Tuesday, July 15, 2014

One Person: One Shadow. Elegant.

The story of a good person hunted on false charges, forced to dig up unforseen layers of courage and cunning to survive until the next paragraph, is one that never gets old; and in Levels: The Host, Peter R. Emshwiller has come up with a fun and fresh variation on this theme.

One key to this variation is the use of an innocent, surprisingly naive person who must learn to survive in a cruel environment without becoming cruel himself. That person, Watly Caiper, is a young man with a compelling dream: to be a mother. To that end, he will do anything -- but as he discovers, "anything" means one thing to a good man, but something else entirely to a man who has no concern for people, for ethics, or for life itself.

It can be hard to write about naive heros without having them seem stupid or credulous to the point of pain, but Peter Emshwiller walks the tight-rope well.

He can also bring other skills to the page. He can dream up a vivid place and time. He can plot in devious ways that play fair with details already provided. He can end chapters on a note that makes you hurry to the next. He can surprise you with appropriate moments of humour or dismay. Best of all, he can make you care about his hero: a man both naive and courageous, both desperate and fundamentally good, who can carry the weight of the story right to the final page.

With all of this in mind, I have to admit that I nearly bailed out of the opening chapters, and only because of the prose.

At his best, Peter Emshwiller can write with an individual voice that is unpretentious, clear, and engaging. He makes a few grammatical mistakes ("like" and "as" have to play by different rules), and every now and then he might choose the wrong word ("nauseous" does not mean "nauseated"), but on the whole, he can describe an action, a setting, or a state of mind with conviction.

Yet in the opening chapters, this individual voice is undermined by needless repetition:

It struck Watly suddenly -- almost physically -- that the most wondrous thing about Second Level compared to First was a very simple thing. A basic thing: People had only one shadow here. Just one. Like Brooklyn. The solitary sun cast only one elegant shadow for each object. On First Level there was never only one shadow. Down below, as one walked from beneath one daylite to another, a fan of shadows danced about, fused and separated, faded and grew -- always in motion and never alone. Here it was different. Here a person could have a sense of solidity. One person: one shadow. Elegant.

In the early chapters, this verbal padding is often relentless, and it buries passages of lively description and fun, quirky insight beneath a pile of words. All too often, a statement is repeated. All too often. Almost constantly. Almost every time. Repeated. Statement after statement. After a while -- after just a few moments -- after just a few paragraphs -- I began to notice the repetition more than I noticed the story.

Very much to my relief, this repetition soon fades away to the point where the story can stand up and be enjoyed. The flaw has less to do with writing than with a lack of careful revision. From this debut novel, I would say that Peter Emshwiller can write well; if he can learn to revise well, then his obvious abilities will shine out all the more.

But for now, I recommend this book: for its roller-coaster plot, for its keen sense of place, for its emotional warmth and humanity, and for the glimpses of the writer's personality that gleam from the pages.

The Host is an individual book with an individual voice. In our current publishing environment, this matters more than I could say.

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