Thursday, May 23, 2013

Necessary Evil, by Ian Tregillis

Pulp fiction (not the movie) intends its readers to breeze through it. The thoughts that smut novels evoke aren't supposed to be worth the paper and ink in the book itself. Volumes of pulp exist to fill shelves, to decorate windows, to sell quick or go in the trash. If pulp writing has that reputation, then how can I fault literary types for so often leering at genre fiction? Science fiction, fantasy, detective stories, comic books, romance, adventure, mystery -- tradition dictates that these are printed cheaply and read mindlessly.

Anyone who reads such smut, though, knows differently. Raymond Chandler went from hack to Supreme Being of Hardboiled Detective Writing. J. R. R. Tolkien made fantasy cool in the fifties... and in the seventies... and again in the aughts. And Ian Tregillis, in the final book of the Milkweed Triptych, proves that cross-genre fiction can be smart, witty, devilish, and addictive.

Plus, the writing is deceptively smart. All three books have lured me into reading speedily because they are snagless. I read them too quickly, actually; someday soon, I want to re-read the whole set to see what I missed.

(They're the kind of books that will be different the second time through. You'll know what's going on... but instead of spotting the seams, you'll gape at the fine needlework.)

The books are so enjoyable that, as you can see, I spend my time going off like a fanboy about how TOTALLY WICKED they are instead of musing about their themes or what deep implications their pages hold.

But honestly, these books are so good because you don't feel like you're reading a diatribe. Ayn Rand's books are a tin-can shell for her philosophy. But for all the immense and torrential thought Tregillis puts into his books, they are first and foremost stories. No spoonfuls of sugar here.

(He let me hurl questions at him over on the New Mexico Mercury, if you want to sample his take on humanity's potential and read about his next projects.)

High school teaches most of us to pick apart literature like a baked chicken carcass without letting us eat the good meat. I think we get more out of books when they spark us to think, to examine, to wonder, while being themselves enjoyable. Necessary Evil (along with its predecessors) is just that kind of book.

The literary snobs shy away from hedonism as if a book must be obtuse to be worth reading. Give me the high-quality pulp any day.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Average American Male, by Chad Kultgen

Honesty is really difficult to take, isn't it?

I lived in Germany for a year, and the part of the culture that took the most adjustment for little American me was not the openness of sexuality, the drinking on the train, or having a genuine rail system in the first place. The most difficult aspect was the honesty.

No niceties from my colleagues about my dramatic haircut. (I blame my translation skills at the hairdresser's.) No mincing of words from my roommate about splitting the phone bill. No holding back about my shortcomings as a foreigner from folks at the Diskothek. Honesty was right in my face; once I got used to it, I quite appreciated it.

Even so, honesty is difficult to implement in my everyday American existence. I don't mean not telling lies; I mean not glossing over the improprieties and not burying criticism in compliments. The situation only gets worse when someone tries to make new friends or, heaven help us, get a date. Honesty means sharing despicable, embarrassing, and improper thoughts! Honesty means feelings could get hurt! Who wants to get coffee with a truly honest person?

Remove the filters, remove the censures, and you get a book like The Average American Male. Yes, honesty is sometimes revolting, sometimes shocking, sometimes hilarious, and sometimes incredibly meaningful. This book is what we'd all hear from someone, sooner or later, if we could be completely honest with one another.

But what about being honest with ourselves? For all the narrator's crass honesty, he doesn't recognize what he really needs from life. A culture of compliment sandwiches encourages softening the truth, and that's especially accurate when we deceive ourselves. True honesty doesn't stem from being blunt with everyone else in the world, but from cultivating self-awareness and self-honesty.

The German experience didn't make me honest. If I can be forthcoming with anyone about my feelings, my opinions, my desires, and my perspectives -- and if I can take such forthrightness -- it's because I am learning to know myself, and to trust myself.

(Since we're on the topic of honesty: I can't suggest this book for minors or relatives. If you are a minor or my relative, and you read this book, you do so independent of ever hearing about it from me. Unless you are my grandparents; in which case, just don't read it, period.)