Category: Science Fiction

Why is it so hard for writers to give satisfying endings to series? On TV, I can only think of a handful of truly stellar series finales (Lost, M*A*S*H, Six Feet Under) while I can name a litany of programs that either had miserable finales (The Sopranos, Seinfeld) or should have ended long before their final season (cough cough Dexter cough cough). Books don’t get off any easier. I love the Dark Tower series, and I don’t have the same spiteful reaction that many fans have to its controversial ending, but I recognize that Stephen King could have probably delivered something slightly more satisfying. I also love Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows but there’s still no logical explanation for why Harry didn’t die in those woods (I don’t think the series should have ended with Harry’s death but J.K. Rowling shouldn’t have written herself into that corner). With Suzanne Collins history of writing rushed and hackneyed endings for The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, it should be no surprise that the series itself comes to an artificially forced conclusion in Mockingjay.

Spoilers beware for anyone who hasn’t finished Catching Fire (obviously, I’ll try not to spoil any major plot of points of Mockingjay). After destroying the force field surrounding the Quarter Quell’s arena in the last book, Katniss, Finnick, and Beetee have been rescued by the rebel factions opposing the tyrannical Capitol. The rebels are led by the long thought to be destroyed District 13 which ekes out a livable by strict life underground as they prepare to go to war against the Capitol. However, Peeta (and fellow former victor Johanna) was captured by the Capitol and is being used as a propaganda tool by the evil President Snow. District 13 wants Katniss to become the symbol of the rebellion, and although Katniss initially has questions about their motives and methods, she eventually agrees as she helps to rally the fight to rescue Peeta, take back the 11 Districts (since 12 was destroyed at the end of Catching Fire), and overthrow the government of Panem.

While I felt that Mockingjay stumbled in many respects (especially the ending but more on that later), one of the surprising areas where it succeeded was setting up such a morally ambiguous and brutal tale of war. The main powers that are standing up to the Capitol (District 13) are nearly as totalitarian as Panem. If you replaced the rampant greed of the Capitol and its use of the serfdom of the Districts with an essentially Marxist sense of egalitarian communalism, you’d get District 13. Either way, the power in both governments is centered in a very small group of people. Katniss (in her never-ending and often unnecessary inner monologue) constantly reflects on the morally questionable things that District 13 asks her to do for the war effort, but then Suzanne Collins always helps cement the ambiguity by presenting the moral necessity of removing the cruel and brutal Capitol. How far do you go before you become as bad as the despots you overthrow? It’s a question all revolutions face and its at the core of a young adult novel of all things.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising that Collins does not shy away from graphic descriptions of the horrors of war considering all that she put her characters through in the previous two books. Yet, I still can’t think of a single young adult book that dealt with war in as serious and brutal a manner as Mockingjay. Katniss becomes a soldier in this book, and if Suzanne Collins tried to have Katniss only kill when absolutely necessary in The Hunger Games, she is forced to kill a ton of enemy soldiers (and even a civilian in a truly shocking moment) to keep herself and her loved ones alive. Actually, by the end of the novel, Katniss has become such a cold-blooded killer that I couldn’t tell if Collins was advocating those actions are making a comment on how war changes people. In fact, the brutality of the novel almost becomes one of its flaws because at times it almost seems like Collins is going on a Heinlein-esque ode to militarism.

If you thought the ending to Catching Fire was abrupt, it has nothing on Mockingjay. For two straight books now, it’s almost like Suzanne Collins has another 200 pages or so planned out in her head but then she has to rush to the finish line because the book’s due date was coming up. This is what happens when you stick to a one book a year release schedule. I don’t want to spoil anything about the ending because it contains a handful of truly shocking moments, but it was painfully obvious that there was a lot more to this story. There were a million dangling plot threads, but Collins must have realized she was running out of time because she made a massive author’s saving throw to bring it all to a close. Whether the ending is remotely satisfying will be up to each individual reader, but for me, it was a mess that managed to rush the climax and then drag the ending out more than it should.

Well, the series is finally over. I’m not sure what I’m going to read next. Neil Gaiman (who responded to me on Twitter!!!!!!!!!) just announced that he’s writing a prequel to the Sandman series so maybe I’ll do my semi-annual re-reading of my favorite book series ever. I used to read it like once a year but it’s been two now. I feel it’s high time to get back in the swing of that awesome book series. Although at the same time, I sort of want to read something more serious. I have On the Road which I’ve never read and I’d like to read it before I see the movie. Anyways, I don’t regret the time I spent with The Hunger Games trilogy. As I’ve said before, Suzanne Collins is a mostly excellent storyteller who just happens to be a terrible writer (her prose is abysmal but I’ve beat that dead horse enough in the reviews of the first two books). However, by the end of Mockingjay I came to a conclusion. She isn’t writing children’s books. She just happens to be writing semi-mature themed books that are enjoyed by children because she’s only capable of writing at their level.

