Sunday, May 12, 2013

Review: NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

I have recently become a big fan of Joe Hill's work, and I got on board just in time to preorder his latest novel, NOS4A2. It's out now, and I just finished it, and it has set some mental wheels in motion.

So, just to get started, here's my (almost) one sentence review:
A well written but imperfect book, it's a thoroughly modern, darkly fantastical familial thriller. Well worth a read in paperback.

First, because reviews usually need some kind of summary, this is the story of Vic McQueen, who is also known as the Brat, who is apparently one of a few people who has the power to bend reality and access a semi-real realm of the imagination known as the Inscape (where it just so happens a certain place called Midworld can be found...maybe?). She uses her power to find lost things, via a decrepit bridge called the Shortaway.

It is also the story of another person with similar powers, named Charles Talent Manx. He uses his Inscape access to create a world called Christmasland, where he takes children after he drains them of some part of their humanity, turning them into ugly little vampiric monsters, so he can live long and young and strong.

And it is the story of Vic's madness and family and how she bridges (hah hah!) reality and fantasy and has to save her son from Manx. It's a pretty good book, all in all, if you like a bit of depth in your (almost) horror stories. If we use Mr. Hill's father's work as a point of reference, for example, this is probably closer to Misery than, say, Pet Sematery. Sure, it has some supra-natural elements, but it's more deeply rooted in the nastiness of people than in gibbering horrors from beyond the pale.

Now, I feel I have to preface the more in-depth part of my review with a slight...warning. At this point, I'm not sure what to make of my reaction to this book. I have read it, and reread parts of it, and have thought about it a lot. And I find that, although the characters are deeply thought-out and demonstrably "real," at the end of the day I find that, basically, I don't care about them. Some of the characters (MINOR SPOILER) die. I should have been upset, but I wasn't. Some of the characters (MINOR SPOILER AGAIN) undergo tremendous suffering, and I still didn't care. I didn't wince, I didn't think "oh poor person..." I just read on.

What's more, I found myself at times wondering how much longer the book would go on. It seemed protracted, at times, for reasons I still can't figure out.

Maybe what I mean is, Joe Hill is a hell of a writer. His pacing is deliberate and careful, and he does not fall prey to cliche or hackiness. His dialog is snappy and natural and never forced. I have enjoyed everything he has written up to now, and reading NOS4A2 I can not at all say that it is any less than his other work...but I didn't enjoy it very much. "Why?" you must obviously ask! "I don't exactly know!" I must honestly answer!

However, I can make some stabs. The chapters in this book often end very abruptly, sometimes in midsentence, with the title of the next chapter completing the thought. This is clearly a deliberate artistic choice, and one I can't argue with the author about--but for me, it sometimes felt like it resulted in uneven progression, interruption, and created a frequent desire to do something else.

In addition, there were times when I felt that our protagonist was acting without real agency but simple instinct, and indeed there was a large amount of pure chance in her biggest victories. To me, this made the deep suffering she underwent almost meaningless. She did not become stronger, or even weaker, because of it; she just kept stumbling through and ended up victorious. This might even be an example of how very real and honest the characterization in this book is. Real people often just do what seems like they should do, and luck out in the end, but it made it hard for me to engage on a more emotional level, for some reason. The climax, in fact, was so random and undeliberate that I almost missed it. I had to go back and reread it, thinking "oh....was that it?"

There is still plenty to recommend the book. As I said, it overall really is a well crafted book, and the way it plays with time is interesting. The characters are honest and deep and real, and the creepy bits are creepy enough. The car is a pretty cool cat, too. And for us Constant Readers of Stephen King, there are some pretty nice Easter eggs in there to give you a bit of a smile. Like I said above, I reckon this is well worth a paperback purchase on those merits alone. But if you were to press me about Mr. Hill's works, I'd say I much preferred Heart Shaped Box and Horns to this one, and leave it at that.

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