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 Español. 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.

So it starts off with the doorbell:
[Avery] recognized the family through the peephole as neighbors from a couple of streets over - the Wellingtons, or Warburtons, something with a W. The woman (Tara? Tilly?) had participated in Avery's last hand-me-down exchange...
"...My little girl," the mother went on, bouncing the child. "She's awfully sick. We have to get her to the hospital. We can't find a taxi, and the ER at Kings County won't send ambulances because they're getting hijacked."
Why would they hijack ambulances? Never mind. We've now got four more characters to track - Tanya, her husband Sam, an eleven-year-old named Jake and Ellie, the infant. That brings the total up to seventeen, know, novice writers often ask how many characters is too many in a single scene. Answers vary, but I'm quite sure that seventeen is too many. I can't even imagine how they're arranged here.

Avery senses something awry, but doesn't do anything just yet:
"Could we have a glass of water for Ellie? She's burning up."
"Sure, no problem."
Excuse me? You've been talking about water shortages for 426 nard-gargling pages, and now a tall, refreshing glass is "no problem"? Why do I care more about your stupid universe than you do?

...Sorry about that, hit a nerve there.

The important part is that once they're all inside, Sam draws a gun and order the entire group to vacate the house. Now, the presence of a firearm - especially in the hands of a desperate, distraught person - automatically ratchets up the suspense. This is officially a hostage situation; there's a good chance that someone will die here. But I'll tell you, Shriver does everything she possibly can to drain the tension out of this moment - starting, as always, with the oh-so-plausible dialogue:
"How do you know we don't have guns?" Florence said furiously.
"You're not the type," [Sam] said.
"Honey," Tanya said. "You weren't the type, either."
"I am now, baby." The swagger was unconvincing.
None of this is convincing.

The assembled company try to talk Sam and Tanya out of running them out of the house, but the dialogue here is too calm and way, way too cerebral for the situation. Even a man waving a handgun is not enough to stop the goddamn speeches, not with this author. One by one, the family members explain with impeccable logic why Sam shouldn't steal their house and Sam deflects their arguments with his own counterarguments, but there's no sense of urgency here. The discourse isn't any more emotional than that wretched dinner party in Chapter 5 - hell, crazy aunt Nollie is still cracking little jokes ("[she] snarled like a crazy old lady who lured little boys with gingerbread, and Jake shrank in terror"). And gunman Sam doesn't seem harried or tense - oh, she tells us he is, but she's not nearly a good enough writer to put the point across through the actual narrative. I'm not buying any of this.

But there's another problem that kills the tension that this scene should deliver. Now that the gang's all here, and they're all in jeopardy, I realize that I don't care if any of them live or die. Even when Sam specifically threatened Little Pete, I felt nothing. These aren't people to me, they're hollow vessels into which Lionel Shriver pours a dishwater-tinged compound of clichéd political arguments and awkward, inhuman dialogue. I say shoot one of them, Sam. Shoot a couple - should make it easier to keep track of everyone. Hey, if you take out enough of them, it might spare us that stupid timeskip nonsense which even the people who claim to like this admit is clumsy and tacked-on.

Alas, I must pretend to care about this, if only to finish the series. Stay tuned, because we won't see the "thrilling" conclusion until Chapter 14.

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