Saturday, December 26, 2009

Review: The Beard by Andersen Prunty

I hate book reviews that start off with too much crap that's not about the book so let's keep it brief. The beginning of the month I noticed Andersen Prunty's The Beard as a free download from Atlatl Press. (Better hurry if you want to get it, it only lasts until next Thursday). I was intrigued by the prospect of a free e-book and downloaded it. Plus the brief description was interesting. Growing a beard is something every man contemplates from time to time if he doesn't actually do it (I did in college, I know, daring), and I was intrigued by what I picked up on as the idea of the beard being a way of the hero entering a different world, one most men can't get into because they can't grow a beard because they want to look professional, or their wife/girlfriend doesn't like beards. Anyway, the book sat until yesterday when I finally had time to read it.

I was really glad to see that for all it's weirdness, Prunty has written a book that really hangs together. It's too easy to write incomprehensible crap - just look for yourself. Hell, I'll do it for you, and I promise this is totally off the cuff:

Banana foo-foo. Mama said don't touch that onion bread. Zeppelin. My mind exploded with blue and rowboats. Claptrap and boondoggle, you just can't make it fit.

See? I hate shit like that. Too many times I read a book and the hero will get dosed or fly into the sun or something and there's like a page or two of this nonsense. I love Alfred Bester, but frankly I skipped over half of Golem 100 because it was just so much argle-bargle and boogedy-boo. I understand that, as a writer, when you set a task for yourself such as attempting to convey to the reader that your hero has experienced world consciousness or been sucked into a black hole or whatever, that you are going to try hard to show and not tell, and that means it may get pretty hairy. But as a reader, you've got my attention to do that for a couple of sentences, after that I skip ahead until I can start reading again. I am not going to do drugs just to read your book, if I'm already doing drugs the last thing I'm doing is picking up a book since I'm not goddamn Huxley. Just saying there is a fine line between writing "He tripped balls" and giving me six pages of "OOOSHHGHHAHHHGHHSH" and lots of crazy indents.

The great thing about The Beard is, it doesn't do this. Sure, it gets deeply weird. It messes with your perspective, sense of time and space, and makes you wonder if you really just read that sentence. But at the same time - and this is the important part - you never get lost and just have to give up and skip ahead to find something to grab a hold of. If books like that are like the crazy coke-fiend who starts telling you a story and then runs off and robs a liquor store while you're standing around trying to figure out what the Hell, The Beard is what all those other guys really wished they could have been - it is someone leading you down the path into Hell, or Wonderland, or wherever, but your guide never lets you get lost, because he wants to make sure you see everything he has to show you.

It hooks you from the very beginning - in, thankfully, a prologue that actually matters. Young David Glum's grandpa is telling him a crazy story about an island where the kids think thunderstorms are made up of elephants that will steal them away if they don't go inside and out of the rain. Being a kid, David makes a Fluffernutter and takes a nap, waking up to watch as his grandpa, standing in the middle of a blasting storm, simply disappears.

It helps a lot that Prunty makes his characters interesting in the first few crucial pages. David's grandpa is crazy in that cool, crazy-grandpa kind of way, and you like him and want to hear his stories. So when he up and vanishes you want to find out what happened to him. Prunty's style also works very well here - matter-of-fact in the way that only dreams can be, he never really stops to say "Holy crap! Can you believe I just wrote that?" like so many other writers do (hint: if you find yourself writing characters saying something like "I can't believe we're ..." or "It's like we're in a movie", that's you telling yourself you're not selling it). He totally believes in what he is doing and as a result you go with it, and unlike the homeless man who will tell you stories as long as you'll listen and give him liquor money, he knows what he's doing and where he's going.

The real plot of the book begins when David, now in his mid-twenties or so, goes to New York to publish his novel. But the world he inhabits is bizarre - there's only one publishing company, and the building is populated by various weirdos and random occurrences. Told by the assistant editor that his book sucks and he should give up, David resolves that the only thing he can really do is just go home and grow a beard.

And thus begins a road adventure that winds through an America that grows ever more bizarre and disconnected from any kind of reality. Prunty gradually ups the ante (though right near the beginning he cheats a little bit and just skips a gear, but it works), never really giving you more than you can handle, until by the end you feel you could inhabit this world and maybe do okay for yourself. Glum, too, goes on a journey, and though at the beginning you're not really sure you like him - he lives up to his name pretty well and his response to most things is wanting to take a nap - by the end you're glad he made it to where he was supposed to be all along.

