Saturday, July 02, 2016

Book 48: Umberto Eco's new book is a farce, all right, but not the way he wants it to be.

Foucault's Pendulum remains one of the best books I've ever read. I don't recall all the particulars of it, as I read it nearly 30 years ago, but I do recall how amazing of a book it was, densely packed with allusions and references and managing to be a thriller, too.

After Pendulum I tried reading The Name Of The Rose, which is probably Eco's most famous book. I tried twice, in fact, both times getting to about page 70 before becoming bored.  That, too, was about 30 years ago.  Since then, I've never forgotten Pendulum, so when I was at the library a week ago and saw a brand new book from Eco, I picked it up just to see what it was about.

Here is the book's description on Amazon, which is more or less the same book-jacket description I read:

From the best-selling author of The Name of the Rose and The Prague Cemetery, a novel about the murky world of media politics, conspiracy, and murder
A newspaper committed to blackmail and mud slinging, rather than reporting the news. A paranoid editor, walking through the streets of Milan, reconstructing fifty years of history against the backdrop of a plot involving the cadaver of Mussolini's double. The murder of Pope John Paul I, the CIA, red terrorists handled by secret services, twenty years of bloodshed, and events that seem outlandish until the BBC proves them true. A fragile love story between two born losers, a failed ghost writer, and a vulnerable girl, who specializes in celebrity gossip yet cries over the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh. And then a dead body that suddenly appears in a back alley in Milan.  Set in 1992 and foreshadowing the mysteries and follies of the following twenty years, Numero Zero is a scintillating take on our times from the best-selling author of The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum.

And here is what I said after I finished the book today:

Well, I feel ripped off.

Numero Zero is quite honestly one of the worst books I've ever read, on a number of levels. It's not Armada bad, but that's because about the only flaw it doesn't have is the desperate pandering Ernest Cline displayed in Armada.

Zero is described as a thriller and a political farce and an intellectual journey and blah blah blah whatever.  It is trash. This is a book that owed me about 4 hours.

You have the plot above, and that is loosely -- very loosely-- the plot behind the book. I say 'behind' because this book quite literally has no plot, or as little as can possibly be.

Here is how the book unfolds:

Chapter 1: Colonna, the narrator, wakes in his apartment to find the water turned off. He thinks paranoid thoughts about people being after him, they must have broken in overnight, he has everything on a computer disk, he's in trouble.

Chapter 2-nearly the end: In numerous overly-talky sequences, Colonna and a friend, Simei, talk about how Simei was hired to start a fake newspaper, one that for a year will pretend it is a real newspaper and then will fold, and Colonna will ghostwrite a book about the process for Simei. This is, we are told --everything in this book is told, not shown -- the brainchild of a rich Italian.

Also, Colonna and Maia engage in a bit of a romance that features occasional talks about how Maia may be crazy or autistic, with brief glimpses into Maia's life as a former-celebrity magazine writer who cries when she hears Beethoven's 7th Symphony's second movement. (Maia is the sole interesting character in this book, so of the major characters [there are 4] she of course gets the least time.)

Also, "Braggadocio," who appears to have been named using the literary styles prevalent when Punch knocked Judy on the head, tells Colonna his EXTREMELY longwinded, narratively confusing, jumble-of-words paranoid theory about how Mussolini faked his own death.

This theory, which is central to the supposed 'plot' of the 'thriller' Eco has 'written', is garbage on many levels.

First, it is told like a 7th grade girl tells stories. Have you ever heard a 7th grade girl tell a story? It begins like this: "Macy told Sophia who is friends with Julie not the Julie who liked Mark but the one who lives in the red house over by where the park is where we had a birthday party when I was 6 but I didn't invite Tammy..." and ends like this: "So they didn't even have a car." If you are able to follwo the story in between, you are one of the people in the story, or on Adderall.

That's how Eco has Braggodocio (*sigh*) tell his theory: he just lays out a series of groups and events and happenings that may or may not be true but which are not in any way explained. Possibly Eco expects his reader to be familiar with them; possibly he doesn't care one way or the other. The book reads like the latter is the true statement.

Braggadocio begins his conspiracy theory with (seriously) a several-pages-long discourse on the differences between various cars he wants to buy to use to investigate his story. This discussion is long on things like engine size, width of car, and cost. It is impenetrable, and ultimately meaningless so far as I could tell because Braggadocio (*sigh*) never gets his car but does investigate his story anyway.

