Showing posts from January, 2010

A Novelization (2): The 4400

David Mack’s The 4400: Promises Broken (New York: Pocket Star [2009], 327 pp.) is much, much better than the previous volume in the series. In fact, the last hundred pages or so bolt you to your seat, forcing you to turn pages to catch up with the fast-paced action that somehow keeps several plotlines in order and that succeeds in presenting the information through various points of view. This novel probably won’t be the subject of literature courses fifty years from now (heck, two months from now), but it’s enjoyable, and for fans of The 4400, it’s outright exhilarating.
It’s difficult to condense everything that goes on in this novel in a few sentences. There are, as I said, a handful of plotlines at work. I don’t want to spoil them, but they involve a destructive plan by the remaining Marked and a confrontation between the military and Collier’s movement.
Some of the stylistic problems that abounded in Cox’s book sometimes peek here. For instance, some metaphors sounded excessive, ev…

A Novelization (1): The 4400

Fun, snappy, not very well written but readable. I got to Greg Cox’s The 4400: Welcome to Promise City (New York: Pocket Star Books [2009], 288 pp.) because of the TV series (of course), and what carried me through to the end was the eagerness to know what happened after the final episode ended. There are plenty of defects here, but the overriding concern is not purity of style, gracefulness of language, or whatnot, but the plot. Cox wants to deliver a punch through a brisk plotline, and, well, he does just that (naught else).

Two basic plotlines dovetail throughout the novel. The first is the idea to clone Danny Farrell (Shawn’s brother), in order to spread promicin everywhere (this may or may not count with Jordan Collier’s blessing, but it is set in motion by a troop of fanatic followers of his). The second is the plan to kill the Marked, a plan that stars the now very powerful Richard Tyler.

Interesting enough. Now, the book is swollen with questionable literary practices. For insta…

El infinito en la palma de la mano

Hay cosas buenas para decir sobre El infinito en la palma de la mano (Seix Barral, 2008, 237 pp.), de Gioconda Belli, pero principalmente hay que criticarlo. Lo digo porque tomó una idea muy fuerte (un recuento fresco y moderno de la historia de Adán y Eva) e hizo un esfuerzo decidido por desperdiciarla.

Varias cosas al respecto. La prosa está llena de errores (cosas tan sencillas y evidentes como “Lo movimientos de Adán” [p. 124] abundan) y hay un desfile casi moscovita de gerundios desacertados. Además, hay detalles narrativos que fallan: por ejemplo, la narración generalmente sigue los pensamientos y sensaciones de los personajes, así que me parece muy raro que estos dos seres recién creados y desnudos sepan lo que es el encaje: “el liquen y el musgo se derramaban como encaje sobre sus cabezas” (p. 23). Asimismo, hay palabras que desajustan las frases, comparaciones injustificadas, repeticiones deslucidas, metáforas ingenuas. ¿Qué tal estos dos casos de negligencia a la hora de revi…

Words, Words, Words

“Build your vocabulary to make yourself a better reader; choose simple words whenever possible to make yourself a better writer” (Bryan A. Garner).
I couldn’t resist the temptation of sharing that sentence. It’s so brilliant, even more so in light of its simplicity. We (it can’t be just me) often turn that sickening desire to learn words into an obnoxious tendency to deploy them (especially if they’re both obscure and coruscating). I used to say that big words are like toothpicks left on your table at a restaurant: yes, they’re there, but you’re in breach of something when you use them. Garner hits the nail on the head: learn as many words as you can, because they’re useful to understand what others say, but keep them at a healthy minimum when it’s your turn to write. Garner goes on to say that no self-respecting mathematician would speak of, I don’t know, the fraction 36/48 instead of saying 3/4. Garner says all this in an entry (aptly) called sesquipedality (Garner is quite inventive…


Julian Barnes’s narrator in “Complicity” (The New Yorker, Oct. 19, 2009) is a man who recently got divorced and who tells the story in a chatty, freewheeling tone. Through a doctor friend of his, he meets a female doctor and a relationship may be hatching between them. The narrator wonders obsessively about her, focusing his curiosity on tactile impressions such as the kind of gloves she may wear. We get very few details about her (we don’t find out her name, for instance). The narrator goes to a movie with her; then they go out to dinner. At dinner, their hands touch. With that touch, the story ends.

It’s an interesting story. In fact, messy is the first word that comes to mind, but messy is not always a bad thing. In this case, it’s shouldn’t be counted as a virtue. Note how the story starts like a fable of sorts (notice the repeated “When I was” structure of the first three paragraphs). We get the sense there is a reason why this is being told to a particular person, but this is nev…

The Alloy behind Teen Bestsellers

“‘I do fundamentally believe that publishing is not an expanding business,’ [Leslie Morgestein, a publishing executive at Alloy Entertainment] says. ‘It is contracting—even our corner of it [books for teens and tweens], which has been vibrant in the past few years. I don’t think long term there’s going to be sustainable growth there.’ As a result, the Alloy executives spend as much time thinking about ideas for television and movies as they do for books, and consider their book ideas in terms of their viability as television and film franchises.”
 “‘Forbidden love is a lot of what’s behind “Twilight,”’ Morgenstein says. ‘It’s about longing and lust, but it’s not about sex, and that’s very powerful to younger teen girls.’”

In the spirit of commenting on bestsellers this year, these quotes come from a revealing and sobering article about the industry of bestselling teen novels in The New Yorker (Rebecca Mead’s “The Gossip Mill,” published in the Oct. 19, 2009, issue, and no longer freely …

Procedure in Plain Air

In Jonathan Lethem’s “Procedure in Plain Air” (The New Yorker, Oct. 26, 2009), a man called Stevick watches outside a coffee shop as two workers in jumpsuits dig a hole in the street, cover it tightly with planks, and then lower a dark-skinned man inside. Some sense of duty awakens in Stevick, who asks the workers about the prisoner; they give him an umbrella to shield the man in the hole from the rain. Quickly but implicitly, this becomes Stevick’s new occupation: he cares for the man in the hole, reports to a supervisor, and even gets a bag full of jumpsuits. Apparently, the macabre practice is common enough for passersby to know what it’s about, but they treat it as a strange form of art or as an offense that will devalue their properties. We don’t find out what’s really happening, but many symbolic meanings can be attached to this event.

I don’t think it’s a strong story. In fact, it’s rather weak. The opening strikes me as careless, and trying to find particular reasons for starti…


Marisa Silver's “Temporary” (The New Yorker, Sept. 28, 2009) seems to be a story about Vivian and Shelly: both are young and both live in downtown L.A.—that’s all they have in common. It’s really a story about the nervous and concerned Vivian, who was adopted by somewhat older, decent parents (they tell her she’s adopted when Vivian is a teenager and her mother appears to be in her deathbed). Vivian gets a job typing transcripts of interviews at an adoption agency. (This was the highpoint of the story for me: Vivian tries to imagine the people whose interviews she hears, and writes codicils at the end expressing her approval or disapproval.)

Vivian lives with Shelly, who seems to be well off and thus has no need to land a job (for which she seems inapt, anyway, even though she met Vivian at a temp agency: in retrospect, this detail seems off). Shelly leads a reckless life headquartered in an industrial space downtown, and invites Vivian to join her. Shelly sleeps with different peo…

About 2010

Here’s what I plan to do with this blog during 2010. Plans don’t always match up with realities, but here it goes anyway.

For one, I will still tackle short stories: Zoetrope, The New Yorker, One Story, McSweeney’s, short story collections, and so forth. I plan to write shorter comments, and probably more often than before (although the one-a-day rhythm I had last August is out of the question). I’ll try to comment my way up to what The New Yorker is publishing now, but I’ll leave a trail of notes on older stories that have caught my eye.

I’ll still comment on novels, both recent and less recent. Beside novels we can call grand (or canonical or whatever), I’m really interested in understanding bestsellers this year. Much of “high” literature started as failed or triumphant “popular” literature, and I plan to make comments on such literature: novelizations, mass-market paperbacks with garish and bumpy covers, stuff you can pick up while you wait in line at a drug store.

Furthermore, I wan…