Sunday, August 9, 2009

recently read: The Strain

About a month ago I downloaded to my Kindle the sample chapter of The Strain, by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan. I read the first couple of hundred words. 'Total crap', I thought, and deleted it.

A couple of weeks later Kelley brought home some books from the library, one of which was The Strain. I picked it up and was struck by the beautiful design. I opened it. Same crap beginning--but the book was lovely to touch. So I leafed ahead and stopped at the section titled The Beginning, and read. And was hooked. At least for a little while.

The prologue, the 'Legend of Jusef Sardu', is wordy and boring. The second beginning, 'The Beginning', is promising, in a broad-strokes-of-vampire-horror-tropes way: dead plane instead of dead ship, Modern Medicine vs. The Inexplicable, an Old Wise Van Helsing character, cast of thousands (ala The Stand--but much, much less interesting). After a hundred or so pages the broad strokes turn into minutely detailed vileness. The vast cast of secondary characters come into focus as lazily-written stereotypes, every single one, and all are explored to exactly the same level of mind-numbing, cliched detail. Tedious to the tenth power.

As for the female characters--they are so cliched that they give cardboard a bad name. Nora, an epidemiologist, does nothing but play the Scientist's Girlfriend:

"Eph (Our Hero, The Scientist) stood in the book-lined hallway of Setrakian's apartment. He was looking in on Zack eating a Devil Dog at the old's man's small kitchen table, where Nora was asking him about school, keeping him occupied and distracted." (p.357)

That's all Nora, t he qualified epidemiologist in the middle of an epidemic, does: feed people, wipe their foreheads, listen to their woes. It's like reading really early pulp SF, but much less fun. I won't bother talking about the Haitian nanny who does vodun (maybe they call it voodoo, I can't remember), or the dim-bulb ex-wife. I find it mind-boggling that such a beautiful object was created in service of such drivel.

Which brings me to my point. On the Kindle, I knew immediately that this was a badly-written and poorly conceived story. I knew it after reading two or three hundred words. (Follow the link above and read the beginning for yourself.) Even at $9.99 I wanted nothing to do with it. The text stood as itself, unadorned; naked to my understanding; exposed in all its ugliness.

The print version ($26.99) beguiled me with its extra-textual lusciousness: the design, the illustrations, the font, the paper.

The Strain is a lovely object but a bad novel.

I'm beginning to think that the future of fiction is the Kindle and its ilk: text as text. All fonts the same. All scents and other sensory details, the same. With an ebook, the only distinguishing factor is the text itself, the ease with which is does or does not trigger our mirror neurons. I think digital book readers will save the novel; they will allow for quality (however each reader defines that for herself) to rise above other factors, at least once it's in the reader's hands. For now, for just a little while, we'll know exactly what we're getting. I wish it would stay that way. I know it won't. At some point publishers will figure out how to individualise each book. The playing ground will become uneven again. Big Names will have fancier product.

So if you can afford it, start reading ebooks. Enjoy the brief golden age.

If you want to explore the subject further, take a look at last month's Nicholson Baker's appraisal of the Kindle reading experience. Let me know what you think.

Addendum: if you're in the market for an ereader, here's a great comparison chart from Dear Author.



  1. Ah well a few points. FIRST! I don't see your post as a praise of e-books, but rather a condemnation! I WANT that extra-textual feel & design. I want a nice physical object.

    Second, man, I told you I didn't like that book either, didn't I? ( I seem to remember doing so. Did you force yourself to read all the way to the end? The end is such a betrayal, a let-down; ugh, made me so angry. Also, EVERYONE I know who has read it has used the same word for the characters-- cardboard.

  2. You did. You were right. About 40% of the way through I stopped--but then picked it up again to finish, in order to write this review. This is a bankrupt book.

  3. I'm tend to agree with Mordicai on this. The worst thing about the Kindle in my opinion is the reading experience. Baker's article summed it up pretty well. The poor formating, low resolution, lack of contrast and horrible navigation make it a poor imitation of a book. For any book with artwork or charts/graphs it really sux. And then there's that whole proprietary thing with Amazon and never passing the book on or re-selling it.

    Looks matter. Just like smell is a part of taste, elegant design promotes a better reading experience. Reading is an emotional experience.

    I see your point about text standing alone, but in my opinion the text on the kindle is hard to parse. Even compared to the same font printed out on a piece of paper with no frills, it is harder to read. And because it's harder to read, it's harder to get lost in the words.

    But with practice, I have gotten used to it. And their are things I do love about the kindle. Free books, free chapters, portability, immediate delivery - instant gratification. It's a no brainer that ereaders are in our future. I mean I can carry around a whole library in my pocket! That blows me away.

    But it will be a few more years before they are up to speed I think.

    The apple device will be relatively pricey. It will be cool, and I will want one. But it will not be eink, and that is a deal breaker for me. The Plastic Logic thing sounds like it will be pricey too. I suspect that most people are too dumb to understand about eink however, and that makes me wonder if that will not hurt the development of the ereader as people buy the flashier Apple-type stuff.

    And I won't bother with the sample chapter from "The Strain."

  4. Oh my God that book scared the crap out of me, especially the airport part at the beginning (being as I live within walking distance of that airport).

    I don't mind crap writing if the storytelling grips me; I thought the storytelling was quite a lot of (very disgusting and absolutely gruesome) fun.

    I know what you mean on ereaders, though. I read all my requested manuscripts on a Sony Reader (saves wasted paper) and I can usually tell within five pages if it's worth my time at all.

  5. jennifer, I love my Kindle reading experience--only read fiction, though. And I have the original model, which I think is better in terms of the visuals.

    clindsay, the bad writing negated the fun. In fact for me there was zero fun past the halfway point. Sigh.

  6. Yes, I noticed he mentioned in that article that the contrast was better in the first one. I'd be curious to see the difference. I am very reluctant to buy non-fiction on it now, but sometimes I still do if it's cheaper.

    I find I like it once I get into it, but once I pick up a real book again, I'm reluctant to go back...

  7. Well, this blog post popped out and grabbed my attention out of a list of e-mail without any snazzy cover or sharp font biting into the textured pages...great points. I treasure books that get the opening paragraph down -- beginnings + endings are two of the best tests of an author for me.

    One of my favorites is "Love in The Time Of Cholera;" whenever I read it I seriously consider learning Spanish to discover the original.

    When I want to be scared by disease fiction; I go back to Poe..."Masque of Red Death" is a classic chill. I do occasionally wonder why no one seems to remember Frank Herbert's White Plague when other, lesser books remind me of it.