Friday, August 31, 2012

The Cultural Penumbra

Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
So, a few weeks ago, a fellow named Jacob Silverman wrote a piece for titled Against Enthusiasm: The Epidemic of Niceness in Online Book Culture, sending the book blogo-twitto-sphere into a buzzing frenzy of conversation. Essentially, (by rather unfairly using Emma Straub as an example) Silverman nailed down what has been gently gnawing at the back of my brain for a while now - that many authors have become so accessible and cuddly through social media in recent years that we, as (self-proclaimed) cultural critics, are now afraid to shred them in a review, since we're friends on Facebook or follow each others tweets. It is as if we are witnessing the slow motion degradation of literary, critical culture.
(Reviewers think) that they will catch more readers (and institutional support) with honey than with argument, dissent, or flair. 
I think that despite what most of us (book bloggers, especially) tell ourselves, there's a lot of truth to Silverman's above statement. What do you do if you DON'T like a book and you've already connected in some 21st-century-version-of-a-meaningful-way with the author? We are very much living in a "mutual admiration society" here in the online literary world.
Critics gush in anticipation for books they haven’t yet read; they <3 so-and-so writer, tagging the author’s Twitter handle so that he or she knows it, too; they exhaust themselves with outbursts of all-caps praise, because that’s how you boost your follower count and affirm your place in the back-slapping community that is the literary web.
That assessment right there - that's what I've been struggling with recently. I have no interest, really, in fluffing my Twitter follower count by pandering and back-slapping and claiming to <3<3<3 some crappy book, just because it's lit-du-jour. It's a far healthier literary culture if we are honest in our critical assessments of the things we read. As small fish as I am here on the Book Catapult, I feel I owe it to other readers out there to let them know if I think there is a book that should be avoided - squashed like a binding-eating silverfish. (Sort of the opposite argument that Lev Grossman made in his recent Time article, I Hate This Book So Much: A Meditation.) The same way that I let people know if there's a book out there that should not be missed. I've never been a stranger to writing about things I don't like, we all know that. And I've never lied about liking a book that I was actually indifferent to, let alone praising one that I actually disliked. But I do often find myself not writing about a book that I didn't like, simply because panning a book is harder than fawning over one.

The problem with Liking (on social media) is that it's a critical dead-end, a conversation nonstarter. It’s opinion without evidence - or, really, posture without opinion.

We will have no "posture without opinion" here on the Catapult. You had to know that this rant was leading somewhere, friend. In the interest of doing my part to halt the fade of the literary salon culture, I will now offer up my review of Robin Sloan's forthcoming (and much buzzed about book) Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore. Which - I am proud to publicly admit - I kinda hated.

Like I said, there has already been quite a bit of buzz in that back-slapping literary world for Mr. Sloan's book. He originally published a much-talked about short story version of Mr. Penumbra's as an ebook several years back - available to read on his website, There are 2 Twitter feeds to follow: @robinsloan and @penumbra. (Sloan is an ex-Twitter employee, FYI.) The book has been selected for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, it is an October Indie Next list selection, it has gotten a coveted starred review from Publishers Weekly. It was edited by one of my favorite book editors at one of my favorite publishers, Sean McDonald from FSG. The cover glows in the fucking dark. It's all enough to give me pause as I write this - maybe I'm wrong in my critical assessment? 

No, fuck that. Even if I am wrong and this thing is the greatest piece of literature to arrive in the last 500 years, I STILL have to do this. I have to keep the critical fires going in the world, because where are we if I stop? (Yeah, that sounds awfully self-important, but hey, this is the Book Catapult, pal.)

The set-up sounds great: geeky Clay Jannon finds a job working the late shift in a 24-hour bookstore in San Francisco. The interior of this Mr. Penumbra's shop has shelves that stretch 30 feet up in a cavernous space, filled with thousands of leather-bound volumes of mysterious, coded texts. Most of the customers that come in during the night partake in a bizarre shuffle of dropping off volumes and requesting new ones. Money never changes hands, but Clay is required to record all occurrences in a massive journal kept under the desk. 

All good at this point for me - the kid loves this store with its eccentric clientele and rows upon rows of dusty tomes. But then Sloan starts to push my buttons. 

As curiosity gets the better of Clay, he creates a computer model of the book stacks in an attempt to further track the habits of the customers. Enter Kat, the beautiful girl with the chipped tooth & a smart mouth who works for Google. Within a page of her appearance, Kat is helping to rewrite Clay's code, revealing a complex system of patterns and codes hidden within the shelves. To further explore the data, the two decide that Clay should somehow smuggle one of the logbooks from the store out to Google, where Kat will be able to use their famed book scanner on it, effectively digitizing all the information on Penumbra's customers. 

From this point forward, the book reads like a Google fluff party. The whole time I was reading it, trying to line up in my brain how the old bookstore filled with magical old volumes will meet the digitization of printed literature, I kept thinking Sloan was just trying to get a rise out of me. It read as if he was setting everything up to then yank the rug out from under Clay and his tech-loving friends, revealing the importance of the actual books themselves. What an idiot I was.

