Thursday, October 24, 2013

Chum by Jeff Somers

In part three of our Jeff Somers Love Fest: his new novel, Chum.

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First, I'd like to take a moment to say that the book itself is a lovely little artifact. I don't often have occasion to talk about books-as-objects, frankly because I read a lot of beat up, read-to-death, third-hand paperbacks. But my copy of Chum was brand new, crisp and clean, designed all in black and white. It was more svelte than I expected, given the other books I've read by the author, with a minimal and elegant cover design. Even the typeset of the cover hints at the book inside - the tilted U a little broken, a little drunken, and leaning just slightly on the other letters. The image above doesn't really do it justice.

I knew going in that this book was not going to be spec fic, like the other Jeff Somers books I've read (Trickster and the first Avery Cates novel), but from page 1 Chum shines with his distinctive voice and crisp prose. The book is written achronologically, with each chapter told in first person from the point of view of a different character in a group of friends. Most chapters take place on a major holiday over the course of about a year, but while the chapters aren't labeled by character, it's always clear within a page or so (or often much less) whose head we're in. Many of the events repeat from different points of view, and because the whole novel follows the same group of 8 people, we get to know all the characters with amazing depth not only through how they see themselves and how they perceive each other, but the way they all respond to the same major life events.

The plot is revealed deftly and circuitously, leaving you questioning, suspecting, and re-analyzing the actions and motives of all the characters, even after the "main event" is fully revealed about 2/3 of the way through the book. Several of the reviewers on Goodreads found the timeline of the book confusing, and I'll admit that as soon as I finished the last page, I immediately started flipping back through chapters before deciding to reread the book in its entirety. But I didn't start over because I was confused - quite the contrary, I found myself reading again because I immediately remembered nuggets of foreshadowing and possibilities in the cracks of the chronology that only came into focus in retrospect. I found myself hungry to squeeze a little bit more out of this delightfully dark book. Despite the twisty structure, I personally never felt lost or confused, but in full disclosure, I'm also an English Lit kid who really enjoyed Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, so, there's that.

One piece of praise often leveled at Somers (by myself and others) is that he does a great job writing unlikeable characters. But while Chum is full of characters that certainly fit that description - self destructive, self-absorbed, adultolescent alcoholics - I realized that Somers isn't really writing unlikeable characters, he's just writing people. With one or two exceptions, the main characters aren't outlandishly deplorable - they aren't evil and they aren't villains (though a few of them do some pretty awful things). Even the most repugnant person in the group masquerades for most of the novel as not particularly worse than some skeezy guy who catcalls women. A good guy? No. But only the most banal and everyday "evil." Even the best among them are still human - there's no day-saving or dragon-slaying, just people who are sometimes weak and susceptible to outside pressure or their own preconceptions and fears, or who put themselves before others. In other words, this is a book about eight humans.

I realize that this is why I like Somers' writing so much, because it's not only elegant, precise, and subtle, but also uncommonly authentic. I mostly read in genres that feature lots of overpowered protagonists and (let's be honest) Mary Sues and Marty Stus, but even the protagonists in Somers' spec fic feel particularly human. Chances are, you'll even recognize one or more of the characters in Chum as someone from your own group of friends (or maybe some part of yourself). Reading through the novel, I felt myself balanced precariously between feelings of empathy and schadenfreude.

I haven't said much specifically about the plot, but it isn't for a lack of Interesting Things That Happen - more that it's difficult to do so without spoiling the beautiful non-linear narrative. Suffice it to say, Chum follows eight friends for a year as their group gradually collapses under the weight of its own collective dysfunction. A poignant sense of doomed inevitability hangs over the whole novel, and as it's revealed in bits and pieces, it only becomes more tense and more horrifying. As we go from holiday to holiday, from wedding to funeral to Tomorrow, the actions and reactions of the characters demands the rapt, breathless attention of a really awful train wreck.

Chum is filled with subtleties that are even more rewarding on a second read, and is definitely a book I'm going to be coming back to.

Stay tuned for: Jesus, I'm just going to read his entire bibliography straight through now, aren't I? Yes, yes I am.


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