Let me begin by saying that I know full well that trashy paperbacks are supposed to be brain candy. When I first became interested in reading for pleasure, sometime around the 7th or 8th grade, I read nothing but a long line of bad sci-fi, bad fantasy, and bad war books. By about midway through high school I went through a phase where I read nothing but high literature. This was a stupid phase to go through as most classical literature and other urbane reading doesn’t really appeal to me. I was putting on airs and trying to pass myself off as sophisticated and cultured, when really I was just a dumb shit. Thing is that deep down, I like reading books about space ships and airplanes and bombs and explosions. I’ve gotten over the elves and dragons crap though.
I pretty much stopped reading fiction in the last few years as nothing is really able to sustain my interest all the way through, but every once in a while something will catch my eye and I’ll turn a few pages. I suppose most of the fiction I do read now is historical fiction of one kind or another. Most of it in the form of war stories, or fictionalized historical adventure stories like Gerry Jennings’ Aztec series, or his book about Marco Polo. The Aztec books are still some of my favorite books, even if they aren’t great literature. I’m also enjoying Zane Gray’s “Riders of the Purple Sage” right now, but it’s no page turner and I’m going through it slowly. A few weeks ago a friend gave me a book which got me pretty excited at first. The story is called “Thunderhead”.
It is brain candy in it’s purest form. It’s about a young archaeologist who discovers a letter leading her to a lost Anasazi city. Along the way, strange warewolf like monsters become involved. Pure bullshit, but also pure fun. I read the first quarter of the book and got a good laugh at the authors’ treatment of archaeology that read like something a first year undergrad might write (there was an especially laughable section about the super secret USGS 7.5″ topo map library), and the conversations between archaeologists where they used technical terminology around one another that was really overdone. But still it was fun.
Throughout the read, as each new character was introduced, I kind of got a good feeling who would die, who was actually a villain, and who would end up becoming indispensable in the end. They were all stock characters. You had the young spoiled rich girl, the tough talking Latina, the dweeby but good hearted computer nerd who wanted a taste of adventure, the cowboy, the stuck up asshole professor, the cold, but ultimately kind older doctor, the ethnic chef, the repulsive lousy news reporter, and at the center of them all, the morally upright, courageous, tenacious, and almost boringly faultless heroine. I bet you can read that list and tell me who dies , who gets laid, and who ends up being evil without even knowing anything else about the book. Are they all two dimensional characters? Yes. Are they really difficult to sympathize with and care about? Yes, but that’s ok. The fact remains that there are weird menacing wolf monsters lurking in the shadows picking these people off, so it’s still a page turner.
And then the bottom falls out. I don’t know why authors of historical fiction sometimes feel the need to come up with some entirely pie-in-the-sky scenarios for what happened in the past? I know that in the case of the Anasazi, we don’t know much about specific events. I’m also aware that the author’s aren’t professional historians or anthropologists, but god damn, the revelation they throw out at the end is so laughable, far fetched, and at the same time unimaginative, that the story entirely loses whatever staying power it had developed up to this point. It’s the same dumb trick Elizabeth Kostova pulled in “The Historian”, and it’s what let’s Dan Brown laugh on the way to the bank each morning, but it’s so damned unnecessary.
In the entire experience of human history, things have happened, things we know well about, that were far more interesting, menacing, creepy, unsettling, exciting, heroic, or otherwise extraordinary, than anything these authors came up with. If you’re going to write historical fiction, research the time and culture you’re writing about, and include those fantastic people, places, and events into your narrative! Don’t weave horseshit when there’s already a good yarn!*
*I just made that idiom up, and I hope it becomes part of the American lexicon!