Terrible Review: The Girl On The Train

I don’t have a ton of time for reading. Does that shock anybody? So my wife and I have had this one on our shelves for several months. Meant to read it — something came up. Meant to read it — wanted to read something else first. Meant to read it — got distracted with a flashy app on the phone.

Well, I finally read it, and I’m mad at myself for putting it off so long.

Here’s the obligatory part of the post where I warn you that I’ve read the book, and it’s hard to talk about the book in depth without spoiling some aspects of it. So: Spoiler Alert. Within I’ll be speaking (not at length, and unspecifically when I can) about characters and developments within the book. If you’re a purist and want to be shocked by everything, this is probably the part where you should stop reading.

What’s Awesome about it?

  • The Buildup. The book starts off slow — almost too slow — but once the inciting incident happens, the tension ratchets up after just about every chapter and never really slackens. The end result is that I ended up reading the last hundred pages of the book in twenty-minute sessions stolen during the same twenty-four hour period. I just couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen next.
  • The Characters. The story revolves around the (not quite) alternating viewpoints of three women. None of these women is particularly likable, but each of them is undeniably recognizable. Their motivations, their hangups, their insecurities and their suspicions make perfect sense, and I found myself rifling through all sorts of feelings toward each of them. Sometimes I pity them. Sometimes I hate them. Sometimes I can’t believe how stupid they are. But always I’m compelled to see what they’re going to do next. That’s maybe the most important part of all this: each character has a very clear role in driving the story forward. Nobody is tacked on or just blowing in the wind like a useless confederate flag.
  • The Conflict. Something terrible happens and our central narrator (Rachel) fears that she may have been involved in it somehow. Problem is, she was blackout drunk the night in question and has no recollection of the events in question. This snarl adds another level to the mystery that’s already unfolding, and of course is a tremendous source of strife for the narrator. I’ll acknowledge that selective amnesia as a plot device would feel like a cop-out, but the blackouts aren’t present merely as a convenience: the narrator is as unreliable as they come. She’s a binge-drinker, and it becomes clear through the course of the story that the crucial blackout is not the only one in her life; rather, they happened to her several times in her life, and were also directly responsible for her shattered relationship (the falling apart of which is the backdrop to the whole story).
  • The Ending. I won’t spoil it, but the end sets you up for such a delightful one-two punch of betrayal and then vindication, it’s almost overwhelming. My wife was getting frustrated with me because I kept gasping and then exclaiming reading the last few pages while she was trying to work. I couldn’t help it. It was that good.

What’s Not-So-Awesome?

  • The Structure. Maybe it’s me, but the novel is awfully preoccupied with dates and I don’t know if it needs to be. Each chapter and sub-chapter is marked meticulously with the date and the time of day (August 13, 2013, Morning), a device which is certainly intended to build together a timeline of events. This becomes “necessary” since the narrative jumps around in time; we have the murdered woman telling swatches of her story after she has already died in the timelines of the other two narrators. Now, I understand that the dramatic tension and reveals achieved this way are a big payoff for the book, and I don’t have a problem with that. What I have a problem with is the fact that with all the dates heading each chapter, I feel like I should have been taking notes for a test at the end of the book. I don’t know that the events of the story — especially when viewed through the lens of a less-than-reliable, sort of drifting-aimlessly-through-life narrator — call for such specificity.  But maybe that’s just me. End result: I pretty much ignored the dates and I did just fine piecing together the story without them.
  • Red Herrings and Such. At its heart, the book is a mystery novel, so there have to be false leads, misinformation, overlooked clues, and all that. But the main suspect for much of the book is just so obviously not the guy. Over 150 pages are spent trying to convince us that he could be the guy, but he’s obviously not. It felt taxing after a while, to still be going through the motions of investigating this guy who was obviously not the guy. And then the guy who turns out to be the guy, well, it feels a little out of left field, a little too easy, a little too neat. But again, that might just be my cynicism acting up.

What’s Hard to Quantify?

  • There is no hero. Yeah, we’re in the age of the anti-hero, where the protagonist has to do horrible things to win the day. And while I’m not saying there’s nobody to root for — clearly we hope that Rachel manages to pull through her troubles — it’s hard to get behind any of them. Rachel’s a drunkard and a total sad-sack living in the shadow of a broken marriage. Anna’s an adulteress who’s overly hateful of the woman she wrecked home on, and becomes increasingly suspicious and distrustful of her adulterating husband. Megan’s perhaps the easiest one to like, until you find out that SPOILER ALERT she’s responsible for the death of her own child. I just find it hard to hope for good things for any of them, though it does get revealed that Rachel’s problems were not entirely of her own making (as she seems to believe toward the beginning of the book).
  • Moral Ambiguity. It’s hard to say if Rachel causes the events of the book or if she just blunders through them, but what’s clear is that the story wouldn’t have happened if the narrator had kept to herself. Since her own life is in the crapper, she lives vicariously through the anonymous people she sees on the train, and that’s what sets things in motion. Whether the novel suggests this is a good thing or not is unclear: the murder gets solved because she sticks her nose in, but she also causes a world of hurt (for herself and the other characters — up to and possibly including actually playing a role in the murder herself) by sticking her nose in. The moral of the story is, then, either get involved in the lives of those around you, or don’t. I think you could make a compelling argument either way.
  • Looking inside the heads of women. I would need to hear from female readers on this, but if women in real life think the way these women do, then it would benefit guys to read this book. Because wow. The way they draw connections between events, the way they read between the lines of everything that’s said, the way they think about the men in their lives… men are toddlers, living among evil geniuses.

Okay, so, this review is by no means exhaustive, and I don’t want to spoil the book any more than I have to, but suffice to say, I got through it in four days. That’s pretty fast for me, and it speaks to the readability of the book. The tension is there; it hooks you and yanks you along like a guppy on the line.

All that said, the book does a brilliant job of romanticizing the everyday. The book is centered around trips back and forth on a train — a more mundane premise you could not imagine. But what’s mundane, just like in real life, quickly transforms into something much bigger, much more consequential. Things, in other words, always mean things. It accomplishes all this, however, with very straightforward, unembellished language. No purple prose here, no artful application of metaphors and comparisons or allegories. The writing is simple and straightforward, which, again, makes it very easy to read.

I pointed out some good and some bad, but who am I kidding: I read the book in four days, which is almost unheard of for me. The bad stuff, I feel, is largely subjective, and what bothers me might not bother you. The book is solid. It’s surprising. It’s satisfying.

You should read it.

Father’s Day, and Social Media is Still Special

Father’s Day is one of those weird times of year where weird things happen and I just roll with it. Okay, pretty much every day of the year is like that, but Father’s Day is more so. Because really, think about your father.

All he really wants is to be left alone to watch some football or read or play some video games, depending on how old he is. Give that to your dear ol’ dad, and he’ll be a happy camper. But here we have Father’s Day, wherein you’re supposed to buy ties and wallets and tools and goofy t-shirts and cards for the old man, and don’t get me wrong, he’ll appreciate the gesture, but he doesn’t need any of it. He gets the joy of watching you grow up and do silly things and take first steps and be decent human beings and make him laugh, and occasionally he’ll photobomb you or take you to school in his bathrobe, but you forgive him for that. Because it makes him happy.

That’s what Father’s Day is about. Make the old man happy. But don’t do anything for him that you wouldn’t do on any other day, because he probably doesn’t like being made a big deal over.

Maybe I just speak for myself. But my Father’s Day consisted of staying home with the kids, taking them for a walk in the park, the 1-year-old having a screaming fit for about an hour before she passed out for a nap on my chest while I watched some Football (that’s proper football: the Women’s World Cup is on — and the Americans play tonight — you know), then wrestling with the kids, going out to the grocery store when the wife got in from work, cooking some hamburgers for the family’s dinner (yeah, I cooked, and I chose it!), and having a refreshing adult beverage before bed.

Not pictured: the screaming fit that made me want to die.
Not pictured: the screaming fit that made me want to die.

In other words, a day more or less like any other day. And you know what? It was pretty sweet.

But a weird thing happened this Father’s Day. I’ve been a dad for three years, and this hasn’t happened before. Strangers were saying “Happy Father’s Day” to me. In the park, pushing the sprouts in the double stroller: “Good job, dad! Happy Father’s Day.” Chasing the sprouts around on the playground: “Oh, I know you’re having a Happy Father’s Day.” In the grocery store, carting the sprouts around: “Why are you shopping on Father’s Day?” And it’s not like I crave or even want recognition for doing dad things — that’s just what you do — but I can’t lie, it perked me up and made me walk a little taller. I dunno if there’s something different about this year or different about me or the kids, but those little moments of recognition kinda made my day. (My wife pretty much wrangling 100% of the kids’ nonsense when she got in from work was awesome, too.)

So, there are good things in the world for dads.

But then, there are dumb things, too.

This is Matt McGorry:

He’s an actor on Orange is the New Black (among other things) whose character has done some unsavory things in the wake of fathering a child on a prison inmate (no spoilers beyond that, okay? sheesh.) His character has left a bad taste in the mouth of lots of fans, to the extent that real life fans started harassing the real life actor in real life about things his character did on the show.

He fired back on Father’s Day with a pretty hilarious tongue-in-cheek response on his Instagram (seriously, he and I seem to come from the same school of dubious wit), but it really makes you stop and think. There are people out there watching this show who think that attacking Matt McGorry is the way to resolve their feelings about what his character has done on the show.

As if McGorry has anything to do with what the character does. (Sorry, that would be the writers and the producers.)

As if McGorry would do anything like what his character does in real life. (That’s what “acting” means, boys and girls.)

And as if an irate tweet from @JoeBobDerpSalad266 would have an impact on what McGorry is going to do in his real life, regardless of whether he’s behaving like his character or not.

Similar things happened to Sarah Wayne Callies, of The Walking Dead fame:

Her character was so hated, people would come up to her on the streets to tell her “I [fargoing] hate you.” Because actors actually become their characters when they act.

The people who can’t make this distinction are probably pretty normal people. They have jobs. They have friends and families. They probably look exactly like normal people, except that they lack the ability to distinguish between what’s real and imaginary.

But they have access to social media, which allows them to bring their special variety of crazy into the rest of our lives at any time, without warning, and without remorse. I have a twitter where I tweet intermittently, but this kind of crazy makes me think everyday about just deleting it, and leaving Twitter to burn interminably in the smoldering dumpster fire it is.

Where was I?

Oh, right. Happy Father’s Day.

I Don’t Know What I’m Writing

I mentioned a few posts back the struggle I’m having with telling the current novel; how I’m trying to figure out perspectives and pacing and flavor and all that other stuff. The story is there, and sound, I said, but the voice is missing. And I thought that everything was cool aside from that — that it’s no problem not having the “exactly right” words to tell the story I’m trying to tell, as long as the story I’m trying to tell is the right one.

And I still think that’s right. To a point. Because the story is what matters; the story is what resonates. Everything else fits in around the story, like the transmission and the axles and the fans and the tubes all fit in around the engine in a car. Sort out the engine, and build the rest of the stuff to fit, right?

Except that’s not the whole story, either. A solid engine is great, but an engine does nothing without the rest of the car. The engine puts force behind the vehicle, but without the axles in place, without the wheels to drive the car forward, without the gas tank and the transmission fluid and all the wiring and tubes, the engine just sits there and putters away. It’s all connected; it all works together.

So it is with story. The right story might purr like a kitten, but it’s incomplete without the wheels of the proper setting, the transmission of a proper tone, and the fuel injection system of the perfect characters.

What does that mean?

Well, I’m figuring that out, but I’m also realizing something. I can allow myself to forego any concerns about the “other stuff” and just focus on the plot, the story, but if I do that, I’m going to have to build all that other crap after the fact. And what happens when you build all the different elements of a thing separate from the whole? If I build first an engine, then a body around it, then the wheels to propel it, then the axles to drive it… I’m going to end up with a Frankenstein’s monster of parts that I scavenge from the depths of my brain based on what suits my needs at the time. It’ll work, maybe, and it’ll look generally like the novel I have in mind, but it’s not going to drive real smooth. It’s not going to have clean lines. It won’t win awards.

I’m not much of an outliner by nature. I’m a procrastinator, a figure-it-out-as-it-comes kinda guy, a pantser, as I think the industry calls us. And I think there’s something to be said for taking an organic approach to storybuilding, to letting characters to an extent drive the story, to allowing the story to develop its own twists and turns and energy without meticulously planning it out in advance.

But that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be any plan. Just as you build a car with an overall design in mind (headlights here, this shape to the body, this kind of seat); just as you plant a garden with the preferred outcome in mind (carrots over here, tomatoes in this aisle, luminescent cabbage here); a story needs guidelines to grow. Even if you’re not a plotter, you have to know some things before you take the first steps.

Who is my character? What drives her? What is she afraid of? What obstacles will harry her? Where does the struggle take her? What should her story teach a reader? How should the story “feel”?

A story can, will, and probably should grow organically to fill in gaps and create surprise in the mind of the readers (and the author!). But for a gap to exist, you have to have the substance around the gap. The story isn’t going to build skeleton and muscle and blood all on its own. The framework has to be there to be built upon. And that means taking a hard look at the planning that’s gone into the story so far.

