What I gleaned about the story: Yesterday, Thomas Scott died of cancer. Today he feels a bit better. Apparently, he’s experiencing his death in reverse. Maybe tomorrow he’ll say something interesting about it.
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Note: Oddly, the book begins with an Epilogue, which usually comes at the end, but since it deals with a death, perhaps this is intentional.
Note: Here we have yet another case where the book has been laid out with both indented paragraphs and a line break between paragraphs. In addition to just feeling odd, my more functional beef about this practice is that it significantly reduces the amount of text that fits on my screen when I read. Not a capital offense, but at least a misdemeanor.
Analysis: The epilogue (which may just be a prologue) is littered with “I”-sentences, and concludes with four “I”-headed paragraphs in a row. Since very little appears to be happening in the story, there wasn’t much going on to hold my attention away from all the echoes.
It wasn’t until I began the second chapter that I had enough evidence to decide that the opening “Epilogue” really was an epilogue. A guy is lying in his hospital bed and doesn’t know what’s going on, except that he is about to die. The nurse leaves, his daughter says goodbye, and then he dies. In the next chapter, he’s feeling a little better, but it turns out that it is now a day earlier. So what had seemed to be a prologue in disguise (since it came at the beginning) really is the epilogue to the story of this guy’s struggle with cancer, because he’s experiencing things in reverse time order. Very clever.
Analysis: I’m trying to insert myself into this sick man’s death bed while ignoring the cannons of headwords echoing to the left and right of me—which for me is a rather tall order—but every time somebody speaks, I cringe a little and pull away. Take this example:
“Do you want me to call the nurse?” she asked.
“Please,” I croaked. “I’m in pain.”
It’s hard to imagine a less immersive way to convey the agony of late-stage cancer gnawing at the inside of your chest cavity, and I found the exchange stilted and unnatural. Or consider this utterance we get from the daughter a bit further down:
“Oh, Dad,” she said, fighting back the tears. “You’re very poorly. But it’s OK, don’t worry, I’m here for you, I won’t leave you.”
It’s not that the words themselves are inappropriate to the situation. It’s that they’ve been denuded of the emotional gravitas that should inform the situation and been replaced with empty clichés, which gives the whole thing a corny melodrama feel. I find it very hard to relate to characters when my eyes are constantly rolling in derision at the way they talk.
Analysis: Have you ever been at a party, trapped with some new acquaintance who spends the entire time talking about himself, without offering a whit of insight or analysis to give his rambling some kind of point? That’s what Galloping “I” disease feels like to me. Like a social prison sentence where I’ve been chained to a perpetual bore as punishment for past misdeeds.
The story concept here seems interesting—a man living backward through the final stages of his terminal illness—but that premise alone isn’t enough to warrant having to sit through the tedious minutiae of his experience. If he could break his detail obsession long enough to say something interesting about the process of dying, or to express even the slightest curiosity about why he seems to be experiencing it backward, I might be more intrigued. But sadly, he doesn’t, and I’m not.
I understand that the protagonist here is heavily medicated and perhaps not yet up to insightful commentary, but that explains his inability to engage me, not the author’s. The one cardinal rule of fiction is: Don’t Be Boring. So when your characters have to be, it becomes your job to present things in a way that is still intriguing to the reader.
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