Thursday, March 4, 2010

The first book I am giving up on in 2010 - shitty writing is inexcusable

I have a bunch of books on the backburner: I have almost finished reading them or then I have started them recently. Then I go to work and I select something small from the pile so that it will fit in my work bag along with all my other stuff. So I never end up reading the massive hardcover books I have started at home, because I do most of my reading on buses, and I do not want to lug a big book with me.
This book was one of those "I'll grab this tiny book with me to have something to read on the bus" -cases. And although I struggled, I decided I am not going to finish it.

Let me first introduce the author: Juha Vuorinen got popular in Finland by writing a blog called "Juoppohullun päiväkirja", which loosely translates to "The diary of a person experiencing Delirium Tremens". You can imagine why it got popular: it was crazy adventures of a young man who basically was on a drinking binge, and no profanity was too much to be used. Here is the very first sentences of the blog (it's still online, though started in 1998):  "Last evening I was at the local pub, where I found a lady (uses the English term) at least a head taller than I am. I already realize at the pub, that this lady can drink at least as much as I can - meaning an insane amount. I  managed to wangle this Big Bertha to our place by promising her more booze. The bitch would've drank like a horse from a bucket had I let her."

I mean, classic literature. Just classic. As a blog it worked: it sounded like it was written by a self-absorbed male whose life revolved around drinking and screwing. I thought that it was almost a parody of that kind of a person - pretty funny. You know the kind who comes to work with bags under his eyes and starts to brag about his drunken adventures? (At least this is a common human subspecies in Finland).
So then he goes and writes a book. It's just short stories written in the same style, except this time... oh man. I don't even know where to begin. I read 4 of the stories before I figured out that it's not going to change. All stories follow a fable structure: the author introduces the main character, shows how he grew up (because they are all a he, except in one story), and then the situation he gets into. But, unlike fables, you can't make heads or tails out of these stories! It's as if he always gets this really, really great idea (in his opinion), gets going with it, and then runs out of steam. 

To illustrate, here's a typical story:
1st sentence: "Already as a kid, Rane Sahanen loved boiled eggs over everything else".
- We are told how Rane has no idea how to boil eggs, and his father beats him up. This is why he becomes a good cook (See how funny physical violence is, muahahha!).
- He becomes a good cook but only prepares egg foods as a revenge to his dad, who doesn't even understand it's a revenge.
- Rane goes to cooking school, and gets a cooking show gig after he insults a fat woman and makes everyone laugh (fat people - they are so funny! Being a total jackass is funny!) at the restaurant. 
- With his money from the show, he goes to Turkey on a holiday. Guess what? He eats local, bizarre foods (OMG a lamb's head! Those Turkish weirdos!) and because the place is not hygienic (of course, those dirty Turks), an insect of some kind lays eggs on him. Or, true to the book's style, lays eggs on his butt.
- At the show's studio, Rane starts to freak out, apparently from whatever the larvae is doing to him. Instead of chopping the celery, he chops off the guest's fingers.

The last sentence is uttered by Rane's dad who is in the audience and who says "Hah hah, hoo hoo, heh heh... didn't I teach you little brat that you can't point fingers at people!"
What kind of a nonsense punchline is that?? That does not make ANY sense. Nowhere in the story did the father teach Rane to not point fingers, so he is not referencing back to something the reader already knows and could laugh along with. Even worse, Rane is not pointing any fingers - he cut the fingers off of another person! That is the shoddiest writing I have ever witnessed.
It's as if the author realized that his story has run out, and he needs a funny punch line (believe me, all of the stories end in a nonsensical, non-funny or non-relevant punch line, creating a weird absurdist air), and he tries to figure out how to connect the chopped off fingers to something funny. It's as if he understands how short stories work (introduce the story, take the reader for a ride and then do a surprising twist at the end), but he doesn't actually get how to do it.

What's worse, the story is titled "Potut pottuina", which is an idiom meaning "Payback". Now... who is paying back whom here? Rane was humiliated all his life by his father, and he tries to "pay back" by making only egg dishes. And the father doesn't even notice that this is some kind of a payback. At the end, it's the father who gets the last, nonsensical laugh. So... He's paying back...? Let me reiterate: He humiliates and beats Rane. Then he tells him off for going to cooking school. Then Rane gets sick and does something stupid, and the father gets the last laugh. THERE WAS NO PAYBACK INVOLVED! 
Ugh. There is a time and a place for writing that uses colloquial and crude language, but you still have to use that language to not write a shitty story!

Already the first story in the collection should have alerted me to this. It's called "Ivalolainen vittuilurinki". Now... "vittuilu" uses a very common swear word, and it's a noun for the act of basically being a sarcastic asshole. So this is a ring of such sarcasm in Ivalo. The story begins with the worst crime an author can do: he breaks the classic rule of "show, don't tell", when the main character's childhood is described. "As a teenager, he lived as if he was a big movie star"... You know, instead of saying "As a teenager, he had the money to buy fast cars, and he did not shy away from snorting the occasional line of cocaine". Don't tell the reader that he is living like a "big movie star", because we all have different ideas of that. Big Finnish movie stars are like any people on the street! So... As a teenager, he acted in some movies and then went to have a sauna on a Saturday evening at home? I don't think the author was after this.
Back to the "vittuilurinki". I was actually quite interested in finding out what happens, as this man who had obviously become an asshole is taken to Ivalo, Lappland, to undergo the treatment of the extreme sarcasm ring. But... none of the things they said actually could qualify for "vittuilu": most of it was just outright threats to disembowel him! I looked up from the book with amazement: the guy who has been writing about drinking and screwing and being sarcastic has no idea what it actually is! Telling someone "I think I'm going to cut a hole in you to find your kidneys" is not "vittuilu", sarcasm - it's a threat! I was so disappointed. And not only because any time the main character is not a "purebred" Finn, you can wait for the stereotypes to come in. People from Lappland are all magical and have only one tooth. A man with an Italian name? You need to pay some protection money to him. Closeted esbian? Obviously it's the woman who is fat and ugly.

Maybe the worst offense is just the stupidity of the stories: a hulk of a guy is let through police academy although he almost kills his trainers, just because "the police force needed grunts like him". When do things like this happen outside of a high schoolers story in Finnish class when they want to show what tough kids they are? I felt like I really was reading a story where a 15-year old boy was told "OK, write me a story about a bodybuilder, and don't edit it at all". What else could explain the horribly bad endings?

Maybe I could stomach these stories if they just weren't so badly written. The punchlines are never punchlines, and after reading each story I felt a little more stupid. One time I didn't even understand that the story had ended, and I turned the page only to find a new headline for the next story. One of the worst is a story of Mauri: we spend the first 4 pages reading about how he loved mopeds, then motorcycles, and how he chopped them to go unprecedented speeds. Then he drugs his father and drives his BMW, and crashes it. Half a page is about how he got a job as a driver. The very last page is about a company Christmas party, during which the boss asks Mauri to wrestle with him after sauna. When he comes back to work the next day, his colleague whispers (and wait for it - this is the punch line and the last sentence of the story:) "Did he make you wrestle?". *drums* Badum-chi!
Wow. What a master of humor. The story is also titled "Let's wrestle work". That is not what this story is about. What the hell?? The story is 7 pages long, and out of those, he is employed for the last 1.5 pages, and wrestling is mentioned the first time in the second-to-the-last paragraph.
If you find domestic violence, drunk women and calling them with a variety of degrading names, gratuitous violence, homosexuals and minorities as humorous and things to giggle at, this book is for you!
To Vuorinen's defense, the back cover of the book says that the texts have been edited and shortened to be "more easily digested". So either the editor didn't know what the heck he was doing, or then the original stories are even more nonsensical. 

P.S. How dare the cover artist reproduce Martti Huuhaa Innanen's style of absurdist, naivist paintings? Without any hat tip to Innanen! I guess Vuorinen fashioned himself as a similar story-teller as Innanen, with the exception that Innanen's songs and paintings are actually funny.

ETA: Now I know what these stories reminded me of! When I was 10 years old, it was all the rage to tell jokes that were un-jokes. They would start off like a regular joke, but end nonsensically. Such as "Two rabbits walked into a store, and the second one had skis as well". 

This was funny to us because the listener would be totally puzzled, momentarily would maybe think that s/he doesn't get the joke and felt slightly embarrassed, but then the realization came that the joke just wasn't there.  

That's what these stories are like! Maybe Vuorinen wrote them all as a huge non-joke. In that case... well done! That still doesn't explain why the writing in general is bad, but... at least it would explain the crappy endings!

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