The twin peaks of my reading this year was a pair outstanding novels written by colleagues of mine here at The Millions. Edan Lepucki’s debut, California, reached #3 on The New York Times bestseller list, while Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel, Station Eleven, was named a finalist for the National Book Award. Both books thoroughly deserve their critical and commercial success, and for all their many differences of tone and approach, their DNA shares a prominent strand: both novels are set in a dystopian near future, after civilization has collapsed and people are forced to scratch and improvise their way to lives with some semblance of security and meaning. The books’ shared tones and time frames led me to write an essay about the timeless – and timely – allure of the near future for writers working in our anxious times.
Too late to include in that essay, is another dystopian near-future novel I just finished reading by another “literary” novelist, On Such a Full Sea by Chang-Rae Lee. (I think the word literary needs to be placed between quotation marks in this context because it’s a contrivance, though in this case a useful contrivance: it notes that realists like Lee — and Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Colson Whitehead, and Cormac McCarthy — have been venturing into speculative new terrain that was once the preserve of genre writers.) Full Sea posits a nuanced dystopia: pollution and economic collapse have caused mass migrations of Chinese people into abandoned American cities, and a three-tiered society evolves. On the top are the wealthy, living in gated communities; in the middle are the working-class residents of strictly regulated cities like B-Mor, formerly Baltimore; and on the bottom are the poor people living in the brutal rural “counties.” The novel gets draggy and ponderous in spots, but its great strength is the first-person plural narration by the “we” of B-Mor, a hive mind that gives the novel creepy, mythic overtones.
While in Detroit on a book tour this summer, I bumped into a writer named Dan Epstein who was in town promoting his two irresistible books about baseball during that most benighted of decades, the 1970s — Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s and Stars and Strikes: Baseball and America in the Bicentennial Summer of ’76.
Before encountering Epstein and his books, I had dismissed the ’70s as a stylistic Sargasso when almost everything went to hell — cars, pop music, the economy, hairstyles, fashions and, yes, baseball, which was suddenly being played on AstroTurf fields in cookie-cutter stadiums by whiskery guys wearing Technicolor polyester uniforms. (Movies, curiously, were immune from the scourge, enjoying a fleeting golden age during the decade). Epstein, as I discovered, actually revels in the decade’s cheesiness, and he does so without the killing smirk of irony. And, he reminded me, it wasn’t all cheese: it was when he fell in love with punk rock, soul, funk, and blaxploitation flicks. For the first time, as he writes, the real world invaded a professional sport: “Drugs, fashion, pop music, political upheaval, Black Power, the sexual revolution, gay revolution — all of these things left their mark upon ’70s baseball in ways that would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier, and might be just as unthinkable now.” Indeed, Epstein’s books helped me see that before the 1970s, professional athletes were cocooned in the myth that they were wholesome superheroes; since then they’ve become cocooned in something even less interesting: money.
Speaking of Detroit, one of the best books I read this year was a scintillating new collection of reportage, poetry, memoir, photography, essays, and fictionalized observations called A Detroit Anthology. Delightfully free of finger-pointing, cheap nostalgia, or breathless boosterism, the book makes the point that only through an understanding of this troubled city’s history can one hope to understand its current woes and its possible ways forward. The collection’s editor, Anna Clark, has succeeded sublimely in her goal of capturing “the candid conversations Detroiters have with other Detroiters.”
This will also go down as the year I read my first — and last — James Patterson novel, Pop Goes the Weasel. As Flannery O’Connor’s character Nelson Head says after his disastrous first trip from his home in the piney woods of Georgia to the big city of Atlanta: “I’m glad I’ve went once, but I’ll never go back again!”
This will also go down as the year when I, a person who doesn’t like to rush into things, became the last person in America to read Gillian Flynn’s 2012 smash, Gone Girl. How good was it? It was so good I have absolutely zero desire to spoil the experience by going to see the movie version, even though Flynn wrote the screenplay. Sometimes, a book is enough.
And finally, two pieces of long-form journalism stood out this year. Thanks to The Daily Beast, I discovered the great Gay Talese’s 1970 Esquire magazine article about the Manson Family’s desert hideout at the Spahn Ranch. Though nearly half a century old, the writing in “Charlie Manson’s Home on the Range” remains fresh and vibrant — a reminder just how radical it was for Talese to use the novelist’s tools in his journalism, and just what a brilliant reporter he was, and is. At age 82, he’s still working the beat.
