Monday, January 25, 2010

A Novelization (2): The 4400

David Mack’s The 4400: Promises Broken (New York: Pocket Star [2009], 327 pp.) is much, much better than the previous volume in the series. In fact, the last hundred pages or so bolt you to your seat, forcing you to turn pages to catch up with the fast-paced action that somehow keeps several plotlines in order and that succeeds in presenting the information through various points of view. This novel probably won’t be the subject of literature courses fifty years from now (heck, two months from now), but it’s enjoyable, and for fans of The 4400, it’s outright exhilarating.

It’s difficult to condense everything that goes on in this novel in a few sentences. There are, as I said, a handful of plotlines at work. I don’t want to spoil them, but they involve a destructive plan by the remaining Marked and a confrontation between the military and Collier’s movement.

Some of the stylistic problems that abounded in Cox’s book sometimes peek here. For instance, some metaphors sounded excessive, even silly (“she […] bounced around her home like a silver sphere in a pinball machine” [26], “Enright sat as stoically as a golem” [80]), but there were few such metaphors.

We sometimes get samplings of the idea that metastasized in Cox’s novel (the idea of using descriptions to avoid repeating a person’s name too often: e.g. “The slender brunette nodded” [11], instead of “Diana nodded”), but it’s not over the top. Perhaps the most ridiculous example of trying to deal out information about someone as a description that identifies the character is this: “The American-born son of Thai immigrants hesitated” (225) (instead of saying “Chongrak hesitated,” and telling us elsewhere that Chongrak’s parents were Thai immigrants to the States).

Sometimes word choice was puzzling. When a character comments on “this enviously privileged era of human civilization” (208), the author is using an archaic sense of envious as “enviable.” And take this sentence: “He wondered whether anyone would notice how she doted on him and deduce that they were, in fact, lovers” (175). The expression in fact does not communicate the right thing there (it’s just emphasizing the impression that they were lovers), whereas it would here: “and deduce they were in lovers, as in fact they were.”

Finally, the use of humor is sometimes questionable: while people are in crisis mode, they often find the time and disposition for witty repartee (they twice call it gallows humor, which it is). Here and there, it works. More often, it seemed strained, as did some of the dialogues, which in a couple of the most critical junctures struck me as long-winded.

Having said all that, I want to stress how well the action is handled in the last, anguished run to the end. The narrative changes from one scene and character to another, often rewinding a little to show a same set of events from a different angle. It works: it keeps you informed and interested. The sheer amount of events covered in the last half of the book is rather ambitious, and the author was up to the task. It was a good way to draw the 4400 universe to a close.

A note on novelizations, then: these 4400 novels really work best for people who have seen the TV series. This format gives the author the advantage of not having to build up a universe from scratch. We don’t need to be convinced of what The 4400 are all about. This also goes for characters; we know how Tom Baldwin looks, and hence detailed accounts of his demeanor, which could slow down the pace, are unnecessary. That advantage can also be a straight jacket: the author cannot depart from what we know of and expect from 4400 characters without angering the readers/fans. But that’s just what consistency in fiction is all about, whether we are talking about a novelization, different chapters in a same novel, or Ulysses’s version of A Portrait’s Stephen Dedalus. I really don’t see why this genre has been so frowned upon by “high literature” (Rushdie, for instance, called it an “ugly method”); there is no fundamental reason for that. Perhaps the reason is that novelizations are certainly geared toward mass markets; a label on The 4400 novels announces each one is a “Media Tie-in.” And that’s a bad thing because…?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Novelization (1): The 4400

Fun, snappy, not very well written but readable. I got to Greg Cox’s The 4400: Welcome to Promise City (New York: Pocket Star Books [2009], 288 pp.) because of the TV series (of course), and what carried me through to the end was the eagerness to know what happened after the final episode ended. There are plenty of defects here, but the overriding concern is not purity of style, gracefulness of language, or whatnot, but the plot. Cox wants to deliver a punch through a brisk plotline, and, well, he does just that (naught else).

Two basic plotlines dovetail throughout the novel. The first is the idea to clone Danny Farrell (Shawn’s brother), in order to spread promicin everywhere (this may or may not count with Jordan Collier’s blessing, but it is set in motion by a troop of fanatic followers of his). The second is the plan to kill the Marked, a plan that stars the now very powerful Richard Tyler.

