Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory

I didn't love this book.

That's not to say it doesn't have merit. It does. It also doesn't mean you shouldn't read it. Maybe you should. It's got at least one of those "certain somethings" that a science fiction book requires - a uniqueness of vision, something somewhat fresh, removed by more than a degree or two from what we've seen before.

It's missing some of the other certain somethings, though. The need of the author, any author, to channel his own collective unconscious - not unchecked but perhaps underchecked -- onto the page is not restrained enough here. I did not know before my reading that this was Mr. Gregory's first book, but that lack of restraint alone clued me in. It reminded me of the old joke about two wolves sitting on a hill, the papa wolf and his son. They're watching a dozen sheep graze, and the young son says to his papa: "Hey, pop, why don't we run down the hill howling, grab one of those sheep, and eat it?" And the pop says: "Not a bad idea, but here's a better one: why don't we stroll down the hill quietly and eat them all?" I'm not sure D.G. is the son, because he wants to eat it all up, that's for sure, or at least, serve it all up at once to the reader, but that impulse of scope is at odds with the novel's form, pace and breadth.

What do I mean? This book reads like an homage to all of science fiction. No, wait: he didn't mention "Kolchak the Night Stalker." He missed that one. The rest of sci fi is in there. There is a quasi-debate about sci fi vs fantasy that simply reads as an artificial writer's graft from writer's life into book. It's as if Mr. Gregory believes he must shoehorn all of the experiences that led him to want to write a sci fi book into the book. You may ask, why is that so bad? Ineffective? Disheveled? Well, it isn't really any of those things, not to unreadable excess, leastways. This is not a bad book. It pulls you along, it says what it says and does what it does but it's like the Blues Brothers' police car (gets you where you're going, or somewhere anyway, but). The homage is at odds with the tale, and the ride is bumpy.

There's a scene in "The Bird Cage" where Robin Williams' character is explaining to his young male performer (who is unsatisfied with his role as "the meat") that he's to do "an eclectic celebration of the dance" featuring Fosse, Twyla, Madonna, Martha Graham and Michael Kidd - but he must "keep it all inside," meaning, he's to be the meat and the meat alone. In Pandemonium, Gregory wants to be Anne Rice (he's got a Talamasca), Gordon Sumner, Stan Lee, Philip K. Dick (perhaps literally), Chris Carter you name 'em, they are all inside - but not beneath the surface enough for Gregory to be himself as a writer, and so the meat is often decidedly absent. You get there, but you're hungry, like a man who ate Chinese food an hour ago.

And the result is not good on the level of character. The tone of the book is ever in flux, and tone here is a function of character, because the book is written - perhaps mistakenly - in the first person. What Del says, thinks, and experiences is what we get. It doesn't work because Del is not to be trusted. Does he himself want this to be a comic book? People die left and right, but the deaths are like the bullets in an A Team episode - not all that impactful when all is said and done. Why? No one reacts as if there's been a death. There's too much wink-wink, too many too clever by half one liners, and too many missed moments where one thinks: Jeez, did that event really get caste aside so dismissively? Ditto the other, less lethal but just as available dramatic moments. Things happen, too many, in fact, but they aren't reacted to fully enough.

Possession is not, historically, a playful realm of inquiry. I suspect a close third would have been a better way for Gregory to fly. He could have offered more information and shown more of Del and his reactions. I suspected that at some point (one in particular), Gregory might have wanted his 1st person to be received in the mold of, say, Dostoevsky's Underground Man, but if an author is going in for that penny, he has to go in for the whole pound. Doesn't happen here. This narrator isn't unreliable in any reliable way. And so, despite reading almost three hundred pages of Del's world according to Del (and according to the other guy, a comment I make but leave unexplained for non-spoilage reasons), I am not sure who Del is and why he does what he does (before and after). Del is almost completely devoid of poignant, passionate, productive introspection, and a book like this cannot afford that in its sole storyteller. The tone comes across as flip, and flip ain't got the gravity to anchor the material.

My displeasure doesn't end there. Writer, oh writer, beware the Pop Reference! There's a bit of Dom (and I mean Dom this time) DeLuise as "Him" going on. There's a whole bunch about Jung and Tarot cardish imagery as told through old comics that cries out oh, my God, another headless Shyamalan flick is headed our way! Blavatsky and Yeats are twitching in their respective holes. There's a blatant, persistent reference to poor ol' Sin and and her eternal SNL moment. There's a swamp thing. There's a Simpsonesque attack with tasers. There's the obligatory insane asylum (chez cuckoo buddy). There's the Mansion in the City (surely a comic archetype). There's a rewritten history that smacked of maybe too close a reading of the Watchmen and didn't ripple thoroughly enough. There are a few grating plot holes and a jade's trick of a denouement. O.J., for the love of God: get thee back, Orenthal! There's a blend of the movie "13 Ghosts" and the miniseries "The Lost Room," but as with those two projects, I didn't get the sense Gregory knew where to land it all (maybe he's channeling Chris Carter after all). As with his character Lew's musical mash-ups (multi-layered samplings), this novel is forever at odds with its own inverted, criss-crossed synchronicity. Unlike the mash-ups, the inversion detracts from the whole. Authors, beware also of titles that leave you open to ironical jabs from nitpickers like me. Pandemonium indeed.

So it sounds like I hated it. I didn't. I am willing and able to forgive all because the book was explosively creative. The ideas were gold. The Captain kicks some butt. Nixon meets a Tarantinoesque, offscreen end. Sex happens in motels (a solid case of the emperor's new clothes). The potential is there. Still, the treatment of such compelling concepts shouldn't be rushed; one should have such sheep braised slowly on a spit of reflection and insight, juices hissing, smell teasing. Flavor sells itself, but put kobe beef in chili, it's just chili. Serve the beef and hold the beans.

Daryl Gregory has that certain something a writer can't buy in an MFA program or write good books without. His is a mind at work, a cauldron of rightbrain surprise. He missed the mark here, but as the man said to young Indy, he doesn't have to like it.

And while I can't fully recommend his first book, I believe it would be a absolute crime if he were to chose not to - carefully and patiently - write a second one. I would very much like to read it.

7/10 Explosively creative. The ideas were gold.

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