Tuesday, May 30, 2017

OT: Wanna See Something Crazy?

It's been quiet here for too damn long. Why don't we just burn the whole bastard down?

So last weekend was Busker Fest in this neck of the woods, and it seemed like a fine time to kick off my next doomed project. Yes, I am now prepared to become a failed photographer and videographer in addition to everything else. Nothing serious this time - I have no intention of acquiring fame or making money off this, it's more of a form of walking meditation, if that makes sense.

You can see the end result at the Midwest Oasis Blog. Despite tearing myself down (self-hatred is my brand, after all), it actually turned out pretty well and you should check it out.

As far as this moribund little nook of the web is concerned...I am actually in line for Rod Dreher's The Benedict Option, which believe it or not is enough in demand that the library ordered additional copies. I can't promise I'll be bitching about this one, as the last time I held one of Dreher's books in my hands I only made it a dozen or so pages in before I said "Kiss my ass, you smug son of a bitch" and gave up. That's right - Dreher is more insufferable than David Brooks, Megan McArdle, Ross Douthat, Charles Murray, Mike Huckabee, and any number of other marginal wingnuts. So no promises - hell, there might not be enough meat on this bone for a stew, but we'll make do.

In the meantime...seriously, Midwest Oasis Blog. There are people over there juggling machetes and walking on glass and carrying bags of potatoes with their tongues and doing somersaults over people's heads. You'll enjoy it, I swear.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Mandibles: 2047, Chapter 1 (Getting with the Program)

Friends, bloggers, netizens, lend me your ears;
I come to bury
The Mandibles, not to praise it.
The evil that hacks do lives after them;
The good is oft interred in their pages.
So let it be with
The Mandibles.

All right, five chapters left until we're done. I've peeked ahead a little bit and not only am I more convinced than ever that this was meant to be a duology, I'm beginning to think that maybe Shriver was hoping for a trilogy. The 2047 chapters are radically different than the rest of the book. With only around 160 pages left - between 35k and 40k words using my estimates - we're going to meet new characters, learn that some of the existing ones have died, and absorb a titanic amount of worldbuilding (including more terrible slang) - and all without giving up on the author's beloved speeches. This really feels like it should have been a novel in its own right rather than an overlong denouement, but frankly it's not like I would have read another novel by this woman so maybe that's for the best.

We're back with Willing, slightly less obnoxious as an adult, headed back to the house that in the narrative he abandoned 15 years ago and in the book we saw about 15 pages ago. Yes, after contriving a home invasion to get the characters out of that particular set, we're now back in the wink of an eye.
Asserting his claim to 335 East Fifty-Fifth Street also entailed having its current residents evicted. Now paid handsomely in dolares nuevos linked to the mighty bancor, the NYPD undertook such tasks with forbidding relish...Oh, Sam, Tanya, Ellie, and Jake had long ago been replaced by other usurpers. If the condition of the house was anything to go by, recent residents had been less genteel...
Wait, why are we talking about this? What about the last fifteen years and the great exodus to Gloversville?
In 2032, he had raided gardens, pilfered orchards, and held up convenience stores to feel their bedraggled party on the long trek north...
...Working the land at [the farm] was never the same after the federal government nationalized the farms. The Mandibles were demoted to sharecroppers.
You can see why Shriver couldn't depict any of this. If she actually included anything interesting in her novel, then she'd lose all of her literary writer cred.

A few more little details pop up. Willing now has a girlfriend, Fifa, who is...well, horrible, but I'm sure you could have guessed that. We'll be getting better acquainted with this 11th hour acquaintance in the following chapters. For now, we've got more fast-forward worldbuilding to dispatch:
When Willing was small, people made a great brouhaha over pedophilia...
Uh...I don't like where this is heading.
Willing was raped.
Willing was not raped, and I'm glad because I really didn't need to see this author try to depict sexual violence. Rather, this was one of those metaphorical rapes that tasteless authors love so dearly, in this his being "chipped." The rest of the chapter concerns the dreaded chip, frequent flyer in many a terrible near-future book. This is the big change in the 2047 chapters - Shriver abandons that whole "Most Realistic Dystopia Ever" shtick and turns the novel into a fairly generic near-future sci-fi tome, complete with the usual THE FUTURE! notes and even more right-wing tropes.

So let's talk about this chip:
He fought a rising panic as she swung a mechanism behind him and leveled it at the base of his skull - a soft, tender depression, undefended. Glass and chrome maybe, but the device looked like a gun.
Yes, it goes in the base of the skull. Some of you who've actually read up about RFID chips (perhaps because of that implant database that convinced a lot of wingnuts that the scenario we're about to see was plausible) might find this a bit hard to swallow, if for no other reason than the fact that such implants need to integrate into fatty tissue such as that found in the arm or leg. Hell, even putting it in the hand like in some awful evangelical subculture novel seems like it would make more sense. Well, Shriver has an explanation for this was to "keep you from digging it out." That's hilarious to me, as it's also established that the chip is so absurdly sensitive to biochemical changes that it's capable of stopping an intoxicated person from gambling or even stopping a person held at gunpoint from making transfers by sensing their stress. Yet apparently there's no way to stop someone from removing the damn thing except by jacking it straight into his spine, in a way that seems like it could cause paralysis or massive generalized pain if it shifts at all.

Most of this chapter is what I've previously called "plot spackle" - introducing a new plot element and then inserting more plot to cover over the holes that some nasty ol' critic might find. For example, my first thought was that all of this seemed unnecessary - after all, it the Evil Future Government wanted to track people and financial transactions without anyone's consent, why not use biometrics? That technology already exists, and with sufficient accuracy and ubiquity it could be used to facilitate money transfers and even follow people around a la the Cybercog FASTR system from The Oasis is Burning or the similar system in The Fabulist (what can I say? Surveillance defines my world). But that won't work, because "hackers had learned to duplicate [them] as fast as the novel authentications had been brought in." Well, that's convenient.

All right, so what about hackers? And what about mundane network failures that would put an end to all transactions and send the system into turmoil? In the first part of the book, we're told that electronic transactions are virtually unheard of thanks to the "Stone Age," so why is everyone cool with it now? Well, it seems that the chips are "unhackable" (because why not just say that?) and everyone is now cool with those electronic transfers that they once feared because the Future Evil Government paid them off, the dumb sheep. And as far as network failures...well, I guess that doesn't happen, either. It's not like complex systems ever fail or anything.

All of this is part of a scheme by the Bureau for Social Contribution Assistance (read: the IRS) to tax everyone to death. We'll deal with them later, as they're the villains in this briefest of sequels. For now, all you need to know is that the filthy Keynesians are taxing people at 77 percent, with negative interest rates for savings because SAVINGS ARE BAD. Keynesians believe that, right? That's totally a plausible policy in the Most Realistic Dystopian Novel Ever Written.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Mandibles: 2029, Chapter 14 (A Complex System Enters Disequilibrium)

A.K.A. Nothing Says "Hostage Situation" Like An Academic Term From An Organizational Studies Textbook

Chapter 14 is the last chapter before the big fifteen year timeskip. That means we have just thirty pages to scoop up all of the fragments of plot and paste them into a coherent whole before starting our great expedition into the future of THE FUTURE! Does our fearless author pull this off? Well...kinda. It helps that the whole story has been designed (contrived, one might say) to lead to this very point. So let's try to clear this bastard out of the way as efficiently as possible that we might get to what I'm told is the really bad shit.

Since we've already established that Willing, in addition to being soulless, is also smarter than the rest of the cast combined, it's fitting that we start with him. It turns out that Willing has prepared a bug-out bag because of course he has. He'll also spend most of this chapter ordering everyone around - you know, I really didn't think I could hate the little bastard anymore, but here we are. He's even put together enough to crack wise with the hostage taker:
"Can't you shut [Luella] up?" Sam pleaded.
"Greater men than I have tried," Willing said.
Anyway, the plan is to head out to the Prospect Park homeless camp Kurt mentioned many chapters ago:
"Take warm clothes," Willing directed. "Wear multiple layers so you don't have to carry them. Remember to bring something waterproof. Fill the plastic bottles in the old recycling container with tap water."
What the blue fuck? What tap water, you little freak? There's no tap water! There hasn't been any tap water for 441 pages! The very first goddamn line in this book is about how there isn't enough clean water for three people, let alone thirteen! How do you forget this? What kind of hack...