Final Score: B-

My feelings about Suzanne Collins’ breakthrough novel (and worldwide sensation) The Hunger Games are complicated. I think that Suzanne Collins is an accomplished storyteller and her sense of pacing and suspense are superb. However, she is the clumsiest “writer” (in the literal sense of the word) that I can think of in modern, popular fiction. Her vocabulary is more limited than the audience she writes to and her prose is amateurish at best. She writes the way that I imagine an especially talented middle schooler would write. And the fact that she writes young adult novels isn’t a good enough excuse. I used this analogue in my The Hunger Games review but it bears repeating. C.S. Lewis also wrote for children but there was more deft poetry and inspired imagination in his wordsmith than Collins could ever hope to imagine (thankfully her books are devoid of Lewis’ overbearing proselytizing and Biblical imagery). I read The Hunger Games back in the beginning of January before I left for New York City, and I figured I’d wait til I got home to read Catching Fire and Mockingjay. Friday, when the electricity was out, I read nearly the entirety of Catching Fire by candlelight. While Suzanne Collins has yet to improve her atrocious prose, her storytelling is on even better display in Catching Fire as the characters seem more sharply realized and the universe of Panem finally began to take a clearer shape.

After Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark foil the plans of the evil Capitol of the dystopian nation of Panem by both surviving the annual Hunger Games, Katniss knows that she has officially become an enemy of the state. After a visit from the despot known as President Snow (something tells me no one actually elected him), Katniss is informed that her act of rebellion by threatening to kill herself and Peeta (to rob the Capitol of a winner) has become a symbol of anti-Capitol resentment throughout the 12 districts of Panem. As bluntly as possible, President Snow informs her that she has til the end of her Victory Tour with Peeta (where they have to continue their charade of being star-crossed lovers) to convince the districts that she’s truly the smitten lover he knows she was pretending to be or he’ll kill her and every one she cares about. It doesn’t take long for Katniss to realize that the decks are stacked against her. The sparks of revolution are simmering across all of the districts and even the most innocent acts by Peeta and Katniss as they tour Panem have become enough to sweep the oppressed masses into rebellion. When the Victory Tour is over and President Snow makes it clear that she failed in her duty, Katniss prepares to flee into the wilderness with her family and friends but the arrival of the Quarter Quell, the 75th anniversary of the Hunger Games, and the devious machinations of President Snow means that Katniss’ fight is only just beginning.

I’ll try to keep this review short because I still need to review Sunday’s True Blood as well as my surprise movie reveal (here’s a hint. my female readers are the most likely to be interested in my review of this summer movie). I’ve said enough about Suzanne Collins’ inability to string a beautiful sentence together so I’ll skip to the ways she’s improved on her storytelling in this novel. Other than District 12 and the Capitol, the details surrounding the rest of Panem were very vague in The Hunger Games. In Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins takes the opportunity (roughly the first 200 or so pages of the book) to finally paint the scene of what her universe is like. It’s a two part morality tale. On one level it’s a child’s introduction to fascism (with hints of Battle Royale to maintain their attention) as well as a subtle commentary about the moral wasteland of massive wealth inequity (i.e. the ludicrous wealth in the Capitol compared to the squalor in the Districts). And as much as her world and themes become clearer, the characters become significantly more defined. Katniss goes from being a boring, nondescript blank slate for young readers to project themselves on to a hardened veteran going through obvious levels of post-traumatic stress disorder who has to make tough choices between saving herself and saving those she cares about. Peeta is still a conventional hero but Collins continues to make him so charming and sympathetic that you can forgive him for being relatively flawless (except for perhaps being so secretive). However, I can’t really comment on the biggest improvement in the novel without spoiling one of the major twists but let me simply say that my complaints about the nameless, characterless Tributes from the first novel is a thing of the past.

(Yeah. I know that picture is from The Hunger Games movie. Sue me.) Anyways, I told you it was going to be a short review. It’s a young adult novel. I don’t need to write a grand discourse on its multi-layered themes and the less I think about Catching Fire at an intellectual level, the better. I’ll leave on one final note. There’s a new character introduced in Catching Fire named Finnick Odair who manages to come even with Haymitch as the most interesting character in the franchise. His name is Finnick Odair, and ever since I finished the novel, my sister and I have spent hours debating about who should play him in the movie. I’m leaning towards either Chris Hemsworth or Channing Tatum. Alexander Skaarsgard (Eric on True Blood) is my preferred casting choice there but he’s a little too old for the part (the character is 24). Do any of my readers have an opinion about who would make a good Finnick that have read the book? I’m curious to hear other people’s opinion.

Final Score: B

I love Stephen King. Anyone who read my review of Under the Dome (his best novel in nearly twenty years) knows just how much I’m willing to defend Stephen King’s legacy as one of America’s most prolific and (yes) talented authors. His Dark Tower saga is one of my three favorite book series of all time (the other two are A Song of Ice and Fire and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels). So, when Stephen King announced a while back that he was working on another Dark Tower novel, I was filled with a layer of excitement and trepidation. I knew it wasn’t supposed to be a sequel but instead it was going to fit in between Wizard and Glass (my favorite of the Dark Tower novels) and Wolves of the Calla which was good because there was no way that a sequel to the final book’s controversial ending was going to please anyone. However, it’s been so long since Stephen King had written any Dark Tower material that I wasn’t sure he was going to be able to get back into the flow of the novels. Since the vast majority of The Wind Through the Keyhole doesn’t even feature everyone’s favorite ka-tet of Roland, Jake, Eddie, Susannah, and (of course) Oy, it was a moot concern. The Wind Through the Keyhole is a return to the world that has moved on  known as Mid-World, but it functions more as an opportunity for Stephen King to craft an excellent modern fairy tale (in a way only he could accomplish) than as a chance to see more of our favorite heroes. So, if you’re expecting more gunslinger adventures, you’ll be disappointed but if you allow yourself to be taken on Stephen King’s fairy tale journey, you’ll find it to be a highly enjoyable and fun read.

