I don't like small birds. They hop around so merrily outside my window, looking so innocent. but I know that secretly, they're watching my every move and plotting to beat me over the head with a large steel pipe and take my shoe.
In fact, I do like small birds. But since the sparrow is a small bird, and since reading The Sparrow is like being beaten over the head with a large steel pipe, I thought the quote was apt.
I don’t even know where to start explaining how much I loathed this book. I suppose the tiresome theme is as good a place as any. Characters don’t just look in a mirror in this novel; they study themselves and think about whether there’s a god or not. They don’t just stare out a window; they look at the landscape and think about whether there’s a god or not. They don’t just go to sleep; they lie in bed and think about whether there’s a god or not. They don’t take a walk, or have a meal, or fly through space in a hollowed-out asteroid, or get forcibly fucked up the ass by carnivorous aliens, without missing an opportunity to think about whether there’s a god or not.
If the writing were good, or even acceptable, that kind of endless contemplation might be interesting to follow. But years ago, in Mary Doria Russell’s Composition 101 class, someone must have told her to “describe what you 'see.'” She apparently took this to mean: “Describe whatever you 'see,' using as many similes as possible, the more unrelated to the content, the better.” So she piles irrelevant detail on irrelevant detail on irrelevant detail until you wish you had a sharpened blue pencil at the ready, either to start editing ferociously or to rouse yourself out of your stupor by stabbing yourself in the forehead.
Here’s the kind of stuff I mean:
He was not handsome. The nose was too long and no particular shape, the eyes too close together and set deep as a monkey’s, the semicircle smile and the red curling hair like scribbles in a child’s drawing.This just reeks of phoniness, and half the words are extraneous. He’s got a long nose, close-together eyes, and curly red hair. The shape of his nose, the monkey business, the semicircle smile (what else would it be, a hyperbola?), and the child’s scribbles don't help us picture the guy. And they have nothing to do with plot foreshadowing, character analysis, mood, anything. They’re just stuffing.
Dialogues, of which there are many, are endless. That’s because Ms. Russell includes a description of every single “reaction shot.” No one ever just speaks; no, they brush their hair out of their face, kick at a rock, walk around the room, touch or wiggle or scratch various body parts. If a character makes a wisecrack, the author feels obliged to show us how the others react to it. If a character shares an intimacy, the author must tell us about the listeners’ facial expressions, and explain exactly what they were thinking about right before, at the moment of, and immediately after the revelation.
Here’s an example of a short conversation. I’ve substituted blah's for the actual blah dialogue, but I've included the endless descriptions of the participants. The words and phrases in blue are padding.
“Blah blah blah blah blah....” Emilio ran his fingers through his hair, a nervous habit he had never been able to break. He let his hands fall and rested them on his knees. “Blah blah blah blah blah.... Blah blah blah blah blah....” Jimmy said nothing, so Emilio went on, voice quiet, face and eyes serious. “Blah blah blah blah blah. Many more sentences of blahs.”Jimmy was quiet. He looked at the grave and unusual face of the man opposite him and when he spoke, he sounded older, somehow. “Blah blah blah blah blah?”
Unexpectedly, Emilio’s face lit up and he seemed about to say something, but then the fingers combed through the dark hair again and his eyes slid away. “Blah blah blah blah blah,” was all he said.
Oh, did I mention that about half the book takes place before and during the trip to another planet, and about half of it takes place after? But the time sequences are all mushed together, so you jump back and forth. When an artist like Faulkner does this in The Sound and the Fury it's beautiful, evocative, mysterious. When a talentless hack like Ms. Russell does it in The Sparrow it's a chance to telegraph and foreshadow like crazy. The effect is that any time something actually happens — which is a rare occurrence what with all the descriptions, and reactions, and wondering about god — you've already had dozens of hints about it in "the future."
Spoiler Alert: The author thinks maybe there is.
Of course, it’s obvious to the reader that there isn’t. The Sparrow, itself, furnishes the proof. If there were a god, would this terrible book have gotten published?