I thought I’d like to introduce something new to my blog, to break up the dreary essays/assignments/loosely compiled rambling thoughts with something I might actually be able to maintain glares at those month-by-month bulk review drafts going nowhere and the reviews I put up here usually wind up on goodreads and amazon too, and sometimes a few other places. I think I’ll still post regular reviews here from time to time as I have been doing, but I’ll try something new and do what I’m going to call the “double-sided review”.
I pick two books and review them simultaneously. I might try to keep them so they’ve got some common thread between them, but basically it’ll give some point of reference in addition to a simple star rating. I’m going to judge books on: Style, content, entertainment, and degree of difficulty. Basically, all the things I like to look for in a good book.
My stars are shaped like sad face creatures, and they look like this:
That’s two-and-a-half sad face creatures out of five.
To kick things off, today I’ll be reviewing Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar, and Carlton Mellick III’s Ugly Heaven. Both of these books are set in very abstract, surreal worlds, and I really enjoyed reading both of them.
In Watermelon Sugar, by Richard Brautigan
I bought this story in a collection with two others by Brautigan: Trout Fishing in America, and The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster. While you get your money’s worth with the three-in-one volume, it’s worth it just for In Watermelon Sugar. To me, it’s clearly the best of the three, and certainly the most cohesive. The story is about a man who lives in a commune by the Watermelon Works. Here, they make everything out of watermelon sugar. He tries to avoid his ex-girlfriend, while a relationship begins to form between him and one of her close friends. Most of the people live at a place called iDEATH, but the narrator lives in a shack, and there are a group of outcasts (led by the rebellious inBOIL) who live in the Forgotten Works, a place no one really likes to go. The setting is really strange and hard to define without listing examples, yet this place is full of history, the Forgotten Works, the statues that are lying all over the place, and an event a long time ago involving the extinction of the tigers.
This book is brimming with a trademark Brautigan style that is present in Trout Fishing and The Pill versus the Springhill Mine Disaster. It’s entertaining and poetic and quirky, yet remarkably accessible. It rolls off the tongue. And it really comes together in this story, the narrative flows smoothly from chapter to chapter. I love the way it begins:
“In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar. I’ll tell you about it because I am here and you are distant.”
I can confidently say that I’ve never read anything like this before. There’s a different coloured sun for every day of the week. This place is populated by things that are just strange, and the context of the book doesn’t seem to make them any less strange. The guys in the Forgotten Works make whiskey from the trash they find there. And the characters grow and develop in interesting ways too. There is a conflict between the residents of iDeath and the narrator’s ex-girlfriend because she’s going down to the Forgotten Works and collecting forgotten things and hanging out with inBOIL and his gang. The tension between the narrator and inBOIL heats up, and it’s really the character-driven conflict that pushes this story apart. It threatens the community at iDeath, and it’s also what brings them together. It’s nothing grand or sophistocated, but it does its job wonderfully.
This book is fascinating. It’s driven by an internal logic that’s beyond our comprehension. It’s humourous, yet it’s dramatic. It’s fun, yet it’s serious. The narrator’s voice is interesting, the world is interesting, the characters are interesting in a very mundane, everyday sort of way. It moves along without a clear sense of direction, but it gets there. It really gets there.
Degree of difficulty:
This may seem like a strange category, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about a fair bit lately. How difficult is it to write this story? Is the plot more complex than your average plot? Is the style more difficult? My tutor talked a bit about the degree of difficulty in a story as one of those things that you’re better off trying to write something easy than trying to write something hard, because there’s a greater chance you’ll do it well. So a simple story can have a low degree of difficulty and still be a really good book, and a story can have a really highy degree of difficulty and it can be terrible if it’s not done well. Now, I would say that Brautigan’s style, his tone of voice, is unique, and adds flavour to the story without being overly complex. The plot is pretty basic. There’s really not a lot to it. I would say the degree of difficulty of this piece would be quite low if not for the setting, and the things that populate his world. Like how Lord of the Rings has got this really complex and richly detailed setting, Brautigan has got this amazing world, and it’s got these little details that keep it self-contained, but express a life and history outside our immediate observations of the story, and this place bears little resemblance to our own world. And I’ve got to give him points for that.
