Over the top in Under the Dome

Late in the novel Under the Dome, Stephen King’s new thousand-pager, a character muses about the roads not taken: “Before these last few days, Carolyn would have said she had no interest in having children, that what she wanted was a career as a teacher and a writer. Maybe a novelist, although it seemed to her that writing novels was pretty risky; what if you spent all that time, wrote a thousand-pager, and it sucked?”

Well, if you’re Stephen King, the one-man deforestation juggernaut with something like 47 novels to your credit, it probably doesn’t much matter at all. Which isn’t to say Under the Dome sucks, per se, but if King’s place in pop literature wasn’t already cemented, this one might do little to help.

Storytelling can be described as putting characters in a crucible and turning up the heat. It’s a strategy that King explores literally in Under the Dome, where the small town of Chester’s Mill in the American northeast finds itself closed off from the rest of the world when a mostly impenetrable dome descends on it. (Air and water can still permeate, but barely.) The folks in Chester’s Mill do as characters usually do in Stephen King novels: if they’re decent, they band together and survive; if not, their more primitive natures run amok and things get nasty.

If they’re really bad, they become the uppercase ‘V’ Villain, like Big Jim Rennie, a car dealer, town selectman and clandestine crystal meth magnate who manipulates the dome to his advantage. King’s strength as a writer, however, is more in his finely turned minor characters and not the over-the-top baddies. As rotten as he is, Rennie is less interesting and not as well drawn as, for example, a throwaway character like Samantha Bushey, a slacker, teenaged mum and drug user who endures some of the novel’s most disturbing violence. Bushey’s victimization comes not at the hands of the alien forces controlling the dome (do they even have hands?), but a posse of thugs deputized into Rennie’s police force. (“Yes, Pogo, we has seen the true horror and it is us!”)

King deftly keeps the pages turning, but I can’t help but think back with nostalgia and a twinge of sadness to the more suspenseful reading experiences he provided in his early books. I can still remember white-knuckling my way through The Shining on my breaks on some forgotten nightshift. That novel remains for me one of the most memorable and amazing reading experiences ever; who knew books could do that?

I can’t claim to have followed the King oeuvre with much consistency over the years but Under the Dome for me represents a coarsening of his craft. There is more hamfisted thuggery and brute violence than goose pimply creepiness here. Too often the simple gross-out, which King has never been too proud to deploy, stands in for genuine tension and fright. For example, these characters are all really, really scared, or just generally, er, losing it:

The crotch of her gardening jeans darkened as her urine let go.

She was having a goddam seizure. “Stop it!” he shouted. Then, as she voided herself: “Stop it! Stop doing that, you bitch!”

Janelle, eyes open but showing only whites, wasn’t convulsing—thank God for that—but she was trembling all over. She had pushed the covers down with her feet, probably at onset, and in the double flashlight beams he could see a damp patch on her pajama bottoms.

There was a dark spot spreading on his shorts.

She saw the wetness spreading around the crotch of her jeans and thought, Yep—I’ll have to change again, all right. If I live through this, that is.

But then he observed that the kid’s pajama pants were soaked. Junior had pissed himself.

He remembered connecting with one Abdul’s bony, shit-speckled ass, and the red mark his combat boot had left there.

His father had combed his hair, but as he lay dying he had, like his late wife, pissed his pants.

His specialties in these latter days included eating Jell-O pudding without getting it up his nose and occasionally making it to the toilet before releasing half a dozen blood-streaked pebbles into the commode.

And of course…

She was scared shitless.

So it goes. The novel eventually dribbles to a less-than-satisfying resolution and [SPOILER ALERT] Chester’s Mill is once again free — but of course not until there’s a huge spike in the body count.

Stephen King has single-handedly reinvented the horror genre and established a place (albeit often contested) in American letters. Even when he’s average he’s way above a lot of what passes for popular literature. If he reveals encroaching infirmities in Under the Dome, I, for one, am willing to hang in there anyway – given his lifetime achievement, I figure I owe him at least that much.

Epic fantasy a near epic surprise

I don’t often pick up epic fantasy doorstops like A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, which is the first novel in a projected seven-volume series called A Song of Fire and Ice. The cover art alone on these things usually looks hopelessly adolescent. And pages of maps and schematics of tangled family trees makes a vein in my neck start to throb.

But when you can get it on the Kindle for $3.90, it might be worth a surreptitious look. After all, the first four novels of A Song of Fire and Ice have been translated into 18 languages (thank you Wikipedia) and an HBO television series is currently in production.

So what’s all the fuss about?

Well, in a sentence, the fuss about skillful plotting, imaginative world-building and serviceable characterization anchored by prose that’s well above what you can sometimes find when you go slumming in the genres. (Hey! Who says it’s slumming!?) Here’s an evocative example, just one sentence, that deftly sketches a throwaway character: “This Mycah was the worst; a butcher’s boy, thirteen and wild, he slept in the meat wagon and smelled of the slaughtering block.”

Not bad. Who would expect such concision in a hulking book like this? Martin never comes close to reaching the poetic heights of Mervyn Peake in Gormenghast (who does?), but there were times I thought his ear for English was so finely tuned, and his flair for Age of Chivalry-type phrasings so apt, that he must certainly hail from the land of King Arthur himself.

His actual place of birth? New Jersey.

Oy. That A Song of Fire and Ice has been dubbed “the Sopranos in Middle Earth” is purely coincidental, I am sure.

A Game of Thrones is an engaging enough hero’s journey that will provide hours of enjoyment (think also, “Diana Gabaldon for guys”) but be warned: it is long. There are more characters in it than you can waggle a piece of Valerian steel at. And if you can’t stand the thought of all the trees being sacrificed to produce nearly cube-shaped paperbacks like these, you can always read it on the Kindle.

Or wait for the HBO series on TV.

Tom Robbins ‘Lite’ fails to quench readerly thirsts

Years ago, while in university, I used to enjoy the sly, self-reflexive playfulness of Tom Robbins’s early books. In fact, somewhere between Aldous Huxley and Stephen King I went through a Tom Robbins phase. So it was with a certain sense of nostalgia and curiosity that I picked up his most recent book, B is for Beer.

B is for BeerI wish I could report Robbins and I hit it off again like old chums, but one of us has changed. Billed as an adult book for children and a children’s book for adults, B is for Beer is a slim, sappy little tale I can’t imagine appealing to either group. The story, whose kindly narrator is always talking down to the reader, transports Gracie, our six-year-old heroine, to the mystical reaches beyond “the seam,” a sort of parallel otherworld. There she learns all about, what else? Beer. Her guide is none other than the Beer Fairy.

Perhaps it doesn’t look so bad sketched out like that, but the result manages to be so boring and predictable I felt like I missed the transcendent intoxication part and went straight to the hangover.

Much of the text, for example, is devoted to Wikipedia-type information on the origins of beer and methods for brewing it. And although you might expect a stylist like Robbins could overcome those shortcomings with some prose pyrotechnics, such is not the case.

Many of the figurative devices are either incomprehensible, juvenile, or both:

“The week passed as slowly as a snowman’s gas.”

“…if good looks were two flakes of snow, she could provide nesting grounds for half the earth’s penguins.”

“…her bright and bouncy little life seemed to lie scattered in pieces, like a disco ball after an earthquake.”

And then there are the preachy little asides like this one:

“Some brewers will leave particular beers unfiltered, however, so they can continue to age in the bottle. Children such as you, Gracie, are best left unfiltered while you age, although some parents and institutions, regrettably, do attempt to filter the young souls in their charge.”

And many, many puns and other wordplay:

“…(for a time she believed yeast to be the opposite direction of west)…

Oh Tom. Stop. You’re killing me.

If all that isn’t enough to leave a bad aftertaste consider the cover price: $24.99 for what is essentially a hard-covered short story. (I wisely borrowed from the library.) However many bottles of beer those $25 bucks might buy, I promise you they’ll bring more amusement than this little belch of a book.

Bottoms up.

Tree of Smoke casts spreading shadow

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson shows how great writing can deliver the reader straight into the stinking belly of the whale, largely without the reader realizing they’ve been swallowed.

TreeOfSmokeWinner of the United States’ National Book Award in 2007, this dense, 700-page novel of Vietnam ranges from the war’s most visceral evils, to quiet, human moments of the people caught up in it. Johnson references myth, scripture and history, but also uses a pointillist’s brush to render scenes of striking depth and texture.

The overall effect is harrowing and unforgettable.

Challenging, too. Tree of Smoke isn’t an easy read and the mixed reviews on Amazon reflect that. (There are as many one- and two-star reviews as four- and five-star reviews.) Most of the naysayers invariably begin, “I must not be smart enough for this…” or “I just couldn’t get into this….” or “I picked this up because it won an award but I can’t see why…”

Interesting how books sometimes review readers. Do you really need to be a member of MENSA to appreciate literature? Clearly not. (As this blog and its author attest!) But readers will always be rewarded by a little patience, an openness to different narrative approaches, and a willingness to expend some candle power on what they’re reading.

Movies have trained us to be passive receivers of narrative. We grab our popcorn, strap ourselves in and then the story simply unspools in front of us. It’s no wonder many of us now apply the same strategy to books. We straddle the first sentence and then ride it to its conclusion many pages and chapters later. We notice the surroundings as they pass, but we rarely pause to reflect on the journey while we’re taking it. How many of us routinely go back and re-read something that happened a few chapters previous? How many will read a book twice before passing judgment?

Perhaps readers no longer have the desire to nurture the close collaboration with the writer that a rounded appreciation of fiction requires. The reading public, drunk on books like The Da Vinci Code, has only one demand: “Just tell us what happens next!”

What happens to the various characters in Tree of Smoke is, in a sense, beside the point. What happens is the giant wheel of war, with its iron spokes of history, idealism, hatred, glory, treachery, humanity and hope, grinds through a span between 1963-70. The characters in the novel either have their shoulders to that wheel, are getting ground underneath it, or are hanging on for dear life.

Granted, it takes the first 200 pages to get the wheel turning, and it’s this apparent decoupling from a traditional narrative engine that many readers probably find difficult. But go ahead – live a little. Ask yourself if your inability to enter into anything but the most traditional narrative dream state may be a symptom of an atrophied imagination.

It’s been said that novelists can’t disguise their personal cosmologies. Ian McEwan may claim he’s an atheist, but a book like Atonement suggests at the very least he’s a Church of England atheist. (I wish I could claim ownership of that line — can’t remember where I heard it.)

Johnson, on the other hand, weaves the idea of God into the very warp of his novel. I love how Jim Lewis’s review in the New York Times speculates that his dedication to H.P. stands for Higher Power. (Incidentally, Lewis himself writes the kind of insightful review that makes me want to search out his books.) I’m sure that among the many PhD dissertations ripening at this very moment, at least a few will examine Johnson’s expression of God in Tree of Smoke.

From the trees all around came the waterfall sound of scrabbling claws and the curses of demons driven into the void.

More women screamed. The men howled. The jungle itself screamed like a mosque. Storm lay naked on his back and watched the upward-rushing mist and smoke in the colossal firelight and waited for the clear light, for the peaceful deities, the face of the father-mother, the light from the six worlds, the dawning of hell’s smoky light and the white light of the second god, the hungry ghosts wandering in ravenous desire, the gods of knowledge and the wrathful gods, the judgment of the lord of death before the mirror of karma, the punishments of the demons, and the flight to refuge in the cave of the womb that would bear him back into this world.

His poem whirled upward as an ash…

Tree of Smoke is the best novel I’ve read in a long time. Thank God people still write like this; thank God books like this still get published; and thank God writing like this still gets critical acclaim.


Writing contests: some pointers, perils and peeves

Herewith an item I wrote for a professional association about my recent experience as a judge in a writing contest. All views entirely subjective and idiosyncratic.

The weary evaluator looked at the pile of writing samples, then the digital egg timer, then the unopened Shiraz on the counter. Would it be wrong to drink while judging a writing contest?

old-typewriterMaybe. But he needed something to brace himself for another submission that began like all the others. They invariably described their subject in some small situation, threw in a few details – like ‘Shiraz,’ or ‘digital egg timer’ – then pulled back to announce the subject and significance of the piece: This is an article about judging a writing contest. It includes pointers for anyone thinking of entering one, which could help you some day.

OK – so I exaggerate.

Truth is, my recent experience judging an awards competition held by a large North American professional organization was at times humbling, at times exasperating, but never, never dull. I and two others had the privilege of assessing magazine features, news releases and specialized writing from a variety of publications. It got me thinking about what worked and what didn’t, what resulted in automatic disqualification and what automatically got a second look. Here are my pointers and pet peeves.

Distinguish yourself.

Rest assured that most of the entries in a writing contest are going to be solidly written and researched pieces about interesting subjects. Consider it the minimum threshold. But there’s a difference between good and award-winning. To get to the winner’s circle, you’ll need to stand out. Look for a fresh approach – if you didn’t surprise yourself a little bit when you wrote it, you’re not going to surprise the reader when she reads it. And kidding aside, there really is a certain safe similarity in much that gets submitted. Surprise us.

But don’t distinguish yourself in a bad way.

It’s a sad fact that with so many good entries, judges are looking for a reason to reject yours. Sure, your editor may have been asleep at the switch, but if you misuse a word, misspell it, make grammar mistakes or include errors of fact, we’re hitting the buzzer. For example, Machiavelli might approve of the term “complicated machinations,” but it isn’t the right way to describe the intricate workings of a mechanical device. “Impassable” doesn’t mean the same as “impassible.” “Who” and “whom” are not interchangeable.

And don’t waste my time.

You’re going to have to grab me by the lapels right from the git-go. The best entries pulled me 10 paragraphs in before I remembered I was reading. And make sure it is plainly obvious what the significance of your story is. There is nothing more frustrating than being tantalized by a strong opening, then reaching the end of a lengthy feature and having to ask, “So what?”

