“I was going to tell you about the rattlesnakes.”
Just back from a working vacation at our editor Smokey Daniels’ Santa Fe Rabbit Moon Ranch. He and his more than lovely wife Elaine should be working on their own professional development book titled Best Practices for Hosts. Harvey “Smokey” Daniels is our editor on the vocabulary acquisition book Sara and I are currently writing and our publisher ponied up some cash to send us to confer with him giving the project a booster shot in the arm.
The first morning I was up, still living two hours in the future thanks to hopping two time zones, and took a stroll with my coffee in hand around the Daniels’ spread. Scrub grasses, tumbleweeds, wild sage and prickly pears dotted the desert along with other anonymous flowering flora benefitting from two or three days of uncharacteristic rains. I saw a couple lizards, some cottontails and a few murders of crows while the sun hoisted itself into the big sky over the mountains to the east.
Smokey joined me outside informing me about the aforementioned rattlesnakes. Having been a bit of an amateur herpetologist in one of my earlier incarnations I had already figured we were in snake country and was already keeping a wary eye peeled to where I was stepping. A little prior knowledge can go a long way. Then again, one can know just enough to be dangerous.
Based on past experience I purchased Chuck Palahniuk’s (pronounced like two first names Paula + Nick) new novel Pygmy to read on the flight out. He is the author of the cult classic Fight Club and I have always found his stuff to be accessible plot driven and quirky. This novel promised to be more of the same. Publishers Weekly described it as: A gang of adolescent terrorists trained by an unspecified totalitarian state (the boys and girls are guided by quotations attributed to Marx, Hitler, Augusto Pinochet, Idi Amin, etc.) infiltrate America as foreign exchange students. A perfect set of criteria for occupying one’s mind while being blasted through the sky at five hundred miles an hour in an aluminum tube.
So, the plane begins to nose up off the runway I pull my new book from my backpack read the accolades on the inside of the dust flaps and started in to chapter one. I found the book unreadable. Not that it was written poorly – but rather that the syntax Palahniuk had decided to use was impossible to decode for me. Chuck decided to write the thing in the broken English of his protagonist and in my opinion he failed. Well, let me re-phrase that – he DID write it in the broken English of his adolescent terrorist – unfortunately for the reader this prose is harder to understand than the well intentioned directions of that fourteen year old Bangladeshi trying to walk you through installation of a wireless router.
Here’s an example: "Location former chew gum, chocolate snack, salted chips of potato, current now occupy with cylinder white paraffin encase burning string, many tiny single fire."
It never gets better – I skipped ahead to see. I am not one to shy away from complex construction: I love William Burroughs cut up work, Clockwork Orange is a favorite as is Motherless Brooklyn and Foer’s Everything is Illuminated is one of my all-time favorites but sorry Chuck – as far as I am concerned you owe me twenty five bucks. There is a difference between complex and complicated. Where these other books I have mentioned use malapropos and twisted syntax to add an additional layer of meaning on their work Pygmy’s construction wraps the story in razor wire. Not impenetrable but you’re gonna be messed up once you get inside and I just don’t think the payoff is worth the blood.
I have been rendered illiterate recently while travelling through various countries overseas. Standing on a corner in Almaty, Kazakhstan cocking my head at a Cyrillic street sign – wandering about in the death star of a fabric market in Shanghai or squinting at the oscilloscope like lines of an Arabic menu in a Cairo restaurant – but this is the first time in a long time I have had this experience with English.
This book made me mad. Mad because I felt betrayed by an author who I thought I could count on. Mad because I had wasted time and money and mad because not being able to decode this thing made me feel stupid. But, it did provide one valuable lesson. It granted me a little insight and a whole lot of empathy for struggling readers. How frustrating it has to be for that kid in the class who just isn’t getting it.
I passed the book on to our host Smokey who read a couple pages and apologized to me for enjoying it. This made things worse. I’m no idiot but now I was playing one on TV. I mean if Smokey could understand it what was wrong with me? I felt embarrassed. My ego was only marginally bandaged when Smokey and Elaine’s twenty something daughter – a big Palahniuk fan – gave the book a shot and agreed with my findings. Then again she may have simply been mirroring the considerable graciousness modeled by her heroically empathic mother.
So, Mr. Palahniuk, I will probably pick up your next book but I’ll sure as hell read a half dozen pages before I pay for it because after all – once bitten twice shy.