Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig


Read January, 2014
★   1/2

This is a tough one to review. Not because my reaction to the read wasn’t particularly clear –it was– but because my good friends over at Shelf Inflicted and I differ significantly in our opinions.

No doubt, most of the issue is simply motivations and taste; why we read and what our preferable types are.  I tend to love both complexity and subtlety, and my diversionary reads need to come with straight-up happy endings. As the child of police officers, I find violence all too common in real life. As a person in the medical field, I get more than my share of orifices, body fluids and death. As a female, I find domestic violence, emotional manipulation and rape horrifically common. So I prefer escapism when I read, not wallowing in evil and desperation.

Let me begin:

Blackbirds is Pulp Fiction without the dancing, No Country for Old Men without fine acting, and  Transporter Three without Jason Stratham or a European setting. Written more like an action movie script, it is one of the least subtle books I’ve read in awhile. About the only redeeming aspect for me was the concept of being able to foresee someone’s moment of death.

Miriam is a young woman who sees people’s death moments. She uses her knowledge to steal basic necessities and fuel her life on the road. We meet her in a dirty hotel room as she rolls a dying epileptic for his wallet (yeah, Chuck, you can’t really swallow your tongue, but way to go for the dramatic image). But don’t worry–he’s a pig who picks up whores and beats on them, so it’s all okay. Back on the road, he’s harassed by two frat boys, then runs into a trucker who offers to help. Once she sees herself connected to the trucker’s death, she decides to run from Destiny. Or will she try to change it? 

Writing style is simplistic, direct and non-complicated. Wendig relies on sentence fragments, emphasizing the script-like feel.  Mood is grim, all dark imagery, full of grime, with a preoccupation of body orifices and fluids common in teens and college movies.

She clicks the lamp by the bed. Piss-yellow light illumines the ratty room.
A roach sits paralyzed in the middle of the floor.
‘Shoo,’ she says. ‘Fuck off. You’re free to go.’
The roach does as it’s told. It boogies under the pull-down bed, relieved.

“Inside, the bar is like the unholy child of a lumberjack and a biker wriggling free from some wretched womb. Dark wood. Animal heads. Chrome rims. Concrete floor.

There is little subtlety here, and the storyline is movie blockbuster with loads of excessive violence, simplistic plotting and character stereotypes. Just how stereotypical? Well, although the main character is a woman, it clearly fails the Bechdel test. The characters: Sex ruined someone’s life. There’s a sociopath who plays with bones. Frat boys who want to beat on women. Machismo bar flies. A woman who is made into a sociopath through devotion to a man. A woman refusing sex who then has an amazing orgasm (second most common rape myth ever). An “overly religious mother” who mentally abuses her child. A thug with a change of heart. A widower who regrets a spouse’s death. Yawners: Wendig doesn’t have to do much with characterization because he lets the reader fill in the blanks themselves. 

Narrative structure was interesting; there’s a current timeline interspersed with timeline from an interviewer.  Using an interviewer is a clever way to get background into a character that doesn’t particularly like to spend a lot of time either in introspection or getting to know other people. On the other side, the narrative also includes a couple of “stories” from other characters and other scenes away from Miriam. That choice had mixed results for me; the choice of whose story was shared was odd, and really didn’t add dimension or tension to the overall plot, although it did allow a chance to ratchet up the violence level.

Wendig had a kernel of a good idea, demonstrated in his moving images of people’s instance of death. But he lost those small moments of compassion and transcendence in the movie-violence extremism of the plotting, the shallowness of the characterization, the vague setting and the bleakness of the book. It’s a definite pass in my book. 

For excellent reviews, check out Tatiana”s discussion of Miriam’s voice and Esin’s overall analysis of the general -isms of the book.


About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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8 Responses to Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

  1. neotiamat says:

    Interesting. I mostly know Chuck Wendig as a solid-but-not-stellar game designer, one who works primarily in White Wolf/Onyx Path’s World of Darkness setting. What I find interesting is that what you describe has a very “worst excesses of 90s game design” feel to it, when everything had to be ‘Dark and Mature,’ aka, sexual and hyper-violent. His game design isn’t so bad, though since those are team projects perhaps it helps to have someone rein in his worst impulses.

