Curioddity by Paul Jenkins is about a P.I., Wil, who killed his imagination long ago when his kooky scientist mom died. He lives his days in miserable routine until he is hired to recover a box of levity missing from the Museum of Curioddity. Standard Issue Modern Fantasy Plot 11-J-X5 ensues, in which blah blah blah his eyes are opened blah blah blah to a second world of wonder blah blah blah that only a gifted few can see blah blah blah and he embraces the world of imagination blah blah blah and brings back joy and adventure to his days blah blah blah and his mom’s not dead after all blah blah blah. Well, okay, I’m only on page 64, so I haven’t confirmed the last supposition, but I betcha anything it’s the case.
I’m down with Standard Issue Modern Fantasy Plot 11-J-X5 if it’s done with verve, originality, a sense of humor, writing skills, talent, and/or some combination of the foregoing. Shame that Curioddity doesn’t just lack these qualities, but contains their antitheses in such quantity that it’s an actively sucking vortex of badness. Reading this book is the literary equivalent of watching someone, convinced that he’s an expert with guns, repeatedly blow bullet holes in his feet. Though Jenkins believes himself a talented writer, he’s actually not, although I suppose the argument could be made that his delivery of consistently excruciating prose could be some kind of anti-talent.
There’s something wrong on nearly every page. Here’s a sampling:
P. 4: “Wil settled into a medium-paced trudge, which soon took him across an old stone bridge in the center of town. … Each passing vehicle rattled the bridge in such a way that Wil was reintroduced to every single one of his silver filings as he crossed. Up ahead, an old brown edifice loomed on the skyline like a fungal growth of brick and mortar: the Castle Towers. Wil’s office on the nineteenth floor was the only place in town where he could afford the rent, and from which he was under constant threat of eviction. He glowered at the Towers, and they glowered back at him. It was Wil who blinked first. He sighed, feeling inadequate. If his life had a soundtrack, he imagined, it probably sounded something like this: Trudge, trudge, trudge…KLONNG.”
Jenkins often tries to be witty with his descriptions, but they end up as abstract vacuities. Case in point: Castle Towers. First described as drab and hulking, it then takes on characteristics of Wil’s melancholic worldview and becomes a “fungal growth.” Okay, fine. But then he has a staring contest with the building, and it wins. This might make sense if Jenkins personified the building, establishing that Wil perceived it as an enemy with personality, before it glared at him. But all we have to go on is a prior comparison to fungus, and fungi are not people. Fungi have many traits to use in metaphors — their quick growth, their sudden appearance, their proliferation during damp, the close resemblance of edibles with poisons, their smoke-like spores — but they have neither eyes nor temperaments. I’m left puzzling over contrafactual mushrooms with eyes, which do not exist and, as such, provide no interesting or useful metaphoric information about Castle Towers.
And then there’s that bit about Wil’s life’s putative soundtrack. I can understand the source of trudge trudge trudge, since Jenkins uses the verb in relation to Wil a godawful number of times in the first few pages alone. However, while the word does have a heavy, dull sound, it’s not really onomatopoetic. Thus it doesn’t work as a soundtrack element. By contrast, a verb like galumph, being imitative, would fit as an element in the music of someone’s life.
While I see where the trudge comes from, I have no idea about the KLONNG. Obviously, this particular word is onomatopoetic, but what is it referring to? It sounds like a ringing noise, but there are no clocks, bells, or any metal-on-metal impacts in the preceding paragraph to which it might conceivably be associated. And it’s certainly not the cars on the bridges or Wil’s filings in his teeth making that sound. These are portrayed as rattling, not issuing a sonorous single tone. At first, I thought that Wil had walked into one of the bridge pylons and conked his head, but nope. I suspect Jenkins might be trying for an Existential Knell of Doom, but there’s not enough textual information to support this interpretation.
Pp. 5-7: Wil visits Mug o’ Joe’s, “an isolated pool of happiness in his world” [p. 5]. Jenkins notes that Wil resented the cafe’s temporary name change to Ye Olde Towne Cafe so much that he boycotted the cafe till it changed its name to Koffee Korner. Wil orders coffee, rejecting the cafe’s lingo [Hefty] and insisting on a “large” [p. 6]. “I’m not using your terminology because it doesn’t make any sense. … Just because someone in marketing happens to own a thesaurus, and just because your shareholders insist all of your drink sizes must appear bigger than they are, and just because you are between liberal arts colleges … , it doesn’t mean I have to join in[,]” he says. Less than a minute later, he’s “glowering in the general direction of the Castle Towers,” reflecting that the “daily dose of caffeine confrontation … was beginning to grate” [p. 7].
