Monday, January 19, 2009

'You Suck' — Well, Actually You're Just Disappointing

As is the case with Carl Hiaasen novels, pizza and sex, even when Christopher Moore novels are bad, they're still pretty great. His latest, You Suck: A Love Story is a sequel that picks up where 1995's Bloodsucking Fiends left off and incorporates characters and scenes from 2006's A Dirty Job. Unfortunately, in coasting off the goodwill and familiar faces from both, the book doesn't create enough on its own.

Much like Hiaasen, all Moore books hew pretty closely to a standard formula:

They're Funny
It's important to mention this because without it, people probably wouldn't be nuts for his books. Strip away all the ideas and the supernatural booty, and all his books generally provide a few genuine laugh-out-loud moments and a lot of good cynical one-liners per page. Even better, that cynicism is always the product of a jaded and weary goodhearted person, someone who's turned to the bitter line as a defense but who also wants to believe in whatever big idea comes next around the corner.

Mundane Into the Mystic
Probably the best part of all his novels is Moore's dedication to exploring an eggheaded or abstract concept through everyday people, making each book a kind of romping feel-your-way-through primer on something that interested him and that he researched. A lot of his texts seem to have an almost anthropological quality examined through the lens of wisecracking cynical modernity. A Dirty Job plumbed ideas of the folkways of death and the location of the soul. Coyote Blue tackled American Indian spiritual practices and the modern indian diaspora in America. Fluke: or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings addressed both environmentalism and the meme theory of knowledge. His best book by far, Lamb: or, The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal, is practically an informal survey text of both apocrypha studies and comparative religions, especially as regards Christianity's incorporation of eastern mystical concepts. Since the narrator invariably approaches these concepts from a genially ignorant point of view, the studious aspect is minimized, drawing in the reader relatively painlessly.

Wish Fulfillment Masculinity
I don't know where the sense of obligation to include sex scenes comes from in your average comedic airport paperback. Maybe it's that sex is very easy to make seem absurd, or maybe it's just an opportunity to look at something universally human as a way of deepening characters that, for comedy's sake, can't get too deep without sabotaging some laughs. Whatever the reason, Moore, like Hiaasen, has plenty of it in every book, and it's hard to shake the notion that the male protagonist doing the fucking is to some extent an avatar of himself. However, unlike Hiaasen, the wish-fulfillment aspect is generally a lot more fulfilling. A man crashes a plane by fucking in the cockpit; he later fucks the god of a cargo cult. Christ's buddy Biff masters tantra, and Nathan Quinn of Fluke beds a woman who's virtually immortal and flawless. While Hiaasen's crow's-footed Floridian males bed women with bodies that defy science and social probability, at least Moore's men have sex that literally defies science and slides sweatily into total impossibility.

In terms of plot structure, You Suck picks up where Bloodsucking Fiends left off. Jody is a young, flame-haired former professional turned vampire. She's just converted her boyfriend Flood*, a college-age midwestern boy, to vampirism. After escaping detection/death from Flood's supermarket co-workers (nicknamed, The Animals), the police and an ancient vampire, they now have to figure out how to live their lives both together and as supernatural beings. The problems facing them in this book include detection/death from Flood's supermarket co-workers, the police and an ancient vampire.

* — Flood's actual name is Thomas Flood, but in order to make himself seem more mysterious — he's come to San Francisco to become a great writer and to tread in the footsteps of The Beats — he's retitled himself, C. Thomas Flood. One of the great letdowns of both Fiends and Suck is that, as far as I can tell, this was never a joke about the actor C. Thomas Howell, or, if it is, Moore plays it extremely close to the vest. It's also possible that I missed a bunch of gags because C. Thomas Howell starred in either very bad movies or was far from causing the good movies he was in to be good — so why would anyone pick up the references?

Sure, he was in ET, and it was a much beloved movie for most of America, but not because most of America sits there, thinking, "Hmmm, pretty good flick about love, family, aliens and shit. But you know what blew that motherfucker right into the stratosphere?—C. Thomas. Howell. Period." Indeed, it's almost impossible to mention his name to anyone with vague pop-cultural knowledge without their immediately thinking exclusively of Soul Man — a boneheadedly awful movie where he pretended to be a black dude to get into college, and one which probably causes members of to become aroused when they watch it and think about Affirmative Action.

Also, because there's nowhere else to put this, and because I assume Wikipedia will eventually revert the edit, this is the funniest example of Wikipedia vandalism I've seen in months:


As you can imagine, what disappoints first is the very sequel aspect of the book. We've left a previous book with a resolution that is now absolutely irresolute. Like slasher movies, comic books or unimaginative romantic sit-coms, the problem we just fixed is the problem we have to fix. Again. Okay, Moore mixes it up a little and makes the plot much less of a rehash than it could have been, but it unavoidably makes you wonder what better, newer things it could have been, too.

For instance, best element of Moore's formula for his novels, the spiritually thoughtful approach to a deeper concept, is almost totally absent. Flood and Jody have to deal with vampirism and what that means for them, but it never really escapes being an interesting plot device. Apart from some hand-wringing about taking lives (which appears in the first book anyway), they could just as easily be werewolves or sentient Frankenstein monsters or X-Men. They're vampires because vampires are cool, but that's just about it. Had the hand-wringing about death not also taken place in a book immediately following A Dirty Job, perhaps the questions it raised might have seemed more profound. But coming off that excellent and very funny look at death and its ministers in the former book, this one can't help but seem a little shallower.

Which is what disappoints most: You Suck never really seems to go anywhere, and what it has to say about the place it's stuck in isn't much. It's assumed that you remember Flood and Jody from Bloodsucking Fiends and can import a lot of familiarity with their characters. More importantly, it assumes you can import a lot of sympathy for them. You Suck essentially drops you into an "And the next day..." scenario and kind of hopes that the momentum from the first book is enough to propel this one. In the absence of the mystical questions and really new plot concerns, the reader is left to ask whether he wanted to find out about the next day. Moore doesn't so much attack the burden of the sequel — that it can never match what the readers of the first book envisaged for their characters — so much as succumb to it entirely.

Granted, along the way, Moore tries to spice things up with other characters, but they just add to the problems. Abby Normal, on loan from A Dirty Job, figures fairly significantly in the story, but her presence alone makes you question the timeline. For one thing, is it 1995, as Bloodsucking Fiends would indicate, or 2007? The book she was last in took place, at least theoretically, in 2006. Moreover, she's a silly goth kid, and Moore puts her to decent comical use with her invocations of "Dark Lord Flood" and all sorts of gothisms. But mocking goth kids, especially in 2007, seems sort of like shooting small, sad fish in a barrel, even if they wanted to be shot because of their malaise. (And are there even goth kids in San Francisco anymore? There are barely any in Tampa, their last sad redoubt of cultural relevance on the American continent — sort of like the English in Calais in the 16th century.) Abby has a friend who seems to be a cross amongst Goth Dork, LARPer and WoW gamer nerd, and there really isn't a barrel small enough for that kind of person to get shot in. Moore has the kid say and do terminally lame things, but there's almost no point: Moore could have just described him once, and that would have been enough to make him a hilarious abortion of the American culture.

Also, Moore again includes his character The Emperor. A bum who speaks in diplomatic oratory and lives in alleyways, he commands an army of genial dogs and seems to know absolutely everybody in San Francisco. As a character, he's at once both charming and frustrating. To anyone who never lived in San Francisco or who never visits internet sites that like to feature strange biography, he's surely a fun and quirkily wonderful character. But to any city resident or fan of offbeat history, Moore's character can seem like a shadow of the man on whom he's based: Emperor Norton.*

Norton was an Englishman who had traveled the world, eventually settled in San Francisco, lost a great deal of money, left the city, returned, and then declared himself Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico. While "ruling" the United States, he called for an end to American political parties, the creation of a world governing body like the United Nations, a bridge across San Francisco Bay like the Bay Bridge and a tunnel across it like the BART Tunnel. In a highly illegal gesture, he issued his own currency, which was not only tolerated and went unprosecuted but also was honored by some merchants. He allegedly intervened and prevented what can only be considered a riot-cum-impromptu-pogrom against the Chinese of the city. His obituary covered the front pages of San Francisco papers, and perhaps as many as 30,000 people joined his funeral procession.

Most importantly, Norton will forever be beloved in the hearts of San Franciscans for having issued this Imperial Edict:
Whoever after due and proper warning shall be heard to utter the abominable word "Frisco", which has no linguistic or other warrant, shall be deemed guilty of a High Misdemeanor, and shall pay into the Imperial Treasury as penalty the sum of twenty-five dollars.

Norton unquestionably ranks in pantheon of wonderful historical oddballs, so it's always something of a sticking point that Moore's avatar of him pales so much in comparison. And while this might solely bug San Franciscans or history wonks in general, it should bug Moore fans, too, insofar as this book is concerned. With so much to work with, both in terms of borrowing from history or just running away with imagination, Moore relegates a relatively plot-unencumbered oddball to running errands. The Emperor functions as a messenger boy and a little bit of a plot device and not a lot more.

All of this would seem to suggest the book is bad. It's not. It's funny, as are all Christopher Moore books. Even the somewhat easy send-ups of goths and otaku teenagers elicit good laughs. It's interesting, too: good luck getting a vampire story that doesn't take itself seriously. In a literary climate where the self-important misogyny and vacuity of the Twilight series can dominate best-seller lists, many intelligent readers will find relief in vampires who manage to levitate and fuck on the ceiling, destroying furniture with orgasms and reacting to it by wondering how they are going to furnish anything.

But that doesn't diminish the drawbacks to the book. Moore's sequel lacks the momentum of the previous book on which it relies for dramaturgical oomph. Instead of running along at the pace the former novel established, it stalls out in the same territory and covers much of the same ground. And instead of going deeper into that ground philosophically, it meanders over familiar conceptual territory while waiting for outside actors to spur it along.

Those actors, too, go too unused. The Emperor's captivating nuttiness comes off like comic relief without impelling much on its own, despite the potential there. Meanwhile, Abby Normal presents little more than a vehicle for slightly dated goth jokes (to say nothing of the confusion about her place in Moore's universe's timeline) until she becomes a vehicle for an overly neat ending that appears to be a setup for yet another sequel. Even if another sequel isn't forthcoming, You Suck manages to be mostly a literary placeholder.

Rating: You Suck: A Love Story, 2.5; Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story, 3.5
Both highly recommended for fans of the comedy novel or for fans of the vampire genre who have never seriously uttered the words "dark gift" without wanting to punch themselves immediately. Both books can be read independent of the other, although You Suck will suffer for not having read Bloodsucking Fiends. The former is not recommended for those who had a specific vision of what happened to Jody and Flood at the end of Fiends. To break this down in a material way, which may be more helpful than the ambiguity of review, Fiends both deserves a purchase and a reread, while Suck might be best chanced via a library loan and purchased later depending on the reader's experience.