REVIEW: Empty Vessels by David O’Donoghue

Saturday , 1, April 2017 16 Comments

Give me your bland, your depressing, your alienating– your unceasing agony as you yearn to depart from life…!

Seriously, who decided that despair is the default setting for “literary”? Who decided that ineffectuality is the starting point for “thoughtful”? And gosh, I know everyone has had their share of hard knocks over the years. But for the life of me I can’t imagine why anyone would turn over storytelling duties to someone that actually thought that there is no hope for anything remotely like victory, success, or a happily ever after, in this life or the next.

This is going to be harsh. But this really gets down to the root of why normal people don’t read. This is why short science fiction and fantasy is basically dead. This is why nearly everyone that dips into it off and on over the years thinks “nothing to see here!”, sets down the magazine, and goes and finds something else to do.

Let’s start with the opening hook:

Gary listened to the orchestra of the checkout line- the steady beep of the scanner, the insect chatter of unfurling bags, the percussion of wine bottles thudding down on the conveyor belt- and he had a decision to make. It wasn’t quite the life-or-death choice he had faced a few minutes prior– ordinary or gluten-free barbecue sauce– but it was still a difficult one.

Now I get it that this is a “deep thoughts” type of science fiction story. There are other types of short fiction out there besides pulp adventure. But I’ll tell you something. You simply do not hook anyone for any kind of writing by starting out with someone standing in line at a grocery store thinking about maybe thinking about doing something.

Granted… there’s kind of a trick here. This is a tale about boring people who electronically tune out whenever they’re bored. (Which is basically all the time.) You could argue that there is a bit of artistry in making the reader experience just that sort of feeling. It might even sound smart to do so. But it would still be really, really dumb because it’s just a lame attempt to redefine failed storytelling as success!

Here’s the first big emotional punch:

He went on for a moment about his boss and Lisa nodded and murmured in agreement. Then the ball was in her court and it was her turn to moan and complain. Ever since Gary was knocked from 4 days to 3 days a week Lisa had owned most of the valuable ‘job complaint’ space in the evening. Gary’s stomach roiled and turned in jealousy every time she rattled off a list of nurses and orderlies who had been annoying her this week. Gary listened in silence and tried to keep track of the tangled web of love and hate and endless, endless names. He watched her mouth move and his eyelids began to droop. He supported his face with his left hand to keep from nodding off and then, seeing an opportunity, his finger snaked up behind his ear. Then it was Phil listening to Lisa.

That’s right. All this build up leading to a guy tuning out his wife’s droning complaints about what’s going on at work. And the big climax…? A marriage breakup that’s initiated by people too checked out to feel anything.

Once upon a time, science fiction was a literature of the future. It was necessarily upbeat and forward looking. This…? The technological element introduced here is completely unnecessary to the “plot” and the things this story depicts already happen every day. And yet… I wouldn’t call this “realistic.” But it is brazenly normal in the most underwhelming way possible.

Does anyone really see themselves as normal, though…? Everyone these days is talking about how essential it is that they get stories with people that are like them in them. I can’t imagine the person that would genuinely see themselves in this. Even in its fallen state, the human spirit naturally recoils at the premise of this story. The only believable protagonist in this sort of scenario would be one that is in rebellion– like Guy Montag in the world of Fahrenheit 451 or Neo in The Matrix. The only likable protagonist would be one that cannot accept this sort of status quo, either in his career or in his personal life. Even the most dystopian of seventies movies like Logan’s Run tapped into a desire for escape. Even the distinctly unheroic character if Frank Frink in The Man in High Castle has a sincere drive to better his situation by pursuing an independent business venture with every ounce of ingenuity he could muster.

Maybe there are people in the multi-verse space/time continuum that have truly given up and that have absolutely no means of changing themselves, their situation, or anything about the world. It happens, sure. One thing you can count on with that, though: nobody wants to read about those people.

16 Comments
  • Nathan says:

    ” But it is brazenly normal in the most underwhelming way possible.” – Literary realism in a nutshell.

  • Anthony says:

    To be fair, I can see a way this sort of thing could work out well.

    There is a book by Markus Zusak called “I Am the Messenger”. Excellent book.

    The protagonist is a lazy and unmotivated loser who drives a cab, pines after a slut, and leaves in a cheap apartment with a 17 year old dog. His mother treats him like crap and he has absolutely no prospects.

    And I realized partly through the book…that was the point. Not that we’re supposed to like this guy, but to see if giving even a guy like this can go on a mission to make the world a better place.

    BUT – the catch is that THAT book starts off with the main character stopping an armed robbery. So we know that there’s SOME kernel of potential in him from the start.

    I highly recommend it. Fantastic book. Love the author.

    • Anthony says:

      (And then later in the novel he takes a rapist at gunpoint and forces him to skip town on pain of death. So, yeah.)

    • Jeffro says:

      This is the one case where playing the devil’s advocate really isn’t “to be fair.”

      It’s senseless.

      • Anthony says:

        Sorry. I didn’t mean to minimize the review; I agree with you that it’s the big problem with lit fic (in fact, this is pretty much the point of superversive SF).

        But I did think it was worth mentioning that there are some ways a protagonist like that could work. It’s a VERY difficult trick to pull off though, and most authors shouldn’t try.

  • Marina says:

    Sounds like the perfect candidate for [insert a Prestigious Award Here]. Seriously, though, having a bored loser protagonist is not in itself a problem; it’s the fact that he is a bored loser all throughout the story and ends up pretty much where he started. It’s the old “life sucks and then you die” type story that used to be confined to the literary works imposed on unsuspecting high schoolers, but has almost become a genre unto itself.

    A loser protagonist who rises to the occasion when the situation calls for it is an entirely different story, any superficial similarities notwithstanding.

  • Now for the 64000 dollar question: why,on what grounds, do so called literary fiction writers consider themselves to be in the same camp as Homer, Virgil, Milton, Shakespeare, or anyone else who is actually literary?

    I can see the relation between, say, Enkidu and Conan the Barbarian, or between Shakespeare’s Oberon and Neil Gaiman’s. I can see no relation between this dreck and even the stupidest clown in Rabelais.

    What we spinners of stories of heroes and lovers, yarns of wonder, war stories, tall tales, do is literature.

    What they do is the opposite. Their work is to literature as Orwellian Newspeak is to truth: a deliberate acid meant to dissolve it.

  • Kevyn Winkless says:

    I’m going to confess: I actually like literary SF. Yes, that’s right: I read stories in Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Clarkesworld, ad nauseam, and yes I am sometimes really very impressed by the skill of the writer. The trouble is that stories like this one aren’t literary – they’re “literary”. They’re art without substance, which is why they stumble and feel like nihilistic navel gazing.

    Some of the best fiction of the last 100 plus years has been cuttingly introspective. Look at Hemingway’s work. Look at Steinbeck. Some of the most poignant has been social commentary. Look at Sinclair’s The Jungle. For goodness sake look at Bradbury and P.K. Dick! Look at the commentary of Gibson’s early shorts! Octavia Butler’s work!

    Literary SFF isn’t the problem. It’s that we don’t seem to have anyone really stepping up! That wouldn’t be an issue if only they wouldn’t pretend to depth they don’t have. Occasionally you see good work, but there seems little of real worth – and lacking alternatives we end up with philosophical zombie fiction: it has the form but not the blood and spirit of the real thing.

    • I’m trying, man, I’m trying.

    • Cambias says:

      But Hemingway wrote stories about people DOING things, even as he chronicled their inner lives. He wrote about people going big-game hunting, going bullfighting, fighting in World War I, hunting and fishing in Michigan, encounters with gangsters, love affairs both happy and unhappy. There’s always an incident or an anecdote on top of the introspection.

  • Xavier Basora says:

    I have a possible answer.

    The rise of aliteracy

    https://thewalrus.ca/the-rising-tide-of-educated-aliteracy/

    It provides clues as to why people no longer read and maybe what could be done.

    The despair and pretentious lit writing are cogent reason notvto read. Why read such dismal dreainess when video games caputre that sense of wonder that the original pulps had

  • Xavier Basora says:

    Here’s a apropos editorial in Catalan about nuturing a country of readers by focussing on the children and youth

    http://www.ara.cat/opinio/que-no-aspirar-pais-lectors_0_1770423048.html

  • I think you’re spot on; you need to be able to root for a protagonist, and until he’s forced into action, i.e., conflict, that’s unlikely. It’s hard to root for a guy standing in a checkout queue, unless, as you say, he upends the mind numbing boredom of the opening, which sets up the story.

    But here’s the thing that interests me about this ongoing discussion (which I’ve followed with interest – thank you). I read bucket load of sci-fi and detective/mystery fiction as a teen. I also gave up on sci-fi as a teen. I still find detective/mystery fiction that engages me (e.g., Jo Nesbro, Henning Mankell, Alexander McCall Smith, Natsuo Kirino). Sure, there are MFAs doing their best to destroy detective stories too, but there are plenty of other writers to keep me occupied. There are not, as far as I can tell, very many sci-fi writers who can hold a candle to the best detective fiction authors. Where is the contemporary The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for sci-fi?

    I can still remember discovering Dune. It was around the same time I discovered Sherlock Holmes. Both genres thrilled me. One has continued to do so, but the other doesn’t. I tend to find my sci-fi fix on film these days (and I’m very satisfied there either, but that’s perhaps another topic).

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