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Randall Reads: “The Dead Do Not Improve” by Jay Caspian Kang

September 13, 2012 Leave a comment

Jay Caspian Kang does some writing for sports site Grantland.

I should say, he does some very good writing for GrantlandI like his style and voice. There is a complete dearth of quality sports writing these days, in my opinion, especially longer-form writing.

It would seem Grantland was founded at least partially in the interest of reviving what appeared to be a bit of a dying genre in the fast pace coverage of sports on the web.

While Grantland is only too happy to stray from the path of serious sports discussion, it’s usually toward the realm of reality television. Hence, when I heard one of the more notable writers for the site was publishing a novel, I was immediately intrigued.

Further, it appeared the novel was going to have nothing to do with sports, much less reality television, making it even more of a rare bird.

Because they’re two of my favorite things, I feel like literature and sports should naturally appeal to people. I’m mystified at how, generally, fans of either are not fans of the other. In fact, most of the time there’s a bit of an antagonistic attitude toward the other. I’ve been told this is rooted in the social strata of American public school where the jocks are commonly jerks toward intellectuals.

In my experience, that’s definitely the case in films and television, but I don’t remember ever seeing it manifested when I was in school. Does it really exist outside the exaggerated memories of those who perceived offense?

None of which is relevant to reviewing the book. This is likely among the reasons I don’t get paid to review books. I tend to wander.

What I was getting at was the idea that I mentally embraced Kang as a kindred spirit. There was some advance buzz on the novel which led me to believe the author had an appreciation for the craft of fiction writing. I already knew he was into sports, though he appears to be an NBA junkie first and foremost, which is completely outside my sports scope.

Anyhow…close enough.

The style I enjoy from Kang’s work on Grantland can be found throughout “The Dead Do Not Improve.” There is some deft work with words that made me pause and reread passages for enjoyment, rather than the dreaded “Wait…what?” I sometimes get when the story drags and I lose focus or when the author forgets that the reader is not as knowledgeable about the story and characters as they are and forget to fill in some of the blanks.

Also, there is a lot of humor in the telling of the story. It’s a little dark, I suppose, but I’m never bothered by that. You’d think that means I’ve a dark nature, but I don’t! People who know me would laugh at such a suggestion, I assure you. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. My wife can attest to this as I constantly stopped to read her passages I knew she’s agree were funny.

I was even right about that a few times.

All the dark and funny is woven into a bit of a strange noir-ish crime/mystery thingy. Maybe. It’s not really a genre with which I’m horribly familiar, but I remember thinking Raymond Chandler was cool when I was in college, so I may know just enough to declare it to be there.

What I do feel I know a bit about, and found entirely lacking here, was depth of the characters.

The two main players are Philip Kim and Siddhartha “Sid” Finch. Kim is a young, urban San Fransican who finds himself in the middle of a crime spree. Finch is a SFPD detective working the case. The narrative alternates between parallel stories centered on the two men moving toward a conclusion in which you’d presume they will both figure prominently.

Seemingly, the development of either character is set aside for social commentary (internet/social media, gentrification, Korean-American culture) while moving the plot along at a decent pace. Kang keeps it fun by introducing some intriguing elements (a pornography magnate, a cult, a surfing Chris Isaak, etc.). Unfortunately, I’m a reader who wants to get to know the principals very well before I can really invest in the events surrounding them.

On top of that, as long as I’m delving into my own personal problems that won’t necessarily reflect in your reading experience, the name Sid Finch is a direct nod to a George Plimpton piece written for Sports Illustrated as an April Fool’s Day joke. “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch” detailed the discovery by the New York Mets of a guy who could throw the ball over 165 mph and pitched while wearing a hiking boot on one foot with the other foot bare. I’m sure this reference sails harmlessly over the heads of a lot of people, if only due to it being someone aged and semi-obscure, especially among literati, but I was a devoted reader of sports magazines in the mid-1980s and was horrified at the idea that the Mets would have both Doc Gooden and this guy. (Not fair!)

I was a bit naive back then…

Anyhow, every time Finch’s name appeared in the novel, I was immediately unable to stay immersed in the story. I was simply too hyper-aware of the reference.

