I’m not sure about this book. It took me a long time to read (nearly six weeks) and I stopped mid-way and didn’t touch it for nearly three weeks, until finishing the last 150 pages in one night. In general, I’m not averse to unlikable protagonists, end of the world settings, or literary prose, but there were times with this book where I really felt myself questioning whether or not I do like those things, or if I just want to like those things so that I can claim to be a certain type of person who likes those things.
There are pages that skip along in great scenes fed by characters that are well explained and with action that makes sense, then there are long stretches where it all breaks down and everything comes to a halt while Vaye Watkins waxes eloquent on some emotional point a character is stuck in. Sometimes, she spends three pages beginning every sentence in the same declarative style such as “she knew if she went” or she spends a page listing mostly made up things, and everything becomes tedious and you want to skip it. A chapter will end with a great piece of action and then she’ll switch not only characters or location but onto a totally new place and thing that is never really picked up again, and do it in a new writing style. There are chapters written like interviews, and others that are like a little notebook with drawings (that one is actually a great interlude) and it can feel like she threw everything at this, hoping something would stick. When I think about the changes in writing style, I’m not sure what purpose they serve, other than to inform us that the characters survive and are maybe looking back on their lives through interview, or were caught and are being held culpable. There’s purpose in that, but I still wonder if it was the most effective way to move through the story because it breaks the tension that her distinct writing style sets. The ambition of the whole thing is unmistakable but it also really feels like a first novel because of that. I admire it, even if I did suffer through a lot of it. There’s something worthwhile about a flawed ambitious novel, and while it slowed down my book reading for my cannonball, I am glad I chose it for my cannonball, because if I hadn’t been doing this, I probably would have stopped half way in and never finished it. It’s not that the end feels particularly rewarding, or that it reveals anything profound, but I feel like this is a book that should be read through to the end even if you don’t like it. There’s value in what Vaye Watkins is trying to do that I can’t explain.
As for the subject matter, it’s about two deeply flawed narcissistic young people trying to survive the end times in California. They make mistakes, they try to do the right thing and end up doing the wrong thing, many times over, and they fail to understand their own motivations and desires. They’re basically very real, very flawed people. If you can put aside your own judgement of them and read them for what they are, it’s almost refreshing, because Vaye Watkins never concerns herself with the tropes of strong female characters. Our female lead is shitty, and her shittyness is defined and laid out for what it is, no apologies made. If you’re going to get hung up on Luz being an unlikable, weak female protagonist who lets men make most of her decisions, then this is probably something you should steer clear of. It’s a challenging book because it doesn’t do any of the things it’s supposed to do in this genre, or this day and age, and I think that’s ultimately a good thing. The plot doesn’t go where you think it should, if the plot can even be called that, and the prose simultaneously hampers and enhances the whole thing. It shouldn’t be read over many days, but probably a weekend where you can devote all your time to it and then mull it over.