Monday, March 3, 2014

So Long, and Thanks For All the Fibs

Patricia Cori, The Emissary: A Novel

Today’s vocabulary word is “Mary Sue.” This term originated in Star Trek fan communities, describing authors who insert themselves as protagonists in fan fiction. Over time, the meaning has broadened. Authors needn’t insert themselves into existing franchises to get called Mary Sue (or Marty Stu) these days. Consider Patricia Cori’s new, appallingly self-aggrandizing mess.

Psychic dilettante Jamie Hastings has a moment on a New Zealand beach. Her soul touches a dying whale, and she becomes an emissary for Earth’s suffering biosphere. A lifelong Talent, she now has her mission. So naturally she does what any psychic environmentalist would: accepts a commission from a Texas industrialist to dowse for offshore petroleum in the northern Pacific. Wait, what?

Without even knowing Cori, one suspects Jamie is her authorial avatar because no challenge seriously jeopardizes her. She handles desert isolation, Houston oil money luxury, and life at sea with equal aplomb. She successfully out-argues a seasoned capitalist who’s accustomed to snow-jobbing his corporate board. Plus, everyone she meets compulsively comments on her great physical beauty.

Jamie’s résumé is impressive. She’s dowsed for water in the Australian outback, conducted sweeping scientific research, and helped the LAPD solve nearly sixty murders. (Never mind that no psychic has ever provided criminally actionable evidence in American history.) Everybody from California’s governor to Oprah Winfrey talks up her talents. Everyone holds doors for her. It’s like she can’t fail.

Plus, hell, she’s a psychic. Considering that Patricia Cori has published several books which she claims she psychically transcribed for various Ascended Masters, spotlighting a psychic scientist naturalist industrialist in her novel makes us realize she’s writing an idealized version of herself. This only makes it more frustrating when Cori treats her literary doppelganger gingerly, like a favored friend.

Roger Ebert once wrote, in panning a movie, that we don’t sympathize with characters when things look easy for them; we sympathize when things look hard. That’s really stuck with me. While good characters always have potential to triumph over adversity, they should really face the risk that they could fail. Even when they have right on their side, we’ll only care if they struggle for that final victory.

Patricia Cori disagrees with Ebert there. At no point in nearly 300 pages did I feel her heroine might collapse. She sweeps into every room, charms or outwits or overpowers everyone who might challenge her, and ultimately (spoiler alert) transcends this mortal coil, becoming an Ascended Master while swimming among the whales. In Cori’s mind, Jamie’s apotheosis is a foregone conclusion.

So essentially, Cori creates a situation based on her own principles, inserts herself into the story, then sweeps a clear path to her counterpart’s ultimate vindication. Heroic characters submit to Jamie; villains just get plowed under. Thus this novel isn’t a story with a moral; it’s Cori’s manifesto for her spiritual-environmental-transcendental vision of pseudoscientific hoodoo. We don’t feel anything for her characters, because she’s too busy telling us how we should feel.

We read novels to feel somehow transformed. Despite what your high school English teacher said, good authors don’t write to “mean something.” Themes and symbols usually arise from authors’ subconscious, and we recognize them only retroactively. When authors start with a message, and ramrod the characters and situations into their own morality play, audiences tend to feel manipulated, and resent it.

This goes double when the protagonist is a blatant Mary Sue. Throughout this novel, Jamie sententiously preaches Cori’s metaphysical message, and while others may muster token resistance, they inevitably fold, usually after only one or two pages. Nothing ever threatens Jamie’s presuppositions. Anyone who doesn’t already share Jamie’s (and presumably Cori’s) message coming in will probably finish this preachy, long-winded book feeling confused, disappointed, and ripped off.

If Cori wants to write a treatise, she should do so. Lee Van Ham did so beautifully, if perhaps with less parapsychology and religion-lite wizardry. Novels may have messages they hope we’ll receive, but characters should always take precedence. Authors should take us on journeys, not propound philosophical stances. If a work has one-to-one correlations, like crossword puzzle clues, it shouldn’t be a novel.

In her official biography, Cori claims she’s “often called a ‘real life Indiana Jones’ by fans and readers around the world.” But I get less an Indy Jones vibe from this book, more Deepak Chopra in middle school. Cori remains stuck between genres, and this feels like apprentice-level work. North Atlantic Books, one of America’s top indie publishers, should be better than a book like this.

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