Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Knife Dulls Itself on Dialect, Stereotype

When I unexpectedly moved back to Florida years ago, I took a part-time job with a trial attorney who was trying to start a non-profit. Near the end of my time with him, he'd located a prospect for the organization's director, a hot-shot politico who wanted out of the government game. Then disaster struck. Right before he was scheduled to start, the politico fired off a fusillade of wild accusations (mostly about pay, I think), threatened legal action and resigned before working a day. When I asked my boss what had happened, he explained, "It's like when you're in college and you start taking out that hot girl in your Spanish class. You know by the end of the first date that she has a list of problems longer than your arm. But you try to ignore them because, well, she's hot." Such was the motivation that made me turn the pages of Patrick Ness' The Knife of Never Letting Go, a young-adult SF thriller with a sharp speculative premise and flaws as serious as a slit jugular.

Todd Hewitt has lived his entire life in Prentisstown, the only colony on isolated New World, and is daily plagued by Noise. Not your ordinary audible cacophony, but a sort of psychic diarrhea, the thoughts and feelings of everything from mice to men spilling out unbidden. The Noise began during the war between men and the indigenous Spackle. The latter released germ warfare on the former, killing off every human female and accidentally making everyone's most private thoughts public. Todd is nearly thirteen, the age of adulthood, when he one day gets sent down to the swamp on Prentisstown's border to pick apples. What he discovers there causes him to question everything he called true and to flee from those he once called friends -- a patch of pure emptiness, completely devoid of Noise.

Much like my boss' hypothetical hot girlfriend, Knife alerts you to its shortcomings within the very first chapter -- dialogue and descriptions written in dialect ("cuz," "creachers," "suspishun"); gratuitous profanity (by novel's end, two of
George Carlin's seven dirty words make an appearance, along with a boatload of lesser crudities); and a stereotypical crazed religious antagonist ("Language, young Todd, binds us like prisoners on a chain. Haven't you learned anything from yer church, boy?"). Yes, the speculative elements are enticing and, sure, Ness can craft great cliffhangers. That's what kept me reading. But the dialect turned even that into a chore, and Todd's foul-mouthed ruminations ironically make the book seem more juvenile, like a kid who puts on too much of his father's cologne, not realizing the scent's wrong for him from the start. Then there's the villain, on whose insane rationalizations the entire action hangs and hangs precariously at that. Knife probably could've survived any one of these missteps. All three, though, make it dull indeed.

(Picture: CC 2008 by


B. Nagel said...

Oof. Loren, say it ain't so. I thought Knife was a good book. The language was rough and the dialect/spelling was a bit of a chore.

But Ness touches on his reasons for that in the devolving grammar of the diary: back-breaking work, isolation and an overwhelming focus on survival take the attention off of social niceties. I also saw Todd's foul mouth as a result of his over-exposed childhood. Who didn't try out (and lay claim to) the words that workmen used when your mother stepped out of the room?

I'm hoping that in The Ask and the Answer we get to see Todd lose some of his Prentisstown edge. Or maybe Todd has already been irrevocably poisoned.

Didn't Calvin say something about the utter depravity of Man?

Loren Eaton said...

Oh, wait, dragging Calvin into it, that ain't fair, man! I mean, isn't. Got to get that grammar right.

I really wanted to like Knife. A lot, actually. And I could've handled the dialect or the language. Maybe even the dialect and the language. (Although both seem more effective when used sparingly.) But the Aaron's bizarre motivation for chasing Todd across half the land did not work for me. In addition to being an overused trope, religious insanity doesn't a good rationalization make. Combine that with the other two, and there went my enjoyment.

Of course, it could be that this review merely demonstrates my own (mental) depravity!