I finished Julian Comstock last week. I was really looking forward to it, both because it was highly lauded last year, and because I utterly adored Spin. I have an incredible weakness for stories that are slow and simple, building up to a climax that is astonishing, wonderful and a bit surreal. Howl’s Moving Castle the movie is an easy example of doing that perfectly, and if you’ve got a few more hours, so is Spin. Which is why, a week later, I’m still bummed that I didn’t adore Julain Comstock.
Below this line, I spoil setting, characters and premise. I saved the lj-cut to hide spoilers about the ending.
The subtitle is A story of 21st Century America, and herein lies what was probably the biggest problem for me with the book. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic future where society collapsed with the loss of oil and a Christian fundie church based out of Colorado Springs has risen to power over a US that includes Canada, and looks more like Imperial Rome than its republican predecessor. In short, a frighteningly plausible future for a tale of (mis-)adventure and coming of age. Yet it feels extraordinarily 19th century, from the way movies have deteriorated into a combination of film reels and live performances, to the language that reads like a 19th century novel written with modern sensibilities. This was definitely done on purpose, and it was done well, but it’s a choice that made it extremely hard for me to get into the book. I wanted it to be alternate history instead – which would have savaged the plot as is – and it consistently insisted on being set in the future.
The prose style wouldn’t have been quite so frustrating if the 19th century tropes hadn’t affected the plot, especially early on. All of our introductions to the Dominion church read like familiar lampooning recycled from Twain et al, and I found myself getting frustrated that there was nothing new there, no added depth. The matching to 19th century standard went so far as to include widespread illiteracy among the lower classes, despite being just a handful of generations away from current times, with a major Protestant church in power. If Catholics had taken over, I’d be able to buy it, but Protestants have always been a force for literacy, what with people needing to be able to read the bible so they know which parts to quote out of context what to believe.
In short, I spent a lot of the book distracted by needing to nit-pick the scenery, which was a problem.
Another major problem for the book, at least for me, was that it’s meant to be funny. And it was, starting around page 200. Up to that point most of the humor was at the exclusive expense of Adam, the narrator, but it didn’t quite make it past the “frustratingly naive” standard and into “amusingly naive” territory until well into the narrative. Once it got funny, it got quite funny – everything with Otis (a giraffe living in Central Park) was fabulous, and Calyxia (Adam’s rebellious, Québécois wife) was a gem. When I say funny, I mean giggling by myself in a restaurant, face-palming on a plane funny. It’s possible that it just took me 200 pages to get over the prose kicking me and it was funny the whole time. If so, I’m very sad the prose kicked me that long.
Why did I keep reading it when I was halfway before it hooked me and found most things up to that point annoying? Well, it’s got to do with the other problem I had with this book: It felt an awful lot like Spin. I was hoping for another slow build to stunning climax. I got a gesture toward that. I also got another story about an unusually intelligent, powerful, enigmatic man destroyed by his personal ambition while trying to save the world, as narrated by his devoted but less capable childhood friend. This simultaneously kept me reading the book, because it promised me that beautiful climax, while forcing me to constantly compare it to Spin, which is a vastly better book.
And no, it didn’t deliver on the climax. It tried to, I cheered it on while it sincerely tried, but it didn’t manage it. At the end, I was left feeling like I’d read a book that had very carefully followed the formula for that sort of book, without actually nailing it. I don’t dislike Julian Comstock, I wouldn’t discourage anybody from reading it. But I felt it was a mediocre book that tried to be great, and that disappointed me.
Did anybody read Julian Comstock first? If so, did you feel the same way? And can anybody tell me whether I’m asking for disappointment again if I read Axis?