Sunday, November 20, 2016

Book 80: If reading a book is like starting a relationship then I am the Don Juan of reading.

AHEM! Let's remember who first
had the idea of putting a regular object
upside-down on the cover to indicate
that things are not quite what they seem,
shall we?
The single best story in Get In Trouble is-- probably -- The Summer People, because it gets what I like about storytelling right: fantastical stories need to have a human element behind them or they just read like an old Popular Mechanics' "Visions Of The Future" article.  Only a few of Link's stories fall into that category, while most of them are the type of scifi (for lack of a better word) that I like: stories that mostly just drop you into that world and don't assume you'll need a lot of explaining (or which explain by showing you the explanation.)

One thing though that I should note right off the back is that possibly the idea of combining a bunch of short stories into a book is possibly not the greatest idea, because it makes some of the stories seem less memorable, and because reading 9 different stories in a short length of time makes it easy to forget some of those stories. This is something that's happened with even my favorite book of short stories -- the Cheever collection and Lucy Corin's 100 Apocalypses (And Other Apocalpyses) and BJ Novak's book of short stories among them -- and it happened here.  I finished Get In Trouble about actually a week ago and am only now getting around to writing about it, but as I look at the table of contents there are a couple of the stories that I can't recall anything about, at all, despite liking them as I read them.

I think that the reason books, written stories, mean so much more to me than movies or television shows is twofold. First, there is the fact that you spend so much more time with a book than a movie. We watched The Monster last night (pretty good; ending wasn't all that great but that might just be me) and when it was over, it was just... over. I never really find a deep meaning in a movie, never find myself pondering what it might say about life or my philosophies or anything, and I don't remember movies all that well.  But we only spend 2 hours or so with a movie, in the first place. I started reading what will likely be book 82 in this series yesterday, and already I've put more than 2 hours into it, and I'm only about 1/3 of the way through.

The second reason is more powerful, even: with a book, our brains have to do all the work: picturing the scene and imagining how voices sound (at least for text-based rather than audio books) and keeping track of it all, sometimes over a lengthy period of time. We form a relationship with a book, and it sticks in our mind the way anyone or anything might if we formed a relationship with those things.

Short story collections, then, are like speed-dating, which can be either good or bad; in a collection of speed-date stories, the ones that stick in your mind, like The Summer People here, are probably very good. As I look back over the collections I've read in the first 79 books, I can remember a handful of stories: "The Pier Falls" and "Wodwo" from Mark Haddon, "10th Of December" from Saunders, Lethem's "Five Fucks", "The Story Of Your Life" and the one about the Tower of Babel from Ted Chiang, while I can remember the specifics of all of the books.

That probably means that those short stories pack a wallop: I read each story in probably an hour or two, and yet it stuck with me the way longer books read over a week or two stick with me. But it also means that the stories that aren't as impactful right off the bat.

(I am going to mention here that the single best short story I've read, my absolute favorite of all time, is at the moment "Melt With You" by Emily Skaftun. It haunts me, it's so scary and good. If you haven't read it yet you definitely should.)

Nevertheless, I don't see the idea of story "singles" catching on anytime soon. Nick Harkaway, my favorite author (sorry Andrew, you're number 1A) has a short story 'single' out and I've never bought it even though I buy all his fiction books as soon as they're published. Lots of big-time authors release single short stories on the Kindle platform. I wonder if, like Gillian Flynn's The Grown-Up those are really good stories or if they're just there to take advantage of a hot author. John Grisham, JK Rowling, and Stephen King are all on the Kindle Single bestsellers' list as of this post, which could mean that short story singles are a way for authors who usually write novels to produce something shorter, or it could mean that authors are dumping stories that didn't quite work onto the market.

So: back to Get In Trouble, which, as I said, is overall pretty good. The Summer People is set in the South and follows, briefly, a girl who has to get the houses in a small town ready for summer people coming in, and she befriends a new girl in town and introduces her to the real "Summer People," a house in which strange, possibly vaguely-fairy-like?, people live.

