Month: November 2016

The Passage/The Twelve/City of Mirrors

So… I read a post-apocalyptic trilogy. It’s got vampires in it, or at least an entity similar enough to warrant the nomenclature. I have no regrets. It was fucking fantastic, and a hell of a lot of fun to read. Justin Cronin’s pre-apocalypse-vampire credits include an undergrad education at Harvard, an Iowa Writer’s Workshop MFA, a couple of your standard-fair lit-fic novels, and some serious writing prizes. All of the chops that one would expect to go along with that biography are certainly present -the guy writes fucking well. He just seems to have decided to point those chops at telling a very long-form (total page count of the trilogy approaches two thousand) fantasy, all couched in a plausible reality. This isn’t quite fantasy, it isn’t quite science fiction. The narrative will get these books classified as “genre” but there’s none of the rapid-output verbal paunch that seems endemic to even “good” genre fiction.

There are a lot of Steven King comparisons being made, and this is absolutely true. Cronin has created a series with the kind of epic scale and horror elements that King is known for, and a host of minor similarities are present, too. But I would argue that Cronin does King far better than King does. Both the writing and the narrative are tight and seem obsessively polished and worked over. These books fit together perfectly, a self-contained narrative that delivers on all the grandiose promises it makes.

Most impressive to me is the diversity of this series. There are a good dozen different books distilled into these three -your University Memoir, short story sketches of minor players, a technological survivalist adventure, and, of course the horror. All of this praise for thematic diversity has failed to touch on the most impressive aspect: the religious and downright Biblical. This angle gets woven into everything deftly, and the reader isn’t quite sure how much of it ought to be taken at face value -but that’s clearly Cronin’s goal.

Recommendation: Read it. Goddamn. So much fucking fun, so well done.

Emma Straub’s Other People We Married

Emma Straub is best known for her novels, but I came to her by way of this short story collection, as is my preference with new-to-me authors that I’ve discovered by chance as much as anything. She seems to have received the most attention for her novels -in interviews, this collection is treated more like a footnote than a full-fleshed part of her body of work. Regardless, I enjoyed it. I had some concerns, do to the way some of her books seem to be marketed, that the book would be a bit fluffy. Fortunately, this is not the case.

The “literary” label is a frustrating one. How does one define literary fiction? Is it “moral” in the John Gardner sense, or an existential striving? Is it defined by its removal from sparkling vampires, mommy-porn BDSM Lite, swords and sorcery, or spaceships? I’d like to think it’s a qualitative determination based on the prose itself, but there’s some bad writing that is proclaimed “literary”. I think, unfortunately, it has more to do with the kinds of publishing imprints that take on a piece and the way it’s marketed than anything else. Thus, the definition becomes rather literally useless.

Bringing things back to Straub, her stories are defined by very good sentence-level writing, compelling characters with interesting thoughts expressed well. The stories are ordinary and focus on human interaction, on documenting it and making sense of it. It’s a good read -nothing that’s a revelation, just good writing. But I feel like I don’t have much to say about it beyond “it’s good, I guess”. There’s nothing that transcends. Straub is a very good writer, but I’m not finding myself especially engaged with this particular work.

Recommendation: Give it a shot, or at least pick one or two stories and see what you think.