Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Where Things Come Back

I really thought I'd love this novel, but I didn't.  The reviews described the setting as a quirky small town, the plot as slightly absurd, and the narrator as sarcastic.  All these things turned out to be true, but despite these elements usually producing a favorable bias in me and all the awards and glowing reviews it received, I did not like it.  At all. I was tempted not to review it, but I made a commitment to myself to review all the books I read and I'm not going to shirk that because my opinion differs from the general librarian consensus and that makes me feel awkward.  So here goes:

At first I loved the book.  The first few chapters of my library copy are covered with post-its marking little passages I found amusing or witty.  The book drew me in right away.  How could it not with an opening sentence like " I was seventeen years old when I saw my first dead body."  Little details like Cullen not understanding exactly what his father did for a living made it easy for me to relate to him.  But as I continued to read, quirks like Cullen (the first person narrator) referring to himself in third person out of the blue started to annoy me.  It was funny the first time, but the returns on that particular gag diminished rather quickly while the instances of its use only seemed to increase.

The next big problem for me was that the central driving force of the plot, namely the disappearance of Cullen's brother Gabriel, did not interest me.  I was far more interested in the character of Cullen than I was in whether or not his brother was ever found.  This took most of the tension out of the novel.  The problem was that as I reader I mostly heard about how awesome Gabriel was instead of seeing it for myself. Cullen seems to idolize him as some quirky hipster god wise beyond his years who walks to the beat of his own drum and doesn't care what others think.  Unfortunately he seemed more like a caricature of a misunderstood small town teen than any kind of full-fleshed character, right down to the Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin t-shirts and battered copy of Catcher in the Rye.

That brings us to the alternating chapters told in third person following caricatures of religious zealots.  First Benton Sage and then Cabot Searcy.  These characters are never really fleshed out in the brief glimpses we get of them and their actions seem completely unjustified to me.  I realize that they're supposed to be a bit crazy but that doesn't justify a lack of motivation for their decisions. Enough time was spent on their stories that I felt as a reader I should have some kind of sympathy with them, but that sympathy and understanding was never achieved.  Instead these alternating chapters just provided an unwelcome interruption to the narrative even when the seemingly unrelated narratives finally connected (I was shocked!)

The end didn't really make any sense, but that wasn't what annoyed me most about it.  That honor went to the fact that throughout the novel Cullen occasionally added to a running list of good book titles that vaguely related to whatever had just happened to him.  Anyone want to guess what the last title/last line of the novel was?  It reminded me of the end of Night Circus that annoyed me so much.   I can understand a debut author perhaps not being experienced enough to realize how cliche something like that is and thinking themselves very clever and original to end their novel with the beginning/title but isn't that why we have editors?  So there's someone more experienced to say "maybe you should re-think that ending, you're really not as clever as you think."  It's almost as bad as the 'and then I woke up and it was all a dream' ending.

Despite all of that I really did enjoy parts of the novel.  Cullen makes a big deal of his brother's wisdom, but I found Cullen's explanations of why society feels the need to put labels on people and how people respond to the tragedies of others the most insightful parts.  I appreciated Whaley's willingness to play with different narrative techniques and his creativity in the way he incorporates the story of the long-lost woodpecker.  I admired his boldness in tackling such issues as drug addiction, suicide, loss of a sibling, obsession, and stalking (in a this-is-creepy and not romantic light.)  Mostly I enjoyed the character of Cullen and all his flaws and humor and tendency to imagine his enemies as zombies.  It didn't all work for me this time around, but I can see why he won the Morris debut award (although I'm still scratching my head at the Printz) and I think I will read his next book.  Hopefully he'll work out some of his authorial kinks by then.

Where Things Come Back by John Corey Whaley

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