I just finished a book the other day that was perfectly fine except that the magical talking male cat was a calico. And I just couldn’t get past it. Magic cat? Fine. Talking cat? Sure. I watched enough Sabrina in my day. Male cat? Half of them are. Male calico? No explanation? Nope. Every time I stumbled across that detail, it was like nails on a chalk board, threw me right out of the book. Which was otherwise, if a little dated (it was from the 80s), was a really good book.

Likewise, Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 is a masterpiece. In every detail. Except he gets Lou so wrong that it’s jarring. The one wrong note in an otherwise perfect performance. But it’s a wrong note that repeats itself throughout the story and then blossoms in the end into a wish-fulfillment fantasy so off-key it was almost hilarious.

It’s as if Hill is saying “Look how much I like this character, I gave him a new heart and a new body and a new woman. I fixed him.” without any awareness of just how it ends up coming across as evil. It’s a weird problem because Lou doesn’t hate himself. And he’s a really good guy who is loved by his girlfriend and his kid. He makes brave, hard choices to protect his kid from his mom’s problems when she won’t/can’t. And then, every step of the way, he helps his girlfriend save their kid.

And Hill wrote that. So, clearly, he has a deep and abiding sense of Lou’s humanity and goodness. And yet he is still a problem to be fixed.  And when the “problem” is fixed, Hill describes him as a “new” man. And yet, none of the traits I described in the last paragraph change. But he’s clearly supposed to be worth the love of a good woman and a happy life after the trauma of the book now that he’s been fixed.

It’s both as if Hill can’t help but view poor Lou as a full human being AND view him as someone who can’t really participate in life because he’s fat. Even though, throughout the book, all we see him doing is participating in life in perhaps the healthiest ways of any of the characters.

It’s a bit like Mr Peanut in that, as you’re reading it, you wonder if he’s actually ever known any morbidly obese people. Or, honesty, poor people for that matter. Dude is a self-employed mechanic with a kid and a girlfriend who’s been institutionalized numerous times. Who the fuck paid for his lap-band?

The longer I think about it the more I think that the problem is that Hill is a straight dude. And so, even though he, in all other aspects, really gets his female characters, at the end of the day, I don’t think he truly, in his heart, believes that Vic would be attracted to Lou if Vic weren’t so fucked up, because Hill just cannot imagine why a woman would find a huge dude attractive, even though there are many, many points in the novel where he brushes up against those reasons, but, I guess, doesn’t recognize them for what they are.

Anyway, it’s kind of an enormous problem and yet, the book is so good that it doesn’t derail it. It just rings sour. Which is too bad, because it’s otherwise as good a book as you’re going to read this year.


14 thoughts on “NOS4A2

  1. Ooohhhh. I also loved the book, and also had deep problems with it. Different deep problems, however.

    I see what you’re saying about Lou, and it was something I noticed but managed to swallow. I felt like there was an undercurrent of Hill congratulating himself for having a fat guy as his main adult male character.

    But, I had more trouble with certain aspects of Victoria and goddamn it, certain word choices. I was shocked completely out of the story when the creepiest guy in the book, who is given far too much sweaty page space for the admiring of “creamy mommy tits” on women, paws the breasts of a female character as a prelude to further assault and then is said to have “tittered”. (REALLY???? FUCK YOU JOE HILL!!!!) Then he used the word two more times in the rest of the book and I prayed for a ghost editor to visit him and cram a thesaurus up his ass.

    Yes. It upset me that much.

    Also, the part where Vic (again, really? Was Manx called “Perp” in his first draft?) talks about men being an uncomplicated, easy pleasure and posits this as what all women think. NO, YUR WRONG, DUDE.

    Arrrgghh. But if I hadn’t liked the book so much, the wrong notes wouldn’t have crawled all over me like this.

  2. the magical talking male cat was a calico. And I just couldn’t get past it.

    And yet I get mocked for pointing out how unreal it is that everyone in the Harry Potter books ends up marrying their high school sweethearts.

  3. nm, I agree that’s weird. But maybe, you know, a reeeeeally small magical population means that you meet everyone in your age cohort through Hogwarts, and that’s it.

  4. Ha ha ha. That’s exactly how I fan-wanked away that problem of Harry Potter. That and imagining that, at 35, the truth is that they all got divorced and married someone better for their grown-up selves.

    Oh, Lord, Jess, I had not even thought about the victim’s name being “Vic” but now I can’t stop thinking about how heavy-handed it is to have your main female character be named “Victoria” who rides a “Triumph” motorcycle. Gosh, do you think she’s going to win in the end?

    No, the thing that bothered me about her was her abstract bisexuality. Let me be clear about this: In real life, I have no problem with women who have exclusively dated and/or married men self-identifying as bisexual. In real life, this is obviously a real thing that happens–who you’re sexually attracted to is always (unless you’re, say, Robert Plant) going to be a much larger pool than the number of people you have relationships with and, if you don’t run across a women who wants to fuck you back before you settle down with the person you fall in love with, it’s pretty easy for bisexual women in this society to have dated exclusively men if she’s monogamous. Especially because there’s a certain amount of anti-bisexual sentiment in the lesbian community–like why waste your time on her when she’s just going to settle down with a dude?

    All that aside, more and more in fiction I feel like I’m encountering a lot of abstract bisexual women (poor men rarely even get to be abstract bisexuals), where the “I always pictured myself running off with a hot woman” “I will cuddle a woman at some point, but nothing sexual will happen” stuff is… i don’t know. I don’t know what purpose it’s supposed to serve.

    But maybe you and I are seeing the same problem with Vic–that Hill comes so close to getting her right that the ways he can’t quite imagine what’s motivating her really stand out. I especially feel like he doesn’t get the power–for a lot of women–in the savior/protector trope. He’s clearly using it. She puts on Lou’s giant coat. It saves her from injury. But, to me, it was clear that he didn’t quite get how erotic that can be, how wrapping yourself up in something larger than you, broken into the shape of a body you take pleasure in, is awesome.

    I agree about Bing, but I have to tell you, again, I felt like this is a place where Hill doesn’t quite get women. What he does is terrible. But it’s not, for instance, any more terrible than what happened in Cleveland.

    I wouldn’t want to live in the headspace of a dude who was worse than that, don’t get me wrong. And i wouldn’t have wanted to read a book that was more graphic about what happened to those women. But I felt like a kid getting taken by Manx is unusually terrible. And that Hill did a good job of portraying why–psychologically–it was so terrible for those children throughout the story. But for the amount of time we spent focused on Bing, I didn’t feel like he was unusually terrible.

    He was terrible. But not uniquely so. Manx seemed like a new thing to me–a new archetype similar but not the same as others. I am probably going to find Christmas carols somewhat creepy this year. And fuck if I’m going to look at a Rolls Royce the same.

    But Bing? He’s a CRIMINAL MINDS villain. He’s not something women have never feared before. He’s the same old terrible monster. And yet, I felt like Hill thought he was scary and weird as fuck.

  5. Yes! Bing is within a “normal” creepy villain Bell curve. I got to resenting the amount of page time he was given. It was cool that Manx blew him off as incompetent so completely, and that he was dispatched well in advance of the finale. But damn. Yeah, Cleveland.

    Vic was sooooo close to being a believable, complicated woman. The increments by which she falls short are particularly infuriating because of that.

    And as for Lou’s surgeries, I assumed that she left him everything she had, like her mom’s house, and all the rights in her book series. Plus maybe they salvaged her work on her last Search Engine book and released it later. Without her addictions and rehab bills, Lou may have gotten a decent amount of money, morbid as that would be.

    I wondered why the fucking fuck Lou waited any time at all to go smash the angels. Why would he not have done that oh, you know, the NEXT DAY? It’s only his son’s soul, so yeah, wait a few months. No problem.

    I also wanted the kids to be rescued/released in soul only, like the ghost children in Coraline. Vic was SURE that they were dead dead, not just partly dead. She said so in the Christmasland sequence and I think she’s the expert. To have them restored bodily made little sense, narratively. I assume that was maybe part of the rewrite of the ending his mom talked him into. I wish I’d read the first draft. It might’ve been worse, but I’d like to have seen how his first instinct at resolution went.

    Argh. Wish you and I could talk this out over beer.

  6. I know that I’m probably being clueless for saying this but aren’t all calico cats female? isn’t that basic cat law? Or is that what you’re getting at? I’m a bit headachy myself at the moment and think I’m missing nuance. Either that or I just stepped right up on it.

    I always end up having love-hate relationships with Joe Hill’s books; They always remind me of a really old roller rink where the skating is just fine and nostalgic and feels like skating should…until you get to the part of the floor that is torn up and never maintained and you fall on your ass and get bruised.

