Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Reviewing a Review

Last Sunday, I read a column by Scott R. Garceau, the expatriate columnist of the Philippine Star (in the X-Pat Files), reviewing a book I've mentioned here before, McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, Michael Chabon (Editor) .

Entitled Pulp Fiction for Serious Readers (03/14/2004), Garceau writes:

Whatever happened to action tales? Thrilling escapades? Heartstopping adventures? Dances with the macabre and the mysterious? And conversely, why are so many short stories you read these days plotless, eventless, or otherwise "sparkling with epiphanic dew"?

He then goes on to say:

Chabon’s idea was, what if "good" writers were allowed to let rip with thrillers, without fear of embarrassment or literary criticism? The only stipulation was that the authors had to write in a "genre" – be it crime thrillers, mysteries, science fiction or fairy tales.

Afterwards, he opines that, "The results are hit or miss, but the attempt is noble, resurrecting modes of fiction which often get dismissed in the mad publishing scramble for the next "chick lit" or other hot trend...."

What makes this review interesting is that Garceau gives me a comparative look at how the reading lay public would 'perceive' such an effort as compared to a speculative fictioneer like me. I continued to read and compared my own review of the stories with that of Garceau's.

For example, he says:

Oddly, though, some entries fail simply as thrillers, despite their good intentions. The opening story, Jim Shepard’s "Tedford and the Megalodon," is quite literary, but doesn’t exactly make you flip the pages at a feverish pace, despite its promising premise of an arctic hunt for a massive prehistoric shark...

Some of the collected authors are old hands at this kind of thing: Stephen King adds yet another chapter to his "Dark Tower" opus with "The Tale of Gray Dick," a pulpier strand of King’s writing that gains an almost John Ford-ian depth in this venue. But it’s still throwaway King.

Some of the tales are gimmicky, yet contain nifty ideas, such as Nick Hornby’s "Otherwise Pandemonium," which asks: what if your VCR could fast forward through real, live TV shows, giving you a glimpse of future events? All told through the eyes of an American teen who is about to have his first sexual experience.

Skilled crime novelist Elmore Leonard gives a cold-eyed view of an Oklahoma lawman’s rise to G-Man status in "How Carlos Webster Changed His Name to Carl." Clearly, Leonard can do this kind of thing in his sleep, but he’s still entertaining to read. Same with Crichton, whose "Blood Doesn’t Come Out" is a bit nastier and noir-ish than his usual science fiction output.

And so on and so forth. Overall, I agreed with Garceau's review of the book, finding it uneven with some brilliant works and some "Huh?" pieces in the collection. However, some parts I had to wonder or altogether disagreed with. For example, I seconded Garceau's opinions of the aforementioned authors except for King and Crichton.

King's "The Tale of Gray Dick" I thought could have been done better using a different perspective but was ultimately foiled by his use of his "Dark Tower" main character, Roland. I also thought that this story seemed like an excerpt of King's newest "Dark Tower" novel, The Wolves of Calla, though I'm not sure since I haven't read that book yet.

On the other hand, I found Crichton's contribution a bit lacking in resolution though his writing is very good.

Likewise, in his comment on the "serial detective yarn" of Michael Moorcock’s "The Case of the Nazi Canary," he says, "It’s nice to see certain authors submerge themselves in the exercise, as Moorcock does, presenting his tale as "A Seaton Begg Mystery," and going on to list about 20 other imaginary titles in the series." Of course, he doesn't know that Moorcock is one of grandmasters of science-fiction and fantasy and this is the writer's meta-fictional-- and meta-temporal-- trademark.

Interesting, one story most SFF reviewers found weak, "Chuck’s Bucket" by Chris Offutt, Garceau found good, noting it "...a postmodern yarn which cleverly weaves not only the author (Chris Offutt) into the narrative, but editor Chabon and the very tale the author is trying to finish as well. It’s a daring, provocative sci-fi gambit, and a standout in this collection." I presume here the disagreement in opinions is that Offutt's concept is old-hat already in the field of speculative fiction, whereas this is something Garceau might find altogether new.

I definitely agree with Garceau's opinion of Rick Moody’s short, "The Albertine Notes," which he calls, "...an almost-novella length tale in the Philip K. Dick tradition." However, he then calls it "a familiar premise" like the movie "Strange Days," which is jarring since all of Dick's writings harp on the same themes and ideas Moody had delved into.

Garceau's last reviews were of the publisher and editor of the book, Dave Eggers and Michael Chabon, which he said, "I found hardest to get through". True enough, I agreed with his assessment of Egger's "Up the Mountain Coming Down Slowly." However, I had a better appreciation of Chabon's story, "The Martian Agent, a Planetary Romance," which is almost in the same vein in Moorcock's effort but is a more out-and-out pulp story. Which I think is the whole point of the game in this collection anyway.

On a final note, I generally feel that Garceau didn't enjoy the output of stories written here. He states:

Each writer adds a different spin to an age-old form, and the combined effect is like watching an old anthology TV show like Twilight Zone, Night Gallery or Tales of the Unexpected: cheap, yet powerful.

Likewise, he didn't seem to appreciate Egger and Chabon's efforts: "Full of chutzpah, they’re alternative publishing’s whiz kids, and today’s answer to Barnum and Bailey, setting up higher and higher stakes, even if they mostly act as impresarios behind the scenes, stoking the geek interest and mystery like Wizards of Oz."

My feeling is that he doesn't give them-- more specifically, Chabon-- more credit. In actuality, Chabon was writing about the widening gap between the two kinds of fiction prevalent nowadays-- literary fiction (literature with a capital 'L') and genre fiction-- and his reaction to that. That is, Chabon wants writers to push for more fiction driven by adventurous plots and narrative action instead of the current trend toward stories that are "plotless and sparkling with epiphanic dew." He also wants to let readers know "how much fun reading a short story can be."

Despite literary folk's opinion about these kinds of stories, calling them "artless" or "pure entertainment," Chabon is urging short story writers everywhere to take heed: that genres considered pulp (detective/spy stories, sci-fi, and ghost stories) aren't necessarily formulaic and cheap. Even if they are, they are usually more interesting than a short story that doesn't leave the house which comprises the bulk of most literary short stories nowadays.

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