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Saturday, October 21, 2017

What I'm reading (#35)

Is it possible to hate a book solely because of the very last line?

I ask because that was my reaction to William Sleator's The Duplicate.  I picked up a copy at our local used book sale (one of the biggest in the country -- the Ithaca Friends of the Library Annual Book Sale, a quarter of a million books in a huge warehouse -- one of the high points of my year).  I've loved a lot of Sleator's other YA speculative fiction books, including House of Stairs, Interstellar Pig, Strange Attractors, and (especially) Among the Dolls, which stands out to me as one of the most brilliantly crafted YA speculative fiction books ever written.

So I was looking forward to The Duplicate.


The story itself had an interesting premise; a teenage boy finds a machine that can create a perfect copy of himself, not only physically but mentally.  The duplicate would have all of the original's knowledge and memories, not to mention personality, reactions, and insecurities.  At first, the idea seems brilliant; two identical copies would mean that each of them would only have to go to school half of the time, and one could be doing chores while the other was making out with his girlfriend.  What could go wrong, right?

The answer turns out to be "everything."  David, the main character, does not anticipate two things; (1) that the duplicate will have a mind of his own, and in fact firmly believes that he is the original David; and (2) once the duplicate is created, their experiences and memories begin to diverge, so it becomes increasingly difficult for them to pretend to be the same person.  Also, there are some serious inconveniences.  Only one of them can sleep in the bed, if indeed they can both be in the bedroom in the same time without their parents realizing.  If one is at dinner, the other has to go hungry.

And so on.

The whole thing turns into an increasingly tense drama of errors, as David gets more entangled with a duplicate who turns out not to be controllable, or even friendly.  And when the duplicate creates yet another copy, things spiral out of control.

So far, so good.  Interesting stuff, well written, and we really want the main character to win the day.

But I have this thing about books, movies, and television shows; I hate it when I feel like the creator is playing with me.  It's why the later conspiracy theory episodes of The X Files left me wanting to hurl a heavy object at the television; I felt like the writers came up with the ideas by sitting around a table, sipping scotch and saying, "Heh.  Let's do this.  This'll really confuse the hell out of 'em."  It's why I have no patience for David Lynch movies -- Mulholland Drive made me want to kick a wall.  I don't need to have all the answers -- for cryin' in the sink, I've written whole books where the reader is left to piece things together -- but I want some closure.   And most of all, I don't want to feel like the writer is being coy with me, doing something that has as its sole goal leaving me going, "Ooh, wow, that was unexpected, I wonder what will happen next?"

And that's what happens at the end of The Duplicate.  Everything gets more or less resolved, and on the last page David is having a nice time kissing his girlfriend Angela... and then comes the last line, which reads, and I quote:

"Until the phone rang."

When I got to the end, I said, "What?" followed by an intensifier I will not include out of consideration for my more sensitive readers.  There is no hint of who might be on the phone; the resolution of the story gives you no information about anyone who might be calling, and worse, whose call might destroy the happy teenage hormone-fest that was happening beforehand.

But that's how it ends.  No sequel, no idea of what Sleator had in mind.  Did one of the duplicates survive?  Was there a third duplicate?  Is it Angela's former boyfriend, threatening to knock David's teeth out because they were sitting on the couch snogging?

No way to know.

Like I said, I don't need all the answers, nor do I need everything neatly tied up with a ribbon on top.  My favorite book of all time is Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, after all, and if you know what happens at the end of that book, you'll understand why I bring it up.  But this just struck me as cheap, as a way to create a suspenseful ending that the plot didn't deserve.  At least if there was some other twist in the last chapter, it might give us enough to have at least a guess as to what was going on.

But the end of this book makes me feel like Sleator was just tired of writing, and said, "Heh.  This'll really confuse the hell out of 'em."

Which is a crummy way to treat your readers.

So if you want to read some great Sleator -- and he has more than one really fantastic story out there -- check out some of the ones I mentioned above.  But my suggestion is to give The Duplicate a pass.  Unless you like pointless cliffhangers, which I suppose some of you may.

Monday, October 2, 2017

What I'm reading (#34)

I first stumbled across essayist John McPhee's work because of my interest in rocks.

I was living in Washington State at the time, and took a class that gave me a rather eye-opening look at how complex the geology of the Pacific Coast is.  A friend asked if I'd read McPhee's quartet of books about the geology of the United States -- Rising from the Plains, Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, and Assembling California.  I hadn't, but I did, and I was hooked.

I continued to read his work, and found that the man has a way of making damn near any subject interesting.  I mean, for pete's sake, he wrote a book called Oranges, on the citrus industry in Florida and California.  He also wrote an entire book (The Founding Fish) on people who fish for American shad.  Both are fascinating, despite my being neither an orange grower nor a fisherman.

So I proceeded to get every book I could find by McPhee.

That was how I came to read last week his book Uncommon Carriers, about people who haul freight by truck, boat, air, and train.  As with all of McPhee's books, he focuses not only on the facts of the topic, but the people -- and, in fact, spends weeks traveling all over the United States, in a tanker truck, a coal train, and a Illinois River barge.


What it brought home to me is how much goes on behind the scenes to give us the lifestyle that we middle-class folks in the United States enjoy.  Few of us, when we pick up the can of WD-40 to oil a door hinge, think of the fact that the ubiquitous and helpful spray was (1) manufactured somewhere, and (2) carried across the country in a tanker truck.  Likewise for all the other commodities we have; unless you make a deliberate and concerted effort to buy local, everything you purchase, use, or consume took a ride on some sort of freight hauler.  It was brought to you by people who spend their entire lives moving things in large quantities from one place to another.

So once again, McPhee has taken a topic that few of us give a thought to, and shown us not only the details but the human side.  If you haven't read McPhee, you should.  His insight, wry sense of humor, and interest in the human condition make anything he writes a fascinating read.