Thursday, December 30, 2010

Coming in January

Coming this month: reviews of Robert Matheson's 1950's vampire-zombie survival drama I Am Legend and David Remnick's very dense, very thorough The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.

Enjoy your holidays, enjoy your new year, and thanks, as always, for reading!

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Great Perhaps, by Joe Meno

W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2009
414 pages
From $1.94 on eBay

Cloudy with a chance of ennui.

Two absent-minded professors--one a paleontologist chasing an elusive species of giant squid and the other an animal behaviorist lamenting the sexually-tinged murders of her research pigeons--become derailed and wonder whether they are really still in love. Jonathan suffers a rare form of epilepsy that causes him to seize at the sight of clouds, and Madeline suffers her husband's disorganization and the flirtations of her research staff. Their kids are frustrated individuals bookending the angst of teenage years: Amelia a senior in loathing with her upper-class suburb, building a pipe bomb in her bedroom; and Thisbe praying to God when she thinks no one is watching.

Character portrayal is the premise and boundary of Joe Meno's 2009 novel, The Great Perhaps. I got turned on to Meno's writing when I snagged The Boy Detective Fails at Moe's Books in Berkeley, California last year. The author has an indisputably brilliant style of incorporating the fantastic and absurd into serious dilemma, and The Great Perhaps follows this tradition with imaginative fireworks. Kneaded smoothly into the tale of malaise and anxiety are transcripts of sci-fi radio cliffhangers, alphabetically-sectioned chapters, declassified government telegrams, and illustrations of elephants, ears, and the above-mentioned seizure-inducing clouds. Investigating the roots of Jonathan's wishy-washiness, Meno stares into the regretful life history of the professor's father, once a child in a WWII internment camp for German-Americans, now an infirm man in a nursing home who reduces his own speech word by word, day by day, willing himself to disappear.

And there's more. The novel takes place in beginning days of GW Bush's Gulf War, in the final days of the 2004 election, setting a tone of wistfulness. There's good reason to feel concerned and down and even ashamed, and if you can identify with that then you know exactly how each of the characters in this book feels.

Meno quotes the Times on his author site when he says the book is about "the pros and cons of cowardice," but I just don't get it. I'm going to step out of my reviewer shoes and admit some low-browedness when I say I enjoyed reading this book very much, but felt lost in the emotional tides in this story. I love Meno's writing style, the crispness of his sentences and the truly sparkling imagery; few writers alive could create parallels between "the giant squid, a creature who, like Jonathan, favored the solitude of darkness to the unsafe spectacle of clouds above." But by the end of this read I couldn't determine whether his characters were any better or worse off than before, whether anyone had grown, whether anyone had changed, and so what was the point of this exercise?

Looking around, I got the sense that some critics might also have been fed up with the circus-spectacular parade of chimeras and nostalgia embedded in character tension and history. Eryn Loeb, writing in the LA Times, even said she thought Meno relied on gimmicks and seemed unable to tell the difference between them and genuine emotion. I wouldn't go nearly that far in criticizing the shallow faults of this book. I really enjoy Meno's ideas and his writing, and I'd gladly pick up his other novels, even if I wasn't head-over-heels with this one.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Living Dead 2, Edited by John Joseph Adams

Night Shade Books, 2010
496 pages
$11.89 at Barnes&Noble

Read it and creep....

This book is shockingly good. At times, I to stop reading and check the cheesy cover to make sure I was still working on the same title. The dense collection of 44 different short stories from 49 contemporary writers and collaborators presents countless variations on the theme of the Living Dead. They go by many names: walkers, moaners, smirkers, the dead, zombies and "the z-word," and they appear as figures of vengeance, divine wrath, bioterrorism, alien invasion and comedy.

The sheer diversity of vision gathered here is one of the most encouraging qualities I've ever seen in an anthology. Adams's collection satisfies my childhood nostalgia for reading ghost stories under the blankets with a flashlight, and the tales come from both career writers and new voices, male and female, giving hope to the idea that creative ideas and solid storytelling still exist. Established contributors include Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead graphic novel and AMC television series), Carrie Ryan (The Forest of Hands and Teeth), and Max Brooks (World War Z: the granddaddy of pop-zombie resurgence). Newcomers include recent MFA graduates from University of Iowa, aspiring novelists, and even one contribution from Kyra M. Schon, the actress who played Karen Cooper, the zombie in the basement of George Romero's original Night of the Living Dead.

My favorite stories in this collection play with and distort the reanimated bogeyman-concept until it's barely recognizable. In David Moody's "Who We Used To Be," an unexplained event causes instantaneous global death and persistent consciousness and motor control, and a family of three struggles to keep their home cool and their neighbors out to stave off inevitable decomposition. David J. Schow's "Where the Heart Was" describes a betrayed husband returning again and again to attack his cheating wife and best friend. And Gary Braunbeck's "We Now Pause for Station Identification" describes zombies malingering around their favorite haunts, morphing into plant life, and converting the world into an alien habitat.

Andrew Gilstrap, writing in PopMatters, put it well when he said
the contributors in this anthology knew where zombie fiction has been, and...take the genre in new directions entirely. Stories focus on sentient zombies, the newly infected wrestling with their consciences, organized armies of the undead, brain-eaters in addiction-recovery therapy, and zombies who find religion. The writing is consistently, startlingly good without--for the most part--employing gratuitous gore and violence.

Disappointments in this anthology are few and far between. Editor John Joseph Adams doesn't necessarily recommend you read the collection straight through, but you may want to skip past "Zombie Gigalo," a story on par with Palahniuk's "Guts" for gross-out factor but far beneath his storytelling craft. "He Said, Laughing" feels like it was lifted word-for-word from Scorcese's Apocolypse Now (but with zombies, get it?), and "When the Zombies Win," is a short, dull, one-dimensional portrayal of a post-human earth that reaches more for tone than narrative. For a concise tale-by-tale review of the entire collection, check out John Denardo's excellent piece in SF Signal.

It's no wonder this collection was named Fangoria's book of the month. Check it out, read it, and enjoy the ads in the back for forthcoming titles The Loving Dead and Harrison Geillor's The Zombies of Lake Woebegotten. By the time you reach Sarah Langan's final story, "Are You Trying to Tell Me This is Heaven?" even the biggest anti-zombie killjoy will be screaming for braaaaaaaiiiiins.