Monday, March 10, 2008

Cumberland - Michael V. Smith

Sometimes, when the library has nothing off my to-read list, I do a little of what I like to call 'trolling' (I'm pretty sure I mean 'trawling'). I wander up and down the aisles looking for names I recognize, books I've heard of but haven't read, or things that look comfortable to hold. Sometimes you can come home with some excellent books this way, things that you might not have picked up intentionally but that got caught in your net. Other times, all you get is a nasty old boot.

Cumberland is the nasty old boot of book-trolling. I wanted to be all like, meh, it's mediocre but it's not terrible, but the more I read, the more terrible it got. Were I not lagging so fiercely behind in the Canadian Book Challenge, and were Michael V. Smith not from Vancouver, I would have cheerfully quit halfway through and not given it a second thought because I just. Didn't. Care.

I have this one prof who's always urging us to make our writing 'a little bit more raw, a little bit edgier,' by which he means to put in more swears and more sex. I'm all for swears and sex, but you need a little something else to bring in the bucks as well. When your story falls so flat that that I'd rather empty the dishwasher than find out what happens next, you can't just pump it full of things you think are controversial and hope that it'll infuse some life. You can't be having this conversation:

Editor: Michael V. Smith, I think your book is great. The characters are completely innovative - an overworked, small-town waitress with a heart of gold? An unemployed mill worker who can't get over his mysterious past? A man and his son and the hot, young, on-the-prowl babysitter? And the plot is brilliant. The mill worker and the waitress shack up, the babysitter makes a move for the man with the son, everyone goes camping. Seriously, I've never seen it's like. It does need a little something extra, though.

Michael V. Smith: Sex? Does it need more sex?

Editor: Well, there's already quite a bit in there. I'm thinking something a little edgier. A little more raw.

Michael V. Smith: Gay sex? Men sneaking off to the park to have secret gay sex?

Editor: That could work. That could definitely work. Gay is so hot right now.

Michael V. Smith: What about gay sex between children? These two boys, see, they could play this game...

Editor: Yes! Yes, that's it. It's raw, it's edgy, and anyone criticizes you, they're anti-gay and anti-natural-sexual-exploration. It can't lose!

Oh Michael V. Smith and fictional editor, what you forgot was that I need to care about the man before I can feel the pain of him having to sneak off to the park for secret gay sex because he lives in a tiny mill town where he can't just walk down the street holding his boyfriend's hand. And I have to care about the boy before I can feel awkward for him, what with his adolescent urges blooming and his only friend a big dumb bully. And I would! I promise, I would feel for that man and that boy and their legitimately painful problems, if only you had given me something to hold on to.

But you didn't. And even little hooks like 'There were so many things he couldn't tell her about his past' (some variation of this occurs at least half a dozen times), failed to draw me in. I ALWAYS fall for those! What's wrong with you? Who knew people with secret pasts could be so boring!?!

Also, the dialogue was unrealistic and you spent too much time over-explaining things because you think I'm too dumb to get it, and you did a lot of this: 'Therapy wasn't for him. What could someone tell him that he didn't already know? What could they say that would change what had happened?...The thought of needing help sickened Ernest. His feelings about the past didn't need fixing. His past did.' To me, this sounds like Ernest's thoughts, but it's you talking, Third-Person-Omniscient-Narrator! Either make Ernest think the thing to me ('Therapy isn't for me. What could someone tell me...' etc.) or you tell it to me, but don't tell Ernest thinking it to me (does this make sense? Does this bother anyone else? Am I being clear about what pisses me off here? It sounds like Smith forgot who was talking (the narrator) and slipped into Ernest's mind but without making it clear that's where he was going, and it leaves you with this sort of hodge-podge, sloppy paragraph. Is there a name for this? Help me out, folks).

Since I'm clearly losing it, I'm going to sign off now and go read a book about an elephant to try and get this tripe out of my mind.

Three caterpillars.

(Also, p.s., if you're trying to be edgy and raw, its sort of a law that you can't wrap everything up with saccharine front-lawn hugs. You need something more cynical, like a suicide or a slow decline into darkness. Maybe some dismemberment. Free advice, from me to you.)

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