Sunday, January 01, 2006

The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad by Minister Faust

The press release that came with my review copy of this book opines that The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad is 'possibly the funniest science fiction novel to come along in decades.' That's quite a claim. So, has the 'Afro-Canadian poet, playwright and political activist' Minister Faust (also known as Malcolm Azania) made an exciting an exciting and hilarious contribution to the genre with his debut novel? Almost...

Our heroes are Hamza Senesert and Yehat Gerbles, the Coyote Kings (the 'Space-Age Bachelor Pad' – or the 'Coyote Cave' – is the house they share): two educated, black sci-fi buffs stuck in dead-end jobs in Edmonton. Most of the novel is told in one of their first-person voices, and this is where the book stands out. Here, for instance, is Hamza seething at having to wash dishes for a living:

I get to both scrape AND wash the crud off of the shingles they slide in front of a bunch of rich kids' maws night after succulent night in this Tex-Mex-Cali-cocktail cesspit, before, during, and after they drain pitcher after pitcher of Can't Believe It's Not Urine!

The sheer energy of narration like this is undeniable, even though the narrators aren't always pleasant. But (and it's a big 'but'), this stuff is most effective in small doses; after 500 pages, it becomes wearying. To make matters worse, it is difficult to tell Hamza's and Yehat's voices apart. You notice certain mannerisms after a while (Yehat tends to use lists, for example), but the two never come alive as distinct characters, such that their voices seem to bleed into one. And that's not all: other characters take their turns at narrating the story. I lost count, but Coyote Kings must have something like ten separate first-person narrators – not all distinguishable, and some annoying (the cod-Victorian hoodlum Digaestus Caesar is especially so). It's not entirely clear what all these narrators bring to the novel, or why Faust couldn't have used the third person at least some of the time. As the saying (nearly) goes: too many narrators...

As we've seen, Coyote Kings is being marketed as a comedy; but it's quite an unusual one – and, sad to say, not a very successful one. For one thing, there are surprisingly few jokes, even of the kind that play with genre clich├ęs (since the publishers compare the book to films like Galaxy Quest, I was expecting more humour of this kind). Indeed, the sci-fi references as a whole don't extend very far into the fabric of the story (unless I missed some, which is entirely possible). It is as though the writing style is expected to carry the weight of the humour, and it just doesn't work.

So, leaving aside any humour, how does Coyote Kings fare as a novel, in particular a fantasy? The plot is actually quite unclear, something about the search for an ancient artefact of immense power that Hamza and Yehat get caught up in when Hamza falls for a beautiful assassin who's trying to stop the artefact falling into the wrong hands (or are hers the wrong hands..?); it's not a highly original storyline and, although some of the action sequences are exciting, again there's a sense that the stylish narration is working hard to make up for deficiencies elsewhere.

It also seems that Faust has tried to cram too much in: he tries to get across a number of valid points that aren't often integrated into the text very well. Consider the following comment about music: 'There's no such thing as "Afrikan music", singular, any more than there's "European music", singular, or "Asian music", singular -' This is a point worth making, but since it comes during a conversation between two characters who already know as much, the impression left is that it has been placed there for the benefit of any eavesdroppers who don't; in other words, the reader. Done this way, such points become distracting sore thumbs that bring down the novel as a whole.

The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad is a book with plenty of flaws: it's too long (more than twice as long as it needs to be), and tries to do too much. But I don't wish to give the impression that it is all bad. There is clear talent on display here, but it needs to be distilled and focused. If that's done, Minister Faust will be a name to watch out for in the future.

This review first appeared in The Alien Online.

Further links:
Minister Faust
Del Rey books

No comments: