Monday, March 26, 2007

Hands of Pork, or Death of a Fan

'Tis a sad day. Another one bites the dust. He'd been hanging on for a while through much patience and benefit of the doubt, but today I buried Dan Simmons. In my mind only, of course, and not quite completely, but as sadly and regretfully as anyone whose fallen before him.

I just finished his new book, The Terror, a novelization of the doomed Sir John Franklin expedition to find and traverse the Northwest Passage. I've written about the Franklin expedition here before, I have read many books on the subject, and once even thought of writing a novel conjecturing what may have happened to the lost men. But then I heard that Simmons was going to do one, and harrumphed.

My first Simmons book was Phases of Gravity which I thought was excellent. Then I read his award winning Song of Kali but I just didn't get it, which was weird. I thought it lost its way in the middle somewhere and left me unsure of what I read. Later I read Summer of Night. Then I re-read it. And did it again. It's a straight horror book with a pretty clunky Evil behind the evil doings around a small Illinois town, and despite some clunky writing, there are scenes in that book that are downright memorable. The recurring rendering truck, the WWI soldier walking down a country lane, and the priestly face pressed against the window were original horrors that still make me shiver. Simmons even threw in a thing under the bed and giant worm-like things burrowing underground, less original than the others, but well worked in here.

Its sequel, A Winter Haunting, I thought was brilliant but very different. It's a psychological piece dealing with Summer's aftermath that left me questioning exactly what happened in both books but in a very good, correct way. Wonderful stuff.

I read another award winner, Hyperion, but I had similar issues to what I had with Kali. Strangely extrapolated from the work of John Keats, it lost me and couldn't hold my fascination or much interest. But, I thought, maybe I didn't get it. Sometimes a book is like listening to a record for the first time: it doesn't strike you as very good but listen again and it's a different, sometimes very different, experience. Maybe I was in a strange mood when I read it. Still, I read the first sequel, I no longer remember it, and didn't bother with the next two in the series.

I read most of his other books and thought they were okay but with a bit too much ABC Movie of the Week feel to them. I didn't bother with the disaster novel about the erupting volcano because it actually seemed like an ABC Movie of the Week (they may not even make these anymore; they were big when I was growing up).

Simmons wrote three hardboiled novels about a P.I. named Joe Kurtz. I read all of those, was disappointed, but read them anyway, mostly because I liked the first paragraph of the first one. I thought they would get better even though I could never really accept a homeless bum with a laptop and modern expertise with technology. The last one was a bit better but it seemed to be less well reviewed.

His The Crook Factory, about the WWII exploits of Ernest Hemingway was somewhat interesting but difficult for me because of the way Hemingway came across to me. There is always a danger about writing about real people or even writing about other people's characters: they never seem the same people/characters and therefore set up a discordant vibe. In this case he made Hemingway a buffoon.

Ilium and Olympos were on my radar screen, even though they are based on other works of literature, something of a recurring theme for Simmons, but The Terror has taken them off. I still read the sporadic messages he posts on his website and I'm a huge fan of what he has to say in his "Writing Well" segments.

Why, then, oh why, does he write like he did in The Terror? Clearly I have a lot of experience reading Dan Simmons (over a dozen of his novels); I have always felt that while he usually produces at a certain level of quality, his actual writing, his choice of words on the paper, is often unexpectedly clunky, at best. But in Terror he violates several glaring "rules" over and over and over and it left me completely cold.

"Rules" in writing aren't really rules. Many of them are merely illustrations of common pitfalls that are so well recognized that avoiding them should be just about mandatory. I say just about because a skilled writer can violate any of them so long as they create and write well. But if they don't, if their efforts remain pedestrian, they're just shouting out something like, "I'm an established author and I don't have to care so much anymore. Ha ha."

In The Terror, Simmons' writing style harkens back to bad 1930's pulp stories. One of the rules he violates often is the use of adverbs. Rather than set up and illustrate a situation, hundreds of paragraphs start out like, "Suddenly, impossibly, incredibly, such and such appeared." Do it once and I'll hiccup and keep reading but it's the whole book. There's a paragraph on page 418 that starts out, "Amazingly,..." and then eight paragraphs later there's another that starts out, "Amazingly,...". Never do I have the feeling that things are so sudden, incredible, impossible, amazing, unbelievable, astounding, etc. etc. because he doesn't bother painting the pictures. He merely tacks an "ly" to the end of an adjective and expects to take my breath away.

He also is overly fond of embedding phrases, usually the thoughts of the characters, in the middle of sentences already begun. He stops them with a dash, throws in the thought or statement, closes it with another dash, then continues. Where's the skill? Where's the wordplay? Where's the use of language we have a right to expect when we invest in a nearly 800 page book?

The book is also full of what to me are internal inconsistencies. You have a fourteen foot tall monster with claws that open up ten feet of Arctic ice or the solid oak hull of a ship who uses them to effectively separate heads and limbs from the unfortunate sailors. His head is so big that he bites and chews off some of his victims heads, audibly crunching their skulls. So how can something this big open up the torso of a small man, devour just his insides, then scatter his bones in the ice after breaking them and sucking out their marrow? Um, wouldn't he have to have another really small mouth and a couple of sets of really tiny little hands tucked away somewhere to be able to do that? This would be like a much smaller polar bear trying to dial my cell phone.

Or when a man can barely squeeze through a hole in the side of the ship yet his wife can make it while carrying two children, both of whom manage to stay asleep the whole time? And can literally starving men really fill up bucket after bucket with their vomit? And on and on.

Typically it's much easier for me to overlook the internal inconsistencies than it is to get past the horrid, dreadful writing style. Where's his editor? Where's his agent? I refuse to believe they can read this thing without being bothered by the same things as I. Not if they're honest.

Anyway, I run on. But this is bad writing, and it offends me. It's as ham fisted and inelegant as anything I've read in a long time, certainly anything I've finished. His next book is about somebody I have quite good opinions of, even though they're all second hand. He wasn't perfect but I've read many of his works and letters, two major biographies, and first hand accounts by those who knew the man: Charles Dickens. After reading the excerpt posted by Simmons on his website, I will now and forever blot out all knowledge of the forthcoming book.

But I will read both Summer of Night and A Winter Haunting again, probably several times. And I will miss Dan Simmons while once again wondering just why it is that good writers go bad.


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