Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Lives of Tao

Wesley Chu's The Lives of Tao as a spy-adventure novel, with a fantasy-alien premise that frees the narrative from the necessity of focusing on a single main character, and even frees it of the narrative inconvenience of death of any characters. The novel's premise is impervious to character death! That is, the plot could continue, still interesting, still with emotional resonance, still with continued personalities and individuals. Even if the main character of each chapter dies before his chapter is done.

The book taps this early potential, killing off an awesome main character after the first chapter. Focus is shifted to a slovenly, lazy, attention-deficient guy who works a tedious desk job. (Various scenes feel lifted directly from Office Space.)

Unfortunately, everything is downhill from there. Spoilers follow. I agree with goodreads reviewer j, who writes,
The Lives of Tao has all the exuberance of a passion project banged out in a rush during National Novel Writing Month. All of the polish too, unfortunately.

The self-centered, attention-deficient, idiotic new main character somehow, against serious odds (and against the repeated authorial mention of those odds, and their height and impossibility), survives a series of escalating escapades that frankly read like the latest installment in a summer blockbuster series (maybe the space-alien version of Fast/Furious?). He is not an endearing character. He repeatedly makes decisions which are stupid, and which he knows are bad; but his laziness wins out. He goes through a few chapters of training montage, during which we are subjected to endless whining and descriptions of how fat/lazy/slovenly he is; then we are told (not shown) that he is gradually improving. (He unbelievably survives against many highly-trained assassins, whose sole mistakes are Disney-villain-like sneering and gloating.)

The novel reads, especially towards the end, like an aspirational James Bond. I cannot help but get the feeling that the author over-identified with this unpleasant main character. Every reward seems oddly authorially self-gratifying. The book fails the Bechdel test, hard --- there are two female characters, both are described as attractive, intelligent, sexy, and well-dressed. They don't meet. They are both, somehow, love interests for this guy. (In fact, as soon as they appear in his life, he immediately starts debating which one he prefers... before either of them has given any sign of interest.)

I give up on trying to coherently group and process my dislike of the book. Here:

  • There were typos.
  • There was failure of verbs to agree with subjects. 
  • There was my pet peeve, immortal intelligent (wise, all-knowing) beings whose entire history, philosophy, and scientific development can be summarized in a few paragraphs of clichéd text, which does not stand up to even a cursory moment of inspection by my humble, time-bounded, finite mind. (Gross and unexamined assumptions abound; why are they unexamined, if the aliens have unlimited idle time to examine them?) 
  • Everyone was described all over the place in terms of their sleek muscles, even people who were fully-clothed and whose subtle abdominal muscles could not possibly have been visible. 
  • Time sped up when the main character was bored, and slowed down when he was interested in something, in a way completely uncorrelated with the progress of the action in the book. 
  • Crass, antiquated stereotypes about female roles were demonstrated, then held out for explicit examination by the main character, then shrugged off as unquestionably true facts clearly derived from Nature or God or Whatever. 
  • Every scene was described as containing something "even more dangerous than" the Supreme Ultimate Danger that was faced in the preceding scene. 
  • All emotional development was told and not shown. 
  • The authorial voice seemed to forget what stage of development the slob was at in any scene, as broad descriptions about how the slob "usually" eats crap are inserted even after descriptions of months of diet and exercise. 
  • Women say one thing, usually quite strongly, and men contradict them and make "better" choices, and the author's pen describes this in tones of approval for the men. 
  • The aliens are invisible, and this is a major plot point. Then, in the last scene, we find out that they sparkle at night. What? Why didn't we just use that back in scene 1, and skip the entire book's worth of drama and tension?

Some sentences were so enraging that I took the time to document my misgivings. Here are some of my annotations (context spared out of mercy):

  • Where is the editor responsible for approving this trite repetitive crap? No tension is being built here.
  • This directly contradicts what was described in the last scene.
  • no!!!
  • cliché
  • Bad writing. Is the author tiring at this point?
  • sexist enraging bullshit
  • how fucking convenient
  • Oh good, some sexism to lighten the mood.

I do not recommend this book, and I won't be reading the rest of the series. Yuck. I hate-read until the end because I held the hope that possibly, possibly, the main slob was going to get killed, and that this would redeem the cool idea underlying the book and justify sequels (which I hope would be more readable). I need to rinse the bad taste out of my brain now. This book read like the novelization of a summer blockbuster movie; this book would be better as a summer blockbuster movie, because that is a genre where gross stereotypes are (well, seem) more acceptable. I expect better from novels.

This post's theme word is colophon, "a note at the end of the book giving information about its production: font, paper, binding, printer, etc." The best writing in the entire volume was found in the colophon.

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