Monday, March 12, 2007

Atlanta Nights: A Writer's Anti-Textbook (A Vine-Ripened Review)

If there’s any basic rule in the creative process, it’s this: the things you try that don’t work will always show you what does work.

—Frank Santillo

In general, I think bad books are best ignored; I enjoy recommending books, not assailing them. But today I realized I could have my cake and eat it too by recommending a bad book—the inimitable Atlanta Nights.

Once upon a time, there was a POD publishing company named PublishAmerica. (In fact, there still is.) If you haven’t heard of PublishAmerica and the Atlanta Nights flap, Wikipedia’s article is a nice summary. A group of about 40 writers, collaborating under the name Travis Tea, set out to write the worst novel ever written, and PublishAmerica accepted it (though the company reneged on the deal when the hoax was announced). Luckily for the world, Travis Tea made this masterpiece available through POD press

It’s easy to glance through Atlanta Nights, wince a few times, laugh a few times, and toss it aside. There are so many deliberate mistakes right on the surface—gross errors in grammar, characters changing their names and hair color and even race on the same page, misspellings, inexplicable shifts in tense, and baffling arrays of pronouns—that most readers miss the deep level of craft that went into the book’s creation. Finding exactly the wrong turn of phrase is nearly as hard as finding the right one:

The corners of Callie’s mouth drooped like saggy breasts. “Why not?” she interrogated.

She urgently meandered down the marmoreal

In many cases, the similes and metaphors are so arrestingly arbitrary and clumsy, one doesn’t even notice that the sentence makes no sense or has lapsed into poetry (squinting cars?):

Squinting into the late afternoon sun, the cars reflected the red-tinged light off windshields and bumpers and mirrors and doorknobs like a pack of bicyclists caught in a searchlight late at night on a deserted road.

Some of the more wonderful passages are far too long to quote, as they involve incompetent flashbacks, interior monologues confused with present action, and shifts in point of view that are impossible to follow. Atlanta Nights could be used as a textbook for a seminar in fiction technique, but picking apart even a single chapter could take up several class sessions. Even short and straightforward action sequences would be a chore to repair:
..........Then his eyes were suddenly trapped like wolves in jaw traps. One single detail from the newspaper article seized him by the throat and squeezed like a noose around his neck. It was the date and time of the
accident. 4:03 P.M, on July 20th!
aaaaa"No! It can’t be!’ Bruce shouted the words. He stood up from his chair. The Siamese neighbor’s cat jumped in terror…

If you choose to read Atlanta Nights, set aside some time, as it makes Being and Nothingness read like a beach book. It has a permanent place on my bookshelf (between Donna Tartt and Walter Tevis, as it turns out), because there is, thankfully, no other novel quite like it.

The world is full of bad books written by amateurs. But why settle for the merely regrettable? Atlanta Nights is a bad book written by experts.

— T. Nielsen Hayden


Faye L. Booth said...

Completely off-topic, but I finally lost patience with Vox and got an account here. So here I am.


David Isaak said...

For those who have no idea what Faye is talking about here, she's been trying to find a blog site where visitors don't have to join to post.

Come to ussss, Sister Termite, join with the Colony and become one with the Blogger group mind...