If I’m honest, I’ve sold short the preparatory work on this project. The story, as a result, is looking more like the Frankenstein’s monster than the smooth, sharp Cadillac I want. The good news, though, is that it’s never too late to start; never too late to turn the floodlights on and take the hard look at the story that it needs. And, seeing what it needs, the only thing left to do is to keep writing. Rather than just letting the story shape itself, shape it with the end in mind. Start taking stabs at the tone-setting language, start planting now the seeds which must blossom by the end.

Yes, you can fix it all in post. But that’s a lot of work to shrug off on your future self.

Time to face facts and start doing the legwork this story deserves.

Broken Ankle at the Finish

I know, okay? I get it.

It’s become too much of a motif around here, this procrastination, this failure to complete, this inability to batten the last hatches. If writing my novel has been a marathon, I’ve snapped an ankle in the last mile. Or maybe sprained it. Or maybe I just tripped and fell and I’m only really really tired, and every scratch feels like a gash, and every shallow breath is a gasp. But that’s no excuse for not slogging myself across the line.

There isn’t much left to do. There really isn’t. I can only belabor the point so much. I can only pretend for so long that I’m stuck on an issue — this character isn’t working out so well, or that plot turn doesn’t feel quite right — before the truth bubbles to the surface like an eyeball in your soup: that I’m not stuck on an issue within the novel, I’m stuck on finishing the novel.

Because that’s all there is. This first edit has drawn on like an endless summer, and I’m bogged down just a mile from the finish line. The car’s blown a tire and there’s no phone service, and even stepping foot out into the sun has me sweat-soaked and exhausted. The prospect of knuckling up and walking it out to the finish has me dreaming of shade trees and ice-cold lemonade.

The last issue is this one character. I don’t know what to do with her, and I could conceivably go back and write her into a few more scenes or write her out of the novel completely… it honestly makes no difference to me at this point. I’m almost ready to hand the manuscript off to some beta readers (a term that never made sense to me… I mean, I guess I’d be the alpha reader, but does that really make sense? Anyway…) and just let them tell me what to do with her, but then I know it’s probably not a professional move to hand off a work with glaring, unresolved issues and expect other people to fix them for me.

But even more than I’m frustrated at my block about finishing this thing, I’m even more frustrated at the prospect of not finishing it. I didn’t come this far; I didn’t write 90,000 words and then re-write about a third of them; to give up now. I can smell the blistered pork of the hot dogs, taste the swirled sticky sugar of the cotton candy. (What? It’s totally gonna be a carnival when I finish.)  No, I’m going to finish this damn novel if I have to crawl across the line dragging two dead, broken legs behind me.

And sooner rather than later. Because I’m a little bit burned on it.

Not that that’s not glaringly obvious or anything.

*Removes cobweb from eyebrow*

A Little Trim

I can’t be trusted with my own story.

In making a last push to work on the edit, I found myself thinking some truly troubling thoughts. In the past month, I’ve struggled through editing an entirely new character into the innards of the story, and doing so required some deft slices of the scalpel and some not-so-deft whacks of the axe to make room for. And now, like a maniac who’s tasted blood and now needs to slice open jugulars nightly just to feel some semblance of normal, I find myself eyeing that axe again and thinking… I could cut more.

Just a little more. Shave a little off the top. Clip the ends off, neaten this bit out. Trim the dead weight. Sure, the novel as a whole could probably use more trimming, but that’s not what I’m talking about. No, what’s caught my eye is a prize hog. One of the supporting characters looks positively ripe for harvesting.

I had this thought in the first stages of the edit, regarding another one of the supporting cast, but I didn’t pull the trigger. Couldn’t bring myself to wipe her out. Maybe because I was too cowardly to axe a major part of the work, maybe because I didn’t have the confidence to pull it off. For some reason, now, though, I find myself weighing the decision and seriously thinking it over… not because I feel the character needs to go — she’s been a part of the story since the first iterations, back when it was a stage play. No, I’m sizing her up like she’s some challenge, like that ancient fish lurking in the depths of the pond, the twisted ends of dozens of anglers’ hooks adorning its lip. I could cut her out like she never existed, I think… which, as Criminal Minds plays in the background here while I sit on the couch with my wife, sounds like an extraordinarily psychotic thing to say.

No, I think this is more editing loopiness setting in. Cabin fever is snaking its slimy tendrils up my spine after all the time I’ve spent with this story and it’s making me hallucinate. Making me think I see blood pooling behind her eyes, a dead albatross around her neck. She’s probably not so much cursed as I am looking for ways to drastically improve this story amidst my fears that it’s utter crap.

She’ll live, for now.

But I need to keep making progress, finish this edit, and get this thing off to some impartial readers. That axe is looking awfully sharp and awfully inviting.