...I'm sorry, I seem to have had a fit. I'm okay now.

All right, let's skim...Willing is basically psychic, we've established that...ah, the family makes one last attempt to take out the invaders:
Looming on the stoop in the open doorway, Carter raised both hands high behind Sam's back. As his blanket flew backwards, he plunged a gleaming foot-long implement into the interloper's shoulder.
For the record, Carter just stabbed the gunman with this:

He even cracks a joke about it:
"Asparagus tongs," Carter declared unapologetically, eyes wide and black. He nodded at the gun. "Go ahead. Make my day."
I'm sorry to say that no one gets shot in this scene. Each and every one of these miserable bastards will be alive at the end of the chapter.

So, the camp. This part is from Lowell's POV - I have no clue why, but once you've read far enough into any bad novel you quit questioning why your torturer does anything. I'm not entirely sure how long they stay here, but this section can't span more than a few days. There's a little talk about food and a lot of talk about defecation (because it's transgressive!). Savannah still isn't back and won't be returning. Then Florence - the one source of income - leaves her job after a man attacks her with a blow torch. In short, we've reached the Final Chapter.

Quick question - how many of you think that this book sucks so bad that the author would actually use the term "Final Chapter" in the dialogue? Would anyone reading this be shocked at all?
"He's right. You've done your part, Mom." Willing had reappeared. With an obscure glance at Nollie, he announced, "We've reached the Final Chapter."
I'm not mad, I'm just disappointed. Actually, I'm mad and disappointed, but not at Shriver. I save those emotions for the industry and the literary circles that prop up this garbage.

This isn't actually the final chapter, although I feel like it was meant to be. Like Agenda 21, my previous incursion into terrible dystopian fiction, The Mandibles has the feel of a two-volume set. The timeskip gimmick is so conceptually awkward that I don't believe at all that this was the original intention. We can explore that possibility further once we get to the other side of that barrier, but I wanted to put the possibility out there.

This is where it all comes together. A whole bunch of disparate points from earlier in the novel are now assembled and pasted together with generous amounts of serendipity and coincidence. Here's what goes down, in convenient bullet point form:
  • The new destination is Gloversville, home to elusive prepper Jarred and his farm (mentioned first in Chapter 2). Those menacing farm hands just left after awhile, so I guess I was right after all.
  • Willing trades one of the goblets (saved from the government goons in Chapter 6) for a gun (which he mentioned in Chapter 12). You know, it's funny that this armed stranger in this criminal urban nightmare didn't just rob Willing. It's also surprising that anyone in this situation would trade a utilitarian device for a lump of metal with no practical value. Whatever, I'm long past caring about small shit like this.
  • The people in the camp are building shutters to protect the things, so the Home Depot hinges that Avery was buying up back in Chapter 11 are suddenly tradable for food. Yes, really.
  • Savannah isn't coming along on this voyage, but everyone else is - thirteen people in all.
  • Oh yeah, almost forgot - this is the point where they're walking Luella on a leash. I must just be numb to everything because I'm not as shocked by this as I should be.
Here's where it gets tricky. The family had to abandon the car along with everything else when Sam et al stormed the house. That means that they're going to have to walk nearly two hundred miles to reach prepper Jarred's farm. Two hundred miles - that's not such a tall order for a single healthy adult or a small group. Perhaps some of you have hiked this far. But this is a far different scenario. There are thirteen people here carrying limited supplies and wearing clothing and footwear that are likely inappropriate for the journey. Several people in this group are elderly, including one man (Douglas) who's pushing one hundred. And with society in a state of legal and moral freefall, there's no telling what kind of monsters they could find out there. Sure, the unimpeachably brilliant Willing insists that everything's fine outside of the cities, but I'm not sure how his crystal ball extends to the interstate.

