-colonialist viewpoint, all rolled up in less than 200 pages. Edna Pontellier wants be treated like a person, complete with individual rights, dreams, and ambitions. Unfortunately, she's a wife and mother in Creole-dominated New Orleans during the late 1800's, where she is a novelty at best and property of her husband the rest of the time. She decides to be a person anyway. Shit goes down. I'm not going to say anything else about the plot, because it's short and you should read it.
I've encountered numerous people, particularly in academia, who've said flat out that they don't like this book. That's okay, I'm glad they read it. I'll admit the first time I read it was difficult, and I greatly disliked the ending because it went against much of my personal philosophy. But then I read it again, this time to better understand what was in front of me, and tried to put aside my prejudices. Each reading since has been easier and more interesting. What I will say is that the tragedy of Chopin's work is not that her characters are denied individuality by an unjust system, but that the entire work is still judged by that system. Every time someone says, "I don't see why Edna couldn't just be happy with her awesome life, she must just have been spoiled," I want to respond with, "No one else in the story understood why, either. Perhaps that means that we still have a problem, hmm?"
That's the scary thing about The Awakening: it is still relevant. For every time someone is cast into an inescapable role by their gender, race, sexuality, or social class, there are still those who say they don't understand what the big deal is. After all, why not accept what life hands us and be content? Because we're human. Chopin's Edna cannot accept being either novelty or property. She longs to be alive.
Fair warning: this will be a brutal review for a brutal read. There will be spoilers, and I'm going to have to swear. If you don't like those things, stop reading here and take the stars for what they are.
God, this motherfucker is flawed, but in a gorgeous way. Like watching the theatrical cut of Blade Runner for the first time, knowing there are superior cuts, acknowledging the devastating faults right alongside the stuff that is absolutely fucking brilliant. If books got to have director's cuts, I'd pick up that version in an instant, but since they don't, I'm going to have to keep this one on the bookshelf to page through and wonder why the fuck it wasn't perfect. So close and yet so far away.
Cyberpunk, biopunk, splatterpunk... well, it's as punk as it gets, then stops being punk and goes full noir, and then goes Pynchon psychedelic, and then throws up and staggers through L.A., screaming like Hunter S. Thompson about goddamn bats. It's got the grit, it's got the violence, it's got the intense, phantasmagoric techno worldbuilding. It's got more gems than a diamond mine, filled with sewage. It's Se7en with robots.
What did I love about it? Eliot Lazar, his history, his lunacy, his addiction. Hot damn, this guy does addiction right, and all the hideous shit that comes with it. The splendid awfulness. Spot on. Actually, though I hated his first scenes, Shelley Lazar becomes rather epic as time goes on, enough that I sort of hope he gets his own spin-off. Eliot is a tortured soul, but Shelley is a madman for its own sake. I dig it.
Flaubert. Ochoa. The whole corrupt police force. But Flaubert in particular had some wonderfulness to him that made me WANT HIM TO WIN, even though any success he had would destroy the narrative. And then we had psychopaths (a good percentage of the human cast) of varying levels of brick-shitting terror-inducing malevolence. One scene in particular had me on the edge of being physically ill, and for that, I must show respect.
The diggers. The disciples. Militiamen. The whole system. The slow build of 'what defines right in an age of property' philosophy. It's a beautiful thing. It's why this book has four stars instead of two or three.
What did I not like? Not going to lie, there are some serious cliches that do damage just by being there. The most grievous of these involved a small child being sympathy fodder at an inopportune time, and it almost crossed the line to cause me to close the damn book. Another, so close to the end, made me blaspheme out loud in front of group of small children, and I absolutely did not care. The one with the screwdriver. You'll know it when you get there.
And the end... actually, I can dig the end, because it's a total descent into insanity. Where the first act was a horrible and majestic love story and the second became a taught police thriller, the third decayed into an episodic train of bizarre, for-the-hell-of-it antics and forced plotting, not bothering to tie up half of the subplots begun in the first hundred pages. Bu the epilogue made it work. Some have called this a cliffhanger, but I truly hope this is the end of the story. In a tale less about the meaning of life than the meaning of death, there could only be one way to end things, and that is how it went.
