The Brief, Wondrous Road of Oscar Finch

June 22nd, 2009

For a man who reads few books, I have read quite a few books recently. Three excellent pieces of fiction in particular, though only one of them could be considered fantasy and that of a rather peculiar and fungus-ridden variety. Still, I warmly recommend all three to anyone capable of reading in English, for they are excellent (as I said above), and all quick, sharp, page-turning reads as well. You could probably fit all three into a hollowed out hardcover of Storm of Swords and have room left over for a banana. And believe me, once you’d finished the last of them, you’d really need that banana.

First up – Junot Diaz’ Pulitzer prize-winning The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The exodus from the Dominican Republic of Trujillo and the immigrant experience in the US as examined through the eyes of several members of one dysfunctional family. If you expect that the winner of such a heavyweight prize would have to be written in an overbearing, difficult, heavyweight way, then (in this case, at least) you’re WAY wrong. This is airy, readable, conversational, bursting with humour and personality. My mum gave me a great piece of writing advice – always be truthful, always be real, and this book has authenticity in spades. It’s also told partly from the point of view of a geeky child obsessed with Lord of the Rings (among other fantastic and science fictional things) and so is littered with some brilliant genre-based metaphors for those of you who know about that sort of thing (not me, obviously), sometimes hilariously innapropriate (the great dictator, when assassinated, stumbles from his bullet-riddled limousine having taken 400 hit points of damage). There’s one brilliant paragraph in which Diaz manages to use a metaphor from Star Trek and one from John Boorman’s Point Blank. Has he been inside my mind? The book’s split into several parts, each from the point of view of a different member of the extended family, some going back to the 30s and 40s in the Dominican Republic (which is wild, vivid and dangerous enough to virtually qualify as a fantasy world, especially for someone who grew up in 80s Lancaster), some taking place right up to the present day. For me some sections worked better than others, but overall it’s a joyful, characterful, rewarding read.

Next up, Jeff Vandermeer’s Finch. A compromised detective struggles to solve a difficult double murder in a bizarre, crumbling city occupied by enemy forces. So far so noir. Except the enemy are giant mushrooms. I hadn’t read any of Vandermeer’s stuff before, but his reputation is … kinda literary, I guess. All these distinctions are fundamentally bullshit, of course, but nonetheless I was expecting something complicated, difficult, possibly with wild ideas and beautiful writing but perhaps not too much in the way of coherent story. But the writing, though vivid, is tight as a drum, never over-complicated, and the imagination as man meets fungus meets city and all three flow together into a noir nightmare is like nothing else I’ve read. He makes the book work both as a crazy fantasy and as a tough detective story, both parts complimenting the other. If I were to go for a filmic metaphor I might have to say Chinatown meets Naked Lunch with a sprinkling of Tetsuo II: The Bodyhammer. And a side of mushrooms. Giant, man eating, hallucinatory mushrooms. There are a few moments, perhaps, where the forward momentum slackens and we come dangerously close to infodumping, the plot seems to creak a little and there’s a risk that – like a jet fighter driven forward only by its own thrust – it might come crashing to the ground, explode and kill its pilot in an almighty fireball. But then the fungal afterburners kick in and the book blasts once more into the heavens of imagination. Nothing’s fully explained at the end, but that isn’t really the point of a book like this (if there are any other books like this, which there probably aren’t). I read this in proof form, and I don’t think it’s out for a few months, but I strongly advise you to pick up a copy when it does appear because I very much doubt you’ll have read it’s like before. A must for fans of fantasy, noir, great writing, or, of course, fungus.

And so we come to the end. Of this post, and the world. Cormac McCarthy probably doesn’t need my help in drawing the attention of readers to his (also) Pulitzer-winning The Road, since it’s been out for a long time, has been on Oprah and that and sold squillions of copies, and is being made into a film even as we speak with that nice Viggo Mortensen. But if you’ve been frozen in a glacier for the last few years, allow me to expound. The Road is an irripresible comedy of manners that will have you chuckling from the very first page. Perhaps that’s not entirely accurate. Unless by irrepresible comedy of manners you mean ash-blasted post-apocalyptic horrorshow, and by chuckling you mean gripped and harrowed. This is one bleak-ass book, but also a completely magnificent one that in the midst of its brutality, desperation and utter waste somehow manages to be strangely inspiring. I’d read a couple of McCarthy’s books before and found them interesting but difficult to get into, so stripped bare and brutal are the prose, the characters and the events. But the stark and ruthless writing matched the content beautifully in this book, no doubt. Awe-inspiring.

Anything else – er, there’s an interview up with me at SF Signal, should anyone be interested, and with that I’m off to Scandinavia to talk at some bookstores. If any of you will be attending in Stockholm, Gothenberg, or Oslo, I will look forward immensely to seeing you there. The rest of you, I will post when I get back…

Posted in interviews, reading by Joe Abercrombie on June 22nd, 2009. Tags: ,

20 comments so far

  • And why, pray, won't we find you in Copenhagen?
    Pretty unsatisfying, as I just bought Best Served Cold. And is in fact enjoying it.

