The OF Blog: Trying to grasp a po...err, profane review, part whatever

Friday, February 06, 2009

Trying to grasp a po...err, profane review, part whatever

Saw this discussion on Fantasy Book News & Reviews earlier today about a review posted on Bookspot Central of Charlie Huston's latest book, The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death. Apparently BSC has a new reviewer for their site, someone with the handle of NerdofNoir, and it seems the reactions revolve around this reviewer's prolific use of profanity in his review. So I thought I'd read the review carefully and see if his (I'm presuming a he, despite having no basis for assigning gender here, so I could easily be mistaken) profane prose enhances or detracts from the review.

It must be said that The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death ain’t your typical Charlie Huston novel - whatever the fuck that’s supposed to mean. Yeah, it has the blood (tons of the stuff), it has the kick-ass dialogue, the one-of-a-kind stream-lined prose, and it moves along like a motherfucker - but this is no doubt a major departure for Huston. Shit, I’d argue that Mystic Arts isn’t even noir.
It appears this reviewer is aiming to write a very casual review, perhaps one that would match the dialogue found in Huston's novels (which admittingly contains liberal use of "fuck," "shit," and their brethren). However, instead of pointing out all the uses of curse words, I think this review's detractors perhaps ought to have questioned whether or not such a relaxed tone really works in for a "proper" review. I suspect one could write quite a few articles and conduct several debates with others regarding what ought to constitute a "proper" review, but I'll restrict myself here to considering this reviewer's potential, intended audience. From this first paragraph, is this the type of review that could be posted in a trade magazine or e-zine? Most certainly not, for besides the copious uses of several of George Carlin's seven words one can't say on TV, there really isn't anything found in this introductory paragraph that indicates that the review will contain any in-depth explorations of the book itself.

Yeah, I fucking just said that. Deal with that shit.

That said, it certainly still kicks some major fucking ass.

OK, while I am left wondering as to what "shit" I have to deal with just because the reviewer said whatever s/he said, now I am left wondering if this review will explore just how Huston's story "kicks some major fucking ass." Or is that a claim that will only be made in passing, with little to no evidence supplied as to just how "major fucking ass" is kicked? Or will I (and others) just have to continue trying to "deal with that shit" with no understanding reached?

Mystic Arts follows Web Goodhue, a smart-ass slacker who seems content to mooch off his best friend Chev and sleep away most of his days. He’s a dick to anybody who cares about him and an even bigger dick to those who don’t, but he’s got a reason for his attitude: a sad, nasty event has rendered him unable to deal with life.

Regardless of all this, fat-ass trauma cleaner Po Sin has decided to take him on board as an apprentice in his dirty business. First gig: cleaning up shit (literally) in a long-dead shut-in’s place. It’s a baptism by blazing fucking fire and he does a good enough job to garner a second day of work, this time cleaning up after the grisly suicide of a wealthy Malibu man with a smoking hot daughter, Soledad. Soledad and Web hit it off and soon the grieving woman asks Web to clean up after a more private, more illegal violent act…

While a well-written review doesn't have to use quotes to support its assertions, I am finding myself wondering in just which ways is this Goodhue character a "dick." The reviewer notes there was this sad, nasty event, but what it was is left out. I'm finding myself why should I care to know more by this point, I ought to add. Then this NerdofNoir refers to a "fat-ass trauma cleaner" named Po Sin. While I'm wondering if he has a brother named Rich Sin, a larger question is now looming for me: "Just how much of a 'fat-ass' is this Po Sin?" Is it even a plot point, or is it just another way to use colorful language here? Of course, "baptism by blazing fucking fire" has left me pondering just how fires lose their virginities, but perhaps that's a point that will be explored in another time and place?

All joking aside, all I'm getting here is a plot summary that doesn't seem to come close to addressing the issue of whether or not someone like me might want to read this book. The Reading Rainbow style of kiddie book reviews might work for the grade school set, but I receive hundreds of books a year now for review purposes. What could there be in Huston's novel that would make me want to read it? If the reviewer is trying to make people aware of just how Huston's book may be an enjoyable read, s/he is failing at this point; I am finding myself marveling at how the too-casual tone to the review has drained it of its potential to discuss anything of import.

After this encounter with the sexy femme fatale Web gets involved with deadly smuggling hicks, dumb-ass Hollywood wannabes, and rival trauma clean-up businesses - the makings of an awesome wild ride in Huston’s violent funhouse world, right?

You’d think so, but no, dear reader. It’s…different.

The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death has a crazy crime plot, but it isn’t about its crazy crime plot, you dig? The book is actually more of a probing, aching character study of Web, a man forced to come to terms with the pain of his past. Yeah, I know - doesn’t sound like good old-fashioned pulpy fun, right? Sounds like a fucking Cheever story or some shit like that (not to say Cheever wasn’t awesome but still, this is Charlie Fucking Huston we’re talking about here, the modern master of down-and-dirty noir!).

No, I don't "dig." First, it's all plot summary with nothing that would make me think this reviewer has anything to contribute but a vapid, breezy review approach that doesn't seem to do justice to Huston's novel. Every time that I think the reviewer is about to elaborate on a point or to provide evidence to support his/her assertions, I am bombarded with "Yeah, I know"s or ",right?"s or "some shit like that"s. No, I don't know (so please, elaborate?). How in the world would I know if it's "right?" or not? And "some shit like that" leaves me wondering to which type of shit - dog, human, bull, or chicken - this reviewer refers. It's just too vague and the colloquialisms (even leaving out the curse words) serve to irritate me (and I suspect many other readers).

A more accurate way to describe Mystic Arts would be to compare it to the great novels of Sean Doolittle. Like Doolittle, Huston uses the crime plot as an excuse for some action to move the story forward while the real business, the real meat of the book is simply getting to the bottom of a great central character. We get deep inside Web, know his family, know his past, know his pain - know him.

Yeah, there’s hilarious line on every page and the caper shit is rock solid, but it all comes back to Web’s internal journey, his personal growth. The climax is not one of Huston’s amazing, horrifically ape-shit violent action scenes - though there is some good violence, no doubt - but Web starting to get his life in order. And Web is not a tortured killing-machine like Hank Thompson or Joe Pitt - he is a regular guy who will do anything he can not to kill someone.

So basically, don’t go into Mystic Arts expecting a violent thrill-ride with a body count to rival Predator like his previous novels. This beast is a bit more tame, a bit more humane. Shit, it may even win the guy some well-deserved new fans. But still, we’re talking tame for Charlie Fucking Huston, people. It’s like saying The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death is just a vicious crazed junkyard dog instead of a fucking rabid feral dog.

While the first of the three concluding paragraphs is mostly harmless, yet again I find myself asking why another author is referenced if a large percentage of the potential audience may never have heard of him. The bit on "there's a hilarious line on every page" is wanting since there is no evidence provided from the book to support this claim. What "horrifically ape-shit violent" scenes might be is anyone's guess - I'm guessing that is the reviewer's way of creating a synonym for the almost equally-useless "gritty" descriptor. But the most annoying part of the conclusion is yet again the reviewer keeps talking about Huston as if he's an author the audience knows by heart. I've read exactly one book by him, Half the Blood of Brooklyn, and that isn't a large enough sample size for me to get any real feel for his work, except that he writes in a compact style that utilizes profanity as a means of portraying the backgrounds of the character and the type of setting (noir) for that tale.

So for all this reviewer's claim of Huston's latest novel being "just a vicious junkyard dog instead of a fucking rabid feral dog," I am left wondering just what this novel is about and what its strengths and weaknesses may be. Judicious use of profanities and colloquial expressions can improve the flow of a review, but in this particular case, I felt each was used to cover up for the reviewer's deficiencies. Nothing much beyond "I really liked this Huston novel, it was really cool man, let me tell ya! But it's not like his others, ya feel me?" was said in NerdofNoir's review. A shame, since I am curious about what merits this Huston story might have.


Jonathan M said...

To be honest, I don't think it's that catastrophic.

The profanity is clearly a stylistic choice. It's not that common in the world of book reviewing but I can think of a number of books written in that style and I also know a few people who talk that way. The style may or may not work for you but it's a stylistic choice and I don't see it as any more or less valid than the stylistic quirks of someone like Clute.

As for the content of the review, it doesn't show its working and as a result points are made and not backed up but I think the assessments made are the type of assessments you get in most solid reviews :

* He denies that the book is noir (which is going to be an issue for people who seek out noir fiction and is the kind of question that has fueled reviews by more prestigious writers than either of us)

* He says it's got some extreme imagery but that it's not as extreme as some of Huston's other works (which is a fair comment as evidently, that's part of the joy of the book).

* He says that the work, in addition to not being as good as some of Huston's other works, is not as good as the works of a secondary author (thereby positioning the work within a body of genre).

* He says that there's a crime plot but this is only something to hang the real meat of the book on (which is actually quite an astute comment to make).