Do I recommend this? Yes. Did I like it? Yes. Has it scarred me? A little. Okay, maybe a little more than a little, and it pissed me off all the while. But for the failings this book contains, it is certainly superior science fiction. This book has made me want to drink, and that's saying something.
Approach with caution.
(Note: This was originally posted on the site Goodreads, where my usual blog is. It might be a bit prickly for a first introduction to Booklikes, but it's what I've got at the moment. Check back in the future for cheerier fare.)
We live in a time of spectacular literary achievement.
No, seriously. Think about the books you’ve read this year. How many were genre books? How many were literary? How many were somewhere in between? Go back through your list mentally. How many of those books did you read strictly as e-books? How many of those e-books even exist in print? Were any of them any good?
Unless you’ve had a seriously shitty reading year, probably a few of them were really good. Maybe one or two of them became your favorites. And at least one of those was likely self-published. I write that from the standpoint of someone who is self-published, and I assume if you’re reading this, you read things that authors with no agents have worked on alone, going through the steps and stages of drafting, editing, and polishing. The works they’ve released onto the digital market or perhaps gone through a company like CreateSpace to get a hardcopy. In short, they’ve done something that only a few years ago wouldn’t have been possible, save for through a pricey vanity press.
From a writer’s standpoint, that’s pretty damn neat. It’s exciting, the guarantee of absolutely having your work published and read, so long as you’re willing to put in the increasingly simple effort of going through the right channels and pushing the SUBMIT button. For a reader, this is also pretty exciting because there are all sorts of ideas bubbling to the literary surface now that might have previously had a hard time getting through the marketing process. A quick search online, on Goodreads or Booklikes, can render up a slew of brand-new talents ready to dazzle you with their beautiful, unconventional ideas. This also, of course, means that you’ll get a lot of people who have pushed the proper buttons without putting in all the work, but hey, when the technology is universal, results may vary, right? Right.
And then there are those people who aren’t quite readers, or more-than-readers, a new generation of book enthusiasts who love to talk about the written word and aren’t afraid to type out what they think in public forums. These are the kind of people who, once upon a time, would hang out in a bookstore with a cup of coffee in one hand and a notepad in the other, taking down lists of titles they need to examine and ready for conversation with anyone who happened to wander through their preferred section. The book geek, in other words. And in a society of geeks, the book geek is, perhaps, king. They predate film and the proliferation of recorded music. They have access to the information of the ages. And by God, they’re going to tell you about it. And that’s awesome.
However, somewhere along the lines, something odd has happened. A lot of would-be writers suddenly had the technology and time to become real-life authors, and the king book geeks started talking about their work, just like they had the works of Dickens, Tolkien, Twain, and Heinlein. And as always, they did it loudly, and a lot of people listened.
Suddenly, a lot of authors who’d pushed the magic button to publish started hearing things they hadn’t before. Some heard total strangers say how great their work was and is, but quite a few began to hear comments about format, syntax, spelling, plagiarism, sloppy plotting, and plain old bad taste. They heard these words from people who read a lot and who inform others (who perhaps don’t have the time or aptitude for such levels of reading, or maybe are just really busy and want some good advice on what won’t waste their precious hours,) and the new authors suddenly got very shaky. They decided that perhaps the vocal book geek wasn’t a fan, but an enemy.
Then they shoved said book geek into a corner and hung a sign on them with the dreaded word GATEKEEPER scrawled across it in red pen (red pen being the bane of all writers, that which haunts us from the days of Middle School Grammar, after all.)
And it was, well… disturbing.
