The Dead Zone meets No Country For Old Men, plus some Juno thrown in to annoy me
Wendig, Chuck. Blackbirds. Angry Robot Books, 2012.
From the outset, I’ll make it clear that I am a bit ambivalent about Chuck Wendig’s supernatural noir Blackbirds.
Miriam is a psychic of sorts, but a very specific one. She can foresee a person’s death by touching their skin. That’s it. Limited as it is, her gift has allowed Miriam to eke out a meager existence on the road: a chance encounter with a dude who’ll be dead in days can mean easy money, keeping Miriam in booze and cigarettes. (Because the book is part crime fiction, the protagonist must drink and smoke.) She’s been at it for a while until she meets Louis, a goodhearted giant of a truck driving man who’ll be horribly murdered in two weeks’ time. And Miriam will be the cause of his death. If that isn’t bad enough, she becomes entangled with a drifter con man named Ashley who blackmails her into scamming Louis out of his hard earned earnings immediately upon his death. And Ashley’s got some colorful psychopaths after him because of a large metal suitcase he stole. And Miriam, knowing she’ll cause Louis death, spends 200 or so pages working with Ashley—sometimes willingly, sometimes less so—ensuring that the poor bastard will die horribly before the novel ends.
Because of fate. Or because Miriam can be kind of dumb. Because of fate.
Here’s a quick recap of my Blackbirds reading experience: I immediately liked it a few pages in. Then I immediately didn’t after a few more, but I kept on. Then I was annoyed. Then I became intrigued. Then really annoyed. Then the last 75 pages were really good. The ending was great. Then it ended differently, but I had become fully ambivalent by then so I didn’t mind much.
Wendig is clearly a skilled writer. The book is well paced with sharp narration and exposition. The plot’s ambitious are wisely humble—it’s more or less an on the road crime novel with just enough of the unexplained, Miriam’s ability, to make the book not just another on the road crime novel. But, the brisk storytelling is too often weighed down by dialog that is far too clever—Miriam’s penchant for swearing; her Junoesque references, a generation or two out-of-date; her constant need to make a sarcastic comment about everything. While it didn’t entirely ruin the novel, it did annoy me. Ganted, Miriam is not a manic pixie. But she is more or less what nerds—myself included—dreamed of in high school: cute, smart, snarky, kinda punk, with psychic powers. And she talks how nerdy boys in high school imagine cool girls talk: like them but confident.
Miriam’s negligible pixiness cannot offset her agency problem. (Sorry, I’m an academic.) Initially, we’re introduced to Miriam as a protagonist. She drinks, she swears, she gets into fights—and handles herself well. But that’s for the first 50 pages. Thereafter, she’s pretty much either being led around by men or running to them for protection. It’s not until the novel’s conclusion that she actually takes any real action.
While this may superficially appear to be a problem of gender—yet another agentless female character—Miriam’s passivity is actually a philosophical, if not cosmological problem. She has tried in the past to change the future she foresees, to keep alive those who she know will die. And every time, her attempt to prevent a person’s imminent death ends up directly causing it. In a world so unequivocally determined by fate, why not sit back and make snarky comments that never land? I picked up on this quite early—Wendig does nothing to be subtle about Miriam’s cosmic predicament—but I nevertheless wanted her to try. To do something. Anything other than spew snark, smoke cigarettes, or think about wanting to smoke cigarettes. By signaling the dilemma she faced, Wendig seems to want the reader to be frustrated by her actions. He wants us to want her to act. In this, the author is a bit of a tease.
Keep reading. She eventually becomes the protagonist.
Objective Score: 6/10
Penalties: -1 for frustrating me, the humble reader
Bonuses: +1 for what is perhaps the single funniest chapter of a book ever written; +1 for the nice cover art (a specialty of the good folks at Angry Robot)
Nerd Coefficient: 7/10 That's an ambivalent 7/10