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…?

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