Thursday, December 20, 2012

Review: The Archaeologists Part Two, by Christopher Lee (2012)

Back in August I reviewed the first short story, which is part of a series of short stories, called "The Archaeologists," written by Christopher Lee. Now here's part two, which is an improvement, though not by much. In my review of part one I wrote, "Lee's world seems populated by people who are so much on edge they're about ready to snap at the slightest provocation, such as boredom." These are characters who hate life, and why these friends continue to meet up for dinner is a mystery, as they seem to have absolutely no warm feelings for one another. That lack of any warmth is what makes this series so difficult. Sure, there are authors, such as Robert Cormier, who portray evil as victorious over good, but at least in Cormier's stories there are characters who are essentially good. Also, Cormier writes stories that have a sense of purpose and whose plots lead somewhere. So far it's difficult to say what Lee's purpose is, and it's even harder to say where he's going with the series.

The end of part one finds a conversation between Henry and John interrupted by the arrival of the rest of their friends, Joe and Adam, at the restaurant the story mostly takes place. While Henry remains the central character, the story also branches off into the perspectives of John and Joe. These three characters are essentially the same, with some slight differences. They are all very unhappy people, Henry most of all. Henry's anger seems directed at nothing in particular, but everything all at once. We know he's unhappy because at one point he wishes he would have been aborted with a rusty coat hanger

Unfortunately the cliffhanger ending of part one has not been fulfilled by part two. Instead a new plot thread begins, probably related to the first, in that Joe has a story to tell about a brief encounter he had with John. But as Joe begins to describe this story, John decides he needs to use the restroom, so the story comes to a pause. Of course, by the time John returns, food is served and another character, Scott, has arrived. Scott is the most talkative, and for this reason he is also the target of most of Henry's venom. Scott believes that time travelers from the future come to visit future brilliant scientists, like himself, and risk changing the future. Or something like that. It's a detail that adds a brief whimsical charm, but it really only exists to establish Scott's character, though Scott unfortunately plays no role in the rest of the story.

Lee writes with a lot of care, and he uses a unique style that's a mixture of stage play and short story. There's a character list at the start and scene breaks throughout. Instead of using only dialogue, the scenes are written as stream-of-conscious expositions from the perspective of one of the characters. Henry has the most scenes, John has a couple, Joe has one, and there is a return by Michelle, John's maybe-girlfriend, in a much different circumstance than we saw her before. Michelle is the one character who breaks the mold. We find her now in college, suffering mentally from the loss of her child during childbirth. She writes a poem about her experience and reads it aloud to her class. She's the only character I really cared about because she has a reason for her suffering, and towards the end we see that she's trying to rise out of it. She also provides the only glimmer of hope in the story. Her two scenes come towards the end, when the story begins getting good.

The main problem is that Lee refuses to tell his story. The plot gets delayed again and again, and I'm not sure for what purpose. Up until the last six or seven pages the story is a confusing mess of negative feelings, and sometimes we're transported to unknown settings where nothing much happens. Things finally settle down and start to come together in those final two scenes. Michelle develops into a person the reader can begin to care about, and in the final scene Joe finally begins telling the story he wanted to tell at the start. But then, unsurprisingly, the story comes to an end before Joe can get to the good part. We, the reader, must read part three to find out what it is, but if part three plays out anything like the stories preceding it, it'll be a long wait before we know what's going on. I'm sure there's a good story in there. The trick is just getting it out.

 (I received a free copy of Christopher Lee's story in exchange for an honest review)

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