Most of the books that I plow through, particularly for this site, are traditionally published. An author writes up a beautiful manuscript and an agent gets it to a publisher, who contracts it, edits it, polishes it, designs it, and gets it into bookstores and servers. There are slight variations–it bursts triumphantly from the slush pile, a friend of a friend works for the company and has a solid stack of paper that could go big. The Wool omnibus by Hugh Howey, a novel-length collection of his five Wool novellas, bypassed all that completely, and it shows.
It’s a series of great concepts. Humanity has fled the toxic air and dead, sere landscape for underground concrete silos. The highest crime one can commit? Speaking of the outside positively, wanting to go there–and that’s what they’re sentenced to, the cleaning, a trip to the great and terrible outdoors in a modified hazmat suit to clean the exterior sensors before collapsing, broken and consumed by the inexplicably poisonous atmosphere. Society is just skewed enough to be interesting, and realistically cut-throat and biased enough to be convincing, but something about Howey’s execution is as wrong as the landscape he’s created. His basic premise is powerful enough that I got through three quarters of the omnibus, but I just couldn’t bring myself to keep reading.
The writing itself isn’t stellar. When he’s advancing the plot, it’s competent and invisible, but when he stops to linger over descriptive passages, it feels wooden and stiff. It’s like he’s forcing himself (rather unsuccessfully) out of his comfort zone for the sake of doing what he feels he should be, literary and grand, rather than what would best suit the story’s needs. I can almost see him lingering over an open Word document, agonizing over the same three lines, over and over, until finally slamming his head into the keyboard and moving on. It’s the sort of thing that isn’t exactly bad or wrong, but still feels subtly off, just stilted enough to cross over into the uncanny valley of prose. Part of this might just be readjusting after finishing Patrick Rothfuss’s excellent The Name of the Wind.
Particularly when compared to Rothfuss’s strong central protagonist, Wool feels scattershot in its focus. Within the first story, readers are subjected to a whirlwind of different focus characters until mostly settling on Jules, a gruff female mechanic-turned-sheriff… but even that doesn’t last long before the narrative bifurcates. It felt like every time the story was gaining speed and I was getting familiar with the main character, everything would jerk off in a different direction. It isn’t that I have a problem with most of the characters themselves. The Mayor, the first two law officers we see, and Jules herself are all convincing and well-rounded. I just feel like Howey never gives us enough time to get used to them before moving on. He falters with the token love-interest and the villain–they feel exaggerated and embryonic, and I doubt it’s a coincidence that both receive the brunt of their characterization in the latter half of the omnibus.
These issues could just be a function of the way the book was written. The Amazon Book Description states that the first story was published on its own, and it was only after his readers demanded more than the rest followed over the next six months. This feels like a middle-stage draft of a great novel, particularly since it had such a positive reception from other readers. It just needs works: reducing the number of perspective characters in the beginning to better build the readers’ relationship with Jules; refining his characterization of latter characters, or perhaps even introducing them earlier on; rewriting or writing out some of the more summary- and description-heavy passages.
I’d like to think that, put through the hoops of traditional, full-service publishing, Howey would get the opportunity to improve his piece, rather than being flat-out rejected. Wool is good, but it could be better, and I hate that its flaws stopped me from being able to make it to the finish line.
Though it ends with an act of arson and several near death experiences, the novel Skippy Dies by Paul Murray left me feeling serene. I felt filled with an overarching sense of meaning, of internal stillness, that comes at the end of a very good book. This is not altogether a good thing–it’s difficult to be fully engaged in a text whilst you are still suspended in the amber of its magic. But it left me grasping at disparate details, at small things, to assemble them into a whole, to pick apart the compositional threads of the novel’s wholecloth and then try to weave them back together.
I’d argue that that’s what the whole book is about.
