The Garden of Fragile things? More like the Garden of Fragile plots

Have you ever picked up a novel that at first grabbed your attention but about halfway through you began to doubt your decision making abilities and upon finishing, thought, “What the hell did I just read?” I bet you have.

This happened to me earlier this summer. I found a book through Amazon’s Prime Reader program. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the program it’s Amazon’s version of a lending library, comprised mostly of first time authors with a few notable authors thrown in just to make the first timers feel like they are in good company.

I picked out Richard J. O’Brien’s The Garden of Fragile Things based on reviews I read on Amazon and Goodreads. The novel is billed as “A dark fantasy in the tradition of Stephen King’s It, and Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life.

From the book:

In the late 1970s, Joe Godwin was just twelve years old, living in a working-class neighborhood. Plagued by bullies and a volatile home life (turns out, not so much), Joe spends his time with his friends in search of adventures. The discovery of an abandoned mansion during a camping trip in a state forest sets up a series of consequences in motion between the boys, inhabitants of the mansion, and the others who occupy the garden behind the colossal home.

Having enjoyed both of these, I thought, “Why not?”I spent a rare quiet day the book. What a waste of time! There’s a day I won’t get back. It’s not just that the book is bad, we’ve all picked up bad books now and again, or at least books that we personally consider bad. The main problem with this book is that it reads as if an actual twelve-year-old boy wrote it; one who has no understanding of just how vital plot and story continuity is to fiction.

Some of the characters in this novel act, well, out of character. Take Joe’s mom. She tries to forbid him from joining his friends when they go out to “trick or treating” on Halloween citing all the bad things that could happen to him, yet does not stop him from running out of the house and down the street in a rage upon hearing about the murder of a friend. His parents never bother to go looking for him. A sympathetic cop brings him home. In fact, there are several instances of cops bringing this kid home for minor infractions yet he’s never punished. I never did understand why the jacket talks about a “volatile home life.”

Early in the novel the reader is led to believe that some of the grownups know about the odds things to come and are getting ready to stop some type of evil force lurking just outside of town but this is never fleshed out, and is dropped from all mention by the middle of the book.

We are introduced to the standard teen bully; at least at first he is modeled on the archetype bully, but over time becomes a rapist when he forces a gay middle school boy to perform a sex act, and then becomes a murder suspect. We are given no explanation as to his motives, or shown proof of guilt. The reader is told after the fact about his disappearance and imprisonment for murder. This had me wondering why he was in the novel in the first place. His inclusion did nothing to move the story along. There would be no effect to the story if his and the character he murdered were removed from the novel completely. Now, it is possible that O’Brien was trying to create several red herrings in order to keep his readers guessing as to what kind of evil was to come, but in his inept hands the herrings felt more like dead ends in the maze of a poorly constructed plot line.

Some of the issues I had with the novel can be blamed on poor editing by O’Brien’s publisher. Half way through the novel a character’s name is changed, and then changed back. One chapter ending has Joe and his friends setting up a campsite, the next chapter starts with them getting to the campsite. But given so many inconsistencies in the over all story line these errors only added to the poor quality of the read.

Before we get to the worst part of this book, we have to go back to the beginning and plot setup of the novel. I will try not to spoil too much (though I do not recommend reading this book) but as a warning, there will be a little spoiled ink in the coming paragraphs.

The book begins with a reporter looking to interview a 44-year-old man who is a patient of a mental hospital. The patient was tried and convicted of the murder of his three childhood friends in the summer of 77. This man is none other than Joe Godwin. The reporter is not so much interested in these particular murders, but in the disappearance of 30 children between 1865 and 1963 (keep this number in mind, we will get back to it). The reporter thinks that Joe “may have been exposed to certain anomalies in Franklin Forst, the very same anomalies that may have lent themselves to the unexplained disappearance of more than two dozen children over the past century and the half” (p1).

The reporter is denied the interview, yet inexplicably is mailed a manuscript penned by Joe relating the events that led to his incarceration. So no interview but is allowed to read Joe’s story? Why? This is never explained.

The main plot of the novel centers on a mysterious trail that leads to a typical creepy house in the woods. The boys stumble upon the trail and house while camping in a local state forest. For boys who are not good at camping, they seem to do it a lot in this story. As the boys try to work out the mysterious trail and its otherworldly guardians things go from bad to worse. Almost every Lovecraftian type of monster you can imagine lives in and around the house, as if the author was vying for the “Most use of Lovecraft” award. The climax of the book is a gore fest of death for Joe’s friends. He alone manages to escape after setting fire to the house.

