Like the last two posts, this addresses the theme of self-indulgence. To recap, we forgive Guillermo del Toro for dipping a tad too deeply into his bag o’ whimsy, and we forgive George R.R. Martin for taking every little goddamn idea that pops into his head and cramming it into his increasingly freewheeling books. These guys do great work, so it’s all good. Which brings us to Clive Barker, whom I both worship and want to kick in the pants. Barker is a very busy man -- he writes books and stories, he produces movies, he paints, he does video games and comics, and he probably carves giant faces into cliffsides, who knows. Perhaps because of this constant project-juggling, his literary work is wildly uneven. Books of Blood was a horror masterpiece while The Great and Secret Show did little for me; Coldheart Canyon was awesome while Mister B. Gone was lame and repetitive; Imajica wowed me while Sacrament baffled me. And so forth. He’s a man of incredible invention who could stand to take some stern fiction-writing workshops. And his Abarat saga...oy vey.
I’m sorry, but these books are a mess. I didn’t notice back when I first read them, because I was a kid. But that’s the problem with taking forever to write a series: your target audience becomes jaded adults. Rereading the first two, and then diving into the third for the first time, I was somewhat dismayed by how clumsily Barker creates his world and characters. There is just TOO MUCH going on, and he jumps about from subplot to subplot without spending enough time on any of them. He’s trying to marry a huge, epic world with the terse, fact-paced narrative that most young adult novels are required to have. And he’s failing at it.
He’s especially bad at writing action sequences. Again and again, Candy gets chased by the villain-of-the-moment...and chased and chased and chased...and the whole time, she and her enemy are fucking CHATTING like they’re sitting next to each other at the salon. Everybody talks in the long-winded, expository manner you see in comic books, and as a result, everyone is interchangeable. Candy is a sweet, compelling heroine, but the more time goes by, the more she gets flattened by Barker’s bad dialogue and dragging, ham-fisted narrative. The most recent book, Absolute Midnight, made me wince. So much is going on that characters who used to be somewhat interesting are now relegated to a handful of generic lines, because here comes a whole new gang of folks to be introduced! (Including an abrupt, poorly-defined, utterly forced love interest.) Dialogue scenes go on for multiple chapters, yet an event as momentous as the destruction of an entire island by a titanic sea monster is whipped off in a single paragraph. The book’s endless climax resolves itself with a cliffhanger that made me moan in despair, because it leaves no hope that the story isn’t gonna get even huger and more thinly-spread in the next book, which should be out in 2024 or so. Also, something happens that...well, you know that scene in The Dark Crystal where Jen and Kira fall off a cliff but are saved because Kira has wings and never thought to mention them before? It’s like that. Only worse, because it involves a major character who’s been around since the beginning. If literature professors ruled the world, Barker would be hanged for less.
Yep. Abarat kinda sucks. And I’m really sorry to say that, because I continue to admire Barker and all he’s done for the genres of fantasy and horror. The art alone almost makes the books worth getting, but does it make them worth reading? Because by the time the next volume comes out, I may be A) in my thirties, and B) devoid of any more interest. To paraphrase another role model of mine, Roger Ebert: In a world where anything can happen, does it matter if anything actually does? The marriage of luscious art and shitty writing is so drastic that Barker himself inadvertently put it best, with this image here:
VERDICT: I’ll give the illustrations a squee. But the story should be ripped up for parade confetti. It’d read about the same.