Sunday, December 17, 2006

Monstrously Bad

Monster, by Frank Peretti, Read by The Author, Oasis Audio, 2005

Beware of the “best-selling” novel by an author you’ve never heard of before. Maybe, just maybe it’ll be some not-so-hidden treasure you’ve somehow managed to overlook. Most likely, it’ll be some niche-market writer whose fan-base and acclaim don’t extend very far outside that niche — and often for very good reasons.

And so pre-formulation of this advice, The Critic accepted, on recommendation, a terrifying tome by million copy seller Frank Peretti. Based on his tough sounding Mafia made-man moniker, I was expecting brutally lean prose that packed a savage punch. When I got my hands on the first available audiobook, Monster, I winced. Bigfoot, I thought incredulously, reading the jacket copy. Uhhhh….okay, whatever.

Bigfoot isn’t really used as the subject of scary movies and books all that much anymore, the shaki-cam home movies of bears or costumed men loping off into the underbrush having depressed the market with the idea’s general ludicrous conceit. Rather in the way that UFOs seem to appear with alarming frequency to three-toothed yokels from Armpit, Alabama, the monster of the Northwest woods, be he Bigfoot, Sasquatch, or the Wendigo, leaves only footprints and fleeting glimpses filmed by caffeine-jittered amateurs who don’t own tripods.

Only Monster isn’t really actually seriously about Bigfoot at all. Yes, there is a Bigfoot in it, a whole Bigfoot family, in fact, but the title doesn’t actually apply. Much like Frankenstein as a name isn’t the reanimated flesh in the novel but the doctor, the real monsters in this book are the human beings. And who, pray tell, are these monstrous human beings? Why, scientists who believe in evolution, naturally.

For you see, Monster isn’t actually much of a novel to be precise. What it is instead is a not particularly cleverly constructed anti-science/anti-evolution tract churned out from the pen of Christian fiction’s leading supernaturalist. This is quite a distinct title separate from LaHaye and Jenkins who are supernaturalists of a different stripe. For their scenes of magical unreality stem from either God’s mystery and majesty or from the wickedness of the Antichrist. And while their writing is fantastically, baroquely ridiculous in the extreme, there is an underlying theological structure that holds the whole shambling mess together more or less.

Peretti’s kind of freelance Christian philosophizing, based in his Pentecostalism, focuses more on daily life but has a tendency to muddle his particular message. For example, if you’re going to write an anti-evolution book and you’re a Bible literalist, the introduction of Bigfoot rather throws your argument into a mess. Did it never strike the author that a simian species of near human intelligence not described in the Bible, living separate from humanity but sharing some of our general communication abilities, might beg the question of origins?

But let us look at the book’s story for more . Shortly after a mysterious opening scene, we meet Reed and Beck setting out on a camping expedition. He’s gung-ho, she’s game for his sake. We learn rather quickly that Beck has a stutter, a fact introduced and dwelled upon in a way that leads you to understand that of all the characters she will undergo the most suffering and will come out of it having cast off her stutter. It’s a trait that telegraphs its function to the story so broadly as to be visible from outer space.

Arriving at their cabin, Beck and Reed discover it’s been ransacked by some creature of enormous strength. Fleeing, the two are separated, and Beck’s scheduled kidnapping by the sasquatch family proceeds apace. Enter their friends Michael “Cap” Capella, a disgraced ex-scientist, and his wife Sing, a Coeur d’Alene Indian, who find Reed and instigate the search whereupon dozens of rangers and whatnot ascend into the mountains of Idaho to track, rescue, capture, kill, whatever.

When Peretti sticks to this business in question, the cops and forest rangers and the fetishization of rifles and GPS tracking devices (and believe me, I have never read any piece of writing that referenced GPS tracking devices with more frequency; it probably outdoes the operator’s manual for such things), he’s on pretty safe ground. The tension is passably raised at points, and the conflict between elements of the search and rescue team, who argue whether rescue actually should even apply anymore, is entertaining.

But when Cap decides to investigate the DNA samples found on the trail, Peretti stumbles and falters so badly it’s a wonder even he didn’t recognize it. The tedious moralizing and speechifying when Cap gets into arguments with other scientists demonstrates the man’s clear lack of knowledge or understanding. Among the many hoary old Christian fundamentalist tactics whipped up are the ignorant attack on beneficial mutation, blatant shout outs to the choir with dialogue snippets like such “evolutionists have no alternative to being honest” and “Science? Wouldn’t you call it the only game in town?” and the martyrdom of Cap, fired from his job because he refused to believe in evolution.

Peretti rather likes dealing in laboratory equipment terminology, the kind of thing that can be impressive to laymen, as well as the occasional to liberal dropping of scientific jargon as though that were sufficient to seal the deal. Personally, I’m not inclined to take seriously a man’s scientific bona fides when he so cavalierly tosses around “nanosecond” and “microsecond.” Doors shut nanoseconds before people turn corners. People freeze their movements for a microsecond. That’s just patently foolish writing, apart from physiologically impossible to observe.

What Cap gets wind of down at the lab, though, is where the real monsters of the book come to play. Apparently, frustrated by the lack of concrete evidence to conclusively “prove” evolution, as though real scientists were as put off by the word “theory” as so many ignorant people are, and as though there weren’t sufficient evidence to be quite convincing in a myriad of fields, Cap’s ex-colleague Adam Burkhardt decides to tinker with a chimpanzee’s DNA, adding in human genetic material to “speed up” the process.

No, really. Peretti is so badly versed in genetics and evolution that he actually believes a scientist would credibly conceive of this idea, would be swayed by the notion of accelerating natural selection by splicing two differing species DNA together. He still really seems to believe that simplified popular shorthand, “we descended from monkeys.”

Worse still, the superfreak monster created by this addition of human material is the one who’s really responsible for all the killing and mayhem, not the real Bigfeet who’ve kidnapped Beck. There seems to be this notion that if you were to try to make chimps more human by adding human DNA you’d create a maddened superkiller. I suppose this is somewhat related to the weird idea many religious people have that only a belief in a deity prevents the world’s population from wide-scale rape, murder, and pillaging. (I suppose those who mouth this idea have never considered how insulting it is — to themselves — to suggest that only the threat of eternal damnation keeps them from incredible acts of violence.)

After Cap’s discovery, he has an interesting exchange with the dean of the science department in which names are dropped of the groups who’ve been interested in the work of Burkhardt and have invested in it: Euro-Atlantic Oil, the Carlisle Group, and Public Broadcasting. What a strange group of bankrolling superbaddies. Later they are joined by the shadowy oh-so evil sounding “Evolution Channel.” Yes, that’s right, even the CEO of a cable channel devoted to evolution is involved in this devilish business. Yet who will stop PBS and one of the most powerful defense contract-related private equity investment firms from unleashing these beasts?

Threat of exposure leads Burkhardt to attempt Cap’s murder and leads his goons (scientific research labs have goons? who knew?) to shoot Cap’s wife Sing in the head. After Sing is shot, only wounded but not dead, she continues to act, killing her shooter, then going about the business of helping Reed find Beck, not bothering to phone for an ambulance to save herself. This is the worst kind of authorial malpractice in which a wounded character exists only to advance the plot before either dying or being revived for closing credits reunions with tears and holding hands, the character never once considering their own safety or life.

And how has Reed been holding up during the search? Not so well. Both he and the rangers are all prepared to write Beck off as dead on the tiniest shred of her leather jacket smeared with blood. You know you have a solid bedrock to your marriage when a scrap of bloody clothing is enough for him to begin sporting black armbands and widower’s weeds.

Of course, everything turns out all right in the end. The bad monster is killed, the bad guys are killed or captured, and Cap is even hired back at the lab. Why? Who the hell knows? Peretti isn’t telling, though a revived Sing declares, “when you’re right, you’re right.” What exactly Cap was right about we’re never clued in to. Apparently, it’s enough for one mad scientist to be wrong for all of evolution to be pulled down and chucked at esteemed schools of higher learning.

Apart from the book’s ludicrousness in plot matters, it also shares with its Christian cousins in the rapture business the flaw of simply bad prose, bad in the worst possible sense of bad. Consider, if you will, this description of Reed the morning after Beck’s kidnapping by Bigfeet: “His hair was matted from sweat, his face and clothes were those of a desperate man who lost his wife and spent his night under a fallen tree.” Really? That’s a specific look?

At suitable moments “time stretched into an eternity” and people were “frozen in time.” This isn’t grandly bad, just the kind of poor clichés professional writers should never be allowed to get away with. Hearing bad news, Reed at one point “..collapsed like a condemned building imploding.” Well, that’s certainly evocative, no? And when depression comes over him, we learn that “A shadow crept into his mind like black ink permeating a parchment...” Ooo, alliteration.

Finally, there’s a very good reason why authors are rarely asked to read their own work. Peretti, right out of the gate, is a corny reader, drawing out words in that kind of hokey overacting bad poetry readers are often prone to. It’s a bit patronizing, as though the mood and the ideas needed to be deliberately telegraphed to us the listeners, much the way I read to my three year old. He is aided and abetted in this by the producers who add fright music at climactic moments, sound effects at chapter beginnings, and other ephemera of theatricality. Beck’s stutter allows him to unashamedly spit on his microphone at regular intervals while the Bigfoot “language” gives the author free range to click, grunt, howl, squeal, and otherwise sublingually mug for the listening audience. It’s the embarrassing capper to a book I’d be embarrassed to be seen reading, let alone to be the author.

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