Monday, April 7, 2014

The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan

With the death of the Berliner, Jake is the last living werewolf. With the next full moon, he will be hunted and he will be killed.

He’s actually rather looking forward to it. The centuries weigh heavily on him, he has little reason to go on living and even less actual inclination. Unfortunately, there are a number of people who would rather he didn’t go gently into the grave and are determined to keep him alive.

On the first page of this book we have the following quote:

“I sipped, swallowed, glimpsed the peat bog plashing white legs of the kilted clan Macallan as the whisky kindled in my chest. It’s official. You’re the last. I’m sorry. I’d known what he was going to tell me. Now that he had, what? Vague ontological vertigo. Kubrick’s astronaut with the severed umbilicus spinning away all alone into infinity … At a certain point one’s imagination refused. The phrase was: It doesn’t bear thinking about. Manifestly it didn’t.”

Which is excellent, I applaud – I mean, really, the publisher might as well have put a sticker on the front page declaring “Warning: Horrendously Overwritten Pretentious Crap Lurks Within!”

But first, let me cover some positives:

I liked several elements of Harley. He was a non-stereotypical gay man – his life was seedy and dark, but this whole book is seedy and dark. He was interesting and he had genuine affection for Jake who, in turn, genuinely cared for him. Does that affection result in Harley being exploited as we see with many gay friends of straight people in fiction? Yes it does – but surprisingly Jake even acknowledges that:

“Harley, a man who’d devoted his life to my protection, who’d loved me, whose love I’d exploited when it suited and stonewalled when it didn’t…”

Does it make a trope ok that it is acknowledged? No, but it helps a lot, especially when the wrongness of it is recognised. Of course, Harley is also repeatedly victimised in this book and, ultimately, his unpleasant fate is some extra grist for Jake’s eternal angst – but until then he’s a good, humanised character with a real connection.

Secondly, I like how every character is humanised – even the prostitutes that Jake sleeps with (because he is punishing himself never to know love but has the absolutely-mandatory-in-fiction werewolf horniness) have large rambling insights to what makes them people, turning them into more than sex objects. Some of the insight truly opens up a character – like Jake’s ex-wife so full of self-assurance and standing above the slut-shaming she experiences to live life the way she wishes, on her terms.

The same applies to his victims – which brings us to another element I like – the world building and the concepts. The werewolves as monsters is always good to revisit, the blurred morality of this book and the question of whose side we should be on is a new twist and I especially love the idea of werewolves consuming lives, living the experiences of their victims in the utmost detail, humanising every one they eat.

This book also does an excellent job of portraying the ennui of a long life. Of how the centuries of existence blur together, how nothing is new, how there is so little of interest left, how everything is just a new version of an old thing. I have never seen a book that expressed so well the sheer, painful wait of centuries of experience.

Right – all of these are good – but all of these are expressed in the most over written, convoluted style I have ever read. Ever. Literally, this is the most impenetrable prose I’ve ever had to try and mine through.

The author is certainly not without skill – many passages and wonderfully elaborate and elegant in their perfect word choice. It’s nice to find authors who CAN write extremely long winded books and still make it good because they are that good at crafting words. But it feels like this author took that skill and then decided to dial the book to 11. It’s too much.

“I looked out of the window. The snow was coming down with the implacability of an Old Testament plague. In Earl’s Court Road pedestrians tottered and slid and in the cold swirling angelic freshness felt their childhoods still there and the shock like a snapped stem of not being children any more.”

Or, to put it another way, he looked out the window and saw it was snowing.

“Back into the urinous doorway, however, I found myself thinking…. Of the refreshing abruptness with which financial institution – B & B among them – had collapsed in the Crunch. Adds for banks and building societies had continued to run days, sometimes weeks after the going concerns had gone. For many it was impossible to believe watching the green-jacketed lady in the black bowler hat with her smile fusing sexual and financial know-how, that the company she represented no longer existed. I’ve seen this sort of thing before, obviously, the death of certainties. I was in Europe when Nietzsche and Darwin between them got rid of God, and in the United states when Wall Street refused the American Dream to a broken suitcase and a worn-out shoe. The difference with the current crisis is that the world’s downer has coincided with my own…”

This appallingly long winded splurge of verbiage happens after Jake ducks into a door way to avoid gunfire. Yes, he’s in the middle of a fire fight and has time to dwell on this head-ache causing waffle.

It’s ridiculously convoluted (as the above quote shows) and long winded, full of rambling, awkward asides stuffed with unnecessary and repetitive description and exposition. Of all this is chased down by an unholy love of the thesaurus and a desperate, pretentious need to reference classical authors, philosophers, psychologists and random historical events to an agonisingly long winded degree. It’s not even insightful to sit down and think about the points raised – Kantian morality, the relationship between morality and aesthetics and beauty etc etc because it’s so blatantly pretentious. The author is clearly an extremely well read and impressively educated man, but quite why this had to be rammed into this book is beyond me. Just include your-oh-so-impressive qualifications in the “About the Author” and spare us this painful attempt to prove just how high-brow and erudite you are.

To make matters even worse, to try and make the book seem current, random current events are referenced and squeezed in… well, randomly. And the last thing this book needs is more random references

The author is also fairly clearly trying to move away from some of the more common conventions of urban fantasy – with the angsting vampires and sexy werewolves and everything being so pretty and tragic. Instead he’s emphasised the horror, the bleakness of immortality and the savagery of what they are. He also portrays sex in a much more bleak, seedy style that, even when both sides orgasm, is presented as unpleasant and often messy affair. These are interesting subversions of the trope – but, again, he dials it to 11 and almost parodies his own subversion. Every character feels the need to throw around the word c*nt constantly, there’s an absolute obsessions with anuses and genitals.

“When I’d imagined this moment I’d imagined clean relief. Now the moment had arrived there was relief, but it wasn’t clean. The sordid little flame of selfhood shimmied in protest. Not that my self’s what it used to be. These days it deserves a sad smile, as might a twinge of vestigial lust in an old man’s balls.” 
Even when describing non-sexual things, Jake will usually reference his penis, his scrotum or his anus… just because. The desperate attempt to force this seediness leads to some truly ridiculous lines – like this one:

“Her asshole, for example. It’s like a stern coquettish spoiled secretary working for Himmler-“

… yeah, I’ve got nothing. I don’t even know how to begin addressing this line.

Even what could be quite emotional, powerful scenes just fall apart because, yes, he’s plunging fingers/penis/whatever into a vagina/anus again in a joyless, faintly nauseating rut because GRIMDARK THAT’S WHY!

Also, we get it – your book is a subversion of the pretty-romance-aren’t-werewolves/vampires-cute-and-sexy fiction that is out there. Let it be a subversion. Constantly saying “if this were in the movies then…” or “if this were fiction then…” to try and lampshade the point is, again, clumsy and completely lacking in any sense of restraint. Pull it back!

Ultimately, while there were elements about this book I would have loved to keep on reading, the writing defeated us. I don’t know whether to laugh at how ridiculously overwritten it was, or desperately try to skim past the pretentious fluff clogging up the book. The sad thing is, if it had just been toned down a little, just a bit of the exposition and repetitiveness and painfully forced grimdark pulled back, it could probably have a truly excellent book. But there’s no restraint, no moderation and it takes what should be a really good writing style and pushes it well into the realm of the ridiculous.

If you have more tolerance for endless references and extreme overwriting you may love this book – because, really, the bones are excellent and even some elements of the writing are really good and worth a read. But I found it intolerably difficult to read and the very definition of trying too hard. I reached the 50% mark and, frankly, the idea of enduring as much again defeated me.