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Sunday, 17 August 2014

Suzanne Collins' "Catching Fire" and Linda La Plante's "Wrongful Death"

Ain't that scary
Autrement, A Concise Reading Journal by the Judge

Airports terrify me. Not for the prospect of flying, rather because the only way to kill time in there is to go leafing in the bookshops, and these always seem to contain the most insulting samples of literature ever assembled in a single place. This is, I fear, an unfortunate necessity of our civilisation: whenever I have to go on a particularly long journey (eight plus hours, staying away two or three weeks), I have to take a book with me that a.) cannot possibly tire me, no matter how long I sit there reading it, and b.) that won’t be over and done with in just one hour. Airport novels are engineered for just that.

The thing is that there are almost no novels that can meet those criteria and still be good. I can think of George Martin’s Songs of Ice and Fire that do the job wondrously, and when I was a kid I could read Michael Crichton from dawn to past midnight. The problem with the former is the release date of his next book (see the self-fulfilling prophecy, when the sun rises in the west and sets in the east, when the seas go dry and mountains blow in the mind like leaves), and I’ve kind of grown out of the latter. So I go for whatever I can, crossing my fingers that it’ll keep my mind distracted while I sit inside that box ten-thousand feet above-ground.
Most recent reads: Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire and Lynda La Plante’s Wrongful Death.

Golly. Did I steer that car into the tree this time.

(For what it’s worth, the journey was to Brazil – I was there for three weeks over the World Cup – and these books certainly did not live up to the rest of the trip, which admittedly is not a fair comparison as it would take one hell of a novel to beat an evening spent snogging a Brazilian girl).

I suppose this isn’t a ‘review’ as much as an exorcism. These novels have made me so cynical and morose that I'd be recounting them to my therapist, if I had one. Yes, I could dress this up as an intelligent discussion about the ‘airport novel phenomenon’ and what it means to literature, but the idea seems to me like that of studying tarantulas – I’m sure there are plenty of fascinating things to be learnt, but Christ, who the heck wants to go near those things?

Let’s start with Catching Fire. I picked it up because its predecessor, The Hunger Games, actually did its job more than decently as an airport novel. It’s not exactly a difficult book to explain: the set-up is old enough that you can almost hear Suzanne Collins yelling ‘Yabba-Dabba-Doo’ as she is pitching the novel. It’s so old in fact that this is one of its strengths – the dystopian totalitarian future that she represents in such crude detail is positively comforting, being after all a trope that was tired in the early seventies, and the plot is just The Running Man except that Arnold Schwarzenegger gets replaced by an angsty teenage girl (just about the most anti-Schwarzenegger type of character they could find, showing if nothing else that this plot can run pretty smoothly without giving two figs about its central character). Then from halfway onwards it’s just Rambo with something like a love interest vaguely shoe-horned into it and some references to Imperial Rome that nobody in the USA will have picked up (oh, the capital is called ‘Panem’, like panem et circenses, that Roman thing they used to say, get it? Get it? Clever!).

The fun in it, from my personal point of view, lay purely in reading about these characters slugging it out in the woods. Everything else is just an excuse to set up the stage. (Does anyone actually give a fuck about Prim?)

(I just typed that question into Google and found out – SPOILER ALERT – that in the third book she dies).

Prim and proper
I was expecting pretty much the same from the second book, so I found it TOTALLY BAFFLING that, in a book of 400 pages, the author decided to wait until after page 300 (THREEHUNDRED) to actually get her characters to DO what her goddamn novel is supposed to be ABOUT, a.k.a. fighting! Instead, Collins seems adamant in her belief that we want to find out everything about Katniss’s mother and her sister and the hot black-haired what’s-his-name-again and the new house where they live. Or else we get to learn how Katniss goes hunting for squirrels. Or the political science behind this ‘complex’ (groan) totalitarian society. Or the baker boy’s paintings (for crying out loud). Or Prim, when things get really bad.

And even when they FINALLY get into the arena, the Rambo narrative is totally thrown out of the window in favour of these ‘alliance strategies’ they decide to undergo, which have them walking around in a goofy party comprising the angsty teenage girl, the romantic baker who always loved her, Edward Cullen with a trident, a mumbling hag piggy-backed onto the aforementioned vampire, and two genius idiots (not making this up) who can’t speak English. They don’t even fight each other much – most of the time they seem too busy stabbing the monkeys on the island (???). The narrative in Catching Fire feels less like Rambo than it does an episode of It’s a Knock-Out.

