Saturday, May 22, 2004

Five People You Meet in Heaven :A Review & Half-a-Rant

I just finished reading Mitch Albom's latest feel-good installment, The Five People You Meet in Heaven. Okay, okay, I know. Not cool. But I do this periodically as an exercise - this meaning, read pop New York Times Bestseller type "literature" in order to stay in touch with what the "public" is reading. (Are all of these added quotation marks making me sound like a snob?). This is important because, as a starving artist who one day wishes not to starve, I need to know what kind of material is putting food on writers' tables (and giving them tables to sit at and houses to put those tables in).

So as an exercise to stay in touch with what Everyman--Everyman, who in the book publishing industry actually would be more appropriately called Everywoman, since men don't read--is reading, I read the current 190+ page #3 entry on the NYT Hardback Fiction list because I couldn't justify the time commitment to the 400+ page #1 entry, The Davinci Code. (The only thing worse than an awful read is a long, awful read.) In my previous forays into the Top 10 list what I've learned mostly is that best-selling does not necessarily equate to best-written. Is The Five People You Meet..., a good book? Well, let's see. It was printed on good, sturdy paper; the typeface has good spacing;

I'll go ahead and spoil it for you because, if you're a person reading my blog -that is, a person with taste ;-) -you'll have no interest in reading this book.

In chapter one, the protagonist, Eddie, an octogenarian amusement park ride maintenance man experiences what has been the greatest fear of his life: that a park ride under his watch would have an accident. Via radio, he manages to save the Free Fall ride before it sends its four passengers plummeting 10 stories to their horrifying death. But as the park ride operator prepares to let the passengerless car down, the safety latch on the ride malfunctions as an unsuspecting young girl conveniently sprawled over the ride's guiding rail at its bottom (Think wide-eyed 1920's silent-film heroine in distress with the train fast-approaching. No, I'm not joking.) Eddie dives to save her just in the nick of time, but he is crushed by the fiberglass cart in the process.

So Eddie goes to Heaven where he meets five people, much in the manner of A Christmas Carol, who must teach him lessons about his life. Eddie, of very low self-esteem (because of his unfuliflled dream of being an engineer, because he wanted children and wound up childless, because his father emotionally abused him, etc., etc., etc.), had to discover that he did, in life, have purpose.

Let's all join hands.

The five people he met (I know you're dying to know): 1) a blue-skinned freak who worked in the amusement park, who died in an accident a young Eddie unknowingly caused when his ball bounced into the street ; 2) his captain in the army; 3) his father; 4) his wife; 5) a young girl he attempted to save when he was in the Army at war.

The lessons: 1) There are no random acts; we are all connected; 2) Sacrifice is part of life; 3) Forgive; 4) Love doesn't have to stop when life stops; 5) Eddie's job as a maintenace operator, over the course of his life, saved thousands of children's lives.

That's the entire novel.

That's it. Two hundred pages versus two paragraphs (okay, so it was four.)

Oh, and I forgot, the suspense element. The element that was supposed to pull me through this "novel": whether or not he saved the damsel, I mean girl, from getting crushed at the carnival. Let's see, I met the girl for one page (pg. 18); her only dialogue, "Mom. Mom. Mom"--Oh, I see, was supposed to feel sympathy because she was a child. (Really, I'm not this cynical in real life.)

Let's have a discussion about character.


Okay, now let's discuss the subplots.


How about the narrative arc?


This is the kind of material that the "public" is buying.

Before I totally write this book off, there is a two-minute discussion to be had about what Albom did with setting. The story takes place in Heaven, where the set changes according to the person Eddie is meeting. For instance, Eddie meets the carnival freak at the carnival, the captain on a battlefield, his wife in a house of doors where each room housed a wedding from a different world culture. Thus, we each have personalized life lessons to learn in a personalized setting and consequently, have personalized Heavens: loosely akin to Total Recall.

To be completely fair, it wasn't an awful read. It's just that if you have A Christmas Carol as a reference point, most of Albom's devices seem awkward and underdeveloped. And if you have any depth of a spiritual foundation, the spiritual lessons in this book will leave you empty. But if you enjoyed Celestine Prophecy, then go buy 50 copies of The Five People You Meet in Heaven for your friends!

What lesson awaited me in this 190 page "heaven"? Regarding cliches: If it ain't broke, don't fix it?

Which brings me to a conversation I had yesterday with a co-worker K______, who just finished Angels & Demons and, prior to that, The Davinci Code (both of which also happen to be currently on NYT's Top 10 list.

Top 10 material is typically written at a 6th or 7th grade level. Yet, when we're actually in the 6th or 7th grade, we're reading works like A Tale of Two Cities and Romeo and Juliet. Which were written by full-grown adults to be comprehended by full-grown adults. Yet, when we become adults, the material we (the general public as a whole) choose to read is that written on the level of a middle-schooler. What's wrong with this picture?

I'm not promoting dumbing down our public schools any more than they are, but I'm saying that there's something wrong with the state of literature when the older you get, the less challenging your reading.

But in all honesty, its not about the grade of the reading level, any writer who has sold a 500,000 copies of anything knows it's really about content. And in this regard, Albom hit a homerun. A homerun named God! Of the books in the Top 5 this week, three of them DaVinci Code, Angels & Demons, The Five People You Meet... deal with God. If you venture into the Nonfiction list, it becomes God and diets.

Maybe that'll be my key to becoming an un-starving artist. Keep your eye out for my first book, When Jesus Comes Home to America, He Gets Too Fat for His Robe.

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