Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Sparrow and the Large Steel Pipe

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.
Jack Handey

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."

The plot? Here it is: A bunch of people, including some Jesuits, decide to go to a distant planet, much in the same way that Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney used to decide to put on a show in someone’s barn. Before they leave, though, they have to talk and think a lot about whether there’s a god or not. They finally get to the planet, where they continue to talk and think about their favorite subject. All of them die, some of them by being eaten, regardless of whether there’s a god or not. Except one. Luckily for the author, he’s a Jesuit priest, who, having nobody to talk to, merely obsesses over the god thing. This character is, as I said before, forcibly fucked up the ass by carnivorous aliens, an event which, although it lasts for only one or two pages worth of text, is just about the only action in the novel. And which, really, should have pretty much given him the answer to his question. But, no. He eventually comes back to Earth, at least physically, where he continues to talk and think about whether there’s a god or not.

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?


Anonymous said...

Sounds like it's not one to put on my Christmas list then.

I quite like a bit of description to set the scene, but it's definitely a case where less is more

Anonymous said...

Sorry this was such a disappointing read for you. Maybe the next one will be better.

(BTW - I'm signing in using my Google ID, because I can't use the Wordpress option unless I've already signed in at the Wordpress home page. Like nearly everything else that's designated "new and improved," the current sign-in features are nearly useless.)

Anonymous said...

Sure, sure, but what do you really think? :)

The Exterminator said...


Actually, no read is completely disappointing, particularly if you're a writer. There's quite a bit to be gained from reading piss-poor writing, if you make the mental effort to think about what turns you off so much. Sometimes we writers have to be reminded of what not to do.

So when I start throwing any purposeless descriptions into these posts, feel free to admonish me.

Spanish Inquisitor said...

Ex. Just to let you know, I'm not reading this post, or anyone else's, or any comments, until I finish the book (Which at this rate may be sometime after Xmas). I don't want to have what I wrote affected by everyone else's opinion.

Sorry for the delay.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Wow. Again, we have totally different - well, not totally - reactions.

But I thought the narrative device was her best choice. A straight linear recounting of the story would have destroyed it.

The Exterminator said...


I love that we all have different reactions. That's what Nonbelieving Literati is about.

You said, A straight linear recounting of the story would have destroyed it. I agree 100% -- because the story was worth only about ten pages. The other 395 were all description, discussion, and digression.

C. L. Hanson said...

Too funny!!!

Even though I haven't read this book, it's fun seeing all of the different reactions!!! I ought to join your club since I like to write book reviews. I looked on my bookshelf and found that I actually have a copy of La Peste (which is the next book you guys are reading, right?) so I hardly have an excuse not to join in the fun...

The only thing is I think you guys should have this novel on your list. Even after seeing how you savaged this one, I'm not afraid... ;^)

The Exterminator said...


OK, you're in. I've added your name to the members list at left. Originally, I thought we'd write essays suggested by the book, not reviews -- although what I wrote about The Sparrow was certainly just a review. But click on the link and read my original idea.

As far as our reading Exmormon as a group exercise: I've always made it a point never to review work by a friend. I'm more than happy to offer my friends constructive criticism -- which can still be pretty harsh at times -- but I've never, ever written a review of a friend's work. Reviews are not intended to be constructive; they're little "star turns" by the reviewer. A negative review, particularly if it's well-written and perceptive, can break up a friendship in an instant; this has happened in the literary world countless times. On the other hand, if a friend gives a positive review, does the author really believe it?

Uh-uh. Sorry. No books written by one another. Good salesmanship, though!

C. L. Hanson said...

lol, it's very easy to criticize the work of friends if you know how to do it. The trick is that the lion's share of the critical stuff (constructive or not) goes in a private email. Then all the positive stuff you have to say about the book goes in the public review (with a taste of the critical part, for completeness).

I know that sounds bad, but seriously I don't like to pan a work that hasn't had wide distribution because what's the point? To steer them away from a work they probably wouldn't have thought to pick up in the first place? Not worth my bother. If the work has something to recommend it, then a good reviewer's task (IMHO) is to make it very clear what's good about it so that those who might be interested in it will find it. I'm more willing to let loose the dogs on a work that is on the best-seller list or accepted as a classic because those who read the review are more likely to have access to the original work, hence the work has more opportunity to defend itself.

That said, if your integrity prevents you from putting Exmormon and/or my new novel in the list, I'd still be interested in your private critique, if you have the time... ;^)

The Exterminator said...


Why don't you send me a private email from your own address, and we'll discuss whether or not you really want me to read and critique one of your novels. If you still do, I'll be happy to oblige -- although it may take me a while to get to it.

Babs Gladhand said...

I'm thrilled you read this book, because now I can insult people by telling them that their eyes are too close together and set deep as a monkey's.

That's funny stuff.

Unknown said...

I didn't mind that the characters spent the entire book debating whether or not there is a god. There are people that spend their entire lives trying to work that out.

But I do agree that the author had a heavy hand on trying to bring her own point of view on it to the forefront. But I think in the end she failed.

Reason's Whore said...

That's the best book review I've ever read. I'm so glad I didn't read the book itself; it would have spoiled the fun.

I think they must teach authors to write this way in school now. I just tossed aside another book with the same exact flaws. Didn't anyone ever tell these writers what you're supposed to learn in Comp 101: SHOW IT, DON'T TELL IT. Wad after chunky, verbose wad of exposition, cardboard characters moved lifelessly through scenarios even the author can't summon up interest in....urk.

I see we're supposed to read Camus now. Tried that one and it's probably here somewhere so I may try again. Not much joy, there, though.

For one of the next books, can I suggest something by Robertson Davies? At least he could write even if he did think atheists were humorless know-it-alls.

The Exterminator said...


Thanks for the glowing review of my review. I hope it was more entertaining than the book was.

I've read a lot of Davies, although not in the last 15 years or so. Great writer.

When it's your turn to select a book, you could definitely consider one of his novels. (If you pick from one of the trilogies -- Salterton, Deptford, or Cornish -- you should probably select the first book of the trio, although I think each one of his novels stands on its own.)

Reason's Whore said...

Oh, your review was laugh-out-loud funny. And I'm a gal who's a tough audience.

I love how you named the "reaction shot" - I have never heard it pointed out like that before, although I have noticed other bad writers do exactly that. I'm really, really glad to see that someone who I consider an excellent writer loathes this kind of thing as much as I do.

The book I just threw aside in disgust was called "Free Food For Millionaires," which I thought a great title. Author of which had received many awards for her writing. I have the impression that modern authors are becoming a bunch of inbred fuckwits.

The Exterminator said...


I had a writing teacher once who said (this is my very loose paraphrase):

Dialogue should just be "he said," "she said," unless you have something urgently important to add about the characters' actions while they speak. If the dialogue rings "true," you want to give the reader a chance to listen to it. So don't be interrupting it constantly with authorial asides and observations. If the dialogue doesn't ring
"true," you can't save it by throwing in the kitchen sink.

EnoNomi said...

I got mine done! Yipee! Late as usual.

Rakhat Rising

John Evo said...

Looks like Enonomi and I were reading partners. Mine is up too. Hey, at least I beat SI... I think? I'm going through reading everyone's now. This was (typically) stop 1.

Have to say, your review was better than anything I could have written. Then again, I was TRYING to stick to the NBL format and write an essay about what it made me think about.

I guess I'll continue my Friday reading quest by clicking on Eno's conveniently provided link. I won't leave mine. You have to work for good stuff! :)

The Exterminator said...

Eno & Evo:
You guys weren't meeting clandestinely in the library, were you?

You're right, of course, about an essay vs. a review. I plead "no contest." Hell, I didn't even remember to try to stick to the Nonbelieving Literati "rules." I guess the book just didn't make me think about anything other than how much I hated it.

EnoNomi said...

Well I do go to the library quite a bit...

How do we get books in for the Literati reading list? As I wait for the library to deliver The Plague (ha!), I've started on The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (because Neil Gaiman said he was reading it in his blog a long while back) but after reading the first chapter I think it'd make a good addition to our group.

The Exterminator said...


Yeah, I have to order The Plague from Amazon; better get on that.

I think The Master and Margarita would make an excellent choice for NL. I read it and loved it ages ago, twice, but I remember very little about it. Please keep it in mind.

The way books get on the list is: About a week before the target date for the current book, I tap someone on the e-shoulder to make the next selection. Your turn will come very soon. I'm tempted to tell you that you'll be next, but now that I've expressed so much excitement about the book you might choose, it probably wouldn't be fair to un-"randomize" my process. You never know, though.

Sunil said...


Nice Posting About the Steel Pipes.