After escaping the machinations of Randall Flagg in Emerald City at the end of Wizard and Glass (which marked the formal beginning of the invasion of modern pop culture into Roland’s world that became the driving force of Wolves of the Calla), Roland and his ka-tet make their journey to Call Bryn Sturges along the Path of the Beam on their ultimate quest to find the Dark Tower. However, the bumbler Oy begins to suffer from strange symptoms and while Roland at first thinks it means they’re being followed, he quickly remembers (with the help of a ferryman) that Oy is trying to warn the ka-tet that a massive (and fatal) snow storm/tornado called a “starkblast” is making a beeline in their general direction. The ka-tet takes up shelter in a church in an abandoned ghost town to survive the storm and Roland decides to pass the time by telling his companions a story from his youth after he had murdered his mother thanks to the sorcery of Marten Broadcloak (also known as Randall Flagg also known as Walter o’Din). He is sent by his father to the town of Debaria to investigate reports of a “skin-changer” (a werebeast variant) who is massacring farmers. Roland arrives (with his fellow gunslinger Jamie) to find a farm with nearly 30 people slaughtered and the only survivor is a young boy. As Roland waits with the young boy in a jail house to protect the child, he tells the boy a fairy tale from his youth of a young lad named Tim Stoutheart who goes on a fantastic quest to find the wizard Maerlyn to save his mother’s sight and to avenge the murder of his father by his newly adopted stepfather.

The last book I reviewed for this blog was V. by Thomas Pynchon. Going from the post-modern insanity of Pynchon’s masterful prose to the relative simplicity of King’s every man language was a surreal and at first confusing switch. I’d almost forgotten what it was like to not have to guess what the hell an author was talking about (seriously Pynchon’s V. bordered on being incomprehensible at times. actually it played hopscotch with the incomprehensibility line). It was pretty refreshing although at the same time, I have to admit that King is not the best prose man out there. There isn’t a lot of poetry to his writing. That’s okay though because his storytelling skills are second to none (and he doesn’t have half the prose problems that say Suzanne Collins has). He can occasionally imbue a very dark sense of humor into his writing that won’t come through unless you’re really paying attention. However, credit must be given to King for being able to write a novel in three distinct styles. You have the traditional “King” style when he’s telling the story from the point of view of the entire ka-tet. Then, he writes a story the way that Roland would speak when Roland is telling his story to the ka-tet. And then he switches it up one more time (for the style that the majority of the book is told in) when he writes the way that a Mid-World fairy tale would be written. Since Wizard and Glass is my favorite entry in the series, it should be no shock that my favorite passages from the novel are the ones where we see young Roland. I like the combination of science fiction, westerns, and high fantasy that is melded so perfectly there.

The novel is only around 300 pages long, so unlike The Stand or Under the Dome this isn’t some sprawling epic. There isn’t a huge ensemble cast of characters and there isn’t a grand social message hinted at in the novel through extensive use of allegory. No, it’s simply a (disturbing) fairy tale which Stephen King uses as a chance to show the important of storytelling and the blurring between fiction and reality in the Dark Tower universe. So, this can be a pretty short review. For Stephen King fans and especially for Dark Tower fans, it’s a must read. You don’t see much of the ka-tet but it expands on the Dark Tower universe and I’ll never pass up an opportunity like that (I’m also a fan [though not as much as the real novels] of the Marvel graphic novel series that expands on Roland’s backstory). Also, for fans of writers like Neil Gaiman (especially Stardust), you’ll likely appreciate the grown-up fairy tale that King crafts with the story of Tim Stoutheart. All in all though, it’s not one of King’s best novels, but it’s far from one of his worst, and I enjoyed all of the time I spent returning to Mid-World.

Final Score: B

There is an inherent difference between a good writer and a good storyteller. Anyone that doubts Stephen King’s ability to craft a mesmerizing story and construct almost mythic universes has obviously never picked up The Dark Tower franchise; it is his accessible, every man’s prose that fuels the flames of his detractors (along with his absurdly prolific writing schedule which guarantees not every book will be a winner). At the other end of that spectrum, you have a man like Thomas Pynchon or James Joyce who agonize over every word in every sentence of their novels for maximum poetic and intellectual value but whose ability to craft an engaging story is less apparent. I read Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow for his masterful deconstruction of the structure of the novel and his ingenious prose, not for the nearly incomprehensible plot involving potentially non-existent German rocket. Some authors can do both, and they tend to be my favorites like Neil Gaiman or George R. R. Martin (and of course there are those who can do neither like Stephenie Meyer). I just finished the young adult novel The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (which is about to be adapted into a film starring Academy Award nominated actress Jennifer Lawrence), and she is assuredly more storyteller than writer. Her prose is almost criminally deficient (though I feel guilty judging her for what is a young adult’s novel), but her pacing and plotting are spot on even if the book bears some remarkable resemblances to the Japanese manga Battle Royale.

