Author: Charles A. Fletcher
Title: A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World
DNFed at 35% mark
This book has made its rounds in the blogosphere; almost universally praised by many of our fellow bloggers, it was hailed as a unique blending of post-apocalyptic dystopia with a heartfelt reflection on the current state of our world, spiced with an empathic portrayal of the bond between man and dog. It all sounded wonderful. To me, however, this book turned out to be a total hoax.
It is an unremitting diarrhea of words, generated by an old man masquerading himself as a teenager. And here’s the crux of the problem. Nothing in this book seemed even remotely realistic: not the setting, with the mysterious Gelding and a plethora of weird behaviours in response to the realization that end of the humans is near; not the worldbuilding, inconsistent and varying in the amount of details from nearly none to overabundance in just few short paragraphs; and absolutely not the characters. Everything seemed like an elaborate stage setup erected by the author solely for the purpose of expounding – freely and without consequences – on his own opinions on everything. Don’t get me wrong; literature in its entirety is predominantly focused on exactly that, most of the time. Here, though, the smug masquerade incessantly grated on my nerves.
There was nothing honest in this elaborate setup, and while I enjoy my share of subtle sleights of hand, I enjoy them solely on the basis of willing participation on my part, and not because someone sets out to make a fool of me. The total and unchallenged domination of one perspective – not questioned or undermined in any way by others – soon became exceptionally tiresome. For the narrator is a perfect example of der Besserwisser, happy to share with all the world his ruminations in a distinctly Sheldon Cooper-esque way – that it to say: whether the world wants it or not. Doomed to view the world from his viewpoint I soon started to feel deep disenchantment with the whole endeavor; despite that, I tried to finish this book – until I realized that I’m forcing myself to do something I actively dislike.
I only noted down one quote – memorable to me because it so well encapsulates all the things I found unbearable in this book: the self-assured smugness of the general sentiment pervading the quote; the prominent voice of someone much older than a teenager, however precocious he could be, hidden behind the simplified sentence structure; the unquestioned conviction of one’s right, disguised as a hesitant ruminations and hedged by a row of “maybes”.
When I was little I had a stash of old illustrated magazines about superheroes. I loved them for a bit, because they were so bright and drawn with real joy for movement and design […] They tended to walk around in really tight clothes and however much the writers tried to hide the fact, and however much they appeared to fret about what to do, all the stories ended up in a huge fight. Dad said they were written for younger boys really. I liked them despite that, until I didn’t. And when I realized I didn’t, I also knew that it was because everything was always a set-up for a punch-up. As if the only way you could solve a problem was by hitting it. Maybe your world liked fighting so much that it thought it had to prepare kids for that by telling them those kind of stories. Or maybe it was the other way round and your world liked fighting because those were the stories you were given when your minds were young. (p. 63)
Yes, it probably says a lot about me that from all available sentences I chose that one quote about comic books. But for me it reflects either a total misunderstanding of the genre, a pronounced lack of knowledge, or ill will. The horribly simplified way of linking comic books to violence, even in a work of fiction where the protagonist is supposed to be a teenager, sets my teeth on edge. Especially when literally the next scene is all about violence, punches, and open threats of bodily harm (cutting out one’s tongue).
The protagonist, and simultaneously the narrator of the story, oh-so-earnest and puppy-like in his wide-eyed perception of the world, was such an artificial creation that try as I might, I just couldn’t even start suspending my disbelief. As a mouthpiece for the author, he performed exceptionally well: he is a uniquely thoughtful and eloquent teenager, with a strong opinion on every possible topic. Of course, he’s a remarkably well-read teenager, having scavenged books from a handful of houses along the western coast of the British Isles, where, obviously, people faced with the end of the world as they knew it had done nothing but amass extensive libraries. What wasn’t there! Or rather: what wasn’t alluded to, wink-wink, to the knowledgeable reader, to establish rapport and mutual understanding. Even A Canticle for Leibowitz made an appearance, not to mention the possible inspiration for the book and the sure inspiration for the title, Harlan Ellison’s post-apocalyptic A Boy and His Dog. But none of the references truly mattered – at least in the first 130-odd pages of the book. Their role seemed limited to serving as testimonials to the author’s knowledge of the genre, peculiar badges of honor.
I’m sure that part of the blame for this DNF falls on Robertson Davies. Yes, I know I can’t really hold him responsible, especially post mortem, but the fact is that the last book I’d read before I picked up A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World was Davies’ Fifth Business. The chasm between these two books couldn’t have been bigger. Where Davies is effortlessly poetic, subtle, witty and meaningful, while remaining deeply humane and honestly unflinching in the portrayal of his flawed protagonist, respecting the reader as his equal, Fletcher stumbles and plods along the way, trying to achieve depth but resulting only in superfluity of words, forcefully strung together in a slapdash approximation of intellectual entertainment, which ultimately boils down to talking down to his readers.
The most curious thing, however, is that I lost my vitriol toward Fletcher’s book somewhere along the way. You might have not noticed, but I did ;). I actively disliked A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World when I was reading it – so much so, in fact, that I felt physical aversion to picking up my copy. But between the moment I DNFed it and the moment I started writing a review, I read two or three other books, blissfully better than this one, and my ire lessened along the way, leaving only the slight distaste – and a relief that I didn’t have to finish it. I did, however, browse through the remaining pages to see what I would miss – and thus I can truthfully say: nothing of note.
This book reminded me of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, for all the wrong reasons: hailed by many as a modern classic and an approachable philosophical masterpiece, upon closer inspection turned out to be a well-meant fluff. A Boy and his Dog at the End of the World might be an illuminating experience for some – it definitely was that for many readers. To me, unfortunately, it was a total miss.