Best of all, he manages to wrangle the weird and make it do his bidding. He doesn't cut any corners. If you're a square like me this is really something to appreciate. Some people might think that this makes his strange world just so much window-dressing, but if that's the case then people should've given up writing stories about six hundred years ago. No, he wrote a Story, a weird story, sure, but it has a beginning, middle and end, it has an arc and a plot, it's main characters grow and change and learn things about themselves and the world as it goes along.

Really this book is about more down-to-earth things like fathers and sons, and figuring out who you are and where you fit in the world. These are good themes and ones I often wrestle with, too, so maybe that's part of what hooked me so much about the book.

I also liked how the main character is ordinary and yet different at the same time. In a lot of ways he's a loser, but he goes on this incredible adventure and comes through it, and he really participates in the action instead of things happening around him while he scratches his beard and wants to take a nap. Of course, there's a lot of that, too, but it fits the character and I think Prunty strikes the right balance.

Anything I didn't like? Well, to be honest I'd feel kind of off-base for any criticisms, since anything I'd say I would've like to see done differently would have made it into a totally different book. It hangs together that well that I couldn't find any way to improve it without making it something other than what Prunty set out to create. Even the ending - which anyone who knows me would probably peg as the part of the book I'd like the least - works, and I liked it. It's a good resolution and it makes sense for the story.

OK, I can't resist. Maybe more of the map would've been good. See, Glum has this map he takes with him on the start of his trip, and every time he opens it, it changes or does something else weird. Finally he gives up on it because it's pretty useless. But I thought the map was pretty boss and wanted it to stick around. I would have done a lot more with it. Like maybe at one point he opens the map and it just says "FUCK YOU" on it. And then Glum would be like, "Hey, fuck you, map," and then it's like the map becomes a character, sort of like Jimmy Durante in Frosty the Snowman ... okay, okay, I'll stop. Just saying I was actually like "what happened to the map?" I guess it was so important to me because it was a tangible artifact of weirdness in that world that changes according to its own whims.

Well, one other thing. I thought King Chin at the end was a little weak. He goes from spouting nonsense (and you already know what I think of that) to speaking straight, and to me he doesn't really fit the way the rest of the things in the book do, even the things that are unexplained (of which there's a lot). It smacked a little of author fatigue, which I understand, but is still a problem. A little more attention to that character could've helped a lot, I think.

If this review seems like I'm congratulating Prunty for knowing the damn alphabet, well, to be honest I was expecting this book to be a bunch of weirdo crap that you had to be on drugs to like. Instead I read a really good story that got trippy but didn't pull any pomo-deconstructionist bullshit on me that frankly is for the lazy, like putting a urinal on a wall and calling it art. Real art takes work and I feel a little bad that I loaded up The Beard figuring what the Hell, it was free.

And anyway it's not just that. I think the best stories are ones that take you into another world, show you around, and you appreciate it for what it is. If I'm sitting reading a book or watching a show and thinking, "You know what would help? Ninja clan attack," well then obviously it's fallen a little short. Or I'm trying to enjoy it, but the story keeps trying to shove a suppository full of its twisted ideology up my ass, then to me that's a failure on the part of the author. The Beard has it's own view of the world, and maybe I don't agree with it one hundred percent, but that's okay, because it's still a good story, and honestly what parts do get ideological make fair criticisms. Just to give one example, one town the heroes go through seems to be entirely based on Bastiat's broken-window fallacy. I don't know what larger point Prunty was trying to make there, since the fact that it's well-known to be a fallacy implies it doesn't need refuting, but as a sort of Invisible Cities take on the idea I found it funny and good.

So I wrote this review to say that if you are like me, so square you have sharp edges, even then you will still like this book. It's a weird ride and a lot of fun. I wish I would've had this idea so I could've written it, that should tell you something.

It reminded me of one of the stories in Tom Wolfe's Kandy Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamline Baby, where he is doing a story on California hotrodders and, being Tom Wolfe as well as East-Coast Ivy League and Southern to boot, he shows up in a blazer and tie. This won't do, the hotrodders tell him, unless he wants to be spotted as a square. So they make him wear a tee-shirt to help him blend in, which I think is pretty funny and why I remember this story and think of it a lot.

I guess that's all by way of saying, thanks for the tee-shirt, Prunty, and the invite into that crazy world, and for letting me feel not so square for a while.

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