Set an indeterminate number of years in America’s future, The Hunger Games is a dystopian post-apocalyptic novel of one girl’s will to survive. After a vague cataclysmic event nearly destroyed the nation, an autocratic government formed the nation of Panem in the Rocky Mountains. The rest of the nation has been divided into 12 separate districts. As punishment for a failed uprising against the Capitol’s overlords, each district is required to send one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 every year to the Capitol to compete in a bloody battle to the death until there is only one “tribute” left standing. The story is told through the eyes of 16 year old Katniss Everdeen, a young hunter living in District 12 (Appalachia) who has been forced to take care of her young sister and helpless mother in the many years since her father’s death when she was five. When Katniss’s younger sister Prim is chosen to participate in the titular Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to be the tribute in her place along side the boy that was chosen, a resourecful young man named Peeta Mallark who has always shared an unspoken connection with Katniss since childhood. Katniss and Peeta are forced to travel to the futuristic capitol (as opposed to the crushing poverty of their home town) to do live, televised battle against the other district’s tributes and see how far each is willing to go to live.

Let me be upfront. Suzanne Collins has an even less impressive mastery of the English language than Stephenie Meyer, and I’m not sure if I can think of a more unfortunate thing to say about someone. Something tells me that I’m judging this book far too harshly as it is primarily intended for middle-schoolers and high schoolers but as a grown up reading it and trying to figure out what all the fuss has been about this last year or so, it’s really unfortunate. The book is told through very bland first person perspective in an almost constant mono-syllabic drone of cut and dry descriptions. There’s no poetry to the way she arranges her sentences, and there isn’t even some of the wit or self-effacing humor that makes less prosaically impressive authors like Stephen King more acceptable. Had her storytelling not been so impressive (at least until the novel’s last 100 pages or so which are over-reliant on some questionable deus ex machina), her writing style would have been completely unacceptable and I would have simply been unable to explain the book’s success. However, I feel like being a young adult novel isn’t enough of an excuse to forgive the amateur writing as J. R. R. Tolkien considered The Hobbit a children’s story as did C. S. Lewis for The Chronicles of Narnia and they are still engaging reads (though Narnia‘s overt religious undertones make me more uncomfortable now then they did as a child).

Fortunately, for Collins, she is an exciting and action-packed storyteller. The novel comes off as a cross between Battle Royale and the film adaptation of The Running Man but with a modern and youthful slant. The novel isn’t afraid to display occasionally shocking incidents of gruesome violence, and Collins’ decision to include such subject matter as the violent deaths of children makes her childish writing more of a problem. Supporting character Peeta Mellark is a fun and engaging hero, and the increasingly deep layers of his character consistently make him more interesting than the more conventional action girl that is Katniss. By no means is she boring (she runs circles around Bella Swan or Sookie Stackhouse) but she experiences very little in the way of growth over the course of the novel, even when the situation she’s been thrust into would cause anyone to undergo horrific transformations. Also, the novel isn’t afraid to deal with some morally ambiguous grey areas and forces its heroes to do some awful things in order to survive. It presents several different ethical conundrums and while they aren’t necessarily the deepest issues on the planet, their presence at least shows that Collins wishes her book to be a little bit more than a violent science fiction adventure story.

There are very few opportunities where I will say I am more excited for a movie than I am about the book, but the forthcoming film adaptation of The Hunger Games will be one of those moments. Free from Suzanne Collins stilted prose, her wonderfully evocative world should translate to a colorful and distinctly visual film experience. Plus, Jennifer Lawrence is starring as Katniss and if that wasn’t an inspired casting decision, I don’t know what is. Ever since she completely stunned me with her break through performance in Winter’s Bone, I have pegged her as one of the most talented and promising young actresses today. If she continues to make smart career decisions, the sky is truly the limit for someone with as much talent as her. She seems like a perfect fit for a tough role like Katniss, and I’m very excited to see a version of this story that isn’t held back by weak writing in the technical sense of the word (Woody Harrelson should be a treat as the loutish Haymitch, the drunk mentor of Katniss and Peeta). All in all, if you enjoy young adult fiction, you may appreciate this tale. I know I’m going to end up reading the two other books in the trilogy. However, for everyone else, you should wait for the movie because I would willing to bet a not insignificant sum of money that it will be a more entertaining product and I almost never like the movie more than the book.