The conspiracy theory, too, appears ultimately meaningless: The book spends about 1/3 of its time setting out how various groups conspired to get Mussolini to Argentina, why they would do that, how they did it, and what they were going to do after, only to then have the conspiracy theory include the fact that Mussolini then actually did die, 25 years later, before the goals of the conspiracy could be met, although along the way it might implicate a Cardinal as killing a Pope.

The parts between Chapter 1 and the last couple of pages take up 90% of the book, and this portion of the book is divided thusly: 10% interesting bits about Maia, 50% Braggadocio's story, 40% people sitting around talking about newspapers and how they shape their stories. This, too, is not an exaggeration about this book. It is inexplicable, the amount of time Eco devotes to this part of the book, ultimately only to have it also have no bearing on the story.

Around page 170 of the roughly 190-page book, the 'thriller' gets 'going'. That is, Braggadocio gets killed, and the rich guy behind the newspaper is said to have gotten a threatening call that makes him fold the (already fake) paper before it can dig deeper.  This causes Colonna and Simei to decide to run. Colonna calls Maia and they flee to her country cottage. This is accomplished in about 2 paragraphs.

At the cottage -- we've seen the last of every other character at that point -- Maia tries to convince Colonna he is crazy or paranoid, to no effect until about 3 nights in they see a BBC program that outlines 90% of what Braggodocio (*sigh*) was claiming to be his secret conspiracy theory. Although it doesn't mention the Pope bit, Maia has some sort of deus ex machina-esque explanation for why "they" who are possibly thinking about killing Colonna will not try that now. (By the way, the 'disk' from chapter 1 is, so far as I could tell, never mentioned again.)

Still, Maia (who has never believed in the conspiracy) says they should move to South America, where conspiracies don't happen because everything is out in the open and nobody cares. Colonna (who does believe in the conspiracy, a little still) says they might as well stay in Italy because Italy is like that.

And: Curtain.

ARGH.

The book is overly talky, any interesting thing about a character is quickly buried, no plot ever develops, and any 'commentary' Eco might have intended the novel to contain devolves into a lot of clever (?) graduate-student level blather about papers and government and conspiracies and blah blah blah, plus some talk about the Mafia.

"It's like they translated the wrong book," I told Sweetie.

"I doubt they'd do that," she said.

"Well then maybe they only translated his outline," I said.

This book would be a vaguely entertaining set of ideas to use in a real book that actually told the story of some of these things, except that it's too slow moving and talky to even be vaguely entertaining.  The fake-for-a-year-newspaper? Great idea, never amounts to anything in this book. Every idea never amounts to anything in this book.

How does something like this even get published? Nearly 1 in 3 reviews on Amazon are 2- or 1-star reviews, and it's obvious this book wasn't ready to be published. A couple of times on this list already I've seen publishers apparently attempting to cash in with mediocre stuff (Gillian Flynn, Ernest Cline, Mickey Spillane and That Guy, Jonathan Lethem), and that may be what's going on here, but Eco's not really big-name bestseller stuff anymore.

I took a look at the good reviews on Amazon to check into a hunch I had. Here are some things people who gave the book a 4- or 5-star review said:

Numero Zero is not as accomplished as Eco's previous novels. Its short length precludes offering Eco's subject the depth it requires. Unlike the previous novels, where their sheer mass of detail served to exemplify the search in a very tangible way, giving the novels an oppressive and mysterious atmosphere that filled the reader with foreboding, Numero Zero loses that advantage and feels somewhat incomplete as a result.

*****

Unlike many of Eco’s work, this did not require a great deal of effort to read. Most of his novels (I have read everything published in English) tend be a challenge to get through, though I enjoy the rewards and the complex storylines he develops.

Numero Zero is not nearly as long, deep or complex as books like The Island of the Day Before or Foucault’s Pendulum, but I really enjoyed the flow of the story, and it is still clearly an Eco work, just more concise.

*****

I write as an Eco fan who was greatly taken with Name of the Rose, Foucault's Pendulum, the Prague Cemetery, etc., and I was looking forward to Numero Zero.

Basically, I was not disappointed. Here is another conspiracy, complete with red herrings, witty dialogue, and interwoven historical and literary elements. Numero Zero is funny, entertaining, intriguing, and thought-provoking. The central plot, about the attempt to create a non-newsy newspaper, seems deliciously absurd given today's media environment, and bizarre enough to spark suspicions of ulterior motives. The book works as mystery and comedy.