We're looking at a brutal, weeks-long trek into unknown territory. It's highly likely that several people will die along the way. This is shaping up to be sort of a weird contemporary urban Oregon Trail, and much like that game I'm sure that at least some of these people will shit themselves to death. For that briefest of moments, it feels like this novel and this writer could finally produce something interesting.

And then...


...it never happens. We skip over the whole thing.

You heard me. One moment, we're gearing up for a hazardous journey. Then it's fifteen years later and we're looking back over what happened.

466 pages. 466 pages of speeches about economic theories, dinner party chatter, off-hand discussion over things happening elsewhere, volumes of detail on characters voiding their bowels, and dozens and dozens of pages of internal monologue courtesy of a spectacular set of assholes. And just as soon as something interesting comes up, we skip over it.

Did I mention that this chapter ends in a murder-suicide? No? Well, that's because I initially missed it. Yes, it seems that our author decided that she didn't want to deal with Douglas and Luella any longer, so she disposed of them. Then the chapter ended. No mourning. No shock from the characters who just witnessed a gruesome act of violence by and against members of their own family. That's very appropriate, because I feel like the story just died here (even though it's going to lurch onward for another 150 pages or so) and I feel nothing.

A fifteen-year gap...you know, it occurs to me that I wrote a novel - The Fabulist - that has parallel narratives set fifteen years apart. Most of it covers a man's trek across a post-apocalyptic state (Illinois, in this case), often saddled with weaker people who slow his progress. There's violence, natural hazard, moral decisions, and personal discoveries. It took two years to finish up the final manuscript. Would that I could have approached it the Lionel Shriver way. Would that I could have made money by writing an account of Storyteller sitting in a bunker, watching him manage supplies, keeping very close track of his bathroom activities, and occasionally having him pontificate at length about how everyone else is less intelligent than he is - and then, once the vault opened, skipping ahead to the end of the grand journey and having him reflect on all those things I didn't show the audience.

Actually, no. No, I don't wish that at all. That sounds like it would be as boring to write as it would be to read. More so, even. Literary writers never seen like they enjoy what they do - oh, they derive some sense of self-satisfaction out of their scribblings and the literary community's reactions, but they don't find any joy in the craft, not like those littlebrain genre writers. I find it hard to believe that Shriver liked writing the previous 466 pages, not like she would have had she actually described the great journey that was about to unfold.

Tune in next time, when we'll find out what's on the other side of that time skip. Maybe we'll be surprised and it'll be great. The odds technically are not zero.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Mandibles: 2029, Chapter 13 (Karmic Clumping II)

So you're not going to believe this - I still don't believe it - but here, at the two-third mark, we're finally going to get some genuine tension. For the first time in close to 100k words, Shriver will forego her efforts to create a Les Miserables for the wine and cheese set and actually put in something that an average person might find compelling.

...In the second half of the chapter. The first half is SOP, starting with six pages of Carter complaining (internally) about how much he hates having his dad and crazy ol' Luella around. There are also some more scatological references - gore and kink don't shock 'em like they used to, but poop always does the trick - not to mention some real laffers about politics:
Naturally, the Republicans were a write-off; the leading GOP contender had branded Dante Alvarado "Herberto Hoovero," an epithet widely decried as racist.
Two things. One: I know that all of you are currently laughing at the prospect of a Republican presidential candidate losing the election for saying things offensive to Mexicans, but as far as I can tell this was not intended as a joke. Two: The more I read, the more I suspect that Shriver's speech about being oppressed was a planned stunt and the only thing that really went wrong was that more people didn't complain about the racism.
Yet the president was battling a serious challenge for the nomination from the leftwing grandee Jon Stewart...
Because only a bunch of stupid liberals would ever be foolish enough to nominate someone they saw on TV.

...Seriously though Shriver, you really need to lay off the topical humor, you're no good at it. Each one of these jokes is an icepick in my side.

