on August 28, 2008
I haven't reviewed anything for a while due to the usual family and work constraints, but if there was a book to come back to that deserves to have some things said about it, that book would certainly be Mike Philbin's Planet of the Owls. It's the story of two teenagers, Marcus (nineteen) in England and Su-Ki (fourteen) in China. They go about otherwise unremarkable lives until one day legions of violent "angels", living Gods, masquerading as giant human-sized birds, descend on the earth and begin the culling of mankind. Sound weird? You would be right.
From there, the plot spirals up into heights of graphic sex and violence the likes of which I've personally only encountered a few times in literature, and rarely with such gut-churning, shameless ferocity. Much of this content can be couched in the bookish safety zone of metaphor, but perhaps not all, which I'll get into in a moment. The book's third act takes place on an earth that teeters on the edge of destruction, with both sides in the tug-of-war spelling impending doom for the human race. Marcus and Su-Ki are caught in this, and find their way to each other eventually, and their everlasting fates.
In any case, let's get this out of the way first: this book is possibly among the most hyper-violent things I've ever read, and it also contains passages of grossly-disturbing sex. I am not easily moved by graphic things, and there were portions of this book that had me literally recoiling from the written words and looking away in the same fashion as someone who can't bear to watch a car wreck that's about to happen. If you pick up this book, be warned that you will read segments of it through the cracks in the hands that you've put over your eyes to keep the imagery out. I like a little bloodshed and passion in my books as much as the next person, but there were certainly over-the-top moments. Waaaaay over the top. And though like I said above much of it could be chalked up to elaborate metaphorical hashing, by the end the violence had reached the point where the same sorts of things started happening again, repeating themselves. For this reason alone would I have preferred a less-is-more approach.
That having been said, this isn't an easy book to read for other reasons as well. Mike Philbin has been writing for a long time, but much is still to be desired of his narrative voice from a technical standpoint. Aside from long passages of interrogative first-person internal monologue that made my eyes droop, he also lacks a firm sense of characterization, particularly of teenagers. The first-person narrative voice of Marcus was serviceable, but written more from the point of view of an older person. Poor Su-Ki, who had a terrific role in the story otherwise, was constantly making westernized cultural references that neither a typical teenager nor a rural Chinese person would have any knowledge of. More tellingly even than that, the narratives at times blended so homogenously that I lost track of which alternating point of view I was following. The story moved along well enough that I never got lost for long, but it's not something you expect to encounter in something so otherwise original and well put together. To be fair, had Philbin brought the technical talent of someone like David LaBounty or David S. Grant to bear on the monologue/dialogue and narrative voice of this book, it might have been difficult for him to ever again match the sheer originality and conceptual brilliance of Planet of the Owls.
That is about the worst I could say for it, though. The subtexts fly like foul balls at a little league game, and it's the most original thing I've read in months. Philbin takes advantage of his own bizarre style to pull off hooting groaners like "I'm being dragged through the woods by this giant cock" and "I was afraid to be in the nest" that don't wink at the reader so much as share with them a can of peanuts that contains spring-loaded cloth snakes. And even after a fourteen year old Chinese girl completely breaks character and goes through a Socratic-style logic and reasoning thought process, the narrative bursts into a moment of redeeming brilliance when she describes the face of a living God.
The misogyny is fast and furious here, with allegories to men gang-raping girls, men reluctant to settle down into "nests", men feeling compelled to kill their "families" and powerful female archetypes "tricking" and "forcing" men into impregnating them, and subsequently having no further use for them. In terms of contextual content, I find it neither offensive nor quite as funny as Bret Easton Ellis' blend, but it did add at least a much-needed tertiary subtext that kept Planet of the Owls from reading as just a lesser (albeit very creative) two-dimensional story.
And while I'm on the topic, if you want to retch at some of the most heinous, in-your-face transgressive fiction you're likely to ever squint at through half-covered eyes, you're barking up the right tree with this book.
Paradoxically, the book's primary strength turns out to also be its greatest weakness. Planet of the Owls doesn't really shine until the final third or so. On the one hand, if you make it that far you're in for a memorable and original ending that doesn't feel the least bit forced or contrived. On the other hand, by the time we get to the ending, we've already had to sit through a hundred pages of Marcus and Su-Ki's rhetorical monologues and several episodes of horrific gross-out-style ultra-sex-violence set pieces. Happily, Philbin brings the intellectual in us back on board in the final act by tying together meaning for the violence and substance for the experience. The book begins to feel less like back-alley anime written by disturbed adolescents and more like a modern retelling of the Divine Comedy of Dante Aligheri, with a ferocious dose of disenfranchised post-feminist white middle class American male thrown in. And so a book that I had settled into despite my better judgment, I found myself feeling very intellectually satisfied finishing.
