Zombies and politicians, Oh My! Mira Grant’s Feed

Have you ever forced yourself to finish a terrible book just to confirm to yourself that you are right: It really is terrible?

I picked up Feed by Mira Grant after it scored a Hugo nomination and a lot of good buzz from the science fiction press. It featured an intriguing premise: A political thriller set 20 years after a zombie apocalypse, told through the eyes of a blogger/journalist. I love politics, I’m a journalist, and I’ve recently renewed my interest in zombie literature after becoming a fan of The Walking Dead comic. So, I thought I’d enjoy Feed.

Unfortunately the experience of reading this book is like a clinic on how NOT to write a book. I suffered through all 571 pages primarily to emphasize to myself what I should avoid in my own writing.

Let’s start with the exposition. The information dump is the most treacherous trap in genre fiction writing. When you are building a world and placing your characters in it, you have to explain how that world works, whether it be some alien world, a sword and sorcery kingdom or a zombie-infested United States. The best authors do this efficiently and with subtlety. Mira Grant does not.

Her narrator dumps information relentlessly. She dumps info on everything. The nature of the zombie virus, the complicated and absurdly unbelievable mechanics of the blogging industry in her future, the process of earning a license to go out in the wilds of a zombie-infested world, the construction of zombie-proof buildings and vehicles, the laws about how to handle people who have been infected.

It seems like Mira Grant is more interested in information dumps than she is in telling a story, because when she does set out to tell the story between information dumps, almost nothing happens. There’s a scene late in the book where the narrator is setting up a video conference session with dozens of fellow bloggers to discuss a huge conspiracy. She devotes pages and pages to the details involved in setting up the conference call and securing it and getting everyone into the call. Then the video session commences and NOTHING HAPPENS. Seriously, you’re expecting her to tell her colleagues something interesting. She doesn’t. She fires everyone, then rehires them in some sort of contractual procedural madness that doesn’t matter to the plot. Then she pulls a couple people aside for some one-on-one discussions that, again, involve nothing interesting. I was expecting some plot advancement. In the end, all there was were empty dialog and information dumps. End of chapter.

What’s a good way to get a story going if you’re struggling with your plot and need to get out of information dump mode? How about some dialog? Mira Grant doesn’t know how to write dialog. Her main characters are bloggers in their early, early 20s (youth is fetishized intensely in this book). The main characters, narrator Georgia Mason,  her brother Shaun and their colleague Buffy are all kids. And they are all extremely unlikable. Mira Grant believes that snarky repartee makes for good dialog and character development. She is dead wrong. Get it? Dead.

Here are Georgia and Shaun and colleague Rick investigating the cause of a zombie horse outbreak at a ranch:

If anything odd happened here, we might find signs of it around their stalls,” [I said].

Under the six hundred gallons of gore,” Rick muttered.

Hope you brought a shovel!” Shaun called, sounding ungodly cheerful.

Rick stared at him. “Your brother is an alien.”

“Yeah, but he’s a cute one,” I said. “Start checking the stalls.”

And here are Georgia, Shaun and Rick reflecting on a tense encounter with soldiers pointing big guns at them.

“That really upset you, didn’t it?” [Shaun asked.]

“What, you mean the part where the nice guys with the big guns demonstrated over a live feed that I can be incapacitated by taking my glasses away? That didn’t bother me one bit.” I shoved Shaun’s feet off my lap. “Sit up. This isn’t a cruise.”

“Behold the bitchiness of George when she hasn’t had her beauty sleep,” said Shaun, pushing himself upright. Twisting around to face Rick, he said, “So, Ricky-boy, you seen your ratings? Because I have some ideas to spice things up. Let’s start with nudity.”

Don’t you just want to spend 571 pages with these people? Cocky, pseudo-journalists who don’t report the news. All they do is self-aggrandize and editorialize and toss impersonal snark back and forth. The reader knows this because every chapter is book-ended with excerpts from their blogs. Ugh.

Next problem? Repetition! In a world where fears of viral zombification are constant, everyone is constantly getting their blood tested to prove that they’re not about to go undead. Entering a restaurant? Blood test. Checking into a hotel? Blood test. Entering your own house? Blood test. Unlocking the door to your car? Blood test? Entering a highly secure area? Blood test, blood test, blood test. That’s right, multiple blood test check points, where the character gets their fingers pricked by a needle and light flashes back and forth from red and green before settling on a color (Hint, red is bad. It means a bullet to the brain).

After the first few chapters, the reader is clear. Blood tests are everywhere. After 400 pages, I don’t need the author to devote a page or two in every chapter to the details of every blood test. I don’t need the narrator describing the different brands of blood test kits. Let’s give it a rest. Get to the story. Oh, that’s right, there is NO story.

The repetition doesn’t start and end there, either. Don’t get me started about narrator Georgia’s medical condition, related to the zombie virus, which has rendered her pupils permanently dilated and forced her to wear sunglasses everywhere. Rather than have nightmares about hungry zombies, I’m going to have nightmares about the countless pages devoted to Georgia’s light-induced headaches, moments where she gropes around for her sunglasses in the morning, and misunderstandings at security checkpoints where dudes with guns demand that she remove her sunglasses. Please, make it stop!

I could go on with the reasons why this book falls on its face… like its horrible inconsistencies. For instances, Georgia’s eye condition has disabled her tear ducts, which means she can’t cry with tears. She even remarks late in the book about how she wishes she could cry, but the virus that damaged her eyes have robbed her of that. How poignant… and yet, in the middle of the book she does cry. With real, live tears and everything. Anyway, moving on. Let’s get to the heart of why this book is a whole lot of suck.

There is no payoff. You suffer through all this mediocrity expecting to see some sort of revelation that is mildly interesting, but there isn’t one.

[SPOILERS FOLLOW]

This book is about a muddled, half-developed conspiracy. Georgia and Shaun and their follow bloggers are part of the press corps traveling with a front-running candidate for the GOP nomination for president, Senator Ryman. He’s an aw-shucks, down-to-earth, country boy with “straight white teeth,” who is about as one-dimensional as a line on a sheet of paper. His eventual running mate is Governor Tate of Texas. This guy might as well have “bad guy” tattooed on his forehead.

The book turns into a quest to find out why someone is trying to assassinate Ryman and/or derail his campaign by murdering the people around him — murder them with ZOMBIES!. Of course the bad guy is Tate, the asshole running mate who spouts off constantly about propriety and morality and God all the time… all while being really really really mean to Georgia and her fellow dirty bloggers. Any reader who is spoiled by the previous sentence should really get a blood test for the zombie virus, because you are BRAIN DEAD.

Anyway, in this book it’s up to Shaun and Georgia to discover he’s the bad guy and prove it. Why the CDC, the Army, the Secret Service and just about anyone with half a brain missed the obvious clues is beyond me. At one point a clue literally gets stuck in the bottom of Shaun’s shoe. No joke!

Even worse, when the bad guy (Tate) is confronted and revealed, his only explanation for why he was trying to kill Ryman and do assorted other bad things was to say that someone had to restore the “moral fiber” of America. Oh, please. Don’t we hear enough of this stupidity on MSNBC and Fox News?

Oh, and did I mention that this is the first book in a sequel about bloggers in zombie apocalypse? The next one is called Deadline, in which our surviving heroes seek out the conspirators who helped Tate do all his dastardly deeds.

This book is awful. After I read it, I tried to find some reviews. I’d only heard glowing endorsements, so I needed to dig deeper. I’ve been shocked by the majority of reviews that rave about it (mostly blogs and genre sites since no mainstream reviewing bodies have bothered to touch it). User reviewers are mostly positive, too. Probably 80% of Amazon reviewers gave it four or five stars. This is where you need to look hard at the bad reviews. The one- and two-star reviews. Read them closely and see if the complaints made by disgruntled readers (like me) are reasonable.

Don’t believe the hype on this one. Feed is terrible. I wouldn’t suggest it to anyone, even a diehard zombie fiction fanboy. Just don’t do it to yourself.

Learning the value of book reviews

I’ve never been a big reader of book reviews. I suppose I’d rather spend my time reading books than reading about them.  Reading a bad review can obviously  save you from reading a bad book. However, it can also prevent you from reading a flawed book that is frustrating  but also rewarding in some small way. Had I read this New York Times review or this Washington Post review of Chronic City, the latest novel from Jonathan Lethem, I might have avoided reading it. Instead, I bought Chronic City without reservation. I knew the reader’s work well and assumed I would enjoy it. I was wrong. I hated reading this book. But I’m also glad I did. How is that possible?