    Also, something you wrote here really resonated — reading for escapism. One of the most absolutely aggravating things is when people act like, since I read a bunch, I should be reading Grim Miserable Accounts, usually non-fiction, of Horrible Things happening to Horrible People. Thank you, no, I’ve got enough despair in my real life without seeking out more.

    • thebookgator says:

      Neotiamat–ah, I hadn’t realized Wendig’s background was in game design. That starts to make much more sense (honestly, I didn’t even enjoy it enough to do background research). Sexual(ized) and hyper-violent aptly describes the genre. Hm, now that I think of it, that kind of tracks back to the most basic animalistic urges of reproducing and resource guarding… must save that thought for later.

      Glad to hear that my thoughts on ‘escapism’ resonated with you. Maybe I should do a post someday. I think one can still arrive at human truths without wallowing in the grim and miserable, and indeed, that is one of the best things that the arts can do for us, to remind us of our ideals or even simply beauty. On the other side, what’s wrong with ‘escapism’ anyway?

      • neotiamat says:

        In defense of gaming, we’ve gotten quite a bit better since the mid-90s (thank god). Still, by its nature it tends to be more violent than most stuff.

        As for escapism/misery/truth… I think the issue is that for far too many people, cynicism and grittiness are seen as being automatically more true to life, and so the assumption is that something which is optimistic or hopeful is a “kid’s story,” or “church literature.” Its the idea that True Art must be Angsty and Incomprehensible.

        My instinct is that this stems from how literature is taught in schools. Hardly any of the assigned reading books I recall from high school could be termed “happy” (Pride & Prejudice, Shakespeare’s comedies, and the Importance of Being Earnest being perhaps the sole exceptions). Lots of misery, lots of oppression, at least one slavery/racism narrative a year… I can understand why people thought we should read those books, but I’m also hard pressed to imagine a curriculum better designed to put someone off reading.

  2. thebookgator says:

    Yes, it occurs to me in retrospect that I was/am being a bit unfair with my “video game fantasy” genre. It plays on the stereotypes of what games are and the worlds they create, when in actuality, they can be quite amazing. I was just thinking of Bioshock, which manages to combine the shooter framework in a visually/audiotorily astounding way, as well as playing around with what we think of as ‘hero.’

    Heh, regarding ‘literature’–a friend at work just described a patient as “Pickwickian.” I had no idea what she was talking about. Turns out it is a body-type based on Dicken’s “Pickwick” character. Thankfully, I missed that one.

  3. neotiamat says:

    Well, Wendig and NWoD are tabletop-roleplaying, not video games (much later there was a video game set in the world, but it was done by other people and is considered quite good in terms of storytelling).

    We’re actually in a bit of a golden age of tabletop indie gaming right now. The cost of distribution has dropped like a rock now that you can just put a PDF on the internet, and the expanding ecosystem is encouraging people to experiment. You still have the lumbering giant of Dungeons & Dragons and the somewhat less giant World of Darkness and GURPS, but you also have games where you wander around as a ghost in the afterlife, or play tiny forest spirits making friends in pre-modern Japan.

    Video games are a bit different, in that they’re bifurcating into Hollywood-style AAA-games which have budgets of tens and hundreds of millions and all the issues that afflict Hollywood (including storytelling by committee), but also into smaller, more nimble games that are experimenting with storytelling quite well. Bioshock is a bit in that latter tradition, as is Spec Ops: The Line, Sunless Sea, or very simple indie games like Papers Please.

    • thebookgator says:

      Ah, I had not realized you meant he worked on tabletop gaming–I just assumed video–I have a book genre called “video-game-fantasy” or some such because of the current prevalence of books that seem like game scripts.

      • neotiamat says:

        Oh? I know there are lots of books churned out *for* video games — and Tabletop games — but they run the gamut of quality. Most are kind of ‘meh’, but there’s a few gems.

  4. thebookgator says:

    Yeah, it was facetiously, ripping on the game one-person-shoot-’em-up stereotype.

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