Twisted Stretched

TwistedI was recently reminded of Jonathan Kellerman’s novel Twisted. It came up in a conversation about Ayn Rand’s novels. There are many things to dislike about them: bad plots and ridiculous characters come easily to mind. But without doubt the most annoying thing about her novels is how she puts her philosophy in the mouths and minds of her two-dimensional characters. John Galt’s 8 hour long speech is the most striking example of this.

I stopped reading Twisted about 100 pages in because his philosophy was seeping into his characters’ thoughts. It is rare that I just put down a book, but I was very angry. But after mentioning the book, it started to bug me that I didn’t know how the plot ended. The novel started fairly well with an unusual string of murders—a new kind of serial killer. So I set out to find the book and finish it.

Finding the book turned out to be harder than I had anticipated. It turns out that Kellerman has written a gazillion novels, most with similar titles: Rage, Deception, Therapy. And similar plots. What’s more, he has written so many books that people tend to subdivide them by the series: Alex Delaware is the main one, but there are now five in the Petra Connor series that Twisted is part of.

Eventually I did locate the book. And the first thing I noticed was Jonathan Kellerman’s picture on the back of the novel. As a general rule, I hate modern author photos. What ever happened to the somber and serious author? Steinbeck never smiled, but sometimes smirked. Today, they all have smiles as big as their books. This is probably because these writers are paid so well. But Kellerman takes it to new heights: he is clearly wearing make-up. No class.

I got down to the business of reading Twisted. Kellerman is a fast read. He needs to be. I have never read an author who spends so much time on trivial matters. It is as though he really only had a novella and decided to fluff it up into a novel. It isn’t enough for Isaac to find the note in the lunch his mother prepared for him. He has to pick up the lunch, ride on the bus, get hungry, look in the lunch, find the note, get off the bus, and get on a different one. I am not kidding. And it could have been worse, because it was, in other parts of the book. For example, we could have been treated to two pages of Isaac’s experience of eating his lunch.

It is a lot easier to start a novel than to end it. A great example of this is Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg. Its first part is very good, but the second part is weak and the third awful. It is all about expectations. Peter Høeg set expectations very high and he had no denouement equal to them. I’m sure that even at his best, Kellerman is nowhere near as good as Høeg. Still, he does set some high expectations at the beginning of Twisted.

Isaac has determined that for the previous 6 years, there has been a murder right around midnight on June 28 that all involved a depressed skull fracture. We don’t learn much about these murders once they are brought up on page 32. Then, on page 305 (of a 372 page novel), we learn the reason behind the pattern. And it is neither Isaac nor Petra who figures it out; it is a naughty librarian.

When reading a book like this, part of the fun is figuring out who done it. There was no way to do so in this novel. The author didn’t give you enough information until he gave all the information. What was the key? A 1897 book, “The Sins of the Mad Artist: an Account of the Horrible Deeds of Otto Retzak”—a psychiatric examination of a serial killer. And what was the connection? Retzak was an artist and the killer in Twisted was an artist. That’s it! That’s all the justification Kellerman provides.

What’s more, the plot depends upon Isaac having a gun at the end, so Kellerman provides him with one through a preposterous subplot. There are many other subplots. There is a mass murder that initially seems like the main plot. There is Isaac’s sex life. There is Petra’s sex life. And on and on. It is all filler, and in the end, the whole plot is as well.

I would hope that Kellerman used to be better than he is in this book. Twisted was his twentieth book. But it begs the question: why is he still writing? There is no art in this book. It is pure commerce that starts with the first word and ends with the made-up author’s picture on the back cover.

Afterword

On page 302, Kellerman writes, “She threw back her head and laughed.” If people threw their heads back and laughed, this would still be a tired description. But I don’t ever remember anyone throwing their head back and laughing. The only reason people aren’t publicly laughing at Kellerman is that this sentence is late in the book in the middle of a lot of poor writing. Had it been the first sentence in the book, it would rightfully be placed in alongside “It was a dark and stormy night” as one of the worst lines of all time.

Speaking of which. Here are three opening sentences that I think are rather good:

These are the times that try men’s souls: the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. —Thomas Paine, The American Crisis

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only. —Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. —William Gibson, Neuromancer

Daily Show Triples Down on “Fast and Furious”

The Daily ShowThe Daily Show often annoys me. Unlike The Colbert Report, Jon Stewart seems to have at least a couple of “conservative” comedians. Or his otherwise liberal comedians really have to strain when trying to produce comedy from a conservative standpoint. For various reasons, The Colbert Report feels no need to pander. (For one thing, many conservatives like the character in the same way many liked Archie Bunker.) As a result, even though the best episodes of The Daily Show are better, The Colbert Report is far more consistent.

Over the last week, Jon Stewart has done three segments on the BATF’s “Fast and Furious” program. He was clearly happy to have the opportunity to tout his cherished even-handed “just the facts ma’am” approach. The problem is that the “Fast and Furious” program was not what it was sold as. Fortune Magazine has an excellent article about it. In it, Katherine Eban tells how the program worked: suspected straw purchasers were allowed to offload their purchases to other buyers, but the weak Arizona state laws prevented (or at least dissuade) prosecutors from indicted the straw purchasers. This contrasts starkly with the cable news meme that the BATF sold guns to straw purchasers who sent them south where one was used to kill Brian Terry.

The Daily Show made the same mistake it often satirizes news agencies for: not waiting until all the facts are in. Here, they threw out the conservative meme that the “Fast and Furious” program was a conspiracy to gut the Second Amendment, but accepted that the rest of the story coming from the conservatives was right.

Those who get their news primarily from Jon Stewart have now had three opportunities to get the conservative myth about the “Fast and Furious” program. And barring the conservatives doing something even more ridiculous, it looks like that’s all Daily Show viewers will know. After the contempt vote in the House today, The Daily Show will have one more chance to set the record straight. My bet is that they’ll pass.