Books of 2015, #6: Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

It is a very weird thing, my relationship to Neil Gaiman’s work.

More specifically, the fact that his novels often leave me pretty cold, but I find his short story collections to be wonderful.

I mean, how could I like an author as much as I like him, and yet I have read his second novel Anansi Boys precisely once. For me, that is seriously weird—I am inveterate re-reader. There are books I own that I haven’t read at all, but the list of books I’ve read just once is very, very short. The only list that’s shorter is the list of books that I didn’t finish.

Anyway, I find Trigger Warning to be eminently worth the time. The stories are varied in style, even if all of them have a certain darkness to them. The introduction, which walks you through them, is almost a bonus story in itself.

I have a particular affection for “The Lunar Labryinth”, whose homage to Gene Wolfe I believe I would have seen even without the introduction. It reminded me quite strongly, in fact, of Wolfe’s story “The Tree is my Hat”, which, in turn, has a Gaiman connection.

“Orange” just makes me giggle a little bit to think about. The unconventional structure reminds me a little bit of the organizing principle of one of Steven Brust’s early Vlad Taltos novels, that prefaced each chapter by an entry in a (literal) laundry list that ended up referencing some event in the chapter.

“Nothing O’Clock” reads like the 11th Doctor story it is.

“The Sleeper and the Spindle” was simply unexpected.

“Black Dog” was a good story—much like “Monarch of the Glen”—about a character for whom I feel no affinity; again, it’s that weird thing about his novels, and though I’ve read American Gods a few times, there’s still something about it, and its lead character, that just doesn’t do it for me.

There’s several more stories in it, and I enjoyed all of them to a greater or lesser extent, but I don’t want to go point-by-point to talk about each of them: just buy or borrow it and read them yourself.

Books of 2015, #5: The Deep by Nick Cutter

Reading, say, one of the Jack Reacher books is interesting to me, as someone who once tried his hand at writing fiction, in that they are relentless, always pushing forward at a fever-pitched break-neck pace, but they never feel monotonous.

(Though there’s a whole essay to be written about how that thriller genre, and its close relations, are the real “adolescent male power fantasies” that, for my money, demonstrate actual comic books for the utterly benign influence they are.)

Sadly, I cannot say this of The Deep.

Closer, genre-wise, the more specific book I constantly found myself thinking of, while reading it, was Stephen King’s It. I have to assume this was intentional, because I cannot imagine that an author of nominal-horror novels could otherwise have a book that references: a monster in a stand-pipe, clowns, an ancient evil that afflicts a child, that ancient evil revisiting that child as an adult, a confrontation in a labrynthine rat’s-nest of tunnels, an abusive parent…I suspect I could find another couple at least if I were willing to waste my time on it.

Now I know that many people think that Stephen King is in perpetual need of a strong editor, but I wonder to what extent—when his novels work well, at least—his successes are because he takes long breaks from the action, because he attends to things other than the mechanics of the immediate plot, because he discurses like crazy.

Ultimately, I wonder whether this discursiveness simply sets up something in contrast to the horror that may be the central plot of the novel—and which, in the absence of such contrast, would just become boring and monotonous.

Which The Deep was—oh, God, I just wanted it to be over.

I’m not saying it justifies every word, but would It be as compelling if it didn’t show both the horror being visited upon the town of Derry, and the ways these children are tormented by it, as well as the sheer joyful experience they have of finding one another? They may bound together by necessity, but their bond transcends that—they become friends. They care about one another, but they also just go out and to the stupid shit kids do. It’s ultimately what brings them back to finally put things to rest.

I wonder, were I to go back and re-read Dr. Sleep, if I wouldn’t find that the reason that I found it less-than-compelling wasn’t the mildly paint-by-numbers horror of the antagonists (how many flavors of supernatural horror can you have, anyway), but the simple fact that Danny Torrance has so little in his life that brings joy. I mean, I’m glad he hit bottom and cleaned up, but the simple fact that so much time is spent on that, it feels like he has so little to lose—whereas in The Shining, the stakes are higher because what he’s losing is his father, who, however flawed, he loves unconditionally.

Well, if the lack of a sense of things-to-be-lost was a problem in Dr. Sleep, The Deep suffers from elephantitis of unhappiness. If there are more than a handful of sentences in the entire novel mentioning positive moments in the protagonists life, I must have skipped them as I became less and less engaged. Otherwise, it’s a shitty, malignant childhood, a broken adulthood, a global humanity-threatening pandemic (!) and ancient horrors.

Yeah, you know, I’m realizing that in addition to its lack of shading, it’s also lacking in coherence. Too many big chunks of undercooked plot left out in the open to rot and stink the place up. You could have excised at least two of that laundry list of Bad Things and come up with a much stronger novel. As it is, unless you’re just a devotee of horror for horror’s sake, please avoid The Deep.

Books of 2015, #4: Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky

I generally enjoy these sorts of books—the sort of things Bill Bryson specializes in, where he choses some through-line that gives him a lens for presenting some particular view on a bunch of events through history.

And in fact Mark Kurlansky’s Cod is a great example of the genre.

To say that all of the things mentioned are a direct consequence of the great durability and fecundity of cod would be to take things too far—but its influence seems clear, and while there may not be causation, there certainly seems to be correlation.

So perhaps it’s not unreasonable to say that cod is the reason we live in the United States of America.

Books of 2015, #3: Brain on Fire, by Susannah Cahalan

There’s not many things that I fear, at least in terms of things that could happen to me; in fact, the only one that really scares the hell out of me is losing my sense of self.

My fear is, I know, partly grounded in the fact that it’s almost certainly in my future; though only one of my grandparents has passed away as a direct consequence of Alzheimers, it lurks in the background.

Or I could develop an autoimmune disorder that attacks the fundamental structures of my brain, destroying my personality and plunging me into a stew of paranoia and incoherence that, untreated, would lead to long-term disability and possible death.

The difference between me and Susannah Cahalan, of course, would be that doctors are now more aware of the disease, and there’s a protocol for testing that well understood, so you’ve got at least a marginal chance of being diagnosed in a timely fashion, and people understand how to treat it—though it does often come with a side-order of benign cancer.

To call the book harrowing is to simultaneously overstate and understate the case. Becoming ill, even with an exotic—and potentially fatal—disease is a terrible thing, bug the therapies for the condition, while no picnic, aren’t all that arduous or exotic.

On the other hand, to have your condition be completely opaque to the medical community, to have someone tasked with evaluating your mental health dramatically overstate your alcohol consumption in order to fit their preconcieved notion so that it that much harder to get you into a facility that could start to take care of you…these solvable, these avoidable things are the really dismaying part.

Anyway, the text itself is well written, and even more interesting given that despite it being written by the person to whom it happened, much, even most, of it had to be reconstructed from interviews and watching recordings and reading records.