Interesting enough. Now, the book is swollen with questionable literary practices. For instance, the author is quite fond of using the word literally to hype up sentences (“literally millions,” for instance). There’s an overdone use of italics to represent people’s thoughts. Some sentences are rather negligent (“Something to think about, he thought” [105]). Clichés crop up everywhere (“Her heart was going a mile a minute” [146]). Unnecessary phrases, meant to spark up smiles I guess, are quite frequent (“But it was too late for words, meaningless or otherwise” [146]). Some sentences are ornate to a point of silly playfulness (“His vulpine face projected a patently insincere facsimile of sympathy” [154]).

Some comparisons are twisted and over the top, adding no real meaning to the narrative and not enough in the way of description to compensate. Two examples: “Her mouth was as dry as Prohibition” (143); “the lackluster blow landed with all the impact of a casually lobbed Nerf ball” (77).

There’s that bit of advice that says we should avoid repeating a same name or description too much (Tom this, Tom that, Tom some more), and this writer took it so deep into his heart it becomes giddy and even nauseous. Chapter 6 offers a nice case study, turning to such fanciful epithets as the “battered embalmer” (77), “the seasoned NTAC agent” (76), and the “gangly teenager” (74).

Next up: the following (and final) book in The 4400 series.

Friday, January 22, 2010

El infinito en la palma de la mano

Hay cosas buenas para decir sobre El infinito en la palma de la mano (Seix Barral, 2008, 237 pp.), de Gioconda Belli, pero principalmente hay que criticarlo. Lo digo porque tomó una idea muy fuerte (un recuento fresco y moderno de la historia de Adán y Eva) e hizo un esfuerzo decidido por desperdiciarla.

Varias cosas al respecto. La prosa está llena de errores (cosas tan sencillas y evidentes como “Lo movimientos de Adán” [p. 124] abundan) y hay un desfile casi moscovita de gerundios desacertados. Además, hay detalles narrativos que fallan: por ejemplo, la narración generalmente sigue los pensamientos y sensaciones de los personajes, así que me parece muy raro que estos dos seres recién creados y desnudos sepan lo que es el encaje: “el liquen y el musgo se derramaban como encaje sobre sus cabezas” (p. 23). Asimismo, hay palabras que desajustan las frases, comparaciones injustificadas, repeticiones deslucidas, metáforas ingenuas. ¿Qué tal estos dos casos de negligencia a la hora de revisar? “Al descampado, junto a las rocas que circundaban la cueva, se acurrucó junto a él” (pp. 112-113; énfasis añadido); “Trató de no perder de vista la colina al otro lado desde donde avistaría el mar, pero bien pronto se vio rodeada de altos troncos y denso follaje” (p. 136; énfasis añadido). En general, creo que estamos ante un manuscrito a dos revisiones profundas de estar listo para ser publicado; tal vez el prospecto de ganarse el premio lo aguijoneó para que saliera de la crisálida antes de tiempo. (Y se lo ganó: el Premio Biblioteca Breve 2008).

En medio de todo eso, hay que celebrar ciertas oraciones, que quedaron lujosamente descritas, y ciertas ideas fueron ingeniosamente pensadas y expresadas. Por ejemplo, me gusta esta, sobre Adán: “Le asombraba encontrar dentro de sí la respuesta para los acertijos con que lo enfrentaba la necesidad” (p. 130). Se nota el oficio que tiene Belli como poeta.

Hay unas visiones bastante estereotípicas de los hombres y las mujeres (podríamos decir que se justifica, ya que evidentemente estamos ante el “tipo” del hombre y el de la mujer). No obstante esos estereotipos, los diálogos y pensamientos de ambos personajes son interesantes, y su interacción a veces logra ser fascinante. El juego de culpas en torno al fruto prohibido es traído de manera efectiva a la relación entre Adán y Eva. El proceso mediante el cual aprenden a conocer el mundo (cazar y construir, por ejemplo) y a conocerse a sí mismos (el hambre, la defecación, la menstruación) es narrado con acierto. A pesar de eso, los dilemas en torno a los hijos que tienen (Caín y Luluwa, Abel y Aklia) creo que resultaron demasiado complejos, narrativamente, para la construcción de la novela; las mayores virtudes de las primeras docenas de páginas del libro se disuelven en una maraña de intrigas muy poco intrigantes.

Por último, la visión de Elohim (en el texto, “Elokim”) es bastante particular. Es una visión básicamente atea de la deidad: encontramos un dios construido sobre la base de un artista típico del Romanticismo, lleno de caprichos e incertidumbres y frustraciones y motivado entre otras cosas por el deseo de vencer la soledad. La Serpiente, a veces retratada como Quetzalcóatl, funciona como una especie de narrador que describe y explica lo que hace Elokim (sic).

