Monday, 5 July 2010

Christopher Brookmyre: what the hell happened to him at school?

I've just finished reading Brookmyre's Pandaemonium, which is - not that I'm obsessively keeping track - something like the third straight book he's written which is anchored in teenage angst in secondary school. He used to write about journalists and fun loving criminals, but he seems now to have headed into some weird second childhood.

I <Russell Brand> quite like </Russell Brand> Brookmyre's stuff; he's another one of those writers I buy because my recollection of the last book is driven by a vague recollection of it being amusingly written than by any real expectation that it's going to be worth keeping. Brookmyre is kind of like a successful writing version of those guys who say three clever things in the course of an evening's drinking so that you start to think of them as good company even though afterwards you can't remember anything worth telling anyone sober about.

In that vein, Pandaemonium is littered with useful putdowns for atheists to deliver to Christians; they're quite sharp and witty and you think to yourself as you're reading, oh that's clever, I must use that. Then you get to the end of the book and you remember that there's no point in bothering with sharp witty putdowns for annoying true believers, because you can't win an argument with a true believer, and no-one but you is going to think it's one bit funny to poke sticks in their cages. Yes, it is sort of clever to make the point that the Catholic church hasn't made so much headway on their mission statement of universal charity and brotherhood that they can afford to ignore those topics and concentrate on sex, but once you're out of your twenties, when are you going to say that? To someone you disagree with? You're an adult. What are you hanging out with people you disagree with for? Someone who agrees with you? So you're scoring points over people who aren't there to an admiring audience. That's made the world a better place, hasn't it.

I was, you might intuit, somewhat disappointed with the thinking in the book. But I don't really read semi-comic thrillers in the hope that I'm going to trip over the new Bertrand Russell, I read them to amuse myself and pass the time. And in the hope that they might be a bit thrilling. Pandaemonium is a bit off in its pacing and its resolution is either too rapid or not thought through enough, I can't quite decide. It's supposed to be a thriller about the forces of hell emerging from some misjudged experiment and attacking a bunch of school kids on an outward bound bonding course. This is a notion which has been the bedrock of god knows how many videogames and bad horror movies, and it's been used so much because it makes for a nice economical plot. Establish a bunch of characters, put them in hazard, show you mean it by having enough of them to kill loads of them and still have a few left over to root for. It's simple, and in movies and video games, it works.

Equally, the mad scientist with the experiment that goes wrong is older than steam - literally, come to think of it, and none the worse for that. The problem Pandaemonium has is that it takes too long on setting up the characters - both scientists and teenagers, and starts running out of road when the monsters are turned loose. The monsterama is crammed into the last third of the book and it feels rushed. Brookmyre has a problem which is quite tricky to sort out. Once the monsters are on the loose, there's lots of them and they're going to get through a lot of casualties very quickly. Perversely, this is something which takes longer to deal with on screen than it does on a page. Unless there's something seriously wrong with you, it's hard to write a death scene which takes up space on the page. Because Brookmyre is essentially a decent person, he cuts away from the gore rather than dwelling on it. and so his book has a completely different balance to the movies and games which it explicitly references. A horror movie and a video game would be one third set up, two third execution; Brookmyre can't stretch his punch line material to hit this balance and the book winds up with the wrong pacing for the action genre it's trying to echo.

The pacing is just one of those things. I don't know how you would fix it; I think the only way would be to rejig the set up so that the monsters don't all hit at once, and that's a different book, and might not work properly.

On the other hand, I do think that the book is a cop-out thematically. The elevator pitch is that demons are boiling out of the underworld, and throughout the buildup to the bust-out, the corollary to the elevator pitch is scientists and schoolkids and teachers and chaplains wondering about whether heaven and hell are real and whether there's anything to religion or not. From pretty early on, Brookmyre tips his hand; the best lines and the best arguments all go to the atheists and their sympathisers, and the believers are at best shown as well meaning people who will figure out the ugly truth eventually. Which means it's not much a surprise to me when he chokes on the possibility of real demons and gives us an ending where they're just misunderstood creatures from another dimension, but it's a disappointing execution of the idea because it's not built up to the right way. In the finished product, it feels as though Brookmyre needed to make his mind up, or more accurately show his hand, and rather than building it up with sly clues, he just drops the punchline on the table and strolls off.

I was disappointed most of all with that bit. It's not at all a bad book; I was reading it and liking it fine and thinking that there were people I'd lend it to rather than just giving it away. But it doesn't rise to the challenge it sets itself, which is to use classic horror movie/video game tropes to ponder a bit on one of the great imponderable. In the end, it takes the easy way out. I didn't want religiosity to win, I just wanted something which more faithfully caught the scale of the question of whether religion has a foundation in reality. A lot to ask of a thriller, I know.

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