Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Written Word Wed. - Screwball + Sci-Fi = Good Readin'

With all of my reading this week, I decided that I would do a separate post for each book/series. First up: Connie Willis' Inside Job.

Before I get into the review, let me tell you a quick story. Several years ago, I got an instant message from my old roomie Wrath teh Berzerkr, who was living in Colorado at the time.

"You ever hear of an author named Connie Willis?" he asks.

"Oh, yeah, she's one of my favorites," I reply. "She's a rarity: an English major who made it big in Sci-Fi. Why do you ask?"

"Because I just met her this last week; she goes to our church."

"Really? That's cool. On a completely unrelated note, I've been thinking recently that I need to come visit you guys soon . . ."

Of course, I never made it up to visit, and thus missed out on my opportunity to easily stalk Ms. Willis. Ah, well, c'est la vie. Moving on to Inside Job.

This novella by Willis tells the story of Rob, a reporter for a publication known as The Jaundiced Eye which specializes in debunking psychics, mediums, mystics, and similar hoaxes, and his beautiful, funny, smart, in-love-with-him-but-he-has-no-clue assistant as they try to find out the truth about a popular medium who has started channeling a new spirit, one which seems determined to drive away her business. Is the medium truly being possessed by a negative spirit, or is this all some sort of reverse psychology ploy for greater exposure? And why does the new spirit's style of speaking sound so familiar to Rob . . .

This novella is closer to Willis' books like Bellweather and Remake than it is her longer (and, I must say, far superior) works like The Doomsday Book, To Say Nothing of the Dog and Passage. All of the aforementioned share her with and humor and love of the screwball romantic comedy, but the former stick much closer to the formula of this one: first person narrator who is trying to solve some puzzle while juggling a romantic interest, all the time providing the reader with little factoids somehow related to the puzzle at hand. With Bellweather it was fads, with Remake it was movies (specifically the preponderance of drinking and smoking in movies, and with Inside Job it is psychic hoaxes and one of the more well-known debunkers, H.L. Mencken . . . well, well-known to people who study hoaxes and debunkers anyway. As usual, I have to admire Willis' research, as the story is peppered with interesting tidbits about these topics, but done in such a way as to enhance the tale and not distract from it, as opposed to, say, the incredibly drawn out and exceedingly dry chapters on whaling in Moby Dick.

Willis' gift for humor and witty dialogue made me laugh out loud several times while reading the novella. That being said, this isn't the best of her works (that would either be the time travel story Doomsday Book or the exploration of near-death experiences Passage, both of which I highly recommend to anyone and everyone); I'm not even sure if it's the best of her "lesser" works. Although I enjoyed it a bit more than I did Remake (although I enjoyed all of the movie references in that one), there is a bit of a "been there, done that" feel to it stemming from having read everything else she's written. Still, even if the screwball comedy tropes feel very familiar, the psychic hoax angle gives it a different twist, and the humor kept me engaged and entertained.

All in all, an entertaining, light read, that Willis' fans will probably enjoy. Personally, I would suggest trying out Passage, Doomsday Book (followed by its much-more comedic sequel To Say Nothing of the Dog), or her short story collection Impossible Things, for the short story "Even the Queen" if nothing else.


Anonymous said...

I'm reading it right now. My order of favorites would be: To Say Nothing of the Dog, Passage, Bellwether, and then Doomsday Book. I realized I haven't read Remake yet. It seems hard to come by.