  • Jesper,
    Because no one from Denmark invited me. Although translation rights for the Blade Itself were just sold to a Danish publisher, so you never know…

  • Gabriele C. says:

    Stockholm is a nice city. I've lived there for two years. Try to find the time and take a walk in Gamla Stan, it's very atmospheric. Though it's even more so in winter when all the tourists have fled to warmer shores. 😉

  • marky says:

    Added to my list. They all sound great, cheers.

    I'm working up to doing a review of BSC on my blog at some point this month, but I'd just like to say(Before I make a complete arse of it),that it's the best book I've read this year.

    Cheers again for the recommendations, and as I missed your last post, I'd just like to add this……Nice chopper.

  • Anonymous says:

    Wow, the way you write about these books make me want to sprint all the way to the library. I especially liked the bit about the fungal afterburners- I went back and read that paragraph again just so I could experience it a second time 😛


  • Mish says:

    hey Joe, love your work.

    Just wondering if you knew an Australian release date for 'Best Served Cold'? I've searched the entire interweb (not really), but I haven't been able to find it.


  • Gabriele C,
    I shalls looks forwards to it.

    Glad you liked it. I shall look forward to your incisive commentary.

    It's FUNgal.

    Should be out there. I know the Australian distributors ordered 5000 copies. Possibly taking a while to filter through…

  • Anonymous says:

    Allready trying to find something witty to say at the Oslo signing, though get ready for some tall, blond fellow staring at you and going "erm…hi!".

  • Deliana says:

    I'm very glad to see that we have something in common. The Road is one of the best books I've read in quite a while. See you on thursday in Stockholm. 🙂


  • Elena says:

    I think your goal with your next book should be to outbleak mccarthy. 🙂

    john hillcoat, who directed the proposition, which i keep telling you you need to watch as it is seriously one of the best westerns ever made, ever, and right up your amoral bloodsoaked alley, is directing the road. and nick cave is back for the soundtrack (he also scored the proposition–and wrote the script). can't think of a better pairing. can't wait!

  • Daniel says:

    Woo! Can't wait to get my book signed tomorrow in Gothenburg! Rare for any authors whose work I enjoy to drop by Sweden, so it's really appreciated. =D

  • Anonymous says:

    I'm an idiot! I noted in my calendar that you were coming here today! But you were here yesterday.

    So, when are you coming back to Stockholm?

  • rattsu says:

    It was great meeting you in Stockholm! Well worth sitting three hours on the bus for…

    Now you just need to start writing on that apocalyptic zombie fantasy novel, I can't wait to read it. Hope you have a great time in Gothenburg as well!

    Also, make more book reviews. I for one am picking up that mushroom one… Anybody who loved the road can't be wrong.

  • Anonymous says:

    I loved your book, Joe. And just when I was wondering what to read next… plop these gems in my lap. I'll check them out. Although I'm already familiar with THE ROAD.


  • Anonymous says:

    Damn you Joe, damn you to writers hell. Just started reading my next fantasy book, 5 stars on amazon, and I simply can't get into it. You've raised my expectation so high that I simply can't get engaged with it.Shame on you, what were you thinking?

    No apologies accepted, go to you room and write for 3 weeks non stop and produce another corker.
    To paraphrase you….

    'Your the writer, you f****** work it out'.


  • Anonymous says:

    Find the files you are looking for at the most comprehensive source for free-to-try files downloads on the Web

  • Read Finch as part of City of Saints and Madmen back in late January and loved it. If you get a chance between the writing and the blogging and rearing, check out "The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris”, another one of the entries in the collection.

    Read The Road last year and my response was a resounding "Meh.". I no doubt would have enjoyed it much more had I not read Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents that cover very similar ground but – in my humble opinion – much more effectively.

    As for the first recommendation – sounds wonderful. Will pick it up and give it a read, then return to thank you for the tip.

    Or berate you.


  • isis says:

    Oh, when will the l-o-n-g wait for adaptation of The Road be over? (I'm not asking you, just lamenting) It was originally going to be released last Autumn I think but has been put back a year. I hope it's not being turned into an episode of The Good Life in the meantime.

    City of Saints and Madmen is even more amusing because it features squid as well as fungi. I get that same feeling of outlandish humour from VanderMeer that I got from Peake. I find them both to be hilarious at times, but it's not to everyone's taste.

    Hey, I noticed that you have a name label in my local Waterstones (Gower St) now instead of just being unannounced in the 'A' section. Well, I thought it was quite flash anyway.

  • Elena,
    No one can outbleak McCarthy.

    Most glad you liked the book. I've no doubt you will appreciate these too. The Vandermeer isn't out for a while, though.

    I can't help it that I'm SO FUCKING GOOD.

    Monsieur Mallozzi,
    The one I'm talking of is his most recent novel rather than part of a collection – maybe there's something similar in the collection too? I really should check out his other stuff…

    I have noticed name labels gradually appearing. I will supplant Douglas Adams as the first name in the rack, then conquer the world!

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