Speaking of references…all the hip-hop references land like lead balloons with me. No clue. No impact. Not interested enough to look it up.

Hence, I’m torn. I enjoyed the style and voice Kang delivered (pop culture-isms excepted). I also found a lot of the elements of the setting to be interesting. Just very let down and uninterested in the characters. In other words, the elements that worked for me really worked, but I could not get over the things I found disappointing.

My general sense is that the average reader is going to really enjoy this debut novel, so I’d have to recommend taking a look at it, with the only reservation being that if you’re the type of reader who wants to really get to know the characters well, you’d need to at least need to put that aside for this one.

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Randall Reads: Empire State by Adam Christopher

August 22, 2012 Leave a comment

I fully wanted and expected to really enjoy this novel.

When I decided to read “Empire State,” all I knew about it was that there was a science-fiction angle as well as superheroes in a noir-ish story.

I also knew it came from Angry Robot Books, an imprint with which I’ve had mostly positive experiences, and that the sample I read of author Adam Christopher’s upcoming book, “Seven Wonders,” had me hooked nearly instantly.

Further, two of my favorite reads of the last few years have been very successful in layering detective/mystery/noir story elements into genre-type novels.

China Mieville’s “The City & The City” remains among my all-time favorite novels, having very successfully set a murder mystery in a world with a very interesting sci-fi (is ‘speculative’ a better word?) angle.

Low Town” by Daniel Polansky features more of a fantasy world (you know, medieval England with magic and dragons and all that?) in which the protagonist moves while trying to figure out who’s doing some murders.

“Empire State” actually has some interesting parallels with the Mieville work, particularly in that there are parallel worlds at the center of each novel’s setting.

It would be unfair to wish that Adam Christopher were as tight a story teller as Mieville, primarily because I feel very few writers I’ve read even come close to that level. However, I do feel like Christopher would have benefited from more-stringent editing or plot outlining. The fact of the matter is, there’s so much going on in this novel, that it’s hard to find the focus.

Off the top of my head, here are some of the things floating around a little too freely in “Empire State”:

  • Prohibition-era gangsters
  • superheroes
  • steampunk-like technology
  • prototypical noir detective
  • alternate/parallel worlds
  • religious cult activity
  • robots
  • war
  • male bonding/friendship
  • political power manipulation of information to citizenry
  • gay rights
  • split-personality disorder/duality of a personality

There’s likely some things I’m forgetting, but you get the point. That’s a lot of stuff to juggle. Ultimately, it leads to a lack of clarity as to what the story is about.

I would promise to not ruin it for you, but I am still fairly unsure myself. Even after three consecutive climactic scenes at the end of the book, you’re still unclear as to what the motivations behind the book’s initial conflict were in the first place. It’s not giving much away to say the two superheroes of the story have a big fight, which is crucial to the creation of the world in “Empire State.” The Space Pirate and the Skyguard were once a cohesive unit in fighting crime, but split. Why? Several people in the novel wonder this as well, which would lead a reader to think you’ll learn why.

Along similar lines is the issue of the extreme thinness of the characters in this story. Even Rex, the story’s protagonist, is little more than an archetype with a few personal issues thrown in to flesh him out a little, but it’s so very little that you don’t get a real sense of who he is.

I should admit here that there is a convention in the story that somewhat explains why the characters might seem half-formed, at best, but I think that would be a little cheap an answer as to why you don’t get a good sense of anyone in this book. Several characters have fairly large roles in the important events in the story, but their motivations are a complete mystery because they’ve not been developed much, if at all. All of which leads to a general lack of interest in how the dramatic conflicts ultimately resolve.

There is certainly enough action in “Empire State” that it is bound to have a more-receptive audience available out there somewhere than the one it found when I cracked it open (or whatever the ebook equivalent to ‘cracking a book open’ is).

I’ve had many a discussion with other readers who, like me, enjoy genre fiction but are frustrated that the level of writing falls often far behind the level of great ideas and stories. This is only a real problem when the result is a story that goes in too many directions with characters not well-enough developed to see it though.

It pains me to say that this is the case with “Empire State.” I will hope for better luck with “Seven Wonders” when it’s released next week (because it really does sound good!)