Thursday, April 23, 2015

Harrison Harrison

Harrison Squared! Daryl Gregory's novel about the monster-fighting teenager has hit the shelves, starring Harrison Harrison, one of the main characters in the super-creepy novella We Are All Completely Fine.  My friend Brenda, an enormous Gregory fan, agreed to write a joint review with me.  My parts in green, hers in brown.  

Quick summary: we both like the book, though maybe not as much as we'd expected.  It's very much a YA book, with an almost whimsical charm--not what the novella might lead you to expect.  

BRENDA: I feel like Harrison Squared was made for me. I love Daryl Gregory and H.P. Lovecraft. In fact, I memorized “The Cats of Ulthar” for a speech in high school. That said, this doesn’t rise to the same level as my favorite Daryl Gregory books (Pandemonium, Unpossible and Other Stories, Afterparty, and We Are All Completely Fine). It’s entertaining and a fast read, but it doesn’t have the same sort of depth as his other books.

SHARON: The reason I wanted to read Harrison Squared at all is because of We Are All Completely Fine, but I think that served this book poorly, because they're quite different in tone.  I was expecting and hoping for something much darker, grittier, and more ambiguous.  This was very much a YA book, and I can't love it as much as I wanted to because it's standing next to the book in my head.

The tone caused me one other problem, which was that the details of this creepy, Lovecraftian little town were so over the top that it made it hard for me to really submerge myself in the world.  Harrison arrives at this school where there's a class on tying nets and swimming in an underground lake under the school and that history book!  The math homework! And he finds them as outrageous as I would, but there's no notice of this.  I mean, would these students be able to pass the MCAS?  How has no one else ever noticed the weird cultishness?  The details were wonderfully amusing, but I couldn't figure out how seriously I was supposed to take them.

This book feels like Harry Potter sometimes, when he’s exploring his bizarre school. It is entertaining (I laughed out loud at his History textbook, The Subjugation and Domination of Various Peoples and Lands: A Guide to Effective Government), but not particularly satisfying. It’s like the book started out as an ongoing inside joke:
  • Practical Skills – just tying nets
  • Cryptobiology – trying to reanimate a dead frog with electricity
  • English – textbook Catastrophes of New England: 1650 to 1875
  • Non-Euclidean Geometry
I loved the contemplation of the nature of memory in the prologue – “’facts’ I’ve layered on over time, like newspaper on a paper mache piñata.” This is one of the reasons I love short story collections that are obviously a person trying to create meaning by looking at the same thing in many different ways, getting to a point where the least true-to-life story is also the most “true.” I feel like a lot of Daryl Gregory’s work is like this. In particular, he returns often to the story of a relatively normal person dealing with the eccentricities of genius, including in this book. He even rewrote one of his novels as a short story (and vice versa) to continue to look at it slightly differently. I’m actually a little disappointed that Harrison’s supposedly fabricated memories are true.

I love the phantom limb sensation. I know that later it will be discovered that it is somehow metaphysical  and is warning him of the presence of something supernatural. Also, I love that the main character has a physical disability (“maimed and limbless” according to Coach Shug) that is at the same time integral to the plot and treated very matter of factly. I love characters like that (think MilesVorkosigan).


Neither the mother nor Aunt Sel are believable characters, and they don’t add much to the book. They’re too exaggerated. Which is one of the reasons why I dislike when we switch to the mom’s point of view briefly (outside of my general dislike of POV shifting).

I love love love Lub. He’s so free and cheerful and odd. And the juxtaposition between him and the way his people are depicted in Lovecraft should be jarring, but just seems original and creative.

I feel like I'm complaining too much; the other side of this simplicity is that the pleasing parts are so simply pleasing.  I agree that the mother was kind of a flat character, but I found Aunt Selina to be delightful.  She should never have been in charge of a young person, but that of course fits right in with a teenager trying to save his missing mother.  She's proud and impulsive and kind of brittle and I had a lot of fun with her.  I loved Lub, too, and the all the other teenagers you get to know (including the very weird and creepy Isobel and what's going on there I'd like to know!  There's a whole other book there.)

How did you feel about the end?  Ambiguous much?  This seems like it's setup for a series, but I'm not sure if the part that's still hanging will support it. 

I didn't see it as setting up a series so much as the hand coming up out of the grave at the end of a horror movie, showing that everything is not actually okay. I mean, how could you have an HP Lovecraft based book with a happy ending? 

Definitely too much of a YA book for me, though. This always happens when I get my hopes too high!
Other random thoughts:

  • Fingercant is cool. I want to learn it.
  • I knew immediately the Albatross was a boat. I hate it when characters don't figure out something obvious.
  • The Scrimshander is legitimately scary.
  • I want to read Thomas Glück’s book. It makes me think of Bloody Jack.
Yes to all of those, especially Thomas Glück's book!  This book was a lot of fun; it lost points only for the expectations I had going in. 

Thank you so much for reviewing this with me, Brenda!

*Review copy received from Netgalley.

No comments: