Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Dexter's Depressingly Didactic Dullfest

Like a lot of people, I enjoy Showtime's original series about a quasi-virtuous serial killer, Dexter. Also, like a lot of people, I enjoy turning my brain off, picking up a book full of two-dimensional characters entertainingly gettin' it on, maybe fuckin' some dudes up and generally going yaaaaaahhhh!!!!! and doing cool shit I could never do. Dexter in the Dark, the second sequel to the book on which the Showtime series is based, doesn't do any of this well, if at all.

The book deserves a full evisceration but lacks enough meat on its bones for that kind of dissection. The trouble with picking up a fluff book to pass the time is that, if it turns out to be bad, the reasons why are likewise fluffy, vague or indeterminate. Author Jeff Lindsay, perhaps on cruise control (I haven't read the previous books) or perhaps having no control to begin with, serves up a narrative that succeeds best in not engaging really anything worth serious consideration.

The book's core premise centers on Dexter's mythical "dark passenger," which existed for untold years before inhabiting the bodies of humans and finding tangible means of doing evil via mayhem and murder. What, in the Showtime series, is presented as more of a metaphysical condition or a psychological malady — i.e., "Is Dexter's dark passenger a permanent social/psychological/chemical affliction that he has personified in order to absolve himself of guilt or rationalize his shame? Is his evil from and of him or something created by accidental conditioning?" — is here presented as an enduring and immortal god.

It's The Invisible Hand of the Market, the Lord working in mysterious ways. It's, "A Wizard Did it." It's not actually interesting.

Not only does this choice reduce Dexter's repellent impulses to something other, something beyond him, but Lindsay reveals the internal monologue and the history of the entity itself in a series of hackneyed "timeless perspectived" italicized chapters or chapter subsections. It's hardly an exaggeration to say that the entity's character and presentation reads like bad Ann Rice fan-fiction for the worst Ann Rice books. Picture the inane vampire gods in Queen of the Damned. Worse, if you've read Rice's "Vampire Chronicles," it's almost impossible to read Lindsay's god-entity passages without expecting them to break into

Bad fiction is one thing; you wouldn't pick up the book expecting anything else. But bad riffs of famously bad fiction come off as an insult to anybody who had six bucks for the book and didn't have the good fortune to find its cover folded and spine broken on some free table or Goodwill shelf.

There are other problems with the book. While the dialogue is reasonably snappy at points, especially in terms of Dexter's mordant inward asides, it's not too difficult to be the master of witty one-liners when you, the author, also pen the set-up lines. The rest of the prose wants for any redeeming feature. Arguably most awful is the always abusive ambition for all-encompassing alliteration. Dexter divides his decimals. Dexter devours a davenport sofa. Dexter declaims his delicate demi-glace as delicious.

Punch me perforce in the penis.

You can tell that Lindsay wants very much to obscure the mysticism of "dark passengers" and Dexter's true station along a moral spectrum, and for that he attempts something like unreliable narration. These attempts usually feature Dexter declaring (great, now I'm doing it), "But I do this because I'm an evil person... OR AM I???" Cue surprising Hammond organ blast, fadeout.

These attempts at ambiguity elsewhere get undermined by Dexter's zinger-like ability to immediately peg other people and their behavioral motives, his perfect certitude in describing anything other than his morality and, of course, the absolving presence of some external entity to which is owed the ultimate confidence of (and in) evil. Given that, the mild "but am I really this bad???" introspection reads like a feeble afterthought or editor's suggestion of "vague-ing it up for, like, depth and shit" that Lindsay felt compelled to paste into every passage that showed up on a FIND/REPLACE search for the word "evil."

Much of this could probably be forgivable if Lindsay didn't attempt to swaddle his literary pig with the verbal equivalent of a crêpe-strewn prom dress. If a word is not an article, Lindsay seems pathologically afraid of repeating it within the same paragraph. In the first sentence, it's "work." In the second, it's "submitting to servitude." These attempts at filigree become wearisome with surprising speed, but they also expose a deeper flaw.

Lindsay lacks the ability to show without telling. Even when he writes something like, "I tried to flare open my red-rimmed eyes with the steam from a Starbucks' venti," he immediately follows it with a comma and the words, "because I was so exhausted." Sometimes he mixes up this formula by telling and then showing. Still other times he hits the trifecta by including exposition reiterating what you've just read:
I tried to flare open my red-rimmed eyes with the steam from a Starbucks' venti, because I was so tired from chasing the crony of a long-dead god all over Miami before he drove his car into a canal, escaping me and making me file this report on him, which I am filling out now. Also, my name is Dexter, and I kill people.
It takes a certain tenacity to rob a serial killer of all guile, mystery and the faint whiff of sexual danger, but Lindsay subsides to the occasion.

Dexter in the Dark barely qualifies as entertaining airplane fare. At the risk of undermining my own point, I'll confess that I read it in bed while on painkillers for cracked ribs, and even in that woozy state, I had difficulty mustering a sense of enjoyment. Despite being nearly supine, I endured the knocking-the-wind-out-of-you rattling intake of breath that comes from sitting up with cracked ribs, weaved into the other room and dug out a copy of Harper's to read instead.

Yeah, I read Harper's. But what does it tell you that another 6,000-word essay on the total ruination of the American experience — beyond hope of redemption in our lifetimes — grabbed me better and harder than a book about someone who kills people, fights some sort of god and (potentially) has sex?

It should tell you to read something else.

Rating: 1
Even if you were someone who's nursed a lifelong desire for vengeance against me, "proving me wrong" still wouldn't be a strong enough motive to actually read this book.