Flashback — Dan Simmons

There are shades of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle all over Flashback. Problem is, they don’t really go anywhere. The novel opens in the near future with a mystery: Hiroshi Nakamura is a wildly wealthy Japanese man who needs Nick Bottom to solve the mystery of his son’s death using a drug called Flashback, which lets one relive in the past as if it’s the present. The setup is clever; Nick, rather than being a classic detective-alcoholic, is a flashback addict and feels “the flashback itch crawling in him like a centipede. He wanted to get out of this room and pull the warm wool covers of then, not-now, her, not-this over himself like a blanket.” He wants his time warped, in other words, as the centipede tells him. He wants to retreat to childhood: hence the blanket. It’s a nice image, and double so because the novel doesn’t have many of them.

Flashback is frustrating because it has so much promise that goes unfilled. There are lots of “as-you-know-captain speeches” (as there were A Game of Thrones), like this one, six pages in:

The polishes cedar floors and fresh tatami mats, in contrast, seemed to emanate their own warm light. A sensuous, fresh dried-grass smell rose from the tatami. Nick Bottom had had enough contact with the Japanese in his previous job as a Denver homicide detective to know that Mr. Nakamura’s compound, his house, his garden, this office, and the ikebana and few modest but precious artifacts on display here were all perfect expressions of wabi (simple quietude) and sabi (elegant simplicity and the celebration of the impermanent.

How do you have fresh dried grass? Shouldn’t it be fresh or dried? Beyond that, the phrase “Nick Bottom had had enough contact” signals that we’re about to be told a bunch of stuff. In and of itself, that’s fine. The problem is the sheer number of times the story pauses for no particular reason to regurgitate stuff at us. Susan Bell’s essay “Revisioning The Great Gatsby” (part of The Writer’s Notebook: Craft Essays from Tin House) details how deftly F. Scott Fitzgerald avoids such problems in The Great Gatsby, with the help of Maxwell Perkins. We’re not so lucky here. In Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, digressions feel organic. Here they feel forced.

So do the italics that give us Nick’s thoughts; toward the end of chapter one, he thinks, “You know why you’re going to hire me for this job, jerkwad. Let’s get to it. Yes or no.” I’ve heard similar sentiments in a thousand detective novels and movies. They don’t add anything to the story or Nick’s character. They’re distracting. The problems in the first chapter continue throughout.

There are good bits, as when Nick decides not to flashback to sex: “he was simply glad that his video-recorded idiot’s face wouldn’t be showing the uncoordinated spastic echoes of his orgasms from eighteen years earlier.” We get the self-loathing, the professional’s unhappiness at being caught unaware, the thought of “uncoordinated spastic echoes” that capture a look in a way that’s fresh and vital. Such moments are just too rare. The book is too fat. It deals with balkanization and terrorism in ways that are interesting and imagines a future without state or national infrastructure, which is a scary one. It just doesn’t do so well. There’s a palpable fear of Muslims and what, for lack of a better word, I would call multiculturalism or pluralism; a character thinks:

Los Angeles [was] celebrating the events of that old holiday called 9-11, September 11, 2001, the date—as Val had been taught in school—of the beginning of successful resistance to the old imperialist American hegemony and a turning point in the creation of the New Caliphate and other hopeful signs of the new world order.

We get a lot of conservative ideology here: the distribution of dangerous ideas in schools; the idea that liberals see American hegemony as dangerous and imperialist; and the fear of Islamists taking over the world. Women “in full burkas” sit, and one has “bright blue eyes” who Val says “was Cindy from his Wednesday Social Responsibility class.” None of these fears seem likely, and after the Arab Spring, they seem even more ludicrous. The world is mostly inching toward liberalism, not authoritarianism, bikinis, not burkhas, despite the United States’ present penchant for spying on its own citizens. A college professor begins to question his own received wisdom, and experiences “Doubt [about] whether America’s eventual retreat from the rising success of radical Islam’s influence around the world was the wisest course.” Except that the U.S. is successful precisely because its culture promotes letting people live as they choose, so long as they don’t harm others: this is part of the reason why the U.S. is very good at integrating minorities, while Europe struggles. The idea that the U.S. will ‘retreat,” whatever that means in the context, is ludicrous.

