Written by: Brent R. Oliver
Reading David Wong’s first book, John Dies at the End, was like being locked in a cage with a zombie tiger intent on chewing my balls off. Once I was in there, there was no way out and the thing just would not stop trying to tear my nuts loose. It was all I could do to partially protect myself while howling for help. I am being perfectly literal here: that book tried to eat my testicles.
John Dies is one of the best horror novels I’ve read in the last decade. I couldn’t put it down because it just kept doing everything right. I felt like my sanity was being sucked out through my asshole; I laughed till I barfed; I suffered moments of genuine, heart-wrenching fear.
But underneath all the awesome crazy was a truly inventive story, told in a blisteringly original voice. That’s what made it all work. Without that, the book would’ve just been a random pile of shocks, one-liners, and oddities.
Which is what Wong’s new novel, Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits, feels like. It lacks the cohesion and storytelling that made John Dies so fantastic. The story itself, while pleasantly bizarre, is neither offbeat nor well-crafted enough to be great.
The concept is mostly sci-fi, though there are definite horror elements scattered throughout. It centers on Zoey, who is poor white trailer trash in the not-too-distant future where people stream their entire lives in real time to the web, social media is God, and violence is out of control. So it’s not that strange when a maniac tries to eat Zoey while broadcasting it live to the whole world.
Except that Zoey is a singularly boring member of future America. She has a shitty job, a shitty car, a slutty single mom, and an incredibly smelly cat. Why would someone bother with her?
Turns out that her long-absent father, Arthur Livingston, is the reason she was nearly eaten alive on the internet. Not directly; he didn’t send the psycho after her.
But he was a mega-wealthy, con artist kingpin and shady real-estate mogul in Tabula Ra$a, future America’s most fucked up, depraved city. If Manhattan, LA, Detroit, Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Tokyo gang-raped Abu Dhabi, Tabula Ra$a would be the offspring.
Arthur Livingston died under mysterious circumstances and the intrigue he left behind is inexorably yanking Zoey into harm’s way. The Fancy Suits that helped him run his business are fighting each other for control and Zoey is trapped in the middle. They’re also battling cybernetically enhanced super-villians running amok in Tabula Ra$a’s already bloody, panicked streets.
Everyone wants to be Arthur’s heir. Everyone wants the money, the mansion, the power, the world-changing tech. Everyone but Zoey. She just wants to take her absurdly stinky cat and go back to her shitty trailer in Colorado. She’s enmeshed in the situation, though, and it looks like she’s going to have to stick it out against her will, right up to the violent end.
I found this novel to be a little vague. It’s not that there was too much going on, although there was a lot going on. It’s more that it all went on for too long. I had trouble finding a point to all the conflict because it kept dragging out. The book is under 400 pages but it felt like at least 500.
It also lacked the mighty David Wong voice that made John Dies, and to a slightly lesser extent, the sequel, This Book is Full of Spiders, such a magnificent bastard. I know it’s not really
fair to make a comparison like that: I didn’t like this book because his voice has changed since his debut. Authors evolve. They change and mature and their work becomes different. But that change isn’t always for the better. John Dies was told with shocking originality and Futuristic Violence is not. It doesn’t pop and sparkle with Wong’s vibrant voice and the narrative is loose and unfocused.
In addition, his dialogue is trying way too hard to be casual, hip, and real. As a result, it comes out forced-cool and self-indulgent. And stop with the italics already. Wong rarely turns a unique phrase, which is out of character for him. Unfortunately, he does utilize some very trite-and-true wording which doesn’t sit well at all. He seems to rely on the outlandish nature of the book to carry it through and mask the mediocre storytelling.
The problem there is that all the outlandish stuff feels forced. It doesn’t seem integral to the story, just a crutch the story is using to hobble its way to the lackluster finale. I didn’t feel caught up in madness, carried along by what wanted to be feverish intensity. Instead I felt wholly outside the atmosphere of the book, looking in, wishing I could be swept away.
The characters are sketched mainly with quirks and never develop real personalities. They feel like flat props slid into the appropriate slots. The prime villain is essentially a machismo-obsessed frat boy whose motives aren’t believable enough to make him either chilling or interesting.
This was a truly disappointing effort from David Wong. If you’re a fan of his work, I recommend reading it because that’s what fans do. I’ll continue to read everything he puts out. I just hope he finds his voice again.