Monday, October 3, 2011
Go, Mutants!, by Larry Doyle
June, 2010 Ecco Books
I was in a bookstore a few weeks ago and came across this novel, which for some reason was placed in the "General Fiction" section. I assume this is because author Larry Doyle's previous novel, I Love You Beth Cooper, was mainstream fiction. This followup however is as sci-fi as you can get. Actually it's more extreme than that: it's niche sci-fi, both tribute and spoof of Atom Age sci-fi and monster movies. The copy I saw was the recent trade paperback edition, which has New! and Improved! sluglined on the bottom of the cover; I think this is just spoofy hyperbole, as the copyright doesn't indicate that the softcover edition is revised. At any rate the edition I'm reviewing is the original hardcover from Ecco Books, which I found at my local library.
Doyle, his publisher and critics constantly remind us, was a producer and writer for The Simpsons. And anyone who has seen the spoofs of 1950s safety or educational films on that show will get the gist of Go, Mutants. Or, better yet, anyone who has watched a minute or two of Futurama. Go, Mutants is just like that...only a whole lot less funny. This is in fact one of the most annoying and frustrating novels I've read in many a year.
No surprise, Go, Mutants apparently started life as a movie pitch. Doyle then decided to write a novel around the idea. Only he didn't actually write a full novel. Instead, the book is like a constant scheme on how to fill pages. Huge, bolded font in the dripping manner of '50s sci-fi titles break up every other page. Some pages go black with "We'll be right back, folks!" emblazoned in white. All this would be fine if the storyline and characters could keep up with the (forced) comedy of those spoof titles.
The idea is this: The sci-fi movies of the '50s really happened, and now it's around twenty years later and the descendants of aliens and monsters run rampant upon the earth. And yet even this is poorly thought out: even though the novel must take place in the '60s (or perhaps the early '70s; it isn't very clear), it's still as "1950s" as you can get. Doyle references various '50s and early '60s personalities, coming up with "funny" new versions of their hits (ie Brian Wilson)...but then he also references songs from much later, like Eric Clapton's "Layla."
The reason Doyle has done this -- vapor-locked the styles and fashions in the '50s even though the novel takes place a decade or two later -- is so he can have a story about teenagers living in a '50s-type world. Yes, just like everything else in our PG-13/let's-make-everything-for-the-kids world, Go, Mutants is yet another story about teenagers and their drama-ridden, uninspiring lives. And, as some reviewers have noted, it's basically just a retread of I Love You Beth Cooper.
Our hero is J!m (known as "Jim" to his friends and the way I'll refer to him for ease of typing), the sullen teenaged son of the alien who started it all. Jim attends Manhattan High with a host of alien kids intermingled with real humans; a loner (of course), Jim has few friends, among them the Son of the Blob and the son of a radioactive sort of King Kong. Jim is usually picked on by the humans, and he has a tough go of it, as he truly is a freak: his skin is grayish, he has a huge mottled brain jutting from his head instead of hair, and he occasionly sheds his skin. In fact he's kind of a monster; if parts of him come off (like for example his hand), they continue to operate under their own volition, while Jim meanwhile just grows a new one.
So you're probably thinking this setup has all sorts of potential. And maybe it does, but not here. Because it's as if Doyle merely came up with the premise -- "What if I did a '50s teen story but the teen was an alien instead of a human?" -- and left it at that. Other than the alien technology, the weird mutations and etc, the novel is exactly like any other '50s story: there's the girl Jim secretly loves, visits to the drive-in, problems with teachers, parents to bicker with at the dinner table, bullies to fight, dances to attend. There was a lot of potential here, but most of it was wasted, probably in an attempt to keep the ensuing movie easily understandable for the target preteen audience.
But then, even here Go, Mutants fails. If the target audience is kids, what kid of today is familiar with Atom Age monster movies?? Do you think they're watching Creature from the Black Lagoon on their iPads? I highly doubt it. Doyle's various in-jokes to these old films would go over their heads -- and while we older fans might get them, we're also underwhelmed by the predictable, juvenile storyline.
Jim is problemmatic too. His self-pity gets on your nerves quick, mostly because Jim's so unlikeable. I mean, it would all be well and good and even understandable that the kid was upset over his unfortunate lot in life if he wasn't such an egotistical prick. But he is, and he constantly flaps his blue lips at teachers, parents, and bullies. Along the way he manages to piss off everyone, including the reader. We're supposed to understand that Jim's central problem is that his father ushered in the current state of the world with his foiled attempt to take over the world -- and since daddy's now gone (various "official" reports have it that he's either dead or escaped), Jim is consumed with an extra layer of misery. Yes, this is another novel about a character with daddy issues!
However the biggest fail with Go, Mutants is that it just isn't funny. This is mostly due to the way Doyle writes. Rather than work things into dialog or action, Doyle's method is to info-dump mounds of "funny" detail into blocks of narrative. This has the unfortunate effect that the majority of the novel is rendered in summary. For example:
Dodie did the best she could to raise Johnny alone, through a series of exotic illnesses, including dental tumors and cancer of the perinoos, a theretofore undiscovered organ thought to regulate love, religion and other gullibilities. She kept getting sick and being miraculously cured; doctors theorized that gestating a radioactive ape had caused the malignancies, which were subsequently treated by Johnny's sleeping beside her every night. He was killing her and keeping her alive.
The crapulous goo had eaten a dozen beloved family pets, seven less-liked pets, a hobo, a bunch of nuns, a sassy waitress and a blowhard who said he wasn't afraid of any grape jelly, all in the eight hours since it had first appeared on the MU campus, another harebrained experiment, folks thought, of those mad scientists working at that Army lab.
Generations of teenagers had come to Crater Cove the night before Halloween for "Fire Night" or "Night of Fire," to writhe before the man on Fire, or Fire Man, in an orgy of community-approved paganism. In the very old days the entire town came out, and the Man on Fire was an actual man, but this tradition was phased out as the area became less agrarian and the locals were less concerned about the harvest and more interested in a spectacular fire. This year's Man, it was widely noted, had an unreasonably large head, but that was a happy coincidence.
This sort of thing might be okay every once in a while, but Doyle does it throughout the novel. I've actually seen Doyle compared to Thomas Pynchon, and I'm guessing the stuff above is what those lazy reviewers had in mind when they made that incorrect comparison -- I figure people who have never actually read Pynchon assume this is how he writes. But Pynchon is funnier, smarter (despite Doyle's penchant for dishing out ten-dollar words in another failed attempt at humor), and a better writer.
Go, Mutants could've been something, but it's just like everything else in the world of entertainment today: uninspired, predictable, and uninvolving. Which means of course that the ensuing film will be a huge hit. So if you want to read it, do what I did -- get it at your library. Don't spend any money on it.