Wool

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.