Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What's it all about?

I wonder how hard it is for authors to let go of a character they created and loved. Is a situation like that as much a generator of sequels as publishers and authors hanging on to a good thing financially? I ask this because I think Janet Tashjian (hooray for audiobooks, it's pronounced taz-zhin) needs to separate from her delightful creation, Josh 'Larry' Swenson. Her most recent outing, Larry and the Meaning of Life just didn't cut it for me.

I loved Josh in his first two stories -- when I started The Gospel According to Larry by reading the preface where Josh hands Janet his manuscript, just for a few moments, I believed it was true. I just finished Vote for Larry (because you know that's what I need to do), and -- even though it was written during the 2004 election -- it seemed utterly connected to the election just concluded. But this installment, where Larry is searching for personal meaning by hanging out with a completely creepy guru at Walden Pond just gave me the icks. And, it's "surprise" ending just felt more icky to me.

A brief synopsis: After winning nearly a third of the presidential vote in Vote for Larry, Josh heads off on an eight-month search for his former girlfriend, Janine. Janine disappeared when Josh accused her of colluding with his worst enemy -- known as betagold -- to scuttle his campaign. He didn't find her, and is now camped out in his stepfather's TV room with little will to turn off the documentaries. But he knows he needs to do something, so he heads off to Walden Pond for a little enlightenment. There he meets Gus, and -- after an all-too brief evaluation -- decides that he will join Gus's small group of seekers, Janine among them. Along the way, Josh ends up in trouble with the police and FBI, donating a kidney to a stranger, and perhaps finding his biological father.

I didn't like this because Josh seemed to have lost all his Larry-ness. For all of Josh's navel-gazing, Larry was always about questioning the world around him, and in the Meaning of Life, he seems to have uncharacteristically fallen for Gus and his obviously dicey philosophy early on. "What have you done with Josh?" I would periodically ask the air while I was listening. The whole kidney-donation thing really bugged me, as did the demise of Janine's best friend. I hope this isn't a spoiler, but perhaps I was as dense as Josh?

On the other hand, I enjoyed the audiobook. The author's preface and epilogue are read in dialogue with the reader, Matt Green, and Tashjian (or who I assume is Tashjian, since she is never introduced). Tashjian reads a little leadenly, but it makes a nice contrast between her and Josh. When Green begins reading the story, he inhabits Josh nicely -- with all his smarts and insecurity. He semi-voices the other characters, most notably Gus -- who has an accent from ... somewhere (or Fakeland as a committee colleague recently put it). (And it's OK that it's not distinguishable, a running joke in the story is that everyone thinks that Gus is from someplace different.) I did hear one or two elisions -- where he just read so fast that he seemed to be skipping words, but that my brain knew what he meant to say.

And, having read the previous two books, I wanted more vocal distinction of Josh's footnotes. I knew Green was reading them, but I wanted to hear the difference between his regular narration and when he was footnoting. Josh's asides are part of his charm, I wanted to hear that side of his personality. The question is, would a new listener even care about the two narrative streams? I think I just got off the fence about nominating this title; I'm very interested in whether my fellow librarians -- those who don't know Josh -- even care about this!

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