Title: Parasites Like Us
Author: Adam Johnson
Published: originally published 2003; this edition published 19 June 2014
Publisher: Black Swan
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction
As a rule, blurbs typically include some degree of bullshit. It can be difficult to sum up the plot in just a few words, and make it sound enticing at the same time, so you tweak it. You throw in words like “haunting”, “thrilling”, “hilarious” because people will pay for those kinds of experiences. It doesn’t matter if the book can deliver them.
I’m totally fine with that. You don’t put time, effort and money into getting a book on the shelf and then tell people that it’s just ok, that it’s definitely not the next Harry Potter but hopefully the same market will buy it. As a reader, I know you need to tell me these things. I can see through them and make my own decisions.
But don’t fucking lie to me about the entire fucking plot because it’s going to piss me the fuck off.
Much like the blurb of Parasites Like Us. It is, perhaps, the most egregious example of a misleading blurb that I have ever come across. Here it is:
After trashing his cherry ’72 Corvette, illegally breaking into an ancient burial site, and snacking on 12,000-year-old popcorn, Hank Hannah finds that he’s inadvertently unleashed the apocalypse. Hank, a professor of anthropology back in the days when there were still co-eds to ogle and now one of only twelve humans still alive on earth, decides to record the last days of human civilization for whomever – or whatever – might replace us.
This is what’s wrong with it:
– The blurb describes events that occur so late in the novel that it’s basically a spoiler. However, I can understand why these things are in the blurb because almost nothing else interesting happens.
– Hank trashes his car over a third of the way into the novel rather than near the beginning as the blurb implies.
– The car is yellow, not cherry-red. This is of no consequence whatsoever, but seriously, could the blurb writer not even get that right? Did he or she even read the book? [Thanks H. Anthe Davis for pointing out in the comments that “cherry” in this context actually means “pristine” not “red” so I was unfair to criticise the blurb on this point. A pity it’s such a minor point that has no power to help matters at all.]
– “snacking on 12,000-year-old popcorn”: Actually, what they find is 12 000-year old maize. And Hank’s grad student Eggers, for god knows what reason, decides to make popcorn with some of it. So the maize is old, but not the popcorn per se. Also, the blurb makes it sound like Hank is the only one to eat it, but he isn’t.
– “Hank Hannah finds that he’s inadvertently unleashed the apocalypse”. It’s not fair to say that Hank unleashed the apocalypse. The skeleton holds something that unleashes the apocalypse, but Hank and his grad students can’t be blamed for finding and excavating what would have been a famous, groundbreaking piece of evidence. Their methods are unbelievably shoddy and, given more time, they might have unleashed the apocalypse, but instead someone else does it by thoughtlessly smashing an object found on the skeleton.
– “now one of only twelve humans still alive on earth”. “Now”? This suggests that most of this book takes place after the apocalypse. But while Hank indeed is writing it after the apocalypse, the actual event only begins in the final quarter of the book, and it’s a bit longer before everyone dies off leaving the final few. Also, there is no confirmation that everyone else on the planet is dead, or even that everyone in the country is dead. Admittedly, the fact that Hank thinks he’s one of only twelve remaining humans might be an indication of what an arrogant and stupid person he is.
Personally, I would describe the book as a story about an academic in mid-life crisis. He had five minutes of fame from a book that no one reads anymore. He pines for his absent mother and dead stepmother. He lusts after his grad student, Trudy. He’s uncomfortable with his father’s hedonistic nature. It just so happens that he’s writing about all this after surviving the apocalypse, but aside from a few comments on the way life has changed, this is not particularly important until the apocalypse actually arrives much later.
Hank and his grad students, Eggers and Trudy, specialise in the Clovis, a people who inhabited North America 12 000 years ago and consumed everything in sight, destroying themselves and driving 35 animal species to extinction. When Eggers finds a Clovis burial site, the three of them decide to excavate it illegally, hoping to keep the glory for themselves and protect the skeleton from being bulldozed by a local construction project before they can acquire the proper permits.
However, for his thesis, Eggers is spending a year living like a Clovis man. So he walks around in filthy stinking animal skins from the abbatoir, eats squirrels and bugs, never brushes his teeth, etc. Basically, he tries to live using only what a Clovis man would have had. So when he finds the Clovis skeleton, he insists on excavating it WITHOUT MODERN TECHNOLOGY. They scrape at the bones with bits of antler and Eggers makes up his own system of measurement because he can’t use the metric system. Trudy and Hank play along, but then sneak away a few bones when Eggers goes to pee. I am no archaeologist, but this makes me cringe.
However, it gives you an idea of the absurdity of this book. All the characters behave in weird, inexplicable ways. It’s intentionally absurd (I assume) but not in a funny/entertaining/illuminating kind of way, like you’d expect from comedy or satire. More like a “what the fuck is wrong with these stupid people and why am I reading about them” kind of way.
I would say this of Hank more than anyone else. Hank is an insufferably ridiculous, self-important little shit. He believes he is writing this story for the future generations of human beings, and he says stuff like:
“I am the past. “
“A new day had dawned in science, and though I didn’t understand it yet, I was the Adam of anthropology.”
“forget not that you are all descended from me, that I myself am the source of your laws”
He calls women’s breasts “num-nums” and chases after a busty Russian botanist trying desperately to prove to her that he’s not “a buffoon of a man, a scientific huckleberry”. But he really is just so unbelievably lame, as the author keeps emphasising this to the point where it becomes utter torture to read. Hank doesn’t tell a story so much as blather on about all his personal crap. Half the time I don’t know why this moron does the things he does but I can’t say that I ever cared.
The only remotely interesting thing he brings to the text is a comparison between the Clovis and contemporary humanity – both destroyers of their environments, with the implication that humanity will end up as dead as the Clovis, thanks to their own stupidity. On the other hand – criticising humanity’s over-consumption in apocalyptic fiction? Not exactly a fresh perspective.
It needs to be stated that I didn’t hate this book just because of the blurb. It’s just terribly boring. And very very silly, but not in the way I expected. I’d say that the blurb is written to attract one kind of audience while the book caters to a completely different one. If you like absurd novels about academics in mid-life crisis, this might be a great book for you, spiced up with a bit of spec fic. If you wanted a quirky book about the apocalypse, you might be left wondering why you’re reading about an absurd academic and his stupid mid-life crisis instead. Obviously, I’m in the latter group. Worst book I’ve read this year.