There are many things that are just painfully wrong with this, but I’m just going to focus on the protagonist. One: you generally need to make the protagonist likable enough that you wouldn’t mind seeing him reproduce at some point. Two: it gets even better if he’s got a love interest that is actually a bit of a catch. You could go on from there to talk about what makes romantic tension work in general, but this is really the point where the author goes off the rails.
We have a main character here that is in tears in every other scene, that has been dumped by his girlfriend who seems to have regularly cheated on him and who immediately upon the breakup got with some other dude. She is worse than worthless and he is an idiot for being hung up on her. I just want to punch this guy– and I certainly don’t want to read about him. That he wants to kill himself because of this doesn’t make me feel bad for him. It destroys any respect I might have for him as a person. But this author seems to think that pivoting to this theme will really grab me and make me care and have feelings and stuff. No, it doesn’t.
The author hasn’t even tried to write a likable character. If you read this story, you end up spending thirty minutes inside this person’s head space. Shouldn’t you become invested in this person? Shouldn’t the author want you to care? Maybe it seemed like a subversive or artistic move to make a story about a contemptible loser…. In actuality, it turned something that should have been enjoyable into complete torture.
This is, for me at this point, in the running for the dumbest paragraph out of all of the Hugo Nominated works this year:
I forced my tears back into my eyes and started doing the dishes. But as your lips on the glasses dissolved in the suds, I was constantly being haunted by visions of other men caressing the skin I wanted to caress, kissing the mouth I wanted to kiss, and fucking the girl I had made love to for such long nights. Visions that made me attack the crockery with so much aimless remorse that trembling glasses took cover beneath dinner plates, and I started toying with the terrifying yet tempting idea of smashing a glass on the kitchen counter and slicing my wrists with the shards.
It sounds like something out of a really bad creative writing class. I mean it’s a standard tactic for the kids that never go into the sun, that dye their hair black, and that (in my day) would have listened to way too much of The Cure. But what in the world is this doing on the Hugo shortlists…?!
Some of my friends are trying to convince me that I’m just too hard on this piece. After all… haven’t I ever been in love? Oh please. The guy is consumed by a girl that was cheating on him even when they were still dating. Is that really someone that’d deserve an epic quest? Someone you ought to sacrifice everything for in some grand gesture? Someone… that if you can’t have them, you might as well just give it up and put yourself out of your own misery? Good grief, man. Your own grandmother would tell you that there’s plenty of other fish in the sea. Your friends would tell you she wasn’t good for you in the first place. Get a grip, man!
This sort of thing happens in real life I guess– to guys that are incomprehensibly desperate– but it is utterly asinine. I refuse to call that sort of blatantly self destructive madness “love.” It isn’t. It’s a pathetic obsession from a guy that has no concept of his own worth as a human being. You cannot respect a man that refuses to do better than that.
Another friend of mine points out that it’s perfectly legitimate to write a story about “contemptible losers”. Well that may be. And yes, Bill Murray’s career was built on the idea of people enjoying just that sort of thing. There’s the smart aleck that gets dumped by his girlfriend in the opening scene of Stripes. There is the lecherous charlatan from Ghostbusters. There is that indefatigable chump from Groundhog Day. Funny stuff. But none of it is about navel gazing slobs that are completely worthless piss poor substitutes for human beings. Here’s a clue: if your girlfriend is routinely cheating on you, then maybe she’s not that into you and even if you do manage to win her back, you seriously do not have much of a prize there, fella. There’s nothing funny or entertaining or romantic about that.
But this author isn’t taking this really problematic scenario and trying to make it engaging or entertaining or fun or anything like that. No, he’s blowing it up into epic proportions. This guy is so in love, it literally turns the whole world upside down when it goes wrong. Uh… okay. This is almost as great as that time that Rachel Swirsky made sure to have her narrator wear green when she was the best woman at a wedding– you know, to highlight just how envious she was. It’s cool that y’all want to get all literary and stuff… but come on, you can maybe try to pull it off with a little more panache next time…!
Vivienne Raper over at Futures Less Travelled sums up the problems with this far better than I can:
Not only does the reader lack access to external reality. There is no external reality. Say you’re a soccer player who flunks a game. You’re still moaning that night in a pizzeria, and your teammate says “Stop crying over spilt milk, dammit!” Back at home, your fridge explodes, flooding the floor with semi-skimmed, and the next morning a passing milk truck crashes through your front wall. You might start wondering whether you’re a fictional character, stuck in a gigantic metaphor for “getting over a past loss”, and with the power to unconsciously shape the stuff of reality into a reflection of your angst. The milk truck driver? Who cares about his feelings; the world revolves around you.
The net effect of this is that there’s practically no sense at all of any kind of actual story. Far from being a fugue or a sonata, there is just this steady drone of someone weakly feeling sorry for themselves. Its not just 10,000 words of navel gazing… the setting is itself one gigantic navel. And the main character is so wrapped up inside his own head, there is nothing like any true dialog… and thus, no harmony, no dissonance, and no friction. In my book, this only just barely even qualifies as even being a story. And it isn’t really either science fiction or fantasy. There really is no good reason for this sort of thing to be on the shortlists.