Author: David Wong
I’m sorry to throw a spoiler in right at the top of this review, but here goes [spoiler] John doesn’t die at the end. It almost pains me to say anything more about this book because the fact that the title is a big fat lie has left me feeling cheated. I was so excited by that title, to be honest I would probably have bought the book on the strength of that alone (usually it’s the cover that does it for me, that’s one in the eye for the old saying then), but to have to sit through 400+ pages waiting for a death that never bloody came is just too much for me.
John Dies at the End started its life as a comedy web serial written by Jason Pargin under the psuedonmyn David Wong (the narrator of the story). It managed to garner over 70,000 hits through pure word-of-mouth before some clever schmoe at Macmillian US realised that they had a potential hit on their hands, quickly acquired the rights and removed it from its former free-to-read web-based home.
The book is about two best friends John and Dave who one night take a new drug called “Soy Sauce” and it opens their minds to…well….everything; alternative universes, holes in the space-time continuum, ghosts, demons, talking dogs. But not only can they see all these weird and wonderful things; these weird and wonderful things can see them, which isn’t great when an inter-dimensional demon called Korrok is planning an invasion of Earth using evil clones.
It’s a bit like Harold and Kumar meets Buffy, in that it’s very silly, very funny and there is a world that needs saving by unlikely heroes. Pargin proves himself to be a writer with a lot of potential, he’s very able to write comedy that’s actually funny and absurd and it’s easy to see why this book has been optioned to be turned into a film, however, looking at it purely as a book there are a number of problems with it.
Aside for the central disappointment of John surviving (grrr), I have another not insignificant complaint. Admittedly this complaint should actually be laid at the door of the editorial team over at Macmillian US, rather than at that of the author. It’s a problem with the structure of the novel rather than with the writing itself, which any good editorial department should have caught and smoothed over during the editing process. The problem stems from the genesis of the book. As I’ve said it began its life as a serialisation on the internet, Pargin wrote and posted chunks as he went along. What this means is that he didn’t have the luxury of being able to re-write previous chapters to ensure story continuity and fluidity, nor did he have an overarching plot in mind when he started writing.
Had the editors at Macmillian US done their job properly, we wouldn’t be subjected to Pargin’s continuous use of classic writing devices you can see in any kind of serialisation. For example, each chapter tend to end on a cliff hanger that is revealed at the start of the next chapter not to have been a cliff hanger at all. Two-part TV shows do this kind of thing all the time; you see the hero in a position of real jeopardy at the end of Part 1, thus ensuring you tune in to Part 2 only to find that there was no real jeopardy after all, it was all a misunderstanding. In terms of this book, Pargin has a tendency to have the last sentence of a chapter be something like “I walked through the door, I didn’t know then that the simple act of walking through that door would change my life forever…” Of course the next chapter starts and we find that walking through the door has had no affect whatsoever on the narrator’s life or the thrust of the story. The author has already moved on to set up the next cliff hanger.
That kind of device works well for serialisations because you need your audience to come back for the next chunk of the story and by the time it is ready they’ll have forgotten the build up of tension to get to the cliff hanger and so the fact that there is no satisfactory conclusion won’t matter. When you’re reading it as a novel however you’re getting build up, build up, build up, cliff hanger…..oh, nothing happened…build up, build up, build up, cliff hanger….oh, nothing happened. And you’re getting it again and again, chapter after chapter. The only thing I can really equate it to is an unsatisfying sexual encounter with a partner who says all the right things, knows where everything goes but can’t quite get you there.
Another problem I had with this novel is that the plot is overly complex. Again, I blame the editing team for this as much as I blame the author. The book was written for a specific media, to be delivered in a specific way and by changing the form of it’s delivery but not changing the form of the writing makes it really difficult to follow. Characters are picked up, built up for a chapter or two and then dropped suddenly for no good reason. There are the beginnings of plots which are later dropped; it’s all a bit….lumpy. I’m still not really sure what the actual story is about or indeed if that even really matters.
Having said that I do have high hopes for Pargin’s sequel, he is writing it as a novel from the get-go this time, so I’m confident that the structural problems he’s had with John Dies at the End won’t be replicated. With his strong comedic talents and a more reigned in and refined structure, book 2 could be something really special.