Back in August I was telling one of my random hookups about my 107 books project and he asked, “Which one are you least looking forward to reading?” And my answer was, “Uhm… none of them?” Because I wouldn’t have bought them if I didn’t want to read them, right.
New answer: these two. Books that I bought Because of Reasons (Neal Stephenson; gay romance), started, put down, and now dread the prospect of picking up again. So, deciding that life’s too short, I gave myself permission not to finish them. That was years ago, so my commentary here is filtered through a rather long lens.
I probably would have read even less of Anathem than I did except I was on a ten hour plane trip, and so more or less a captive audience. I read for about half that time, had barely scratched the surface (this is one of his doorstops), and eventually decided I’d rather stare at the seat in front of me and let my brain generate its own content. It’s not bad per se, but I wasn’t interested in the main character, didn’t seem likely to get interested in the main character, couldn’t really tell what the setting was supposed to be, nothing was happening, and it was shaping up to be one of his Neal Stephenson Does Serious Business Literature books. Dude, knock it off and write another Snow Crash.
As Meat Loves Salt, by Maria McCann, is historical fiction set during England’s civil war. The main character is a man named Jacob, who joins the army after some shit goes down and he has to get the hell out of Dodge, meets another man named Christopher (Ferris, he’s nicknamed) and they embark on an affair that — dollars to donuts, cuz I haven’t actually finished it — ends very, very badly.
I am a huge fan of protagonists who are basically good people but end up doing terrible things. Because they think it’s necessary. Because they weren’t thinking at the time and only realize the ramifications later. Because they may be good at heart, but their upbringing has left them with a thoroughly skewed moral compass. The reasons for it are endless, and endlessly fascinating. (Shortlist: Felix in Sarah Monette’s Melusine, Calanthe in Storm Constantine’s Wraeththu books, Yuri in Karin Lowachee’s Cagebird)
This is not quite that. To wit: in the first scene of the book, the people of Jacob’s village are dragging a millpond to look for a body, because a girl went missing some days back and they’re thinking she might have drowned. They don’t find her, but let’s just say that Jacob’s the only one not surprised by the body they do find. Then he steals a bunch of money, rapes his newly-wedded wife, beats his brother nearly to death, and leaves both of them to hang and goes off to hide in the army.
By which point I was like, “You know what, I think you’re just a bad person doing bad things.” o_O
He really is. Not straight-up evil, but he has a staggering lack of empathy for other people and feels that being angry is sufficient justification for whatever violence he does them. That makes it hard to cheer his relationship with Ferris (who initially seems far too nice for Jacob and you’re like “NooooOOOoooo just stay away from him!”, but is later shown to be rather fascinatingly manipulative) because seriously, this guy doesn’t deserve a happily ever after, he deserves to hang.
And yet, McCann’s writing is damned good, immersing you in the gritty reality of Cromwell’s war-torn England and what it feels like to be so intensely in love when society has no framework for that kind of passion. (The lead up to their hooking up is pretty excellent, make no mistake.) McCann does one of the best jobs I’ve ever read in writing accurate historical attitudes to sexuality, without filtering the characters through modern conceptions of being gay. A line that I liked:
I was a fornicator, of unnatural appetite, in thrall to an Atheist. I repeated the words in my head and tried to feel the shock of them, but they remained strange and cruel, far removed from Ferris and me. It was simpler to say I was in love.
After that, however, the writing is on the wall that This Will End Badly and that it will be the characters’ own damn faults, which is a trope I don’t enjoy. (People doing the best they can in a bad situation and still falling short: marvelous. People making damn stupid decisions for motives I can’t sympathize with: not so much.)
So, I think I’m good to quit while I’m ahead.
Coming up next: review of Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, which was fucking phenomenal.