Friday, August 31, 2012

Book Review: Mockingbird (Miriam Black #2), by Chuck Wendig


Ass-kicking "vulture" Miriam Black* is back, and trying to make a go of "normalcy." Sure, she's no longer grifting on the back of her visions of death, but then she's also dying a little herself every day. Sharing an Airstream with trucker Louis (who's never home), stifling her visions, and working the checkout counter at a crappy Jersey Shore convenience store just isn't cutting it. So when one more sunburned bitch in a muumuu makes a crack about Miriam's gloves . . . they come off. Both literally and figuratively. And we all know where that can lead.

Pink-slipped and pissed off, she's ready to blow town when Louis offers her a last-ditch peace-offering. He has a friend, a teacher at an exclusive all-girls boarding institution, who is willing to pay for Miriam's "talent," and she finds herself almost too eager to agree. Easy, in and out, right?

But as we all know, boarding schools just scream perverse and creepy, so she's not getting away that easy. When a casual encounter with a smart-ass student brings on a debilitating vision of the girl's torture and death at the hands of a bird-masked butcher, Miriam feels compelled to see what she can do about twisting Fate. Again.

While still rocking  plenty of Miriam's patented irreverent snark, and a bunch of epic fights (man can this girl take a beating -- she's either a Slayer or related to Harry Dresden), this book delivers a more introspective Miriam. We learn more about her seriously damaged history, and that recently, she's had a frequent visitor. She calls him  "The Trespasser," and he likes to arrive out of nowhere in the shape of a dead lover, the back of his skull blown off, delivering ominous messages regarding the "work" she has to do. Which is suddenly somehow related to the girls of the Caldecott School. So there goes Jersey . . . and the gloves. Who wants normal anyway?

Bravo, Mr. Wendig. A sequel that's as good as the first, possibly better (the yellow-line metaphors are certainly much more effective* . . . melting butter pats FTW!), Mockingbird also significantly ups both character development and the creep-factor, with Miriam facing a truly insidious and deeply disturbing adversary. A bit less noir and more horror than Blackbirds, this book kept me up late into the night, alternately cracking me up and building up dread . . . the twisted twists keep coming right to the end. Can't wait for #3 -- Cormorant -- due in 2013.

*See my review of Blackbirds (Miriam Black #1) here.

More: House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski


Okay, so I think I'm finished with this book, if lacking even the remotest textual sense of an ending can be called "finished."

 Lev Grossman, in a recent review of the new David Foster Wallace bio, talks about the genre that DFW helped to birth, and that James Woods referred to (in a review of Zadie Smith's White Teeth) as "hysterical realism." Grossman says:

               Wood coined the phrase to describe the big, hyper-inter-connected,
detailed, hyper-annotated, novels that Rushdie, Pynchon,  
               DeLillo, DFW and Smith were writing at the time . . ..  Hysterical realism treats
               the world as an infinite network, but we already have an infinite network, the
               Internet, and our nose is rubbed in it on an hourly basis. We don’t need more of
               that—more hysteria. We need novels that help us manage hysteria instead.

It's interesting (or maybe just inevitable) that this branch of postmodernism began to peter out even as the internet was remaking the way we process information. House of Leaves, published in 2000, also tries that sort of remaking . . . in fact, it may represent the genre at its most excessive, with multiple layers of narration, endless footnotes, experiments in typography and page layout, and several appendices that may or may not enhance the reader's experience of the story ("novel" feels like a misnomer).  And of course there are no answers to its endless riddles, aside from the ones the reader wants to see.

Is House of Leaves hysteria inducing, or just a lot of work? I think that depends on how much you enjoy puzzles, or maybe how much time you have to devote to puzzling. I remember reading Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum in the good ol' days pre-Internet, and desperately wanting to look up every historical reference to see if he was pulling my leg or not. Fact was, I enjoyed it immensely without (in fact, it's one of my permanently earmarked desert island tomes, and I never have bothered with that web research now that it's available). I also enjoyed DFW's Infinite Jest when the only stylistic point of reference I had was Nabokov's Pale Fire (yeah, he did the footnote/end-note/gloss thing way back in 1962).

So . . . House of Leaves was good, but not great. Maybe I'd have been more impressed had I read it when its its stylistic quirks were still fresh; maybe I'd care more about putting the reams of clues together if I were writing some dry academic treatise on it. (On the other hand, HoL makes a great deal of indirect and snarky fun of dry academic treatises, so . . . maybe not so much.) Yes, I was amused by the endless invented scholarship; yes, some of Johnny Truant's prose sings like a nightingale; but, much like Nabokov's annotated poem, HoL relies almost completely on the interpretation of a text by an unreliable narrator, taking that conceit one step further to a level of TWO unreliable narrators -- each telling his own story as much as the Navidsons'. And the rub is that the narrative buried deepest in is the most intriguing.

The Navidson Report had me at "bigger on the inside," and the uncanny nature of the great dark void at the center of the house is what really kept me going. I expect the text is intended to be as much a mystery as that inexplicable darkness -- which, ironically, is the only narrative thread with an emotionally satisfying conclusion. I'm not even sure what I'm saying anymore, so I'll leave it at this: 5 big shiny stars for The Navidson Report, which is creepy beyond measure.  3 stars for the rest, which can be both lyrical and amusing, but in the end amounts to an entirely different tale, which is nowhere near as compelling.