Final Score: B-

What is there to say about Watchmen that hasn’t already been said a million times before? Easily the most celebrated graphic novel of all time, Watchmen isn’t just a seminal work in the burgeoning realm of graphic novels (that would ultimately allow other celebrated works like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman or Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man to exist), but it is simply one of the defining novels of the last 30 years. Simultaneously science fiction, political satire, mystery, superhero (the definitive supehero tale), psychological drama, and a massive deconstruction of every comic book that predated it, Alan Moore didn’t just write the premier superhero story of all time; he made it nearly impossible to look at any superhero tales before or after in the same light ever again. As a child, I was a huge comic book fan, but I grew out of it as I got older because for the most part, the average superhero story wasn’t maturing as I was. Then, my sophomore year of college, I saw that Watchmen was being released in theaters and I felt it was high time to read this story that every one kept praising, and nothing was the same ever since. It rekindled my love with the comic book genre (and produced a drain on my finances thanks to my new comic book addiction), and introduced me to what is simply one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

At its core, Watchmen begins as a murder mystery but to say its morph into so much more would only be scratching the surface of the various layers of this dense and complex novel. In an alternate U.S. history where superheroes are real (though only one has any actual superpowers and is therefore essentially a god amongst men) and Richard Nixon is seeking his fourth term as U.S. President after superhero involvement led to a U.S. victory in Vietnam, one of the world’s superheroes has been murdered. A caustic and darkly comic man known as the Comedian (one of two superheroes still legally allowed to fight crime) was thrown out of his apartment in New York by an unknown assailant and the remaining superheroes (retired or vigilante) are worried that someone may be gunning for former masks. The remaining superheroes include Nite Owl (an aging millionaire [the Batman stand-in] who spends his days reminiscing with one of his predecessors from the 1940’s, the original Nite Owl), Silk Spectre (the daughter of one of the original 1940’s superheroes who only got into the business to please her mother), Rorschach (a psychotic and violent crime fighter who refused to retire and sees the world in starkly black and white terms), Ozymandias (smartest man in the world and most financially successful of the superheroes as he cashed in on his name post-retirement), and Dr. Manhattan (a former nuclear physicist who was transformed into a godlike being that can alter the state of matter at will among many other powers after a lab accident disintegrated him). As Rorschach investigates the Comedian’s murder, the others deal with personal and psychological flaws until they eventually stumble onto a conspiracy that may destroy the world.

Let’s start with the artwork. This is going to be a long, long review, and I guess art seems like the logical place to begin an assessment of a comic book. I’ve read Watchmen in its entirety about 4 times now, and the simple fact that I notice new things (and a large number of new things) every time I read the book should be a testament to just how much detail is crammed into each individual frame of this story. Whether it’s Dave Gibbon’s artwork simply from an aesthetic view point, which can be both beautiful and terrifying (those who’ve been exposed to some aspect of this piece know how gruesome it can get) or its the many recurring visual motifs and symbols that frequent the pages, it is likely you will spend as much time parsing the images of Watchmen as you will reading Moore’s words (and ultimately that is where the true genius lies). It truly takes a special talent to keep up with the brilliance of Alan Moore, and I honestly can’t think of a better author and artist pairing than Moore and Gibbons in this work. If it weren’t for the fact that there are still literary types that can’t get fact that this is a comic book, I would personally guarantee that academics could spend as much time parsing Watchmen for all of the symbolism and deeper meanings that they could Gravity’s Rainbow or Infinite Jest, and Dave Gibbons’ art adds richly to the symbolic tapestry of this novel.

Next, the characters. As a grown-up comic reader, when I read a traditional Marvel or DC story, I would say that 75% of my enjoyment from those tales comes more from an attachment to the characters rather than the plotting itself, which is often cliche comic book material. There are so many fun and memorable comic book characters out there, and it takes decades of mythology to turn them into the beloved icons they are today. In 12, 28-page, issues, Alan Moore was able to craft the most complex and distinct characters in the history of the genre. With the possible exception of Silk Spectre (who movie or book remains the least compelling character in the story), these characters all have dense psychological profiles that are explored in-depth and they almost all seem to represent some specific philosophical archetype. Rorschach is the definition of a right-wing deontologist where things are either right or wrong. There is no gray area. The Comedian can also be called a nihilist because he sees how damaged and broken the world is and decides to be a dark mirror of the world. Ozymandias is more of a utilitarian though I can’t get into exactly what that entails without spoilers. Dr. Manhattan is an examination of how an all-powerful deity would view something as mundane as human life (which is to say with bemused indifference). Nite Owl doesn’t really represent one of these philosophies. He was just a bored playboy who had a romanticized fascination with the superheroes of his youth and wanted to follow in their footsteps (which isn’t to say he’s not as emotionally scarred as everyone else).

The way that Moore lays out the story manages to be even more dense (and beautiful) than the artwork itself. Eschewing a linear format, the story jumps all over in time and place, and there is one chapter told from the view point of Dr. Manhattan (whose mind exists outside the normal bounds of linear time) that is arguably the single greatest issue of any comic I’ve ever read in its masterful non-linear story and haunting tragedy. At the end of every chapter, Moore provides several pages of non-comic book material that are presented as either excerpts from books within the Watchmen universe or newspaper articles or similar diegetic material. About halfway through the book, you are suddenly introduced to an in-universe comic book called The Tales of the Black Freighter which seems oddly out of place at first until you reach the end of the story and you realize just how relevant it truly was. The most amazing thing about this comic is that in spite of all of its intellectual pretensions and ambitions (which it fulfills extrrordinarily well), it also manages to stand on its own as an entertaining and engaging superhero story. Even when the mechanics of its ending are a little odd (perhaps the only area where the movie was better), it doesn’t lessen the impact of this story’s brutal and shattering climax.

