Thursday, November 20, 2014

Book Review: "Dead Tree Version" by Ian McLeod

See my review of McLeod's novella here.

Cover art of the book. Source.

“Dead Tree Version” is a third-person omniscient novel chronicling the sudden and surprising success of USDA employee-turned-author John Madison Darwin and his misadventures with the adorable Carrie. This existential soul-search (or nihilistic meandering; pick your poison) is narrated over a period of months and features scenes ranging in tone from the darkly-humorous to the sitcomishly-ridiculous, taking place in both recurring locations (Darwin's apartment; Carrie's apartment; 'Cafe Nostrum') and non-recurring locations (some resort in Wisconsin; a 'con' in the Arlington Heights Community College gym). We are even, at times, treated to the magnificence of the Heavenly Throne, where G-d Almighty deals with a fictional (I think? Probably a composite character of some sort) angel/visionary named Burt Hugeunot, who appears to Darwin in dreams at key points in the story—portending ominous consequences that begin unfolding in book two, “Currently Untitled.” All-in-all, you get the feeling of a Greek tragedy or something by a drunken 21st-century Shakespeare. The story is punctuated by these theological soliloquys.

Those who read the second book of the series, the novella "Currently Untitled," will recognize no fewer than two references to the obnoxious protagonist of that book. McLeod did a fine job of integrating the characters and plot points of the two books without grabbing the reader by the shoulders, shaking them, and shouting, “This is that character! This is that reference!” I personally love self-referential storytelling, because it hints at a larger universe and a larger sense of awareness of variables, actions, and reactions within the author. McLeod employs it well without bashing the reader over the head.

Living in Chicagoland, I appreciate DTV's references to Arlington Heights, O'Hare, and impromptu road trips to Wisconsin. Yet, there is room for improvement in drawing the reader deeper into the setting of one of America's premier metropolitan areas, which has a rich history, its own takes on classic American meals, and, in some neighborhoods, its own accents. I don't think three pages of Tolkien-esque exposition mesh with McLeod's style at all, but I felt the lack of immersion made this story geographically neutral, in that it reasonably could have bee told in any metropolitan area with little to no loss to the plot. There's nothing notably “Chicago” about the story or the setting save for a passing reference here and there. A few inclusions of things particular to the region, then, would have helped create a more sincere and distinctive atmosphere.

A penchant for the descriptive (or a dislike for it; I'm not a mind reader) is not McLeod's glass of scotch. Instead, he relies on crisp dialogue and ridiculous (in a good way) events to carry the expositional weight of the story. This works well with the personality of this dark, philosophical comedy.

Some readers might miss the theology of DTV due to the abundance of swear words, drug use, and noncommittal banging. Despite the overt presence of these things, there is a deep theological foundation present in the acknowledgment and active participation of Deity in the narrative; the Masorete-inspired refusal to imply G-d's name, not use it; the occasional breaking of the fourth wall by said Deity. Being raised in the South (and since I know his family personally...), the author demonstrates, in this regard, some degree of cultural continuity with his upbringing...even if he is stretching from his tippy-toes to glance that upbringing with one finger. I wouldn't suggest churches do readings of DTV, but there is, to some degree, a respect for and acknowledgment of the Divine which is typically absent in existential works that reason from a point of atheism to a point of meaning-making. John Darwin, more than being atheistic, seems to be apathetic, and the overt behind-the-scenes involvement of Deity makes me wonder what we'll be seeing in book three. Will Darwin ultimately find something greater than achieving his dream of publishing a book and being interviewed by his favorite late show host? Will he even care to?

Widespread commercial success may ultimately elude “Dead Tree Version” not due to a deficiency in quality, but due to the regular occurrence of esoteric content and a bit of gobbeldygook in chapter eight. The irony of John Darwin's success is that he (small spoiler) becomes famous by accident. His work was accidentally granted widespread appeal. His work was not something his publishers intended to be in the hands of 250,000 Americans, but that is what happens. This could, perhaps, be a nod from the author, who might very welly achieve a similar extent of overnight success if his work was accidentally printed and distributed on a massive scale. He (“we?”) could only be so lucky, but in any case, it's either a subtle or not-so subtle criticism of the Publishing Industry, which is satisfied re-publishing and rewriting 'kitsch' as long as the bottom line is met. While the sparkly vampire genre is thankfully on the horizon by now, visionary and provocative storytelling is still thrown under the bus for the work of Stephanie Myer's literary heirs: dystopian fiction in a 21st-century American (or some remnant of it) setting featuring a strong female protagonist a la The Hunger Games. Stories like John Darwin's (and, subsequently, stories like Ian McLeod's) aren't really supposed to “sell” in today's market...at least not if they're scribbled by unknown, scotch-fueled autodidacts writing out of the Deep South.

In the final analysis, I enjoyed this book. I can reasonably give it four stars and recommend it to anyone who is willing to understand and appreciate what the author is (and isn't) highlighting.

The Good: Humorous and witty satire. The author has a good sense of pace, easily transitioning between multiple scenes within a single chapter (a task I, as a visual writer, often find difficult) and creating a realistic sense of time. The character interactions (especially the lovable Carrie, who I've come to appreciate so much more after reading this book) are delightful, though often (non-pretentiously) high-brow. Think “Frasier” with looser tongues, intermittent Russian instead of French, and hard liquor instead of sherry. Also, the chapter titles are great.

The Bad and Ugly: As with “Currently Untitled,” the style, content, and diction of the book would certainly resonate within a niche market, but I'm not sure it will ever see widespread, popular acclaim. This is a book by a creative person for creative people, not mass-produced 'kitsch.' Self-publishing to maintain artistic and intellectual integrity was a wise choice on McLeod's part. You probably need a minimum IQ of 120 to fully appreciate this book. My IQ is higher than that and I still found myself looking things up in the dictionary or on Wikipedia.

If you're interested in sampling or purchasing the book, you can find it here.

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