Monday, July 8, 2013

I bit. No dice.

I spent all four days of the U.S.-imperialist holiday weekend hunkered down in our bedroom with my wife where the air conditioner huffed and puffed and, with a fan added to the mix, kept the space bearable, in the low 80s or so. Yes at a certain point we did get cabin fever but the alternative, venturing out into the muggy smoggy high-90s air and walking somewhere, seemed worse so we stuck it out. Mostly we read. Teresa finished two books, shortish, serious. I finished one, longish, pure vacation nonsense: Red Moon by Benjamin Percy.

Red Moon is a marketer's dream. It's a big fat horror story wholly in the Stephen King/Dean Koontz mold. Yet it's also, supposedly, literary, a step above your standard scary novel. The jacket features blurbs by writers from both sides of the mass-market-vs.-literary-fiction divide, and Percy comes fully credentialed from the lit side, so you see, the idea is to appeal to everyone. OK I bit.

OK describes the novel. It's not eye-rollingly insipid. The writing is fine, yes a step above both King and Koontz who themselves are better than most of their cohort. Honestly, though, I can't work up much enthusiasm. The characters are competently wrought but no more than that. Ditto the action. I never cared much about any of it. I felt no pain, no sorrow, no fear, no tension. I did keep reading, and I'll tell you why.

There is a veneer of political relevance to Red Moon. I was mildly intrigued as I read along, curious as to what direction the politics would take. I had to read to the end to conclude that it's just a veneer. There is no actual honest engagement with actual political issues. There is certainly no side-taking. It's a glib middle-of-the-road petit-bourgeois ever-so-slight glance at relevance, that's about it. Liberalism in literary-horror form.

The werewolves in this book, and the congruent alternate history into which the werewolf plot is slotted, can be read as parallels to, variously: September 11 and the preceding U.S. funding and creation of terror groups, the Bush/Obama "war on terror" and civil liberties, anti-Muslim racism, right-wing vigilantism, anti-immigrant racism, anti-U.S.-imperialist "terrorism," left-radical activism, the 1960s anti-war movement, AIDS and AIDS activism and discrimination against people with AIDS, and I forget what-all else, forgive me, it's quite a mishmash. Pieces of the story echo pieces of these various historic realities at various points. It would be an inaccurate stretch, however, to say these pieces separately or together amount to commentary on any of these political realities. No position is taken; we're just teased along the way, with a sort of authorial wink; I guess we're just supposed to note the clever similarities and leave it at that. No, I'm wrong, there is one position taken: there are bad werewolves and good werewolves, those who want to find a way to get along in society and those who want to destroy non-werewolf society. Oh how very bold and courageous (not!). This is the essence of liberalism, crying woe at the evils of the status quo but clinging to it. This bad terrorist werewolf/good civil libertarian werewolf dichotomy, in fact, reminded me of a book I've been meaning to read for some time, and I've now begun it: Good Muslim, Bad Muslim—America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror by Mahmood Mamdani.

There's also an unfortunate though not uncommon problem regarding the national question that kept popping out as I read. With only one exception I recall, a brief scene in a cave where several minor characters are introduced with name and nationality, throughout the rest of the book whiteness is a given for every character. If a character is not white it is pointed out (in fact it's often the only thing that's pointed out); otherwise we're to assume the character is white. As in a description of several people in a crowd that goes something like: a tall man with deep laugh lines around his eyes, a stout woman with short brown hair in bright blue capri pants, and a Mexican in jeans and cowboy boots. Wow. That this is still the standard is so sad.

One other point of frustration with Red Moon. It's about the oddly faulty way the quest for a vaccine for werewolfism informs the plot. A vaccine, as is accurately explained early on, is basically a tiny dosage of a version of an infectious agent (virus, bacteria, or, fictionally here, prion) that, once introduced into a person's system, stimulates the immune system to resist it and thereby inoculates the person against any future attack by the infectious agent. It's why I get a flu shot every year (yeah I know you're agin' it, but my public-health epidemiologist super-communist comrade argues for the flu shot and I find his view convincing). OK. So a vaccine is a preventive measure. It's to prevent infection. Perfectly understandable that a key plot strand involves the search for a vaccine to prevent folks bitten by werewolves from themselves succumbing and becoming werewolves. But. Not in the least understandable, in fact perfectly nonsensical, that it seems also to be intended as a cure, which is an utterly different thing than a vaccine. And that in the novel's final pages our hetero-coupled heroes (nope, not a single same-sex-lover anywhere in sight in this 500-plus-page novel with a cast of thousands), having, against all odds, managed to get a hold of the single extant vial of vaccine, are about to administer a dose to themselves. They are already infected! It's a vaccine, not a cure! Oy, I hate it when this kind of thing undermines my readerly willingness to suspend disbelief.

Ah well. One week left till I start my vacation days. I have another fat new supposedly better-than-average horror-type book on my pile but I think I'll let it wait. Maybe it's great but probably it's not, and one non-thrill is enough for this summer.