Thursday, June 30, 2011

Books: Stabbing her repeatedly with sharp, knife-like reproductive organs.

Ben H. Winters, author of the junior high punk rock detective YA book The Secret Life of Ms. Finkleman and the more recent adult horror novel Bedbugs, has probably resigned himself to the fact that he's basically going to be remembered for his novelty mash-up Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies. Oft gifted and rarely read, PPZ was notable for the odd feeling of wasted effort that haunted it. The joke concept at the core of the book was so slim that it was expended the moment one saw the title, making whatever was between the covers pretty much superfluous. In fact, worse than superfluous: The humor of the concept depended on understanding that the proposed fusion would inevitably awkward and fruitless, so the subsequent effort to carry out the plan became somewhat embarrassing and tedious. It's like the old Monty Python gag about the Proust-summarizing contest in which contestants attempt to communicate a comprehensive and lively abridgment of À la recherche du temps perdu using semaphore. The whole joke's right there. The ha-ha's come from an awareness of how ill-suited the proposed combination of medium and content is. The value of semaphore is lost to the length of the task; the value of Proust's work is destroyed by semaphore's low resolution. If you actually had to then sit through several contestants flag-waving their way through all seven volumes of Proust's semi-autobiographical masterpiece, the joke would become murderously dull. The Pythons, comedy masters that they were, only stayed on the joke long enough for the absurdity sink in, and then moved on. PPZ shows no similar insight into the logic of comedy. The experience of actually reading Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies is an experience akin to sitting through a full Proust-summarizing semaphore contest.

Happily for this reader, Winters's new book isn't bridled with the grim task of rendering a clever joke into a humorless novel-length mess. A far more nimble creature, Bedbugs is a slice of retro-influenced middle class real-estate paranoia, in the manner of Amityville or Poltergeist, repackaged as a spook story about satanic bedbugs. I kid you not. Bedbugs from Hell, literally. Using bedbugs as your central nasty is a smart idea that, I'm certain, hundreds of other horror writers - especially in New York - are kicking themselves for having not come up with it earlier. Bedbugs are ready-made horror villains, true examples of just how truly repugnant Mother Nature can let herself get.

Did you know that female bedbugs have no sexual orifice? The male bedbugs swarm the female in mating, stabbing her repeatedly with sharp, knife-like reproductive organs. If she's lucky, one of these bayonet-penises breaks through her exoskeleton at the location of her reproductive organs and fertilizes her eggs. Often, however, in the mad scramble to procreate, the males stab the female anywhere they can reach, filling other organs with their sperm, sometimes to fatal effect. Yeah, I know. That's what I was trying to tell you. An author doesn't even have to make up that part. They're already freakish little nightmares.

For the purposes of a horror story, however, its another, less Rabelais-by-way-of-American Psycho trait that makes bedbugs so attractive as the focus of a horror story. Bedbugs can be strangely hyper-selective. Even if a couple share an infested bed, it isn't unusual for just one partner to be turned into a blood buffet for the bedbugs while the other partner sleeps soundly, untouched. In real life, this causes all sorts of strain and weirdness among the families that get infected. One partner starts getting phobic about the beds and couches, they can't sleep, they get paranoid and can be found searching the bed frames at weird hours of the night. The other can't do anything but sympathize and suppress ever growing frustration. It's your basic haunted house rising-action dynamic: primary victim keeps experiencing things; they're experiences are ignored; what slim evidence there is reinterpreted by others; and people try to be sympathetic, but they really think that the victim is simply losing their marbles.

That classic formula provides gives us the framework of the first half of Bedbugs. The Brooklyniest couple that ever juggled their creative impulses with the need for middle class security moves into a new brownstone duplex in the Brooklynest Brooklyn of all Brooklyns imaginable. (Winters's efforts to situate his narrative in post-collapse Cobble Hill are nearly manic - odd pile-ups of stereotypes, place names, and brand references - and never resolve whether they're meant as reportage or satire. I'm not sure this is the fault of Mr. Winters, himself a Bostonian. Any description of parental culture in modern Brooklyn necessarily straddles the line between reportage and satire.) Before you can say "orgy of bayonet-like bedbug penises," the book's lead, former legal industry drone turned housewife and painter, finds herself falling to a plague of bedbugs who, though they are leaving bites all over her skin, can't be seen. As the book progresses, the attacks get worse and worse, but there's never any sign of the bugs. Is she crazy? (Prolly not.) Or is she under siege by demonic, supernatural bedbugs? (Now we're talking!)

Perfectly timed as summer reading, Bedbugs fuses easy humor with campy mommy-horror and the occasionally grotesque set piece. It's a bit slow to start. I imagine Winters meant this as an allusion to the deliberate pacing of '70s domestic horror, but Winters never really strives for the (mostly unmerited) gravitas of the previous works, so the result is something of a drag, as what is meant to be horror must coast on the goodwill the author builds up with his good-natured ribbing of Brooklyn. Overall, it's a likeable diversion and worth the pick-up for genre fans seeking lighter fare.

That said, publishers Quirk are doing nobody any favors with their slipshod editing of the work. I've been told that basic copyediting is no longer a function editorial house bother themselves with. The incredible number of typos and correctly-spelled but misplaced terms ("she folded the strolled") suggests this rumor is true. Setting that aside as a lost cause, editors still should have encouraged Winters to tighten up his game: his use of generic placeholder terms where precise vocabulary and description could easily be used - for example, at one point a character buys "a thing of sausage;" a package? a pound? a link? what? - regularly crosses the line from vernacular to simple laziness. Demand better, editors: that's your job. The authors will, eventually, thank you for it.

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