Since I first encountered Lethem more than 11 years ago, I’ve always felt a special connection with his work. When I read Motherless Brooklyn I was living in the same Brooklyn neighborhood – the very same couple of blocks of Cobble Hill – where the book takes place. The protagonist, Lionel Essrog and his mentor Frank Minna had their private detective’s office on the same block of Bergen Street that I walked  every day on my way to the F train, which I took to Manhattan for my daily commute to work. I loved living in Cobble Hill and I loved that book. I had also always been a fan of post-modern detective fiction, like Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, which Lethem’s novel seemed to evoke.

Several years after I read Motherless Brooklyn, and long after I had left New York, I read his other great Brooklyn novel, The Fortress of Solitude. This book was even better. More complex characters, a more thought-provoking plot. So I didn’t hesitate to read Chronic City. Had I known what I was in for, I might have paused.

If you have read the reviews I linked to above, you have an inkling of what I’m talking about. Chronic City is a deeply flawed novel. The word “tedious” comes up a lot in many reviews. I did not enjoy reading it, but I couldn’t bring myself to put it down because of my loyalty to the author. The reviewers were right. This is a tedious book. It lacks any plot, which I find essential for any novel despite what some more experimental or avant-garde authors may argue.  I also hated most of the characters. The main protagonist and primary narrator, Chase Insteadman, is a cipher with a ridiculous name. He’s a former child television star who is living off residuals from his one big sitcom, living in a dreamlike Manhattan where he does nothing but go to dinner parties hosted by old money and nouveau riche New Yorkers. He enters a new phase in his life when he meets and starts palling around with Perkus Tooth, an obsessive and (I think) slightly autistic pop culture critic who spends most of the novel smoking pot, obsessing over some vases he’s found on eBay, and looking for profundity in pop culture detritus such as old Twilight Zone episodes and Marlon Brando movies. Chronic City is mostly about these two characters and the friendship they develop: Chase the cipher, who lacks any real sense of self through most of the book, and Perkus, who is the type of person I wouldn’t want to spend time with in real life, let alone for 467 pages of drug-fueled paranoia and pseudo-intellectual masturbation.

Despite the frustration I felt reading Chronic City and despite the book’s many failings, I’m also glad I finished it. I soldiered on, and over the last 80 pages it enthralled me. Here  Lethem stopped letting his annoying and cartoonish characters chew up scenery and wax on about inane subjects that none of us care about. Instead, Lethem introduced a crisis into the characters’ lives. He also ultimately unveiled several very interesting truths about the main characters, the New York City they were living in, and why many of their paranoid fantasies and the nagging sense of alienation they felt were extremely justified. I found myself loving those last 80 pages. But they didn’t make up for the 400 pages that I suffered through before that.

It’s no small coincidence that the book started to get good at the point where Perkus Tooth is forced out of his apartment and ends up squatting into an apartment complex for dogs. Yes, dogs. In one of Lethem’s precious flourishes, he’s created an apartment complex which some rich woman’s estate had paid to convert into something of a shelter for homeless dogs. The apartments are made up to look like human habitations, giving the dogs a sense that they are not in a kennel but in a home… and perhaps their masters will be home soon to take them for a walk. Perkus takes up residence with a dog named Ava, and the whole book takes a turn for the better. This is where the characters come into focus after spending hundreds of pages chattering about nothing at all. Instead ideas that they had alluded to in passing, such as a cloud that covers much of lower Manhattan (a reference to 9/11), start to take on some meaning.

I say it’s no coincidence that the book picks up steam at this point because the chapter in which Perkus moves in with the dogs was published as a short story in the New Yorker. I’ve also read several references that a short story about Perkus Tooth originally appeared in an anthology before Lethem expanded it into a novel. I haven’t read the anthology, but my sense is that Lethem originally wrote an inspired and excellent short story. He should have left it at that. Instead he expanded it into Chronic City and added a new narrator (Chase Insteadman, who is only a minor character in the original short story).

So, I hated reading this book, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. The book reviews I referenced were dead on. This is a tedious book that lacks plot and is stuffed with annoying characters. BUT, the last 80 pages are good reading… just not good enough to make up for the first 400. That’s why I hated reading this book but found myself happy that I stuck around until the end so that I could find that little nugget of goodness hidden under hundreds of pages of ill-conceived and mediocre execution.