Secret Identity is a close second, a story told by a 15-year-old who befriends a man in an online game and then goes to travel to meet him at a hotel where, as it turns out, there is a convention of superheroes, and also a convention (separate) of dentists. The superhero stuff plays into the story in only the slightest way, which makes the story seem all the better, somehow.  Valley Of The Girls is good, although tending more towards the Popular Mechanics version I mentioned: it's a story that focuses more on technology and how it affects us, without any truly human element in it, and it's also a bit more bewildering at first than it needed to be. In Valley, rich people in the future hire poor kids to play the part of their children, while their real children are given a chip that keeps them from being noticed or photographed, so when the rich kids turn 18 there's no embarrassing evidence of them out there on the Internet. It's told from the perspective of one of the rich kids and his sister, and while there's a lot of neat stuff in it (the trendy thing for rich girls is to build pyramids like the Ancient Egyptians, for when they die, for example) there's never really a connection with the main character or his sister.

That's the problem with Light, too, the story that finishes up the bunch, and which follows a woman who was born with two shadows, one of which grows a twin brother for her; the story centers around the brother coming home just a hurricane is about to hit, which seems a bit too on-the-nose, really, and while the story is interesting, again (the woman works at a warehouse which holds 'sleepers,' people found in a comatose state for no reason, and visits a 'pocket universe' to find her husband) there's really not much too it. In a way, Light parallels The Summer People, but where Summer People focused on the characters and left the magical stuff in the background except where necessary, Light flips that around.

The New Boyfriend was my least favorite of the stories, incorporating most of what I dislike about short stories, especially: it seemed to have no real reason to exist, was too long without needing to be so (I got impatient during the story several times) and has a needless twist -- needless twist being, as I formulated recently, a twist that seems to come out of nowhere and doesn't actually further the story, but only creates a surprise; such twists usually exist because the story has nothing else going for it, and that's the case with The New Boyfriend, which I'll [SPOILER ALERT BECAUSE THE TWIST IS A CHEAP TRICK] spell out:

In the story, a girl -- I can't remember hardly any of the characters' names -- has a rich friend, and the rich friend for her birthday gets a 'Ghost' Boyfriend to go with her Vampire and Werewolf Boyfriends; think 'robotic dolls' and you're on the right track. The main character wants a Ghost Boyfriend herself and becomes jealous, so she secretly puts a trinket in a secret compartment of the Ghost Boyfriend to make it be attached to her, rather than her friend. Various periods of time later, it turns out the Ghost Boyfriend really is a ghost and he's in love with another ghost, rather than the main character, and she is heartbroken.

The 'twist' is barely relatable to the story: the main character early in the story has bought the locket off the Internet, and it comes with two braided pieces of hair which purported to be from the 1800s, and that, it turns out, are the 'ghosts' in the story, but that barely explains anything, and in fact confuses some ideas of the story. Such as: in the story, we're told that the Ghost Boyfriends had been recalled at one point, but the rich girl's parents managed to find one, but we're never told what the reason for the recall was. I think it's supposed to be implied that the Ghost Boyfriends were actually real ghosts, but if so then the story makes little sense: most of the implication here is that the main character accidentally put a real ghost, and its girlfriend, into the Ghost Boyfriend, but if that's the case, then what was the recall about? Were other girls putting 18th-century trinkets into their ghosts? And if the recall was because there were real ghosts in the other Ghost Boyfriend, then why did the locket in this case spur it (or did it? It seems it did because in the end the main character takes her locket back and the Ghost Boyfriend goes back to normal?)

Either way, it's an unsatisfying twist that seemed more like the author saying boy this story blows I'd better make something happen here than a twist that was built into the story.

The rest of the stories are good-to-average: the best of the rest is Secret Identity, about a girl in a small town who's secretly meeting her ex-high-school boyfriend, who happens to be a superhero; she herself has the power to levitate a foot off the ground. It was quirky and kind of sad, and I liked it.

Overall, the stories are worth reading, but it's not like this was the earth-shattering book critics made it out to be. The book was up for a bunch of awards and won tons of praise from critics who called it things like brilliant; I don't think it's brilliant, but it's good.


Andrew Leon said...

My favorite short story is still 'The Lottery.' It was life changing.

If I ever get these two things finished that I'm working on, maybe I'll break the Harkaway barrier.

Briane Pagel said...

BROTHERS KEEPER for Xmas? My wish is coming true...

Andrew Leon said...

Not yet. :(