Tuesday, February 05, 2008

9tail Fox by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

I have no idea why Jon Courtenay Grimwood insists on being a science fiction writer; from where I sit, his talents lie in another direction. He made his name with a series of alternate history detective stories in which the alternate aspects of the history seemed to have been chosen by whim. And 9tail Fox is another detective story, this one set in the indefinitely-near future and focusing on a dead policeman solving his own murder -- and either Grimwood or his publishers insist on branding 9tail Fox as SF. It's curious. There is a SFnal maguffin at the heart of 9tail Fox, but there is also an unexplained, unSFnal aspect of that maguffin -- with a bit of tweaking, the plot would have worked just as well with a fantastic explanation.

9tail Fox or 9Tail Fox -- Grimwood's acknowledgements have the former and the copyright page the latter -- is set in either 2009 or 2015, due to a bit of what I'm coming to see as Grimwood's essential sloppiness unspecificity. He's an engaging writer on the sentence level, but as paragraphs turn into pages, details are forgotten and consequences float unmoored from events. Grimwood at times seems to be visualizing the screenplay version of 9tail Fox, as scenes smash-cut into each other without warning.

The Night Shade edition of 9tail Fox also has an occasional problem punctuating dialogue -- when the same character speaks in two consecutive paragraphs, the rule is that second paragraph gets an open-quote but the first does not get a close-quote. I'll offer a horrible demonstration:
"I am talking," Johnny said, "because I am the one holding the gun. In a moment, I will point the gun at you and you will talk.

"Do you understand?" Johnny barked.
Perhaps Night Shade's compositor was confused because in these cases Grimwood nearly always includes a speech tag in both paragraphs; someone is not confident of his ability to make things clear.

As the book opens, Bobby Zha is a homicide detective in a San Francisco so very slightly alternate that it makes no real difference. (Does Grimwood use these incessant alternate histories to avoid being caught out on mistakes?) It's also, as noted above, in the mildly near future, though nothing about day-to-day life is even slightly new or different. Bobby is depicted as a good cop in a department rife with corruption. (Is Grimwood using old Dirty Harry movies as primary research? San Francisco is one of the richest cities in the US, and not generally noted as particularly scummy.) Bobby is having some vague trouble with his wife Ellen, and some possibly-related strife with his teenage daughter, Kris, neither of which ever becomes completely clear. (Also, the daughter is described on p. 122 as having been born in 1992, which is either another piece of data that 9tail Fox is set in 2009, or another bit of confusion.) His pattern for dealing with problems, in the opening of the book, is to simply avoid them -- that could have set up an interesting tension for the latter parts of 9tail Fox, if that had led anywhere, but it didn't.

Very quickly, the event given away by the cover blurb happens, and Bobby is dead in a warehouse. His new partner, Pete Sanchez, abandoned him at the scene, as far as the reader can tell -- Grimwood has a hard-boiled laconic style that shades over into confused secrecy, particularly when scenes end suddenly and the narrative picks up somewhere else without a line break or any other sign that the point of view has shifted.

Bobby wakes up elsewhere, in another body. (There will be a SFnal explanation for this at the end -- not necessarily a great one, since the mad scientist doctor involved never appears in the book, and my memory of the timeline is that he was dead before Bobby got whacked.) Bobby also sees a 9-tailed fox, which speaks in the voice of his dead grandfather, and this will not get any explanation whatsoever. The reader may assume that Bobby is delusional, or that he's connected to the collective unconscious, or that 9-tail foxes actually exist, but the text will not help him determine the truth.) Luckily for him, Bobby's new body is vastly rich and unencumbered by family or job or life, so he's free to jet back to San Francisco to investigate his own death.

This he does by impersonating a federal agent, insinuating himself back into his old department, sleeping with two different gorgeous women practically as soon as they meet him, and poking around at other things that he thinks might be related. At no time does he actually try to investigate the murder of Detective Bobby Zha. He acts, to be honest, like a movie detective -- running around and fixating on whatever is most colorful and shiny at the moment, to see if anything comes out of it. Since the narrative is on his side, things do come out of it -- at first, the two gorgeous women, and then more and more. As the book goes on, we learn that Bobby was on the take (which, in the pre-death portion of the book, was specifically denied), that his partner was having an affair with his wife, and several other things that seem equally random and equally unlikely. This reader wondered, at least once, if there was a big wheel of character traits in Grimwood's office, which he spun once a chapter to add another quirk to the otherwise mostly colorless Bobby Zha.

It all comes together, more or less, in the end, with a major confrontation in a secret lair with the mysterious person behind all of these events. And we've met some colorful characters along the way -- though, notably, Bobby is not one of them; he's a mild flavor of "good cop trying to clear his name," and all our time in his head doesn't make him terribly individual.

9tail Fox is a little confused, in what I'm coming to believe is Grimwood's singular style -- if you don't explain details, than you can't be called to task on them later in the book -- and both plot and motivations seem to wander a bit. As I was reading it, I thought it could make a great Hollywood movie -- it would only have to be simplified a bit. Maybe that was Grimwood's intention; he certainly does write readable thrillers (with occasional SFnal content to let them fit into the genre).

I do wonder why he bothers with the SF stuff at all, though -- it doesn't seem central at all to what he writes, and the potentials for a writer like him outside the genre are much larger than within. I hasten to add that I'm not trying to kick him out by any means; just wondering what he sees in this old neighborhood.

9tail Fox is a decent entertainment, but I advise against reading it slowly and carefully; this is a book to be hurtled through, damning everything but speed.


Karen Burnham said...

I had similar problems with his Pashazade series. Even though I read all three, all the confusing elements never converged in a satisfying way. Many of the interesting questions raised by the character of Rafe and the various plots were never answered. At least there, the alternate history provided an interesting world to look at, a bit like some of George Effinger's stories.

I'm sorry to hear that 9tail Fox follows the same pattern - I'll probably skip it. Did you read the Rafe series as well?

Anonymous said...

Have you read Grimwood's END OF THE WORLD BLUES? I totally agree with you. The author is interesting on a sentence-by-sentence level.

Anonymous said...

"I am talking," Johnny said, "because I am the one holding the gun. In a
moment, I will point the gun at you and you will talk.

"Do you understand?" Johnny barked.'

I assume this level of illiteracy is yours and not Grimwood's?

Andrew Wheeler said...

Well, O Anonymous One, it would help if you gave some clue as to what you were talking about.

Those particular words were mine, but they were modeled on Grimwood's -- and neither of us, clearly, is illiterate.

Anonymous said...

I'm not the Anonamous addressed above, and I think the personal attack is uncalled for, the style of quotation use is in line with that recommended by the Chicago Manual of Style (15ed. 11.43). This has been your pedantic correction of the month.

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