What we have here, folks, is a paragon of self-serving entitlement whose unhappiness stems from the fact that the world nastily refuses to cater to his whims. Plenty of people roll their eyes and/or make jokes about the size of fast-food drink containers and their names. However, only a very few take these corporate decisions as a personal affront and upbraid the counter staff. And you know why only a few people deliver venomous rants to clerks who are doing a demanding, thankless job, earning minimal pay, and exerting no control whatsoever over their business’ beverage names? Because most people have a modicum of politeness, decency, and care for their fellow human beings that prevents them from spewing bile on others. Also most people understand that the fast-food restaurant that they choose to patronize does not have a personal vendetta against them, as expressed through product names that people might find absurd. That’s because most people have some small understanding of the relative priorities of the world, which, amazingly enough, does not revolve around them. Wil’s pointless boycott of Ye Olde Towne Cafe is accompanied by the sententious observation that “one had to make a stand somewhere” [p. 6], so Jenkins is trying to make Wil an acerbically witty, admirable teller of those little truths that are universally acknowledged, but never spoken. Nope, sorry, Jenkins — your protagonist is just an asshole who flies off the handle at innocent college students trying to do their jobs.
P. 20: The source of the KLONGG finally appears: an off-kilter clock tower that raises a cacophony and doesn’t keep proper time. “Wil hated this monstrosity more than he had ever hated anything in the known universe, not to mention a substantial portion of the undiscovered bit.” I dunno — he seems to hate the old stone bridge, Castle Towers, Mug o’ Joe’s, baristas, coffee, and all that is virtuous, shining, good, and happy a whole hell of a lot! Also the clause about the undiscovered bit doesn’t help. I’m sure it’s supposed to be a witty authorial flourish, but it just brings me out of the story and onto a tangent about the concept of the known universe — which, now that you mention it, is a lot more interesting than this book.
P. 34: Mr. Dinsdale, curator of the Museum of Curioddity, introduces himself. I’m beginning to think that Jenkins had one good idea — the portmanteau word of the title — and decided that was evocative enough to build an entire book around. Sure, it’s a great foundation…but only if you have more than a single good idea.
P. 42: Wil finally encounters the Museum itself: “ornate Ionic pillars … wide marble steps … massive lead-lined windows [suggesting] an expanse of space within. The building screamed ‘museum’ in much the same way a stadium with a diamond-shaped playing field might scream ‘baseball.'” You’d think Jenkins was being paid per word or something, as the whole last sentence could be replaced with It looked like a quintessential museum. Nothing would be lost, except for Jenkins’ odd preoccupation with failed personifications.
P. 47: Inside the museum, Wil feels intimidated by the sexy, but blase, desk clerk: “He’d never been very good at talking to members of the opposite sex, and whenever he attempted a genuine compliment it usual led either to a slap across the face or worse, an angry and enormous boyfriend approaching from the opposite direction.” Socialized masculine entitlement rears its head. He wasn’t hitting on them, honest! He was just “genuinely” telling them how nice they looked, and then they slapped him for no reason he could figure out. They just can’t take a compliment — too uppity. Or they sicced their hulking boyfriends on him. Women are so mean. How’s a Nice Guy like Wil supposed to get any action? This insufferably arrogant whingeing reads like the author’s self-insertion.
P. 49: Mary, the cruel desk clerk, strikes again: “His lifetime of reading women’s disdainful body language told him that Mary Gold’s ‘uh-huh’ could roughly be translated as, ‘You’re off the hook for now but one false move and I’ll call the nearest security guard employment agency and hire one just so that I can have you thrown out on your ear.’ Quite a mouthful, Wil thought, considering so little had actually been said.” Apparently it’s not enough for Jenkins to mention Mary’s loud, obnoxious gum chewing, her “disdainful” stare [p. 48], and purposely limp handshake [p. 49]. No, he has to go further and explain in painfully minute detail just how hostile Wil perceives her to be. Lacking confidence in the reader’s ability to draw conclusions from the information provided, Jenkins explicitly informs them exactly what conclusions they should make. Translation: he thinks the reader is a dolt. Strangely enough, I don’t particularly like it when my fiction insults me.
P. 65: “To Wil, events were now flashing by like a pudding-filled Lamborghini Gallardo that had been driving off the edge of a cliff. The whole thing was moving too fast, and while everything appeared to be headed directly toward a very damaging conclusion, he reasoned that the experience might at least be fun in the few moments it would take to arrive.” This simile makes no sense, and it’s not even interesting or entertaining nonsense. It’s just inane. I assume that pudding is supposed to connote fun here, but the author seems to have overlooked an obvious result of his hypothetical wacky scenario. Namely, it’s impossible to have fun in an out-of-control car, even if it is filled with dessert, for the simple reason that the car is out of control and will soon become a fiery explosion of death and dismemberment. I don’t know about you, but, if I were in this situation, I would be too busy screaming and flailing to enjoy any of the mousse slopping all over the passenger’s seat. In other words, a pudding-filled sports car en route to the bottom of a gorge is a mess, a terrifying mess…you know, kinda like this book.