Writers try readers’ patience in smaller ways, too. You know that puffy quote from the VP that reads like a PR winkie wrote it? Cut it, or at least write it so that a breathing human being might actually have spoken it. There may be some in your audience who will understand your specialized jargon, but don’t assume so.

When it comes to length, aim for the Goldilocks standard.

Just right. Have you got enough story for the length? Have you got enough length for the story? In other words, news releases shouldn’t be three pages. If you’ve cured cancer, you may want to  consider sending two pages, but most of the time you should be able to say what needs saying in one. Beware of repetition. And don’t leave out the important bits, either. If your piece raises more questions than it answers, it’s incomplete.

Other peeves:

If you’re writing an obituary, and you lapse into “he was born” way up in the third paragraph, it will seem like the deceased didn’t do much of significance.

Sometimes that clever, winking lead will work, but sometimes you’ll wind up wearing it. If there’s a chance someone can construe something, someone will.

Don’t bother describing what the subject is wearing, what colour their eyes are or the state of their office unless those details really do indicate something unusual, or reveal something important about character. Is your interviewee standing there with a hand in her pocket? Sorry. Don’t care.

For longer magazine pieces, you need a frame, an arc, or some other structural engine that will bear the weight of the length. It’s not enough simply to connect one paragraph full of facts after another and expect to pull the reader through. We want story.

Don’t bother trying to dazzle me with your writing. Aim for clarity, detail and engagement. Be careful about inserting yourself into the story. If you’ve got a blockbuster of a subject, the best strategy might just be to get out of the way.

Does your ending resonate? Recall the beginning? Make me feel satiated? Endings deserve figurative as well as literal closing punctuation.

There is an unspoken contract between me the reader and you the writer: in exchange for my time and attention, I’m expecting you are going to give me something of value. Maybe it’s information I haven’t heard about, a way of seeing the world I haven’t considered, or your own entertaining grasp of language. Fulfill your end of the bargain and you’ll earn a place in my memory – and if I’m a judge in a writing contest, that’s the only place to be.

I know it was free, but do I have to like it?

The nice people at Anansi Press give away free books on Facebook every now and then in exchange for 200-word reviews of said book. I cashed in recently and they sent me a new novel called Valmiki’s Daughter. Despite wanting to like it, well, we never really hit it off. I sent back this tepid review a few weeks ago, which I don’t think will ever see the light of day on their site, so here it is on mine – in all its lukewarm splendour.

I opened Valmiki’s Daughter by Shani Mootoo fearing it just wasn’t going to be my cup of chai. And despite the often evocative writing, the intriguing setting in sun-splashed Trinidad, the multifaceted themes of identity – and despite my own best efforts – I never really embraced the experience.

n20137676200_1387My outsider status is partly due to my lack of interest in gay-lesbian themes. But I must also confess an aversion to novels featuring a self-absorbed cast of characters who are, with few exceptions, pretty unlikeable – especially the men. (Satire excepted, of course, but Valmiki’s Daughter is earnest to the hilt.)

There is such a fog of sadness that clings to this novel. Viveka, the title character, is a young woman who discovers she loves other women – one in particular. Her father has lived a lie with his own homosexual longings, but does that mean she must also?

For a moment it appears Viveka will break free from the restrictive disapprovals of family and Indo-Trinidadian society: “She had no map of her future, but she knew who she was. She would not be diminished because of it.” And…

“In exchange for honesty, integrity, a lifetime of service, she prayed that she and all people like her be granted the freedom, so long as it did not hurt anyone, to love whomever they chose, to love well and have that love returned without judgment.”

Amen to that – even without the bargaining preamble. The hopeless ending, no matter how realistic it may be for those living a closeted existence, comes as such a disappointment. How sad.

At times Valmiki’s Daughter has an unfocused, second draft feel to it. Why does one of the principal characters – the captivating French woman Anick – only show up halfway through the book? And am I imagining this, or does the novel at times want to be more about Anick than Viveka?

Other quibbles: I’m not sure the showy second-person travelogue interspersed throughout always carries its weight, especially in the lengthy opening passage. And although I was initially impressed that the text was free of so many of the silly spell-check editing errors that creep in these days, there it was on the beach on page 380, “a slow parade of people in bathing suites.”

Nevertheless, there is clearly talent on display here. And I will freely admit that I am the wrong sort of reader for this novel. For the right sort of reader, I’m sure Valmiki’s Daughter will be more than a satisfying experience.

Yes, I’m a bit nuts too: 50,277 words in 29 days


Of course, the hard part is just beginning, but I’m going to savour my nifty little web badge for a day or two, if you don’t mind. It’s not every month I write a novel.