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Words, Words, Words

“Build your vocabulary to make yourself a better reader; choose simple words whenever possible to make yourself a better writer” (Bryan A. Garner).

I couldn’t resist the temptation of sharing that sentence. It’s so brilliant, even more so in light of its simplicity. We (it can’t be just me) often turn that sickening desire to learn words into an obnoxious tendency to deploy them (especially if they’re both obscure and coruscating). I used to say that big words are like toothpicks left on your table at a restaurant: yes, they’re there, but you’re in breach of something when you use them. Garner hits the nail on the head: learn as many words as you can, because they’re useful to understand what others say, but keep them at a healthy minimum when it’s your turn to write. Garner goes on to say that no self-respecting mathematician would speak of, I don’t know, the fraction 36/48 instead of saying 3/4. Garner says all this in an entry (aptly) called sesquipedality (Garner is quite inventive with the names of many entries), in the fabulous Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford University Press, 2009). David Foster Wallace described the author as a “genius,” and it’s a well-deserved title. Garner’s usage dictionary is fantastic. It is deeply scholarly, reasoned, respectful of the evolution of language (while remaining unabashed of his stances toward certain developments), and filled with humor and perspicuity. It’s a dictionary I actually enjoy reading.

Since we’re on the subject of words and OUP, how not to turn to the robust Oxford English Dictionary (which I’ve mentioned before)? A good resource for word junkies is OED’s Word of the Day, to which you can subscribe by email here. Sometimes the words are admittedly unimpressive (pursuit, for instance); but some are more engaging (perigraphic, narcocracy). In any case, the OED’s wealth of information about any word is worth having in your inbox.

And speaking of your inbox, my friend Mauricio Salvador let me in on another email-based service that seems very promising. It’s Library of America’s Story of the Week, to which you can sign up here. I’ll certainly comment on some of these stories throughout the year, which are plucked from LOA’s marvelous and wide-ranging array of American literature. I guess that’s that for now.

Monday, January 11, 2010


Julian Barnes’s narrator in “Complicity” (The New Yorker, Oct. 19, 2009) is a man who recently got divorced and who tells the story in a chatty, freewheeling tone. Through a doctor friend of his, he meets a female doctor and a relationship may be hatching between them. The narrator wonders obsessively about her, focusing his curiosity on tactile impressions such as the kind of gloves she may wear. We get very few details about her (we don’t find out her name, for instance). The narrator goes to a movie with her; then they go out to dinner. At dinner, their hands touch. With that touch, the story ends.

It’s an interesting story. In fact, messy is the first word that comes to mind, but messy is not always a bad thing. In this case, it’s shouldn’t be counted as a virtue. Note how the story starts like a fable of sorts (notice the repeated “When I was” structure of the first three paragraphs). We get the sense there is a reason why this is being told to a particular person, but this is never made explicit; I was hoping it would be, as it would make the kind of carefree and spotty recollection more understandable. There are some nice brushstrokes in terms of the situations and the sense impressions described. But aside from that, it’s a forgettable story.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Alloy behind Teen Bestsellers

“‘I do fundamentally believe that publishing is not an expanding business,’ [Leslie Morgestein, a publishing executive at Alloy Entertainment] says. ‘It is contracting—even our corner of it [books for teens and tweens], which has been vibrant in the past few years. I don’t think long term there’s going to be sustainable growth there.’ As a result, the Alloy executives spend as much time thinking about ideas for television and movies as they do for books, and consider their book ideas in terms of their viability as television and film franchises.”
 “‘Forbidden love is a lot of what’s behind “Twilight,”’ Morgenstein says. ‘It’s about longing and lust, but it’s not about sex, and that’s very powerful to younger teen girls.’”

