Saturday, October 30, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 269 (10/30) -- Fated by S.G. Browne

Sometimes stories try to communicate back to their tellers, and they often don't have good news. There's one particular common eruption from the unconscious -- nicknamed "letters from Fred" by some great old writer whose name I have momentarily mislaid -- in which the writer's physical surroundings, or self-doubt, or uncertainty, pops out into the text of his current work, as if his writing hand is desperately trying to communicate with his brain.

On p. 350 of Fated -- two pages from the end -- the novel's narrator has a single-sentence paragraph: "Something about this feels kind of creepy." That's an urgent telegram from Fred, but S.G. Browne, and his editors, don't seem to have realized it at the time; the ending of Fated is all kinds of creepy, in ways that reflect badly back through the entire previous book. And it's a shame, because, up until then, Fated is a lightweight but entirely entertaining novel about the trials and tribulations of anthropomorphic personifications, in particular the one who tells us his story.

Destiny and Fate, Karma and Death, Sloth and Indulgence, Gluttony and Affection -- all of these are human-looking beings (due to their "man-suits") that walk among us to do their jobs. They can all go invisible whenever they want, transport themselves instantly anywhere -- and, of course, they're all immortal, having lived for the past quarter-million years. (They've all, as far as Browne tells us, had the same jobs that whole time, too.) They're on a first-name basis with God, whom they call Jerry, and his often-mentioned but never-seen son Josh. [1] They have the usual jobs of anthropomorphic personifications in light novels: they're both said to be completely responsible for their area of expertise in human life, and (at the same time) they either struggle to get humans to do what they're supposed to or wander aimlessly, using their powers to create random pockets of whatever-they-are.

Take Fate, our hero and narrator. (But call him Fabio, since everyone else does.) He's nursing a five-hundred-year falling-out with his oldest friend, Death (Dennis). And he has a love-hate relationship (complete with lots of "non-contact sex," for reasons Browne doesn't entirely make clear) with Destiny (just Destiny), since, in Browne's cosmology, Fate is for schlubs (who don't even live up to their fate most of the time) and Destiny is for the few superstars of the world. So Destiny is fabulous -- though Fabio, honestly, isn't really a slouch, himself. All three of them, and most of the rest of the pantheon, live in Manhattan, perhaps explaining why the real estate market is so tight there.

Fabio is regularly called on the carpet by Jerry and told to work harder, since well over half of his humans fail to live up to their fate. This is mildly curious, for two reasons: one, later on in the novel, when Fabio does start nudging his humans, that's even more wrong, which leads one to wonder what, precisely, he could do in between nothing and something. And, second, all the other personifications that we see are so vastly more lackadaisical about using their powers -- zapping people at random in bars, most of the time -- that one begins to wonder if Jerry is just picking on Fabio, or if Fabio is just the inherently guilt-ridden type, and Jerry has figured out the right way to manage him. (One also may suspect that Browne is winging it, and that aspects of his background do not entirely make sense -- but that's not a big deal, in a light romantic novel about anthropomorphic personifications.)

Anyway, Fabio is unhappy with his life and job. He's got everything he could possibly want, of course, but it's not enough. And then he meets Sara Griffen, a young human woman who lives in his building. She's gorgeous...and, as Fabio can see instantly, she's one of Destiny's, not one of his. It's against Jerry's rules to have relationships with humans -- though, again, this rule has clearly been more honored in the breach, to listen to Fabio's list of famous conquests -- doubly against the rules to mess with a human's intended future, and triply against the rules to interfere with a human earmarked for another AP's care. Fabio, like any self-respecting protagonist of a light novel about love amid supernatural entities, doesn't care, and dives right into a relationship with Sara.

And that leads to one of the first big problems with Fated. Fabio gushes on and on about how much he loves Sara, how special their relationship is, how she's so different from every other human being he's met over the past two hundred and fifty millennia...but all that Browne actually shows of their relationship is that they have a lot of sex. (Really, really good sex, admittedly, but that's it.) Fabio doesn't want to go out in public much with Sara -- the whole "God will be really pissed if he find out" thing, of course -- but we don't see them talking intently about anything, or enjoying watching Mad Men together, or working on a jigsaw puzzle, or anything. They have a lot of sex, and Fabio says he loves her. Well, yes, that's often the reaction of a man who's getting a lot of great sex from a gorgeous woman, but it doesn't really sell their relationship as something special. (And the intense focus on their sex life is one of the things that makes that ending -- which, don't worry, I won't give away -- so creepy.)

Fabio is also suffering from something like a midlife crisis: he's unhappy with his work already, and Jerry keeps complaining that the humans on the Path of Fate keep ending up even more schlubby than they're supposed to be. So Fabio starts pushing some of them: the point is to get them to live up to their potential, but, inevitably, their reaction to Fabio's attempts at motivational speaking shoves them far above their planned path, and into Destiny's camp. This leads to some plot complications that the reader will figure out long before Fabio does -- really, for a quarter-eon-old immortal, he's remarkably dim and oblivious -- on the way to the inevitable moment when Fabio can no longer keep all of his secrets.

In a book like this, it's traditional for the hero to lose everything -- with varying definitions of "everything" -- and then find a way to triumph. That does roughly describe the end of Fated. And I do have to admit that Browne found an ending that fit with the shape of the story he was telling, and which picked up a number of references from earlier in the book. But it's a creepy, uncomfortable ending, which will lead the reader to say "Wait, what!?" about five seconds after turning the last page. That's unfortunate, but the trip up to that last page is quite a zippy ride, full of running jokes and short, punchy paragraphs to keep the reader hurtling forward. The thing about Fated is that its a second novel -- Browne will certainly learn to be more subtle, and less jarring, in the future.

[1] Yes, this is a supposedly Christian cosmology without a single angel or devil, though Satan does get mentioned in passing, but never appears on the page. Again, the setting was clearly not designed for supporting in-depth philosophizing, or even a handful of searching questions.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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