Wednesday, October 07, 2009

New Last Week: John Dies at the End by David Wong

At a time when many writers are pushing at the edges of the novel, trying to redefine what the word means and what it is, David Wong sort of does. This comes in part from the publication history of his first novel, John Dies at the End (St. Martin’s Press/Thomas Dunne), one of those weird Internet success stories you hear about. In fact, this might be one of the best yet.

John Dies at the End started out as a Web serial in 2004. The story appeared in book form for the first time in 2007, as a paperback from “Horror and Apocalyptic Book Publisher” Permuted Press, an independent publisher whose area of specialization you can pretty well guess at. John Dies at the End would have fit right in with their line.

The action in John Dies at the End all centers around soy sauce, a mysterious and fairly unstable drug that alters not only the mind, it seems to have an effect on time and eventually opens a portal to a pretty hell-like place. After you take it, Wong tells us, “You might be able to read minds, make time stop, cook pasta that’s exactly right every time. And you can see the shadowy things that share this world, the ones who are always present and always hidden.”

The story is a first person narrative from the viewpoint of the author who actually isn’t David Wong, but says he is throughout the novel. In real life (and it’s not even a secret) he is National Lampoon contributor and editor-in chief Jason Pargin. That CV might make you think that John Dies at the End is hilariously funny. And sometimes it is. But sometimes it’s deeply disturbing and even horrifying. And then it’s funny again. In between there are some starkly -- and even surprisingly -- human moments. And all of that sounds like too much for one little debut novel to hold up under, but wait: this is a book that reportedly had over 70,000 downloads when it was free on the Internet. Since it was free, you might think “big deal,” but think again: try to give away 70,000 of anything on the Internet. I promise: it won’t be as easy as it sounds.

And so, is John Dies at the End high art? Not exactly. Or maybe, not even. But it’s interesting, compelling, engaging, arresting and -- yes -- sometimes even horrifying. And when it’s not being any of those things, it’s funny. Very, very funny. Next stop for David Wong (or maybe he’ll be back to being Jason Pargin by then), who knows? But, whatever it is, I feel very confident that a lot of people are already waiting to see what he dreams up next.

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