Monday, June 1, 2009

The Signal

I've had kind of a mixed history with Ron Carlson's work--back when Rhian and I were in grad school, I loved his story collection Plan B For The Middle Class, which was funny and unsettling and diverse in approach. Carlson was kind of a poor man's John Barth, or a more accessible one, anyway.

I didn't exactly become disillusioned with Carlson--indeed, I think he kept up the quality over the years. But it seemed to me his stories were treading over familiar ground for a long time, and I never did get around to his novels. I figured I owed him another chance, and when I saw this new novel, I decided it was high time. The book is short, has an intriguing title and a cool cover, and I ended up reading it in a single night.

I must say, in spite of an opening sentence that reads like self-parody, it's quite good. It is, like my own recent novel, about a guy who goes into the woods and bad things happen, and it's written in blunt, precise prose, and moves very quickly. (The first sentence that I disliked is thoroughly anomalous.) Indeed, it's as straightforward a story as I've read in recent memory: a man named Mack has gone off the rails and ended up in jail; when he gets out, his ex-wife agrees to accompanying him on one last chaste backpacking trip, to say goodbye. But Mack is tangled up in some kind of shadowy criminal enterprise, the outlines of which even he can't see, and he is equipped with a waterproof military-grade BlackBerry which is supposed to help him find some mysterious electronic object in the woods for his sinister employer. We get the story of his life and marriage, cut through with various kinds of menace, which all turn out to be the same menace. And in the end, the book turns into a very fine meditation on masculine failure, combined with Jack-Londonesque adventure scenes, a bittersweet love story, and a moment of bizarre macabre high-tech weirdness that appears flown in from a Neal Stephenson novel.

I have to admit, I like the high-tech weirdness, even though it is completely extrinsic to the story. And the ending is satisfying--perhaps too satisfying, and certainly very dramatic. And I think that, after all these years, I like Ron Carlson again.

14 comments:

LemmusLemmus said...

So, what's the first sentence?

jrlennon said...

It is "He drove the smooth winding two-track up through the high aspen grove and crossed the open meadow to the edge of the pines at the Cold Creek trailhead and parked his father's old blue Chevrolet pickup by the ruined sign in the September twilight."

jrlennon said...

I mean, to me, that's the rural-lit equivalent of a crime novel that begins "In the thick gray fog of a black night, the psychopath with the knife in his hand stabbed the innocent grandmother as, across the inky waters of the polluted river, a raven mournfully crowed." It veers out of Bulwer-Lytton territory immediately, though.

LemmusLemmus said...

Holy moly! That's shocking stuff, not sure I would have made it past that.

And thanks!

Zachary Cole said...

Haven't read this one yet, but I can't help but ask: have either of you ever abandoned a book after the first sentence? I can think of a few times where I've read a chapter of something and passed (still in the bookstore) but never after a sentence.

Side thought: what turns me off more than cliche and run-on openers are the too eager to shock. Along the lines of "I died last Tuesday".

jrlennon said...

I usually give it a couple of pages...

zoe said...

That's a very long sentence there.

jon said...

A couple of pages? You'll never be an agent.
I wonder how that sentence survived to make it into print.

rmellis said...

I think the long crazy sentence is just designed to get attention, like the way a young man might take his clothes off and streak across a party before asking a girl out.

jrlennon said...

Right on, girls love that!!!

I don't mean for this to be a Ron-Carlson-first-sentence-bashing. But I'm with jon, it's hard to see how it made the cut, in an otherwise quite restrained piece of work. Rhian's right about its intent I think.

zoe said...

Just for the record: neither the streaking, nor the long sentence do much for me. Btw, I had a dream last night that I was hanging out with rhian and J at Lorrie Moore's house. There was also an unidentified woman who I thought (in the dream) was Jayne Anne Phillips. It was quite strange, but they were really nice.

Günter said...

According to my Kindle, I'm exactly 92% done with The Signal, and I agree with just about everything you say here -- including the bit about the first sentence. What's bad about it isn't exactly its length, it's the adjectives, and the number of things it asks you to picture at once. Carlson demands simultaneity! And you know, maybe there are one or two other sentences. (Carlson likes to say "in the ___." Sometimes that blank will be "twilight," sometimes it will be "the gray day," as in, "He looked at her there in the gray day.") Still, I'm reluctant to talk about all that, because I think people look for excuses not to read things. Every time I try to recommend a book to a friend, then go on to mention even my most minor reservations -- just trying to think critically, you understand -- that friend winds up unconvinced that she should read the book. And even if she does read the book, she's looking for reasons to dislike it the whole time. And The Signal is very good! People should read it! In my opinion, they should like it! Probably I'm just reacting to the couple of comments here that seem dismissive of everything in your post but the bit about Carlson's bad sentence. Read The Signal! Read Ron Carlson's stories!

LemmusLemmus said...

Zachary,

I've tried to think of an example but couldn't - which doesn't mean it never happened. First pages, even first paragraphs, yes. (The Tin Drum as well as many others and something by Tanja Kinkel respectively.)

jrlennon said...

Günter, "I think people look for excuses not to read things"...I think you're right! I do it myself all the time...