December 7, 2007

Book review: "The Whole," by John Reed

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

The Whole
By John Reed
MTV Books / ISBN: 0-7434-8501-7

For those who don't know, I actually reprint CCLaP's reviews over at the three literary social networks I belong to as well, GoodReads and LibraryThing and Shelfari (although admittedly at GoodReads I can publish only the first couple of paragraphs, because of their insanely low word-count limits). And I have lots of friends of course who think this is crazy of me, that I should be doing everything possible instead to drive traffic towards the CCLaP site in particular, so as to drive up the total page hits here and impress the people who tend to be impressed by such things. But there are hidden benefits to doing what I do, not the least of which is the opportunity to become "friends" with a whole series of cutting-edge authors who are there themselves, and to get lots of review copies of books sent to you that you would normally otherwise not get to read (it's exactly how I came across my favorite book of the year so far, in fact, Michael FitzGerald's Radiant Days); and then another benefit that's not so obvious is that it inspires you to actually stick in there with a questionable book longer than you normally would, because of not wanting to let down that new acquaintance who you know went to a lot of trouble to send you a copy of their book. It's inspired me in a couple of cases already this year to eventually find a great story about halfway through a book, a story that you need to be patient with to eventually find but that ultimately is worth it.

The Whole, by John Reed

I can think of no better example, in fact, than the latest novel by cutting-edge author John Reed, a highly experimental mind-bender called The Whole which believe it or not was put out by MTV Books, a division of the cable network I never even realized existed and that at first sounds like a bad intellectual joke. Because the fact is that this is a book that is difficult to get into; difficult to pick up the rhythm and pace and style that Reed ostentatiously displays here, difficult to understand where Reed is coming from thematically or emotionally, difficult even to understand the point of this book existing. All these things are thankfully answered as you get farther and farther along, or at least possibilities for explanations are offered up for your consideration; but without Reed being one of my formal "friends" over at one of these social networks I belong to, I admit that I would've given up on the book as a pretentious, artsy mess long before such answers came, and that the chances are most likely that I would've never written a review for this book at all.

Because Reed, see, is one of those people who uses highly, highly stylized text to get his points across, not only words and phrases that deliberately call attention to themselves but also wrong words and phrases sometimes that even more cleverly call attention to themselves. ("The mystery is getting bigger...excrementally!") It is a world where Philip K. Dick, Hunter S. Thompson, William S. Burroughs and T.S. Eliot come crashing together; a story that is at once an absurdist comedy, a trippy science-fiction tale, a sad look at the people who inhabit celebrity culture, and a justification for why you're a freakin' nobody unless you have a Masters of Fine Arts and can be just as headache-inducingly clever too. You know, one of those books that you don't even want to bother trying to explain the plotline of, because of it being so ridiculous and surreal that it almost seems to not matter. ("See, and then the man-sized rabbit buys all these cocktails for the thong-wearing video journalist, but that's right before a giant hole opens in the ground and swallows up an entire suburban family, and...oh, never mind.")

Now let's be fair -- there are lots and lots of projects from my past that I love that are even stranger than this, a whole litany of Eraserheads and Naked Lunches and the like, and that I don't think The Whole should be dismissed out of hand just for being weird for the sake of being weird. But let's also admit that it's the strangest projects out there that are the hardest to critically judge, that in such cases there is not only a razor-thin line between genius and idiocy but that this line changes location with each individual audience member. One underground fan's masterpiece is another underground fan's trash, which is what leads underground fans to the underground to begin with; because it's a world not just filled with John-Grisham-style mediocrity, not just with an endless series of bland middle-of-the-road projects you are forced to pick from, but instead an entire rainbow of weirdness at your permanent disposal, with some projects that will literally only end up appealing to a couple of thousand people on the entire planet.

Cutting-edge novelists know this going into their cutting-edge novels, so let's not feel too terribly sorry for Reed for having a difficult, complex, hard-to-intepret book; I'm sure that's exactly what he wanted, in fact, and is ultimately pleased that so many different opinions exist out there now about The Whole. It does however make my job as a critic and reviewer a more difficult one, because it calls into question exactly what my proper role is here; because in many ways such experimental novels are almost critic-proof, in that people are ultimately just going to either love them or hate them on their own no matter what the critics in particular say. As someone who likes the underground, as someone who likes experimental projects, I guess then maybe the best thing I can do is simply bring such projects as much attention as I can; to warn you ahead of time that you will either naturally love or hate this novel, and that in this case you shouldn't put too much stock in what I thought about it to determine what you're going to think. It is certainly an original novel, one I'm glad to see getting a wide release through such a high-profile organization as MTV; all the more interesting, in fact, when you realize that the book itself in many ways is a damning criticism of MTV, and of what nefarious things the network has done to American culture in the couple of decades it's now been in existence. For all of you looking for something random and challenging to add to your reading list soon, something you may possibly adore by the end or that may make you want to burn the author in effigy for wasting your time so badly (and me for recommending it in the first place), The Whole is the one for you.

Out of 10:
Story: 6.5
Characters: 9.2
Style: 5.8
Overall: 7.0, or 9.0 for those who like to take chances

Read even more about : Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 12:58 PM, December 7, 2007. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |