Take One With You is a concept that immediately intrigued me. To read the blurb, I get the impression that a very interesting set of ethical dilemnas are going to be presented.
The basic premise here is this: there are people in the world who are suicidal. There are also people in the world who are evil. The suicidal people, as well as people who simply like to stir up trouble, have started a movement to convince people that, if you’re going to kill yourself anyways, you should do it in a way that also kills someone evil. You should take one with you, or TOWY as the book calls it.
In starting this movement, of course, our main characters basically become murderers on the same level as Hitler. Millions die as the result of the TOWY fad. They seem pretty proud of it.
The book opens with a gruesome scene of a TOWY suicide. There’s a really nasty rapist who seems incapable of thinking about anything but rape. Now, I’ve met a lot of rapists in my time, and none of them were like this, so there was something of a blow to my suspension of disbelied. Still, Anderson makes it very clear that this is a person of no redeeming quality. Melissa, the sister of one of his victims, then seduces this guy (who seems to be dealing with the problem of how he is going to go about raping someone who appears to be consensual) into taking her out on a motorbike at a hundred miles an hour. Then she tips the bike, and we get a really gruesome portrayal of the death of Mr. Rape and Melissa.
The writing here is well done. If you’re into the snuff-film style of writing, then you will certainly enjoy the gory detail. Oak Anderson paints his scene well, with a level of detail that I have to appreciate even while it nauseates me.
Ok, so, we have this great opening scene. It’s a bit of an in medeas res, a scene with no major characters in it (because they’re both dead at the end), but a scene that snaps us into the gory results of what we’re going to be talking about. It is at this point that Oak Anderson takes us back in time, over three years, to the beginnings of the TOWY movement. Here we meet our protagonists, Charlie and Sarah. Then Anderson displays some fundamental novel-writing issues that essentially end one’s ability to effectively track the plot.
After the first scene, chronology goes out the window completely. That three-year move back in time is just the first in a series of chronological bounces the author makes. It’s not just that his chapter headings spell out the eventual result of the TOWY movement as soon as we start reading them, but that he is constantly telling us what is going to happen. This is a trick I see short-story writers using all the time - the chronology bounce. In a short story, it’s used to keep the reader guessing and provide a feeling of disorientation that, for the length of a short story, can be interesting.
For the length of a novel, it’s not so much interesting as it is a combination of confusing and spoiler-y. The end result is this: I know what major events are going to take place in the book before they take place, because Anderson is constantly telling me they’re going to take place before they do. Guess how much suspense and intrigue that lands me with when the things actually happen? If you guessed any positive number, you are incorrect.
So, chronology is a problem. Now let’s talk perspective. Anderson’s perspective whips between character and character in the space of a paragraph. It’s disorienting as well, and it makes it almost impossible to follow the story. This story is written from the perspective of everyone, and that’s a significant problem for me as well. It’s really hard for me to form an emotional connection to these characters when I’m constantly jolted out of their head and into someone else’s. I’m not saying it can’t be done - it clearly can. But it’s a real bitch to pull off, and I see this technique fail more times than I see it succeed. Omniscient perspective is the souffle of writing. Extraordinarily difficult to pull off, decent-tasting when done correctly. And you could have easily made quiche instead.
The bones of this story are good. It’s an intriguing premise, and frighteningly possible-feeling. Anderson has built a terrifying beast, and I’m actually kind of glad his book is so badly written, because I would be worried about life imitating art if this thing got popular. The idea behind TOWY is at once terrifying and perfectly logical, and I love Anderson for trying to explore it. If he took this thing to a story editor for a couple of polishes, fixed his perspective issues and then ironed out his chronology, it would be amazing. As it is, the characters become flat and uninteresting.
In short, I give Anderson points for having a good story, but I take them away for not being able to effectively tell it. Thus, I end up with: