Saturday, May 21, 2011

Enigmatic Pilot

Everything truly dangerous is afraid of itself, and cannot resist a mirror
- The Narrator

           Constant readers of this blog doubtless know that I am a big fan of the works of Kris Saknussemm. My very first review was nothing short of glowing, and Zanesville, while flawed, was a fantastic debut novel. That this is the case makes it hurt even more that he has managed to disappoint me in such a manner with his current book. When I heard it was coming out in March, I was nothing less than overjoyed. That joy only grew when I found out he was doing it as a prequel to Zanesville, which meant in all likelihood that the same irreverent, gonzo tone that I'd found so endearing the first time around. When I finally interlibrary loaned the book and brought it home, I settled down to read it and was promptly so disappointed that I threw the damn book across the room.
           I don't know what I was expecting, but a limp, quasi-historical steampunk book was just about the last thing on my mind. The book starts off in the middle of a civil war reconnaissance mission, which ends with a strange figure bearing the familiar wheelbarrow-and-fire symbol of the good guys throwing a blanket across the sky and performing other strange, unsettling tricks. Then we jump to Zanesville, Ohio in the mid-1800s, and the events of the prologue (while they hint at the strange figure on the battlefield being Lloyd) are never mentioned again. The book follows the strange messianic figure from Zanesville, Lloyd Meadhorn Sitturd, a mechanical and scientific genius even at age six, during his youth. Lloyd and his family get a message from an uncle in Texas, telling them that they're needed. Because a free black family in Antebellum Ohio doesn't go over too well, they jump at the offer and set off on a riverboat towards the town of Freedom. On the way, Lloyd meets an unsettling cast of characters, all of whom want to use his gifts for their own ends, and many of whom are more dangerous than they first appear. It plays out as a coming of age story with one final twist that I have to admit, was kind of surprising and cool. But overall, I couldn't stand this book.
            I suppose my problem with it is multi-part. The first of these would be that it just doesn't match the same out-there tone of his other work. Where Zanesville was a black comedy in fun-house colors and Private Midnight was James Ellroy on bad acid, both very much insane and yet entirely acceptable in their own way, Enigmatic Pilot felt like Saknussemm trying and failing to restrain write something fairly conventional and still having odd elements here and there. Were this anyone else, or were it a first novel, then I'd praise it. But once again, as with Richard Kadrey, I know Saknussemm can do so much better and he just doesn't. This feels like someone trying to emulate Saknussemm, or even Tim Powers, and not really getting it. In fact, this feels like someone going on a steampunk binge, then an American history binge, and then trying to write a novel combining it all together. While there are some cool ideas, including the music-box people and the character of St. Ives (a gambler with the steampunk equivalent of a bionic hand), there just isn't enough to hold my attention for three hundred pages.
           Which leads me right to my next problem. In a book about people travelling across the country, things tend to stop with almost astonishing regularity. Each section of the book spends a significant amount of time in one of the cities that the Sitturds stop in, most of the time because it's significant to Lloyd's development, and occasionally because there's something important to the plot that goes on there. What's supposed to happen is a frantic chase from city to city as they get driven to the next location and must contend with the dangers and whatnot there. What happens instead is a halting narrative where the cool ideas collapse under the groaning and lethargic nature of the plot. Despite the occasional threat of two ancient conspiracies (both who want Lloyd because of his massive intellect and abilities), the plot and indeed Lloyd's development as a result are in no hurry to get anywhere. For all the time it took, you would think the book would get to Texas by the end, at least to set up the next book (this having been billed as a series, after all)
            But no. While by the end, there are some interesting dream sequences (or are they?) and one of the best final lines I've had in a book, they never get to Texas. In fact, there isn't even a real ending to the book. It just stops short of answering any questions. Now, while before I'd be willing to forgive Saknussemm for such a thing, that a book like this ambles along without giving us any idea of what's going on and doesn't even include a payoff is just unacceptable. Books can have no ending, but the non-ending has to occur organically. If your plot just stops and shrugs and goes "that's it, that's the end of that", then I can't condone it. 
           Finally, the book explains mysteries that never needed to be explained to begin with. I think this is the most egregious of its sins. Part of the fun of Zanesville was the mystery surrounding the protagonist and his origins. Now that the mysterious benefactor/god figure of the last book has been laid out in perfect, pretty detail in front of us, it's kind of pointless. If you know everything about the story, if all the mysteries are solved and very few new ones introduced, it's just kind of sad. For example, knowing that Vitessa (from Zanesville) is not only an evil corporation, but has existed since the eighteen hundreds and is run by an ancient conspiracy that might be from another dimension only serves to further distance this book from its predecessor. Part of this is the curse of the prequel...that any prequel to a work will only raise questions and explain things that don't need to be explained. And part of this is just the annoying nature of the book.
          So while there are bright spots, give this one a miss. It's a sad misstep from the previous nuts books. While I still look forward to anything Kris Saknussemm does, this is just disappointing and definitely not worth your time.

Still to come:

- Tim Dorsey's Electric Barracuda
- Jeffrey Ford's The Physiognomy
- Tim Powers's On Stranger Tides
- And when I can fit it in, a new "doorstopper" series with Thomas Pynchon's classic novel Gravity's Rainbow 

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