But I’m putting the cart ahead of the horse. This is a good book. The actual, physical book is nice. The American hardback is published by Farber and Farber Inc., and you can tell they invested in it. The paper (oh the paper, the glorious paper) is smooth and soft and lends it a reassuring solidity. The cover is abstract, but in a good way: it communicates something in the end, resembling waves drawn in watercolor, shaky and bleeding into each other at the intersections. The typography is nicely balanced and not at all intrusive, and there’s some fun stuff with formatting that would be lost in a digital edition: an instance of E. E. Cummings-like fiddling with spacing and symbols; a popstar’s name rendered in what looks like Curlz MT instead of the steady serif of the rest of the text; a sci-fi inspired font for SMS communication. They’re small, these variations, and used sparingly, but they make the text feel whole. It feels polished and finished, like an entity unto itself. (Might I add how nice it is that the kids text in this book? I feel like in a lot of literary fiction, technology simply fades into the background. It’s like Facebook or any facsimile thereof simply doesn’t exist. No one skypes, no one has to go charge their car, no one almost walks out into traffic because they were playing games on their phone while walking around with earbuds in. Tcheh.)
The title is a spoiler. Daniel “Skippy” Juster is a boarder at a prestigious Irish school. He is in his second year, which is roughly equivalent to 8th or 9th grade, and within six pages he is dead. So, okay, while the jacket copy’s comparison to Infinite Jest is mostly off the wall, the two are similar in that they revolve around a death, and that though Skippy is the protagonist, the novel just as often takes place from the perspective of other characters: Lorelei, girl he’s infatuated with; Howard Fallon, his history teacher; Carl, the menacing and more than slightly crazy classmate who harasses him. Murray invokes the poltergeist of adolescent lust almost too well. Awkward, all-consuming infatuation, lust, jumbled sex ed, schoolyard politics… and a reminder through the adults that all that still lurks below the polish of maturity.
He also uses the second person, and though the first time I was taken aback by the sheer novelty, it feels natural. It lets him slip readers into a pocket dimension within the book’s greater arc–into Carl’s fracturing and dream-like reality, into Skippy’s video games. It works. It makes me so happy that it works.
The one thing that irks me a little is the end. In places it feels rushed–that act of arson pulls back from the limited perspective of the rest of the piece. It moves quicker, yes, but it felt a little glossed over. And the novel’s thesis of sorts is spelled out rather plainly in the last few pages… but I sort of liked that.
I’m dumb sometimes. Epiphanies cannot be summoned on command. But the experience of this book, and books in general, is one similar to my layman’s knowledge of the relationship between the quantum and the relativistic as they stand now: two realms indivisible, their interactions incomprehensible, except for the beautiful idea that we are all comprised of buzzing strings that bind us into one whole, across infinity, across space-time and n dimensions. (I said layman’s knowledge, okay?) But it felt like Murray (and his publisher and editors) has been spinning this web of stories, of characters and actions and plot and typography and cover design into one whole, into one moment dwindling down to a single point, into a supercompact dimension a breath away from ours and unimaginably dense: pages 654 and 655. It felt like an ending, and a good one at that.
My reading engines have spluttered to a halt, and I blame you, Amy Tan.
Well, no, that’s unfair. I made my way through The Hippopotamus by Stephen Fry, which was much filthier than the back cover copy suggests, and a quite solid mystery novel in its own right. (I was disappointed when the main character was not, in fact, a hippopotamus, as the cover art of my edition suggests.) I read Just a Couple of Days by Tony Vigorito, who taught two sociology courses I took at UT, which was more neo-hippy manifesto than novel. Deeper metaphors sailed right over my head in White Noise. I even read the book within the book Erasure by Percival Everett, so I would feel perfectly justified in counting that one twice. That’s five books in two months… and I am terribly behind. And it’s The Joy Luck Club’s fault. (more…)
So, I’m a little behind in talking about what I’ve been reading. Since the last post I wrote, I’ve finished The Four Fingers of Death by Rick Moody and The Hippopotamus by Stephen Fry, and I’m about a hundred pages into DeLillo’s White Noise, which I feel is overdue. Years ago, on my first attempt, that first page of back to school station wagons tapped into my dread of new semesters and the special horror reserved for my foreign language classes–I imagine I would’ve defenestrated the poor book if I’d discovered Jack Gladney struggled with the same German that was cold-clocking me three to six hours a week. (more…)
I haven’t seen so many sweater vests and cardigans in my life.
I understand how glasses might’ve become a symbol of intelligence–if you read all the time, or need to see in a giant lecture hall the notes you are attempting to share with the class, you will probably want to keep a pair of spectacles on your face rather than hidden with deepest shame in the bottom of your bag or desk drawer. But sweater vests? Not that I’m complaining, I think they’re rather dashing, but… still. (more…)