I’m not opposed to novels with political messages, as long as those messages are thoughtful, reasonable, and well-integrated, and dumb politics aren’t limited to the right (on the left, see: John Steinbeck). I’m opposed to novels with dumb politics, like this one, but I’m even more opposed to weak writing.

You can have a book with little plot and spectacularly unusual sentences or language use; this is basically what Joyce and John Banville do (or, think of Banville’s alter ego detective fiction writer, Benjamin Black). You have a book with lots of plot and uninteresting or banal sentences, which is what a lot of thrillers do. But it’s really hard to have little plot and average sentences, which is what you see in Flashback. It’s got a great premise and doesn’t deliver. I got to page 200, mostly because I had time to kill while waiting to meet a friend. Flashback did fill time and did offer an intriguing premise. It didn’t do much else.

EDIT: I am not the only one who is disappointed in Flashback.

Slam — Nick Hornby

Slam starts with great promise: a list of bullets that show a lot of Sam’s life in a short space and show why it’s going well (“For example: Mum got rid of Steve, her rubbish boyfriend.”) It’s got a fun, fantastical conceit in that Tony Hawk talks to the narrator and comes to represent a kind of externalized consciousness, giving Sam a dialogic way of bouncing ideas off another person. But the novel itself meanders. I look for the great sentences and don’t find them. To be fair, there are strong sections.; for example, in analyzing (as best he can) his family, Sam says:

The story of my family, as far as I can tell, is always the same story, over and over again. Someone—my mum, my dad, my grandad—starts off thinking that they’re going to do well in school, and then go to college, maybe, and then make pots of money. But instead, they do something stupid, and they spend the rest of their lives trying to make up for the mistake they made. Sometimes it can seem as though kids always do better than their parents. You know—someone’s dad was a coal miner, or whatever, but his son goes on to play for a Premiership team, or wins Pop Idol, or invents the Internet. Those stories make you feel as though the whole world is on its way up. But in our family, people always slip up on the first step. In fact, most of the time they don’t even find the stairs.

Notice the metaphor at the end: most of the world “is on its way up,” without noting the transportation method (flight? an elevator?), but his family doesn’t “even find the stairs.” It’s a bittersweet passage, with him not exactly castigating his family but still fundamentally aware of social class. Yet why not start the metaphor at the beginning of the paragraph? His family’s story is always the same, with them looking up as other people go by, or being on the ground floor of a building whose top they can’t even conceptualize, or something to that effect? You could do much better than the ideas I’ve come up with in 30 seconds, but the point is that there’s no reason not to extend the metaphor—maybe throughout not just the paragraph but the book. We appreciate that Sam’s awareness is a step on the road to change, but he could be slightly more aware without harming the fundamental structure of the story.

Perhaps not surprising, some of the story’s tension involves whether Sam will continue the family tradition or break it. He meets a higher class, very attractive girl named Alicia. They talk music. He works to avoid being subservient to her, but later thinks that “I knew that I didn’t want to be [Alicia’s] friend, if you know what I mean, and I was worried that her being friendly to me meant that I didn’t stand a chance with anything else. I know that’s wrong. Mum is always telling me that friendship has to come first, before anything else.” Sam knows the score even when his mother doesn’t, or doesn’t want him to know. She is, in essence, pitching him the idealized version of romance, which he has internalized to the extent that he says he knows that not wanting to be Alicia’s conventional friend is “wrong,” imputing a sense of morality on an act that’s more about strategy than morality. In a different world, friendship would come first. If you search Google for “Friend Zone, you’ll find a wide array of articles with advice on how to avoid becoming “just a friend.” Sam’s Mum is trying to give him advice that isn’t highly applicable to the real world.

If you’re already aware of these dynamics, however, the novel will feel like old news. It’s not bad, exactly, but it’s not exciting, either. A lot of the book is fun. It just feels average, unlike Francine Prose’s Touch. I’m looking for ways that make it more than average and not finding them. Hornby’s best book, by far, is still High Fidelity. Maybe it always will be. I often think about it when writing contemporary novels that feature love stories; he fundamentally understands that such love stories tend towards comedy, that indecision is the great modern problem, and that love stories need more than just a should-I-or-shouldn’t-I plot. Whenever I read High Fidelity, I’m impressed again at how surprisingly well constructed it is. I keep trying his other books (A Long Way Down, How to be Good, Slam) in search of the same kind of mastery. I keep not finding it.

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