Yesterday, the weather was spring-like, and my mood for books reflected the change of season. In winter, I want light, happy books because the season is so oppressive. In spring, I can handle darker things, because the season cheers me back up.
So, feeling up for darkness, I picked up Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory. I got what I was looking for, in this tale narrated by a calmly insane murderous teen.
I can already tell that my comments about this book are going to be half-formed and tentative; this is one of those books that needs to percolate for a while before I can really come to a definite opinion about it. Still, I can say some things about it.
For instance, I can say that while it’s not a science fiction novel (Banks uses his middle initial when he writes science fiction), it has a very sfnal pace of incluing—you start out not understanding much, and things are revealed to you over the course of the book, and the climax of the book is, in some respects, the final revelation about the background.
And I can say that it reminded me of nothing so much as the beginning parts of Tim Powers’ Last Call—a twisted family, dark secrets, and ritualistic primitive magic (though in Powers’ book, the magic unequivocally works; here, we suspect otherwise).
And I can say that this is a very disturbing book. The narrator calmly relates chilling anecdotes with a sort of detached rationality. This is someone who’s utterly mad, but not in a hysterical fashion at all—this is someone who can function well within the world, but has an insane moral and philosophical outlook. It’s a very good book, to be sure, but I doubt I’ll ever read it again.
After finishing The Wasp Factory, I wasn’t in any particular mood for sleeping, and decided to read something a bit less depressing, so I picked up Ken Grimwood’s Replay , a story about a man who has to (gets to?) relive the last 25 years of his life over and over and over.
The book falls into my own private subgenre of “books where a normal guy suddenly develops an inexplicable and quasi-magical talent, and has to cope with it.” Other works in the subgenre include Brenda Clough’s How Like a God, Steven Gould’s Jumper—and, not a book but otherwise very similar, the Bill Murray film Groundhog Day, where the protagonist has to relive a single day repeatedly.
I suspect I have a weak spot for this subgenre, as I liked all those works, and liked Replay quite a bit, too. Astonishingly enough, I stayed up until 2:30 AM to finish it, on a night when I’d already read one book in its entirety. The biggest thing that keeps me reading late at night like that is a sense of pace—that the book is moving briskly along, and that I just want to see the one next thing that’s coming up. Grimwood possesses that, obviously; I was completely unable to put this thing down.
But a book with nothing more than a proper pace is ultimately a thrilling-but-empty dish; fortunately Grimwood provides quite a bit more. More than anything else, this book is suffused with a sense of loss—every time the protagonist reaches the end of his 25-year span and has to restart, he loses everything he had. All his accomplishments, gone; everything he created, never existed; the women who loved him, total strangers. The feeling that Grimwood evokes—that sadness for the passing of something wonderful and beautiful—is the same kind of emotion that Guy Kay does so well in his books.
Combine that emotional base with technical skill, interesting characters, and a solid plot, and you’ve got a damn fine book.