September 28, 2010

Your micro-review roundup: 28 September 2010

(Because I make my way through so many books and movies for CCLaP, I regularly come across projects that are interesting enough unto themselves but that I simply don't have much to say about, or at least not enough to warrant an entire entry. I thought, then, that on occasional weekends I would gather up such "micro-reviews" and post them all in one large entry; they can also be found on CCLaP's main book and main movie archive pages.)

A Friend of the Family, by Lauren Grodstein

A Friend of the Family
By Lauren Grodstein
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill / Workman Publishing

All through the first half of reading Lauren Grodstein's latest novel, the out-and-out melodrama A Friend of the Family, I found myself disliking the book more and more, because of finding the main character so thoroughly despicable -- he's basically one of those small-minded, judgmental Tea Party douchebags, the kind of self-absorbed prick who defines all the people around him exclusively in terms of how their behavior will affect his own social standing (he insists that his son attend a prestigious four-year college, for example, literally so he can wear sweats from that school to the gym as an excuse to brag to people about how his son goes there), who unsurprisingly starts having more and more problems with the idea of this undergraduate son dating his best friend's black-sheep daughter, eight years his senior and now an artsy hippie drifter, after causing a scandal in high school by delivering a baby in secret in a public bathroom, then killing it and hiding the corpse in the trash. But then finally about halfway through I experienced an important realization -- "oh, okay, Grodstein deliberately means for this guy to come off as an unlikable douchebag" -- which then changed the entire nature of my reading, from an unsatisfying attempt to generate sympathy for a troubled protagonist to the pure glee of waiting for this avid antagonist to finally get punished for his douchebaggery, as Grodstein promises almost from page one will eventually happen to this reprehensible dick. (And oh, it does, a devastating life-spanking that will make most readers cheer.)

Seen in this light, then, I ended up having a lot of respect for Grodstein and this book by the time it was over, for pulling off the difficult feat of basing an entire novel not around a hero we can root for but a legitimate villain who we legitimately despise, which along the way has a lot of very sly things to say about what a mess the entire United States has become post-9/11, and how a big part of this mess is because of us turning into an entire nation of kneejerking, passive-aggressive, insufferable f-cking douchebags just like the cavalier New England doctor this story is based around. It's sure to upset many, precisely for subverting the traditional set-up of the Western-Civ three-act story structure; but if you can get past your need for a novel to be based around a redeemable protagonist, A Friend of the Family is actually kind of brilliant, an experiment in finger-pointing that will delightfully enrage anyone who believes in tolerance and forgiveness, thus showing by example why such traits are so important in the first place. It comes recommended today to those who aren't easily offended.

Out of 10: 8.4

And P.S., knowing full well how sexist this sounds, let me also confess how much better I think this book would've been if the main character had been a wife and mother instead of husband and father, and how the gender change would've suddenly brought a lot more believability to his sometimes strangely feminine behavior -- his irrational jealousy over a good-looking woman in her late twenties, the catty manner in which he tries to sabotage their relationship, even his secret love of Sex and the City, which I simply wasn't buying for a minute. In a world where middle-aged women really do get busted all the time for things like bullying teenage girls into suicide, this novel simply would've made a lot more sense with a female in the main role.

