Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy. First Exposure will be available for purchase on Aug. 1, 2014.
This is the first book Bold Strokes Books has approved my request to read, and all I can say is that I’m glad they gave me two of the books I asked for because this review will not endear me to them. A smart person would wait until she finished reading the good book, and review that one first in order to start out on the right foot, but I’m not known for my patience. Anybody from Bold Strokes who may be reading this, please know, I have 50% left in Hot On His Trail and you should have something nice and positive to make up for what I’m about to do.
Anybody who has had the misfortune of pursuing higher education in the last century will recall the atonal philosophical works of the enlightenment. If you enjoyed such tombs as Voltaire, and Faust this might just be your jam. If, however, character development and narrative realness are personally important, you may want to skip it. Didactic and overly intellectual, First Exposure is the work of a smart man who wants us all to know how smart he is. His dumb characters aren’t allowed to be dumb, and by extension, his smart characters fail to stand out.
Every conversation sounds like the same well-read guy is having it with himself, which is basically what’s happening. Characters who are educated and intelligent know and speak about great literary and scientific figures in casual language, as do characters who are downright stupid. There’s also a strange and alienating egotism that surrounds the main character like a pestilence. Everyone is always thinking about him. None of the other characters have any motivation that doesn’t come directly or indirectly from the main character: failed painter, aspiring florist and disgruntled navy man, Skylar Thompson.
The writer has a clear message about what it means for an artist to find and follow his calling, and the supremacy of that quest at any cost. There’s other stuff that seems to be at least nominally about loyalty and human compassion, but it’s not. It’s about artistic people doing what makes them feel free and fuck all the rest. To that end, one character literally pees in his dying father’s face, while dressed like a woman. Because that’s his dream. Not to be a woman, just to dress like one. (Honestly, this scene had every right to be fun and amazing, and it was not.)
I was constantly reminded of the recurring “MESSAGE!” gag from 90s Wayans brother’s comedy Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood. Every single conversation in this entire book, and well over half of the narration is Oscar-worthy in it’s dramatic capacity. Whenever a character opens their mouth, the shit they say is the sort of shit you (and by you, I mean the reader) are supposed to remember for the rest of your life. These lines are intended to be the kind of literary bell-tollings that undergrads will tattoo on the inside of their forearms for years to come. This is real truth here, people, this is how life should be lived.
The plot is basically that Skylar doesn’t like the military, so when a simple misunderstanding reveals him to be the floral version of Neo from The Matrix, he wants to pursue his new-found calling. However, he suddenly comes under attack, literally, from his old friends in that bastion of homophobia, the United States Naval Service, and everything goes to hell. His shallow, social climbing, materialistic harpy of a wife doesn’t understand his desire to end year-and-a-half long deployments in favor of spending time with his son, learning a trade, and creating something that makes people happy, his shithead father thinks he should go into computers like his cousin Bill, and his only real friend seems to be amateur drag queen Ezra Dumphy, also apparently the Navy’s only gay guy. You’d think this alone would make it a great book. This synopsis is why I requested it, plus half a star for interesting plot, but neither the plot of the characters get any space to develop.
The author bio says Chin worked in computer science for 20 years, and I actually let out an audible “of course” when I read that tidbit at the end of the book. In addition to the preachy overly significant dialog and narration, the action is peppered with unnecessary specificity about trivialities, and advanced by cursory generalities instead of major plot points. For example, for one flower arrangement, I know what angle Skylar puts flowers into Oasis (45 degrees, if you’re curious), which I now know is the official name for that green stuff they poke your flowers in to make sure they stand right, but I have no idea why his bitch wife decides to give up her “keeping up appearances” attitude, and get behind her husband on his journey to flower shop ownership. She goes from contemplating how she can wait out his nonsense until the Navy deploys him for another 18 months, to demanding her father in law finance their down-payment.
Theoretically, her change of heart is precipitated by her first-ever glimpse of her husband’s glorious floral talents. Apparently the same thing happens to the dad because there is a funeral scene just so the dad can see the son’s work, and that somehow erases more than a decade of shitty parenting and disappointment on both sides, and magically produces armloads of cash they had no idea they actually had. Which is what I meant when I said that there’s a strange egotism attached to the main character. Everything that happens in this entire book happens in order to direct, encourage, and then validate his creative spirit. Even other character’s funerals. Also, there’s a weird forward that apparently has nothing to do with the funeral in the book, but some other unknown funeral that is never revisited or even mentioned.
First Exposure is a mess. There’s level of brutality, and absurdity that could be fun if the whole damn thing didn’t take itself so seriously. Other of Alan Chin’s novels have won scores of LGBT and diversity awards, and I can see why. But if you’re looking for overly dramatic speeches about minority lives, rent a Tyler Perry film. There’s a lot wrong with that man, but his ability to move from insane comedy to tear-jerking uplift is something to be admired. Certainly something this writer could work more on.
Oh, and minus that half star I added for only being available in paperback, and being $16.95. John Fucking Green doesn’t even command a $16+ price point anymore, and he’s like, the king of didactic fiction.