This book has been on my radar for a while now but the concept of a novel in free verse…
I don’t do too well with poetry. I usually find it pretentious (and that’s saying something, right?) or boring or ham-fisted. Free verse, for me, is usually the worst – I just feel as though the poet was too lazy to write prose or that they wanted to seem hip and chic by randomly breaking up lines into a verse format. Rarely is there any kind of power, for me, in free verse poetry.
Happily, Sharp Teeth proved an exception to the norm. The novel’s concept, for starters, provides an interesting and intriguing beginning: werewolves in L.A. Or, more correctly, lycanthropes. These aren’t The Wolfman-style werewolves, these are essentially dogs. In fact, they’re all close enough to dogs that they can show up in kennels and people’s homes and people believe they are dogs. Big dogs, I guess – not terriers or something like that but true one-generation-down-from-nature dogs, like coyotes. The explanation for their existence is given just enough time – that there was a race of lycanthropes that existed in America that was nearly wiped out by settlers and has remained in the shadows ever since. However, it isn’t just with breeding (actually, its never mentioned whether or not lycanthropes breed lycanthropes…) but via a blood transfer that the gift passes on. Very vampiric. I’m curious to see if Barlow writes a vampire novel. But I digress.
The power of the verse was, admittedly, intermittent. The novel begins and ends in something of the “classic” form, with “Let’s sing about the man there…” and “let us pause now…” – that direct address, that call to the reader and perhaps to the gods. There were scenes where the flow of the lines was charged and electric and the decision to go in free-verse made so much sense… but then I felt there were times, particularly during the big denouement, where the power of a well-constructed stanza was lost in the rush to get the words out. That was sort of disappointing.
What wasn’t disappointing was the plot in general. I was nervous for most of the novel that either things wouldn’t connect or that there were too many balls in the air or that any wrap-up would be unsatisfactory – because how often do stories like this, no matter how great they are, sort of peter out by the end? This time, my fears were unfounded. Barlow was able to weave these plots together – perhaps through the episodic nature of the five books (also, note the classical breakdown of five books, constructed rather like an Elizabethan five-act play) allowed for this bouncing back and forth without much fuss. It was actually delightful to how a character mentioned obscurely in one storyline would turn out to be the main character of another storyline – but you didn’t know that until you were already well-engrossed in the stories. Things came together organically and they even took their time – it was fun to see it come together.
What wasn’t fun was the tone. This isn’t a bad thing, by any means – but it wasn’t fun. Something about L.A… every time I read about it, I just want nothing to do with that city. This novel felt, tonally, like a kindred spirit to Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero – and even to Michael Mann’s film Collateral. There is a sense of desolation that surrounds literature and film about L.A. and that desolation suffuses this book. It’s like someone shines a bright lamp that makes everything so harsh and hot and the shine gets in your eyes and hurts your head and you just can’t imagine how people could live there, let alone enjoy it… that’s the image in my head of L.A., reinforced over years of novels. There is something impersonal about that city that is captured by Ellis’ work and I felt that same veracity in this novel. It just feels like there’s an element of hopelessness that you can’t escape.
Rating: 4 out of 5. A free-verse novel (the author’s debut, no less) that actually works is worth this rating all on its own. The very realistic nature of the story, of the city, of the lovers, of everything… that gains another point but I can’t, in good conscience, give the book a perfect five. It was, at its core, somewhat hollow – like the city it portrays. Maybe that’s just me and my relationship to fictional L.A. – but I felt a little empty as I closed the book instead of fulfilled. Selfish? Perhaps. But that’s okay.
Once Upon A Time IV: This book is my entry for “mythology.” Barlow taps into American legends with this story, especially one about “the coyote and the prime mover.” There is a distinctly American feel to these werewolves and I believe that, if they existed, this is the sort of myth that might be told – about how lycanthropes came to be among our houses or “the myth of Anthony the dogcatcher”, who fell in love with a lycanthrope and gave up his life as a human. If, in two hundred years, it turns out that there are American lycanthropes, this book will become a “maybe it was true” story, much as many Greek myths were maybe-true.