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October 8, 2009

Jeff in Venice, The Third Policeman, Shadow Pavilion

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , — inky @ 9:21 pm

Doo te doo te doo, it’s time for another episode of the increasingly erratic bookclub. Perhaps soon I will even be reviewing some IF too. It is a magical time in which anything could happen! But for now:

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (Geoff Dyer): Ok, just to get this out of the way first: Dear publisher, you cannot turn two novellas into a novel by publishing them in a single volume and titling it “<title of novella 1>, <title of novella 2>: a novel”. That said, given that they are next to each other, it’s interesting to compare the two novellas. They’re both the story of a guy (presumably the same guy, though it’s not explicit) going to a foreign place and slobbing around. But the first novella is dullness mixed with irritation and the second is pretty good. Why? Well, I might just have been more used to the author’s style. But there’s a more fundamental thing going on — in the first story, the protagonist is a journalist going to an art convention in Venice. He hates most of the art and hates himself and hates the city and spends most of the story drunk and/or snorting coke (not even an interesting drug) and/or having sex with an uninteresting and mostly undescribed girl. I think this is supposed to be funny.

Like, having an irritating protagonist is pretty standard humor — Blackadder, say, or Fawlty Towers or Seinfeld. Or having the person dislike the place they’re in, or having the person just be a fuckup. But in all these cases you’re still sympathetic, usually because the people the protagonist interacts with are worse. And if not that, at least there’s some fun in seeing bad things happen to the protagonist. But here, not really — like, clearly the guy is just wasting his time and his life drinking when he could be doing way more interesting things that are right there for him to do, and if you asked him he’d admit it. He doesn’t even like himself! So, yeah, it chapped my hide too much to make it as a comedy, and if you take away the comedy there’s not much left; the travelogue portion would take up maybe ten pages.

Death in Varanasi is better, in the sense that it actually has the protagonist go out and explore the city, and it’s pretty interesting. There’s not much there either plot-wise, really, and the protagonist still makes some dumb choices for no good reason, but it’s readable.

(Hrm, now having read the amazon comments and the wikipedia summary of Death in Venice, I suppose I should take back some of my gripes about the coherency of the two novellas. I dunno, maybe it really is a straight-up parody and so this is like me trying to review Bored of the Rings and complaining it makes no sense. So, uh, I have no idea what someone else would think of this.)

The Third Policeman (Flann O’Brien): Man, I don’t get this. I don’t mean that the plot is confusing — it’s not any more confusing than, say, Alice in Wonderland. I mean I don’t get the intent of the book, or why people would think it’s awesome (since some people clearly do). I feel like the author is going for something that I just didn’t understand, and I’m left with a couple of amusing bits loosely stitched together. I didn’t even get the ending — it seems to just ignore a major plot inconsistency, which, ok, whatever, it’s not the sort of book that it matters in, but it’s yet another confusing note to end on.
(If you want something a little more coherent, read dfan’s review.)

The Shadow Pavilion (Liz Williams): Well, ok, unlike the last two, here is a book where I know where I am with. This is the fourth Inspector Chen book, with which I have a long and sordid history. It’s … sort of better.

One of the things I find interesting is how sf authors cope with writing sequels. Like, sf novels tend to be about exploration and power escalation. This can lead to the writing equivalent of slash-and-burn agriculture — you write a flashy first novel but destroy the setting enough that you can’t write a second in the same place or about the same people, so you have to keep expanding into new settings, and eventually you’ve used up all the good land and the ecosystem collapses. The first three books in this series were mostly about going bigger and bigger scale; but apparently for this one the author decided she couldn’t or wouldn’t go to a bigger threat, and so she went sideways instead (probably a spoiler to say exactly how, but it’s good to see a bit more of the world outside China).

On the whole I think this move works, or at least it feels like it’s the right direction to go towards for a stable foundation to write more novels on. It’s conceivable it’s going to lose me in the process — really the stuff I like best about this series is where it’s human-scale, right on the edge of mortal and the spirit world, and about modern technology vs ancient magic; and I think the new settling point is going to be large-scale and kind of about world-vs-world and not individual-vs-individual. But whatever, like I said, I think it’s the right way for the series to go.

This book still does the tiny chapters thing I am not a fan of, and it doesn’t spend as much time on the characters I’m interested in, but the plot isn’t bad, and there are, as always, lots of fun setting bits. Not sure I’d recommend the series to someone on the strength of it, but certainly worth reading for existing fans.

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