Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Reapers Are The Angels by Alden Bell

Better than
The Walking Dead
(the TV series)

Straight off the bat, and perhaps therefore to sport my oak somewhat, I should mention that this review borrows heavily from an interview with Alden Bell (aka Joshua Gaylord) posted in August of 2010 at FantasyBookReview.com and, in all honesty, you may prefer just to go there and read it, rather than heroically struggle on through the desolate wasteland of this entry. Go on, I give you permission.

Still here? Then on with the story (to borrow from Barth).

There has been a glut of late* (or at least two I can think of without straining myself) of post-apocalyptic novels winning acclaim etc and so on - Rhys Thomas’s On The Third Day is worthy of a mention just because he’s a local (in the sense that he comes from round my way), and The Road is always worth squeezing into a blog entry as any mention of Cormac McCarthy guarantees a load of misdirected hits from America. Different from dystopian novels, but singing from the same hymn sheet, they maroon an identifiably contemporary character in a world without the nice, comfy social mores that make this functionally dystopian reality more bearable. That and a nice cup of gingerbread coffee from @coffeenumber1. Alden Bell seems to like the freedom they permit to re-write the rules, so that his young protagonist, Temple, a girl of indeterminate teenage years, can be both a ruthless killing machine, meting death whence she goes, and a reverent observer of the sparse beauty of nature. And he does it with a style which engenders comparison with writers like Faulkner on the one hand and, on the other, slightly bemusingly but in retrospect, acceptably, Flannery O’Connor.

But what I like best about this zombie road novel - and there are lots of things to like, from his southern gothic style, to the pathos of the starved dead heeding only raw animal instinct – is that Bell doesn’t give in to the urgent desire of the popular genre for a closed circular narrative. 
 I love it when a narrative builds toward an expected conclusion and then subverts it at the very end—which gives you, the reader, a feeling of thrilling weightlessness, as though a rug has just been pulled out from underneath you and you are suspended at the moment of falling,“ 
he says in the aforementioned interview. To really discuss what this means in context would make for a rather indulgent plot spoiler, so I’ll put the kibosh on that for now. Still, as a university lecturer / teacher (if there is a difference in New York) of English, he at least knows how to subvert such cosy narrative structures. Obviously not like the lecturers that Flannery O’Connor ran into:
Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher."
9th July 2014, and I find on re-reading some old reviews, notably this one, I had left you somewhat hanging in space with Alden Bell. It's never too unlikely that, being a bit of a tool, I did it on purpose, thus subverting cosy reviewer best-practice and leaving you with the words of someone much wittier than me so that you might go away feeling the weight of wit and mis-remember it as mine. I do mention a personal opinion early on, namely that I do like this book. In fact, if memory serves, I did really like it. It stands out in its genre, for me, and in my memory, so, to combat willful, smug pillock-ness I'll append this ending so that you might finally understand that you too should read this novel, because it is quite good. Zombies. What's not to love?

* ”of late” - a period of time that is of a crepuscular nature but could be defined justifiably as anything up to five years ago as it all blurs into one

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