Books I Could Not Finish

Readers who do not want to read a curmudgeon (me) being curmudgeonly, please go away. This is not a review or a philosophical analysis. No attempt at balance or fairness has been made: the following consists of merely a description of negative reactions.

These are some books I just could not finish.

I am only going to list books that I thought I would like and that I really, really wanted to like, and that I could not finish.

Please note that these reasons are all questions of personal taste and preference, not something the author could have guessed beforehand and written to avoid. Books of this quality do not have flaws; they merely do not reach all audiences. This is a case where the book reached toward me, but my palms were sweaty, and the grip failed to hold.

PERDIDO STREET STATION by China Me Evil– perfectly well written book, imaginative, very dark.

Why could I not finish? I could not finish it because there was simply too much shit in the book. I mean that literally, the s-word appeared at least once per page. Being a father of three children, and have changed a tolerable number of poopy diapers in my life, the constant reference to scat bored and annoyed me.

Also, hated all the characters and wanted them to die.

SYSTEM OF THE WORLD by Neal Stephenson– again, perfectly well written book, at places shot through with genius, flights of wordsmithing that were a delight.

Why could I not finish? I could not finish the book because there were simply too many dicks in it. I do not mean annoying characters, I mean characters who either talked about their penises, or had penis wounds, or dropped their trousers and pulled out their penises, or what not. When William of Orange, a man of all men in history I most admire for his character, drops his trousers and forces a kneeling captive girl to perform a Bill Clinton on him, my threshold of toleration for the number of dicks onstage had been exceeded. Not to mention my displeasure at the anachronistic insult to this historical figure.

ILIUM by Dan Simmons – I cannot believe I could not finish this book. If ever there was a book designed by the Muses of the Hippocrene for me and me alone, this was it.

This book was designed for me to love it. A posthuman mystery, a mediation on the nature of the human condition, classical themes, Greek Gods, and the absolute, top-flight best portrayal of John Donne’s Caliban one could hope for. It even starred my favorite wizard, Prospero, who, in my opinion is the Best Wizard of All Time (in your face, Merlin! You too, Atlante!)

Why? This one was harder to explain. More than halfway through, I lost faith in the author. I was deep into the second volume of this big-as-War-and-Peace tome, and I was still waiting for something to get started. None of the characters, even when I was halfway through the second book, had yet to engage me: none of the plots showed any sign of any resolution, and I had yet to see how any of the plot threads were going to make it back to some sort of resolution. Sometimes you can get a feeling that an author has let the reins slip, and the book is careening out of control toward a cliff. I read a reviewer whose taste and judgment I admire, and said, in effect, that my hunch was right, that the plot was never going to come together in a satisfactory way.

I had faith in the reviewer but not in the author. Why? Because of ‘no clues.’ By the time the reader is more than three fourths of the way through the narrative, there have to at least be some clues, or red herrings, or something, pointing to how the questions raised by the plot were going to be resolved. There has to be some little things that do not fit, so that you know once everything fits together, the various irregular jigsaw-parts will click into place with a satisfactory click. Here there was nothing.

For example, the character of Odysseus, one of my favorite of all characters in all literature, here shows up in post-historical Far Future world. He is surrounded with mysteries. How did he arrive at the place were the heroes found him? What is his mission? What does he want? What is he fleeing, or what is he seeking? But if the character has been onstage for over a hundred pages, and there has not yet been a single clue, not even a false clue, then there is no way for the reader to be surprised when the answer turns out to be something other than what first seemed to be the case, because there is no first case. It was not as if there were three possible origins for Odysseus, and we had to figure out one of them. There was nothing. He was simply onstage, going along with the heroes, doing nothing, adding nothing much to the action. When the action did crop up, it happened offstage. The major battle between the mysterious nonhuman robots and the mysterious posthuman eloi, which could have been the central set-piece of a Edgar Rice Burroughs novel, is just referred to in passing. If the bronze-age military virtues of the King of Ithaca were supposed to have some effect on the outcome of the Eloi-Robot raid, it was not in evidence.

And, of all things, Odysseus, the only man in all of ancient literature it is really easy to like—I mean, come on, he wants to go home! Dorothy Gale understands that motive!—even Odysseus is unlikable. He is described only in passing, showing no emotion. We have nothing from his point of view.

The scholar Hockenby has no motive for what he does, even though, at first, I was fascinated by the concept of what he was doing.

The Eloi fellow whose name I forget should have been interesting—he was a mild-mannered man from Utopia, thrown into a life-or-death struggle and must rise to the occasion; but there is no thought behind his actions. He is not up to anything. He simply reacts, or when he did act, his acts made no sense to me.

And then there were the poetry-loving robots from Saturn. I never wanted what they wanted, or knew what they knew, or saw how or what their goals were.

Too bad. If I had found even one of the characters lovable, or even likable, I would have slogged on through to the end.

Really too bad. I know this author has the knack, has the spark, to be able to make characters loveable– the mad poet in HYPERION, the old man whose daughter grew younger every day, the girl detective, Aenea in ENDYMION, the Shepherd who becomes her unwilling disciple, the evil Swiss Guard super-soldier: all these were great characters. I know Simmons can do it.

One final complaint—I did not like the way the Gods talked. Too much swearing. Too much potty language. I realize and admire what the author was trying to do: he was trying to strip the tyrants of Olympos of their mythic Homeric distance. If you read Homer and see what these beings actually said and really did, and you cast the same into non-poetical, non-elevated speech, you will glimpse what terrifying creatures they actually would be, seen at close range. The author here parted the mists of poetry and time and dragged the sons of the Titans into the sunlight, warts and all. But I did not like it. I think even Mars has a good side. Bloodthirsty killer, yes, coward, perhaps: but if I were portraying Mars I would give him at least one admirable trait. Maybe he loves his mother.

THE WHEEL OF TIME by Robert Jordon — I was crushed on the Wheel of Time like a hindoo sacrifice being crushed by the great god Juggernaut.

Why could I not finish? This one is also hard to explain. The characters theoretically should have been a lovable as the picked-upon orphan-boy in HARRY POTTER, or the smart-but-shy Hermione. I mean, come on, a farm boy with a dread destiny, his honest blacksmith friend, and their friend who is good with dice. Not to mention Aes Sedai and way-cool ninja swordfighting moves and magical gateways and Dark Lords galore. But it never clicked with me: I was slogging halfway through the fifth or sixth book (yes, I stayed with it that long) when I realized that I wanted the main character to die because he was out of his mind, I wanted the gambler fellow to die because he was turning all dark and crooked, and I did not care of the blacksmith fellow lived or died, because he was spinning his wheels not doing much of anything. Somewhere along the way, I had lost all sympathy for all the heroes and all their goals–if they had goals. I mean, I had clambered up a mountain of thousands of gray pages, and I was still waiting for that “Council of Elrond” moment when Some Wise Mage tells Frodo-lite what the quest is. No one seemed to be doing anything and no one had a plan. And I wanted all of them to die.

Now, in all fairness, this last might not have been a fault of the author. I am a cruel and sadistic man, like many readers, and I only read when I am a foul mood, either right before a gladiatorial game or an afternoon of kitten-stomping. So maybe it is just me.

But Rand-al’Thor really did get on my nerves after a while. He seemed a character simply too small for the role. If Ranma Soatome has been the Dragon of that world, the Dark Lord Bumbershoot (or whatever his name was) would have at least been booted in the head before five books ground wearily by. If Paul Mu’ad-Dib had been the dragon, by then would have at least disrupted the spice production. SOMETHING would have happened.

DUNE sequels. Well, I could not get past DUNE MESSIAH, CHILDREN OF DUNE, CHILDREN OF THE MESSIAH OF DUNE, RETURN OF THE BRIDE OF THE CHILDREN OF DUNE’S MESSIANIC RETURN. Bleh. I gave up on the series right after Leto turns into a Sandworm.

DUNE is maybe the best SF book ever. This is because, unlike any other book of its time, and unlike far too few books since, it had an overall idea and theme, a sense of history. The sequels were potboilers: the author revisiting a mined-out lode, having his characters run around with nothing to do. The space-Greek Empire has fallen to the space-Jihad: all the gene breeding programs of the witches have culminated. What are you going to do to top that?

GORMENGHAST by Mervin Peake. What I would not give to have the hours I wasted trying to plow through this tepid piece of pretentious trash back.

It is a book of hate, written by an Englishman who seeks to mock the class system and ritualism of England. Well, first, I am an American, so what do I care if you Brits hate each other?

Second, I have seen the same condemnations of human pomposity and class-folly done better, and with wit and imagination, by Jack Vance.

Third, listening to anyone merely pick at the scabs of this festering hate is unpleasant at best, even when his foes and his faction are also yours. When his foes are meaningless to you, or his faction from another hemisphere, it is like listening to a crazy old lady on the bus, who is rocking back and forth, her yellow eyes unfocused, muttering about how her husband from six decades ago wronged her; and she lists his every flaw for you, even though you never met him.

Why in the world is GORMANGHAST even considered a fantasy book? How in the world did it creep into our section of the bookstore? The only element even slightly fantastical is the sheer grotesqueness of the characters, the sheer size of the giant, moldering castle.

This book personally offends me. Back in the day, back in the Time of Lin Carter, there were only a handful of fantasy books, and we all read all the same ones because that was all that there were. Somehow this ill-smelling troll was shoved in to our small and beloved circle of books, and dropped it bloated three-volume buttocks into the seat next to Hope Mirrlees, William Hope Hodgson and Lord Dunsany. I wanted to like this book because it was the only fantasy book I could find one I had finished reading XICCARPH by Clark Ashton Smith.

E.R. Eddison, Mervin Peake is not. He is not even Edgar Allan Poe.