As a former English major, who usually read the first two thirds of each book I was assigned in college, I’ve recently felt guilty about engaging more with movies, television and music that I have been with books. I have books on my shelf that I’ve held onto for years that have gone unread. I missed a lot of the classics you’re supposed to read in college but didn’t get around to because my young, contrarian TAs all wanted to teach obscure titles (damn you, Naked Lunch). So, in an effort to up my literary game, I’m going to start reading more and posting short reviews. Each post will consist of five books or so. So, here we go:
RAGE by Stephen King
The last Stephen King book I read, besides On Writing which was assigned to me in college, was the seventh and final Dark Tower novel. I’ve been meaning to get to the big King novels for a while (The Stand, Salem’s Lot, It, Carrie), but I read Rage because it was part of a collection a friend gave to me last year. The Bachman Books collects four early novels King wrote under his Richard Bachman alias. I discovered after I finished Rage that this was the first novel King ever finished, which makes me a little more tolerant to some of the story’s flaws. The plot involves high school senior Charlie Decker, who suffers from severe stomach issues and bouts of violent tendencies, shooting his Algebra teacher and holding his fellow students hostage. The majority of the class eventually succumbs to a sort of Stockholm syndrome, with the exception of Ted Jones, a popular, well-respected student.
One of the best things Rage has going for it is the familiar relationship King establishes between all the students. These are high school seniors in a small town, so the majority of them have known each other for most of their lives. They’ve grown up together. It’s established early on that Charlie isn’t interested in harming any of his fellow students (with maybe the exception of that smug bastard Ted Jones), so the class turns into a group therapy session, reflecting on the collective hell that the public education system can provide. Being not so far removed from my home high school life, I was easily able to imagine myself in a familiar classroom with a particular group of students, some of whom I talked to daily, some of whom I knew since kindergarten but hadn’t talked to in years. What if one of them had decided to hold my class hostage? Would the fraternity of our collective adolescent experience be enough to make me commiserate with my kidnapper? It’s an interesting question that the book mostly gets right until it doesn’t. The climax struck me as a little hysterical considering the tone that King had established in the classroom, and the overall story suffers because of it.
More than one school shooting has been linked to Rage, leading King to take the book out of print. I respect that decision. It’s a book with a lot of interesting ideas that King completists will want to check out, but ultimately not one that needs to exist if it’s inspired a single person to emulate the protagonist.
READY PLAYER ONE by Ernest Cline
In my never-ending quest to be that asshole who tells everyone they knew about a particular pop-culture phenomenon before anybody else, I picked up this book. It came nerd-approved by Wil Wheaton who narrated the audio-book. The A.V. Club gave it an A, a rare occurrence. Warner Brothers bought the movie rights ten months before the book was even published. I was all ready to see the trailer in the theater and turn to my friends to say, “Oh, I read the book ages ago.”
I still get to do that, but now I get to add, “It was terrible.” Because it was terrible.
Maybe if this book had been marketed as a young adult novel I would be more forgiving. The concept is a pretty good one for a young adult trilogy: After a video game designer develops a totally immersive, wide-ranging virtual reality system, Earth’s population chooses to seek sanctuary from the ruined global economy and decaying planet by spending as much time in the game as possible. Basically, Second Life becomes everybody’s First Life. When the game’s creator dies, it’s revealed that he’s hidden an easter egg somewhere in the massive online world (the OASIS). Whoever solves the clues and finds the egg will receive the creator’s fortune, basically more money than the entire population of the United States has combined.
Sounds interesting, right? The book has all the elements for a really fun YA sci-fi series: the opportunity for massive world building; a socially awkward protagonist who becomes an unwitting hero; a bro-tastic best friend; a female love interest, with more brains and ambition than her male counterparts; a looming, faceless corporate villain.
Oh, did I mention that the key to solving the puzzle clues is that you have to know EVERYTHING about ‘80s pop culture? No? Well forget everything else I said before that because it doesn’t matter. There’s an entire culture developed in this book of people who become obsessed with ‘80s culture. They quote Ferris Bueller at each other. They play Galaga. They memorize every episode of Growing Pains. Basically, all of the heroes in this book know everything about everything that happened in the ‘80s and they want you to know they know. They want you to feel bad that you don’t know what they know. There are entire sections of this book in which the protagonist is just listing shows and movies he likes. This book is the equivalent of those bitter nerds sitting in the corner of the cafeteria who won’t let you play Dungeons & Dragons because your Tolkein nerd boners don’t measure up to theirs. Only complete devotion is worthy of reward. This book is everything that’s wrong with nerd culture today.
I said that this might make a good start to YA series, but this is actually just a 300-page stand-alone novel, and it’s terribly paced. When the narrator isn’t waxing rhapsodic about Thundercats, he’s explaining the rules of the world, of which there are millions. I would start to explain some of them, but I might have a seizure. When he isn’t explaining the rules or bragging about having read every Devo biography, he’s engaging in laughably bad dialogue. Most of it consists of the protagonist saying “something something Return of the Jedi reference,” and his best friend responding “You da man!” Oh, and there’s the actual puzzles they have to solve, which all consist of knowing some obscure Ladyhawke reference, and then reciting all of the dialogue of a movie or getting the perfect score in a video game. If there’s anything less interesting than watching someone play Pac-Man, it’s reading about someone playing Pac-Man.
I could go on and on but it’ll take all day. Unless you grew up in the ‘80s and think that the pop culture you grew up with is the only worthy entertainment that ever existed and that “kids these days” should be forced to listen to every Genesis album, don’t read this book.
Oh, and Wil Wheaton is the president of OASIS, if you wondering if maybe he had any conflicting interest when he recommended this book.
CLOUD ATLAS by David Mitchell
Thank god I waited to see the movie until I read the book. The movie, which stars Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and a bunch of nose putty, is a beautiful disaster. I won’t go into why, because I want to focus on the book, but I will say that it’s such an ambitious failure, you have to respect it. The film is almost three hours long, and it consists of some of the strangest editing I’ve ever seen, but it’s never boring.
The book consists of six connected stories, each taking place at a different point in time. The design of the book resembles a Russian nesting doll: the first half of each story is told and then the second halves of each story in reverse order. So you don’t get the conclusion of the first story until the very end. Whether or not the layout is gimmicky is up for debate (Mitchell actually comments on his worries about how the book will received when one of his characters writes a symphony with the same format), but it is effective. Every time a story cut off, I wanted the conclusion but was given an equally engrossing new story instead; when the book U-turns around for the second half, it’s six satisfactory endings in a row.
The stories range in theme and tone from a series of letters written by a young, brilliant composer to ex-lover, to a campfire tale about a brutal post-apocalyptic adventure. On the surface, the stories don’t seem to be connected in any obvious way. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad shares some similar themes, but each of the stories in her collection share a set amount of characters so as to show the way each person has grown over time. Each of Mitchell’s protagonists reads the story that came before their own (whether it be a manuscript submitted to a publisher or a discovered diary), but other than that, the style of each story is wildly different. If somebody presented me with any two of the six stories in Cloud Atlas, I wouldn’t be able to tell you that they were written by the same man. The diary of the 19th century notary detailing his tragic journey through the South pacific is markedly different is from the ‘70s corporate thriller about a journalist trying to uncover a conspiracy at a nuclear power, which is markedly different from the comical tale of a wily book publisher trying to escape a retirement home, and so on. The fact that Mitchell is able to write in six different styles, and each, convincingly, is pretty amazing.
What the stories do share is a theme, which is nothing less than the fate of humanity. In each story, the protagonist, in a different way, overcomes the inevitable savagery of humanity to exist as beacon of hope for our survival. Whether or not there are enough beacons (or comets, according to the book) to keep us from plunging into darkness is questionable, but Cloud Atlas is still optimistic. This book made me happy in a way that I didn’t want to read anything else for a while in order to fully absorb it.
FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury
Despite the fact that this is one of the most popular sci-fi books assigned in American high schools, I wasn’t asked to read it until my senior year in college for a class called Issues in Publishing. The class focused on censorship and its effects on book industry, which could have been interesting, if it hadn’t been taught by a lazy, pompous, uninterested professor who was about two semesters away from retiring. More than half class dropped the course after the midterm, including myself, so I never got to read the book. I noticed it on my shelf the other day and felt guilty about not having read such a classic, especially considering that it’s so short.
I would never be so pretentious as to present my take on Fahrenheit 451 as some new, interesting commentary on the book. Like I said, it’s a sci-fi classic and everybody’s examined it a thousand times over. Bradbury’s writing is gorgeous. There’s absolutely nothing ironic about his devotion to the necessity of free speech and books in society. His philosophies are explicitly written at times in the book, via the Faber character, making this more of a concept novel than a fully realized world. It’s under 200 pages, so Bradbury gets in, sets up the table dressing, states his thematic purpose and gets out—no dilly dallying. The themes hold up today, especially Bradbury’s damning of the American public for allowing a dumbing down of entertainment.
I’m glad I read it, but this is a book to be appreciated more than loved. That’s probably why it’s taught in high school.
THE PSYCHOPATH TEST by Jon Ronson
I’ve been making a concerted effort to read more nonfiction. Other than a few exceptions (In Cold Blood, Slouching Towards Bethlehem) I can’t think of many books I’ve read recently that aren’t novels or collections of short stories. I heard Jon Ronson on Julie Klausner’s “How Was Your Week?” podcast, and I thought he was so pleasantly weird that I really wanted to read something of his.
I don’t know if Ronson comes up with a definitive answer by the end of his book, but he does supply us with the evidence to determine for ourselves: Is there any concrete method of labeling somebody a psychopath, and if we could, what would we do with them? Ronson profiles a group of potential psychopaths (all men) who have scored high enough on Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist—the industry standard—to be considered potentially dangerous. These men range from a Fortune 500 CEO to an exiled African war criminal to a man who pretended to be crazy in order to avoid going to a dangerous prison and instead ended up in an insane asylum for three times longer than his maximum sentence. Ronson also spends a considerable amount of time on Bob Hare himself, and other psychiatrists who have sought to define and treat psychopathy.
I enjoyed Ronson’s writing, which was light and humorous in spite of a serious topic. The choice to make himself a visible character in the book works out well, as I was able to place myself in his shoes while he interviewed each psychopath. I examined each man in the book, and later, each person in my life, to see if I knew any potential psychopaths. Ronson is able to prove the point that when we start looking for psychopaths, especially given a handy-dandy, easy to use checklist, we’ll find them everywhere. This is more of a current diagnosis on the psychiatry industry than an examination of the human mind, and Ronson has been criticized because of it. Many psychiatrists have stated that the book portrays their field as overly simplistic, but I think that was Ronson’s point. When you put every patient through the same twenty question test to see if they’re a psychopath, you’re taking the humanity out of it. And who determines who passes and who fails?