Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Adam Johnson - Parasites Like Us *

"After trashing his cherry '72 Corvette, illegally breaking into an ancient burial site, and snacking on 12,000-year-old popcorn, Hank Hannah finds that he's inadvertently unleashed the apocalypse."

So begins the blurb on the back cover of Adam Johnson's debut novel, last year's Parasites Like Us. Sounds pretty interesting, doesn't it? It certainly did to me. Interesting enough for me to buy the book on a whim when I saw it at a discount book store. I had seen the novel a year earlier when it had just come out in paperback and had almost bought it then, for full price. Now I even regret shelling out the four dollars I spent on the overstock copy.

The problem with that opening sentence is that it effectively skips ahead to approximately page 232 of the 341-page novel. Blurbs, as any good editor should know, aren't not meant to do this. I'm certain that the reason it was used was to fish something interesting enough out of the mess of a plot to trick people like me into buying the book, but if such tactics need to be employed to sell a novel, perhaps it doesn't belong on the shelves in the first place. In this case, I'd argue that Perhaps into a Definitely. The first 231 pages are an attempt to build characters that we care about, and the last 109 are to show us how their lives Spiral Out of Control (a wonderfully hackneyed plot device these days), but both come off flat as a board. The only reason I continued reading was the promise of the impending Apocalypse that the back of the book fed to me.

But as boring as the plot turned out to be (and as disappointing as the Apocalypse turned out to be), the most painful aspect of the story had to be the characters--especially the protagonist, Anthropology professor, Hank Hannah. It is taught to writers young and old to "write what you know" so that your characters have a sense of life in them and your stories are realistic, so inevitably the writer themself begins to show up inside the characters. This does not bode well for Hank as he obsesses over his step- and birth-mothers. An Oedipal Complex of frightening proportions surfaces in Hank, but it is not done with a keen and sarcastic eye (as most authors would do so, distancing themselves from the freak of a character and letting us know that this sort of obsession is, in fact, weird), leading me to believe that Johnson, too, suffers from a weird psychosexual tie to his own maternal figures. Hank also has a constant tendency to do things that no normal human beings would do, engaging in amazingly awkward moments with almost every supporting cast member, regardless of gender, race or relation. The way he leers at his student Trudy made me physically uncomfortable.

None of other characters come off as particularly lifelike or likeable either--each preferring their own brand of stilted poetry to normal, human dialogue. It's a real shame too, because Johnson knows how to write. In the exposition areas, this poetry works wonderfully (though it becomes extremely long-winded at time, inspiring me to flip through entire scenes without even skimming, coming back a handful of pages later and still knowing exactly what was going on), but this beauty of language is the only thing Johnson's got going for him here.

Perhaps if Penguin had blurbed the book differently, I would have had more accurate expectations and been less disappointed when I finally put down the book--but if the blurb had been accurate, it is unlikely that I'd have picked up the book at all. And when it comes to sales, disatisfaction still leaves their wallet a little bit heavier in this case.

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