Thursday, 29 August 2013

David Wong: This Book is Full of Spiders

This Book is Full of Spiders is a sequel to David Wong's first published novel John Dies at the End, but does neither of the obvious things which happen in a sequel; it doesn't just copy the schtick from the first book and it doesn't ramp it way past bearable. Given that John Dies at the End was borderline incoherent in its commitment to being out of its tiny mind, this was a good thing. John Dies at the End was originally published a little at a time on the web, and between the way that it reacted to the audience reaction and the fact that Wong's main writing gig was the Cracked website, which rates non sequiturs and dick jokes higher than narrative coherence, it's the novel equivalent of the driver strapping you into the passenger seat, flooring all the pedals at once and then wrenching the steering wheel off the column and frisbee-ing it out the window. Amping that up to 11 wouldn't have been good for anyone.

Of course, John Dies at the End is not a bad novel, or I wouldn't have bought the sequel with my own money. I like Wong's comic style, and in some of his longer pieces on Cracked, he comes across as the kind of person I'd enjoy having a beer with; his sense of what a person ought to do seems close to my own hard-earned belief that if you haven't made the world a little better for someone at the end of each day, you shouldn't have come to the party in the first place. And dick jokes, because as Col Stars and Stripes would say, if you can't have fun, what's the point?

John Dies at the End is so difficult to describe I'm not even going to try; it's best to imagine that Tristram Shandy has been invaded by The Naked Lunch and narrated by Bill Hicks; that doesn't really tell you what happens, but you now know the kind of metaphors to expect if you go and read it. Anything can happen, and it won't have much to do what happened in the last chapter, except in the vague sense that it will be happening to the same characters. I think one of the core theses is an effort to answer the question of what the X-Files or Supernatural would have been like if the two demon-hunters had been small-town fuck-ups and knew it. Anyhow, it's very funny and occasionally very disturbing and sometimes both at once.

This Book is Full of Spiders is recognisably set in the same small town (a nameless midWestern Hellmouth) with the same protagonists (John does not - in any permanent sense - actually die at the end of the other book). It's just a much more solidly, almost deterministically, plotted book. There's a structure of progressively more high-stakes acts, but more than that, everything which happens is building into what happens next rather than getting blown off as a hallucination before swerving off in another direction. It's actually a pretty impressive job of work from Wong, since he's constantly laying groundwork without showing his hand. Just to make it harder, he structures each of his three acts as a countdown to something horrible; chapter headings announce that it's so many hours to the massacre at the FFirth Asylum, or the Aerial Bombardment of [Undisclosed], and then the characters stumble around in an atmosphere of gathering doom until it dawns on the readers that David and John have once again managed to orchestrate a magnificent worsening of an already terrible situation without even noticing it. At the risk of adding yet another comparison, David and John are rather like Vorenus and Titus Pullo in the opening episodes of Rome, getting on with their own mundane business while the audience slowly figures out that they've just precipitated the downfall of Pompey or the assassination of Julius Caesar. For those of you immune to the charms of popular culture, substitute Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

From the purely technical point of view of the writing craft required to make this happen, Wong is playing a blinder, not least because he's doing it almost all as first person narrative with a narrator who's self-aware enough to know after the fact just what a farrago of sheer ineptitude he's describing, and he still manages to pull off his twists each time. Throw in the fact that his characters are fun and human and that Wong's a genuinely funny writer with the knack of burying opinions just when you didn't expect a real insight in among the dick jokes, and you've got a pretty good book.

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