[the book rat project] Week 5: An Abject Failure


In our fifth week of the Book Rat Project — a sustained experiment in which a book critic (me) attempts to act as a human algorithm for a willing subject (my Phoenix colleague Will Delman) — I made a significant miscalculation by assigning  Robert Arellano's Curse the Names. The subject's reaction was incredibly adverse [in layman's terms, he despised it]. With great shame, I deliver his report:


There's not much I can say to recommend Curse the Names; straightforward, uncomplicated and rapidly paced, the plot follows the straight line, self destructive trajectory of James Oberhelm, a reporter at Surge, the fictional in-house magazine published by the Los Alamos National Laboratory. After a casual encounter at a medical clinic, Oberhelm embarks on an implausible, drug-fueled quest that seems to promise earth shattering, or at least mildly interesting developments that never come to pass.

And it isn't just the plot that fails to deliver. The sentences move the story along at warp speed, but that's all they manage to accomplish. None of the themes (such as they are) or scenes are given time to develop. Arellano has barely introduced his main character before he's tearing him down. None of the other characters are around long enough to make an impression. Worst of all, this book commits a cardinal sin against the noir genre, telling its tale with no sense of humor, no irony and no self-awareness of its own internal foolishness.

I wish I had more to say, but the truth is that this is a short work, made shorter by a lack of depth, without concepts that can be divorced from a bare bones plot. In fact, Curse the Names feels like the skeleton of a longer, more fully imagined work of fiction. It's sad when the jacket copy is more interesting than the novel. So, if you like noir take The Book Rat's advice: leave Curse the Names on the bookstore shelf and pick up something by Chandler, or for a more modern, speculative-fiction take on the genre, the infinitely better Yiddish Policemen's Union.

The Book Rat Letter Grade: D


What can I say? I thought it looked fun. 

If the subject was a Tamagachi, he'd be flat-lining. He needs a dose of something wonderful to maintain his faith in the project. And thus, I've assigned him Heidi Julavits's latest novel, The Vanishers. She's one of my favorites, and this is her most accessible work to date. Plus, my boyfriend and I both loved it, and that should count for something. If I fail this time, I'll have second thoughts about the future of this project. But, even if they cut our funding, I'll persist like James Franco in Journey to the Center of the Planet of the Apes



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