A couple of anecdotes:
A little bit ago, I was wasting time watching YouTube, which is something I do a little too much of, if I am being honest. There was a video on the movie “Incident in a Ghostland” which I saw some length of time ago, and decided to watch. The youtuber appeared, and after a brief introduction, a title card appeared on screen which read “I am not a critic.” He then reviewed the film.
A number of years ago, I saw the film “Signs”. My friend saw it as well, and I asked him what he thought. He said “If it’s a movie about someone losing their faith, and coming to terms with that, it’s a good movie. Unfortunately, I think it’s just about aliens.”
I have mentioned before that I am trying to figure out what this blog is. “It’s about things I read” is the closest approximation I have. Sometimes, I am a critic. Sometimes, I am linking things to other things, and occasionally, reporting on things in progress. The blog has evolved in its short lifespan, with me now having settled into a routine of writing one ‘short’ and one ‘long’ entry per week, with the short entry typically being about in progress reading or things I have read that I am not giving a full writeup of, and the long entry being… criticism. I struggle with that, as I tend to think of criticism as a ‘should you buy/read’ this sort of equation, but it does not have to be, and in fact, in its more interesting form is not.
Especially when I’m considering something like Paul Tremblay’s newest work “The Pallbearer’s Club”. I have read and enjoyed his other works, and, like a lot of people, was interested in his newest one. I pre-ordered it on Kindle, and the Kindle edition was weirdly delayed, then apparently formatted incorrectly, etc so I didn’t get to leap on it the day it was published, which is fine, as, like a lot of book nerds, I have a ferocious backlog. Now that I’ve read it, I am delightfully confused by it. Is it about vampires?
The main character, “Art Barbara” who is and is not Paul Tremblay, relates stories from a few key points in his life: his late teens, his mid thirties, and his late forties. “Art” and I have a few things in common: we’re huge music nerds, both grew up in a middle class home, and fell in love with punk rock while growing up in suburban New England. Tremblay names each chapter after a Hüsker Dü song, and Art occasionally lapses into streams of band references. He also possesses a great degree of self loathing, some of it based on external factors (he has scoliosis and possibly Marfan syndrome), but a lot of it is internal.
During his high school years, he forms “The Pallbearer’s Club” in an attempt to get some extra curricular activity in place for his college applications. It’s an idea he stole from a news article; he and the other members of the club attend funerals and ‘bear pall’ for homeless people, or people who have no or very limited mourners. Initially joined by a couple of people from school, someone named “Mercy” arrives. She is the novel’s second voice; adding notes and afterwards to a number of the chapters, her text appears handwritten. She befriends Art, offers him advice and council, helps him with a history paper, and so on.
And here’s where things get complicated. Mercy may or may not be a vampire. If she is, she’s a sort of psychic vampire; not an old fashioned bloodsucker. Like Art, Mercy is not her actual name, but one that is given to her by the author of this manuscript, which is presented as a kind of found object. Mercy is the final editor of it. She is named after an actual historical figure, someone caught up in the New England Vampire panic. Tremblay draws on the historical panic for his Vampire lore— no crosses and garlic and blood, but energy draining that leads to sickness and occasionally transformation into a vampire. And it’s all very, very ambiguous. I’ll revisit that in a bit.
It’s Mercy who teaches Art about punk rock, attempts to instill some confidence in him, and becomes his friend. And the book is centered around her; the friendship she has with Art ebbs and flows, they gain and lose touch, but each of the three ‘parts’ of the book (which is not formally divided) revolve around her in some way.
Here’s the thing: in some ways, this book is custom made for someone like me. I mentioned that Art and I have similar backgrounds, and the kind of nostalgia this book has, which remembers some things fondly, but also remembers that being a teenager fucking sucks, is right up my alley. As he gets older our paths diverge, and the notion that Mercy is a vampire becomes even hazier: Art likely is a drug abuser and alcoholic, stuck in a series of low-wage jobs and playing in bands in “the Providence scene”. A lot of the supernatural elements can equally be attributed to him being fucked up. Eventually, this life catches up to him, and he moves home; and starts a one man band also named “The Pallbearer’s Club”– the book actually contains guitar tab for one of his songs.
And then, his mother dies. Mercy is given a fairly lengthy chapter in which she again casts doubt on her nature, and also on the nature of the vampires in the book; and asks that her notes be included if the book is published. And at this point, I didn’t entirely know what I thought: was I swept up with that nostalgia? Were my own memories of odd friendships and late 80s-early 90s punk casting a sort of glow over the proceedings? So I did something I almost never do while reading a book : I watched some youtube videos about it.
I’ve mentioned this before, but originally this blog was going to be a youtube channel, but ultimately I didn’t want to film and edit as well as write, so that idea was abandoned. I had wanted to do a better version of what I saw in ‘booktube’.
For a variety of reasons, I dislike ‘booktube’, but to sum them up: 1) It’s frequently unscripted, leading to rambling discussions, 2) It’s almost always filmed in front of a set of bookshelves with a bad microphone, forgetting that YouTube is a visual medium, 3) they usually discuss things I’m not interested in. However, there were a number of reviews of “The Pallbearer’s Club”. Let me briefly touch on three of them:
The first person seemed to largely review horror books. They sat in front of a lot of books with a very loud air conditioner running, and complained that the book was not what they expected, and accused it of not having a plot. They then described a plot they wanted the book to have. Also, they couldn’t figure out the ages of the protagonists, despite there literally being dates in the book. It’s the sort of annoying lack of attention to detail that grates. It’s right there, in the text, without any need to infer anything.
The second was a strange kind of vlog; this person even filmed themselves reading (as in, sitting with a pair of headphones, flipping pages in the book), in one of the strangest things I have seen in a while on youtube. They then talked about their progress, eventually finishing after digressing on and off about family issues. Then said they didn’t like to ‘give things a bad review’ which was followed immediately by “I hated it”. They also complained about the lack of plot.
The third was more of a rant; the person sat in front of something other than bookshelves, which was refreshing. They then complained about the deceptive nature of the book’s back jacket, which is an act somewhere parallel to believing an armed forces recruiter. They say the book “is about nothing” and again “has no plot”.
All of them are wrong: the book has a plot. Most books do. They can be thin on the ground, but it’s exceptionally rare that a book has no plot at all. This book has a recountable plot; I’ve spent six hundred words or so doing so. You may not care for the ambiguities, and you may not want the story you’re given, but there’s a story, and it has a direction. It was maddening, and I as I finished the last third of the book, I grew even more annoyed at them for not, like, getting it. And the sort of extemporaneous speaking being engaged in makes for lousy criticism: it lends itself to coming across as thoughtless.
And then I finished the book. I won’t recount the remainder of plot here, not to avoid spoilers, but because I think, as a critic, I don’t see the point in doing so. To get all functional critic about it, I think it’s a book worth reading, particularly for a horror fan looking for something a little different– but be warned, it’s more of a status novel than a contract one; you’re going to have to do some work.
Sure; not every book is for every person, but if you’re going to offer up yourself as a critic, it’s helpful if you come to a basic understanding of the text you’re critiquing; making broad accusations that are just demonstrably untrue is… bad criticism. However, even the bad criticism can have its place, in its own way– once I saw what the complaints were, I was certain about what I felt. So, in that sense, it worked. And it taught me that whatever my protests to the contrary, I’m a critic. I’ll just call myself one going forward.
As a critic, I have this last thought. If “The Pallbearer’s Club” is a book about growing up, battling personal demons, and the human condition, attempting to understand how we come to grips with our mortality, facing middle age, and even about using drugs and alcohol to escape them, it’s a good book. If it’s about vampires, it’s not. I don’t think it’s about vampires.