I eventually lost the novel somewhere in eastern Brazil – Vitoria, or Itabuna – and I can’t say I’ve ever felt so indifferent about losing a book in my life. I was at around page 330 and I might have been more engaged if I’d been listening to a cricket match that was being narrated by a GPS reader.

But I still had to confront the flight home, so I picked up one of those items that have always been completely arcane to me – a crime novel.

Crime, despite being one of the most popular genres in literature (and, in terms of raw economics, certainly one of the most important), is to me a mysterious whirlpool, dark and chronically holding back all of its truths. For someone with an MA in literature, I suppose it’s kind of embarrassing that I can’t name a single contemporary crime author (is Agatha Christie still alive? Does she count? I haven’t actually read any of her books, but look! I know her name! I know it! Cookie!).

But the fact is that crime fiction is DULL. Even in the theoretically more digestible medium of film, I can never bring myself to give a crap as to why Dick Jones was killed with a marble elephant tossed against his balls or how somebody ran over the granny to inherit the stuffed Komodo dragon that she beats herself on the face with whenever she has to read a crime novel. This, to me, is the greatest of mysteries and the only one I’d really like to see solved – why the hell do people read crime fiction? It’s not just dull, it’s almost unpleasant, this sense of reading without being told what you want to know. And why not tell you anyway? You don’t feel any more satisfied once you found out it was Bob Rogers than you did before. Why not skip to the last page and just find out? (Well, because then you’ve thrown £8.99 into the toilet – there’s your economics).

But I told myself. ‘I’ve read so little, surely I talk out of prejudice’. These novels must at least be entertaining. And there’s nothing else in this bookshop other than ‘How To Make More Money’ by Rich Bastard (whose idea seems to be that I should spend it on his book) or graphic novels about Captain America, which cost about $45 and would scarcely last me an hour. So I picked up the first thing I could find – Lynda La Plante’s Wrongful Death.

Anna Travis, detective. Not looking too bad here.
In retrospect, the title should have blown the whistle and rang the alarm bells. This is a serious question – can you think of anything more banal for a crime novel than titling it ‘Wrongful Death’? Every single crime story ever could have been titled like that – if the death were not ‘wrongful’, then what in the world would the novel be about? What kind of a blurb could you write for a crime novel in which the death is not ‘wrongful’? Josh Malcolm was found dead in his bed at 08:47 in the morning. The coroner initially declared his death to be by natural causes, but when detective Cypher Rage re-examines the scene two days later, he ends up agreeing that it was by natural causes. Malcolm’s death didn’t leave anyone terribly disturbed as he was a bit of an ordinary chap. Now his wife Brenda must make arrangements for the funeral… But to be fair the novel doesn’t start out too bad, and in spite of the prose being rather dry (but I’m happy to overlook this in airport novels), I found myself interested in some of the characters. As often as not the only appealing thing in crime stories, to me at least, is the intellectual cockfight of the main characters, all or most of whom compete at who’s the smartest. Sherlock took this to levels so ridiculous that they usually tumbled into self-parody, but it shows how potent the narrative trick is – and WD uses it appropriately as we are introduced to a remarkably smart American FBI agent, a Ms Jessie Dewar.

Together with the main detective, Anna Travis, they set off to investigate a fishy suicide.

And this is where the novel goes not just downhill but off the cliff altogether. The more I went into it, the less could I bring myself to care whether this guy had actually killed himself or whether he’d been murdered and why. It looks like perhaps his wife, or the wife’s sister, plotted to kill him – because, hmm, probably not for money as they’re already rich, some family feud of some kind I suppose OH GOD WHO GIVES A F –

The novel started losing me around page 50, but I managed to bring myself past page 200 (out of almost 500) before I was back home – and then I put WD on the desk and haven’t touched it since. I doubt if I ever will. I doubt, too, if I’ll ever read another crime novel, but that’s going to depend on whether my next substantial holiday is going to take place before or after George RR Martins releases his next book. The fact that both these things are set in a future more distant than Star Wars is a somewhat depressing prospect.

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