lemniscate: (text:  attempts)
[personal profile] lemniscate
here, let me share my thoughts (disorganised and, uh, 2.9k as they are) on the series of books i just finished (well, finished insofar as you can finish an ongoing series). namely, the unofficially-termed agent pendergast series.


hello again, readers and other readers. (i can't well use ladies and gentlemen here, can i? that would kind of be fucking rude! i mean, because there's not a formal genderneutral term to add. or substitute with? but the 'x and y' format is fun. hence the above.)

i'd like to talk about fiction. ...yeah, i know, what the hell else do i talk about that's not whining. the thing stands. thankfully, this is my journal, so i can!

a while ago my dad told me that he was reading a series of books by one (two actually) douglas preston and lincoln child. he recommended them highly, i bowed out because i quite literally can't read while i'm in school. (this is a somewhat complicated thing having to do with the fact that i can no more pick up a book, put it down, and pick it up again than i can do so with a song. this is also the reason for my continuing inability to finish pass the parcel, since at this point i couldn't, and thus i'm going to have to start over.) the, at the time, end.

since i'm on summer vacation now and will be for 20 days more, two or three weeks ago i started reading them. they started off painfully flat, to be honest. the plots were sound but the characters weren't, they were little origami constructs that the narrative sort of carried around.

i've seen people argue between character-driven writing and plot-driven writing. i honestly don't know how. bluh bluh if your plot doesn't arise or at least seem to arise organically from the characters and their actions then you are not writing a story you are playing chess and i would like you to stop that, it's not a spectator sport.

anyway, that was the flaw in their earlier novels -- the series i'm talking about here, i don't know if anyone's read it? oh well -- and i think they've gotten better at it. maybe i'm just getting used to them. almost everyone is still kind of... flat: incidental characters tends towards being one-dimensional or stereotyped but even the main characters are three-dimensional in the way a thick slab of jell-o cut into the shape of a gingerbread man is three-dimensional. also they juggle narrators with abandon and their narrators don't feel different at all, which makes the prose feel more like an impediment than, y'know, what i'm there for. i keep starting chapters and then having to go back five pages to remember who's talking because everyone talks the same way.

so, that said, why the fuck did i just read eleven of their books and what am i doing wanting the rest of the trilogy they just started with the last one.

i'm not sure. it's kind of complicated.

they're fun, that's one thing, and the plots are well-executed even if they follow a couple predictable turns that got me sort of shuffling by the end (resolution more or less always in the same place, not enough clues as to what's going on and then a sudden splatter of them like shotgun fire, the narration throwing them at you blindly until it's resolved). but that's not it.

i think, despite the jell-o sheen and debatable resilience, i like their characters. or, less than that, i like their character: the (originally unintentional, i believe) selling point of the series, pendergast.

who is really very odd.

he's also kind of incredibly morally grey, i'm not sure why all of the characters keep coming over to his side.

and that, more than the dubious qualities of the storytelling (i'm not sure if they've gotten better or i've simply gotten acclimated by such a great density of their writing in a short period of time, but i enjoyed their more recent books a lot more than their early ones, so), is what i want to talk about!

...okay, here there be spoilers, now you are warned.

i am going to call pendergast the main character because he's the most constant one; i'm fairly sure he also qualifies for protagonist status, although he doesn't narrate much and i find when he does in more than short bursts to be detrimental. (he has a very, very strange mind, everybody; as soon as you quantify it, it's less impressive. some of the books do better than others.) earlier on i commented to my father that he's basically a spectator sport, due to the fact that almost everything in reference to him is delivered through other characters watching and not always doing things. you could extend that to the whole series and why i have fun with it: spectator sport!

anyway, the main character's family has A History. by which i mean a lot of them tend to be evil and / or insane. pendergast intermittently visits a great-aunt, one of the sole surviving examples of them, who is in a mental institution after having poisoned her entire family, we have always lived in the castle-style (if that was a deliberate reference i will... be very happy, i suppose). she's relatively harmless. most of the rest of the family is, er, dangerous. see also the uncle who became a serial murderer because science! and also because science to kill off humanity with!, the psychopath brother who... okay i have no idea how to summarise him and to be honest may have spent more of his books than was strictly becoming giggling over the fact that he was both eloquent and ginger (i am easily amused, shut up), and so on.

that being said (and there's more of a pattern than that, it's just that most of them are mentioned in passing), there are several precedents for the main character being actually as morally grey as his actions are, at very least. and certainly there have been characters who consider him the bad guy, the only problem is they're always the ones who are wrong.

i have a lot of trouble with characters who do bad things and are presented as good. i enjoy certain kinds of it and this series definitely falls under that, but sometimes i start wondering if the authors know what they are doing! having a character do borderline evil things is all well and good but when the narration treats them like they're necessary or not even there and the other characters treat them like they're necessary or not even there and...

i'm starting to get either worried or creeped out, i'm not sure which. vaguely, but. i guess that means i am liking the characters even as i malign their depth? because. really.

in the book i just read a young lady to whom pendergast functions as a guardian threw her three-month-old or thereabouts son overboard in the middle of an ocean and no one seems to be particularly concerned who knows her, least of all 'master AXLP' (he has as many names as me, i can find that amusing if i want, and that way of referring to him is canon at least with respect to snarky-ass teenage girls with interesting hair so, y'know). that doesn't have to do with anything, but hey, keeps up my infanticide creds (this is a joke, i do not purposefully seek out fiction with dead infants and children in it, it just keeps finding me).

also in the book i just read -- well, let's not talk about collateral damage, because as an ongoing theme in this series it's pretty startling. all of the collateral. all of it. so we're not going to talk about what happened to anybody as a result of anything. also our main character is prone to blackmail, coercion, and death threats, but since those are usually against people who did stuff to him first or at very least were sort of kind of a little bit maybe unsavoury, not addressing that right now either.

okay, i lied. one example of collateral: as a consequence of pendergast's investigation in this book, a private investigator owed a lot of money by a guy he believes pendergast killed tries to sneak up on him with a gun for purposes of cash. pendergast gets the jump on him instead, disarms him, and threatens to shoot him in the head with his own gun and leave him to be et by alligators; then instead offers him a job. said job gets him... shot! but not eaten by alligators, a couple days later.

minor characters die in this series a lot.

however, collateral and things caused indirectly aside: there is one scene involving a man with a neurological illness that makes him extremely prone to sensory overload. the narration indicates that he experiences basically everything coming in through his nerves as physical pain. which, um, did hit me fairly hard, considering as this is also a thing i do on occasion. even one of the coping mechanisms he used, hitting himself with a whip to the face, made sense to me, since i'm prone to wild slapping and attempts to break my own nose -- so, i guess the authors did their research?


he also ordered the assassination of pendergast's wife, which appens to be what our favourite dubious FBI agent was seeking to avenge.

pendergast, having promised a police officer (...it's a long story and involves people getting shot) not to kill the unknown culprit(s) when he found them (which is his usual modus operandi when it comes to crime-solving, how is this man still employed? i do not know!) and instead to submit them to a duly justice-like process, seems to have interpreted this as just the first part. "don't kill the guy". admittedly, this is also how everyone else treats it.

so he convinces him to shoot himself.

not by logic, though, even if he dresses it up like that; neurological illness man was living in as sterile and nonthreatening an enviroment as he could because of the aforementioned sensory-input-hurts thing. (and, still, he was at the point where he couldn't eat -- i've considered copying the passage describing why not and giving it to L regarding my own reluctance to put food in me, it was quite good -- and was on morphine basically all the time.) whilst explaining to him that the only reasonable, semi-dignifed way out was for him to kill himself, pendergast did things like start clicking two billiard balls together, set some charcoal on fire, move a chair back and forth, and set a clock to ticking, all while he talked. he really does have a flare for the dramatic, putting the clock off by enough that it would do the ringy thing i forgot the name of at about the point when he figured he'd be done speaking.

i do not parse physical sensations as painful, and that passage made me whimper, because i have something close enough to compare it to.

then i put down the book for a little bit, blinked, and realised that our hero had just tortured a man into killing himself.

-- in retalliation for something done not to him, but to his wife; twelve years after the actual event; to someone who, while certainly guilty, was now barely alive and certainly not a threat to anyone.

and no one called him out on it really, once he said the man in question had killed himself.

and, you know, that's fine. for none of the characters to call him out is fine. several of the people present at the time had been threatened at gunpoint by our main character beforehand; the other one present was on his side. for people to be flawed and approve or be afraid to reproach flawed actions is fine. good, even -- especially. that doesn't make his actions okay, though, and i don't want the authors to treat it like that.

pendergast was introduced as having a passion for protecting people -- people as a whole, not people in particular. he never seemed to like people in particular much at all, but considered the whole of humanity greatly worth saving. (i like that attitude, and wish to make use of it for things i will talk about later.) the first book he appears in takes place in 1995, and this one around 2009-2010.

he's certainly changed a lot, in fifteen-ish years.

i don't want his allies to abandon him, because they've seen him regularly over this progression (i think i might have to go reread the first book and then the last, just to get the contrast down in my head better, and see if i can crystalise any other thoughts). i suppose falling into evil actions is a bit like ageing, in that people watching closely won't really see it as it happens. i don't want him to turn into a villain in truth, or at least not clumsily, and i don't want him hamhandedly redeemed either.

but, far more than usual and in a manner more concentrated than has been 'normal' so far, master AXLP has been doing things that are Not Okay, and i want someone to call him out on it. if the authors keep treating his way of doing things as maybe a little outside the rules but ultimately all right and also (pretend i'm doing a jade voice here) soooo coooool, not just in other characters' reactions and in the narration and in the lack of change over the plot and in how other people view him but also in there being no significantly greater consequences to his significantly more extreme actions, i am going to be upset.

i know that matters to basically nobody! ha. ha. ha. mexican teenager upset. that's hilarious. but anyway.

i don't want sweeping and likely clumsy justice. i don't want absolute declaring of morality. i greatly enjoy ambiguity, as long as you realise that's what you're doing.

but i want people to react in a reasonable fashion. i don't want absolutely everyone taking absolutely everything in stride, because then it becomes deadening.

i want someone to call him out on all of this and i even have an idea of who could. fan-works potential, i suppose.

pendergast has an excuse for doing morally dubious and even evil things, he has an excuse for the weird brilliance and eccentricity and edge of fuck-off scariness that runs in him and how it manifests; everyone else does not have an excuse to be forever and ever 0kay with this.

that's about it, i guess.

(there's a scene where, in retalliation for a group of small-town people having attempted to murder pendergast and his current partner, he sinks all the boats in the town's... thing where you put boats. this may seem justified, and in fact was a fairly enjoyable scene; but the townspeople were put up to it by someone trying to use them as dumb muscle, and the way they were put up to it implies that the town and the inhabitants were suffering economically as well as that fishing -- cfr. boats -- was one of the main activities there. he and the current partner also blew up a bar, by the way. she started off as a fairly good if somewhat strawmanned person as far as calling him on his bullshit went; she now has decided that hey, she supposes she's 0kay with this.)


thought had whilst writing this that i might as well pile in if i'm going to make a huge essay-length post and claim it as nonfiction-but-thoughtful writing and thus deserving to be grouped under Things What I Wrote Here Count The Words:

people claim that fiction in which there is violence will incite people to violence. that's stupid. sometimes people also claim that anything with violence in is obscene or overdone past a certain point. that's also kind of stupid.

it's not the content, it's how you treat it.

if you treat no good very bad things as something that just happens, let the characters who are supposed to present varying moral approaches agree unanimously on something that's really not all that clean, and don't present consequences (that's the important part; negative or positive, things happen because of actions, whereas everything else can be excused because unreliable narrator, reader, or characters), then -- yeah, let's talk.

i can't speak for this book in an objective fashion yet; not only did i just finish it, but it's the first book of a trilogy. i have pretty high hopes for the rest of the trilogy, really, in the characters experience consequences to their actions department.

but i am also experiencing some trepidation, and an attack of Sudden-Onset Essay Syndrome, so here are the results.
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