March was a fun month. It started without fanfare, and ended with the birth of our first child. During March, I read:
- Neuromancer by William Gibson
- Futureland by Walter Mosley
- A King of Infinite Space by Tyler Dilts
- The Pain Scale by Tyler Dilts
So, I read two very good books and two very bad books.
Gibson famously coined the term “cyberspace,” and is widely considered the father of the cyberpunk genre (high tech and low lifes). Published all the way back in 1984, his Neuromancer is wonderful. More than that, it is smart.
On the surface, it’s a high-tech criminal caper: hacker Henry Case and mercenary Molly are hired to break into the computer systems of a multinational corporation in order to enable the merger of two artificial intelligences. Beyond the plot, however, Gibson takes full advantage of the genre to tackle questions of humanity, addiction, identity, and class. I found this book difficult (at times offensive), but rewarding. It’s no surprise that it performed a “hat trick” of literary awards, winning the Philip K. Dick, the Hugo, and the Nebula awards.
One additional note: Gibson describes the internet as “a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation.” I have been chewing on this definition for a month, and I love it more as time goes on.
Futureland was also good. I’ve read some of Mosley’s crime fiction before, but after Gibson, I was in the mood for a bit more science fiction. This collection of tales all fit within the same, shared universe, and many characters crop up in later stories.
What I found interesting was that the individual short stories don’t quite resolve. As a rough approximation, the pattern for his stories is:
1 – Establish character and scene
2 – Establish conflict
3 – Rising tension
4 – External Climax → I don’t even know if this is a thing, but he has a climax in the external action, which is nearly always anti-climactic and quickly overrun by…
5 – Internal Climax → A sudden epiphany or decision
6 – End → Without letting that internal climax express itself in anything other than the briefest of actions (kicking a tv, telling one’s dad one has decided to run for office, sitting down and recording one’s will, etc).
But then those unresolved internal climaxes have echoes in the following stories. The character that ran for office shows up in only a superficial role later in another character’s story. So, in one sense, there’s a resolution, a working-out of the decision or epiphany; we just only get a glimpse of it as it bubbles up into another character’s arc.
Anyhow, Mosley’s nearly always worth a read, and I enjoyed this “fix-up,” even though I didn’t know that’s what it was called.
As far as the two books by Tyler Dilts go, I do not recommend these books. He’s a writing teacher at Cal State, Long Beach, and he has written three books (I have just finished the third). Why did I read all three? Well, good question. I read all three because I was curious to see if there was any improvement as they progressed, because I have an academic interest in how authors develop a character over the course of several books, and because, apparently, I hate myself.
The plotting is okay-ish, but derivative and obvious. Good plot turns should be both surprising and inevitable, and most of the twists here were neither. Throughout the three books, the author litters the pages with clumsy sentences. This may be a result of his insistence on jamming the narrative full of inconsequential, boring detail. There were so many unimportant, boring details that I began to think he may have some artistic commitment driving this approach. I hope so. At least it would be a principled approach.
The biggest problem is that the narrator is reprehensible. Danny Beckett has absolutely no love for anyone other than himself, and it shows throughout the three books. I am totally on board with the idea of a reprehensible character, but it became very difficult to overlook it here. Perhaps smarter readers would disagree, but I think that the best lead characters in crime novels combine realism and hope–they’re realists because they confront evil every day, but they’re hopeful that order can prevail. Instead, the protagonists in Dilts’ books is a hopeless narcissist. He remains unable to turn down an opportunity to tell others how intelligent he is, his descriptions of other people betray a complete lack of empathy (at one point, he even says “[My partner] has a way of conveying empathy that I am never able to manage”), and his sense of humor manages to be both unoriginal and rabidly egotistical.
Intriguingly, the third book starts out as an attempt by the narrator to build empathy for a nameless victim. That bore promise, but the author was unable to pull it off. He tottered between a frigid abuse of characters (where they only exist to serve some plot purpose) and a silly sentimentality. And in the end, the narrator proved himself to be as selfish about the whole quest as was possible. I was so shocked at the mundane evil of his final choice that I actually exclaimed out loud in anger.
I think all of these problems were only highlighted by the next book I picked up. I’m only a few chapters into Ben Winters’ The Last Policeman–another first-person crime novel–and he manages to do all of these things well. His writing is very good, his narrator is both intelligent and compassionate, and the other characters are drawn in a way that is neither frigid nor sentimental. I hope he keeps it up. I’ll give my final impressions next month.
So, that’s another month done.