Avengers: End Game

SPOILER WARNING!

A year ago, almost to the day, I offered a conjecture about how the Infinity War story would be resolved. I didn’t call it. But I must have been in the writers’ heads to an extent, because the call I made was used as a fake-out in End Game.

Last year I wrote,

One possibility is that the entire first movie actually takes place in what is, from our point of view, an alternate timeline.

Strange, to save half the sentient beings of the universe from being genocided by Thanos, had to go way back into the past and engineer a different universe from the one he was in.

That universe is the one we we think of as the real universe.

As it turns out, this isn’t how End Game is resolved. But just before the last battle of the movie, Thanos says to the good guys (I’m working from memory here),

“Before, when I killed half of all sentient beings, it wasn’t personal. But you’ve angered me so much that I’m going to kill everyone. I’m going to reduce the universe to subatomic ash, then re-build it from scratch with new, better beings.”

“They’ll be born in blood,” someone says, to which Thanos replies, “They’ll never know.”

At those lines of dialogue I was like, “Wow, I was right!”

Well, no. I didn’t call their ending, but I called their fake-out, so yeah!

Great flick, by the way. Go see it, if you’ve seen enough of the other Marvel movies to have good context. And if you haven’t, watch all the Iron Man movies, Captain America movies, and Avengers movies, then watch this one.

In a pinch, you can just watch Captain America: Winter Soldier, Captain America: Civil War, Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Avengers: Infinity War first.

The Mediæval Bæbes’ Christmas carol album, Of Kings and Angels

Just listened to this over Christmas. Overall it’s a good album. The liner notes contain the lyrics, with translations where appropriate, and notes on the carols. My listening notes:

1. I Saw Three Ships. Good.

2. We Three Kings. Good.

3. The Holly and the Ivy. Good. Note this is a different performance from the one on their album Mistletoe and Wine.

4. Ther Is No Rose of Swych Vertu. Meh at best. They should do it more up-tempo.

5. Ding Dong Merrily on High. Good.

6. The Angel Gabriel. Beautiful.

7. In the Bleak Midwinter. Good.

8. Good King Wenceslas. Ugh, unlistenable. They do stupid, pointless things with the melody, including either quarter-tones or a very bad lead singer. I didn’t finish listening to it. Regarding the quarter-tones, if that’s what they’re supposed to be, this carol was written by some English dude in the 1800s, and plainly this album is intended for an Anglospheric audience. This is the western musical tradition; stick with half-tones, puh-leaze!

9. Gaudete. The version on this album is awesome! Some delightful surprises. I could say more, but…I don’t want to ruin the surprises!

10. Once in a Royal David’s City. Good.

11. Veni Veni Emmanuel. Very nice.

12. Away in a Manger. Good.

13. In Dulci Jublio. Good. Note this is a different version from the one on Mistletoe and Wine. By the way, the lyrics are a macaronic combination of English and Latin. “Macaronic” in this context doesn’t refer to pasta; it refers to a combination of languages. A Net search reveals that the earliest known version of the lyrics – which are around 700 years old! – are a macaronic combination of German and Latin. A guy named Pearsall translated them into macaronic English and Latin in the 19th century. If the melody sounds familiar, that’s because it’s also been more loosely translated into the carol “Good Christian Men Rejoice.”

14. The Coventry Carol. This is a horrifying “carol” about King Herod slaughtering all the male infants. Yikes! I didn’t listen to it. Why would you put that on a Christmas album!?

15. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen. No! See comments on Good King Wenceslas.

16. Silent Night. Good.

17. Corpus Christi Carol. The lyrics are kind of a downer, and the singing is too physically piercing.

Solo: The Good, the Bad, and the Utterly Fuck-Witted

Well, it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting, so there’s that. One thing about this movie is that it won the battle to not set expectations too high, LOL. Still, Star Wars fatigue is now noticeably damaging the profitability of the brand.

