A brief digression from the Hugos for one of the two books recently lent to me by friends. The other – The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch – I have somewhat bounced off. It wasn’t bad enough to be worth angry reading, nor weird enough to be enticing. It was just weird and bland and uninteresting. I will try to push on at some point, but now is not the time.
This is the other. I wasn’t super sold on it when it was mentioned, but I trust the lender, and it was a short book, so I figured, why not? I now have a fulsome answer to that question…
So, the premise of the novel is that suddenly, inexplicably, nearly everyone in the world is unable to sleep. This is a snapshot of the fallout of that catastrophe – what happens in a world full of sleep-deprived people careening towards inevitable psychosis and death, told from the perspective of one of the few left who can sleep. Problem is, I’m not super sold on that premise. It reeks a bit of cut price zombie story… and I really don’t like zombie stories. Not just because the prospect is kinda scary (though it is), it’s just… dull. Oh the unstoppable progress of the shambling horde, oh no… oh they’re still shambling huh? Who would have guessed. Shamble shamble… and on it goes. It’s just very much not my thing, and the way this is blurbed kinda read like it might fit into that vibe.
As it happens, it didn’t quite, but still captures some of the other aspects of a zombie novel – the ones I think that are just more common in general to dystopia fiction – that I don’t like. The whole survivalism thing, especially when it’s the man going out and fighting for the food, foraging, surviving in the new urban wilderness with skills he never knew he had. The writing off of a lot of people as just suddenly Other, whether as a zombie horde, another tribe or the slowly unravelling sleep-deprived. So yeah, it’s pushing a load of my nope buttons, through no fault of its own (though I would argue that slotting into the Great Survivalist Man trope is problematic in its own ways that the author isn’t entirely excused from).
But aside from it just not being my thing by way of skirting into a genre I meh… it’s also bad in several ways. Leading on from the Survivalist Man thing, one of the main one was gender. I present to you, the following excerpt (I think spoiler free):
We called her Zoe, Tanya having plucked the name from a mental list of future-children names that women seem to carry around inside themselves like eggs. Women. Eggs in their bodies, babies in their eyes.
So. Some issues here.
Firstly, I do not carry a fucking list of baby names in my head, simply because I am a woman. I am not, thank-you-very-damn-much, reducable to my reproductive capacity. How fucking DARE you.
Secondly, you make a sweeping statement like that, so unequivocal, you’re gonna run up against the fact that it just doesn’t fucking apply to a lot of people. Not all women have eggs in their bodies, for instance, let alone whether all of us can be characterised by a fanatical desire for babies.
Thirdly, it’s frankly just creepy.
This is… not uncharacteristic of the way women are portrayed in the book (or woman, really… there’s only one of any real note). There’s never anything to give us a sense that the book disagrees with the narrator’s view of women – it’s never undercut, his opinions are never countered. And then it doubles down by using a woman as property… having one man demonstrate his power over her specifically to upset another man. At no point is this shown to be because he’s upset that her free will is being suborned, either. It’s not about her being forced. It’s about her being his. And that was fucking galling to read.
But it’s not just women, oh no. We also get this gem:
‘I just fell down. I was too scared.’ The fat man shook his head and his jowls flapped. There’s a point of obesity where, like it or not, whatever your other personal achievements or qualities, all you are is ‘the fat man’ or ‘the fat lady’. The world is a gawking four-year-old.
As someone who recently had a phonecall with an older person who asked her “are you still putting on weight darling?”, let’s just say this isn’t an attitude I’m unfamiliar with. And the way it’s put – like it’s hard, immovable fact – is just horrendous. Again, it’s never undercut. The fat people of the book are vaguely comical and grotesque, and that’s their lot. Again, galling.
You see where this is going.
And there’s never anything to redeem the narrator, in fact, he’s portrayed as being so very special clever, alas misunderstood misanthrope, too tied up in his clever words to relax and be among people, so sad. I was only a few pages in when I may have described him as “totally up himself”. The language, especially early on, is what someone who wants to sound clever but hasn’t quite got the knack of using all those words in real conversation uses. It’s just that shade too awkward, too up-register. It sits wrong. And it makes both the author and the narrator feel like unlikeable, arrogant, armchair intellectuals. I definitely felt like they’d both mansplain to me given half a chance.
And this permeates the book entirely. We never escape the narrator’s viewpoint, never see anything other than his little, self-absorbed view of the world, and it feels bereft. I’m not saying the idea is stellar or anything, but it could have been a better book than this, if only given something less shallow to support it, a person I actually wanted to see from the inside.
Shockingly then, the attempts to draw sweeping conclusions about humanity and modern life fall rather flat. I’m wary of that sort of thing anyway – one man realises how superficial we all are, sees below the surface, exposes the rot, because somehow, he’s the one man who really can… it’s just, again, arrogant and self-important – but it’s not even done well. If the prose was good, the character compelling… I’d never love it, but I’d roll with it. It wasn’t even letting me do that. And of course, if you’re this sort of self-important, you’re going to take pot-shots at religion. Like so:
There’s a natural point in the development of any religion where the prophet becomes first a nuisance and then a positive liability. Just imagine Jesus walking into an evangelical church while the collection plate was being passed around – or into a Catholic priest’s chamber while the altar boy’s frock is pulled up over his head. At some point it’s inevitable that the prophet has to go.
I’m not saying never criticise religion – that would be stupid – but come on. Really. This is what you’re giving us? This is pretty much the epitome of his incisive commentary.
And so it goes. It’s not the worst book ever – I only gave it two stars, not one – but I have read some truly appalling shite, so it’s a low bar to get under, when you think about it. It’s definitely bad enough I’m happy to lump it into “shite”. It’s rather more pleased with itself than it deserves, and I just have no interest in reading another smug, white dude being satisfied with his own “cleverness”. It’s not like it’s never been done before. And it manages to be not even low-grade offensive in a way that doesn’t disabuse me of the notion that the author thinks the offhand comments are… somehow okay. Maybe he didn’t. I can’t know for sure. But it didn’t feel that way, to read. And to be quite honest, that’s the bit I think matters. It’s pretty easy not to be a misogynist, fat-shaming prick, and I’m not particularly inclined to give anyone the benefit of the doubt.
All in all, a big no from me. But it was short, and I moved onto better things after (I’ve actually already finished two subsequent books, one of which was meh and one of which was bloody amazing, so at least it’s upwards from here. I’ve now started on the Hugos too. Yes, yes I should blog more quickly).