Tuesday, 23 July 2013

The Watchers: Jon Steele

The Watchers is an oddly structured book. The front two thirds of it are slow and foggy, as the three main characters circle around each other never quite connecting and never quite understanding the world they're in. Then the back third pulls the trigger on the plot, answers all the formless questions in the front end and chucks action where before there was talk and confusion. To simplify it down to a thing I say a lot, it's another one of those things where two different works seem to have collided with each other to the detriment of both.

One of the books is an affecting low-key story of distanced, broken people trying to make sense of their dislocation in the orderly paradise of modern Switzerland. The other book is a comic book horror romp about angels and demons having it out over the fate of the world in the shadows of Lausanne cathedral. I think I'd have quite liked either of them, but much as I'm one of those sad people who eats his vegetables, and then his meat, one thing after another rather than all together, I wasn't at all sure that I liked the two of them mashed together that way. It didn't help much that Steele handles the anomie and dissociation much better than he handles the action. While everyone was just pottering about, I was wondering where the hell it was all going, but enjoying the characters' company. Once it turned to fisticuffs, I was wondering what the hell was going on and not really enjoying anything all that much. Partly because Steele seems to have taken it on himself to invent jitter cam for the printed page. When no-one's ever done something before in an art form less than a hundred years old, fair enough; maybe no-one's had time to think of it before. On the other hand, people have been writing novels for ... just ages. The field is littered with geniuses. It's pretty safe to assume at this point that if you've just had a new technical idea, it's a bad one.

I'm not having an awful lot of luck with angels and demons duking it out in fiction; Mercury Falls didn't do much for me either. It's a pity, because I'm a complete sucker for that line of fiction; if you're going to mess around with good versus evil, you might as well go the whole hog, and I have a perverse affection for the literary conceit of making good and evil just another job full of guys trying to get through the day. Steel's angels draw their sensibility more from Blackwater contractors than long-suffering chair polishers, so that the ineffable unknowability of the divine is forever being hand waved by reference to "You don't need to know." and "That's above your pay grade." instead of the old standbys of "There are things mere man is not meant to know." It's a fun gloss on an old problem, both for religion and writers; if you want to keep the customers on the edge of their pews, you have to draw them in with a little mystery. You have to make it clear that you have all the answers, but that the customers aren't ready for them yet. They'll have to stick around for the whole show, do things your way for a bit, wait patiently and do the right things so that in the fulness of time it will all become clear to them.

And just as in religion, a big part of the sell is that if you're patient and do all the right things, what appears to be the end is just a new beginning. The Watchers ends on a sequel hook. I'm still processing how I feel about that. Would I read a follow-up? Is there enough left unsorted in the characters to make me come back and find out what's still bothering them? I don't know. The book felt so literary at the beginning - its opening prologue was so well written that I bought the book on the strength of it, only to realise that it had very little to do with the rest of the book - that it never occurred to me that it might have been conceived as part of a series. Only as I read the coda and realised that it was a sequel set-up, did it sink in that this was always intended as something bigger. Then the slowness and the odd structure fell into place. And when I check Amazon, as you do, I see that the second book in a projected trilogy came out a month or so back. I didn't push "buy it now." Time will tell.

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