It was jarring enough to read about the gruesome deaths of young boys but what set me over the top was how Joe ended up being tried for the murders. “They all stared at me for a long time without saying a word. They didn’t have to. It was evident by their expressions that they all believed I was guilty for setting what would go down in Yorkville history as one of the biggest fires in Franklin County” (p218). This group that was staring at Joe included his mother and father who never asked Joe what had happened. All assumed his friends were dead because they did not make it out of the woods.

Everyone including psychiatrists agreed upon hearing Joe’s story about the evil house and monsters that Joe’s mind “was fractured beyond repair, a butcher who harbored no respect for human life”(219). On the surface who could blame them? After all stories about evil monsters and friendly warning gnomes is farfetched. There would be no way for Joe to prove his innocents, right? Wel…

Joe pleaded with his parents and the authorities to allow him to show them the burned out house where the carnage took place but they ignored him. “Somewhere out there in the forest, trapped perhaps in some borderland between the world we know and another world ruled by chaotic, primal forces were two of my friends”(p219).

Wait, what?? The authorities had nothing tying Joe to murder yet refused to search for two of the bodies? Then how the hell do they know the boys were really dead? Given this information why didn’t it occur to anyone to think about the possibility that the boys were in hiding because of the forest fire? Again, no one went up and recovered the bodies?

How was Joe convicted of their deaths if their bodies were never recovered? Why would a perfectly normal kid who had no previous signs of mental illness decide to become a mass murder? Seriously, the cops never went looking for the bodies? Their parents never demanded it? Nope. Joe is thrown into a mental hospital for life even though there is no proof tying him to a murder weapon or of missing dead bodies.

I tried giving the author the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps somewhere hidden in his passages were signs that Joe may have been an unreliable narrator and was in fact insane and not only made up the story about the house, but was also responsible for the earlier teen death. But there is nothing that hints at this twist. Remember in the beginning we are told that a reporter finds the disappearance of local children odd. And early on in the book several old men talked about the impending horror.

If O’Brien wanted to, he could have had the bodies brought to the morgue and shown that they were in fact murdered at the hands of Joe. That would have made more sense and made for a rather creepy but satisfying read. But no. Joe is carted off to a mental hospital based on his story alone.

Who writes such a slapdash ending like this, other than a 12 year-old boy who has yet to master a tightly woven story line? Would you believe a teacher of creative writing is responsible for this mess?

By now you may be wondering why I’m bothering to review a bad book. We all know they are out there, and most of us who write reviews don’t bother to waste our time on them. But given that a creating writing college instructor wrote this mess, I could not help but be irritated! Is this the level of teaching that goes on in our college creative writing classes? Is this what writing student are being taught? No wonder there are so many bad books of late. How can O’Brien possibly teach creative writing when his own is so poorly constructed and executed? I cannot express my dismay enough at this level of writing by a college instructor.

O’Brian should not be anywhere near a classroom unless he is a student.

Voting is a right. But should you?

 

Let’s have a discussion. The topic may seem controversial at first glance but one that is worthy of thought. In fact, think of this as a thought experiment; an idea you may not agree with, yet is not without merit.

As I write this America is celebrating Memorial Day. A national holiday that asks us to collectively reflect on the sacrifices made by those who have died serving in our armed forces. Did you know that today less than 1% of Americans serve in the armed forces? This is a stunning number given how many “patriots” we have on social media ready to cry “Treason!” when they see or hear something that causes offense. Given today’s climate you would think half of our country served some time in the armed forces. 9% of our population are veterans. Fewer and fewer people are signing up to serve. I can only hope this trend continues and becomes a driving reason for fewer wars and more diplomacy.

If only 1% is willing to defend our country, what should the other 99% do? What is the least we should be willing to do to serve our nation?

If you had asked me this question an month ago I would have said, Vote. “Voting in elections”, I would have said, “is not only a right, but a duty that every American should exercise”. In the past, I have argued that America should make presidential election day a National Holiday just as they do in other countries. My conviction about voting was strong, and it was my long held belief that those who did not vote were doing the country a disservice and were partially responsible for the D.C swamp that is the American government. But then I heard about Walter Lippmann, and I had to seriously reconsider my opinion.

Most of you know I am a huge, huge fan of podcasts; so much so that I dedicated a past blog to some of my favorites. One that has grown on me is Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know. It started out as a web series that looked at the lighter side of conspiracies, but is now a be-weekly podcast that looks at the darker side of history.

A few weeks ago an episode aired titled Is Democracy Impossible (May 2, 2018) in which the hosts talked about the controversial subject that pushes against democracy. This is how I came to learn about Walter Lippmann.

Lippmann was a newspaper columnist whose influence was felt worldwide. By the time of his retirement Lippmann was the most respected political columnist in the world. Here is a quick political bio on Lippmann.