So, where and how to evaluate a novel that is at once technically flawed and so highly original? Readability isn't the best yardstick here, I think, as it doesn't really reflect the value of Philbin's efforts to completely discard the conventions of tedious genre and topical matter. All of the sexuality that happens here is of the forceful, creepy type, which even though it avoided cliché I thought was a little too easy and lazy for an otherwise serious writer. The internal monologue narrative didn't help this. There are moments, though, particularly in the plotline of Su-Ki's interaction with the angels, that I could see weeks and months perhaps of sitting around and pondering the far edges of this alternate reality that Mike wove with this book. The conceptual depth and imagery is astoundingly good, and beyond the average value of most fiction I read.
Did I think it will endure as a hallmark piece of fiction? No. Did I enjoy it? More and more as I got past the first two-thirds. Is it unique? Oh yeah. Would I recommend it to others? Not my mom, and only a few select other intellectuals, but perhaps. It has a weak rhetorical narrative, it has surprising intellectual depth once you get past the gross-out violence, and its originality and conceptual imagery is absolutely vast.
on November 12, 2014
I had read an intriguing short story Mike wrote years ago, which served as a glimpse into the Planet of the Owls world. Some years later he published his book; and I've been meaning to read it for several years now. Mike has a way of taking his audience dangerously far into the future to see human existence as an outsider would and to see human civilization in the grander scheme of things. His cynical, nihilistic narratives in Planet of the Owls take us to a dying Earth teeming with giant birds, puppeteered by death angels. There is a heaping helping of graphic mutilation, murder and disgusting bestial sex (with giant birds and human hybrid birds). As such, it is not for a general audience. But it is worth a look, if you're in the market for something really different from what you would expect.
With its inventiveness and unexpectedness, Planet of the Owls is bound to be a challenging read for anyone. Mike has a lot to say and a lot of bizarre stuff to get out of his head and onto the page. He has a curious mind and is no slouch when it comes to philosophizing and framing out all manner of thought experiments with science and historical examples. He comfortably describes tremendously disturbing acts and bizarre happenings in full blown technicolor without so much as breaking a sweat. His mind has been down these pathways again and again, which shows on the written page. There's something to distress anyone in this book. Even I nearly set it down at one point; and I can stomach almost anything.
As wildly imaginative and unusual as the book is (and perhaps because of this), the storytelling itself could have benefited from either a single fixed narrative or stronger characterizations of the two narratives to help the reader lose sight of all the wires and string-pulling going on. As other reviewers have mentioned, I found the narrative shifts awkward. The first person narrative shifts back and forth between a Chinese schoolgirl who is transforming into a bird god and a young man who is somehow outlasting the rest of humanity. The internal monologues of these characters are quite homogenous, almost as if the same character is sometimes a Chinese schoolgirl and sometimes a young British man. It is the plot that sets them apart from each other. The schoolgirl is always explaining her culture in terms of how it contrasts with Western culture, as if she is an outsider to her own culture and age group. The characters often seem to know things only an omniscient narrator would know. Usually, the storyline is well-enough paced and clear enough that this does not present a problem, though there is at least one chapter where I am almost still not sure who was supposedly narrating; and this in a book where characters present themselves as different individuals, transforming into gods, appearing interchangeably in the future, past and present in any corner of the universe, murdered in one scene to live in the next.
As usual Mike has a lot to say and a rich world to describe. Planet of the Owls could have easily been twice as long; and it would have been three times the book for that. Some chapters feel impatient, as if the author himself were looking for a way out. Spending time in a place with someone (no matter where or with whom), one cannot help but find things to like about the place and the person. The impatience of the book is what disappoints me. Some of the characters are almost likable. Some human qualities portrayed nearly redeem humanity despite its shortcomings. Some of the death angels are almost endearing. As soon as I start to grow any attachment to anything or anyone in the book, they are taken away from me or I am whisked off somewhere else.
Keeping with its forlorn tone, the book ultimately culminates in a transcendent end-of-the-world space ballet. This cold ending carries all the sadness of death and the meager hopes one might entertain in the days afterwards. Prepare for a dark ending. Not even a corny Diana Ross song can rescue it from the black hole that's got it.
on August 14, 2009
A very strange and terrifying book.
The nightmarish surrealism is what I love about all of his books. Philbin never fails to deliver the goods when it comes creating fiction that is original and full of creative narrative that explodes with vibrant metaphors and graphic description.
This books is not for those with weak stomachs or those adults with the sensibilities of a four-year old who would get offended at the first sight of human nudity. But keep in mind, there is nothing written in a book that doesn't reflect the real world somehow. I find that horror books are here to remind us that we're in Hell and we better get use to it. Reading horror novels, for me, is a way of confronting insanity on another level. At least you can escape from the nightmares of a book, but the nightmare we call reality, no matter how little we try to make our worlds, we cannot escape from. If you can't confront the nightmares in a book, how are you ever going to confront the real thing when it arrives, bursting through the locked doors of your domestic prison?
So read this book! It'll be good for you!
Who knows, the real apolocalypse may consist of giant birds feasting on human beings and raping them to produce strange hybrids. At least if you read this book, you'll be more prepared for it. And if not, at least you'll find some entertainment in a story well told.