Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

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Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Talkin' bout JOHN FARRIS and a bit o' JOHN GARDNER


Hey, I know I promised a second part on John Garder, but life got in the way, as it will tend to,, and now it’s a bit past it’s due date . So to speak. I did leave a comment on www.quidplura.com that deals a bit with GRENDEL as well as some other stuff about Gardner. But in deference to the six South Koreans who read this site faithfully, you want to know my rundown of Gardner’s novels? Here they are in brief:

NICKEL MOUNTAIN. Didn’t read it. Had my doubts about it, frankly -- it’s praised as an epic realist novel and whatever else he was, Gardner wasn’t a realist.

GRENDEL. Go over to that site up top. Overrated. Another piece of dross the Sixties forced down our throats.

MICKELSSON’S GHOSTS. Interesting try at combining the Academic novel, the ghost story, and Gardner’s typical concerns. Suffers because Academic novels are fucking boring, what can I tell you. I’m not a huge fan of Kingsley Amis’s LUCKY JIM, but one thing I do have to say for that book is once you’ve read it, you’ve got academic novels down cold, yo. Everything else afterwards starts to sound like LUCKY JIM; I quit MICKELSSON’S GHOSTS halfway through thinking that it wore it’s Amis a little too broadly.

THE SUNLIGHT DIALOGUES. Easily Gardner’s best book, and probably one of the best American Sixties novels, especially in subcategory (a): “Hipsters take it to the man.” Gardner’s heavy-handedness doesn’t feel near so heavyhanded here, mainly I think because the Sixties were a heavyhanded decade -- or so says the Jokerman to the Thief -- and so Gardner really had found his niche. I also like how Gardner was able to stand a little apart from the calvacade -- sadly rare for writers during that time. He manages to present a fairly balanced portrait of the conflict -- both sides get their say and both have their points. Anyway, it’s a great book, that rare thing, a good novel of ideas, and it really earns it’s epic length, check it out.

Final summation: Gardner is a minor American novelist, because he’s so trapped in amber in his era, but THE SUNLIGHT DIALOGUES is a minor classic of it’s time and worth reading.

The real purpose of this posting today was to a bit on John Farris, who I was reading in between working the ungodly hours I was working toward the end of the year.

God, Farris’s stuff is awful. And I genuinely don’t get it, because a lot of people who’s opinions I genuinely respect seem to plump for this guy. It’s like one of those weird Twilight Zone kind of stories where pigs are beautiful and beautiful people are pigs. Or an elaborate punking.

Is this an elaborate punking?

I mean , you got David Schow, who I always thought was pretty cool even if he did say he liked the art prog band UK in THE KILL RIFF, positively creaming his jeans over the guy on a website; you have John Pelan, an acre of sanity in the thickets of the Internet, opining that the dreadful SHARP PRACTICE is in fact one of the great horror novels of our age, and you have Stephen King, who I have complicated feelings about but who I always did feel knew his popular fiction singing Farris’s hosannas in an early forward to Farris’s dreadful WHEN MICHAEL CALLS. And that’s just off the top of my head -- I see, for instance, that Hard Case is planning to reissue an early Farris book, for God Alone knows what reason.

It may just be that Farris is a nice guy who’s been around awhile. I call this the “Joe Gores effect” (Joe Gores is a terrible detective novelist who has a certain reputation in mystery fan circles ... because he’s been around awhile.) It’s like that guy in high school who hung around, never really part of the in crowd but after awhile he was curiously accepted, just because he wore y’all down.

A brief rumination: when I started thinking about writing about books and fiction, I wanted to do it the way computer game reviewers reviewed games. I really liked that style of writing, which at it’s best manages to be funny and edgy and still concern itself with aesthetics, of a sort. The best computer game writing is fresh and interesting in a way that book reviews can only hope to be.

I still think this is a worthy goal, but the transfer doesn’t fit smoothly, in part because it’s a lot easier to come across like a meanspirited prick when you’re talking about an author. After all, I didn’t have to buy an expensive rig to read Farris, or pay exorbitant sums (hell, most of them I traded for, honestly I didn’t pay anything) . Nor am I attacking a faceless group of developers or Capitalism itself. It’s one lonely guy throwing his efforts out on the wind, and on some level you have to respect the courage it takes to do that. Whatever you think of it.

Nonetheless, we don’t solve reality’s riddle by not acknowledging the truth, and however a nice guy Farris may be in real life, it does no one, least of all him, a favor to elide the truth -- that his books are awful. Writing is supposed to be something of a calling, for pete’s sake, there’s not enough money in it to be anything less. And if you don’t have the calling you’re not doing anyone a favor by pretending you do.

Let’s see. I read a batch of Farris this time out -- nobody can say I didn’t give the blighter a chance:
WHEN MICHAEL CALLS
SHARP PRACTICE
CATACOMBS
SON OF THE ENDLESS NIGHT
WILDWOOD (I think it was called)
ALL HEADS TURN WHEN THE HUNT GOES BY

The only major novel of his I skipped was THE FURY, but I read that years ago and remember it sucking too, so no great loss.

The main thing one realizes, looking over this list, is the sheer amount of unadulterated hackwork on display. We are definitely in Lawrence Sanders land, here -- CATACOMBS is Farris’s stab at a Crichton; SON is Farris’s requisite “Exorcist” clone; WILDWOOD is his King clone, etc. I am immediately suspicious of any writer who continually shifts his style and themes, because I immediately suspect him of simply trying on different suits, looking for the one that will help him sell best. And I think there’s a fundamental dishonesty in that -- even the biggest pulp hound, if he cares about what he’s doing, isn’t in it just for the money -- no matter what he says. Mickey Spillane didn’t write no damn gothic romances.

But Farris is even worse than Sanders, who at least seemed to try to put in a professional job. with whatever projects he had. SON is built on a premise so stupid that Farris doesn’t even try to make it plausible (a trial to determine the Devil, essentially); CATACOMBS robs us of the only reason to read the thing, an set piece with the scary monsters inside the mountain. SHARP PRACTICE reveals the killer very early when we suddenly learn, in a matter of fact way that I guess is some kind of lazy man’s version of psychology, that the brother and sister are incestuous lovers and that she’s still into it, even. (Ah, the Seventies.) I will personally pay five dollars to anyone who fails to spot the killer in WHEN MICHAEL CALLS about five minutes into the proceeding.

And so it goes. There’s no reason, here, to talk about structural choices, or uses of language, or how themes are deployed through character. Or even the ideas, ala Ludlum (who, as amateurish as he is , looks a hell of a lot better by way of comparison). All we got here is pretty blatant commercial crap, no different than the cliché of popular fiction the literati hit us with. And a must to avoid.

I think, ultimately, that’s what makes me angriest about Farris. It’s not him, so much, it’s that his work contributes, in a small way, to the coarsening of writing generally. People who are told Farris is good, and then who actually read one of his shitty books, are left thinking that either people who read this kind of stuff are idiots, or that somehow this stuff really is good. And then it’s praised…and so it goes. The mediocre drowning out the interesting, and we're in the curious pickle we're in now.

I don’t care if Farris is likable. He doesn’t take what he’s doing seriously -- why should we?

Next up: Joseph Heller -- CATCH-22 and SOMETHING HAPPENED, though I’m probably mainly going to talk about SOMETHING HAPPENED.

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