Sunday, June 10, 2007

Book: After the Plague and Other Stories

“Who’s the author?” asked Steve-o, from the other end of the breakfast table – as I started in on the last of the stories in this collection.

“Last name’s Boyle,” I said and turned the book sideways, showing him the spine. “Middle name is this word.” I pointed at the name, Coraghessan. “Don’t ask me to pronounce it. And if you think that’s bad, I can’t imagine how ghastly the first name must be. They’ve only dared provide the initial, T.”

Reading this book was a bit of a breakthrough for me. I’d been in a pretty bad funk over my inability to trust the authors I’d been reading. As my own writing endeavors were maturing and intensifying I was becoming an apparent literary snob, finding flaws in everything I was reading and mentally re-writing it. And I was not happy about it. I thought I’d lost a sort of innocence that would never return.

Trust is a big issue for me. When an author both writes well and tells a story well (two different things, I suggest) and there are no serious flaws in the first chapter or so, I develop trust with the author, I suspend judgement and I fall into his or her hands – to be carried away into their world and to forget about my own. When these conditions aren’t met, I keep the story at arm’s length and reading it becomes a chore. I suspect this is true for most readers. I find it’s an instinctive organic response.

The situation improved as I returned often to authors I’d already developed plenty of trust for over years (Poul Anderson, Ray Bradbury, Stephen King for instance). But here’s the thing: This collection bears a flaw that should have been a stumbling block and yet I was able to overlook it. I was able to suspend annoyance each time it occurred and fall quickly back in to T. C. Boyle’s hands. I’m extremely happy about this.

I suggest that Boyle is both an excellent writer and storyteller. The writing is powerful. He mentions nothing off-hand just to make you aware of it but delves into the essence of everything. But succinctly, mind you, without hampering the pace. There’s a delicate equation behind the ability to do that. Clearly Boyle has lived a life of intense observation. That’s part of it. And his mastery of the metaphor and simile is another part.

The only thing eclipsing his mastery of the metaphor is his penchant for it. They’re on every page. When they work they’re magnificent, painting clear pictures both visually and texturally. But some of them don’t work very well. That’s the flaw that I was blessedly able to tolerate. Metaphors have to work perfectly. Otherwise forget it. When an awkward metaphor makes you stop and re-read it twice – it’s one that should have been edited out. It’s not useful at that point. And that’s my only criticism.

The stories here tend to involve highly relatable characters – regular nice people with regular nice idiosyncrasies and perfectly good intentions – that gradually, perhaps logically, slip into the state where desperate or unlawful acts are committed. He blurs the line between everyday people and freaks. Or perhaps he reveals that there is no line.

Very useful work. I recommend it to anyone.

1 comment:

Kathleen said...

My issue is books that get published with incredibly horrible glaring basic grammar flaws. The use of "I" with a preposition, i.e., between him and I. ARGH!!! Isn't the editor supposed to catch shit like that. I like older authors because shit like that did NOT happen, unless it was on purpose.