Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Book Review: John Dies at the End, by David Wong

John Dies at the End (JDatE) is a sort of sprawling, ill- or un-designed shantytown of clever ideas held together by duct tape and enthusiasm. The cover advertises that it's like Steven King + Douglas Adams, and this is pretty much accurate. If that sounds like your cup of tea, then by all means, read this novel. If you want your fiction to be more than a series of clever punch-lines within a drywall-hollow "story," then I'd suggest Ready Player One instead (review pending).

Don't get me wrong: author and protagonist David Wong is one hell of a writer. His essays are brilliant. Here's a list of pieces he's written for Cracked.com (of which Mr. Wong is an editor), with links:

Five Reasons the Future Will be Ruled By B.S. (http://www.cracked.com/article_18817_5-reasons-future-will-be-ruled-by-b.s..html)
Five Ways Modern Men Are Trained to Hate Women (http://www.cracked.com/article_19785_5-ways-modern-men-are-trained-to-hate-women.html)
Six Moments that Make Video Games Worth It (http://www.cracked.com/blog/6-moments-that-make-video-games-worth-it/)
Was 9/11 an Inside Job? (http://www.cracked.com/article_15740_was-911-inside-job.html)
Five Terrifying Basterdizations of the Wikipedia Model (http://www.cracked.com/article_17341_5-terrifying-bastardizations-wikipedia-model_p2.html)

Also check out this page, which lists all of his work at Cracked.com: http://www.cracked.com/members/David+Wong/

And when I say brilliant, I don't mean sparkler-against-an-overcast-sky brilliant. I'm talking What-would-have-really-happened-if-Tyler-Durden-had-smoked-while-homemaking-explosives brilliant. The essays Wong produces are essentially what yours truly wishes to produce on this little-seen blog: a combination of smart, vulgar wit with deep-cutting analysis. Wong is the best kind of intellectual: the deep thinker who ventures into abstraction, figures something out, and then returns to the dumb/real world and explains his conclusions in language that any ninth grader can understand. Take, for example, 'Five Reasons the Future Will be Ruled By B.S.' Basically, Wong's argument goes like this:

1) In a market, the cost of a commodity is related to the cost of producing it; cheaper production leads to cheaper commodities, and vice versa.
2) Better technology leads to cheaper production of commodities.
3) Our technology has reached the point that producing certain commodities (e.g. e-books) cost of production is virtually nil.
4) You'd think that this would lead to free commodities and wealth for all, a la Star Trek. BUT!...
5) The businesses that make up our economy run on selling stuff for quite a bit more than "virtually nil".
5b) If businesses can't sell stuff, they go out of business.
5c) If lots of businesses go out of business, the economy crashes.
5d) Therefore, businesses need to get us to buy stuff for quite a bit more than it costs to produce it, lest the entire economy crash.
6 and final) Therefore, we need bullshitters (i.e. advertisers) to convince us to buy bullshit we don't need at arbitrarily high prices (i.e. they create artificial scarcity) in order to keep the merry-go-round of the economy spinning. It's fucked up, but there you go.

Wong does a much better job of laying the argument out than I've done here. Now, I'm not saying you have to agree with him (Marxists, for example, are all too thrilled by the prospect of that particular merry-go-round stopping), but the man is a thoughtful, though-provoking, hilarious motherfucker.

Not much of a novelist, though.

Okay, maybe I'm being too hard on him. JDatE is by no means the worst novel ever written: it has a beginning, middle, and climax/resolution (sort of). It has a protagonist, antagonist, sidekick, and love-interest (again, sort of [and actually the love-interest gets switched about a third through the book, like when a TV show fires an actress and replaces her character with another one that's functionally identical but has a different name and hair color]). It has clever dialogue, such as:

"That man, in your, whatever you call it, your communicator. Does he need help?"
"He sounds wounded. Does he need your assistance?"
"You're not from around here, are you?"
"Why do you not respond to my questions directly?"
"That's just Fred Durst. On the radio. He's not talking to us."
"Are you certain? It sounds as if he is crying out while someone is strangling him."
"I know. That sound is entertainment to many of us. It's called a 'song.'"
"I know songs. But--I thought they rhymed."


Finally, JDatE does have a plot. Unfortunately, it's presented in such a way that the broad outlines becoming maddeningly obvious early in the story (SPOILER ALERT: evil demons from another dimension are trying to invade our dimension, and the main characters try to stop them by eventually descending into trans-dimensional Hell; plus, there's a lot of dicking around in the middle), while the specifics of the plot are so intricately confused that it becomes waaaaaay too much work to keep track of what's going on (SPOILER ALERT: this specificity-incoherence problem is exacerbated by the fact that the trans-dimensional demons can change history, i.e. what you read about characters doing early in the book doesn't always match what the characters are recalled to have done later in the book, because history changed). This is a big, big problem for a novel: since fictional stories are essentially guided dreams, in which details and specifics are deployed to lull the reader into forgetting that they're reading an obvious lie built of letters on paper, the details need to flow seamlessly into one another. It doesn't matter if the specifics of the story are actually coherent; it only matters that the seem coherent and smooth to the reader. Wong seems unable to pull all his pieces together into a coherent narrative whole. There's so much going on in JDatE--so many long-standing unanswered questions, so many secondary characters, so many AHA! twists and clever reversals--that it's basically impossible to keep track of what's going on. The plot appears as a series of disconnected events: "Now THIS is happening! Now THIS OTHER THING is happening! Now SOME NEW EVENT is occurring!" Characters and objects reappear, and there is a central thread to the story, but it lacks flow. The reader is not so much carried away as they're just awash.

If your plot can't carry the story, then the characters or deep meanings better do it. So far as the latter, JDatE has none that I could find. Sure, it starts out with a narratively-embedded version of the Ship of Theseus, a little story used by philosophers to demonstrate how tricky the concept of identity is. But it doesn't really go anywhere with this ploy: there's just a clever AHA! moment, and then something else happens. And the rest of the novel works in pretty much the same way: some bullshit happens that the reader is sort-of able to follow, while Wong showcases his humor, usually in the form of dialogue, descriptions, and bizarre actions. For example:

I didn't answer, the sound of the commotion dying around me as the heavy monkey of sleep rested its warm, furry ass on my eyelids.


The group might have either pursued him or raised their rifles to perforate his windshield had a gorilla riding a giant crab not leapt out of the woods and eaten two of them.

It's good stuff. But not enough to carry an entire novel. Nor are the characters up to that particular task: I found myself entirely apathetic as to whether they survived any given debacle (the fact that the protagonist is a bona fide idiot might have something to do with this). Plus they're kind of inconstant: the narrator/protagonist begins the novel as a tight-laced, insecure-but-competent type (like Edward Norton's character in Fight Club), but ends as a sort of socially-incompetent, depressed, barely-repressed-rage guy. The titular John begins as his dopey stoner buddy (like Shaggy from Scooby Doo) and ends as basically Tyler Durden (crude, competent, masculine, successful). The girl, as I've said, goes through two incarnations, both of which alternately fall-for and are-repulsed-by the protagonist, and seem to be there solely for the purpose of providing motivation and a prize to said protagonist (ironically, Wong does a great job criticizing the function of women-as-prizes in fiction, in 'Five Ways Modern Men Are Trained to Hate Women'). And there aren't any other developed characters.

So what I'm saying, in summary, is that the story is a kind of hollow, semi-coherent vehicle for Wong's cleverness and wit. Which cleverness and wit are extensive and impressive, but not enough to carry a novel. Nor do they need to--I repeat, David Wong is a brilliant, dazzling essayist. His articles are what my articles aspire to be. My guess is that he's got a great novel inside of him (no gay innuendo intended, brah), and with some solid editorial guidance, JDatE could have brought all its wacky, clever ideas into a coherent whole. But it didn't. Better luck next time, I guess.

PS: Again, maybe I'm being too hard on JDatE. It's not, like, horrifically bad. It's better than, say, your average serialized sci-fi novel. I guess I'm just disappointed at a novel that, based on Wong's essays, I'd expected to be breathtaking. 

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