June 10, 2008

Book review: "Three Novellas for a Novel," by Carl Shuker

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Three Novellas for a Novel (book; 2008)
By Carl Shuker
Self-published / threenovellasforanovel.com

Ah, experimental writing; the bane of any book reviewer's existence! Because as I've said here before, in many ways experimental books are virtually critic-proof, in that they are expressly designed to alienate and confuse a good half of the audience right from the start, and having a book reviewer point that out amounts to not much more than critical masturbation. That's the definition of experimental, after all, is that the artist is trying something that's never been done before; and as a result, that artist is going into that project not knowing in any way what the audience reaction is going to be, with it maybe finding a surprisingly large amount of sympathetic ears but most likely finding almost none at all. The reasons that experimental artists create such projects, then -- to express a startlingly unique vision, to innovate for the sake of innovation, to shake up the staid world of traditional rules and customs -- also tend to be critic-proof when all is said and done, making it very difficult indeed for a book reviewer like me to provide a decent critical analysis for such projects, or to give an overall general opinion of whether or not it's worth your time.

Three Novellas for a Novel

Take, for example, New Zealander Carl Shuker's online literary experiment Three Novellas for a Novel, a Radiohead-style "pay what you want" series of electronic novellas that are being
self-released at his website even as we speak, which was enthusiastically recommended to me by American author Michael FitzGerald (who I've also reviewed here in the past). Because let's just be as honest as we can -- it took me six damn reads of novella one before I could even begin to understand what was going on, and very quickly into novella two I realized that things were only going to get worse, leading me to simply giving up for good. But yet I curiously loved this project nonetheless, a dense and trippy and highly atmospheric fever-dream of a tale, told in the style of a David Lynch movie or perhaps a David Mitchell book, a story you don't read so much as you ingest. Plus, I know beforehand that I'm not the ideal target for this book anyway; these shared-theme novellas, adding up to a mid-sized unified novel by the end (hence its title), are in fact designed for the top one-percent of most intelligent, most educated, most erudite readers out there, those who are fatally bored with almost every single other book on the market and are looking for something especially juicy and challenging to sink their teeth into. If you're one of these people, you're going to freaking love Three Novellas for a Novel; if you're not, you're going to likely wonder who this Shuker fellow thinks he is, calling this readable literature in the first place. Yeah, welcome to experimental writing!

Now, for sure Shuker comes with a pedigree, part of the reason that I stuck in there as long as I did with this manuscript; holder of a Master's from Victoria University's International Institute of Modern Letters, his first novel The Method Actors was the winner of the Prize In Modern Letters, the world's most lucrative literary award for a first-time author, leading to this newest project having a lot more advance credibility than the usual self-published online experimental pay-what-you-want manuscript. And indeed, anyone who's a fan of extremely dense science-fiction is sure to love at least the first novella in this cycle, the depleted forest; it concerns a Caucasian expat named James Ballard, living in a near-future Tokyo and working a bizarre corporate media job, in a slightly alternate universe from ours that has seen the development of what's called "concrete cancer" -- that is, over the last decade, for some inexplicable reason, concrete buildings will suddenly just lose their entire integrity, with the concrete itself literally falling apart during a strong wind into trillions of sand pebbles, leaving massive devastation in its wake.

Like the best of contemporary science-fiction authors, then, this gives Shuker an excuse to paint some jarringly original mental portraits of this dystopian Tokyo; an entire district of all-wood skyscrapers, highways made out of bolted-down sheets of Plexiglas, abandoned '60s-style Mod resorts overlooking Mount Fuji, with walls that crumble like ash when touched. And in fact, when it comes to all this stuff, Shuker is simply brilliant at both story and detail, with the depleted forest easily able to hold its own against such similarly dense near-future authors as Charles Stross and Jeff Vandermeer, and to tell you the truth I'm interested now in visiting his earlier novels and seeing if they are indeed more traditional "New Weird" tales. Ah, but then we get into novella two, which in usual experimental style I can't even list correctly here for you using ASCII text alone; spelled out, it's called delta omicron hills park, but now substitute the Greek symbols for the letters mentioned at the beginning of its title. Whew! And see, just the story itself takes some explaining as well; it is ostensibly the shocking tell-all memoir of a minor member of a "Super Free" type group, a wealthy and privileged Asian teen who was recently busted organizing giant thousand-person forced-drinking gang-rape orgy parties in warehouses around the country for fellow wealthy privileged Asian teens. But see, what we're reading is the English translation, which was deliberately done with a piece of software that deliberately doesn't work very well; this Westernized version, then, is being sold to the British and American markets as a postmodern comedy, a "statement" on the frustrations of language in a Web 2.0 world.

In effect, it makes the entire novella unreadable, or at least as far as I could tell, a hundred pages of random words that have been strung in a row by some piece of automated software, which certainly proved Shuker's point but unfortunately made me in particular just give up on the entire rest of the project, not even bothering to read novella three (which by the way is called beau mot plage and will be coming out later this month). But then, this is where I begin to doubt myself as a reviewer, which is why experimental writing is so tricky to review; because maybe there is a real story being told in DO hills park, that maybe that random text isn't so random after all, and that I'm simply not smart enough to pick up on it myself. That's certainly what this novella's fans will say after reading this review -- "Ah, Pettus, you don't know what the f-ck you're talking about! This novel is perfectly understandable, and I can't believe you're too dumb to get this!" And this of course is what I mean when I say that such books are "critic-proof;" that since they are deliberately designed to be either intensely liked or intensely disliked, intensely understood or intensely not, you as the reader can't necessarily trust the opinion of anyone else at all, with you basically having to read the book for yourself to determine even the most general sense of whether or not it's any good. That when it comes to such books, my opinion as a critic is virtually worthless, making my role as a reviewer virtually pointless.

As a simple reader, though, I happen to love experimental projects; so today, I guess, don't think of me so much as a critic than as a simple fan, bringing your attention to a cool yet frustrating project that would normally otherwise probably not come to your attention. This is the perfect kind of experimental book for you to take a chance on, precisely because it's completely free if you want it to be (and seriously, you slacker, what else do you need?); it's something I highly recommend that you go and check out for yourself.

Out of 10: Banana

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:23 PM, June 10, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |