Monday, February 22, 2010

Ghosts Doing the Orange Dance

Novella by Paul Park

I've read this story three times now, and I've taken pages upon pages of notes that look like the scribbles of a crazy person. And I can only partially attribute that comment to my handwriting. I love this story, I want to make all of my more literary friends read it (at knifepoint if necessary), and yet I can't summarize it in any remotely concise way without ruining it. And half of the people who have read it seem to give up 1/3 of the way through. But maybe I shouldn't be surprised. My inclination wasn't so much to force it on the Heinlein/Tolkein enthusiasts (NotThatThere'sAnythingWrongWithThat), but more the Umberto Eco/Philip K. Dick lovers, and the Faulkner/Joyce crowd if I was serious about that knife. Although I'm worrying about hyperbole here, I think this novella was brilliant, but it won't appeal to everyone.

This is a funny, autobiographical (more-or-less), deeply reflective, convoluted, complex, confusing, ingenious story about how we make our lives into stories; and then the stories we tell ourselves get out of control and structure invents content. We lose track of the real facts, believe things that on closer examination can't be true, and make up nonsense explanation to explain the little bits of life that make no damn sense. And this is all explained in the second of nine segments.

Park, the self-character of the author proceeds to fly off on tangents about how he has trouble staying on topic, debate the merits of foreshadowing in this weird little combination of memoir and science fiction story he is writing, tell bold-faced lies to the readers that he admits to a few pages later, and piece together bits of writing from his relatives into a hereditary obligation to help protect society from otherworldly forces, maybe.

Like I said, I can't do this thing justice. But what stands out to me are the well done self-referential comedy, the great scenery descriptions, and the countless recurring little tidbits that pull his life, and his ancestors' lives together into a bizarrely complex whole, many of which are probably misremembered or imagined. The downside is that two excerpts of ancestral documents in particular were quite a slog, especially the first time through when I had no idea what to look for, and that while the ending was good, the last line itself was lackluster. But I don't know how it could have been much improved, and on reflection the whole thing was great.

I misremember this story as a 5 out of 5, but it was probably more of a 4.5 in reality, if only because of the ending. But keep in mind, my hyperbole-tastic comparison is Umberto Eco, so no whining about having to think.

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