The Nebula award will be announced May 19, 2018, at this year’s Nebula Conference in Pittsburgh, PA. Since 1965, the Nebula Awards have been given each year for the best novel, novella, novelette, and short story eligible for that year’s award. This post is the second in a series of reviews of the nominees for this year’s Nebula award for best novel. The other nominees are Jade City by Fonda Lee, Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss, The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin, Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty (which I reviewed for the Philip K. Dick award), and Autonomous by Annalee Newitz.
“The problem with getting old was that each day had to compete with the thousands of others gone by. How wonderful would a day have to be to win such a beauty contest? To even make it into the finals? Never mind that memory rigged the game, airbrushed the flaws from its contestants, while the present had to shuffle into the spotlight unaided, all pockmarked with mundanities and baggy with annoyances.”
If you like tall tales and depression, this book is for you. Daryl Gregory’s story covers the lives of members of the Telemachus family both in the 1960s, as the family is formed and comes to explore their extraordinary gifts, and in the 1990s, as the grown Telemachus children try to live their lives and raise their own children, struggling to move past the events of the 1960s.
Spoonbenders started out as a hard “miss” for me, and were it not nominated for this year’s Nebula award I would have closed the book on page 5 and been happy to walk away. (In the end I decided not to finish the book, instead closing it for the last time with about 100 pages to go. I researched synopses to learn the end of the book, and am happy with my decision to do so.) The opening scene really did me in as far as any potential interest was concerned – and, while unfortunate, that’s something that happens. I’m very glad I took the time to keep reading as far as I did; while the book never got better for me, reading it is an experience I’m glad I’ve had. I’m sure this book will become a touchpoint in literary conversations, and I think it deserves that place and that recognition.
Gregory does something remarkable with Spoonbenders, in that he writes authentic characters and a narrative full of movement – both of which he drowns in molasses-thick, inescapable depression. In the characters, it’s an almost manic hopelessness that imbues their every page in the 1990s. Next to those chapters, the 1960s stories feel overblown and unbelievable. Throughout the book, I was reminded of the 2003 film “Big Fish”, which pairs similarly unlikable characters with charmingly over-exaggerated larger-than-life events and emotions. Unfortunately, by Spoonbenders I was not charmed.
Each of Gregory’s characters is fully formed and explored piece-by-piece as the novel progresses, each layer of complexity exposing yet more layers. They’re wonderfully complex, believable, and each one is fundamentally important to the narrative. The truth, I’m afraid, is that I just hated each and every one of them. Hating a character that thoroughly makes a book hard for me to read, and I felt throughout every chapter of the book that Gregory had written each of these characters for me to loathe and pity in equal measure. My appreciation for Gregory’s skill and accomplishment, therefore, is entirely intellectual.
You see, even as I hated reading this book and am grateful it’s behind me, I must admit the prodigious skill Gregory brought to bear in writing it. I have no question, for instance, that all of my discomfort while reading was a gift Gregory intended to give his readers. That suffocating loss of hope, that manic lack of direction – these are essential parts of both the story and the reader’s experience. It takes great skill to write a story that provocative.
Also of note is the source material which Gregory pulled from to create this story. He pulled from “real” psychics and telechinetics of the 1960s and even attended a spoonbending seminar himself, as he explained in a fascinating interview, which I encourage you to check out. In that same interview, he points out that he structured the novel itself “like a magic trick”. Thinking back on the novel with that in mind, I have more respect for his skill than ever. He really pulled it off.