Lucius Shepard’s “Life During Wartime”

I am so ill-equipped to discuss books. I have neither the tools nor the mindset to analyze them on any sort of rhetorical level or textual level. My instinct is always to talk about what the book made me think about, which is how a post on “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” turns into a post about how annoying it is that we can’t kill dogs.

I finally finished this book tonight, ripping through the last 300 pages after struggling for days over the first 130. I loved about one half of this book, basically the first half of each paragraph. I’m too tired to find an example of what I’m talking about, but the descriptive style of this book is flat-out annoying. It’s just this piling on of detail after detail, until you’ve looked at every rock and every parrot and every mural on the wall. And it’s all very well done, as far as I can tell, but I don’t care. I’m not a visual person. There’s no movie in my mind when I read books. In my opinion, if you want pictures, you should just see a movie.

This book was an interesting one to read at a time when I’m trying to broaden my reading. Because one element of that program is to read more fiction “classics”. And while this book is, arguably, a classic of fantastic fiction…that doesn’t really mean anything.

Speculative fiction is not like what I call “real” fiction, where you can’t really argue with the classics. I mean, if you don’t like Shakespeare, it’s not because Shakespeare sucks…it’s because you’re an ignorant fool. But with SF, most of the “classics” are actually really badly written. The core, foundational books in the genre are more useful as artifacts of a given time and place, and for how they inspired later work, than for actual literary merit (although they’re also really fun to read).

And I think that really infects the whole notion of a speculative fiction canon. It’s much easier to critically evaluate any sort of SF classic, even a modern one, precisely because those old books have already so clearly proven that gods can be false.

But it also gives you less of a firm grounding when you’re reading any book. You don’t have that same assurance that, with time and study, you’ll gain something useful from this book. Which is why, if I had not been at the very beginning of my self-education process and thus wedded to the notion of finishing “hard” books, I probably would have put this one down. Because it gets kind of loopy and weird in the middle there. And not weird in that surreal, fun sense. Weird in that confusing sense.

But then it gets awesome. I am glad I finished it. The novel starts off with those sort of super-gritty vietnam-style war in Guatemala (that actually seems much worse than any war Americans have actually been in), and ends up being really comical and absurd. And other good things. Too tired for more/any insight right now.

2 thoughts on “Lucius Shepard’s “Life During Wartime”

  1. Rahkan

    Okay, but I’m a fan of both Latin American magical realism and sci-fi/fantasy, and I don’t think that I’m reading the book wrong, or with an insufficient grounding in its roots. Hundred Years of Solitude was weird in alot of places, but it was never really confusing. I think that Lucius Shepard just made some really strange choices when writing this story. And one of those choices was to write in such a way that ancillary detail was given the same weight as far more immediate and important details. I think the reason for that choice was to disorient the reader. And it worked, but I also found it really annoying.

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