The scenes at Google headquarters are particularly distressing, with the benefit of hindsight revealing how this thing plays out in the end. One of the "Googlers" explains to Clay upon his first visit to the campus how great it will be when all of the worldly knowledge housed inside books and in people's heads is digitized and made available to everyone, all the time, from anywhere on the planet. "No question will ever go unanswered again." Then Clay is shown the infamous book scanner - the device that scans the pages of books for inclusion into Google's massive database, using multiple cameras and a series of spidery metal arms. 
It's mesmerizing. I've never seen anything at once so fast and so delicate. The arms - I can't tell if there are four or eight or sixteen - stroke the pages, caress them, smooth them down. This thing loves books.
I watch (the) computer lift the words right up off the pale gray pages. It looks like an exorcism.
Movable type. Google it.

How sinister is that action? "This is awesome," says Kat, breathily, at one point. 

It continues in this vein and eventually, some of the answers Clay is seeking come from the enigmatic Mr. Penumbra himself. In a nutshell, the books in Penumbra's shop have been written by the disciples of a man named Manutius, who they believe discovered the secret to eternal life and hid the answer inside a coded text he called Codex Vitae. For 500 years, the members of the secret society the Unbroken Spine have been trying to crack the code to the codex, to no avail. The volumes in the bookstore are their collected life works - everything they were able to discover about the secrets of Manutius' code - and subsequent members study the texts to work toward their own findings. 

Yeah yeah. So there's a master book, hidden in a cellar in Manhattan, where the disciples meet to study the code, never taking the book from its hiding spot. Kat has this assessment:
"We can scan this," she says, patting the book on the table. "And if there's a code, we can break it. We have machines that are so powerful - you have no idea."
All in all, there is a glimmer of hope at some point - for we book purists - because (spoiler alert!) Google's engineers - in all their brilliance and glitz - cannot, in fact, crack Manutius' codex. Ha ha. But even so, there is no backlash at Kat and the Googlers for their hubris at thinking that they can crack this uncrackable code and come up with all the answers for capturing the world's knowledge. No comeuppance. In fact, once the mystery is solved, Penumbra's shop never reopens (he takes a leave of absence to help Clay crack the case) and is eventually turned into a rock climbing center. Sorry, another spoiler.

Okay, so I have a differing philosophical opinion on the culture of the book, no big deal, it's happened before. What makes it all the worse, however, is how pedestrian and uninspired the writing is throughout - even amateurish and positively giddy over the prospects proposed by the Googlers. To me, the worst offenses came in the form of infuriating passages of narrative breakdowns like these:

I wonder what Raj has in his lunch.
"Vitamin D, omega-3s, fermented tea leaves," he says.
I wonder if Kat Potente has been summoned.
She shakes her head. "Not yet," she says.
Maybe it's just me, but sections like this make me want to punch somebody in the throat. Is Clay actually wondering aloud, despite the lack of quotation marks or are the other characters linked to him psychically? If this is your narrative hook, you've got to own in throughout, buddy - you can't just drop this sort of thing in from time to time and expect me to be on board. It made the whole thing harder to take seriously as literature - which I assume is where Sloan and FSG wanted to be taking this. But I digress.

The plotting often veers into literary-mystery territory covered (with much more skill) by the likes of Italo Calvino, Arturo Perez-Reverte, and Carlos Ruiz Zafon. (Hell, even by my old arch-nemesis, Dan Brown.) So much time is spent navel-gazing and blathering about the wonderful tech that Google is capable of, that plot and sentence structure are effectively dismissed. I understand that part of the premise behind this is to show that we are at a cultural intersection of technologies - between that of the bound book and the digitization of print - but it came off as more of an advertisement for Google than anything else. I also just couldn't get on board with the mentality of loving the scanning of information so much, when the centerpiece to the whole thing was this amazing physical space filled with everything about books that is great and tactile and beautiful.

The opening line from that starred PW review was, "For those who fear that the Internet/e-readers/whatever-form-of-technological-upheaval-is-coming has killed or will kill paper and ink, Sloan’s debut novel will come as good news."

Bullshit. I think Sloan's message is the opposite of that. I think that he's saying that either the two can co-exist, with tech taking the gold medal and bound books the bronze, or that technology is amazing and fallible, but still better than the dumb old books. 

Hey, it is what it is. That's how I read it and this is just one man's opinion. And that's what criticism is all about. Take it or leave it.
A P.S. fun fact: Jacob Silverman, of the Slate opinion piece, also has a pretty funny Tumblr feed where he compiles all the book blurbs written by prolific blurber, author Gary Shteyngart:

Saturday, August 25, 2012

JPatt City

After finishing Antoine Wilson's pretty great forthcoming novel, Panorama City the other day I came across this stroke of genius on his website:

What better endorsement could you ask for?

