Saturday, March 21, 2009

Jack Pendarvis is One of Those Guys

I just can't hang. I don't know what happened to me. I want to say that when I was 23 I could tolerate or even enjoy these books organized on the principle of "what the hell." These novels that challenge what it means to be a novel, characters who defy the idea of a character, whose authors seem to make decisions because they're the ones holding the pen, and tee-hee who's going to stop them?

I know I dated guys who wrote books like this when I was in my 20s. But I also remember putting down The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as a child, and only part of the reason was because I thought the sacrilege would send me to hell. I have a feeling that if the narrative truly compelled me, I would have dared to face the consequences.

The first book I read by Jack Pendarvis was Your Body is Changing, a collection of short stories. At first, I was really digging it. Yes, it tended a little toward the type of story collection that holds up one character after another saying, "Look at this idiot! Okay, now look at this idiot! Isn't he a tool? Now check out this guy -- what a tool!" But it was really imaginative and interesting. I particularly liked the story "Outsiders" about a woman who announces constantly that she's really someone who will "call you on your shit." Then I got to the title story, about an adolescent zealot who comes into age and cynicism in various har-har ways. And I started to wonder, is Jack Pendarvis one of those guys? One of those guys who produces desultory idylls revolving around randomness, irony, and a wry, intellectual detachment? One of those McSweeney's type guys? When the main character set off on a cross country journey in a goat cart, I had to face the truth: Jack Pendarvis is one of those guys.

Then I read his novel, Awesome, which is about a giant and his robot friend. Pendarvis' giant (named "Awesome") is as inaccessible as the prose itself, and unfortunately he tells his own story mixing low and high discourse like it's 1999. I couldn't finish Your Body is Changing, but I will admit I read to the end of Awesome, to see if penises are really like guns. You know the old plotting rule: If you show a gun in Act I, it has to go off in Act III, right? So, if you cut off your penis on a whim in Act I, does it have to return to you when you least expect it, in Act III? Answer: yes. Penises are just like guns in this respect.

Right after I had finished reading Awesome, a friend loaned me The Thirteen and a Half Lives of Captain Bluebear. It was through realizing the proximity of the latter to The Hitchhiker's Guide that I realized the proximity of Awesome to this iconic work, and so I have to admit: There may be people out there who will find this book to be gorgeous, revelatory, and profound. I am not one of them. However, I salute MacAdam Cage for publishing it, I salute Pendarvis for writing it, and I'm glad it's out there on the bookshelves, in all its weirdness, in all its belligerent quirkiness, because the world doesn't need another mild romance, and Jack Pendarvis ain't no Nicholas Sparks.

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