BOOK REVIEW: What the Hell Did I Just Read by David Wong

What the Hell Did I Just Read (John Dies at the End, #3)What the Hell Did I Just Read by David Wong
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is the third installment in a trilogy that began with “John Dies at the End.” The series takes place in an undisclosed and rundown Midwestern town that is prone to various catastrophic supernatural shenanigans. It’s a humor-horror cross-genre work that is heavier on the former than the latter by virtue of the fact that the tone is consistently lightened by the duo of doofuses’ jokes and unreliable narration – often in the face of apparently calamitous events.

In the first book, the narrator, David, and the titular character, John, consume a drug (street-named “Soy Sauce”) that gives them the ability to see supernatural phenomena to which the general citizenry are blind. This book continues with that idea, but — given their experience with supernatural happenings, limited as it may be – they’ve become paranormal investigators of sorts (usually unpaid and sometimes without anyone asking for their services.) Also, Amy becomes not only a more firmly established love interest to David, but also a full-fledged member of the team – albeit the one that plays straight-[wo]man to the buffoonery of the other two.

The central event in this story is a child abduction that turns into a chain of abductions, but soon it becomes in doubt whether the children ever existed in the first place – or whether they are mass delusions implanted by a monstrous source. The book unfolds as the story of the trio trying to find the “children,” to find out what their true nature is, and then to figure out what to do about them. The villain’s henchman is capable of shape-shifting and takes several forms throughout the book – including that of David, thus casting suspicion upon him.

The author takes an interesting approach to perspective. The perspective shifts between David, John, and Amy, but only the David parts are written in first person (John and Amy are allotted sections from their perspective, but they are written in third-person limited perspective.) There are section headings to clarify whose perspective is being used and so it’s not hard to follow (even context would provide a great clue.) The shifting perspectives serves three purposes. First, one can see points in time during which David is not present, allowing the team to divide and conquer and for humorous confusion to be exploited. Second, it allows one to see the difference between the various accounts of the same event, which is helpful in building confidence about what actually happened — given the unreliable narration. Third, it allows for unreliable narration to be used for comedic effect. John, in particular, is famous for being especially unreliable among the unreliable narrators, though most of his embellishment is along sexual lines. [Amy is the most reliable in that she isn’t prone to flights of fancy. However, she has no ability to see through the shapeshifters and implanted hallucinations, and so she might – in fact — be the least reliable.]

There is not a strong and satisfying conclusion to the story. In part, this is because it’s not entirely clear what really transpired. We know at the end that there is another version of events out there, an account written by a scholar of the paranormal who is a secondary character in the latter half of the book. However, it also seems that the author tries to end one the lesson that sometimes the best thing to do is to wait and see, and not create problems by one’s need to be active. That is a fine lesson, but it doesn’t make for a satisfying conclusion to the story. There is also a muddled motivation of the “missing children.” I don’t think this lack of a definitive ending is about setting up a fourth entry in the series because the author states only vague intentions to (possibly) continue the series at some undefined point in the future. I also don’t think it’s a matter of having painted himself into a corner, but it maybe that he’s trying to say something about what really happened that I didn’t actually get. That’s a risk with so much going on in a multi-perspective, unreliably-narrated book.

There is a humorous attempt to engage with the challenge of mental illness, with John and Amy encouraging David to get help toward the end of the book. [This is also addressed in the epilogue.]

This is certainly a fun read. It’s humorous throughout. The story isn’t the strongest (or perhaps isn’t the clearest.) If you’ve read the other books, or at least the first one, and enjoyed it, I’d recommend you give this one a look.

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Book Review: JOHN DIES AT THE END by David Wong

John Dies at the End (John Dies at the End, #1)John Dies at the End by David Wong

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If the movie Alien was “Jaws in space,” then John Dies at the End is “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure in the Nether World.” Except that, unlike Bill and Ted’s, Wong’s book is hilarious.

The gist of this book is that two likable anti-heroes ingest a drug, “soy sauce,” that gives them the ability to pass into an alternate universe. They’re inexorably drawn down the rabbit hole (so to speak, there is no actual rabbit hole in this book.) What they find is not what they expected. It’s not what anyone expected, because it’s so mind-boggling ridiculous and richly complex.

The title character, John, oddly enough is not the main character. The author, David Wong, uses a self-named protagonist as narrator and lead. The book unfolds as Wong (the character, not the author) tells a skeptical journalist about the strange goings-on in his small, Midwestern hometown.

We see John mostly through the lens of the narrating Wong. We know that John is a storyteller. Which may sound a lot like “liar,” but that’s not the case. Have you ever known a person who would never deceive you for personal gain, but will never fail to engage in hyperbole to make a story funnier or more interesting? That is John. He has one of my favorite lines of the book:

“We’re talking about a tentacled flying lamp fucker, Dave. What are you prepared to call unlikely?”

Despite the fact that John is a booze-hound and exaggerator, he remains an endearing character. As Wong gets to know Amy, a classmate who lost her hand after they knew each other in school, we get an insightful testimonial about John:

“Let me tell you something about John. The reason I was surprised by your hand was because John never once described you as, ‘the girl with the missing hand.’”

As for Wong’s character, he is hapless but hilarious. When he gets to know Amy, he is shocked to find that she’s not retarded or crazy. They had vaguely known each other from a “Special Needs” school, but it never occurs to him that she might be at least as sane as he.

The book is a pan-genre mélange. While it’s mostly a combination of horror and humor, there are points at which it feels like action/adventure and towards the end it seems largely like sci-fi. Horror and humor are not easily mixed, but this book does it about as well as one can imagine it being done. John Dies at the End is campy, of that there can be no doubt, but Wong writes descriptions of creatures and murderous events in a way that offers grim clarity. As a lover of humor more than horror, I was obviously not put off by this dark comedy.

Throughout the book, one suspects that the whole surreal bag of events is just a bad hallucinogenic trip, and that the “soy sauce” is just LSD on steroids. Happily this is not the case… or is it?

Don’t worry; John dying is not the intriguing twist at the end of this book. There are a couple such twists though.

If the movie that comes out today (January 25, 2013) is not awesome, it’s not Wong’s fault. The trailer shows us the quirky horror, but not the humor of the book. Much of the humor is in the language – i.e. the word choice. Some of that will likely come out in dialogue and narration, but who knows how much.
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