Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Congo by Michael Crichton (7 of 153)

One-Sentence Summary: An astonishingly thick band of supposedly smart people heads into the darkest, most forbidden corner of the Congo in the wake of the mysterious obliteration of a prior expedition.

Subtitle: Don't Do the Thing. Just Don't Do the... You Did the Thing.

First Lines (from the Introduction):
"Only prejudice, and a trick of the Mercator projection, prevents us from recognizing the enormity of the African continent. Covering nearly twelve million square miles, Africa is almost as large as North America and Europe combined. It is nearly twice the size of South America. As we mistake its dimensions, we also mistakes its essential nature: the Dark Continent is mostly hot desert and open grassy plains."
I was first introduced to Crichton on the butt-numbingly hard floor of my eighth grade classroom, where my small class gathered each day after lunch to read from The Andromeda Strain. That teacher was magic, a woman who could make a math class into something that you actually regretted ending and she wove the same sort of trickery into her reading of Crichton. She made it the  best book in the world, concentrating all of her wonky and fantastic energy into making it a story that we couldn't wait for each day, and man oh man, did she succeed. I don't know if Crichton will ever possess the same sort of magic for me again. Maybe it was an experience that rested in her or maybe, maybe Congo was just a miss for him.

This book drove me crazy. The smartest character is Amy, the gorilla- closely followed by the jungle desperado type, Munro, who is indisputably crazy-pants. Anyone else who is supposed to possess a scrap of plausibility or intelligence or believable emotional responses, is actually a cardboard cut-out that topples over somewhere in the third act. Seriously though, Karen Ross? I couldn't believe her being there for so much as a second and when she literally SPOILER blew up a mountain SPOILER  in the finale, I just plain gave up. But let's be honest with ourselves. Does anyone read Crichton for his sterling character development or for a logical plot? Absolutely not. We read Crichton to be entertained and there isn't a thing wrong with that. Congo is the battered paperback copy that you bring to the beach. It sunburns your soul while you sunburn your everything else. It's absurd and even a little insulting, but I'll be damned if I could stop reading it. I was awake at four o'clock this morning, watching plot bunnies disappear into the undergrowth at previously unrecorded levels, and I was enjoying every second of it.  The LA Times review featured on the front of my copy screamed its recommendation, which stated, and I quote, "An old fashioned thriller-diller...". We can't exactly be placing too many exalted literary expectations on something referred to as a thriller-diller.

Even dumping mercy on this, I still can't forgive it its most egregious plot trenches. Beyond the basic set-up, which was appealing: a mysterious stone-hewn city, animal behavior, a conniving stone-cold fox, and a hapless laboratory stooge, there is a lot to work with there. Add on volcanoes, diamonds, gorilla kidnappings, cannibals, raging tribal warfare, suspicious pygmies, hippo attacks, and a Melville-esque train of possibly made-up field science jargon, and it starts to feel like maybe you're on an underground Disney ride with Bill Nye.  Even a thriller-diller can, and should, have some substance and, as anyone who has seen a Fast and Furious film will tell you, explosions alone can't fill that little hole in your chest that is dreaming of quality. That being said, Crichton is really very good at explosions.

I Recommend This For: intelligent apes, fans of Jurassic Park, Crocodile Dundee
I Do Not Recommend This For: Book elitists, fact-checkers, Sticks-in-the-mud

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