Sunday, 9 October 2016

Connie Willis; Crosstalk

This is a book you read for the pleasure of the journey, because the destination, even the itinerary, has been telegraphed in the first thirty pages. Literally nothing goes to waste; every single character is there for a reason. Pay attention; passing references which seem to be just part of the mile a minute dialogue are as often as not the introductions of key characters who are going to show up at any minute. And yet, there are no real surprises. The suspense resides mostly in wondering just how long it’s going to take before the characters finally catch on to what the reader knows.

To some extent this is pure Connie Willis. Willis has spent most of her writing career writing about misunderstanding. Nearly every book has turned on misunderstanding and error, and so of course she’s written a romance novel. All romance novels are about misunderstanding, as the heroine completely fails to recognise the man of her dreams despite the reader seeing it a mile off. The extraordinary thing about the book will elude anyone reading Willis for the first time; the plot, the surprises, the resolution are all as utterly obvious as the final outcome of the Mills and Boon romances which Willis is echoing.

With anyone else, I’d think it was the writer getting lazy, but Willis isn’t lazy. She’s getting longwinded as she goes along, but she writes well enough to make that an acceptable vice. It’s almost as though she’s saying to her regular readers; here’s one with no surprises. See how you like it.

I liked it fine; you can’t spend time in Willis’ company without enjoying yourself. Her books are full of people talking over each other in different voices, as if she’s somehow taking dictation on the set of a series 1930s screwball comedies now lost to us, and if you can’t just sink into the fun of the language then there’s something dead in you. But it’s not a good Willis book. In Bellwether she did most of the workplace chaos and comedy in a fraction of the space and with a much better pay off. And if you want drama and romance, you need only look at Lincoln’s Dreams, her astonishing second novel. For pure drama, there are very few SF books by anyone which surpass Doomsday Book. If that’s just too intense, To Say Nothing of the Dog is in some ways her masterpiece; the stakes aren’t high, but the complexity of the plotting and the depth of literary reference and sheer cleverness is extraordinary. 

In other words, if you already like Connie Willis, this is going to seem a slip, and if you don’t already like Willis, this isn’t the place to start.

In other news, if you’re Irish, there’s a lot of little things which are just going to feel like chewing tinfoil, starting with the idea that anyone christened Bridget would ever be called Briddey. On the other hand, this is Irish America, which has always felt like a terrible parody of Ireland anyhow. Maybe it’s completely true to that.

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