Thursday, February 12, 2009

Review - Koko

by Peter Straub
1989 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

Another day another pretty good novel from World Fantasy Awards... Hold on a moment... Koko wasn't good at all! After a few weeks of books that ranged from "entertainingly good" to "utterly brilliant" it was a shock to run into a book that wasn't good.

At the dedication of the Vietnam War memorial a group of army buddies meet for the first time in years. A pair of killings in south east Asia share some common elements that make them think that someone they knew during the war is responsible. For their own reasons they choose to go after him themselves and bring him home.

I need to say this first: Koko is not a fantasy novel. If I were polite and extended the definition as far as possible, took the prose literally in one or two places where from context it clearly not intended to be, and squinted really hard you might be able to justify it. This is a thriller, a war novel, and a mystery in both content and style. It might contain one ghost for a single page who does nothing for the story or plot assuming that you accept that a grieving father standing at his son's grave after attending a funeral for another child who died in the exact same way seeing someone who he takes for his son grown up isn't just a literary device.

Still, Koko won the World Fantasy Award and I judge books on their own merits, not on how they fit into the context of the award. On those merits Koko fails badly.

Think of every Vietnam cliche you can think of it turns up in Koko. An astoundingly incompetant commanding officer? Naturally there's one that's murderously incompetant. Involved in a covered-up massacre of civilians? Of course they were. An insane slaughter loving soldier? You have to have one of those. The good characters treat the people of Vietnam with respect while the evil ones are all racists who want to kill all of them? Well how else would you be able to tell that things were morally ambiguous?

That segues nicely into the characters and just how poorly they're defined. There's the Lieutenant: in Vietnam he was a short sighted, arrogant, incompetent, racist, self centered loony. Afterward he was a short sighted, arrogant, incompetent, racist, self centered loony. As his character developers he remains a short sighted, arrogant, incompetent, racist, self centered loony. He never changes or develops, he's a joke of a character from the beginning and remains so until the end. The protagonist is a doctor who became a pediatrician because he killed a child. That's the entire depth of his characterization and it sums up Straub's treatment of all of the characters. They're painted in obvious broad strokes, like broad cartoon outlines of real people.

Another issue is the length of the novel: Koko is a 200 hundred page novel in a 600 page binding. Straub pads the novel to the extreme with digressions that do not add to the plot, atmosphere, or characterization. They just spin their wheels letting us know in excruciating detail things like a meeting where the protagonists learn nothing new. Oddly enough the only place where more detail was needed was the Vietnam backstory. Straub spends perhaps forty pages on that backstory giving the reader the barest glimpse of their experiences.

That introduces a second pacing problem with the novel: the mystery of "Koko"'s identity. Thanks to Straub going to the killer's point of view a few times the reader is often several hundred pages ahead of the characters in working out the mystery. While the revelations in unravelling the mystery mean something to the characters they have no weight for the reader because the reader isn't given enough view of the characters to develop any kind of perspective on them. When the suspects have two or three pages of backstory and a two line mention every sixty or seventy pages it's hard to get a grip on why finding some detail out about them later is "shocking".

I can't recommend Koko at all. It a coat tail riding book born out of the re-examination of the Vietnam war that was occurring at the time of its publication (see The Healer's War for another one of those) but it's a faded copy. There are better war memoirs out there if you want that and the thriller portion of Koko isn't any better. It's a bloated, cliche driven mess; there are better ways to spend your time.