Sunday, September 16, 2018

September Reads Part One

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
The Separation by Christopher Priest
Pet Sematary by Stephen King

I read Sharp Objects in preparation for watching the tv show, and I'm glad I did, because there's a couple things the book does better than the show (not a lot, but a couple). My interest in the show was piqued by friends on Twitter claiming it was less of a mystery and more of a Gothic-style exploration of trauma and memory. The book is that, of course, but less so. The mystery and the noir style is first and foremost, but when Sharp Objects becomes focused on the unique suffering of women, often at other women's hands, it transcends its quotidian mystery (which, and I'm not bragging here, I solved within 100 pages, that's how simple it is). After seeing Gone Girl and reading this book, I begin to understand the appeal of Flynn. She's tapping into the desire to see complicated women villains, to see women villains who aren't just femmes fatale or golddiggers or maneaters. They're women living in a patriarchal system, inescapably so, and how they lash out or writhe against those bonds. The show doesn't quite hit this note as hard as it does its affecting and extremely empathetic portrait of mental illness, my preferred aspect of the novel. I definitely cried watching the show. Where the novel stumbles, other than in its by-the-numbers mystery, is a tendency to over-explain. The narrator is at pains for you to understand absolutely everything. I'm surprised the narrator doesn't explain metaphors too while at it. The show's final few minutes are exquisite: suggestive, allusive, enigmatic. This goes against the novel's final 30 pages which are laborious, exhaustive in detail. Both are quite good, but the show is excellent.

The Separation is my first Priest novel and I suppose the first "science fiction" novel I've read since May. Though, my categorization of this novel as science fiction derives from the market's assignation of alternate history as science fiction. Surely we can all agree that alt-history falls under the umbrella of the literature of the Fantastic, but where it nudges against sci-fi is determined on a case-by-case scenario. I'm sure Priest is difficult to market for his publishers. His novels resist easy categorization. The Separation is World War Two alt-history, with a puzzling blurring of the contra-history and the factual history. There's no easy solution to the divergence; Priest only suggests a couple lynch points instead of laying it out. Instead, the alt-history and Fantastic elements are the stage-setting for a nuanced and conflicted portrait of pacifism, duty, and the corrupting nature of war. I admit I struggled a bit with this one. While I loved the puzzle aspect of it, the waffling about pacifism struck me as almost metafictional pacifism, a refusal to stop sitting on the fence. What is this novel about, exactly? It's tough to say and I'm not sure I have a clear answer. Pacifism? Brotherhood? Why use fantastical elements to tell a story which could have been excised of alt-history and probably still make its points? I still quite liked this book—it's elegantly written, ingeniously constructed—but I don't think my critical lens is sharp enough to figure it out. This is like reading Adam Roberts: I can detect the allusions, references, the superstructure, but I can't grasp them with any authority, at least not enough to glean meaningful or productive insights. Still, my own ignorance hasn't stopped from enjoying Roberts or The Separation (or at least not enjoying to the fullest capacity) so I'll keep trying!

I put Pet Sematary at number two in my "for shits and giggles" ranking of Stephen King's work (here). I'd have to read 'Salem's Lot again to be sure, but I still think it's a solid Silver next to the latter's Gold. It's definitely in vogue to dismiss King and his prodigious output but I still believe that King produced a handful of all-timers, maybe more than most of the Great Writers. Pet Sematary was a great reread for me. I first read it when I was in university (the first time around) and I was trying to fill in the gaps in my King bibliography. I remember so clearly, so vividly, reading the final page and being blown away. King often struggles with endings but he completely nails it here. It's easily his best ending. What disappointed me a bit this time around and maybe I'm being oversensitive is that I remember there being more of a cosmic horror angle. There's a suggestion at the end there is more to the Pet Sematary that meets the eye but when the dead kid comes back to life, he's violent and crude and annoying in the way all King villains here. It's a bit deflating when the monster speaks like it has the Hollywood version of Tourette's Syndrome. I guess years of reading cosmic horror, Lovecraftian stuff, Weird fiction has made me a bit resistant to King's singular brand of folksy conversationalist horror. Still, very glad I reread this. What a whopper of an end.

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