• Review of The Hike, by Drew Magary

    Currently a columnist for Deadspin, GQ, and other outlets, Drew Magary crafted his voice writing blisteringly satires of NFL players, coaches, and fans like Rex Ryan, Michael Vick, Rex Grossman, and "Tommy from Quinzee" at the NFL-related humor blog KissingSuzyKolber. He gained his greatest renown in a 2013 profile of Duck Dynasty's Phil Robertson for GQ that brightly illuminated Robertson's homophobia and lead to Robertson's brief suspension from the show.

    But to get a grasp of this captivating writer's career to date and put his new novel, The Hike, in its proper context, it helps to go back to the start of his online career. Magary began to draw attention in the blogosphere as "Big Daddy Drew" on a blog called "Father Knows Shit" and as an early, popular commenter on Deadspin, and the blogging medium and FKS' uproarious view of fatherhood remains a touchstone for his work. As he recently told me, "You know me, I never shut … up about dad crap. I try to use any available material I have in hand because it helps make the characters feel grounded and because I always try to get deep inside myself and try to get that on the page."

    Magary's first novel, The Postmortal (2011), is a fascinating update to the epistolary form as he used a series of blog entries to craft his novel's premise of a world without aging and the myriad complications to society that result. It was a deft move that combined the strengths of his non-fiction and online satire into the novel's form and content. In his review for Boing Boing, Mark Frauenfelder wrote, "The Postmortal is a dark, bleak tale, but it's also an exciting page turner, with bits of black humor thrown in to keep it from becoming bottomlessly depressing." In my own review for Rougarou, I wrote that "The Postmortal offers a compelling examination of humanity's paradoxical mental fragility and arrogant need to have our existence validated by others," and that Magary was a promising SF writer.

    The Hike demonstrates an expansion of this fragility through a parent fearful of losing his family to aging, poor choices, and those forces further outside human control.

    Following Frauenfelder, I can say that The Hike is also a page-turner with a more traditional narrative form—a third person narrator, straightforward plotting, etc.—that results in a successful work of contemporary fantasy. It displays a writer in command of his voice and experimenting with more traditional forms of narrative, while being inventive, funny, and, by the end of the work, quietly profound and touching. In short, if one has enjoyed Magary's fiction and non-fiction and one likes fantasy literature that is not necessarily in the Tolkienian, wizards/dragons/elves mode, then The Hike is for you. Although I found it less ground-breaking in both structure and story than The Postmortal, the ending of The Hike is both carefully earned and satisfying.

    Throughout The Hike, Magary's hallmark style of bombastic invectives at life's unfairness (as well as his prodigious profanity) often overshadows his subtle but nuanced observations of the human condition. It appears to me that deep down, there is a sensibility in his writing that cannot for one moment understand life's mysterious cruelties that fuels this writer's boiling, indignant rage.

    The Hike opens with Ben, like Magary a husband and father of three in the DC area, on what he imagines to be a routine business trip to a dumpy mountain inn in eastern Pennsylvania, a "wedding mill" Ben calls it, to meet with a vendor. Upon arriving, Ben decides to venture out for what he imagines will be a pleasant walk in the surrounding countryside. Quickly, Ben discovers that the path has taken him away from everything he has known as "normal"—he is quite off the Map app in his phone and finds himself in a hellscape worthy of Dante. Ben's adventures with his phone, including tantalizing moments when it connects to a cell tower and he can hear his family's voices, as well as his on-going battles with its capricious GPS sensor and battery, become a funny running sub-plot. Turns out, it's often nice to have a Virgil when Siri is unavailable, and a highlight of the novel is the revelation of just who is Ben's Virgil.

    The Hike grabbed me early on with its uncanny depiction of Ben's horrifying realization that he is utterly unsure of how to get back to his room, his car, his familiar life. In short order, he encounters two terrifying killers, men masked by the torn faces of Rottweilers. Once away from these dual Cerberus figures, Ben meets a girl from his past—though in this scene, Ben is no longer a soon-to-be-middle-aged businessman with a balky, surgically repaired knee, but a hale and randy college student once again. After a night of sex and rehashing their brief history, she sends the present, older version of Ben on his way with a note bearing just one line: "Stay on the path." It is a command that comes to define Ben's attempts to complete his quest to get back to his family.

    From the "is it really adultery to have sex as a past, unmarried version of yourself that might actually be a hallucination" sendoff down the path, Magary's plot twists and turns in ways that will feel comfortable to readers of fantasy—his protagonist encounters various demons, temptresses, giants, and other specters, while enduring near-starvation, a battle royal, imprisonment, forced labor, and despondent isolation. In addition to images of the fantastic, Magary draws on elements from video games (not in any way to the extent of Cline's Ready Player One (2011), though I could see some readers making such a connection). And while it builds on The Postmortal's critique of gerontophobia in youth-obsessed America, The Hike is far more interested in exploring a parent's primordial fears of loss and abandonment.

    This is a novel about the overwhelming desire that we often have of returning to our sense of our "normal" often formed in childhood. As well, Magary mines the adult fears of losing our youth, vitality, and those we cherish. Reading the novel, I often found myself thinking back to The Inferno's first lines: "Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark, / For the straightforward pathway had been lost." This is truly what The Hike is about—the journeys in adulthood that begin, so often, with the mundane but devolve into visions of despair. As in all good journey tales, The Hike ultimately strips Ben down to his core through his darkest fears and by revealing what sins he will and won't commit in order to return to those he loves.

    Ultimately, the novel pulls back from much of its potential for existential exploration in favor of a good adventure yarn, but as a second novel from this talented writer, I believe it's worth the time to seek out and explore the book's dark forest of ideas.

  • Book review: Neal Stephenson's "Seveneves" has too little humanity in the characters

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    Since 2011, Neal Stephenson has been associated with Arizona State University's Center for Science and the Imagination, whose mission is to inspire endeavors on the level of the Apollo Moon Project through Science Fiction. Among the Center's first efforts are the collection Hieroglyph: Stories & Visions for a Better Future; to which Stephenson contributed a short story about a 20 kilometer high building entitled "Atmosphaera Incognita", and wrote the Preface (BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow also contributed a story, "The Man Who Sold the World").

    In the Preface, Stephenson describes his sense of purpose for the project and science fiction in general: "SF inspires people to choose science and engineering as careers," and "Good SF supplies a plausible, fully thought-out picture of an alternative reality in which some sort of compelling innovation has taken place" (xiv). He further argues that "the imperative to develop new technologies and implement them on a heroic scale no longer seems like the childish preoccupation of a few nerds with slide rules. It's the only way for the human race to escape from its current predicament" (xv).

    Stephenson's vision for SF is compelling, optimistic stuff. However, Stephenson's new novel, Seveneves, doesn't generate the kind of excitement for the future that we've come to expect from the author of Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, and Anathem.

    Seveneves is divided roughly in half, with the first half told in two sections, the second half in one long section. Like Anathem's section late in the book where the group of avout go into space and spend a long time getting ready to invade the alien spaceship, parts one and two of Seveneves are deeply technologically detailed.

    It's not the technological details that are the problem — but to better understand the issue, let's turn to Melville as perhaps no other American writer before Stephenson offers works of equal technological and psychological complexity.

    For his presentation of all things cetological, it's the humanity in Melville's Ahab, Starbuck, Queequeg, et al. that gives readers reason to invest themselves in the breadth and depth of Moby-Dick. While there is no lack of detail on how the International Space Station operates in Seveneves, Stephenson invests too little humanity in the characters living on it, dwelling instead on the working of the try-pots, with too little of the work detailing the characters going after the whale.
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