The Christmas Grump I
Posted December 24, 2007on:
Last Christmas I was grumpy about something and this year it is no different. I’ve been having a rough time with fantasy novels since the marvellous Stroud trilogy in August and have yet to recover. The two McKillip novels besides Winter Rose were stunted efforts: stories with a great idea strangled by other stupid, generic plotlines; the Tobias Buckell debut was an interesting enough novel in which I lost interest halfway through; I moved no further in Kay’s pedestrian “alternate” historical fiction (the “alternate” bit was apparently enough to get a “fantasy” label).
Two feeble bright spots were So Long Been Dreaming by various authors and Breakfast with the Ones You Love by Eliot Fintushel. The first is feeble primarily because of my subdued response to anthologies. For this novel reader the disadvantage of a short story’s length is made up for many times over in a single authored collection. One mind’s varied looks, experiments with form and characterizations, themes, the discernment of an overall pattern , growing knowledge of the author’s primary concerns — all of this and more comprises short stories’ pleasures. This effect is fractured when reading an anthology and compounded by the inevitable dross placed besided the excellent. I can tolerate, forgive, even be intrigued with an excellent author’s medicore efforts; if a previously unknown author’s short piece is of the same quality I am dismissive. It doesn’t help that I’ve been spoiled: my previous short story experiences were with Roger Mais, Vladimir Nabokov, Mercé Rodoreda, Andre Dubus (who made me respect the form), and A.S. Byatt. It’s hard to compete with that.
Fintushel’s novel was a SF I won from Matt Cheney, who previously defended Fintushel from accusations of pretentious incomprehensibility. Breakfast with the Ones You Love was weird, odd-ballish and goofy enough to gain some of my affection and goodwill. (I finished the damn thing after being road-blocked by two SF/F books in succession.) He pulled on Jewish religion and culture to create a story about Lea Tillman, a teenage girl with fatal microscopic vision and her sort of bf, Jack Konar, who believes he’s one among 13 chosen ones who will be taken up into a spaceship when the Meschiach arrives and enter the Promised Land. To prepare for this momentous day he had to decorate the six surfaces in his room, situated in an abandoned, sealed off section of a Sears and Roebucks store, with shiny gold material and naked girly pictures among other things.
The plotting reads kinda shaky if not intentionally wayward and aimless (although Fintushel does wrap things up in the end) which I appreciated in a novel written in a genre that hangs on plotting, even if it’s towards an open, ambivalent conclusion. The book only lost points for its typical YA heroine — written in the first person, of course — who is tough as nails and a smartass but whose personal journey allows her to reconnect with her softer innards. Fintushel gives her a distinct (what I imagine to be) NYC Yiddish accent, a notable element I liked because it’s not one I come across often and it really helped to cement her presence on the page. Paul Kincaide at Strange Horizons thought it could have made a great short story, an opinion with which I don’t necessarily disagree. IN any case, although I liked the story well enough, it did not dazzle and I wasn’t rushed to seek other Fintushel fare.
Enter Ingo by Helen Dunmore, a YA fantasy and the first in a trilogy I’ve been excited about for some time. It’s one book I started this Christmas that was recommended in last year’s “Best of…” lists. I might have read past page 50 before I threw it aside in acute frustration. Frustration at its complete lack of originality, of uniqueness, of anything that screamed or at least mewled for the book’s necessary existence. I guess the merpeople angle is neat enough and it’s no doubt based on some North England tale (with older sources) about humans abandoning work and family to live in the sea. “The Little Mermaid” is one of my favourite Disney films; I have a love/hate relationship with Hans Christian Andersen’s tale; I like all that Mélusine influenced stuff. I should be sold on this thing. Instead, I was disgusted at coming across yet another first person female narrative, or more pointedly at the fact that Sapphire was bland. At page 50 (or whatever) she was already getting into trouble but I couldn’t give a damn because Dunmore had given me no reason to care.
That’s something you have to do in fiction: make me care about a) the characters or b) the writing. I’d prefer both but I’m flexible and it all depends on what an author is trying to do; typically, I’m willing to suss that out. Dunmore’s no literary virtuoso (or she’s hiding her light under a bushel for kids) so it’s all on her characters who are woefully inadequate for the task. Sapphire’s father, the only interesting character (ie he seemed rather kooky about mermaids, was frustrated and driven about something, had DIMENSIONS and stuff) went and dove into the ocean. I’m left with his bland daugther , a vaguely sketched older brother, and an anxious, nagging but truly loving mother who’s reentering the dating pool to her daughter’s irritation. Then, you know, oo la laa, the kids are being drawn to the water too, look, a cryptic, arrogant merman who deliberately evades Sapphire’s questions about her brother’s curious and frequent disappearances. Dum, dum…zzzzzz.
I am a very cruel reader. You cannot write a story as if it were under the “Light a Candle” column in a local newspaper that regularly features good samaritan stories or some charity tale to which the expected response is a sympathetic “awwwww” because they’re actual events, and if I didn’t then I’m a horrible human being. Put your back into it Dunmore! Or not because I’ve thrown your book aside and I don’t care to know where it is.