Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Death Masks, Dead I Well May Be, Shriek: An Afterword

This is what I get for putting off posting for so long -- a lot of new books, including a couple I'm skipping.

These are three pretty disparate books, and I think they show disparate approaches to style. Jim Butcher's Death Masks is almost anti-style -- the author will happily butcher the language (pun intended) as he tries to get his story across. The characters are all smart-alecky, he re-uses phrases (like the incessant "Hell's bells"), and, in short, can really grate on the ear. But, for all that, I enjoyed the book -- I can give Butcher a pass on the style, because the story's so entertaining, and he's playing with some clever ideas. It also helps that the novel is pretty short, because if a book like this starts to drag, you end up thinking about the writing instead of the plot, and that's the kiss of death in such a plot-driven book.

Adrian McKinty's Dead I Well May Be takes pretty much the opposite approach. It's a pretty standard revenge story about a man set up for a crime who escapes to seek revenge on the people who set him up. McKinty's style, though, rescues this book. Michael, the protagonist, has a beautifully expressive way of telling a story, and is very funny to boot. He complains that when he's fleeing the police (in handcuffs), nobody tries to stop him -- "have they no social responsibility?" I think he's also a great incarnation of a character who's very clever, but is ultimately feckless because he just can't get motivated. In the end, I was a bit sorry that the plot-line was so weak, but I certainly want to read more about Michael, so I'll tune in for the next installment and hope that McKinty brings his talents to bear on a worthier plot.

Jeff Vandermeer's Shriek:An Afterword is a perfect marriage of plot and style. The set-up at first seems rather precious: Janice Shriek, sister of Duncan Shriek, is writing an afterword to her brother's brief history of Ambergris. She thinks he is dead, and so her afterword turns into a memoir of her interactions with him. He, however, is not dead, and has scribbled his emendations into her text (though he is also an unreliable narrator). On top of all that, Janice is in a disturbed frame of mind, and she keeps backtracking on her story, even starting over a couple of times.

In practice, though, the artificiality of the device fades as we become wrapped up in the story. This is a story about an enigma -- what are the Gray Caps, and what do they want? At least so far, they're ultimately unknowable, and so this fractured view is the only way to tell this story. In a more straight-forward attempt to tell the story, we'd lose much of the mystery -- what did Duncan find underground? Is a sea-change actually happening in Ambergris, or is it just Janice's imagination?


adrian mckinty said...


Thanks for the review. To be honest there are really only four or five plots. Its how you tell 'em that counts.

BTW, the book is called Dead I WELL MAY Be. From the song.

Cheers mate


Gavin said...

I agree that style counts for a lot, and I liked the book a lot (and I'll be reading the second one very soon).

But, what I was getting at was that Michael is such a great character that he stands out much more than the story he's in. For instance, I loved the part where he's in jail, imagining a war between two continents on the ceiling. Or the way he's so upset at the incompetence of the people sent to kill him. Or what he says about Fergal.

It's almost like I felt that he needs a plot worthy of him, if that makes any sense. (The summaries for the other two books definitely make them look very interesting that way, so I'm looking forward to them).

adrian mckinty said...


I'll be honest I'm not a fan of twisty plots and "surprise endings" which seldom turn out to be a surprise. Life doesnt really work that way I've found. When I lived in Harlem the criminals that I worked and hung around with were mostly not so bright people who couldnt hold down a regular job. Life north of 125th street was epic but it was fairly straightforward and linear. Thats why I used the medium of a crime novel to deal with what I hoped were the bigger themes of existential crisis and the meaning of honour in age without honour.

There's an integrity to a movie like Donnie Brasco (which has a very simple plot) which is lacking (for me) in a film like The Usual Suspects.

Ultimately I suppose it depends on what you want out of your writing. Joseph Conrad said that a work of art needs to justify itself in every line and I would like to think that I thought very carefully about every line in Dead I Well May Be. I used a trope from the dawn of time in what I hoped was a new and original well.

The fact that Dead I Well May Be is now out of print shows that I was almost certainly mistaken in my approach. The general public prefers the James Patterson school of literature: story is all, how you tell it is utterly irrelevant.



Gavin said...

First, I just want to say how cool I think it is that you're taking time to respond to me blog.

Second, the book isn't quite out of print -- I bought it from audible, and I almost bought it on the kindle. But I agree that it's a pity you don't sell in Patterson's numbers (I tried reading one of his books... ugh).

Third, I get what you're saying about the story you're trying to tell, and that's a good point. To me (if this isn't arrogant to say) it also felt like a coming-of-age novel -- the meaning of honor was part of that, as Michael has his illusions shattered. Sort of like what John Grady Cole goes through in "All the Pretty Horses."

I guess I just wanted something with a bit more of a surprise -- once Michael gets back to New York, you know how it's going to go. But, I suppose if that changed then you'd lose the sense of inevitability that's so important in this kind of story. Michael's big change is that he starts to take control of events, and if he ended up getting blind-sided all over the place, then it's sort of pointless.

(I'm sure you've heard all this before, but I'm just thinking at my keyboard).