Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Jeffrey Wilson - The Donors

In Jeffrey Wilson’s The Donors, we come to the hospital along with its abused main character. We soon grow to know not only the hospital’s staff but also the demonic Lizard Men that torture humanity’s villains. Wilson’s premise works, but his plot and structure are soon peppered with flaws. Still, his characters and writing had enough kinetic spark to keep me going.

Wilson's biggest hook is his skill with character. After being horribly burned by his mother’s abusive boyfriend, Nathan is admitted to the hospital by Dr. Jason Gelman and tended to by Nurse Jenny. Each, the reader soon learns, was abused as a child, and the two adults are drawn to Nathan and to each other by the memories of their own experience and their desire to help him through his. As the bonds between them deepen, they create for and among themselves the connections and loves that they failed to find in their families.

All of this is a bit oversimplified. In the first place, their utter lack of connections outside of the three of them is hard to swallow. For Jason, whose family is long gone and whose job kept him from close connections, it works to some extent. But, while convincing reasons are given for Jenny’s lack of familial closeness, statements like “Jason seemed the only reality she could be sure of right now” (p. 137) did less to make me feel her isolation than to wonder why she doesn’t have a single friend outside of her love interest. Things are even stranger for Nathan, because, while his mom’s boyfriend was a pile of shit in human form, his mother seems quite nice. The text often addresses this, with Jason repeatedly telling himself that the abuse wasn’t her fault. But she is nonetheless sidelined, present but emotionally ignored while the main characters grow closer.

As for that growing closer, it moves at a sprint, with characters who have kept others away for their whole lifetimes not only letting someone in within a hundred page’s time but also saying things like “I just have some stuff from my past” (p. 53) five minutes into the relationship, which is also known as precisely how people desperate to hide their pasts don’t behave. As for why they are together, we frequently get sentences about Jenny and Jason’s love like “She had no idea why on earth she felt that way” (p. 56), which any experienced fiction reader can tell you is the code for love by authorial fiat.

And yet none of that really matters, because the characters feel like real people, and they feel like they truly have been hurt, and they act like they truly are in love. Yeah, the pacing of it all is compressed into the timeframe of a fast paced novel. But that doesn't kill it. Though baldly expressed, Jason’s admission that “the more someone tried to get to know him, the more he tried to turn a conversation superficial” (p. 36) is only one of the ways in which Wilson captures the twin paradoxical and irresistible urges to pull someone closer and push them away. Moreover, the budding love between the three is genuinely touching and manages to feel like a less raw but still powerful version of Poppy Z. Brite’s frequent theme of misfits forming together to form their own family in opposition to the world that’s cast them out.

In terms of prose, both Wilson’s biggest strengths and biggest failings come from the childlike tone he uses for Nathan. Jason and Jenny speak in workable but not remarkable voices, but Nathan’s dialogue feels like an authentic blend of determined and immature. The kid’s frequent thoughts about the Power Ranges keep him feeling young, and a good number of his lines are full-on charming, my favorite of which comes as he ventures into the metaphysical and hellish lair of his foes:   “This sucks,” he said loudly as he continued on into the slowly brightening passage. He felt he had earned the right to use big kid words today (p. 224). Unfortunately, Nathan’s voice has a tendency to bleed into the rest of the narration, and, coming from an adult’s mouth, his lines are less cute than cringe worthy, the worst of which comes when one of the so-called Lizard Men distinguishes between two types of horrific torture by saying that It was the difference between eating a milkshake through a straw or with a spoon (p. 201). Some phrases also have a tendency to leap between perspectives, like how everyone starts saying that dreams were just like that (p. 37), a phrase that not only makes no sense to me (dreams are just like what?) but that is inexplicably thought by everyone in the hospital without any of them ever actually saying it out loud.

