Friday, January 31, 2014

Up and Down by Terry Fallis

The premise of this novel actually holds quite a lot of possibilities. Our protagonist, David, leaves the government life in Ottawa to be with his dying mother in Toronto, and takes a job at a PR firm. The client is NASA, and David masterminds a Citizen Astronaut contest to put two ordinary people - an American and a Canadian - into space. I can't tell you much more without a lot of spoilers, but I just want to illustrate the fact that this could have been a pretty great (and funny) book.

I feel like there's some kind of writing that Terry Fallis is good at (I've heard that his book The Best Laid Plans is pretty excellent), but this isn't it. There were funny parts - including some well set up brick jokes - but the book (and particularly the first 100 pages) is so bogged down in boring detail. Not the kind of detail that novelists sometimes get lost in, like a description of a tree or something - this was bureaucratic detail, the exact order of presentations in a pitch meeting, or the slide-by-slide description of a PowerPoint. Fallis writes well but needed a better editor, I think.

I don't think the editor can be entirely blamed, however, because even if the minutae of office life was scrapped, the book was sorely lacking in character development or even description outside of David. His two closest colleagues, Diane and Amanda, boast the defining character traits of, respectively, a penchant for wacky glasses, and being kind of a bitch but then warming up to David. That's it. I couldn't tell you any more about either of those characters. His sister is even worse; she exists to take care of his mother, the flattest one of the bunch, whose existence seems to boil down to distributing maudlin catch phrases while having cancer.

Even Landon, who is probably intended to be the heart of the story, is really too good to be true. She at least has some dimension, but as a character she doesn't really grow or learn anything. She's kind of a wisdom-dispensing robot. I could have accepted her in a novel filled with more fleshed out characters, but here she is simply another person orbiting around David.

In fairness I enjoyed the story, I thought it was imaginative and fun. There's not much of Toronto in here, although it does play up the Canada/America divide a lot, with mixed success (are we still making jokes about this?). I wish I had more positive things to say, but as someone who loves books largely based on my emotional attachment to them, I have a hard time when there's no fully-drawn characters I can love. So it was really distracting to me. I am not above trying one of his other books but unfortunately I can't recommend this one.

Two CN Towers out of five.

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