Imagine you live with a baker. You are treated weekly to such home-baked deliciousness as double-chocolate peppermint cookies, lemon squares, blueberry puree oat bars, lemon ricotta cookies and almond toffee bars. Now imagine you wander into the kitchen and the baker hands you a chocolate-chip cookie, fresh from the package.
Such was my experience reading Spoonbenders, by Daryl Gregory. I really enjoy Gregory’s work–three of his books are five-star reads for me–but this missed the edgy, flavor-filled writing that I’ve come to expect from him.
Narration is shared between the blood members of the Telemachus family: founding member Teddy; his daughter, Irene; her son, Matty; and Teddy’s other two sons, Frankie and Buddy. Additionally, it ranges back and forth through time, from a disastrous television appearance when Irene, Frankie and Buddy were children, to the ‘now,’ when Matty experiences his gift for the first time. Given the narrative and time shifts, it is impressive at how well it flows together. Plotting is deft, slowly weaving the 1995 now for each character with a seminal event or two from their backstories, and then wonderfully bringing them all together in a very dramatic climax. It was fairly obvious that there was method to Buddy’s madness, but part of the fun is seeing how it all dovetails together.
The characters stand out well, and within the confines of the pieces of life we see, they do feel dimensional. However, with the exception of Teddy, they never feel quite like real people to me. Perhaps it is because the viewpoint shifting limits depth, or perhaps the problem is that each description, interaction or event seemed to reinforce the primary characteristics of the character. Grandpa the con-man. Frankie as oldest son trying desperately to win approval by being like his dad. Irene, the over-worked, love-lost daughter caretaking for everyone but herself. The idolized but dead Grandma. Buddy, the non-verbal, far-out youngest son. Matty the grandson trying to figure out his place.
“(Grandpa Teddy always played for money, and never gave it back after a game. ‘You can’t sharpen your knife on a sponge,’ he’d say.”
“Uncle Frankie had shown Matty the tape at Thanksgiving four years ago. Frankie had been drinking a lot of red wine, hitting it hard as soon as his wife, Loretta, unwrapped the shrimp cocktail appetizers, and his sentences had turned emphatic and urgent.”
“Buddy remained unperturbed. He’d been in one of his trances since finishing his pie, staring into space, occasionally smiling to himself or silently mouthing a word or two. His muteness was a mystery to Matty, and the adults wouldn’t talk about it, a double silence that was impenetrable.”
I’m a big fan of Daryl Gregory, but for me, this veered too far into the land of literary fiction, focusing on internal character issues instead of larger wierdness. I like his tinges of horror with the urban fantastical in We Are All Completely Fine, the sheer uniqueness of Afterparty, or the even well-done early adolescent viewpoint in Harrison Squared. This feels a little too chocolate-chip mainstream for what I’ve come to expect from Gregory. Other people loved it, so I hope that it brings Gregory some well-deserved attention.
If you enjoyed this, I recommend Lisa Lutz’s Spellman Files, which contains similar daffiness, or Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic, if you like a little romance with your magical realism.
Three and a half chocolate chip cookies, because I know Gregory is capable of Monster cookies.