* He says that the meat of the book is its imagery and its character study, which he says is really good.

I think that your criticising him for using too much plot synopsis is unfair as the sections you commented upon were clearly part a synopsis that takes up less than half of the review.

I also think your criticising him for comparing Huston's work to that of a second author is unfair a) because it undermines your claim that the review is all synopsis and b) just because you don't know the second author it does not mean that fans of the genre don't, and besides there's a link to other pieces by that second author.

I think the moves he makes as a reviewer are sound ones and if he developed his points a bit further and either tightened up the style or got rid of it altogether then he'd have some real potential.

I've seen reviews in professional markets such as the British SF glossies that were more synopsis-heavy and even less analytical so, given that Bookspot Central is hardly the New Yorker, I think it was perfectly reasonable of them to publish the review.

Take away the horrid style and you have a reviewer with at least as much to say as Pat St. Dennis and he's read by every cretin in Christendom.

Jonathan M said...

or is that Pat st denis? I forget.

Elena said...

What Jonathan M just said.

I think your concluding bit of "I am left wondering just what this novel is about and what its strengths and weaknesses may be" is too harsh. I feel like I have a really good idea of what the novel's about and whether I want to read it.

in my opinion, this is a review, like neth's that you dissected, that was aimed at a specific audience--people who are familiar with the author and/or the subgenre. i'm not saying your points about generalities aren't valid, HOWEVER if you know the audience you're writing for, then it might alienate them if you don't assume certain familiarity with author/world/genre. it's a different review style from what you prefer, which is the "assume your reader knows NOTHING" attitude.

for myself, i can usually pick up enough context clues about the gnere and the review author's feelings toward it, even in a "quick and dirty" review, to guess if i want to look at the book further. for example pat's hack job on graceling made me say "he's making fun of a style of book i enjoy, i should check this one out."

as always, though, i enjoyed your perspective. thanks for sharing.

ps the john cheever reference was a literary dig, not a spec-fiction dig, and i thought it was hilarious. (you might have known this but know he's kind of obscure, hence know that the "average" SF reader might not know him, in which case, seriously? that didn't make you laugh? :)

Larry Nolen said...

Not denying the validity of both of your counters here, but there is a bit of irony in that I wrote this with the understanding that, as with the other reviews I've explored, my post would examine what irritates me as a reader trying to decide on a book. I agree that others will find it helpful to an extent, perhaps even enjoy the breezy, informal style, but I guess my academic training (along with the codeine syrup I had imbibed just before reading that review and then commenting here) left me wanting much more.


You're correct in that his points are the beginnings of assessments found in most solid reviews. I just didn't feel that he developed them (not that he wanted to, but for me, that's precisely the point) well enough. He comes close to exploring interesting things, but he then stops, transitioning to another point by using another colloquial expression. It's the sort of thing I used to do when I was beginning university classes and my profs were merciless in beating it out of me.

Oh, and it's the second spelling of Pat's name that's correct. Didn't know he was that well-known :P


I've heard of Cheever (even if I've yet to read him), but I was reacting as though I were this mythical tabula rasa reader, which is, as you note, my imagined ideal audience. Points taken, though.

Jonathan M said...

I think the fact that you had good composition beaten into you might well go some way to explaining why some people have more of a problem with the piece than others.

My university never taught me how to write. In fact, I'm pretty sure that I didn't learn to write correctly until grad school when an American professor pulled me up on my style.

As such, I suspect that I might be more tolerant of that kind of writing than someone who has thoroughly internalised the rules of how to write properly.

...that and the fact that I'd say about half of my students are at the reviewer's level, so maybe I'm just used to ploughing through poorly argued writing :-)

Larry Nolen said...

Quite possibly, although to be fair to that reviewer, he writes at a better level than over half of my students. I stopped grading their short essays once because I was having to resist making those papers bleed because they didn't know how to use citations properly; Wikipedia without attribution is quite bad).

If I were teaching English rather than US History this year, I might do what I did with a class a couple of years ago. I printed out one of those Nigerian email scam letters and I had the students work out how to improve the diction so it would sound "proper." For once, grammar lessons were not a drag for them.

Crotchety Old Fan said...

Yeah, well, what the fuck can you expect these days.

Fucking kids have no fucking clue and it's obvious that 'shit' and 'fuck' and 'dick' and whatever other shitty curse words there are that I can't fucking even fucking remember at 3 o'clock in the fucking morning have become the 'go-to' fucking universal whatchamacallits - adjectives.

Fucking whatever...

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