Sunday, January 03, 2016

Book 1 of 100: Jonathan Lethem's short stories mostly disappoint.

I finished the first book of the 100 today. It was The Wall Of The Sky, The Wall Of The Eye, by Jonathan Lethem.  It's a collection of short scifi stories that I almost didn't finish it at all, because of the first two stories and the first half of the third.

I had read through the first two stories, and found them disappointing: they were about on the level of a 9th-grade English student's sci-fi stories.  The first one in the collection is The Happy Man, and it starts off promisingly enough with the narrator being a guy who died but for financial reasons his wife had him resurrected, so now he spends some time in life and some time in his own personal Hell.  That he went to Hell is presented matter-of-factly, like everybody goes there. The man's hell is also unusual, involving a witch's breakfast, the robot maker and "The Happy Man," but where the story falls apart is in the trite, twisty-ending that I saw coming as soon as a certain character was introduced.  Lethem also tries hard not to broadcast the ending by having the narrator repeatedly say that his Hell is not symbolic of anything in his life.

The second story also began with a pretty neat idea: it's the future, and basketball players are fitted with exosuits that allow them to play with the skills of some basketball great.  The story picks up where a hotshot white kid has just been drafted as a rookie with Michael Jordan's skills, and one of the main characters is African-American and is offended that a white kid with seemingly no knowledge of basketball history gets Jordan. But from there, the story just became a sort of exegesis on basketball; something like 75% of the story is taken up in detailing -- with great detail -- a particular game. In the end, the story wrapped up with another twist-type ending (even good writers should try not to have twist endings. They're too hard to work into a story in anything but a clumsy manner. So that makes two things no writer should ever use: 9/11, and twist endings.).

It was the third story that almost made me quit -- two guys rob a drug dealer to get money to go to California to try to clean up. It was about as basic a version of that premise as you can get, and midway through the story I took a break to run some errands with Sweetie. I was telling her how disappointing the stories were, and said I might quit reading. We got home and were going to eat lunch  and I was about to close out of the book when my eye fell on the word alien. I'd just gotten to the scifi premise of the story, where these aliens called "Sufferers" were introduced. "Sufferers" are aliens that follow people around just before something bad is going to happen to them; they're indestructible and silent, mostly.

The appearance of the Sufferer ultimately, though, proved to be meaningless in the story, and I would've given up  on the book then, but I kept reading. I'm not sure why. I think there was enough promise in those first three stories to give it another try.

The next one, "Forever, Said The Duck," was better: a party made up (apparently) of computer-program versions of people a couple had met. It didn't really have any point that I could discern, and felt like maybe an encapsulation of a longer story, but at least it was interesting and not trite.

The real gem was the story "Five Fucks," which is unnecessarily vulgar, but a fantastic story: A woman meets a man and has sex with him, only to find out that she's lost two weeks of her life. She goes to confront the man and realizes that she can't live without him, even though he tries to warn her away.  From there, the remaining four meetings have increasingly more bizarre effects, and the ending was one of those jaw-dropping endings that make you realize you've just read something completely original and amazing.  It's what I expected more of these stories to be.

"The Hardened Criminals" also rose above the rest; not as good as Five Fucks, but clever and interesting: A man gets sent to a prison built of bricks made out of career criminals; the prisoners who are bricks are still alive somehow, and can talk and see but can't do anything else.  It's a bizarre and frightening setup that doesn't pay off, but the story is still okay.

The final story, "Sleepy People," fell back into the mold of "clever idea with no reason for existing." A woman finds a man asleep on her porch, and it turns out that the man is a "sleepy person," which people say can cause plants to grow.  It's never explained why there are Sleepy People or what they do otherwise, which I'd've been fine with if there was a story around it, but "Sleepy People" felt more like an outline of a longer story, or excerpts from one: there is a militia at the local bar (with no explanation ever of why there would be a militia), and people called "dinosaurs" that do home invasions (with no apparent reason for being called "dinosaurs.") The whole story feels maybe like an intro to a novel set in that world, except for the very-hurried and otherwise pointless home invasion that doesn't amount to much.

One thing I keep coming back to as I read new books is my thinking Why does this story exist?  As I've said before, it's not like every story has to have a theme or message or be symbolic.  But if I am reading something and I start to wonder why it exists, that's a bad sign: it means my mind is wandering as I'm reading, so an activity that is almost completely in my mind isn't even occupying much of my mind.  I've read books that are so good (Salvage The Bones was the most recent) that I never stop to think why does this story exist. I think why does this story exist is a broader, harsher version of why am I reading this? It's not just that I don't like it, but that I don't like the story so much that I can't imagine the world needing it. At least two of the stories in this book -- Vanilla Dunk, (the basketball one) and Light, And The Sufferer (the drug-dealer one) were why does this story exist types of stories.

Overall, Lethem is a good enough writer that even pedestrian stories aren't bad to read.  But I got the feeling these stories were only published into a book to try to get readers to buy something. This book was the third one Lethem published, after Gun, With Occasional Music, which got him a lot of acclaim, and Amnesia Moon, and it feels like it was sort of forced, as though Lethem's publisher was pressing him to publish something so he pulled out a bunch of junk he had laying around. He should've taken these ideas and either fleshed them out into good stories with a reason for existing, or just abandoned them and incorporated the ideas as bit players into some other book.


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