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False Memory by Dean Koontz, 1999

False Memory by Dean Koontz, 1999

I’ve read a dozen or so of Koontz’s books, spread across his career from the 1980s to just a few years ago. When he tells a tale well, he can be damned entertaining.

When he doesn’t, he makes the reader contemplate actions his villains would find pleasing.

But it was in reading this book that something clicked for me, and I realized why I find Koontz so aggravating a writer, even in the books that I enjoy.

I had noticed long ago that Koontz thinks he is much wittier and funnier than he is in fact. His sense of comedy is scattershot. If he confines it to his characters dealing with things in their own characteristic ways, then it is as effective as his characters are well-drawn. However, when he’s showing off, he gets an idea, comes up with every variation on it possible, and then dumps them all in the reader’s lap at once, one after the other, with the seeming expectation that each variation will enhance the funniness of the ones that came before.

Mr. Koontz, clearly, has never performed comedy before.

But in reading this book, I realize that he doesn’t just do that with comedy. He does it with everything. He thinks piling on detail after detail after detail after detail is good writing.

Before getting to that, the story.

And before the story, a little test. Here’s a slate of main (and some secondary) characters from the book. Dustin “Dusty” Rhodes. Martine “Martie” Rhodes. Susan Jaggers. Mark Ahriman. Holden “Skeet” Caulfield. “Fig” Newton.

Now, just on the names, tell me who’s the bad guy. If you guessed “the guy who is named after a mythological entity of destruction”, congratulations, you get a no-prize.

It’s actually one of Koontz’s more subtle touches, though, since he does not in fact stop the narrative to have one (or more) of the characters ponder and pontificate on the name, the mythological Ahriman, the history of Zoroastrianism, or anything else related to it. He actually lets the reference, blunt and obvious thought it is, go as a simple, unexplained reference. For small miracles, give praise.

But the story, we must encapsulate the story.

Martie Rhodes has been, for over a year, helping her friend Susan Jaggers, get to a twice-a-week appointment with her psychiatrist to treat acute agoraphobia. This particular day, however, she herself has been feeling… odd. Walking her dog before taking off for the appointment, she saw her shadow on the sidewalk and felt afraid, for no reason she could fathom.

Then she has trouble facing her reflection in the mirror.

By the end of the day, after she has gotten Susan safely back home, Martie is in full-blown autophobia — the fear of herself. She cannot stop imagining all the horrible, gruesome things she could to to other people, and she is terrified at the very possibility that she might commit such acts, acts she never before would have even contemplated.

Meanwhile, Martie’s husband Dusty is dealing with a situation. He runs his own housepainting company, through which he employs Skeet, a lovable screwup who has been through drug rehab more than once. And today, Skeet, who had been clean for months, is up on the third-story roof of the current house to be painted, and plans to jump. Because the angel of death showed him the other side, and it looked wonderful.

Dusty climbs up to the roof, and must figure out a way to get both Skeet and himself down without injury (or worse).

These things (and others) are connected, but the reader does not even begin to be shown how they are connected until over 200 pages into the story.

To discuss the story any further, or its flaws, would be to venture into spoiler territory and, although the book is ten years old, I’m not going to do that.

I will say this, though. The first time the name “Ben Marco” was used, I thought “Okay, that’s a little bluntly obvious, but if he let’s it go with that, it’ll count as two subtle-ish references in one book, which would be new.” That theory went down. In flames. Left a debris trail about eleven miles long. No black box was found.

So, back to the style of the novel, in terms of selection of detail, or lack thereof.

Before I start ragging on him, let me make clear: Koontz is one of the wealthiest novelists in the world for a reason, and that reason is that he knows, better than almost anybody else, how to construct and draw out suspense. He sets up a situation such that you must find out the causes of it, and then spends much of the book not telling you, but dancing around it, feeding out hints, consequences, red herrings, and suchlike, and doing it very, very well. His quirks, predilections, and fetishes as a writer are easily overlooked in his better books, especially if you do not gorge on large quantities of his work in a short period of time. (Even in his lesser books, there is much to be learned from watching him deploy his standard tools and figuring out why they don’t work for that particular story.)

Now, that caveat dealt with, let the ragging begin.

Koontz loves detail. Not just the well-observed, vital, crucial-to-the-theme detail. No. Any detail. All detail. He did his research, and he’s going to show it off dammit, no matter how much it drags down the narrative. In his better books, he gets away with it mostly because the reader is dying to get to the explanation, and will put up with a lot of gunk to get there, especially if he believes that something hidden in that gunk may become crucial later on.

Martie’s autophobia, for example. It’s an intriguing condition, yes. What would it be like to be afraid of yourself? How would it work and what would the effects be? Well, you find out. At length. Gratuitous length.

There is a sequence, intercut with other events, where Martie is home alone, in her kitchen, and makes a heroic attempt to protect the world, and particularly her husband, from herself. She goes through the kitchen and removes anything that might be used to deadly or damaging effect. And that’s a lot of things — the only exceptions, really, are rubber spatulas and a whisk.

So, okay, fine. Show her imagining one or two items and how they might be used, in detail, and disposing of them. Then, on each return, pare down the details to the essentials. Item, a use or two, back to the other scene. Back to Martie, dropping something else in the trash bin, leave the implied danger to the reader. And so on.

Right?

Wrong.

No, we get an extended exegesis on every damn item, at length and in detail, on every return to her part of the narrative.

It goes on and on and on and on and on, and the only reason you keep reading (or skimming) is to see what happens next. Not next as in “what new implement will she find a lethal purpose for, and dispose of?”. Next as in “okay, she’s going nuts, how will her husband react? And then what, after that?

Koontz has always had this weakness — maybe you could call it “cataloging” — but since he became editor-proof in the 1980s, it’s gotten much, much worse. If he wants something in the book, it goes in, narrative efficiency and integrity be damned.

(Less than a decade before this book, Koontz wrote another, Dark Rivers of the Heart, that would be at the very top of his list of works, except for this sort of thing. There is a car chase sequence in the desert that turns into a few other things and, while certainly gripping and exciting, it takes 50 pages [or more] to accomplish its narrative purpose, which could have been accomplished in five pages or less. At the end of that sequence, nothing is really different at all except that the hero is in a precarious position and has been delayed. The whole thing could have been cut and left to implication, by showing where the hero ended up. But it wasn’t, because Koontz wanted it in.)

This doesn’t just hold for detail that’s actually important to the plot, either. Koontz goes all out on architectural details, never leaving anything to implication or imagination. Some level of description of setting is needed, of course. And a bit more than usual is called for here, as Dusty is a housepainter, and apt to notice such details. And villainous Dr. Ahriman has contrasting views of beauty and design. Plus, the description of Ahriman’s office, in particular, sets a certain mood, and that mood contrasts quite a lot with the characters’ reactions to the space. This contrast signals something important to the story.

But it isn’t just the office that gets extended description. It is, seemingly, every setting, ediface, and structure. And few get brief, suggestive descriptions. Nope, all get details piled on top of details piled on top of details, and then the reader is told how to interpret these details, more often than not.

It would be very interesting to see what would happen if one of Koontz’s manuscripts were edited, without mercy, by James Ellroy, who found his distinctive style by slashing out every third word in one of his manuscripts, and at least two out of every three adjectives and adverbs. Without going through False Memory line by line, I would guess that such an editing job would reduce its 750 pages to 300 or less. And it would be a whipcrack of a read.

As it stands, however, it’s not a bad book (though it gets a bit ridiculous in how many things are secretly connected), but it bears liberal skimming, if not outright skipping.

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