Area 10, by Christos Gage and Chris Samnee

Area 10
By Christos N. Gage and Chris Samnee
Vertigo Crime / DC Comics

As a middle-aged, overeducated white male nerd raised in the late Postmodernist Era, I am of course an adult fan of comic books; but as someone who regularly reads and reviews text-based literature, I'm also a harsh critic of comic books designed for grown-ups, finding the vast majority of them to be the exact teen-quality subpar fluff that most non-fans of adult comics suspect them to be. I mean, just take the recent Area 10 for a good example, the latest by the new "crime" imprint of Vertigo, itself the adult imprint of DC Comics, with it no surprise I think that its author Christos N. Gage was once a writer for the Law & Order franchise; because to be frank, this slim volume comes off as the laziest episode of Law & Order ever written, with Gage apparently never meeting a single cliche from this genre he didn't love, in this case based around a concept that even sounds like an idea from the wackier end of Law & Order, like when they tackle Satan worshippers or online pornographers. (Here, it's a serial killer who's obsessed with "trepenation," the ancient act of drilling a hole into a person's skull in an attempt to release their mystical "third eye." Complete with shocking twist ending!) It's fine for a 14-year-old, don't get me wrong, and the strong if not workmanlike illustration by Chris Samnee is a welcome diversion; but I have to confess, the older I get, the more bothered I am when such stuff is marketed towards adults as appropriate adult material, when in fact its quality is far, far below what most fans of text-based novels will consider a good read. It should be kept in mind before picking it up yourself.

Out of 10: 6.7

The Witch of Hebron, by James Howard Kunstler

The Witch of Hebron
By James Howard Kunstler
Atlantic Monthly Press / Grove/Atlantic

I'm not sure why exactly I decided to read James Howard Kunstler's newest post-apocalyptic "doom-n-gloomer" novel The Witch of Hebron; after all, I found the first book in this series, 2008's World Made by Hand, rather ridiculously silly, taking what's actually a fairly fascinating true subject (the fact that sometime soon, the human race is simply going to run out of fossil fuels) but then constructing a laughable if not perversely charming melodrama around it, envisioning a neo-Luddite utopia in upper New York where for some reason all these former commuting white-collar workers now not only live like the Amish but even dress and talk like them too. And indeed, if you find the details of that first novel teeth-gnashingly bad, then get prepared for a major dentist visit with this new one, which essentially picks up exactly where the first novel left off, taking the former's absolutely most annoying details and making them the main thrust of this second book: the cornpone "Little House on the Prairie" dialogue, the self-righteous indignation (sometimes right in the narration itself) regarding 20th-century lifestyles, the idea that women in a post-Industrial world will voluntarily go back to being the demure, powerless baby factories that God Meant Them To Be. (Plus, I have to admit, I have a lot of respect now for the Atlantic Monthly Press marketing staff, who managed to keep a straight face while selling this to the public as a prescient extrapolation of the theories in Kunstler's nonfiction book on the same subject, The Long Emergency, when in fact one of the major concepts in both these novels [with this newest one even named after it] is that a post-oil world would bring a return of people with literal magical powers, actual witches and actual oracles and others from the "days of fairytales" that the invention of electronics in the 20th century wiped out, which pretty much once and for all finally puts the kibosh on that "Kunstler is a genius and we should all pay attention to what he says" argument from your crazy survivalist friends.)

In fact, this book contains so many scenes of quiet women with child-bearing hips voluntarily dropping to their knees and servicing the men around them, no matter if they're the story's villains or heroes (and seriously, I'm not exaggerating when I say that this occurs at least once with nearly every female character in the entire novel), I started wondering after awhile if we haven't in fact all been interpreting these novels completely wrong, and that what Kunstler is really doing with these books is creating an astounding modern remake of John Norman's so-bad-it's-brilliant Chronicles of GOR, a series of fantasy novels from the '70s and '80s that purportedly detail life among a non-human race of full-time Conan-like muscular warriors, but in reality are all about the gender-role-based, elaborately ritualistic dominant/submissive erotic rites that define the relationship between men and women in their culture. After all, Norman didn't mean at first for the GOR books to be erotica either, but rather a countercultural-era Lord of the Rings ripoff, until both the author and his readers started responding more and more to the sexual details he kept slowly adding a little more to each volume, until by book 5 or so everyone looked up and realized that the GOR books had become out-and-out smut; and I have to confess, I'm highly tickled by the idea of Kunstler's post-oil books succumbing to the same fate, until half a dozen books in they're suddenly completely about hot submissive Amish sex and kinky hive-mind witch orgies. Now that would be a series worth reading, versus the harmless yet nonetheless infuriating drivel that constitutes these first two books.

Out of 10: 4.7

Filed by Jason Pettus at 10:26 AM, September 28, 2010. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |