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The few very good moments make the rest even more disappointing
on November 6, 2009
The Oblivion Society is a book of contrasting writing styles. The book jumps from especially gritty realism to what is almost Looney Tunes cartoon, both in setting and in characterization. Unfortunately, instead of blending, they give the book bipolar mood swings. In some situations, the two extremes manage to gel together to take the best of both worlds. In most situations, though, the styles are such polar opposites that it's jarring to see them together.
Out of the two, the setting is the most forgivable. On the gritty realism side, the author has clearly done his homework. Most of the effects of the nuclear devastation can be so realistic that they're almost too gruesome. You can tell that Marcus has a pretty good picture of what he's writing about with such lines as, "A nuclear detonation causes a disc-shaped hydrodynamic front of radially expanding gases in the atmosphere." The depiction of what happened to the two people they find in the store is unnerving in its specificity. And then against that backdrop, you have radiation causing effects straight out of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The characters themselves say that some of what happens violates the laws of biology and physics. I cannot suspend my belief enough to include what is essentially Godzilla when the author has gone to so much effort to present the nuclear disaster in such great detail.
That's not to say that the setting is entirely believable even when it tries for realism. The characters drive for over a thousand miles, as far as I can tell, and they find nothing. Apparently every single thing has been destroyed for one thousand miles, except for the highway and a gas station. Either that or none of the characters find anything worth mentioning in the devastated, smoking remains of the entire United States. The destruction is so complete that there aren't even any cars on the highway. They never appear to run into traffic jams from when the drivers of the cars were killed. Then again, they manage to drive for over a thousand miles of highway without ever needing to find an alternate route, so maybe the destruction wasn't that bad.
Where the styles really contrast enough to make the book schizophrenic is the characters. Almost every single person aside from the main characters is a caricature so removed from humanity that they would make Dickens proud. Especially noteworthy is Mr. Boltzmann, the owner of the grocery store Vivian works at during the start of the book. He could pass for a twin of Scrooge, if it weren't for the fact that he apparently ripped his brain from his ear and beat himself with it for years on end until he was much more stupid than Homer Simpson. Every single time he appears in the book, he makes you think that he's so stupid that he couldn't tie his own shoes without accidentally strangling a small town. Any humor that could be found in his character is lost because you cannot relate to him in any way, because Mr. Boltzmann is not a human; he is one of the most overblown caricatures I have ever read.
For several chapters, you get the feeling that the author has absolutely no sense of subtlety. Everything that could possibly go wrong, ever, happens to Vivian. Except for the main characters, she is surrounded by non-dimensional 'characters'. And then, out of the blue, one of the caricatures steps out into the light and becomes fully human. Yes, he is pretty over the top, but that's how he makes a living. Yes, he acts like a sleazebag a lot of the time, but then you see that he actually does care about people. His views on life seem fundamentally opposed to Vivian's, but you take a second look and you realize that he actually has his life together pretty well. It's really a very good piece of character development, and even though he is quickly absent from the rest of the story, you get the idea that maybe the writer knows how to write likable characters.
...and then you meet one of the people who later becomes a main character. His entire personality is that he hits on every girl, ever. That is all he does. Every time he says something, it's a bad pickup line. And every single time, he gets rejected, ignored, hurt, or told to go to hell. He spends chapter after chapter doing nothing but this, even when it is has failed EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. Almost immediately after the nuclear holocaust, he starts hitting on people that would make almost anyone want to vomit (see the gritty realism of the setting). Nothing deters him. Everything he's ever seen and everyone he's ever known has just been vaporized, and that does not faze him in the least. I do not say this lightly, but his constant, unceasing, gigawatt laser focus on picking up girls makes him as annoying as Jar Jar Binks.
Well, 95% of the time. Like I've said, the writing changes are completely jarring. His character is a Christian (he just hits on girls because of the command to "be fruitful and multiply", for what that's worth). He's a coward (until after the danger has passed and he tries to spin it as bravery, despite lying poorly enough that the blind person can see through him). At one or two times, he actually takes an unpopular stand, *even siding against girls.*
But moments like those are few and far between. As the book goes on, his constant attempts to beat the reader to death with his libido become more and more draining. I told myself I'd keep reading until the end on the basis of the few really good moments, but I'm losing my will power. The book is so over the top in everything it tries to do that I'm not sure I can make it to the end
EDIT: I did make it to the end. I wish I hadn't, because the ending is even worse than the middle. After some driving, some fighting, and a few sputtering attempts at character developments, Marcus decides to go full out with the ending. "Make everything gigantic! Add some bad Bond one liners! An explosion or two! Throw in some hilarious sexual assault too! Don't worry about the tone of the rest of the book, just put it all in there!" It's 13 year old Jerry Bruckheimer's secret dreams. The only thing more embarrassing than the sudden sexual obscenity was how completely pointless and out of place it was.
If you're looking for cheap, balls to the walls pulp, this isn't THE worst book in the world. If you want anything else, avoid this book