Every year I re-read one of my favorite pieces of journalism, Marshall Frady’s 1971 Life magazine article, “The Judgment of Jesse Hill Ford.” Ford’s best-known novel, The Liberation of Lord Byron Jones, told the story of the titular black undertaker in a small Southern town in the 1960s, who has the temerity to name a white cop as a co-defendant in his divorce suit. The cop performs the inevitable execution of Jones, and the local white community comes together to protect and absolve him. Frady’s article lays out the horrific story of how Ford’s life came to imitate his art. The liberal undertones of Ford’s novel won him few friends among his white neighbors in Humboldt, Tenn., so there was a pronounced shiver of schadenfreude when Ford was charged with killing a black man who was trespassing on his property. Frady’s article dissects Ford’s tortured campaign to win back the favor of the white community, in order to win absolution and avoid prison. The article rises to the level of art through insights like this:
Like most who are authentically taken up into the obsession of writing, Ford belonged, more or less, to the Dionysian disposition, a nature tending toward the unruly and ecstatic…Ford worked out of an older understanding of man — that primitive, profoundly reactionary, pagan vision in which virtually all true story-tellers have probably been working since Homer, which has evolved not an inch since Ecclesiastes: that the race is basically unimprovable, and its condition an inalterable mixture of meanness and nobility, violence and compassion. Ford himself once remarked, ‘I’ve been invited to sessions before to discuss biracial committees and all those other causes, yeah. But I’ve never gone. I’d just rather not hear them mewl and whine.’
Journalism by the likes of Frady and Talese is getting harder and harder to find. As I was reminded again this year, digging it out is always worth the effort.
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Any writer who makes $90 million a year must be doing something right, right? With that unassailable premise in mind, I decided it was time to get down off my high literary horse and lose my James Patterson virginity. Besides, I was getting ready to board an eight-hour flight from Düsseldorf to New York, and since I have never been able to sleep on airplanes and was fresh out of controlled substances, I thought a nice fat James Patterson novel might be the perfect airborne opiate.
Before boarding, I hit the bargain bin and paid €5 (about $6.50) for a copy of Pop Goes the Weasel, my very first James Patterson purchase, a #1 international bestseller from 1999 and, according to the blurb on the front cover of my edition, “PROBABLY THE FINEST OUTING YET FOR ALEX CROSS.”
Once I was buckled into my criminally snug berth in steerage class on Air Berlin flight 7450, before my legs even thought about going numb, I cracked open my new purchase and read the dedication. “This is for Suzie and Jack,” it said, “and the millions of Alex Cross readers who so frequently ask — can’t you write faster?” That sounded like a lot of pressure for a writer — millions of customers breathing down your neck, urging you to hurry up and finish another book. What does such pressure do to quality control?
It kills it, as I learned from the novel’s opening sentence, which goes like this: “Geoffrey Shafer, dashingly outfitted in a single-breasted blue blazer, white shirt, striped tie and narrow gray trousers from H. Huntsman & Son, walked out of his town house at seven thirty in the morning and climbed into a black Jaguar XJ12.”
The third word in the book is an adverb, which Elmore Leonard advised writers to avoid, and the sentence contains two brand names, one of which means nothing to me. I know that a Jaguar is an expensive British car, and I assumed that any guy named Geoffrey (as opposed to Jeffrey) must be a Brit, so I guessed that H. Huntsman & Son is a pricey English clothing store. Should I Google it? Alas, there was no Internet in steerage class — and besides, I had 491 pages to go. I pressed on, feeling uneasy that James Patterson had used the lazy shorthand of brand names twice in the book’s very first sentence.
By the end of the first chapter, which was less than three pages long, I’d learned that Geoffrey Shafer is some kind of lunatic who likes to lead cops on high-speed chases through the crowded streets of Washington, D.C., and he can get away with it because he works at the British embassy and has diplomatic immunity. By the end of the second chapter, which was even shorter, Geoffrey Shafer has picked up a prostitute and told her (and the reader) what he’s up to: “This is a fantasy game,” he explained. “It’s all just a game, darling. I play with three other men — in England, Jamaica and Thailand. Their names are Famine, War, and Conqueror. My name is Death. You’re a very lucky girl — I’m the best player of all.” Then he carves the prostitute up like a Halloween pumpkin and buries the knife in her vagina. You’ve got to hand it to James Patterson: he doesn’t waste time with niceties.
As soon as the plane reached cruising altitude I asked for a beer. Air Berlin still offers free alcohol and free recycled stale air on its packed trans-Atlantic flights. The free beer(s) would prove to be a life-saver.
Next we meet Alex Cross, the hero of this series, an African-American D.C. homicide detective with a heart of gold and a degree in psychology who drives an old Porsche and plays a mean blues piano and lives with his wise old grandma and his two adorable kids after his social worker wife was gunned down in a drive-by shooting. Cross is called in to solve the prostitute’s murder, which he believes is the work of a serial killer. Which, of course, it is. A serial killer named — drum roll! — Geoffrey Shafer, aka Death.
