Thursday, August 28, 2014

Book Review: Twilight of the City

Book Review: 'Twilight of the City' by Charles Platt

1 / 5 Stars

‘Twilight of the City’ was first published in 1977; this Berkley Books paperback (215 pp) was released in September, 1978. The cover art is unattributed.

‘Twilight’ is another of the most boring sf novel’s I’ve ever attempted to read. I got as far as page 83, at which point I abandoned it.

The premise is standard-issue sf: it’s the near future, i.e., 1997. The US is in the grip of a downward spiral of economic and social collapse. While the ever-dwindling numbers of the wealthy class live in modern homes in gated communities in the exurbs, the middle class are engaged in food riots in the city streets. The impoverished masses live in ghettos have grown and expanded into enormous wastelands marked by lawlessness and anarchy.

The narrative revolves around the actions of three young people: Bobby Black, the superstar singer and showman of the emerging genre of ‘Suicide Rock’. Bobby’s songwriting partner is the taciturn, calculating Michael. And then there is Lisa, who came to the City with a headfull of dreams and stars in her eyes, only to find that dreams die fast on the hard and unforgiving streets of the ghetto.

Michael invites Lisa to live with him and introduces her to Bobby Black. Soon a skeptical Lisa joins the inner circle of artists, researchers, and oddballs who circulate around the Suicide Rock scene and engage in tedious conversations about their existential angst. 

[At some point later on in the book, these characters apparently engage in some sort of uprising against the corrupt order of the state, but I didn’t read that far enough to know exactly what happens.]

Why is ‘Twilight’ so bad ? Well, for one thing, Charles Platt (b. 1945), a prolific writer of sf novels and short fiction starting in the late 60s and continuing into the 90s, forgets how to tell a story, in favor of trying mightily to craft a ‘literary’ novel that seeks to transcend the boundaries of simple genre fiction. 

Such efforts are not in and of themselves deserving of criticism, but looking back, the cruel truth is that many such efforts made during the New Wave era of sf were mediocre, at best.

It’s a sure tip-off an author is attempting and failing at this sort of thing when some chapters of the novel, as is the case in ‘Twilight’, lead off with epigraphs of ‘Suicide Rock’ song lyrics. Here’s a sample:

You say I’m all you care about
To me you cling
The real world you could do without
I’m everything
You scheme and dream of an escape
From iron walls of life you hate
Well darling there’s one way to be together
Alone in love, for you and me, forever


Our suicide
Will be forgiven
After we’ve died
And gone to heaven !

The trite quality of the lyrics is reflected in the conversations that occupy much of the narrative. In these conversations, Bobby, Lisa, and Michael express pathos and uncertainty over the meaning of life, the collapse of the social order, the conflict between the haves and the have-nots, and What Is Art ?

These conversations simply don't work; the prose is stilted, wooden, pretentious, inane....pick your favorite adjective, they all apply.

With ‘Twilight’, author Platt was earnestly trying to craft a novel that said something Profound about the Human Condition, using a downbeat, Ballard-esque sf setting. While I have to acknowledge that he was trying to do something out of the ordinary,the reality is that ‘Twilight’ is boring. Believe me, you’re better off avoiding this novel.


2theD said...

Pretty much any novel that contains snippets of lyrics or poetry is evidence of a writer that is trying too hard to be artistic. I've read Platt's Garbage World (1967)and The City Dwellers 91970), but I haven't had such a negative reaction as you have had. Perhaps I need to reread those works and decide if they're worthy to stay in my collection or get ditched. After all, he has yet to inspire me with his writing!

2theD said...

Ah! Just read on ISFDB that Twilight of the City (1977) is the same novel/collection as The City Dwellers (1970). This has INSTANTLY booted itself up to the next book on my to-read list. Please await the results!

Anonymous said...

Not sure how one can review a book after reading only a third of it. What if it gets much better, or, come to think of it, much worse!