Friday, August 30, 2013

Love in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block

Love in the Time of Global Warming is Francesca Lia Block’s latest young adult novel.  I know, I know, I swore after the last novel I wouldn’t read anymore of her books but I was excited to see that she was using classic mythology as a source of inspiration, something she has done to good effect in the past.  And if there is some hubris implied in her following the footsteps of such writers as Joyce and the Coen brothers by choosing Homer’s The Odyssey, she could certainly have done worse. 

Well, she could have done worse in her choices.  I’m not sure she could have written a worse novel.  It starts off very well.  Penelope, who calls herself Pen, is confronting her nemesis, holding a sword that, when she faces a giant, seems more like a needle.  Now, anyone who is caught up in George R R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire may immediately think of Arya; however, it is evident Block is alluding to Odysseus’ patiently waiting and ever-faithful wife Penelope.

The very next chapter flashes back to a time before but it also starts the story with a fierce momentum as a tsunami, an aftershock of an earthquake, that destroys the world Pen has known.  From there the story loosely follows the narrative tradition of Homer although block does take some creative liberties, shuffling the moments so that they don’t quite align with Homer’s epic.  I would have been okay with that had it strengthened the overall story’s theme and tension but I can’t say that it necessarily did.  Then, she overlays Home with L Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as Pen meets and befriends three disparate characters who join her on her quest to find her family. 

Although the novel starts off strongly, it quickly unravels and becomes increasingly messy, so chaotic that the author couldn’t even create a way for Pen to fulfill her own destiny.  Rather, she is ultimately rescued by an outsider and the denouement is so insultingly convenient as to be without any gratification. 

I wanted to love this book so much because it does put contemporary issues into a magical realism framework, not unlike her still brilliant Weetzie Bat novels.  But the clichés are too evident (shock of hair, really?) and for any author who has published as many novels as she, one would think she’d have learned to avoid clichés by now.  There are awkward and confusing transitions and her characters remain familiarly unchanged, two-dimensional and not unlike characters already seen more than once in previous novels by this author.  With the plethora of young adult dystopian novels, this is one that can and should be skipped.

Now here’s hoping I listen to my own better wisdom and just give up on Block ever attaining the magic and miracle she did in her early novels.  Rather than getting better, she seems to be getting worse, as she hits the same note over and over again but increasingly hits it off-key.

And that is where my amazon review ended.  As it turns out, I seem to have forgotten to put my review for her previous novel in my blog so I'll copy what I posted on amazon over here.  In the meantime, I wanted to be more specific than I was in the above.  

I make reference to the clichés she uses and I honestly don't understand why she falls into this every damn time she writes a novel.  She's better than this.  For instance she writes, "Hex whispers the warning but his eyes are shout-big" (84).  Now, had she said "whispers the warning but his eyes shouted something else" that would have been cliché and perhaps she comes a little too close to it but I still think this was an interesting choice.  And then there's this:  
Now we have water and jars of pickled vegetables and meats.  They float in their brine like strange, colorful fetuses. (154)
The image is vivid and disgusting all at once, a wonderful way of showing the reader that the characters are not sure what to think of the jars they have taken.  

In other words, Block has the writing chops but for whatever reason she and her editor allow her to be lazy.  For instance, there is this impossibly confusing transition from one paragraph to the next:
There are lots of cracked carved stone plaques depicting obscenely old-mannish-looking, screaming babies straddling piles of fruit.
There's a woman, stretched languidly on a leather coach with lion-carved feet, her black hair falling over her breasts.  (76)
A good editor would have point out that the two sentences both beginning with "there" is misleading and confusing and it took me a couple of readings to realize that this woman on the coach is a real person and not merely another carving.  And need I point out the redundant description of first carved plaques and then carved feet?  Am I the only one who finds such things lazy and obvious?

As usual, Block's young women do not go on to further their education after high school but let's give her a break this time around.  After all, this novel is dystopian and everything has been destroyed so there really is no high school for Pen or her companions to attend let alone teachers to mentor them.  But these characters are all too familiar, all too similar, to ones that have populated the pages of her previous novels.  Aside from physical characteristics, there really isn't much new here.

Her novels are overflowing with descriptions of food and allusions to music.  This book also has a lot of references to artwork, which makes sense because the protagonist's mother is a painter.  Perhaps her readers will make the effort to look for the paintings online and see the images for themselves.

Perhaps the next time Block publishes a new book I'll not hope for the best because, no matter how low I try to set my expectations, I really am never prepared for just how bad the latest novel will prove to be.  Next time I'm tempted, I'll just reread some of the novels of hers I've loved and be done with it.  

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