After that opening sentence, I can’t say I was surprised that the writing proved to be worse than bad. What was surprising was that James Patterson, the hardest working man in the book business, is so sloppy. Come to think of it, all that hard work — the man cranks out about nine books a year — might explain the sloppiness. But Patterson didn’t even seem to be trying. He repeatedly uses brand names. He repeatedly uses expressions like “once upon a time” (twice on one page), and “as if in a dream” (at least half a dozen times). He repeatedly describes characters by their hair and eye color, with a preference for blonde over blue, as in: “Patsy Hampton was an attractive woman with sandy-blonde hair cut short, and the most piercing blue eyes this side of Stockholm.” Or: “She was in very trim, athletic shape, probably early thirties, short blonde hair, piercing blue eyes that cut through the diner haze.” Sometimes the grammar is atrocious, as in: “I continued down and found she and Damon in the breakfast nook with Nana.” There’s a lot of adrenaline, as in: “Adrenaline was rushing like powerful rivers through my bloodstream.” Here’s what passes for Alex Cross’s motivation: “I sensed I was at the start of another homicide mess. I didn’t want it, but I couldn’t stop the horror. I had to try to do something about the Jane Does. I couldn’t just stand by and do nothing.” Here’s Alex Cross’s first clunky marriage proposal to his new love interest, Christine:
“I love you more than I’ve ever loved anything in my life, Christine. You help me see and feel things in new ways. I love your smile, your way with people — especially kids — your kindness. I love to hold you like this. I love you more than I can say if I stood here and talked for the rest of the night. I love you so much. Will you marry me, Christine?”
And here, 50 pages later, is his second clunky marriage proposal:
I knelt on one knee and looked up at her.
“I’ve loved you since the first time I saw you at the Sojourner Truth School,” I whispered, so that only she could hear me. “Except that when I saw you the first time, I had no way of knowing how incredibly special you are on the inside. How wise, how good. I didn’t know that I could feel the way I do — whole and complete — whenever I’m with you. I would do anything for you. Or just to be with you for one more moment.”
I stopped for the briefest pause and took a breath. She held my eyes, didn’t pull away.
“I love you so much and I always will. Will you marry me, Christine?”
Nobody talks like that. But what was even more surprising than the bad writing was the sluggish pacing. James Patterson’s trademark short chapters and unfussy prose are obviously designed to keep the story flowing, and they’re obviously written for readers with the attention span of a fruit fly. But I often found myself getting bogged down, especially during a draggy, badly choreographed 75-page courtroom sequence. It didn’t help that the narration kept shifting from the third person in Shafer’s chapters to the first person in Cross’s.
The friendly German flight attendants, bless their souls, kept the cold Bitburger beers coming.
Somewhere out near Greenland, I asked myself a question: Just how do you classify a book like this? It’s not a mystery because the only thing that’s withheld is whether or not Alex Cross will kill Geoffrey Shafer. It’s not a thriller because nothing even vaguely thrilling happens, with the possible exception of the final, predictable confrontation between hero and villain. It’s not a whodunit because we know everything Geoffrey Shafer does, how he does it, and why. It’s not even a page-turner because the prose and plotting are flabby, as though James Patterson knows he’s got to deliver a fat doorstop if he’s going to give his fans the feeling they got their money’s worth.
So what is this book? The best answer I can come up with is that it’s product. Merchandise. Something designed to satisfy the craving of those millions of Alex Cross readers mentioned in the dedication. And while it might be unfair of me to judge James Patterson after reading just one of his 50-plus New York Times bestsellers, I’m guessing, based on the horrendous quality of the writing in Pop Goes the Weasel, that millions of Alex Cross fans will buy the next Alex Cross novel regardless of what’s between the covers. The audience is built-in, automatic. The writing doesn’t have to be any good; it just has to live up to the expectations created by the previous books in the series. I can’t imagine a better definition of brand loyalty.
Go ahead and call me a snob, but I’m not the first person to notice that James Patterson is no James Joyce. Stephen King has called Patterson “a terrible writer.” (Could a little envy be at play here? Patterson outsells Stephen King, Dan Brown and John Grisham combined.) Patterson could not care less about his critics. He freely admits to being an entertainer, not an artist. As he told The New York Times in 2010, “I’m less interested in sentences now and more interested in stories.” And brother, it shows.
As the plane descended toward JFK airport, I came to the conclusion that books like Pop Goes the Weasel are for people who don’t really like to read but love to be able to say they have read, much as fruity cocktails are for people who don’t really like to drink but love to get knee-walking drunk.
That’s less a knock on James Patterson than on the people who shell out $90 million a year for the stuff he and his stable of co-authors grind out. I’m guessing that if James Patterson drank some magic potion and suddenly started writing like, say, Cormac McCarthy, he would lose every last one of his millions of fans. This points to a larger, unspoken problem in American book publishing: There’s no shortage of good writers today, but there is an appalling shortage of good readers.
Any writer who makes $90 million a year must be doing something right, and James Patterson is obviously doing something right. It could even be argued that the man is a genius — not at writing, but at marketing. He worked for an advertising agency before turning his hand to fiction, and his genius is that he knows his audience — and isn’t ashamed to cater to its expectations. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I won’t be reading another James Patterson book anytime soon. There are so many fine books out there, and so little time. I honestly don’t think I could have made it all the way through Pop Goes the Weasel without the help of those half dozen Bitburger beers and the fact that I was strapped inside a sardine can for eight hours.
Danke schön, Air Berlin!