So, as you might recall, a few weeks back I wrote a heartily favorable review of Evan Mandery’s latest novel, Q. I had never heard of Mandery before but thought that his newly released tale of love, time travel, and organic gardening was a delightful complement to the last warm days of September. His tone was fresh and his humor inviting. His segues into completely tangential subjects within the narrative (be they history lessons or ruminations on corduroy pants) even made me laugh out loud at times. So when a friend of mine wanted to do an Evan Mandery book swap and handed me his 2010 novel, FIRST CONTACT, I was really excited to start in on it. Sadly, the excitement quickly dissipated in what I call the Inevitability of Temporally Backward Reading.
I’ll cut right to the chase: I’ve never read two books that are such carbon copies of each other. Never seen anything like it. The conversations between FIRST CONTACT’S Ralph and Jessica on their first date mirror quite verbatim those between Q and the narrator in Mandery’s latest book. A small and random sample of the similarities in these two conversations alone includes the following: discussion of a crazy man in front of them in line (Ralph/Jessica @ the sandwich shop, Q/Narrator @ the movie theater), bland discussion of music (bands including, in both instances, Green Day, Neil Diamond, the Beatles, & Rush), and the sly slip of the woman’s phone number into the man’s hand at the end of the chapter (Q and Jessica both coyly slid the number into a plastic bag their new acquaintances happened to be carrying). And that is just ONE instance. My reader’s déjà vu was so constant throughout that I found the whole book difficult to swallow – I had already gorged upon these exact charms before, hadn’t I?
The fact that the two novels were published so close together (January 2010 and August 2011) is equally baffling; did Harper simply forget that they had published the same book with a chartreuse cover a scant year before?
No, I don’t believe they forgot at all. Rather, they might have thought, as I did, that the manuscript for Q featured so much of the tonal swag FIRST CONTACT displays, but Q did so with vast improvements across the board. The repackaging of FIRST CONTACT as Q went a little something like this:
*Stick a Pretty Girl on the Cover This Time Around. (Self-explanatory. Publishing is all about marketing, after all.)
*Change the POV. The first-person narrator in Q gave so much more weight and credibility to the love story unfolding before the reader, because it wasn’t some omniscient voice telling us how much uninteresting Ralph loves uninteresting Jessica (for no clear reasons that I as reader could discern, obviously). The consequence the love affair held for narrator of Q was much more compelling in this way. Additionally, Mandery’s tendency to break from the central plot and go on tangents was much more palatable when those tangents belong to someone we know to be a professor of history – the sort of character expected to ramble passionately about this or that. With the third-person narration of FIRST CONTACT, the breaks in narrative seem detached, unnatural, and just read like Mandery’s getting bored with his own story every five pages or so.
*Enough with the damn Simpsons references. Listen, you won’t find a bigger Simpsons buff than me – I’ve won enough trivia contests to prove that point – and I love when a reference or two is dropped into what I’m currently reading. The Simpson family deserves love, it’s true! But Mandery’s personal nod to the series was an odd and distracting choice: several characters on the planet Rigel-Rigel in FIRST CONTACT bear names identical to Simpsons characters. Nelson Munt-Zandarian, Lionel Hut-Zanderian, Professor Fendle-Frinkle…all of which are simultaneous to references being made by Mandery’s Earthling characters as Ralph and Jessica laugh about their favorite quotes from the show. I understand, of course, that it’s a theme feeding into FIRST CONTACT’S overall statement about universality, and how we shouldn’t be surprised by any parallels we find between what we and other planets lay equal claim to. I understand all that. But I think the message is muddled by Mandery’s sense of his own cleverness. Q, meanwhile, was much better for dropping this type of conceit and limiting itself to one or two choice Simpsons homages.
*Scale caricatures back down to believable characters. I found (as any reader would) many parallels between the hardheaded conservative President character in FIRST CONTACT and John Deveril in Q, who is the title woman’s hardheaded conservative father. Their right-wing, hot-air orations on What This Country Needs were presented in both stories with between-the-lines whisper to the reader: can you believe there are people who think this way? In the case of FIRST CONTACT’s President figure, the answer is, no, we really can’t. Because he’s written like a cartoon, a goofy exaggeration of whatever we’d get when we stick George W. and Rick Santorum in a blender. But once again, Q did us one better by making John Deveril a believable human being, one whose uncompromising beliefs are informed by a lifetime of working in the private sector and having a family to provide for – a family he truly does love. This movement from caricature to character is essential for the latter book’s readability.
So, ultimately, I hope I haven’t cut down FIRST CONTACT too much. Because parts of it are a fun read, and really, if you haven’t read anything else by Mandery, you’re bound to enjoy it a whole lot. But it seems undeniable to me that Q is the stronger of the two books, and a clear indication of how Mandery has grown as a writer. Though the books feel almost eerily uniform, Q is obviously the product of meticulous revision on the part of the author and attentive editing on the part of his publisher, and this makes it a production worth getting excited about all over again. Oddly enough, sometimes it takes reading something you don’t enjoy to learn just what it is that can excite you.