As an author, I can sympathize with the impulse to create such a punitive label. Someone told us our work isn’t good enough, and by all that is holy, that hurts. As writers, we can’t help the urge to write, so we call it our natural purpose which therefore must be noble, because good people have noble purposes. Maybe someone said your book needed an editor, or that the plot could have used some tuning, or that *GASP* your mother was wrong and it isn’t the next Gatsby. Of course it hurts. And it should hurt. But responding by labelling the person who said it a publishing monster doesn’t aid our case. Don’t forget that the first thing any wronged individual does is try to make any and all people who resemble the object of their disdain categorically incorrect, and that gets us into all sorts of trouble. Like civil and world wars. And only bad people start world wars.
Okay, okay, that’s a bit melodramatic, but authors wade in melodrama knee-high. That’s how we catch the big fish.
In any case, there are a few reasons why I’d like to talk about what we’ve done here. And it is us, the authors, who have done it, because we are the ones writing. An unwritten story does not get reviewed and does not draw any ire. It’s also the cowards way, and if we’ve been brave enough to actually write something down, we ought to be brave enough to hold it over the coals and see what burns off.
That would be the first reason, of course. Reading can serve as a purifier, for which we should be thankful. Of course, it would be far preferable to have readers tell us what they think before publication. That’s why we have betas and editors, to make sure our work is the best it can be. Yes, this process is hard, even excruciating at times, but so is not eating at McDonald’s every day, yet it is required so we don’t sink like a stone in the sea of life. Writing is easy, editing takes fucking discipline. That’s just the way of it. And if you don’t have the discipline to go through the wringer, don’t be surprised when the book geek calls you out on it. They know their material, and they can see which metal hasn’t been tested. That’s why the readers trust them.
Again, this is not the book geek’s fault, and it doesn’t mean we get to label them a gatekeeper. Actually, if you see the word ‘gatekeeper’ and get angry, I would suggest you stop writing now, for a couple reasons: 1) You need to work on that irrational anger, anyway, and you probably need some time to do it, and 2) Publication means ‘to make public.’ Literally. By self-publishing, bypassing said gatekeepers, you are making public your work without it having been touched by the eyes of people who might improve it. Those gatekeepers aren’t keeping you out of the spotlight. They’re protecting you from the reading community. They’re protecting your feelings and intentions, and unless you harden yourself and your craft, they’re not going to let you into the deep sea where the sharks are. The book geek will rip you to pieces if you don’t have your shit together, not out of malice but because the book geek actually LOVES TO READ and will determine which meals suit their tastes. If you’re not ready for that, the gatekeepers are there to keep you safe at home with the cuttlefish.
There’s a much bigger reason, though, not to crucify the book geek and it’s this: we are them. Most of us got into this game because we love stories more than we love air, and the non-writing critic is our brother or sister. We want to create, they want to read. This relationship should be symbiotic, but all too often, we don’t create well enough. We’re lazy, or we think our fragile ego is justified so we put out things that the book geek can’t stomach. This isn’t to say that everyone ought to love our writing, because they won’t and they shouldn’t. There are books I love that my wife hates and vice-versa, and that’s okay because we’re different people and you can’t please anyone all the time. But if the book geek calls you out on your sins because you thought you were above criticism, then you should be ashamed. You’ve done the worst possible thing, you’ve disrespected a fellow reader because you didn’t feel like following through on your promise.
Yes, you promised to make a good story the moment you put your fingers to the keys. If you’ve done that and the book geek still isn’t pleased, take a second look at your work. Don’t take it personally, but try to do better. And if one book geek loves your stuff, that’s all you need. There’s no reason to demonize the ones who don’t.
Perhaps this whole essay is unnecessary, as I’m sure many of those who read it agree. Or maybe they don’t agree and are irritated that I’ve said anything. What it comes down to is this: so what? I write because I have to and I read because I love to. I take advice from book geeks and I don’t always agree with them, just as they don’t always agree with me. It’s a happy life, and it’s too damn short to fight over art. Just keep making art and enjoying it, and let others do the same.
Who knows? They might make your work better.