This dismal scene concludes with Luella somehow setting the house on fire. That's not the tense part - it's over in one paragraph with nary a casualty sustained. However, it is an excuse to cram the last of the Mandibles into Florence's home. At this point, some of you might be struggling to keep track of everyone in this house, so here's a little chart to help out, with POV characters marked in bold:
  • Douglas - A.K.A. "Grand Man." Currently not doing much of anything.
    • Carter - Grandfather to the protagonists. Currently waiting for Douglas and Luella to die.
    • Jayne - Grandmother to the protagonists. Currently hiding from everyone.
      • Florence - Soft-headed liberal. Currently taking care of everyone.
        • Willing - Alpha precocious child and burgeoning sociopath. Currently annoying me to death.
      • Esteban - Florence's boyfriend, token Hispanic, speaks perfect English con ciertas palabras en EspaƱol. Currently cooking mucha comida Mexicana.
      • Avery - Florence's right-wing jerkbag sister. Currently pretending to be a good person so that Florence doesn't show her up.
      • Lowell - Avery's husband. Fallen economics professor, latent pervert. Currently losing the last of his marbles.
        • Savannah - Incest bait. Currently prostituting herself.
        • Big Pete - Beta precocious child. Currently...actually, I'm not sure what he's doing right now. Getting beaten up, I guess.
        • Little Pete - Whiny moppet. Currently sneaking so much food that he's actually getting fat (How do you sneak food that's not precooked, anyway?).
    • Nollie - Your zany aunt. Currently being an asshole to everyone.
  • Luella - Douglas's feebleminded second wife. Currently being offensive to the reader.
      • Kurt - Just some dude. Not a Mandible, terrible teeth, too nice for his own good. Currently blending into the background so that the author doesn't have to give him dialogue.
That's potentially fourteen characters to keep track of in every single scene. We've got something of a break right now because Savannah's gone, dropping us to lucky number 13. By comparison, I once had an agent reject Nerd World (with a grand total of seventeen named characters in the entire narrative, and never more than four in any given scene) because he felt it had too many characters and it was confusing to keep track of them.

...Come to think of it, a couple agents rejected Nerd World on the grounds that the multiple POVs didn't add anything because they weren't telling different stories (because who the hell would read a story featuring different unreliable perspectives on the same set of events?). Meanwhile, The Mandibles has a rather restricted omniscient narrator who can only follow five characters, constituting three households (Florence's, Avery's and Carter's), and four of those POVs have been in the same spot for a hundred pages, and now all five of then are.

If I didn't know better, I'd swear that all of these rules for writing are a dodge to keep the lowborn in their proper station while also preserving the myth that literature is not beholden to the same brand- and celebrity-driven furor that drives the "lesser" forms of entertainment, even as established (and this easily marketable) authors freely break the rules and write unreadable dross that's readily celebrated by a sycophantic corps of reviewers. But that would be cynical, and we're not cynics here, are we?

Anyway, I promised tension, and tension you shall get. After the jump, because I'm feeling puckish today.

But seriously, Aaron Baines Bellamy is a much more interesting teenaged sociopath than Willing Darkly. Any grindhouse hack can write a killer kid, that earns no points with me.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Mandibles: 2029, Chapter 12 (Agency, Reward and Sacrifice)

And then it all starts moving so very fast, and yet it's still such a tiresome, gray thing. Soon, we will come across the big time jump, launching us a full generation into the future, but for now we're trapped in this moribund hulk of a plotless universe. The author, perhaps dreaming of that future time when things will change and she'll no longer be shackled to this rotting beast, hurries forward, and yet the end is always one more page away. I can share this misery, the pain of filling out that agonizing stretch of uneven country road that runs between the thrilling start and the dramatic conclusion. Would that she given some thought to the lost souls reading these dismal passages and left some sign of life along the way.

