Brian Wallace,
Labyrinth of Chaos
(New Falcon, 2000)

The verbosity and adverbial wealth of this modest tome are its most remarkable constituents, as author Brian Wallace eschews no opportunity for elaborate and sesquipedalian locution. And if you like that sentence, you might enjoy this book. Many of its sentences would be strong contenders for the Bulwer-Lytton Awards, although the contest wisely restricts its entries to a single sentence. An entire 285-page book in the style is a struggle to get through despite the humor; too, I found myself feeling a bit bad about laughing so hard at prose the author intended as serious and illuminating. At least the Bulwer-Lytton contestants are intentionally writing atrocious prose for us to enjoy.

Authors are usually advised to avoid adverbs. This books shows the perils of ignoring that advice. Wallace seldom writes a sentence without at least one adverb, and I think the record was five. He often used two to gang up on a single verb. The effect is awkward even when the adverbs are themselves meaningful, which is not always the case; while he uses "gingerly" often, I was unable to figure out from context what he thinks it means. It was never used appropriately. I concluded that he just threw it in when the sentence would otherwise have gone adverbially unbedecked.

Wallace's word choices are the most striking and funniest aspect of the novel. He never uses a simple word if there's a "fancy" one that means almost the same thing. His characters almost never listen -- sounds penetrate their auditory canals. They seldom look -- they displace their focus and retinally perceive. They don't say -- they opine, utter and implore. You get the drift, and it's very Bulwer-Lyttonesque.

It's even funnier when the word choices are wrong. Alan, the protagonist, encounters "magnanimous" buildings, "syncopated" horizons, "translucent" people, joints made of "tendrils," cats "sitting prostrate," and other unlikely creatures on almost every page. Some of the best are in the descriptions of sex. Although Alan does not seem to be hermaphroditic at any other point, he does apparently have a vulva (pg. 60). In the same scene we learn that his girlfriend Ronia's genitalia are "sentient," a frequent description disconcerting in its implications (although I expect "sensitive" was meant). This type of thesaurus abuse was one of the joys of this novel, and it was fun to both speculate on what Wallace actually meant, and contemplate the images raised by taking his word choices literally.

There's very little plot and it's trite. Dude travels around Great Britain alone and with his girlfriend, taking drugs, smoking cigars, having sex and engaging in adolescent metaphysical exchanges with random passersby. It's too bad that he doesn't seem to be having much fun. Having reached middle-age, I think satori is more likely to be found in fun and humor than in a grim search for Enlightenment, although as I recall I felt differently in my teens. It's also too bad that Enlightenment, if found, intrinsically cannot be communicated; attempts to do so, like recitals of dreams and drug trips, end up tedious and missing the point. I'll include a spoiler here: the brilliant insights and discoveries that the publisher promises in the cover blurb can be summarized as "Oh, wow, man. All is one. Heavy," although this summary uses the slang of my own youth and not the novel's tone. And at the end, in a breathtaking cliche, the protagonist spends much of the last 20 pages deciding to write a book about his experiences, and indeed begins it with the initial words of this very book! This may have been a new device when Homer was a pup, but that fits with the supposed novelty of the promised insights, which have an equally lengthy history (of which Wallace seems ignorant as well).

Add to this that the author has no comprehension of some of the supposed scientific bases for his "mysticism." His grasps of both quantum mechanics and brain function are oversimplified to the point of being dead wrong. I'll include an example: Alan talks with a supposedly cutting-edge physicist at Oxford whose research is designed to determine whether light is a particle or a wave! While this may seem reasonable to someone who knows nothing about physics, to those of us who do know a bit it's howlingly funny, since (briefly) light acts like either and both in various situations.

There's no characterization, either. Alan is a reflection of the author's self-image, and everyone else in the novel is a reflection of Alan. Ronia is the classic magical mirror reflecting (a) man at twice his natural size, to apply Woolf's description. There's no syntactical difference between dialogue and narrative, and what's extremely awkward in narrative is surreal when put into the mouths of characters. People just don't talk that way! Wallace is utterly tone-deaf to language and human behavior, and so unable to envelop his "message" in reasonable fiction.

I know this is very harsh. Let me be clear: this is a very bad book in every way. Wallace claims in his biographical notes to be a professional full-time writer, so it is appropriate to judge him by professional standards. Still, I'm an artist myself, and I know that one is not always the best judge of one's own work; this is why Stephen King, in On Writing, suggests that one put aside a finished manuscript for at least six months before editing it, hoping to gain perspective. New Falcon Publications has no such excuse. I've read bad vanity press books that were nonetheless better written than this one. New Falcon show no signs of being a vanity press; instead they seem to pride themselves on publishing the outré. I have no idea why they'd consider this controversial; I've read much more radical stuff from mainstream presses. If they did feel the message had importance, though, it would have behooved them to have edited the manuscript rather than making Wallace and themselves look foolish by publishing it as it is, and then trying to entice purchasers with cover promises that the book fails so spectacularly to fulfill.

This book is breathtakingly bad. Although the language is sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, it's not worth it, either in the time it takes to read the book or in its price. For writers there may be an additional danger: it's been a struggle for me to keep from writing this review in a similar vein, and I apologize for the amount that's slipped past anyway. I go now to reread Harry Potter until I can write acceptable prose again.

[ by Amanda Fisher ]

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