Friday, March 29, 2013

The Demonologist, by Andrew Pyper

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The Demonologist, by Andrew Pyper
Doesn't Quite Flatter, Most Certainly Disappoints
3 stars
(Amazon, Kindle, Flipkart, my review on Amazon)
"Makes me question the devil's competence, the author's grasp on storytelling, and David Ullman's hold on sanity."

The way David Ullman, Cornell professor and expert on demonic literature, especially Milton's Paradise Lost, deciphers clues, goes on a cross country motor trip, in a Ford Mustang to begin with and later in several stolen cars, to rescue his daughter, Tess, before she is claimed, forever perhaps(?), by one of Satan's disciples, does more to make you question the devil's competence than David's proficiency.

David's marriage is a mess. The protagonist has to have little going right for him in such novels. Except his daughter Tess who is the only ray of light in his otherwise dismal existence. And truth be told, the one thing that this book gets somewhat right are the bits about the father and daughter interactions. When his wife informs him of her decision to move out of their house, David uses the opportunity to accept an invitation from a mysterious lady to go on an all expense paid visit to Venice with his daughter. What happens at Venice leaves David with only a matter of days in which he must decipher clues to retrieve his daughter before she is claimed by the devil for all time. So far so good. The plot has all the ingredients required for a truly gripping and empathetic thriller. Who would not be attracted to a thriller with elements of the supernatural, a race against time, a father's love for his daughter, a cross-country road trip - very American, and more. But if you take all these ingredients and just dump them into a cauldron in the hope that what will emerge will be a savory dish, anyone who has ever ventured into a kitchen will know that does not happen.

As I said, to be fair, some of the passages that describe the father's moments with his daughter, Tess, indeed ring true and heartfelt, and these are some of the redeeming passages in the book. Since they do not quite follow or lead up to anyplace, they feel forced into the narrative.

This is one of those I've-seen-better-film-on-teeth type of screenplays, written post-haste, using a heady concoction of adverb-laden over-wrought prose (sample these: "A quietly beautiful woman too" or "Her hand on my elbow a patch of cool on my suddenly burning skin"), with strategically planted episodes meant to evoke a sense of growing horror, terror, and suspense, but however elicit only a derisive burst of laughter, snort even, but nothing beyond. Yes, we can see how they would fit neatly into a screenplay, and we can even imagine how they may be shot and presented to us, but this is a book, not a movie, yet. The clickety-clack from the rusty springs of a trampoline in the middle of a night is one such episode, but why is it in the novel, and what exactly does it do to drive the plot ahead is sadly never made evident or hinted at. The "Pursuer" is man of such clumsy incompetence you wonder how he manages to even brush his teeth in the morning without choking and drowning.

The plot needed to be developed, the characters fleshed out, the clues needed to contribute to the fabric of the plot. That didn't happen; the result is a constant attempt at smashing adverbs into every sentence in the hopes of producing literary fusion. It has to be "A quietly beautiful woman too", while  "Outside, the interstate hums and yawns", or the truly climatic "Her hand on my elbow a patch of cool on my suddenly burning skin", while the mind bends to wrap itself around "She exhales. And before I can awaken, she releases an endless sigh. One that forms itself into an utterance that grows in volume and force, until it billows out of her as a kind of poem." On the other hand, "I sip the coffee. The taste of liquefied rust" does bring a smile as I remembered the brew that goes by the name of coffee in so many fast food joints.

And finally, it's a jet, it's a plane, but is "The jet humming and whistling, soothing as a mechanical womb"?? This question will keep me awake for hours on end. The plot? Not so much.

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© 2013, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.