If you somehow haven’t read Watchmen yet, you have to. Even if you saw the movie and didn’t enjoy it (which a frustratingly large number of people didn’t), you should still read the novel as I know several people who are big fans of the book that don’t like the movie either. It’s one of the most important novels of the last 50 years. It’s really a shame that DC screwed Alan Moore out of the rights to these characters and that led him to sever all ties with the company because considering what he was able to accomplish with a brand new set of characters (though many of these characters are direct responses to certain obscure Silver Age comic characters), I can only imagine what he could have done with established heroes. His The Killing Joke story for Batman remains one of the definitive Batman tales along with Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth and The Dark Knight Returns. I’m very glad that I chose to re-read Watchmen for this blog because each journey into that dark and twisted world reveals a little more of its secrets and I guarantee I still haven’t discovered all there is to know. Who watched the Watchmen? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I sure as hell know who’s telling everyone else they should read them.

Final Score: A+

Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Stephen King is one of the most accomplished authors of all time. He published his first novel, Carrie, in 1973, and over the next 38 years he has produced a mind-boggling 49 novels, not to mention his screenplays, short story collections, and non-fiction books. For those doing the math, that means he’s averaging more than one novel a year. Admittedly, for every The Stand or The Dead Zone, you’ll get a Christine or Thinner, but there’s simply no looking past how prolific this legend’s career has been. It’s popular for literary academic types to beat up on Mr. King for his accessible and simple prose as well as his penchant for the supernatural and other pulp material. What they often overlook, however, is his incredibly rich characterization (among the best in the business) alongside his striking insights into the darker sides of human nature. Real Stephen King fans know that his best work are among his least reliant on horror cliches like ghouls and monsters (It excepted which is terror incarnate). Instead, the terror comes from the darkness inside us all, if horror is even the point. Along side George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire saga, Stephen King’s Dark Tower books have become hallmarks of American fantasy. Similarly, his apocalyptic magnum opus, The Stand, is a seminal piece of Americana rife with plentiful Biblical symbolism and social allegory. My favorite King novel, Insomnia, has an urban fantasy plot but at its core is a deeply touching tale of old age, loss, and sacrifice. I’m happy to report that Stephen King’s 2009 novel, Under the Dome, is simply the best work he has done in over a decade. Rife with political allegory and a plot that never lets off the gas for its nearly 1100 pages, Under the Dome is King at his very best.

Under the Dome, a door-stopper along the lines of It and The Stand, is one of King’s most ambitious novels to date, even if the action all occurs with the confines of one small Maine Town (for once not Castle Rock or Derry). As retired Army Lt. Dale “Barbie” Barbara is trying to leave the small town of Chester’s Mill after a vicious beating from some local hoods, an invisible but impenetrable dome covers the entire town exactly along the town lines. Planes crash into the invisible barrier and any car that hits the Dome explodes. People working in their gardens or walking along the town’s barrier are cut in half by the quick descent of the bars that have turned this town into a prison. As Barbie (at the urging of his former military superiors) tries to discover the source of the dome, he is also forced to contend with “Big” Jim Rennie, the town’s Second Selectman (which must be Maine’s equivalent of a Deputy Mayor) and used car salesman. Rennie’s a cut throat politician with a dirty streak that would make Dick Cheney blush, and he sees the potential for unchecked power in “his” town now that they’re cut off from the outside world. It’s up to Barbie, as well as local newspaper woman Julia Shumway and physician’s assistant turned town doctor Rusty Everett, to stop Rennie and save this town from the impending ecological and social disasters this Dome is sure to cause. When the local children start having visions of a massive fire and imminent doom, it’s obvious to everyone that time is running short.

George R. R. Martin could really take lessons from Stephen King about how to maintain good pacing over the course of 1000 pages. In the A Song of Ice and Fire books (especially all of the ones after book 1), Martin tends to back load all of the action and actual development into the last couple hundred pages which can make the first 4oo pages or so, a little taxing to read (especially in A Feast for Crows). This book starts out with a series of literal bangs and continues to up the ante non-stop for the rest of the book. Every time you think that there’s no way that Stephen King can make the stakes any higher or increase the tension to more unbearable levels or (especially) take his story to even darker places, he essentially bitch-slaps your misgivings and lays down the acceleration even more. This book is the definition of can’t put down fiction. I read this while at work (where I bar tend and have plenty of free time) and I was averaging something along the lines of 200-300 pages a shift over 6 hour shifts. It inspired me to get the actual work of my job done as quickly as possible so that I could spend as little time away from this tome as I could spare. Over it’s 1000 pages, it would be difficult to recount just how many different action filled moments King provides, but a quick breakdown would include a Roadhouse style bar room brawl, a prison break-out, attempted political assassinations, a shoot-out straight out of The Wild Bunch, and other moments I don’t want to ruin through simple allusion. Needless to say, this plot continues to evolve into a continuing darker and darker place, and what starts out as a more personal and political version of King’s earlier Needful Things metamorphoses into something more akin to Cormac McCarthey’s The Road.

