Tuesday, August 25, 2009

You Can't Make Me Choose

by Sophie

What crime fiction novel do you wish you could read again for the first time?

Oh right, as if.

I'll bet you my kids' allowance money that there's nobody here who's going to admit to having just one of these, one transcendent novel, one book that left them gasping like a gutted fish. Because we don't work like that. We're story addicts, shameless gluttons, unable to maintain a commitment to a single tale.

There's another factor in my infidelity...I'm passionate about voice. If forced to choose between cogent but dull prose and the rantings of a brilliant madman, I'd read nothing but nonsense for the rest of my life as long as the language was beautiful. Like a guy who can't keep his eyes off a woman in a tight red dress, I'm completely helpless in the face of a pretty turn of phrase.

With all of that in mind, I went to the shelf determined to pick the first book I saw that was One of Those...one of my heart-pounding favorites.

And I landed on HEART-SHAPED BOX by Joe Hill. Which isn't really a crime novel, but it was nominated for lots of crime fiction awards, so I'm going with it.

Here's what I wrote about this book when I read it (I used to keep notes on books that blew me away). (I was an early Hill adopter, and I didn't know he was King's son when I read the book.)

Finally, a break-out book getting the attention it should.  To choose just one thing JH does really well: his narrative structure is composed of sentences of every length, but every sentence is precisely the right length. Does that make sense? Short and staccato or long and contemplative, the shadows cast by the words serve to underscore the emotions, action and tension in the story.

There's lots more. I think you could use the book to teach a comprehensive fiction class: how do you end a scene, kids? How do you imbue dialog with emotion? Sketch setting with a minimum of words? Create secondary characters who will neither bore your readers or steal the story?

(Naturally that'll never happen, but I'm not going to give genre-bashers any extra fuel by deigning to dip into *that* dogfight.)

The central theme, culpability, is explored in both predictable and unpredictable ways. The one horror chestnut I have the most difficulty with - the notion of true and unredeemable human evil - is played out expertly with the cheif villain and his dreadful henchwoman. But it's also explored with more subtlety in Jude's relationship with his parents (is he a victim?), women (is he a victimizer?), his employee, bandmates, etc. etc. etc. And while, by the end of the book, there is ample redemption and forgiveness, there's enough ambivalence left that there is lingering doubt about the nature of the human soul (a far more interesting and, too me, satisfying notion than mere evil-smiting).

There's a meaty hero's journey here for those who like 'em. By the time Jude makes his first heroic move - kicking the dreadful Ruger's smarmy ass - we've seen enough of the ordinary world to see that the guy has his work cut out for him. And then the stakes just keep getting higher. 

I think many of us who stop reading horror forget that, done well, its nature is the same as any other genre's - the contemplation of human behavior when tested. There's a great little gem in the book: 

"Horror was rooted in sympathy, after all, in understanding what it would be like to suffer the worst."

Put that in your pipe and smoke it, baby.

PS: Doesn't that beard make Hill look kind of like Bill Cameron's dour, underfed younger brother?


Bill Cameron said...

Wait. Are you saying I am supposed to feed him?

Sophie Littlefield said...

Just sayin', that's all :) Are you perchance Stephen King's secret lover?? That would make Joe y'all's love child and - oh, wait, that doesn't really work.

Unknown said...

Can't wait to read this! Thanks for the recommendation.

And if truth be known, there wasn't an MFA student on the hill who didn't deeply admire the genre writer's ability to sell more than 100 copies of a book :)

I'm hoping the shrinking markets will help break down those crazy adversarial definitions.


Kelli Stanley said...

LOL -- Sophie, you are so right!! Bill's evil twin ... except Bill's evil, so does that make Joe the good twin??

How do these doppelganger things work?? ;)