Upbeat Cynicism

what do you mean i lost my mind?

Life Expectancy by Dean Koontz, 2005

with 11 comments

Dean Koontz can be an infuriating writer. He’s one of the few who completely enjoys the process of actually writing. He writes every day, all day, sometimes more than 10 hours at a clip. The only other writers I’ve heard of who are that productive and happy to do more are Joyce Carol Oates and J. Michael StraczynskiWho shares a few other interesting pieces of biography with Mr. Koontz, but that’s likely another blog post..

Koontz’s name has been a fixture on bestseller lists since the mid-1980s, so he’s clearly doing something right, and that something is constructing wickedly effective page–turning thriller plots. His characters also are usually of at least moderate interest, both villains and heroes. Making a villain interesting is relatively easy, but doing it with a hero, who has more constraints on his behavior, tends to be a good bit tougher. Koontz always makes the attempt, though.

I also have always liked that his seemingly fantastic premises usually have rational explanations in the end (although his highly superficial grasp of science often undercuts this, he again at least makes the attempt) and that he explicitly rejects Freudian BS.

The infuriating aspects of his writing all proceed from the same source: his apparently total ignorance of his weaknesses as a writer. He believes himself to be an unrecognized master prose stylist — in at least one 1990s interview he claimed that he often composed portions of his novels in iambic pentameter, but that readers rarely noticed; a crock, as he didn’t break the prose lines out into lines of five iambic feet each in any way — he believes he wields a razor sharp wit and that his sense of comedy is unerring, that he can write comedy with ease; and he believes himself and his books to be deep, possibly even profound.

His style has two modes — mostly-transparent and gaudy-clunky-obtrusive-over–labored. His comedy also comes in two varieties — understated, well-observed character observation, and excessively over-labored “clever”nessSee, e.g., his dog Trixie’s writings, or the “funny” deaths of his various past pseudonyms chronicled in the afterwords of their reissued books, or the afterword of Midnight where he gets a single shock-laugh, then beats a dead horse into pudding instead of letting it lie.. And as far as depth, his narrator in the present book suggests that even trying to live by a consistent philosophy is a recipe for evil, and that so long as you have love, optimism, family, and cake, you’ll do fine. Which, granted, is a pleasant change from the usual Hollywood nihilist ethos but, honestly? Intellectual surrender is not deep. Nor profound.

Another problem I used to have with KoontzThe last Koontz I read was 1995’s Intensity, which was just about perfect, but at that point I had basically overdosed on him. was that, all too frequently, his set-ups deserved much better payoffs than they gotStrangers is a typical example of this..

Happily, if this book is any indication, this is one problem Koontz has licked.

With maybe a little cheating.

In 1974, on the same night, in the same hospital — and, in fact, at the same moment — Jimmy Tock was born and his grandfather died. Prior to that moment, however, grandfather, who had been partially paralyzed and rendered incoherent by a stroke, recovered briefly and delivered a prophecy. He knew not only his grandson’s gender and name (kept a secret by the expectant parents), but also the rare condition he would be born with. And he gave five future dates — dates Jimmy should beware, because they would be terrible days.

After relating the circumstances surrounding his birth (and I’m leaving out the whole part about the other expectant father in the waiting room, an angry clown named Konrad Beezo, who further turns out to be an insane and murderous clown), Jimmy tells the story of each of these terrible days, one each in 1994, 1998, 2002, 2003, and 2005.

Once past the opening section the novel is funny, and gripping, and (once you realize that Koontz isn’t going to even try explaining how the prophecy occurred) pretty satisfying.

It’s written in the first person from Jimmy Tock’s viewpointKoontz also seems to have a childish fascination with the “tock” sound — one previous book included had a villain named TickTock, another was titled Tick Tock., except for one chapter at the end. And “Jimmy’s” opening attempts to be witty, wry, and endearing are some of Koontz’s most painful prose in decades. It’s clumsy, klutzy, overdone, and nearly made me throw the book across the room, never to continue it. It’s fully as awkward as the worst moments in The Face of Fear, and arguably worse than the wretched opening line of Dragon Tears. On the other hand, Dragon Tears didn’t improve much from its “hey, look, there’s litrachure happenin’ here!” opening, while Life Expectancy improves a great deal.

Jimmy tells you that he, his father, and his grandfather are, or were, bakers and pastry chefs. Then, he reminds you of it. Then he reminds you of it again. And again. Then once more. And still again. And one more time. ThenSHUTUPSHUTUPSHUTPIGOTITALREADY!!!

In fact, that’s a big part of what makes Koontz unfunny when he’s being “clever”. He comes up with twist or a set-up–punchline combination or whatever it is and, instead of whittling it down to its sharpest, punchiest essence, he piles on every variation he could possibly come up with and gives them all to you. Figuring, apparently and wrongly, that more is always funnier.

That pattern does not stop in this book, but it does get restricted to two characters once you get past the opening, and it fits both of those characters nicely, actually reflecting their personalities well.

This would make a delightful movie, so long as Koontz himself didn’t script it. The dialogue — at times — is worthy of Joss Whedon, and the terrible days tend to mix the screwball with the macabre in interesting ways. If they don’t let anyone on the production get too ponderous or “deep”, it might even launch a new genre — the screwball thriller.

The five terrible days, by the way, are all related, and each proceeds directly from the day of Jimmy’s birth. Koontz manages the feat of re-explaining what really happened that day at least three times, and makes it fresh and surprising each time.

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Written by [IMH]

6 January 2006 at 9:41 am

Posted in Literature

11 Responses

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  1. Isn’t Dragon Tears the novel that starts with the line, “Tuesday was a fine California day, full of sunshine and promise, until Harry Lyon had to shoot someone at lunch.”? I remember thinking it was a fun opening, myself, though it’s been years since I’ve read that book.

    (BTW, have you read Tick Tock? It came out just after Intensity, as I recall, so I’m guessing maybe not. I loved it, myself.)

    Robin S.

    6 January 2006 at 11:58 pm

  2. The only other writers I’ve heard of who are that productive and happy to do more are Joyce Carol Oates and J. Michael Straczynski1.

    What about Isaac Asimov? He’s dead now, but I bet he’s still typing.

    David M. Brown

    7 January 2006 at 7:08 pm

  3. Robin: Maybe, but in the edition I read, all the promo copy was selling that line as a breakthrough to Serious Litrachure for Koontz, and Koontz himself said around that time that he felt the style in that novel was his best ever. It wasn’t, and if you try to read that line seriously rather than comicly, it clunks. Badly.

    David: Asimov never professed a joy in writing that those other writers did. He liked having written, for sure, and was quick, definitely, but the process itself didn’t seem to please him as much. I could be wrong, of course.

    Ian

    9 January 2006 at 11:13 am

  4. I have come into this discussion very late. But I had to contribute.

    I picked up a paperback of “Life Expectancy” recently because a friend had left it at my house. My mother is a huge Koontz fan and owns every book he has written, as well as rare out-of-print novels from the 60s. She swears by him. I’ve read several of his novels and was always entertained. So, I was looking forward to this book.

    I’m a little over 100 pages in, and it’s sooooo difficult to go any further. I can’t stop, however, because I have to see what the big deal is. I have to see where it goes to make people praise the book so much. Because, quite frankly, I don’t get it.

    The language is odd and the dialogue is awkward. People say things that people just don’t say. The main character constantly reminds me that he’s a baker, and litters his language with annoying references to food. Having known bakers my entire life, I can honestly say…they just don’t DO that.

    “She was prettier than a cupcake made of chocolate and sprinkled with icing at a 90-degree angle as it warmed in the California sun, sitting on the ledge of a buffet in the lobby of the Four Season’s Hotel”. Eeeeesh. It gets grating. We get it. You’re a baker. You like food. Christ, move on.

    And people speak in ways that people simply do not speak. From annoying clowns using words like “Harrlequin” and “Aerealist” (and calling a character by his first AND last name each time he speaks), to people having light-hearted conversation while BEING HELD AT GUNPOINT, it just grates on my nerves. Honestly, who has witty banter about lemon marmalade and “toasted English muffins” while staring downt he barrel of a gun? Who says things to the effect of “Just because you shot the librarian doesn’t mean you can suspend the rules of the library so I don’t have to whisper..”?!? Who speaks like that?! NO ONE. It seems as if it’s supposed to be witty, but it comes off as awkward, and feels strained. It feels weird to read things that would be uncomfortable to speak.

    So, I’m going to plow through this book and hope it gets better. I now can’t put it down…but not because of the suspense. No, I’m enthralled in the book because I can’t believe it comes so well-reviewed. A first-time novelist wouldn’t even get an agent with this manuscript. I can’t believe it was a New York Times bestseller.

    I really like Koontz, and am not trying to bash him. I’ve always liked his books that I’ve read. But “Life Expectancy” is just odd, in my opinion. Perhaps it will get better. But I certainly can’t recommend it.

    Wardrick

    9 September 2007 at 11:34 am

  5. In rereading my review, I still think that I clearly laid out the same problems you’re naming, Wardrick, but I was able to look past them and enjoy the rest of the ride. And not all of the dialogue was awful. Punchinello’s constant use of “Jimmy Tock” and “Rudy Tock” instead of just one name for either fits in nicely with his whole character, a very off-kilter sociopath with child-like qualities.

    Some of the other things that are bugging you would fit right in in a given episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, or Firefly, and I suggest you try to take certain exchanges in that light. The book isn’t really trying to be real, it’s trying to be fun. Trying much too hard, at times, I grant you, but succeeding, too. And it’s a major departure for Koontz in terms of plot structure.

    Ian

    9 September 2007 at 11:57 am

  6. Wardrick: “Who says things to the effect of “Just because you shot the librarian doesn’t mean you can suspend the rules of the library so I don’t have to whisper..”?!? Who speaks like that?! NO ONE. It seems as if it’s supposed to be witty, but it comes off as awkward, and feels strained. It feels weird to read things that would be uncomfortable to speak.”

    … it’s FICTION. Suspension of reality… not true… made up… Wardrick, do you say the same thing when you read Shakespeare?? I’m happy authors make their characters smarter than I am, wittier than I am and more likeable than I am. That’s why I read FICTION! ‘Life Expectancy’ was a highly entertaining book that made me laugh out loud on many occasions while eagerly turning the pages for more of the same. Highly recommended!

    Stephanie

    11 September 2008 at 12:17 pm

  7. Wardrick: “Who says things to the effect of “Just because you shot the librarian doesn’t mean you can suspend the rules of the library so I don’t have to whisper..”?!? Who speaks like that?! NO ONE. It seems as if it’s supposed to be witty, but it comes off as awkward, and feels strained. It feels weird to read things that would be uncomfortable to speak.”

    … it’s FICTION. Suspension of reality… not true… made up… Wardrick, do you say the same thing when you read Shakespeare?? I’m happy authors make their characters smarter than I am, wittier than I am and more likeable than I am. That’s why I read FICTION! ‘Life Expectancy’ was a highly entertaining book that made me laugh out loud on many occasions while eagerly turning the pages for more of the same. Highly recommended!

    Stephanie

    11 September 2008 at 12:17 pm

  8. I thought the dialog was witty. Thought it was well written, not clumsy, not chunky and it was endearing. Maybe people in life don’t talk as the quotes that were given but that was part of the charm. I enjoyed “Life Expectancy” very much.

    c

    23 September 2008 at 1:20 pm

  9. I enjoyed it very much, as well. But a lot of the time when Koontz clearly thinks he is being witty, he is merely being laborious, or else he is taking a witticism and making very, very sure that you didn’t miss just how gosh-darn witty he was, and then reminding you of it multiple times soon thereafter.

    Life Expectancy succeeds a lot more than others of his books, but there are still some definitively clunky exchanges.

    Ian Michael Hamet

    23 September 2008 at 3:19 pm

  10. The reasons you have outlined define perfectly what about Dean Koontz I don’t like. And the fact that he’s super biased against anyone not Christian.

    Emily

    11 February 2009 at 3:51 pm

  11. Emily,

    Koontz is very clearly christian, but I don’t really recall him being biased as such against non-christians. His heroes tend to be christian or agnostic, and his villains tend to have incredibly oddball beliefs, but I don’t see that as a problem (I am an atheist, if you didn’t know.)

    Even if it is a pro-christian bias, it is at least a breath of fresh air when put up against the mindless anti-christian bias of other pop culture institutions such as Law & Order, or really almost any Hollywood production.

    (OK, thinking it over, I can see The Taking as being against all non-christians, but the book was so unutterably stupid that it didn’t really come to mind.)

    Ian Michael Hamet

    12 February 2009 at 11:46 am


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