What strikes me the most about the book (even more than its break-neck pacing) is how effective King has become at painting an incredibly political tale. Under the Dome is the logical culmination of his short story The Mist and his novel Needful Things, in how it takes a supernatural situation but rather than that being what causes most of the damage, it shows just how short a period of time before being cut off from society and security turns us back to our baser and more animalistic nature. However, if it were simply those themes at work, then King would just be recycling old material (something he’s been accused of doing in the past, but it isn’t as true as his hater’s think. The only thing From a Buick 8 has in common with Christine is a car. From a Buick 8 is a much more ambitious and interesting novel). Instead, he layers a political allegory on top of his social commentary that is as relevant today as it was two years ago when the book was released and four years ago when he started writing it. “Big” Jim Rennie is a not entirely subtle dig at Dick Cheney (First Selectman Andy Sanders being his puppet George W. Bush), and the dangers and disasters that come when you have the wrong kind of people in office at the wrong moments. It’s a novel about greed and lust for power, and King is expertly able to show how a crisis and an unwitting and scared public are all it takes to create despots like Rennie and the Bush administration. Some people may take umbrage at the fairly one-sided political nature of the novel, but for anyone who has seen our nation’s liberties eroded time and time again in the name of “safety” and “protecting our freedoms”, you’ll appreciate King’s sharp insight.

This should come as no surprise to long time King fans but his characterization and mastery of telling a story from many, many points of view is on better display in Under the Dome than in any of his novels since It and The Stand. It is essentially a book about small-town America, and King wants you to know as much about the citizens inhabiting Chester’s Mill as you can. The story is told from around 20 separate points of view (though the main cast is perhaps a more reasonable five or six characters), and by the time the book ends, you may feel you know the inhabitants of Chester’s Mill as well as you do your own small town. The fact that King is able to accomplish all of this character development and backstory without ever sacrificing the pacing of the novel is a masterful achievement (and something he wasn’t even able to do in the universally lauded The Stand). King’s gift though is not only getting into the minds of his heroes but truly inhabiting his villains. “Big” Jim Rennie and his even more psychopathic son, Junior, are among King’s best villains to date. Their only real competition in that category are recurring King villain Randall Flagg as well as It‘s Pennywise the Clown. Combining Rennie’s utterly evil and despotic tendencies alongside his borderline genius on how to maintain his own power, you get a villain who is more than a match for our heroes and does far more damage to the town of Chester’s Mill than the Dome could ever hope.

For those who can get past their own literary pretensions, it is plain that Stephen King has remained one of the most resounding literary American voices for the last 40 years, with absolutely no signs of slowing down any time soon. Not even his nearly fatal car accident has been able to take the spring from his step. Under the Dome marks, not a return to form which would imply his writing had gotten bad in the last decade, but a return to the masterful heights all of his fans know he is capable of. Even if you’re intimidated by the books remarkable length, you shouldn’t let that discourage you from picking up one of the most powerful works by one of our nation’s best. After I finally finished the book and came to the end of its incredibly shocking final 100 pages or so, I was left with so much to think about and spent the remainder of my shift at work in deep contemplation about what I had just read. For someone who loves the works of Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, and James  Joyce, I should be one of those literary snobs that turns his nose up at the pulp fiction Stephen King writes. I don’t. His ability to transform clear and simple prose that every one can appreciate into tales that cross the border into legitimate artistic expression make him a modern American egalitarian legend. This is King like he hasn’t been in decades, and fan or not, you shouldn’t let this one slide by.

Final Score: A+

So, I finished Thomas Pynchon’s magnum opus Gravity’s Rainbow on Tuesday, a novel which has garnered a reputation as being one of the most important pieces of American literature written after WW II, but I’ve been delaying the actual writing of my review of the novel because every time I sit down to collect my over-all thoughts of the book, I get lost in a fractured and non-linear series of thoughts about not only Gravity’s Rainbow itself but the myriad topics and themes which the book hints at or straight out lectures on. I still, to this very second, find myself questioning the purpose and placement of every word and punctuation mark in his 776 page story and am trying to place it all within the context of a coherent and sensible tale. I will never succeed. Gravity’s Rainbow marks the first book I have read since Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce that has completely challenged at every turn, my conceptions of what a novel can be as well as strained my intellect to the breaking point by trying to follow Pynchon’s increasingly frantic narrative and digressions. It was easily the most difficult book I’ve ever read in my entire life, but at the end of the day, it was also one of the most rewarding as Pynchon weaves shifting and sweeping tale unlike anything I’d encountered  before.

Much like with David Lynch’s film Inland Empire, an attempt to describe the plot of the novel is a difficult exercise and potentially a futile one, as one of the major points of Gravity’s Rainbow was to deconstruct the very foundation of the novel and various plot conventions, but here it goes. Tyrone Slothrop is an American soldier living in London during the German Blitz of WW II. Every time that Slothrop has sex, a German V-2  rocket lands on the house within the next couple of days. A secret British government agency consisting of mystics, psychologists, and statisticians wants to find Slothrop and study him for reasons relating to his potential psychic powers. Eventually, Slothrop’s paranoia gets the best of him when he notices all of the strange people coming in and out of his life. He is eventually sent to Europe where he goes off on a self-proclaimed mission to find a mysterious German rocket known as the Schwarzgerat with the serial number 00000. However, he constantly finds himself side-tracked on a million different side quests on his journey such as drug-running, encountering witches, and becoming involved in other international conspiracies. Perhaps, the most significant side-plot of the novel is that of a Russian soldier and his African half-brother who are looking to kill one another in this WW II landscape while also searching for the mysterious Schwarzgerat.

Like I said though, Pynchon’s plotting is second to Pynchon’s prose (although even that is second to Pynchon’s inventive destruction of everything you thought you knew about how a novel should be written), and Pynchon’s prose is just second to known. He has an ability, through an extensive and poetic diction, to paint even the most disturbing and intentionally offensive scenes in this remarkable literary voice. While I often found myself (in a good way) lost as to how all of these different story threads inter-twined with one another, Pynchon’s marvelously evocative scene-setting and descriptive commentary always painted this complete picture of the action unfolding on screen. Using his stream-of-conscious style straight from the school of James Joyce, Pynchon also has a peerless ability to place me directly in the minds of the characters themselves and place the reader right into their darkest and most vulnerable moments.

Eschewing traditional plot structures such as the normal build and fall towards a climax and resolution that is part and parcel to all of Western literature, Pynchon completely re-invents what to expect from a doorstopper of a novel like this. There are nearly 400 named characters in the book, and about 40 characters that repeat through, twenty of whom that will have the story told from their point of view at one time or another. The story often switches between the points of view various characters without giving the reader a real clue as to when this has occurred, so you often have to be on your toes as to who is telling the story. Similarly, the book attempts to capture the ethereal and psychological elements of its characters through language itself. So rather than saying, these are the characters thoughts, you are simply given the characters thoughts and emotions and expected to piece together it all while wrestling with a narrative that goes forwards and backwards and in circles and zig zags until you give up on a concept of narrative linearity.

Paranoia is the fuel of the novel, and much how Tom Wolfe was able to capture the essential nature of the hippie movement in his seminal The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (which should be the next book I review for this blog), Thomas Pynchon is able to make paranoia come alive til it begins to infest you as the reader. I have a sneaking suspicion, though nothing in the book will ever truly confirm this, that the whole novel was legitimately one schizophrenic, paranoid delusion by the actual Tyrone Slothrop who was not the globe-trotting trouble-maker he was in the novel but simply a man whose mind had snapped in the face of WW II. The novel becomes increasingly disjointed and incoherent and progresses and I feel that is probably a symptom of Slothrop’s paranoia finally getting completely out of hand. At the end of the novel, a rocket strikes a movie theater, and I almost feel as if that is symbolic of the rocket destroying the book (which ends mid-sentence) and the final snapping of Slothrop’s mind.

The novel is frequently digressive and always transgressive in nature. By transgressive, I mean that Pynchon sets out to intentionally shock and offend the audience, and he will succeed. There was a disturbing scene (actually many) that Pynchon described in such vivid and graphic detail that I nearly threw up while reading the book. He is digressive in that nearly half of the book is either Pynchon as the narrator or various characters through dialogue expounding on seemingly irrelevant and in-depth speeches on an innumerable number of topics from classical conditioning, to statistics, to physics, to the technical aspects of rockets, to the Tarot, to popular culture, to whatever topic happens to be Pynchon’s fancy at the moment. I guarantee that by the end of this book, you will know more about several different areas you were unfamiliar with before. My only piece of advice in that regard as to have both a dictionary and an online translator handy as Pynchon isn’t afraid to make considerable use of foreign languages as a bilingual bonus and not explain it to those who don’t speak the language.

There are challenging books, and then there’s Gravity’s Rainbow. While this was easily one of the best books that I’ve read in my entire life from the point of the view of how stimulating it was intellectually and aesthetically, it was also exhausting. I could never read more than 60 pages of it at a time before I need take a break and let my mind rest. Whereas some books allow you to simply let the words wash over you as you soak in the adventure being presented, Gravity’s Rainbow is far more demanding and requires you to parse and analyze nearly every phrase and word in the book. It’s a mental marathon, and at 776 pages, it’s a mental marathon you’ll be at for a good long while. To put this in perspective, it took me nearly a month to read this, but yesterday at work, over the course of a couple of hours, I read nearly 200 pages of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. If you think you would be up for the mental challenge of this book, then I recommend it whole-heartedly. It will test you but when you finish it, you will feel vindicated in a way that few other books can achieve. I only ward away the easily offended as Pynchon will intentionally try to make you mad as well as those who just can’t handle the sheer insanity that this book is made out of. However, I’m glad I went along for this ride, and in a year or so, I relish the opportunity to re-read it and see if I can’t paint a more complete picture of Pynchon’s world a second time around.

Final Score: A+