There’s an odd paradox inherent to this book. Its purpose is to give voice to the women of the Beat Generation, minor characters who “fell very quickly, believing they would take us along on their journeys and adventures,” and who were then callously, sometimes tragically discarded. (The death of Joan Vollmer Burroughs early in the book is heartbreaking.) But I’d guess most people who pick up this book are mainly interested in the author’s recollections of Jack Kerouac, whose picture is on the cover (partially obscuring the author), and not in Johnson’s own life. I certainly had never heard of her. But wow, she can write! Her prose is so beguiling, before you know it she’s told you the story of her childhood, growing up as a member of the Silent Generation who wanted to have their voice heard, to speak up and step out. Yes, the ghost of Jack Kerouac haunts this book, as does a close friend who committed suicide. It was published fourteen years after Kerouac died, and over a quarter decade after he and Johnson briefly dated. Johnson elegantly jumps back and forth in time, showing them alive in one moment and dead the next. The effect is strangely elegiac, folding the tragic future into the tumultuous past, and making it seems as if these characters were both dead and alive all along. Which in a way they were. Johnson writes: “I remember Jack once saying he wrote his books so that he’d have something to read in his old age — although of course he never had any and maybe never believed he would.” That’s heady stuff. Highly recommended.
It hurts me to rate this book so low because I love Wilson’s Spin and generally love the kind of science fiction he writes: his books mostly take place on Earth and feature believable characters swept up in world-changing events. But while The Chronoliths presents a fascinating idea, the book failed to excite or connect with me in any way. Halfway through I actually took an extended reading break; not consciously, but simply because I was lured away by more enticing reading. The characters have the usual depth I’ve come to expect from Wilson, but they’re… boring and not very likable. After the Chronoliths start appearing, the world collapses in a kind of halfhearted way. Food shortages. Roving bandits. Rape. Pillaging. Yawn. What happens to the characters is just as trite. Mostly they just have dinner or phone conversations and more dinner and more phone conversations. And finally the story just fizzles out… There is no big reveal, no surprising twist, no deeper meaning; in short, no point.
Douglas Preston, being a thriller writer, admits that books need a bad guy with clear motives and a neat ending. The Monster of Florence has none of these. Still, it’s thrilling reading. I spent a year in Florence in the early 2000s, and Preston’s rich descriptions of the place made me long to go back — despite the lurid subject matter of the book.