Friday, August 24, 2012

Lonesome Animals (not for the kids)

Just a little Friday afternoon share for you - a little violent tale for your weekend:
I've read some books with some pretty bad dudes in them before - James Crumley, Massimo Carlotto, etc - but the shifty, violent, unpredictable Sheriff(!) Russell Strawl in Bruce Holbert's Lonesome Animals takes the cake. In fact, he calmly takes the cake away from you, then comes back into your house with a bull and turns the bull loose after kicking it squarely in the balls. This isn't a weird, crude reference I made up, mind you - he actually does this to a group of BIA agents in this book, maiming most of them in horrible ways and killing the bull in the process.

He also kills his wife with a frying pan on page 12 (spoiler alert!) - an unspeakably awful act that sets the tone for the rest of the journey Strawl takes. Can you really root for a guy like that? Well... not because of that, but...

Okay, let's back up a bit: the real story here is that Strawl, former sheriff of Okanogan County, WA has been dragged out of retirement to track down whoever has been brutally murdering Native Americans across his remote section of Washington state in the 1930's. (And I mean brutally, as in dismemberment, wiring mouths shut, decapitation, disemboweling. Hey, it's a great book club pick!) Holbert (a debut novelist and an Iowa Writer's Workshop graduate - although I won't hold that against him) uses some pretty sparse, easy-flowing prose to get this story out and despite the fairly awful nature of it all, it bursts to life on the page. The dusty landscape of this still-far western frontier is super-vivid and populated by odd folks pulled right from a Coen brothers film. Plus you've gotta love the moral dilemma that Strawl presents you as a reader, I mean, c'mon! Yeah, he's a piece of shit who murdered his wife and does stuff like this while questioning people about the killer:
Strawl cursed Marvin, then set the pistol against the old woman's ear, barrel up, and fired. She cried out. Blood from her eardrum spattered his wrist. Marvin knelt to receive his wife as she collapsed to the ground. Strawl looked at the two of them beneath him. "You tell me if you hear of him or I'll do her other ear."
In fact, his reputation is so bad that most people he encounters just assume that he's the killer. But because of the nature of his quest - the, dare I say, nobility of it, trying to put an end to these horrifying killings - you are left with no choice but to pull for him in some way. The lesser of two evils, perhaps, but Strawl is a far more palatable evil than the creature doing all the butchering.

Well, anyway, maybe Lonesome Animals just acted as an antidote to the crappy book I finished before it, but it really reminded me a lot of Blood Meridian or True Grit or Far Bright Star - not just in the violence but more in the style of prose, being so spare and raw throughout. So hey, if those types float your boat - as they do mine - get it in gear & check this one out.

Friday, August 10, 2012

The Wealth of Book Nation 2012

Forbes magazine announced their annual list of the world's highest paid authors today - a list that I seem to be obsessed with, as this is the third year in a row that I have made mention of it on this site. "Why do you care, Seth?" you might ask. And I would say, "Well, friend, I'm glad you asked."

For one, there's #1 - who needs no introduction on this website, his home-away-from-home, such as it is. Yes, once again, JPatt has dug his ragged claws into the mountaintop and is hurling fiery copies of his books at the losers below him. He made $55 million more than Stephen King last year. Stephen freakin' King, people. Think about that.

For another, decidedly less catty reason, I think these author paydays are indicative of a remarkably healthy book industry - something that I, for one, have sort of lost sight of in the face of the eBook revolution and the ongoing Amazonian War. (See, unfortunately, people don't seem to want to buy their books from "bookstores" anymore.) A lot of these may be shitty books, but it's pretty great that people still look to the printed word - in a variety of formats - for entertainment. That said, here's the list, followed by the requisite snarkiness:

One for the Money = free bitches for Beethoven!
1. James Patterson ($94 million) up $10 million from last year and $24 mil from 2010.
2. Stephen King ($39 million)
3. Janet Evanovich ($33 million)
4. John Grisham ($26 million)
5. Jeff Kinney ($25 million)
6. Bill O'Reilly ($24 million)
7. Nora Roberts ($23 million)
8. Danielle Steel ($23 million)
9. Suzanne Collins ($20 million)
10. Dean Koontz ($19 million)
11. J.K. Rowling ($17 million)
12. George R.R. Martin ($15 million)
13. Stephenie Meyer ($14 million)
14. Ken Follett ($14 million)
15. Rick Riordan ($13 million)

The snark: that's right, Nicholas Sparks has fallen off the list from last year, poor l'il fella. His ego must be starving to death. And who the hell is paying Janet Evanovich $33 million? (Up from $22 million in 2011.) Jesus. (I also think it's hilarious that she made the same amount as spoiled, crybaby Yankee 3rd baseman Alex Rodriguez.) Looking at the list as a whole, it seems that George R.R. Martin needs to renegotiate - his Game of Thrones trilogy has now sold over 8 million copies and still Dean Koontz made more money than he did last year. Dean Koontz? Oh, and Danielle Steel has an estimated net worth of close to 600 million dollars - which kinda puts JPatt's paltry $250 million to shame. (I'm not entirely sure what he does with all his money - hookers and Courvoisier?)

All in all, I think I'm more shocked that Bill O'Reilly made that much just from his book sales. Talk about signs of the apocalypse.