When I reviewed The Magicians last year, I noted that, despite my mixed feelings for Lev Grossman, which includes an outright antipathy for his notions of good storytelling, I was nonetheless impressed by the novelty of what he’d accomplished with his new novel. Almost an anti-bildungsroman, it took every good aspect of magical tales and flushed them down the toilet—ostensibly as a creative way of writing the general malaise that affects the unambitious or ambivalent.
Philip José Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go is yet another in a long list of influential science fiction that I keep meaning to read. It won a Hugo in 1972, and represents the first in a series of books known as Riverworld. As with all good science fiction (I don’t know how many times I’ve said this), it’s not even particularly science-fictional except in narrative skeleton, but instead spends most of its time exploring sociological issues.
As a young boy, my brother tended to get Cracked magazine rather than Mad magazine; I think it was probably cheaper for essentially the same content (or so it seemed to a young boy). In any case, he (and therefore I) grew up with Cracked. By the time the magazine itself went under, of course, I had stopped paying attention, but at some point in the last few years, I began regularly checking the new Cracked.com, which I find is much funnier than it likely should be.
At the helm of this new digital enterprise (sans Sylvester P. Smythe) is senior editor David Wong, a pseudonym for Jason Pargin. It was really only via this association that I learned about John Dies at the End, Wong/Pargin’s satirical horror novel, recently rescued from an indie publisher by St. Martin’s Griffin. Given my positive associations with the new Cracked, giving John Dies at the End a shot was a no-brainer. Also, it’s being adapted into a movie with Paul Giamatti.
In my review of Franzen’s previous bestseller, The Corrections, I noted that the story was a thoroughly midwestern one—that is, its character is thoroughly understated and unextraordinary, and yet somehow Franzen’s treatment is surprisingly vicious. It isn’t that the gentle midwestern family hides monsters (as least not in his stories), but that the superficially serene exterior of the atomic midwestern family hides a pathological dysfunction. What makes Franzen’s approach to this dysfunction so unique is that he allows his characters to implode with nary a ripple outside of their clan. It’s simultaneously beautiful and damning.
Freedom is, in many ways, the same story told over again. This time an atomic family in suburban Minnesota disintegrates before our very eyes, beginning (retrospectively) with grandparents and trickling down through the generations, like bad plumbing reaching the floors below. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal that, like The Corrections, Freedom concludes with a sort of uneasy armistice that appears to be a “happy ending” until you stop and think about it.
I’d never heard of Justin Cronin before picking up The Passage; he’s won awards for previous work, though I’m given to understand that this latest work represents something of a departure for him. It may be new to Cronin, but it’s certainly not (or shouldn’t be) new to most readers, as The Passage is an overly-long pastiche of well-worn horror and sci-fi tropes, with a lot of solemn navel-gazing as filler.