Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A Bad Blind Date - "The Divorce of Buddy Figaro"

Cracking open a new book is kind of like starting a new relationship. Sometimes, regardless of whether you’re absorbed in it for a long or short period of time, it’s intriguing and seductive – you put everything else aside to give it your full attention. Sometimes, as the story gradually reveals its inner secrets to you, not only are your emotions stimulated, you also learn more about yourself and the world – this is something you always want to have at your side. Or it can be a quick, shallow fling that you enter just for fun. Others are ho-hum experiences where you’ve clocked your time going from cover to cover but won’t be revisited and will never stand out. And then there are those really bad reading experiences where you’re left angry and annoyed at why you wasted your time on such trash and you might even be tempted never to go back to where you found the thing – and that’s if you even manage to get to the end of the story. And good or bad, the impact of some books can stay with you forever.
By extension, trying a book which hasn’t been reviewed, or where you’ve missed the review, is rather like a blind date. “The Divorce of Buddy Figaro – A Taoist Comedy Novel” was just such an experience. And, as many people have bemoaned about blind dates, this book was a gamble that didn’t pay off.
David Silverberg’s story centers around Buddy Figaro, an overworked Moncton, New Brunswick neurologist with a love of music, bad puns and windsurfing, three kids and an alienated wife who’s about to ditch him. One night a tiny, marble-like entity – something called a “chi transducer” – named Taro comes sweeping in from the farthest reaches of the universe, nestles itself in Buddy’s ear and proceeds to tell him he’s humanity’s last hope in a cosmic trial of merit adjudicated by a superbeing (really a collection of independent bodily organs working in concert – sort of) with the monicker of Peng. Seems Peng’s taken a dislike to humanity because it sees mankind as a potential rival. Peng’s already decided to unleash its hordes of Fierce Creatures (the prototypes of Mongolian warriors, as it turns out) to put an end to the Earth’s upstarts, and Buddy’s been summoned simply to go through the formalities of a show-trial. Things don’t go over so well for old Peng when Buddy decides he’s had enough and beats the big guy to death (from the inside-out no less) with its own penis. And returns victorious to a safe-and-sound Earth, right? Nope. See, these Mongols, er, Fierce Creatures, made invulnerable by their own chi transducers, already had their marching orders and have taken up residence in the woods outside Moncton, waiting for the right time to unleash their fury upon an unsuspecting Terra and harvest human beings for the buffet tables of the starving masses on their barren homeworld. With a lot of pluck and the help of the beautiful alien princess Tyger Tyger, Buddy sends the baddies packing with a plan to rebuild their planet into a kinder, greener place. And, oh yeah, amidst all that he gets divorced, develops a real hate for his ex, then eventually learns to accept the hand Fate has dealt him, consider his ex-wife’s point of view, and more-or-less move on with his life. One plot line is supposed to be the background for the other, and they sometimes switch places to establish primacy.
In the hands of a more skilled author and a determined editor, this story might have had some hope. Coulda/woulda/shoulda. Instead, this tale was like one of those dates where you listen to the other person’s interminably boring recounts of their failed relationships, you nod politely at the end of the evening, get in your car and promptly forget the whole thing. If this book were a person you were dating, it would need a lot of therapy.
First, there’s the endless repetition. The plot is re-summarized nearly every chapter. Is this some profound metaphor for the circular nature of life and the physics of space curved back on itself? Nope. Just bad writing.
Then there’s the clumsy gear-shifting between Buddy’s intergalactic adventures and the challenges of life at home and his divorce. I think doing a more subtle job of interweaving the two plot lines would have been more effective. Silverberg could have also chosen the tack of keeping one plot permanently in the foreground and left the other as a backdrop to highlight events or insights.
And then there’s the repetition. Did I mention that already?
How about the legion of spelling mistakes? There’s no excuse not to use a spellchecker before mailing or emailing ye olde manuscript in these modern times. Still less if you’re an editor sending a book to print.
I also got real tired real fast with Buddy’s bad pun fetish. Somehow I doubt it was a deliberate character device to make the reader more sympathetic to the ex-wife. Buddy’s puns aren’t even smart, which is odd, given that his high level of education and love of a variety of types of music should show that he’s got an active and flexible-enough mind to be quick on the draw and inventive in his word play. Nope. We get to hear his rehashes of the happiness/ha-penis double-entendre from Marlon Brando’s “Last Tango in Paris” again and again and again (and uncredited, might I add). This isn’t good writing. It’s self-indulgence.
Then there’s the idea that these Fierce Creatures, the ancestors of mankind, have been plaguing the universe at the bidding of Peng for so long that they wiped out the dinosaurs and left a human colony on Earth (never mind how scientifically problematic that is and a rather tired old SF trope to boot), have continued to survive on a wasted planet, and yet have undergone no physical, spiritual, intellectual or cultural evolution in that entire time? This Peng can’t be that powerful, especially if it couldn’t even predict or notice the rebelliousness of its stomach and some of its chi transducers, or prevent Buddy from bludgeoning its other organs to death with its, well, organ.
Did I mention the repetition?
At one point while reading the novel, I wondered if it was the product of a vanity press that had somehow been marketed with a huge amount of personal coin to the point where, incredibly it had bought itself a space on the shelves of the Chapters big box chain across Canada. Surprisingly, no. Turns out it was published by a legitimate small press company, Manor House, that even gets a little funding from the federal government. I feel disheartened (and not in a weird, Peng-like, internal battering kind of way) that some of my tax dollars may have gone into this book.
Admittedly, because I know very little about Taoism, there might be any number of deep insights and cute inside jokes buried in this collection of pulp that I’m missing. Somehow I doubt it though. This book reads like a stoner’s ramblings scribbled onto a coffee-stained Post-it note pad in a college dorm the Friday night a week before March break.
Well, after a bad date we always tell ourselves or our forlorn friends that there’s plenty more fish in the sea. And that’s certainly true right about now. No more blind dates for me. Some nice-looking new novels by top-notch authors like Minister Faust, Dan Simmons and Cory Doctorow have just come smiling into the bookstore looking for an attentive reader like me to take them home, and who am I to say no?


Angela Russell said...

I am no writer, and certainly no editor, but I noticed many errors in this book. For one, the poem "Tyger! Tyger!" (actually Tiger Tiger)was credited to Kipling when it in fact was by Blake.

Robin Shantz said...

Good eye, witchblade37. You're right... while Kipling may have had some experience with tigers, having spent a good deal of time in India, it was Blake who wrote "The Tyger". Checking my battered 5th edition of "The Norton Anthology of English Literature" (who says old university text books don't have any use once you're done a course?), Blake published "The Tyger" in 1794, 71 years before Kipling was born. How can a person like a poem enough to quote it (even if only to alter it for their own purposes) and not even get the author's name right? I must confess, this was an error I didn't spot, probably because by the time it rears its ugly head mid-way through the book, there had been so many mistakes or annoyances that I was just trying to focus on finishing the damned thing. Now, to belabour the blind date metaphor, finding out about this error in attribution is kind of like coming back to the table from a washroom break at the end of the meal and finding out as the waiter presents me with the cheque that the person across the table who's bored me all evening has ordered some take-out - the lobster. Just when I thought my estimation of Silverberg's book couldn't get any lower...