By this point, though, you probably have more pressing questions than what dreams are like. Where, you are no doubt thinking to yourselves, is the horror in this horror novel? Why haven’t you discussed that yet? In answer to your question, hypothetical reader, I delayed discussing the Lizard Men till after I finished talking about the characters because, when the Lizard Men work, it’s entirely because the characters’ strength makes us accept their promise, and, when the focus shifts entirely onto them at the book’s close, it becomes disappointingly clear that our demonic foe of the hour could have been better thought out.

The Lizard Men get humans to go along with them by promising retribution to the scum of the world, and then, with the aid of medical personnel, they surgically torture the intestines out of their victims. But it’s all a fuzzy mess. The Lizard Men have their own cave dimension, where they go to torture their victims, where they bring Jenny, and it can only be reached when sleeping. But then it turns out that all the torturing was actually (maybe?) in an operating room in the hospital that, somehow, just went unnoticed by the whole staff. Only, Jenny never went to the operating room, and the doctors that helped out never went to the cave. And do the demons supernaturally abduct their victims, or do they fake their victims’ death using anesthetics? If the latter, how are they really supernatural? Why do the cops listen to them? Instead of answer any of these (or a dozen other) questions, the finale just shows them being inexplicably destroyed by Nathan’s utterly unexplained Chosen Oneness.

It’s also disturbing in all the wrong ways that the male doctors that are brought into this help the demons by being doctors, while Jenny, though theoretically brought along for her nursing abilities, just spends her time “writhing” (p. 120) and “naked” (p. 81), while we hear about how “her creamy skin glistened with a film of sweat that made her young and athletic build more erotic” (pp. 81-82). It’s ever so nice to see a female character amounting to nothing more than an unconscious but sexy body for the male heroes to save! While we are on the same subject, I can’t say that I was a fan of how our one and only black character is a dumbass thug that can’t understand the big words the doctors’ use, gets called the n-word (p. 152), and refers to other black people as “brothers” (p. 157).

The Lizard Man plot does bring up some interesting thematic questions, but Wilson evolves them just far enough that they are dangling and questionable but utterly unresolved. Jason knows that Nathan’s abuser will never get what he deserves and wonders how to tell a kid that the world sucked, that people like Steve felt nothing but anger and hate? How did you tell him that the man wouldn’t pay at all for the pain he had brought this brave boy? (p. 26) Into that picture come the Lizard Men, and, despite the horror of the wide-awake, pain-focused surgeries they perform, it’s hard not to see their torture of bastards like Steve as their just deserts. Before long, Wilson complicates this. The Lizard Men don’t care about the suffering that people like Steve cause, they just take advantage of the excuse it gives them to cause pain. Then we find out that they will manufacture pain to give themselves an excuse to take advantage of it. If you’ll forgive my venturing into spoilers for a moment (and feel free to skip to the next paragraph if you are), we need to talk about how Jenny never actually was abused. It was a lie told by the Lizard Men, one planted in her head to get her to help them out.

There, Wilson ventures deep into dangerous but interesting territory. He seems poised to explore our need for revenge and how just it really is, but he also seems perilously close to calling all victimization a fabricated excuse for lashing out. In the end, Wilson goes to neither extreme. In fact, he doesn’t really go anywhere. From the revelation about Jenny to the end, the book’s morality is put on hold for our (extremely disappointing) showdown with the lizard folk, and not another word is heard about the justifications our ramifications of our actions until, with their adventure concluded, Jason congratulates himself on learning a lot about good and evil (p. 245). But that feels less like what happened than what should have happened, with the book’s actual thematic conclusions really seeming to be more along the lines of “Lizard Men are bad,” without it ever quite bringing itself to tread near the question of where specifically the dividing lines are that make them so and how those apply to those of us without access to strange cave dimensions.

My reading of it finished and my reviewing of it nearly done, I still don’t feel a hundred percent sure of how to characterize The Donors. It’s a problematic novel that doesn’t go much of anywhere thematically and bungles the plot. Still, the characters are filled with spark, and it’s an enjoyable read for most of its length for exactly that reason. One hopes that, in his other works, Wilson is able to better marry his skills with character to the rest of the writing craft.

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