...Sorry, I was rambling.
[Avery]...splayed the cash on the kitchen counter. "It's not the same quality of paper. The ink isn't right, either. It's brighter. Greener. Garish."
So begins six pages of old-fogey-friendly text of Avery expounding on the one dollar bill - it's design, it's symbolism. I remember a passage from The Handmaid's Tale in which the protagonist, living in a world of all electronic transactions, spoke of hard currency as totemic in nature. That was an interesting observation. This character, by contrast, just sounds very baked. Six pages - that's nearly one-sixth of this chapter. Probably around fifteen hundred words. In some of my books, that's a whole chapter.

A whole chapter on this image.

Now it's time for Lowell to whine about his life for a few thousand words. I'm so glad that Lowell is one of our POV characters, it's such a happy world inside his head.

Oh, it sounds like there's been another mini-timeskip. I think it's December now, I'm not really sure. So what happened during that little gap? Jarred showed up? That's great. Oh, we don't get to actually meet him? We just hear via Lowell what he did while he was there? So we've still never heard any dialogue from Jarred, and we don't know what he looks like, but we do know that he's making a killing in produce. I guess this means he solved that whole "held in thrall to scary farm workers" thing, huh? Will we hear how that turned out? No? Stellar.

Hey, have you been wondering what happened to the dinner party guests from Chapter 5? No? Well, too bad. They're doing fine. Tom and Belle are coasting on government money, while Ryan and Lin Yu are raking in money (that they can't actually spend because it's in bancors) through the masterful tactic of marking their book down to $0.99 on the future equivalent of KDP (And what do you know, people do still conduct electronic transactions). So that's the secret, is it?
Typically, too, Biersdorfer and his sexy Asian yes-woman spent little to no time in the US these days...
Lionel Shriver, I hate that you're doing this. You'll never understand why I feel such deep enmity over something so very small, but it's real. Perhaps one day I'll have a chance to go to Brisbane and give a whiny speech about you.

But then, an actual happening occurs. Lowell gets his back pay from the University, and goes to the supermarket, where he gets mugged at knifepoint. That's interesting, isn't it? A character getting shaken down by a pair of goons?
Perhaps their routine was sufficiently established that the duo was bored by it, for rather than focus on the business at hand, Lowell's new friends chatted between then about an all-agricultural mutual fund that was doing improbably well, then commiserated over their favorite sushi bar on Liberty Street in lower Manhattan having finally closed. Were they indeed former Wall Street financiers, the segue from one form of larceny to another could only have been graceful.
Oh, so it was just the setup for a joke? Ha ha ha. I am so wracked with laughter that I can scarcely type.

Now we're in Willing's head, trying to talk Nollie into letting the family use her books for kindling. I wonder what those books are about - you can never really tell from the titles. I guess that doesn't matter so much, much like this vignette.

Then there's another mini-timeskip, and now it's 2032. We've danced across almost half a year in just thirty-seven pages. I wonder what criteria were used to demarcate these chapters? They're not defined by time or POV or theme. This whole chapter just seems like a cluster of miscellaneous scenes that were too thin to stand on their own.

Our final scene here is Willing mugging a fifth grader for a bag of groceries. Yes, really. He uses a sock full of pennies to do it. It's not depicted anywhere, but I don't think this is his first attack because at some point during that last skip Willing must have taken Subtlety out to the countryside and beaten it stupid. This notion of poverty turning people into soulless predators eagerly devouring the weak is obviously despicable, but I'm sure it has some purchase with that same herd of literary swine who hail as "edgy" any novel with a sociopath for a protagonist.

Do you know what the final line in this chapter is? After Florence rejects the notion of getting a gun, Willing explains the need thusly:
"To protect us," Willing said, "from people like me."
The author's most famous work - earning her the full-throated and orgasmic praise of the brand-chasing pisshounds who stalk around at the edge of the literary world - concerned a homicidal moppet. That same work then generated a second wave of radiantly glorious praise from a different group of onanistic aesthetes when it was turned into a film. With that record, perhaps it was inevitable that she would try for a repeat performance. If pushing a button on this keyboard summoned praise and book deals, I'd press it a second time.

Oh, for an opportunity to push that button, even just once. But mine is only to analyze those results and wait until that $0.99 e-book to yield me a fortune like the characters in the story.