04 July 2010

On the problem of imitation.

I recently finished the first installment in the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series, The Lightning Thief, and I liked it. I was a kid who checked out D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths from my elementary school library as often as they'd let me, and I wore out my folks' old copy of Edith Hamilton's Mythology further until I got my own copy--both books are important enough to me that I packed them in the two (OK, two and a half) boxes I limited myself to in moving to Brooklyn. So yeah, I loved the creative reimagining of ancient standbys: think my favorite was the "EZ Death" line in Hades. And Mt. Olympus having relocated to the 600th floor of the Empire State Building. (Though I found the explanation that "the gods move to the keepers of Western civilization, and that's America!" a bit over-the-top. And I'm pretty "USA! USA!")

But I couldn't give myself over to the book entirely, as I might have when I was ten or so, because my brain kept noting "Lord, what a Harry Potter ripoff." Kid leads a mostly normal life, discovers he's special, discovers secrets about his parentage, goes to special school for specialness, acquires a smart girl sidekick and goofy guy sidekick who's braver than he appears, discovers he's specialer than all the other specials...yes, a lot of this has been kid-lit standards for a long time, from plucky-orphan-makes-good days, but so much of the book is just straight-up HP echo. Even down to the fast-reading, likeable writing style.

And I'm not sure what to do with this. I mean, I honestly liked the book; it was fun despite being derivative. Is derivative always a bad thing? What if the source material is great, and it's well imitated? I remember responding to a friend who thought all early Lemonheads songs sounded the same, "Well, yes, but I like their one song, so I like all their songs." Is originality necessary for a good story? Part of me says no: there are only a few stories, that we've been telling since we harnessed fire; what keeps me in awe of mankind despite our propensity for cruelty and horror is our ability to keep retelling these stories, that are always old and always new. But then part of me reading Lightning Thief couldn't stop inwardly rolling my eyes: "Oh, Chiron the centaur is Dumbledore, obvs."

Is it just a question of time, and marketing? I also think of Justin Cronin's The Passage, which I (apparently alone among booksellers) just couldn't get into (I found the prose hopelessly leaden, the characters ill-sketched. And it's a flippin' vampire apocalypse novel--takes a lot to make me put one of those down!). I feel so much like it's a cynical ploy on the author's part, since vampires are "so hot right now"; his two previous books have been standard Iowa Writers' Workshop grad fare (there needs to be a word for this. IWW-lit?): still suffering from a fear of modifiers and multi-clause sentences. To my taste, there's no playfulness in this work. No realization and expansion of the possibilities of language and narrative. An embarrassment at the necessity of emotion, a maleness consisting of the worst stereotypes. It just sits there on the page and begs you to take it seriously.

Maybe, in fact, marketing is the central tenet of this problem. I don't get as upset about advertising as a lot of folks in my general demographic: sometimes I think, really, it's a form of public art, and fodder for discussion. (I do, however, rail at sexism in TV commercials. Every time I watch TV. I'm glad the boyfriend thinks it's cute.) But there is a bandwagon effect that worries me, because there's a desperation to it. I thought Pride & Prejudice & Zombies was great, a cultural mash-up that was funny and fresh and self-aware. (Aside: Clive Owen is the only choice to play Mr. Darcy in the movie. Only he can pull off the action star and the period piece. If he's not in it, I'm not watchin' it.) And Sense & Sensibility & Sea Monsters was great too--I actually liked it even better, because it was so damn weird. But, but, but. Now there's a fleet of imitations: Jane Slayre, Android Karenina, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and the Undead. I understand the want to get some of that sweet, sweet mash-up money. The publishers need it, and without them, no books for me to read or sell. Still, it's like hearing the one about the Irishman forgetting his wheelchair at the pub (oops, should that have had a spoiler alert?) for the nth time: it's funny, but it's really the memory of hearing it for the first time that's funny.

I know this is a ramble, and I'm not getting anywhere. I'll just end with this question, and hope for your thoughts: is liking a book enough to call it "good"?

1 comment:

  1. You know, I feel that all of the songs on Sarah MacLachlan's new cd sound the same. But dammit I LOVE her style. So I like all of them. And also, most of the songs on Brandon Boyd's (Incubus lead singer) new solo cd sound the same too. BUT I love his style. So I bought both of them, and I listen to them and I enjoy them. Therefore, I understand your point. But I think that listening to the same thing or reading a similar story will never have the deliciousness of the first song/story, the FIRST time. And that's all I have to say about that. :-)


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