Anyway, the plot makes little sense, but other people have ripped it to shreds more thoroughly than I can muster the interest to do, so you can find that elsewhere. I’ll just focus on a couple of things that stuck in my mind.

SPOILER WARNING.

(1) Our hero has a love interest, from whom he’s forcibly separated by the Empire near the start of the movie. (Her name’s Kira, so of course they spell it Qi’ra.) Three years later, he just happens to run into her, on another planet. Gah! FUCKING SERIOUSLY!? Given that the human population on all the planets of the galaxy must be in the trillions? This is extremely intelligence-insulting. And it’s bad, lazy writing. If you want them to meet each other again, have at least one of them trying to meet the other. That way the meeting is plausible because it’s the outcome of intention, not a one-in-trillions coincidence. (FUCK!)

You have to see the movie to believe how purely coincidental this is. They don’t even try to present it as anything else.

(2) There’s a giant space octopus (yes) that tries to eat the Millennium Falcon. It lives near a “gravity well” (a black hole-type thingy) which they eventually use to kill it. They lure it into getting too close, so it gets sucked in.

Giant space octopus.

If I were inclined to be generous, I would guess that this is an attempt at some sorta classical allusion – to Scylla and Charybdis – but I’m not really so inclined. Anyway, as someone once said, for your metaphors/allusions/etc. to function well as metaphors/allusions/etc., they first have to just function on a literal level. I can’t appreciate your allusion to Scylla and Charybdis if I’m laughing my ass off at “giant space octopus.” Especially “giant space octopus retarded enough to live near a huge sucking space vacuum that can kill it.”

(3) and (4) Good fan service and bad fan service.

Good fan service: the Han shoots first thing. This is pretty deftly done. What happens is that near the end of the movie, a bad guy is doing some monologing at Han while slyly reaching for a weapon. Han just shoots him down, without warning, while he’s in mid-sentence. LOL. Excellent, great little moment. The reason this works is of course the general irritation over George Lucas going back and retconning the Cantina scene in the original movie to have Greedo shoot first and Han shoot second. The implicit reference to that mini-controversy is nicely done.

Bad fan service: the Darth Maul callback. My God, but this was retarded. Here’s what happens: Our hero’s erstwhile love interest – the one he just happens to run into on another planet years after they’re separated – is a member of a criminal organization. After the original organization leader is killed, she uses his special communications rig to contact his boss (i.e. her late boss’s boss). This turns out to be Darth Maul, for fuck’s sake.

Now if you recall The Phantom Menace, you recall that Darth Maul was dispatched in the thoroughly terminal way of being literally cut in half, before being pushed over the edge of a mile-deep industrial tube. (Which didn’t have any safety railing around it. It’s just there in the middle of the floor. Man, there are a lot of those in the Star Wars universe. They need to work on safety codes.) I don’t see ya comin’ back from that one, poochy. But in the cartoon series that started airing a few years back on Cartoon Network or SyFy or whatever, they brought him back, now with the New! Bonus! of a cyborg lower half. Sigh. The retardation continues. Anyway…

Because the mere fact of his continued existence wasn’t moronic enough, they have him do the following: Han’s former girlfriend calls him up on her new cell phone. He answers, uses the force to summon his lightsaber, ignites it, says a few sentences, then turns it off again and the conversation ends. THERE. IS. NO. FUCKING. REASON. FOR. THIS. If you haven’t seen the movie, you might think, “Oh, so he threatens her into being a compliant subordinate, and emphasizes his threat by firing up his saber. For example, maybe he ignites the saber, says, ‘You know what happens to people who cross me,’ and then de-ignites it.”

Nope. That would actually make sense. You can’t think that way with the last few Star Wars movies. If they think the fanboys want to see Maul blaze up his saber, then they’re going to have him do that. The thought process stops there. It doesn’t even occur to them to add a line of dialogue to make that make sense. Whoever they have writing scripts these days, it’s all about spectacle with them. Cause, effect, purpose, motivation, etc. …these aren’t concepts in the writers’ heads.

By the way, if they can bring Maul back, do you think Han Solo, after Episode 7, is really dead? They left that one conveniently open, didn’t they? But Harrison Ford is almost certainly too shrewd to associate himself with any more of the recent idiocy, so they probably won’t get any love if they ask him to come back for Episode 9. One may hope.

Review of The Departed

I just saw the 2006 movie The Departed. Initial reaction: Wow, that was awesome!

But the more I think about it, the more I notice serious problems with the plot, as follows.

SPOILER WARNING.

The setup: Boston. The cops and criminals are infiltrating each other:

• Frank Costello (played by Jack Nicholson) is the main bad guy, an absolutely cold-blood killer and all-around psycho. To go undercover in his gang, the cops use…
• William Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio).
• Costigan’s police handlers are Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Dignam (Mark Wahlberg). For operational security, they’re the only two people in the world who know that Costigan’s an undercover cop.
• While the cops are infiltrating Costello’s gang, Costello’s gang is infiltrating the cops. Costello’s mole is Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon).

Summarizing:
Bad guys: Costello, Sullivan.
Good guys: Mainly Costigan, with a side helping of Queenan and Dignam.

Now the plot problems:

1. Costello goes to a lot of trouble to find out if there’s a mole in his gang. This causes tension because he’ll kill Costigan if he learns Costigan’s the mole. But Costello is eventually revealed to be a protected FBI informant (I told you there would be spoilers!). Given that, why the hell does he care if there’s a rat in his gang? He’s untouchable!

2. Furthermore, if he’s a protected FBI informant, then why did he bother to place a mole in the local police? Again, he’s untouchable! Maybe Costello planted the mole in the cops before he became an informant, but if so, that should be mentioned.

3. Costigan assembles a record as a petty criminal as part of his undercover persona. He even spends time in prison. When he gets out, as part of the terms of his probation, has to talk to a psychiatrist on a regular basis. (Remember, no one in the world except Queenan and Dignam knows he’s an undercover cop. The rest of the justice system thinks he’s just another petty criminal.)

This psychiatrist turns out to be… Madolyn Madden, a woman whom Sullivan just happens to be dating. Oh, come on! What are the odds? Especially since she’s a police psychiatrist. Why would they assign a criminal to a police psychiatrist, of all the psychiatrists in Boston? There are all kinds of ethics and operational security issues there! Just imagine the potential for accidental leaks of police matters to criminals and whatnot! She’s exactly the last psychiatrist they’d assign to a criminal on probation.

By the way, a psychiatrist who’s basically named Mad Maddie? Are they trying to say something about her? There is something a little off about her. In particular, she seems to get a thrill from, or at least be excessively attached to, lying.

4. When Queenan is killed by bad guys, Dignam is the only person in the world who knows that Costigan is an undercover cop. Later Dignam is removed from the situation because he slugs another cop. His punishment is two weeks’ disciplinary leave, and we’re supposed to believe this is a disaster for Costigan because now no active-duty cop knows who he really is. But big deal! All Costigan has to do is wait this out for two weeks.

Later it’s stated that Dignam “handed in his papers” and he may be on indefinite leave. It’s hard to tell. But this doesn’t make sense either. He’d tell some other cop(s) about Costigan; he wouldn’t just leave Costigan hanging.

5. Near the end, Costigan and Sullivan are talking in Sullivan’s office and Sullivan has to step out for a moment. Costigan notices a damning envelope on Sullivan’s desk, revealing that Sullivan is Costello’s mole inside the police. What happens next makes no fucking sense. Costigan sloppily replaces the envelope, so it’s obviously been handled, and leaves! WTF!? That’s basically a flashing red sign telling Sullivan that Costigan knows he’s a mole. Why the fuck would Costigan do that? The only living cop who knows Costigan was undercover is gone for a couple of weeks. And Sullivan, who Costigan now knows is a bad guy, has access to his police file and can erase it, thus rendering Costigan, as far as anyone knows, just another petty criminal. And Costigan knows all this! Why would he let Sullivan know that he knows Sullivan’s a bad guy? Especially since…

All Costigan has to do is wait until Dignam comes back from disciplinary leave. Then Costigan can rat out Sullivan to Dignam, they can arrest him, and there’s someone who knows that Costigan’s actually a cop. What Costigan does just doesn’t make any sense from his point of view. All he has to do is carefully replace the envelope, remain in the room until Sullivan comes back, and then keep acting normal.

And the consequences of tipping his hand turn out to be disastrous for him.

6. There’s no reason for Madolyn to be in the movie. She has no effect on anything. I suspect they wanted to have at least one major female character. But this compromises the tightness of the story.

7. This isn’t an internal inconsistency in the plot, but it’s unsatisfying: The only reason that Our Hero Costigan affects anything is that he accidentally and without realizing it reveals some important info to another character.

Here’s what happens: Costigan meets with Captain Queenan, one of his handlers, in a meeting that both the other cops (who think Costigan’s a criminal, remember) and Costello’s gang find out about. They all rush to the meeting location, and in the ensuing violent chaos Costigan escapes without being made by anyone, but Queenan is killed by Costello’s gang.

As a result of that, there is of course a murder case regarding Queenan, and Sullivan is sifting through the evidence when he finds some of Queenan’s notes about how Costello is an FBI informant. (By the way, why the fuck is Queenan trying to bring down Costello if he knows he’s a protected informant?) Sullivan is enraged and he kills Costello over this.

So the only effect that our hero has on the outcome is the accidental byproduct of a murder investigation accidentally turning up some evidence that makes Costello’s own guy kill him. WTF? That’s not satisfying! The main character should affect something important by intent, not just due to, as it were, accidentally bumping into furniture in the dark.

There’s a lot of tension while the movie is running, and a lot of fireworks and “Oh, shit!” moments, but the more you think about it after it’s over, the more you’re like, “This plot made… no… fucking… sense.” Warn the people! Warn the people!

The critics loved this movie, by the way, which tells you that they had the same reaction that I initially had, but didn’t take the time to think it over more carefully before they wrote their reviews. That’s the problem with writing on a deadline, I guess. BLOGGERS: Thinking the Deep Thoughts the mainstream media can’t!

Review of The Forever War

The Forever War (The Forever War, #1)The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interesting SF book that takes relativistic time dilation seriously, instead of trying to get around it with “hyperspace,” “subspace”, “N-space,” etc. While there are wormholes in the fictional physics, they only exist in collapsars, so are not a general way around Einsteinian physics. The time dilation effect is used well because it allows the narrator to encounter a series of increasingly alien Earth cultures, as the people back home change much faster than he ages.

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Review of The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

The Rook (The Checquy Files, #1)The Rook by Daniel O’Malley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dear you,
The body you are wearing used to be mine.

So begins The Rook by Daniel O’Malley. The best things about this book are that it gets off to a good start, the setting is great (lots of interesting supernatural threats), and the amnesia plot line is handled well.

Amnesia plots have been done before, of course, so what matters in this day and age is how such a plot is executed. O’Malley executes it well, IMHO. One reason is that he handles the pacing well. That first sentence rockets you off on the journey. The second reason is that due to magical prophecies, the original version of the heroine, Myfanwy Thomas, knew she was going to lose her memory before she actually lost it. This allows her to leave helpful notes for her new self, something I’ve never seen done before in an amnesia story. You might think these notes would make it too easy for the new Myfanwy to cope with her challenges, but it’s not so, principally because she is a member of a top-secret organization – the Checquy – that deals with a bewildering profusion of supernatural threats to the UK in particular and the world in general. Dragons, sentient mind-reading mold (yes, sentient mind-reading mold), teleporters, distributed hive minds, vampires (wheat-market-manipulating and non-wheat-market-manipulating), future-foretelling ducks, etc.

A few reviewers have objected to “infodumps” that the original Myfanwy has left in the form of those explanatory notes for her future self. These notes didn’t bug me in the least, and I never had a feeling of being subjected to infodumps. In fact, it didn’t occur to me to notice any “infodumps” until I skimmed a couple of other people’s reviews after I’d finished the novel. What they really are is clues in a murder mystery.

Some minor deficiencies:

An American character who works for the U.S. analogue of the Checquy is introduced around Ch 15. She has no essential role in the story and I wonder, in retrospect, why she was included.

Also around Ch 15, the style decays suddenly and mysteriously. Dialogue suddenly becomes clunky, though this has not happened noticeably before that point. E.g., dialogue might contain unnecessary and/or silly attributions. Here’s a (made-up) example:

“I’ll hate you forever!” Jane said angrily.

The “angrily” is redundant, of course. This could simply be,

“I’ll hate you forever!” Jane shouted.

Or even just

“I’ll hate you forever!”

if it’s clear from context who’s speaking.

The verb “snapped” is also used profligately. This is an over-used verb in modern dialogue. People don’t actually snap at each other that often, and generally when they do in fiction, the words themselves, perhaps with an accompanying exclamation point, can usually convey the snapping without the author having to belabor the point. E.g.,

“Don’t touch my coffee cup!”

No “he snapped” is necessary.

Speaking of dialogue, commas that are usually present in English-language fiction are absent in much of this book. E.g., consider

“Call the police,” Jane said.

The comma just after “police” is standard in English-language dialogue. But it is absent in many lines of dialogue in Rook. So we get

“Call the police” Jane said.

which is jarring to the reader’s eye. Is this an error by an inexperienced copy-editor, or is the publisher trying to save money on ink by eliminating commas?

But overall, The Rook is a fun “summer read,” as people say, and I can recommend it on those grounds, though not on “this is a classic for the ages” grounds.

Miscellany:

There are a lot of characters, and they have a bedazzling array of supernatural abilities. It’s kind of like X-Men meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer meets The Bourne Identity. Page 123 (of the hardcover edition I read) has a list of all the people at the Court, which is the governing body of the Checquy. I referred to that list frequently after that point, and I suggest you bookmark it when you come to it for easy reference later.

I hope that in the sequel, which I am certainly going to read, the original Myfanwy Thomas is revived and melds with her new personality. Otherwise we have a murder that is not sufficiently avenged. After all, your memories, personality and skills, etc., are you. When those were destroyed, the original Myfanwy Thomas was killed. Not metaphorically killed, literally killed. (This novel is a murder mystery as well as lots of other things.) I want not only revenge, but the original murdered girl to be reanimated to do the avenging. Here’s hoping.

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Review of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, by John Fowles

After I posted a brief review of The French Lieutenant’s Woman at GoodReads, GoodReads created some html and suggested that I copy and paste it into my web site, so I’m trying it out. Let’s see what this mysterious html does, here goes:

The French Lieutenant's WomanThe French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A rather odd novel. It’s historical dramatic fiction set in the late 19th century in England, written with touches of 20th-century meta-fiction. It seems the author was unable to decide what it is, so it ends up being neither fish nor fowl.

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Review of Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge

Meh. This novel has virtues and flaws that are typical of Vinge.

Chief among the flaws is that there are too many characters. They’re hard to keep track of. Also, Vinge indulges in a fascination with technology to the extent that the plot is overshadowed. Yes, this is a standard hazard with science fiction, but for precisely that reason a professional SF writer should be on guard for it. These first two problems create a third: the pacing suffers.

The virtues I’ll get to later, but other things first.

The setting. In the future, everything is wired. You can see in the dark because the world is littered with cameras that are beaming out IR and UV and routing what they see to your wearable computer, which routes the info to your computerized contact lenses. You can see through walls in the same way. You can walk heedlessly into traffic on a busy superhighway with no danger, because every car is computer-controlled, and they, with superhuman speed, alter their paths around you. You can dance in realtime with people on the other side of the planet. Etc.

This is all very cool… if one doesn’t think about the Orwellian aspects: the government knows everything you’re doing all the time. Indeed, it’s illegal to have any IT that lacks a Department of Homeland Security monitoring/ controlling chip.

Biotech and nanotech are also very advanced, which takes us to…

The plot. As the book opens, someone – no one knows who – has invented biotechnology that lets them manipulate other people’s beliefs and behavior, as in, “We’ll rearrange their neural structures to make them believe anything we tell them.” That ain’t good.

A union of intelligence agencies in Europe and Asia traces this tech to a lab at the University of California’s San Diego campus. They want to infiltrate the lab to learn who developed this tech and, more importantly, destroy it. However, to avoid conflict – this is espionage by foreign powers on US soil – they plan to work through a cutout.

The cutout is Rabbit, a virtual presence who takes the form of, well, guess. They don’t know who Rabbit really is; they don’t even know if it’s a person, a business organization, a government actor, a consortium of several such entities, or what. All they know is that “he” has a good record of past computer thefts, pranks, etc., and he’s never been caught.

Rabbit doesn’t really know what he’s helping them to acquire, and two of the three intelligence operatives don’t either – they’re all being manipulated by the third one. The third one, a director of a European intelligence operation, wants to acquire the new tech instead of destroy it.

There is a separate set of people who live near the U. Cal. San Diego campus who are manipulated into acting as the on-scene hands of the infiltration operation. This set of people is too large to conveniently describe. They all have different desires, and are promised different things by the espionage consortium, to elicit their cooperation. This is where Vinge’s lack of self-discipline with the number of characters really hurts. I’ll spare you.

After a lot of slow development that makes it a chore to read, everything comes to a head one night on the U. Cal. San Diego campus. The espionage group executes a raid on the biolab. The group has arranged for a riot to occur that night to distract campus security and cause general chaos to provide cover for the raid.

The riot takes the form of a clash between two groups of fiction fans contending (mostly non-violently) over the fate of the campus library. The library’s fate is uncertain because all its printed material is being transferred to digital formats; there is conflict over what to do with the ’brary after the transition is complete.

There is a cool scene during the riot, in which the active stabilization hydraulics that are used to earthquake-proof the library are taken over by some hacker. They use it to make the library get up and walk. This is absurd, obviously, but it’s a cool image. Here is a photo of the UCSD campus library, described accurately by Vinge, and yeah, it would be cool to see that thing striding around, looking like an alien explorer-bot freestylin’ around on Earth until the Mother Ship lands to take it back.

In the end the attempt to acquire the bad biotech is defeated and the tech is mostly destroyed. A little of it is preserved inside the brains of lab mice, some of whom escape into the wild during the riot, but as far as we know that never leads anywhere. (20 years later: “I feel compelled to provide cheese to random mice. Why am I doing this?”)

The novel does have some virtues, to wit:
1) A few cool scenes like the library walking.
2) The rioting fictional groups, Skootchies and Hacekians. They take their costumes from various works of fiction, mostly in the form of fanciful beasts, warriors, aliens, monsters, etc.
3) Rabbit is an amusing character, who perhaps should have been given more “screen time,” but… at the end we are still unaware of what it actually is! I think this is because the two most interesting possibilities, AI and ETs, have been used by Vinge before. In True Names, he first hinted that a mysterious hacker was an alien, before revealing that it was actually (human-created) AI. So there’s an interesting pair of possibilities, both of which Vinge had already used, and he didn’t want to repeat himself. So what does he do? He refuses to solve the riddle! Gah! Vinge!

In the end, essentially nothing in this fictional world has changed. People have some fun memories of creative rioting and a walking library, but otherwise everything is pretty much as it was before.

This defies one of the principal desiderata of the novel as a literary form: that a situation and/or a character change so that in the end, the world, or at least the protagonist’s personal world, is different. Even in the “save the world from blowing up” genre, it should not be that the only thing that happens is that the world is in peril but then is saved. The hero/heroine should have learned something, or achieved something personal, along the way. Or the world should be at a new equilibrium, as in, “Double-Oh-Seven, the world has now had three narrowly-averted disasters involving ketchup, guitar strings, and snowboards, and this last one was the worst of all. This has caused us to establish a multinational Ketchup, Guitar String, and Snowboard Task Force, such that this peril will never threaten the world again! We’re safe!” In other words, the planet is in a new, better situation compared to the start of the novel.

So at the end of Rainbows End, we’re right where we started. Yeah, we saw some cool implications of a thoroughly-wired world along the way, but… that’s not really enough.

Wow, Hemingway Sux

Review of A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway.

Astoundingly bad. I read most of the first chapter, then the first paragraph of the second chapter, then discarded the book. If an author can’t prove himself minimally competent after a chapter, to hell with him. Really, a medium-length paragraph should suffice to demonstrate competence.

I shall provide some examples from this… thing. Normally I focus, not on the details of word choice, but on higher-level aspects of a novel such as plot, characterization, pacing, theme, and so forth. The details of the writing are of secondary importance (generally speaking) and are often given far too much attention in critical commentary. However: the details of word choice are a minimum condition for an author to be a good writer. If you can’t write an English sentence that doesn’t call attention to itself with its horrible, strained awkwardness, you can’t be a novelist. Not in my universe, anyway.

Alas, here is the first paragraph of the “novel” (you have to put that word in quotes when you’re talking about garbage of this appalling quality). The really bad part is the last sentence, but I have to include the entire paragraph, because if I just inflicted the last sentence on you, you might suspect that it reads better in context. Actually, it reads worse in context, as I will explain in a moment. You know you’re got a bad writer on your hands when ripping passages out of context actually improves them. Anyway, here is the first paragraph:

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

God, how astoundingly bad! You have to be trying to write badly to produce sequences of words this disgusting. One should read this only through leaded glass, and with trained medical professionals standing by.

As to why the last “sentence” would be better out of context: Note that we’re told about the fucking soldiers marching three times in this paragraph. It’s not merely redundant; it’s ludicrously redundant. However, if you read the last sentence out of context, you’d only encounter the marching soldiers twice, so the redundancy would be moderated. A similar point is true of the leaves. Enough with the fucking leaves, you weirdo! What, do you have a leaf fetish or something? Or it is a dust fetish? Damn, that’s bad. I mean, how bad does your writing have to be for it to be improved by being stripped of context?

Here it is again, with some of my thought processes while reading. I can’t include all my critical thoughts because it would quadruple the length of the paragraph:

In the late summer of that year [God, just stop! What year!? Seven words in and I’m already irritated. If you’re not going to tell us the year, then why not just say, “In the late summer”?] we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun [Why the fuck are you telling me this? Also, how can a river bed be dry? Is it seasonally dry? Like there’s only water during the spring runoff from the mountains?], and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. [If the water is running swiftly, and deep enough to appear blue, it’s presumably not the dry season. If it is, we need this explained. Overall assessment: WTF?] Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. [Brace yourself; here comes the monster:] The trunks of the trees too were dusty [Yes, obviously the dust would cover whatever it touches. We get that.] and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road [You already mentioned that.] and the dust rising and leaves [Already mentioned, thanks.], stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching [FUCK! Third time you’ve mentioned them!] and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

Not to be judgmental, but God, that’s bad. Wait, that is judgmental. Oh well. And I love that last “except for the leaves.” LOL. He’s pretending we need to know that “except for the leaves.” As if it has any real purpose there. Is this supposed to be profound or something? The road was bare… Except for the leaves, man. EXCEPT FOR THE LEAVES!

But if you think that’s bad, try the second sentence of the second chapter. You might want to take a shot of vodka first. Ready? Here we go:

The mountain that was beyond the valley and the hillside where the chestnut forest grew was captured and there were victories beyond the plain on the plateau to the south and we crossed the river in August and lived in a house in Gorizia that had a fountain and many thick shady trees in a walled garden and a wisteria vine purple on the side of the house.

Yes, that’s one sentence. Fuck, that’s bad. Now what’s wrong with it? Actually, you already know what’s wrong with it – it’s (1) incoherent garbage and (2) breathtakingly pretentious – but it’s worth dwelling on a little. A sentence is basically one complete thought. (This is a simplification that’s good enough for my purpose here.) If it meanders all over the place, it’s a bad sentence. (Unless the author knows what s/he is doing and does it with a clear reason in mind. But plainly that’s not what’s going on with this sentence.) Now as I said, I usually don’t focus on the sentence level in reading a novel, but that’s because most novelists can write good sentences. Their sentences aren’t so bad that they force you to spend time diagnosing their deficiencies. The rule of thumb is that you should not focus on individual sentences for the same reason you don’t focus on the workings of your refrigerator: Because these things are supposed to function so well that you don’t have to think about them. You only think about the workings of your refrigerator when it stops working. So it is with Hemingway and individual sentences. They call attention to themselves and force us to talk about them because they’re so very bad.

To continue: What’s wrong with that sentence is that it attempts to contain more than one thought. Hemingway rambles from military victories to a house where he lived to the fact that it had a fountain, to the color of certain flowers in the garden. These things are not connected to each other. In fact, the only thing I can think of that would excuse this writing is that the narrator is supposed to be mentally damaged, and so this incoherent stream of thoughts is deliberately incoherent. I am going to make a mental note to look this up after I finish writing this review. It would go a long way – though not all the way – to justifying this horrible writing. The reason it wouldn’t go all the way to excusing the clunkiness is that the narrator’s mental deficiencies should be established before we get too far into the novel. We shouldn’t have to wonder why the prose is so very bad; we shouldn’t have to imagine possible excuses for the author. It is the author’s job to make the situation clear with reasonable alacrity.

It needn’t be totally clear at the outset. Some hints that the narrator is not mentally normal would suffice at first. Some obviously misspelled words, or a reference to having been institutionalized, or a reference to a nurse that insisted on the narrator eating his meals on time. Something, for God’s sake, to allay our fears about the garbage we are reading. In fact, subtle hints, applied correctly, can be more interesting than an explicit revelation at the start. E.g., it might gradually unfold that the narrator used to be mentally normal, but sustained an injury in the war that has damaged his mind. That would be tragic, but would certainly help to make the point that war is bad, etc. (I’m assuming here that Hemingway actually has a point. I have nothing to go on other than the novel’s title, which suggests it may be thematically anti-war.) I find myself hoping that this is in fact what’s going on, because if it’s not, I’m hard-pressed to explain the cult of Hemingway other than as a deliberate joke by the world’s literary establishment on the rest of us.
[LATER: I’ve checked various summaries, and there’s nothing about the narrator being brain damaged. So the writing IS actually as bad as it seems at first! God!]

A good test of whether something SUX is to ask yourself this: If it came out that the whole thing was an Emperor’s New Clothes joke on the world, how would you feel about it? Would you say, “Wow, that was really subtle; I’m not ashamed that I fell for it.” Or would you say, “Damn it, I always thought that was BS; why didn’t I call it out?” (If you see something, say something!) If your answer is the second one, you have good grounds for suspicion that it is, in fact, just BS.

In the movie Housesitter there’s a scene in which a con woman improvises some BS. Later, one of her friends says, “Wow! You’re a genius. You’re like the Ernest Hemingway of bullshit!” To which I respond, no, that title’s already taken; Ernest Hemingway was the Ernest Hemingway of bullshit.