  7. As for Harry Potter–the point isn’t that they married their high school sweethearts and the unreality of it. The point is the formation of ad hoc families when your birth family is insufficient/non-existent. It’s the exact kind of fantasy a woman who lost her mother and is estranged from her father writes for comfort. And as a person who was transplanted away from her birth family it was a fantasy that I appreciated.

  8. Oh crud…I hit post too soon. Blame the headache. The other point is that most people who don’t marry their high school sweethearts also don’t end up battling the devil along side those same sweethearts. There are certain things that create a sort of lasting bond, one would think. In addition to which there are several mentions throughout the series about the clannish, near-incestuous nature of the wizarding community, making such relationships far more likely. Indeed, it reminds me very much of my own community where the norm IS to marry someone you met by the time you were 16. I’m abnormal for marrying a person I met at the ripe old age of 19. So I think it’s one of those issues that is easier to understand if you view it from a more anthropological/psycholological place instead of a “oh come on, this isn’t how the world works” place. Because in some places it IS how the world works. Especially a world where there are only 32 kids each year.

  9. Coble, that’s exactly it. There are male calicos (or calico cats with male sex organs, I should say), but you have to have two X chromosomes to make that pattern, so calico cats with male sex organs are either XXY, which is extremely uncommon, or chimeric so that some of its skin cells are XY, which is even more uncommon than that. XY cats with the right gene set-up to be calico (if they had two XXs) are solid orange, if that makes sense.

    So, every time this male cat was described as calico, I was pulled out of the book (which was MULENGRO, for those interested) because I couldn’t tell if the author didn’t know his cat was the wrong color or if I was just supposed to know male calicos are really rare and therefore it adds to the character’s oddness. But part of the problem is that MULENGRO is considered (in some circles, with a lot of caveats and objections) to be a good and faithful (minute the actual magic) portrait of Romany people by non-Romany author.

    If I’m supposed to believe that an author has really done the homework necessary for his book, I don’t want there to be things that suggest he hasn’t, you know?

    As for Harry Potter, whatever! I just have four words for you: Hogwart’s Reunion Key Parties!

  10. There was a kids’ book I read eons ago where the fact that the family calico cat turns out to be male was a major plot point. He was therefore very valuable and they could sell him or his kittens for lots of money and…I dunno…save the farm? Pay the mortgage? Something good. Wish I could remember what it was.

  11. Oh, god, people writing fat characters badly: bane of my existence. As a fatty, I haven’t dreaded a book as much as Lionel Shriver’s new one in…maybe forever? Mostly because of articles she’s written about her brother for the Guardian being a bit of a spoiler as to how she feels about these things.

    But yes, it’s strange when the ‘journey’ the writer sees as having happened is not apparent in actuality.

    Abstracted bisexuality is very annoying as a character trait. Again, as a bisexual, there’s a lot of loathing about us in general from both sides, the trope of ostensibly straight lady being abstractly attracted to women in an almost asexual fashion is doing us no favors. :/

    Anyways – love the site and the work you do for the scene.

    Speaking of larger people, there’s a Nashville Chubster clothing swap the 26th, 1-6 at the owl farm, just a heads up.

  12. I dunno, Coble, the closest analogue I can think of is Holocaust survivors, and lots of them didn’t marry other Holocaust survivors.

  13. Agreed on Lou, Vic’s name, the Triumph, the overabundance of Bing. It felt to me like Manx was more of a cartoonish bad guy than a “real” bad guy, *because* of the Bing-ness of everything. The New Lou at the end fell completely flat for me. I told my husband that, if he reads the book, he should skip the last chapter. Just skip it.

    But what really threw me out of the story was the geography of Colorado. I know where Gunbarrel is. It’s not in the mountains, it’s about 5 min. northeast of Boulder…which is plains, not mountains. Nor is the supermax in a suburb of Denver. I get poetic license and all, but it was distracting to me and seemed to be an arbitrary decision. It was like Hill wanted so badly not to set the story in Boulder (lest he be compared with King using Boulder in The Stand? I don’t know) that he had to move neighboring cities around to be proxy-Boulders. (There is/was a Christmasland amusement park in the mountains behind Colorado Springs, too. I remember driving past it as a kid and being creeped out. Perhaps Hill had a similar experience…)

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