abominationTom Gauld, cartoonist for the book review section of The Guardian, published a piece that I think summarizes in a few panels how I feel about Jonathan Holt’s novel, The Abomination. Please go have a look at it (and while you’re there, take a good look at Gauld’s graphic novel, Goliath and his cartoon collection, You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack, both highly recommended): http://myjetpack.tumblr.com/post/51470399382/

Pay particular attention to the third panel. The Abomination is pretty much the kind of book referred to there. You have to sort of admire an author (or publisher, or whichever link in the commercial chain did the deed) who chooses to name their novel The Abomination. The jokes, the bad review headlines, they write themselves. In this case, they’d be depressingly accurate. This “dumb thriller” puts a lot of emphasis on the dumb and not terribly much on the thrills. Looking back through the notes I scribbled in the margins of my advanced reader’s copy, I have a hard time deciding where to begin presenting evidence that this is the dumbest book I’ve read this year, if not this decade. And I have read quite a bit in the “urban fantasy” genre, so that is saying something.

There’s been a long-standing bit of conventional wisdom in big commercial publishing that men, as a demographic, do not read fiction, but they do read non-fiction. Somewhere, some thesis in a gender studies department has a full deconstruction of the traditional masculine perspective of reading for the acquisition of factual content. Meanwhile, over in the Comparative Literature department, someone else performs weekly lectures about the exoticization/appropriation of “other” cultures. The Abomination has these offenses covered quite thoroughly, with evenly distributed expositional info-dumps on everything from Venetian sirens and holidays to their hotel scams and NATO abuses, as well as scattershot Italian vocabulary lessons and food porn (spoken/consumed by stereotypical Italian characters: the glamorous woman detective, the sophisticated lothario, the Mafia greaseball). The novel means to present Venice as a richly, uniquely detailed environment for the intrigue (so much so that one of the story’s conceits is that there exists a lovingly constructed perfect virtual copy of the city online), but instead the incongruous use of inconsistently italicized Italian and presentation of Blue Guide factoids feels researched rather than integral to the story. One wants the details given in a narrative to be a natural expression of the characters’ lives, or an emphasis derived from their actions, but in The Abomination they instead feel like a poorly painted movie backdrop.

For a story clearly intended to someday get a Hollywood treatment (jump-cut scenes, convenient POV shifts from the heroes to the villains mid-chapter), there are some serious issues in The Abomination. On a large structural scale, the book has a large crack down the center. The first half of the novel is deeply concerned with the possibility of the Catholic Church suppressing (potentially with extreme prejudice) female priests. There are danbrownian symbols at crime scenes which themselves are steeped in legends of past abominations; there are dissembling priests and secret meetings in virtual reality. Then the female priest angle is near-unceremoniously dropped in favor of an investigation into the United States’ alleged instigation of the Bosnian War atrocities #. The back-cover author’s note tells us that Mr. Holt is employed in the advertising world. This double-header of concerns almost stinks of a marketer’s split test: which traditional conspiracy suspects do readers prefer? The Catholic Church or the American military-industrial complex?

Additional problems crop up at lower structural levels as well. As best I could tell, the novel’s events span about a week’s time. In that time, one of the lead characters goes from meeting her new boss for the first time to declaring her love for him in bed in a couple days. It is entirely possible that I missed more reasonable time cues, but I still found it hard to reconcile an Italian justice system that is, per the book’s incessant reminders, supposedly mired in bureacracy and graft and ineptitude with an investigation that goes from a washed-up corpse to a prosecutor’s smoke-and-mirrors lockdown almost immediately. Things move just as improbably efficiently over in the other lead’s world of the U.S. Army.

Superficial attention to detail, or perhaps misdirected attention to verisimilitude, can be found throughout the book. From an unlikely Second-Life-on-steroids VR environment to a laughable description of the Commodore 64 (admittedly, the 12-year-old nerd in my past is raging here) to a silly clean-room assembly to even small details like the length of an IP address, Mr. Holt has a schlock TV scriptwriter’s sensibility when it comes to technology, which is almost inexcusable in a book that otherwise displays its research so visibly. And the exposition! In the world of The Abomination, people revisit the history of everything while thinking to themselves, a mechanism only one sliver of an improvement over info-dumps preceded by the phrase “As you know,” in dialogue.

Finally, down at the language level, there are Britishisms uttered by Italians and Americans alike, clichés abound (“and her heart leapt into her mouth” closing one chapter), utterly thoughtless descriptions (“Ricci’s shed had once been painted a cheery dark blue”) and authorial intrusions letting us know that plot is forthcoming (such as “There was nothing to make her suspect that what happened in this place would soon test, and stretch, loyalties she didn’t even know she had” closing another chapter). I know I’m banging my head against the wall with this kind of thing, but I think readers deserve just a bit more art in language than most books deliver, even in a dumb thriller.

If The Abomination has any saving grace whatsoever, it is that the major protagonists are both women and they are the active, central participants in the narrative. The novel does pass the Bechdel test, though perhaps just barely, and neither of the two male leads — an adulterous cop and an unsympathetic cypherpunk — are terribly heroic, so at least there are some thriller tropes dodged. Unfortunately, both of the women are subjected to stereotypical indignities — an attempted rape, a coercive affair — as a method of making them sympathetic. The other women in the novel, sad to say, fare much worse. The novel’s originating events are the murders of a female Catholic priest (ostensibly the titular abomination, as far as the first half of the book is concerned) and another woman who are investigating the Bosnian War (the atrocities of which comprise the second half’s abomination). The novel, despite what I think are Holt’s best intentions, misses its chance to become anything better than a showcase of misogyny.

All genres have their conventions and play to readers’ comfort in having those expectations met. The Abomination left me wondering why (sadly, not if) there is a market for this particular kind of genre novel: a vessel of irrelevant detail, unevenly colloquial/conversational narration, the uninspired filling in of narrative forms, a showcase of the author’s supposed cleverness, and plots without even unsophisticated tension. The book’s cover conveniently warns us that this is the first volume of “The Carnivia Trilogy”, so I suppose someone somewhere has a spreadsheet that predicts the profit/loss on multiple iterations of this kind of product. And that dismal prospect leaves me at the last panel of Gauld’s cartoon.

In case you’re interested, the book’s site, carnivia.com can provide you with all the links about these conspiracies you could care to read. Don’t be intimidated by the password box on the site’s front page. In keeping with the book’s other facades, it’s bogus and you can put in anything you like there. Try not to be too rude in what you enter, in case some poor intern somewhere happens to have to read the server logs.