Well, here I am again at the tail end of the reading experience for a book that has left me absolutely stymied. Sometimes it surprises me just how different my opinion can be from other readers, not just around the world, but from those in my own backyard as well. Finishing this book has brought me to the conclusion that I am completely oblivious when it comes to understanding the “literary” merit of a story. I just don’t get it. Like, at all. In fact, I think I can safely say that any literary aspects of a story come across as 100% transparent to me. Not only do I not understand them, I don’t even see them when I read a story. A Google search for the term “literary merit” currently brings up a 2017 article from Medium.com. It seems to do a fairly decent job of relaying the main ideas of what literary fiction is about. My take is that a literary story’s primary concern will be to try to relay a “theme” or “well-posed question” dealing with society or humanity… or something else equally boring and, for me, pointless. As such, they typically make lots of mistakes along the way when it comes to telling a story that is actually engaging and worth being told.
It is for books with literary merit such as these that we might find the entire back cover full of impressive recommendations and praise from other authors. And yet, after reading the thing, you might likely be left wondering what in the world the sources of all those quotes might have been thinking when they handed them out. Or what kind of horrendously sticky blackmail might have been held over their heads by their publishers that they would debase themselves to the point such that they might make such egregiously poor statements about the goodness of a story.
It is, after all, to these covers that many a layman will look to determine if they should buy this book, from this shelf, on this day of all days, and how can they NOT be impressed by the bevy of positivity they find there. Words like “CAREER-DEFINING EPIC” and “TOUR DE FORCE” and “MASTERPIECE” are splayed across the page in bold lettering. You might even find a bomb such as this:
“A MAGNUM OPUS…It reminded me of Stephen King’s The Stand–but dare I say, this story is even better.”
My goodness. Can you even begin to contain the urge your fingers have to pluck it off the shelf and run from the store cackling with the sheer joy of making off with such a steal of a perceived deal? Better than Stephen King’s THE STAND? Count me in!
Okay, yes. Perhaps I am painting it on a bit thick here, but there is a point to all of this. That being: know what you’re looking for when parsing cover quotes on a book. If you see words like “thought-provoking” and “examination of America” and “EPIC FOR THESE TIMES”, take my advice and run, don’t walk, as far away as you can. Do not pass GO. Do not collect $200.
WANDERERS (Amazon) is what looks to be a stand-alone novel from the author that has brought us the Miriam Black series (EBR Archive), which we’ve really enjoyed. From first glance, this one seemed to be a significant departure from both those books and his Star Wars novels, and took me a little by surprise. I mean, don’t authors usually give themselves a pseudonym or something when they jump genres?
The story, much as it is, comes mainly through the viewpoints of three main characters.
WANDERERS is a horrifically long and boring door-stopper that lives up to its name by relaying the tale of a pack of people as they wander across America.
Shana Stewart lives in Pennsylvania and wakes up one morning to find that her little sister is not in her bed. Shanna finds her sister outside, walking away from the house like a zombie. Not listening, not paying attention. Just walking. Her little sister is the first “Wanderer” of the eponymous book. She doesn’t understand it, but determines to stay with her sister until she can figure out what is going on. So, they walk and walk, picking up more wanderers along the way, and keep doing that for what ends up being the entire book.
Benji Ray is an estranged scientist of the CDC trying to get on with his life in Georgia after a bad exit from the agency. Then a woman shows up, claiming to work for a company that’s been hired by the CDC. They’ve developed an Artifical Intelligence, which they’ve called Black Swan, and it has decided that Mr. Benji Ray needs to be part of the team involved in solving the mystery of the wanderers. So, he joins up, and after some preliminary research, he soon finds himself walking along with the group of wanderers.
Matthew Bird comes in after a spell. He’s a preacher in Indiana that’s fallen on some hard times but hasn’t given up hope yet. Then he attracts the attention of one of the local tough guys because Matthew has picked up talking about these “wanderers”, and speaking about them negatively from a religious perspective. The tough has influence and friends, and soon the preacher finds himself drawn into the man’s inner circle and coming to understand just who this man is and the political leanings he espouses. Matthew doesn’t agree with everything going on within that inner circle, but he does enjoy the popularity and prestige that is afforded him by sticking around. At least for a while.
When I came across page 24, where the AI (actually PMI: Predictive Machine Intelligence) is brought into the story, I immediately said to myself, “You have to be kidding me. This can’t be going where it looks like it’s going.” But it totally does. And takes almost 800 pages to do it too. And, reading this review, you can’t even say that I gave the story away, because for anyone that’s ever read any story or watched any movie about artificial intelligences and what they always think about humanity (I might be over-generalizing a touch here, but not by much), the author has already given the ending away. On page 24.
In general, Wendig’s writing is pretty good. Although, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that had so much onomatopoeia in it, and I just don’t get that. With the main crux of the story being the progress of the group of “wanderers” as they make their way across the wide expanse of America, I’m sure you’ll understand when I say that the pacing of the story is absolutely glacial. This fact made me laugh out loud more than once because of the cover quote about this being a “Hollywood-blockbuster of a novel”. Yeesh. Have they watched a Hollywood blockbuster lately? They definitely don’t proceed like this book reads.
Characterization is pretty sparse. There are a bunch of characters other than those I’ve mentioned, but they ended up playing somewhat minor roles. Looking for a comparison to THE STAND somewhere in all this? I think I can safely say that there’s very likely more characterization in the first chapter of THE STAND than in the whole of WANDERERS. In fact, for Benji, it’s almost non-existent for the first major portion of the book. Instead, there’s a lot of development as to what the CDC would be doing in just such a situation, and how the scientists that work for them might be trying to determine what’s going on with these wanderers. As the story progresses, however, characterization gets markedly worse, as character after character makes decisions that are contrary to what they would normally do (per their own on-page thoughts) and have no motivation to do otherwise. It was this lack of viable characterization that made it nearly impossible for me to make a connection with any of the POV characters. Because of that, elements that should have been horrific came off feeling more like something out of the movie “The Happening” (if you haven’t seen that one, don’t) instead of anything approaching “The Shining”. Or even “Contagion” for that matter — a movie that has quite a bit more connection to the story in this novel.
There were so many aspects of this novel that I had problems with. Things that made the reading experience nearly painful for me to return to each time I picked up the book. Granted, this is likely because I simply don’t understand “literary merit” and what good it might lend a story. If a story doesn’t tell a convincing, engaging story, I’m not going to like it. If an author wants to make their story literary, fine. Do it. But I dare them to first write a great story, and then put the literary stuff in afterward. Because when the literary merit of a novel comes first, and solid characterization and story is glossed over, what you end up with is something that’ll never end up making a difference to anyone of substance.
Write story. Forget themes. If you write good story, the themes will naturally come out in the writing. If you write to a theme, your story is going to suffer. And that’s all there is to it.
- Recommended Age: 18+ for the gamut through everything
- Language: Not entirely frequent, but it's strong and there are a lot of pages in this book
- Violence: Bloody and gory, when it goes there, which isn't often for most of the book
- Sex: Multiple scenes and references to sexuality and a dramatized rape