“While studying at Harvard (B.A., 1909), Lippmann was influenced by the philosophers William James and George Santayana. He helped to found (1914) The New Republic and served as its assistant editor under Herbert David Croly. Through his writings in that liberal weekly and through direct consultation, he influenced Pres. Woodrow Wilson, who is said to have drawn on Lippmann’s ideas for the post-World War I settlement plan (Fourteen Points) and for the concept of the League of Nations. Lippmann was briefly (1917) an assistant to Secretary of War Newton D. Baker. Wilson sent him to take part in the negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles (1919)”.

Lippmann started out as a champion of voting rights and felt it was a duty of all American citizens. But as time went on, as the world become smaller and global relationships became more complex, and witnessed less than ideal candidates being voted into office Lippmann developed a startling argument; he came to believe that “the general public could no longer judge public issues rationally, since the speed and condensation required in the mass media tend to produce slogans rather than interpretations”.

This is a two-pronged argument. Lippmann believed that the general public was unable to fully comprehend the complex global issues facing the country and that the media was unable or unwilling to educate the public; it was easier to dissect and strip the issues into digestible sound bites. Ouch! That cut may run deep, but can we truly argue against it given our current state of media and collective short attention span?

Lippmann published a book in 1922 titled Public Opinion. In part he argues that: 

A revolution is taking place, infinitely more significant than any shifting of economic power…. Under the impact of propaganda, not necessarily in the sinister meaning of the word alone, the old constants of our thinking have become variables. It is no longer possible, for example, to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify. It has been demonstrated that we cannot rely upon intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach.

In a nutshell, Lippmann is arguing that the world is now intertwined and complex. Most people are incapable of understanding this complexity and don’t take the time to learn how the actions taken by governments will impact the economic and social fabric of society. It is no longer useful to think we can vote from our conscience, since our conscience may be deluding and keeping us ill-informed. The media feeds on this delusion be spinning casual opinions that do not fully inform us as to what is in our best interest.

Again, it is hard to argue against him. Many Americans no longer balance their own checkbooks and or are deep in debt and can’t understand why. How are they to fully understand what lifting or putting more restrictions on Iran will do to gas prices or cause fuller ripples in the Middle East? How about Trump’s slogan, “America First”? It may sound good to working Americans, (sound bite) but what does it really mean, and how will this attitude reflect on the cost of consumer goods? Do you know? Does the media tell us the truth? And if they do, whose truth are they repeating?

Lippmann didn’t just argue against what we now term “low informed voters”, he was dismayed to see one-issue voters; those who would vote for a candidate based on his or her stand on a certain issue alone. These voters, Lippmann argued often voted against their overall self-interest. A good example of this is when a voter decides on a candidate based on his or her anti-abortion stand. This is hot button issue today that sees mass voting for politicians who want to limit or outright strip away abortion rights on one hand, and on the other, making it hard to get access to birth control, leading to more abortions. Where is the logic is this?

It was in this argument that I stopped mentally arguing against Lippmann’s ideas. I shut my mouth and opened my mind. As the hosts of Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know gave more and more examples of how one-issue voting can cause over-all damage to democracy I started to form a thought experiment; what if only those who are truly informed on all things that mattered voted? Of course the first obvious problem that comes from this thought experiment is figuring out who decides who can vote and do they have democracy’s best interest at heart?

Recently Bill Maher had guest Dambisa Moyo on Real Time with Bill Maher. Moyo is an international economist and author who analyzes the macroeconomy and global affairs. She has witnessed democracy in several forms and is in the same camp as Lippmann. One of her suggestions regarding voting is to test voters, much like the test we give to new citizens. She was criticized for suggesting what seemed like a type of Poll Test. Something the Southern states tried to employ to weed out African American voters. No, I don’t think the answer is to test people; after all voting is a right and we should be able to freely exercise that right without restrictions. But Lippmann and Moyo’s view does beg the question; must you vote? I say no. Not if you vote based on a gut feeling, or one-issue without doing some homework and reflection on what your vote will do for your over-all self-interest as well as the country’s.

If you can’t bring yourself to watch debates, if you can’t take an afternoon or evening to read about candidates and how their views and voting record will effect us all, please stay home. Don’t vote. That is the very least you can do for our country.

Now, it’s your turn to weigh in. Tell me what you think.

Works Cited

New York Times As Fewer Americans Serve, Growing Gap Is Found Between Civilians and Military
https://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/25/us/civilian-military-gap-grows-as-fewer-americans-serve

Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know, episode Is Democracy Impossible (May 2, 2018)

Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion. 1922 https://wwnorton.com/college/history/america-essential-learning/docs/WLippmann-Public_Opinion-1922.pdf

Walter Lippmann. Britannica.com https://www.britannica.com/biography/Walter-Lippmann#ref101232