But it is less successful at convincing this reader that its characters are fully human -- they are underdeveloped. Indeed, at 163 pages, Numero Uno is a fraction the length of other Eco novels and has the impact of a short story. Perhaps Eco is tiring of the efforts in churning out big, convoluted best-sellers? I wished the book had been longer, with more plot and less talking about plot. A bit of a back-handed compliment to be sure; Eco fans will like Numero Uno even as we wish there were more to it.'

*****

Basically, those are Eco apologists: it's not a very good book but it's by Eco so I'll give it the benefit of the doubt.  The show Family Guy once poked fun at Stephen King:



There's some truth to that. I think the same thing might apply to Eco: people have concluded he is a brilliant writer, so what he does must be brilliant. Then they find ways of talking away the obvious lack of effort, talent, or brilliance displayed by this book.

When we walked out of The Happening by M. Night Shymalan, both Sweetie and I were struggling. We'd liked every movie of his up to that point. So I tried to say something nice about it, Sweetie tried, then I tried again, and then she said "Well I'll just say it: that sucked."

At this point, I am dithering between two ideas.  I have read two books, and tried to read a third, by Eco. This book was trash, The Name Of The Rose was stultifying.  So here are the two theories I am working on: either Foucault's Pendulum wasn't actually the brilliant work I thought it was, and if I go back and re-read it it'll be offal, too; or, Eco managed to write one good book and never did anything worthwhile again. He's basically Rick Dees.

Either way, I can't imagine ever voluntarily reading something by Eco again. I don't want to go back and try Pendulum and ruin my memories of it, but I'm not going to give Eco the benefit of the doubt by trying something else he's written. That's how bad this book was: It has made me swear off Eco forever.

6 comments:

Andrew Leon said...

How did you make it all the way to The Happening? I still haven't seen that one. I mean, The Village was okay, but I figured out the movie within the first 5-10 minutes. The Lady in the Water was self-aggrandizing trash.
I did watch After Earth but only because of Will Smith. Then, I regretted it.

Briane Pagel said...

I never saw "Lady". "The Village" was a good movie right up until the twist; I forgave the twist because the rest was pretty good. In retrospect, I should've seen 'The Happening' coming. But "Unbreakable" and "Signs" were arguably better than "The Sixth Sense" so it was like he was on his way up, with "Village" a temporary relapse.

I've never seen another movie of his, though I was tempted by that grandparents one.

Andrew Leon said...

I think Sixth Sense was his best and he's been going steadily downhill since then. Unbreakable was good, but I figured that out ahead of time, so the ending didn't have the punch it should have. And I thought Signs was a very solid movie... except for the plot holes he left in it. And that that one also telegraphed the ending way too much. For me, each movie he's made has been a noticeable step down from the previous one. Except he's been scraping the bottom for so many movies at this point that I can't understand how it is that he's actually still working.

As an example, my kids wanted to see his Airbender movie, because they had loved the anime it was based on. The movie was SO BAD that my kids actually got up and wouldn't watch it. Kids, man, kids, and kids will watch almost anything.

Briane Pagel said...

I think part of "Sixth Sense" for me was that I knew the ending going in; I'd read a review that made it sound great, so we went to see it, and I didn't tell Sweetie how it ended. But I also liked the theme of "Unbreakable" more.

"Signs" I thought was brilliant; I guess I didn't see it coming as much as you did.But it also had one of the most emotionally wrenching scenes I've ever watched: the dinner, when Mel Gibson breaks down and freaks out is one of my all-time favorite movie moments ever.

Liz A. said...

I didn't hate The Happening as much as you guys did. And I rather enjoyed season one of Wayward Pines. I so didn't see episode 5 coming, although in retrospect I should have.

Anyway, what's with the hating on Rick Dees. Well, I was never a fan, but I've always known him as a morning DJ in the LA area. (He's no longer there, though. Now that slot is filled by Ryan Seacrest.)

Andrew Leon said...

I liked the theme of Signs, but thought the overall movie was a sloppy way to handle that. All of the stuff dealing with the aliens was ridiculous and bordering on the downright stupid. The stuff about faith, though, was great, and Gibson was tremendous.

Knowing the ending to Sixth Sense before seeing it the first time can really ruin that one. It's unfortunate that you weren't able to see it without knowing.