In the spirit of commenting on bestsellers this year, these quotes come from a revealing and sobering article about the industry of bestselling teen novels in The New Yorker (Rebecca Mead’s “The Gossip Mill,” published in the Oct. 19, 2009, issue, and no longer freely available online—except as an abstract). It shows the no-holds-barred approach to producing commercially viable books. It struck me to note how the traditional sense of a single author is dissolved into collective brainstorming and ghostwriting, how the cult of originality is trumped by actively plucking ideas and series from all kinds of sources, and how movies profoundly affect the way in which plots are discovered and hammered into shape.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Procedure in Plain Air

In Jonathan Lethem’s “Procedure in Plain Air” (The New Yorker, Oct. 26, 2009), a man called Stevick watches outside a coffee shop as two workers in jumpsuits dig a hole in the street, cover it tightly with planks, and then lower a dark-skinned man inside. Some sense of duty awakens in Stevick, who asks the workers about the prisoner; they give him an umbrella to shield the man in the hole from the rain. Quickly but implicitly, this becomes Stevick’s new occupation: he cares for the man in the hole, reports to a supervisor, and even gets a bag full of jumpsuits. Apparently, the macabre practice is common enough for passersby to know what it’s about, but they treat it as a strange form of art or as an offense that will devalue their properties. We don’t find out what’s really happening, but many symbolic meanings can be attached to this event.

I don’t think it’s a strong story. In fact, it’s rather weak. The opening strikes me as careless, and trying to find particular reasons for starting with that tiny flashback seems like a wasted effort. The situation is Kafkesque, the treatment is at times Beckettian, but there’s a silly tangle of words that slows down the tale, adds neither grace nor humor, and ends up sounding like a nineteenth-century speech. Here’s a typical sentence: “But the small dimension of the task blunted his protest: by the time the jumpsuited pair had ignored the counterperson for a minute or two, minute smiles perhaps rippling their lips—or was this an effect of the device’s vibration?—they were shifting the jackhammer back into the truck, in favor of shovels and picks, with which they deftly cleared the hole of shattered black chunks.” Notice the careless juxtaposition of minutes? The aside on the vibrations was unnecessary. Anyway. Not a great story.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


Marisa Silver's “Temporary” (The New Yorker, Sept. 28, 2009) seems to be a story about Vivian and Shelly: both are young and both live in downtown L.A.—that’s all they have in common. It’s really a story about the nervous and concerned Vivian, who was adopted by somewhat older, decent parents (they tell her she’s adopted when Vivian is a teenager and her mother appears to be in her deathbed). Vivian gets a job typing transcripts of interviews at an adoption agency. (This was the highpoint of the story for me: Vivian tries to imagine the people whose interviews she hears, and writes codicils at the end expressing her approval or disapproval.)

Vivian lives with Shelly, who seems to be well off and thus has no need to land a job (for which she seems inapt, anyway, even though she met Vivian at a temp agency: in retrospect, this detail seems off). Shelly leads a reckless life headquartered in an industrial space downtown, and invites Vivian to join her. Shelly sleeps with different people constantly, and only one (a man who distributes socialist propaganda) lasts enough to have an affair with Vivian; this pretty much snuffs Vivian and Shelly’s relationship, and as the story closes, Vivian knows that both her job and her living arrangements are finished.

It’s a good story. It seemed to tie in imperfectly, though, a series of spokes without a convincing hub. Its plot is not very strong, but there are good moments, some of them emotionally charged. Besides, some descriptions and insights are great; Silver pulls off some fabulous metaphors, which are always tricky: “She imagined the woman as delicate and fair, clasping her hands as if they were wayward children who might break something if she let them go”; “Her care felt like something that would drag down the progress of human development. It made her an awkward, embarrassing person who asked what book you were reading when all you wanted to do was go to the bathroom.”

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

About 2010

Here’s what I plan to do with this blog during 2010. Plans don’t always match up with realities, but here it goes anyway.

For one, I will still tackle short stories: Zoetrope, The New Yorker, One Story, McSweeney’s, short story collections, and so forth. I plan to write shorter comments, and probably more often than before (although the one-a-day rhythm I had last August is out of the question). I’ll try to comment my way up to what The New Yorker is publishing now, but I’ll leave a trail of notes on older stories that have caught my eye.

I’ll still comment on novels, both recent and less recent. Beside novels we can call grand (or canonical or whatever), I’m really interested in understanding bestsellers this year. Much of “high” literature started as failed or triumphant “popular” literature, and I plan to make comments on such literature: novelizations, mass-market paperbacks with garish and bumpy covers, stuff you can pick up while you wait in line at a drug store.

Furthermore, I want to continue sniffing around writer’s books (meaning books meant to develop writers’ craft). I read a few last year, and this year I plan to go through some more. I may comment on a few of them, and perhaps put some of their suggestions in practice through blog posts. Finally, I may toss in some fiction of my own, in Spanish and in English.

In any case, there’s always space for whatever seems noteworthy. Sounds like a lot. We’ll see.