(Quick note: Last year, 2016, I found myself struggling to get through a book as quickly or with as much enjoyment as I used to. No shade thrown on those books, but my life had become busier and it was easier to read io9 or cruise my Facebook newsfeed than crack open a book. I didn’t like that and the Goodreads Reading Challenge seemed like a nifty way to get my head back in the game. Of course, after setting my challenge, I realized I had way overshot my count in comparison to others–some of them reviewers, for Christ’s sake–so this became what will hopefully be a fun, year-long experiment on crashing and burning.
(But, on a related note, I’ve always wanted to see how I read over the course of a year, what my tastes were depending on the time of year, the circumstances, etc.
(So, here’s Dispatches from the Goodreads Reading Challenge Wastelands.)
Bracken likes to outline. Just kinda tuck that away for the moment. I’ll come back to it. (As an opening line, it doesn’t have shit on “Marley was dead, to begin with”, but it’ll do.)
In this claustrophobic novel, a group of men become stranded on their supply ship, midway to the oil-drilling platform they’re supposed to refill, after a mysterious storm brings on an even mysterious fog and, when the mist clears, leaves the northern-bound ship beset in an ice that appears to be the size of two-years-growth. Following this discovery, the electronics fail and the crew, aside from our ostracized protagonist, grow ill, and see a strange mass off in the distance…which, because of the impossible ice, they can walk to, if they dare.
It’s actually amazingly easy to do a summary for this book without revealing the twists (and there are some motherfucking doozies up in this piece).
Right from the start, this novel invokes one of my favorite films of all time–John Carpenter’s The Thing. It’s in the setting (switching the Arctic from Antarctica, but snow and ice is snow and ice, y’know) and in the characters, a group of rough men who get along by hating each other than assisting each other. The paranoia of the crew–particularly towards our hero Noah, which recalls the paranoia the camp had towards Macready when he found his way back to base in a white-out–grows and festers from these initial incidents, emphasized by the dislike Brewster has for Noah (the fun of in-laws!) and for a shameful past event Noah carries with him.
And then, when the crew decides to trek to the strange mass in the distance, the story goes full-on Twilight Zone on your ass, and then turns that knob all the way to eleven.
In a lesser writer, this twist–and this premise–would’ve been confusing, maddening, and obnoxious, the kind of literature you hold to others and say, loudly, “Don’t fucking do this EVER!” In a lesser writer, Brewster would’ve been a one-trick pony, the personality of Noah right out of a session of binge-watching Ice Road Truckers, and the twists that come down would’ve been signaled and handled with such ham-handed terribleness.
In a lesser writer.
But, thank the bloody Christ on his cross, Bracken is not a lessen writer.
From the get-go, you see and feel the world aboard this ship as Noah does. Brewster and his merry band of fuck-Os are malignant, mostly because they feel and act in a way that feels natural for the situation. Even if you’ve never been on a ship–and I’m a devout land-lubber–you can taste and see and feel the Arctic Promise without anything being lost in translation.
And then we get to the twists. There are two–a massive one and then one that comes along towards the end…but, you realize after you finish, would never have occurred without that first twist. I won’t spoil it, but the first twist shoves what you could essentially boil down to a Jack London survivalist story by way of Tim O’Brien (that’s not shade being thrown) right into the realm of the weird and then stays there, lingering long after the last line.
Remember, Bracken’s an outliner.
Now, if we’re being honest, you can tell when a writer outlines. It’s not hard to see. In clumsy hands, chapters end on cliffhangers that aren’t picked up arbitrarily until chapters later. Characters consistently act inconsistently to serve the plot points. In the worst hands, the characters breathe as much as a folding chair–the writer’s just scraping the legs across the linoleum floor that is the plot.
But, with Bracken, he outlines from the perspective of the characters, not the events (which is where a lot of writers outline from). I learned this recently, but he comes up with character sheets–to me, it reminds me of profiles of dating websites–and those character sheets, those bios and traits, dictate how the events unfold. If, at point C, this Thing is revealed, this is how the characters will react, which will affect point D. And so on.
As a writer, I don’t outline, but I can give it up–that’s neat.
So, everything in the plot, even the twists, unrolls naturally with the character beats feeling like they are responding naturally. This makes for a character-driven ride that doesn’t really let up. I finished Stranded at a dead-heat at two-thirty in the morning, unable to put it aside for the night.
Is the novel perfect? That’s a hard answer. There was one plot point I won’t spoil that I felt wasn’t resolved enough; an idea is given, but it, to me, didn’t followed through on.
Another thing that could be seen as a knock but, to me, isn’t, is the ending. It’s ambiguous, but it’s ambiguity is one that isn’t immediately obvious. It’s only after you finish that last line that you go–wait. Did Noah return (metaphorically or literally, both can apply here) to his world or not? And that leaves you thinking. It lingers. (It might seem like I spoiled something there, but once you read it–no, I haven’t.)
Much like how Bracken outlines, I find that type of ending neat.
Much like Stranded overall. Loved that son of a bitch, in fact.
Later, this spring, his collection 13 Views of the Suicide Woods will be available from ChiZine. That’s probably going to be worth picking up.