William Calabrese reviews Jagged Glass Ballet
Jagged Glass Ballet, by Brendan Detzner, begins when a young man wakes in a strange, bare room. He is lying on a thin mattress on the floor. He is fourteen years old, but has no recollection of his past life. Before he can do much more than get up from the mattress, a furious gunfight breaks out in the hallway outside his room. Within moments, four dead bodies, dressed in black bodysuits, are lying on the floor in front of him. This is the first of many encounters with the "blacksuits", a seemingly endless army of motorcycle-helmeted, laser-sighted gun toting villains who show up at inconvenient times to spray live ammunition in all directions. They show up often. There is more gunfire in Jagged Glass Ballet than in the average Bruce Willis movie.
When the young man finally gets out from under the gun, so to speak, the world he finds himself in is a surreal one, full of puzzles and contradictions. This world is completely contained within a tower- like structure called 'the labyrinth'. The boy falls in with a group of people his own age: Scraps (a girl), Simon (another girl), Mike, Robert Y. Frost, and Crazy (a strange dude who juggles beanbags most of the time -when he isn't trying to find out how many of them he can stuff in his mouth). Not being able to remember his own name, the young man invents a new one -Dragon Plastic. With his new friends, Dragon goes about in the labyrinth, listening to music, dancing. playing tennis and hockey, and generally hanging out. Each inhabitant of the labyrinth must spend a part of each day engaged in some sort of creative work; painting, composing or playing music, doing sculpture, etc. At the end of each day, the results of this labor are exchanged for food. Nobody knows where the paintings, sculptures, etc. go after they are turned in. There are other complications and mysteries as well, among them a cold-blooded fellow named Toothpick, who kills with wooden needles, and a piano-playing recluse/goddess named Oracle, who is in charge of the labyrinth, but apparently is a prisoner of it as well. Much of the latter part of the book involves the efforts of Dragon and Toothpick to free Oracle. It is all very deep and dark and is obviously an allegory of some sort, although I soon found myself losing interest in finding the meaning. There are just too many obstacles to climb over on the way.
The primary obstacle here is some of the things the author does and some of the things he fails to do. To make a fantasy like this work requires considerable skill, attention to detail, and the application of certain well-known techniques that can be used to lull the reader into suspending his natural disbelief mechanisms. The proper use of these techniques help to make the implausible more plausible, or at least neutralized it so that it does not become an obstacle to enjoyment of the story. Unfortunately, the author either is unaware of these techniques or has chosen not to use them.
One prerequisite in a story of this type is a protagonist with characteristics, motivations, and frailties that the reader can relate to, thus making concern about the character's fate override the distraction of fantastic story elements and plot quirks. Alas, Dragon Plastic's surname is well chosen. He is a plastic sort of fellow -a two-dimensional figure that we never really get to know or care about. He spends a lot of his time running through ventilation tunnels, shooting and stabbing blacksuits with no more emotion or remorse than he would exhibit while zapping space invaders on a computer screen. Several times, he punches other characters in the face without any warning or any apparent motivation. We wonder how Dragon got this damned vicious in only fourteen years, but are never told. It isn't long before we begin to dislike him very much. The other characters are even flatter than Dragon and no more appealing. Except for a few props, Crazy's beanbags and Toothpick's wooden skewers, none of them have much in the way of identifying characteristics or redeeming qualities and they all pretty much talk in the same monotonous, expletive-laden voice.
If you can't like the hero, it helps if you can hate the villain enough to want to see him get his in the end. The arch villain of this book is never even seen. He is just an off-stage voice that screams at the other characters in CAPITAL LETTERS. It is hard to get really POed at an off-stage voice. It is also hard not to get annoyed at the over-use of capital letters.
Once the reader is into the story and has accepted the fantasy world in which it takes place, language should not be a distraction. That is to say, each word and phrase should blend seamlessly into the whole and not call undue attention to itself. After all, these words are there only because they serve the telling of the story in some way; creating atmosphere, delineating character, developing the plot. The last thing we want is to startle the reader with words and phrases whose meaning is unclear, inappropriate, or downright puzzling. If you make the reader shake his head in bewilderment too often, it won't be long until you lose him entirely. A number of Mr. Detzner's choices in descriptive words and phrases vary from awkward to downright strange. The following are some examples:
The second sentence of the book begins, "He was in a small, cozy little room". Beside the fact that 'small' and 'little' are redundant, the word 'cozy' in no way describes the room, which is in fact stark and cheerless. Immediately, the reader begins to wonder whether he can trust this narrator or not. A couple of paragraphs later, a series of gunshots is described as 'a parade of loud noises'. Further on, a room is 'dimly lit by an army of fluorescent bulbs'. Later, 'A rush of footsteps poured out of the hall.' Later, a seemingly impossible action takes place when: "Dragon smoothly and gently flipped Mike over his shoulder and down onto the ground. The sound of the impact resonated throughout the entire chamber." Then there is this incomprehensible sentence: "Mike whispered in his ear the same way he might start up a chainsaw." There are numerous other phrases and sentences like this in the book. None of them is of much consequence taken by itself, but the combined weight of them make an impression negative enough to cause the puzzled reader to begin to look for something else to read.
Strange phrases are one distraction for the reader, inconsistencies in story logistics is another. There is a ventilator grill in Dragon's room that keeps getting unscrewed, pried off, ripped off, etc. until we are unsure whether it was on or off in the previous scene or perhaps had been destroyed altogether. Forced into finding a hiding place for his gun, Dragon chooses the improbable and time-consuming alternative of whittling a hole in the floor with a pocket knife! Then there are the numerous gunshot wounds that Dragon gathers in his travels. Even when shot in the chest, he keeps running like a manic army ant. Even when told that a magic powder cured the wounds, we don't buy the idea for a moment.
It would help some if the author knew how to build and maintain suspense. It would keep us interested. But all we have in the way of possible suspense builders are flashback/dream scenes that are too numerous and two similar to be effective. There is some action in Jagged Glass Ballet, sporadic and unfocused violence for the most part, but very little suspense. We are not entertained or enlightened. We are just glad it is over.
All of this is unfortunate. Mr. Detzner has imagination and talent and there is a good concept behind Jagged Glass Ballet. It is just that this book is carelessly written, with too little attention to detail along the way. It needs a lot of work to make it into a rewarding reading experience. Perhaps the author should have allowed himself the luxury of two or three more revisions -or the services of an unbiased reader. That might have helped.
Jagged Glass Ballet is like a shotgun marriage between Franz Kafka and Marvel Comics. The union was not made in heaven.
Read Excerpts from Jagged Glass Ballet
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