Sunday, September 8, 2013

Journeys ("Love in the Time of Global Warming" by Francesca Lia Block)

I'm a sucker for odyssey stories. No matter the genre, any literary journey strums a chord or two somewhere in me that other books and plots do not, regardless of their own merit. Wild by Cheryl Strayed and A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson are the two works that immediately come to mind, both involving two very unprepared narrators on walks that span over a thousand miles, though there are certainly others.  But why? What is it about experiencing a journey vicariously through others--real or fictional, realistic or fantastical--that draws such profound reactions from readers?

The easy answer is, well, easy:  life is itself a journey, and these storylines represent, in some small way, the experience we all have on this small, cloudy marble. But this answer is too broad and overused, and at some point we have to look beyond the obvious and investigate ourselves. For example, the minute I got my drivers license I couldn't stay off the roads. Looking back it seems ridiculous--pointless, mundane reasons to get behind the wheel for hours, just moving from one street to another with no real destination in mind--and I cannot begin to imagine how much time, money, and gas I wasted in those aimless pursuits. But I can't be that hard on myself because those trips opened the doors to world beyond my small town; what began as 20- or 30-mile drives to shopping malls and movie theatres became excursions that lasted for days and took me (and my brother, and friends) to Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Madison, Chicago, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, and hundreds of smaller towns in-between. These trips cost very little money--just enough for gas, food, and a movie, with more than enough left over from my supermarket job for college--and I honestly don't know how I managed to pull it off. My parents didn't even put up a fight, even though it was technically their car--a seven-year-old Pontiac with great gas mileage but a poor driver--and they never knew exactly why I needed to go. All they knew was that I needed to, and it was good enough for them.

So why did I go? Why is it that, one year after graduating from high school, a friend and I decided--almost on a whim, with very little actual planning--to uproot ourselves for a week and drive over 600 miles to Cleveland, where there was absolutely nothing we wanted to see or do? We just picked a city--after ruling out Seattle, after ruling out Memphis--and drove. I don't remember how we got a hotel room for four days, though we did stay in one, and I don't recall spending one minute in Indiana, though we must have. Instead, I remember small, seemingly irrelevant details that have stayed with me as Big, Important Moments:  leaving Cleveland at midnight and passing a caravan of parked semi trucks, which ran alongside the highway for three or four miles, all their marker lights on full under a sky free of stars; a mall that, for whatever reason, had pink and purple swirls painted on every surface, a place we dubbed the "Wonka Mall"; walking out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame after five minutes when neither of us could figure out why we were even there, except that it was something people talked about.

Or for that matter, why all those college weekends spent driving down Highway 41, from Green Bay through Oshkosh and Milwaukee to Chicago, to see four or five art-house movies that would be on DVD in a few months anyway? Almost a decade later, I should know the answers to these questions...and yet, I don't. Part of being a teenager, even a college student, is doing things without a clear enough reason, other than that they fulfill some longing inside you that is desperate to be satisfied but really is, and I was lucky enough to have family and friends who accepted this and even took part, even if they didn't fully understand. (Even today, the urge to spend my Saturdays and Sundays on the road is ever-present, though thankfully it's dulled somewhat with age and responsibility. Still, the road awaits, and I'm not one to turn a deaf ear to its siren call.) I can't say I did it to run away from anything--there was never an urge to drive away and stay, and I've always been an unapologetic homebody--and it had nothing to do with being a tourist or laying claim to arrogant pride that comes with being well-traveled. It was about exploring the world in which I lived--the world in which I would someday be an adult, with added responsibilities and problems--and about being totally free for the few moments in my life when that was completely possible. Kids--teenagers, college freshmen, what have you--live on maps with vague, gray borders that change with every given day, as though the world were still being redrawn in response to them, and perhaps by wandering like I did, as though I were some modern-day minimum-wage nomad, I was fulfilling one of the few responsibilities I had as a young adult:  walking away from what I knew and exploring what I didn't, not because I had to, but because I could. Because it was there.

However, there are those who explore because they must, not because they can. Such is the case with the protagonist of Francesca Lia Block's Love in the Time of Global Warming, which is set in a post-apocalyptic America. Centered around Penelope--later shortened to Pen, a nod to her gift for storytelling--Block's novel opens like a typical dystopian thriller, with landscapes ravaged by out-of-control weather, little food, and a roving band of thieving killers. Escaping their attempts to capture her, albeit barely, she embarks on a journey in search of her family, who were washed away in a sudden deluge but might still be alive. A lover of classic literature, Pen is guided on her way by Homer's The Odyssey, yet another story of a lost survivor trying to back to loved ones.

But this story is not what it seems. Our assumptions about the apocalypse's cause, supported by novel's chaotic weather and allusions to an overheated former world, not to mention the novel's actual title, are false. As it happens, the world was destroyed by an overzealous scientist and his creations--an army of giant, one-eyed genetic mutants--who now stalk the Pacific coast causing mass destruction. Along the way, Pen joins forces with other wayward teenagers--all of them seemingly gifted with superhuman powers, all of them familiar with The Odyssey, all of them LGBT--to fight back against the scientist and rescue her family. There is little doubt Pen's journey is written to mirror Odysseus', and that's perfectly fine--after all, a good adaptation, especially of such a significant and rich literary work, can still be a story all its own, ala O Brother, Where Are Thou?--just so long as it's done right.

The most difficult part of allegorizing one of the most important works literature is balancing the original with the new--that is, preserving enough of the original story to make it a loyal update while also departing from it enough that it isn't a lazy ripoff. Unfortunately, this is where Francesca Lia Block's book suffers greatly. Not only does Love in the Time of Global Warming feature not one but four protagonists who rely on Homer's original tale to guide them through the post-apocalypse--in essence, an allegory of The Odyssey that also features The Odyssey as a main driver of the plot, which is simply ridiculous--but the similar characters and plot-points are not so much alluded to as copied outright, with updates that are supposed to modernize the story doing little more than reducing one chapter after another into helpless parody. The Lotus-Eaters who populated an island of drug-fueled laziness in Homer's tale are now lotus-eaters who populate a hotel of drug-fueled laziness in Block's.* Circe, the seductress who transformed Odysseus' men into slobbering pigs, is now a failed TV star who has one "minion," a teenage boy she brainwashes with pastries and keeps in a collar. And the cyclops who terrorized Odysseus and his men are still cyclopes, only now they're genetic mutants who supposedly cause earthquakes.

Though to be fair, that might not be true. From the book's very early pages,  encounters with the Giants are strange and inconsistent--they're big enough to rest on mountains, they're small enough to hide in a store, they're illiterate, they understand complex narratives--leaving some doubt as to whether these creatures even exist at all. Even more, Pen's encounters with them are less human-versus-monster and more human-versus-human, only the human being attacked has created a fantasy in which her attacker is not of her own species, almost like an abuse victim whose mind has engineered a fabricated reality to avoid dealing with the real one. (Pen is also led places by strange butterflies that appear randomly, which is never explained, and much of the novel moves between what is happening and Pen's flashbacks, dreams, and hallucinations, all of which are presented indistinguishably and in italics.) For the novel's first 50 pages, Pen seemed less like a lost survivor and more like an unreliable narrator whose own mind is nothing but a pool of delusions, and we're left to reconstruct what happened to her through possibilities related to this diagnosis. Had the ambiguity around this issue been intentional, it would've been a risky but interesting choice on the author's part; unfortunately, it reads like the effects of sloppy writing.

Which is a shame because there are rare moments and flourishes--the ones that mark Block's strongest departures from The Odyssey--that are the novel's most memorable and interesting. A scene in which Pen and her two companions visit a museum, one that she and her mother visited often, for the sake of seeing if art has survived is especially poignant, though its emotional depth is ruined when yet another Giant appears, this one sporting two eyes and a spoken desire to fatten up Pen into a good wife. (She is then tied to a bed in a newer wing of the museum and fed tendon-heavy meat until freed by friend and love interest Hex, who wields a Japanese sword.) As the novel moves closer and closer towards its close, it becomes increasingly overwrought and ludicrous:  the main villain strokes his goatee as he speaks, the love scenes between Pen and Hex read like something in a Harlequin romance, and a closing plot twist related to Pen's parents and her special powers--though for some reason not the others'--is eye-rolling in its silliness. When the story finally ends--and it does so, grindingly, with one last overdone surprise--it feels less like an accomplishment and more like a betrayal of Homer, whose epic poem could easily have been read in the same amount of time and with much more enjoyment.

When I say that I have a soft spot for long journeys--by real men and women, by fictitious inventions--and that I'm a sucker for those stories, I make that statement with one obvious caveat:  just because I'm a sucker for those kinds of stories doesn't mean I'm a sucker, period. Regardless of the journey your characters take, if the story isn't well written--if the dialogue is stilted, the emotions cliched, the prose so shoddily written it seems as though it were done on purpose--then it doesn't matter where your characters are going, or why, or with whom...the entire experience is painful. Reading about someone else's journey is itself a journey for the reader, one that draws out a deep sense of understanding--we feel the pull of wanderlust, the bitterness of being homesick, the flatness of the road beneath our feet. That is why a book like this is so deeply unfortunate: a road trip that could've gone somewhere promising if only its driver had embraced the joys and freedoms of such an experience.

*You would think, in an age of runaway drug abuse and drug-abuse hysteria, the author could have thought up something different. After all, it's been more than two millennia, and there is Ecstasy now.