This is a wonderful, imaginative, vivid story, with fascinating characters, a beautiful, original setting, a rich history, and an engaging plot. For anyone looking for anything out of the ordinary, In Watermelon Sugar is remarkably strange, yet hauntingly familiar.
Ugly Heaven, by Carlton Mellick III
This story originally came out in a split-volume in 2007 alongside Jeffrey Thomas’ Beautiful Hell. It has recently been re-released on its own. Now, compared to Brautigan, I am much more familiar with Mellick’s writing. I read this book for the first time on its re-release, and I must say that I’m glad that it’s back.
Two men arrive in heaven and find out that the heaven they believed in has gone. Now it represents more of a dystopia. It is overrun with shadows, which are thought to be the evil portion of one’s soul. The two men, Tree and Salmon explore this strange heaven, discovering new things about themselves as they go. As their journey takes them deeper into heaven, it makes less and less sense. They can see it and feel it and smell it, and they’re also developing a few new senses too. God is nowhere to be seen, and they’re not really sure if this is heaven or not.
I’m a fan of Mellick’s earlier stuff (from what I’ve read) compared to his later stuff in terms of style. This one is sort of edging towards his more current style, yet it’s got the occasional nod towards early Mellick. While I do like his no-bullshit approach to progressing the narrative, and he tells some really great, weird stories by getting straight to the guts of it, I think the character element of developing senses is a nice touch. It’s something I really loved about The Egg Man. He describes things in interesting ways, but I think the gradual transformation towards a heightened sense-perception sets this story just that little bit higher, on a stylistic level.
When working with such iconic settings as heaven and hell, it would be easy to work with what’s already there. This heaven is like no other heaven you’ve read about before. There are places in Mellick’s heaven that are weird, there are some that are more like earth, and there are some that are pretty dark/terrifying. The content is Mellick’s sick and sloppy, ugly, fetishised world. The characters are these strange alien life-forms, and they eat and shit and fuck in impossible ways. And Mellick never dwells in one spot for long enough to let you get comfortable with it.
This book is driven by action. Something is always going on. And the characters are driven on a quest for knowledge. They’re being told all these things that are either straight-up lies, or the person telling them has no idea themselves. Heaven has taken a turn for the worse, god is nowhere to be seen, and all they’re looking for is answers, and all they’re finding are things that raise more questions or threatens to destroy them or consume them. They go places they’re not meant to go, and they’re trying to find things that they’re clearly not meant to find. It’s a great, fast-paced read, but it leaves a lot of questions unresolved at the end. I’m waiting for a sequel.
Degree of difficulty:
As with In Watermelon Sugar, I think the degree of difficulty here lies in forming a coherent, imaginative story from nothing. Mellick is a master of this. And I mentioned before that a lot of his work is driven by a no-bullshit drive to progress the narrative. It makes for a fun, easy read. This is the story, then this happens and that happens, and Mellick really rockets along with that, and I guess the way he rips the characters from one thing and dumps them in another so smoothly, there’s a lack of control and lack of cohesion and resolution that isn’t exactly the easiest trick in the book. Then there’s the reworking of heaven. Where Brautigan constructs something from nothing, Mellick does that while we’re all thinking, “no wait, hang on, this is wrong. I know what heaven’s supposed to be like, and this isn’t it.” He’s working with what we already know, he doesn’t need to describe any of that, and just does things different.
This is a fantastically surreal take on heaven, and it rewrites what we know completely and tells a story that is kind of dark and kind of scary and very weird. To die and find out the afterlife is nothing like you expected, and the overshadowing feeling that god is gone (which is similar to the themes Mellick explored in his first book, Satan Burger), and there’s just nothing for them. The characters know fuck all, and the reader knows fuck all, and all they can do is keep going and hope it’ll all start making sense soon. How numb that feeling is. It’s a great read if you’re looking for something really surreal and a little disturbing.