Books Are Pretty

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Host.

That's how we realized you were here, you know, she said, thinking of the sickening news headlines again. When the evening news was nothing but inspiring human-interest stories, when pedophiles and junkies were lining up at the hospitals to turn themselves in, when everything morphed into Mayberry, that's when you tipped your hand.

"Argh!" Jared and Jamie groaned together.

Jared lounges on the leather sofa and Jamie sprawls on the carpet in front of him. They're watching a basketball game on the big-screen TV. The parasites who live in this house are at work, and we've already filled the jeep with all it can hold. We have hours to rest before we need to disappear again.

On the TV, two players are disagreeing politely on the sideline. The cameraman is close; we can hear what they are saying.

"I believe I was the last one to touch it - it's your ball."

"I'm not sure about that. I wouldn't want to take any unfair advantage. We'd better have the refs review the tape."

The players shake hands, pat each other's shoulders.

"This is ridiculous," Jared grumbles.

What if the Earth's population was wiped out and replaced by the residents of Pleasantville?

Global genocide is devastating; global genocide at the hands of Donny and Marie is humiliating.

Although that's not precisely the premise of Stephenie Meyer's The Host, it's the question that keeps coming to mind throughout the gigantic novel.

Melanie Stryder, one of the remaining "wild humans," is in Chicago, searching for her cousin Sharon, who she believes has not yet been overtaken by the body snatchers. She is spotted by the Seekers, the parasite's version of the Police, in an abandoned building in Chicago, and throws herself down an elevator shaft rather than be captured and have her body used to house an alien life form. Unsuccessful, she is revived by the alien doctors, who cut a slit into her neck and insert The Wanderer, a new arrival to Earth.

However, Melanie's soul refuses to leave the body, and, much to Wanderer's dismay, makes her rage fill the spaces not inhabited by the alien.

An uneasy truce between the two forms, and The Wanderer comes to realize the horror of what her people are doing, and Melanie in turn begins to appreciate the kindness of the alien race, and that they are colonizing not out of hate, but because of what they are. The Wanderer abandons society, walking into the desert in search of Melanie's little brother Jamie, and her boyfriend Jared, not to turn them over to the seekers, but to help the resistance.

Her decision is made, in part, by the constant harassment of a particularly obnoxious female Seeker, who suspects something is not quite right with the Wanderer, but does not know that Melanie is still inside the body. The Seeker has an unusually enthusiastic taste for hunting down and killing unpossessed humans, a trait which shocks Melanie and the Wanderer both, drawing them together in a the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend kind of way.

This is when the book really began to fly for me, in no small part because this tense interaction between the three of them passes the Mo Movie Measure in a way I haven't experienced since, well, since the last time I read a Dykes to Watch Out for cartoon.

The book goes on forever with women engaging in dialogue that is almost always written to be spoken by men. It is teh awesome. It's like having Angela Basset replacing Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon, grumbling, "I'm too old for this shit," while reaching for her gun. And, I don't know, Ellen Degeneres can pop up beside her, imitating the Three Stooges or something.

But I digress.

Stephenie Meyer seems to have a large following for her young adult Vampire novels. The Host is her first adult novel, and she really knows how to tell a story. I read the 624 page book in two days, something I haven't been able to do in a long time. She's been playing in the kid leagues for quite awhile it seems, because the sex is non-existent, and the violence and swearing are minimal. A precocious twelve-year-old would find the novel enjoyable and not particularly challenging. That's not meant to be insulting, J.K. Rowling's books weren't read just by kids.

By reversing the roles, with the body snatcher being the protagonist and the wild humans the dangerous savages, Meyer employs one of my favorite ways of story-telling, the unreliable narrator.

The Wanderer, or Wanda, as she comes to be called, is in turns horrified and disgusted by the violence and rage she sees in humans.

There was a stack of newspapers inside [the cupboard], covered with dust. I pulled one out, curious shaking the dirt to the floor, and read the date.

From human times, I noted. Not that I needed a date to tell me that.

"Man Burns Three-Year-Old Daughter to Death," the headline screamed at me, accompanied by a picture of an angelic blond child. This wasn't the front page. The horror detailed here was not so hideous as to rate priority coverage. Beneath this was the face of a man wanted for the murders of his wife and two children two years before the print date; the story was about a possible sighting of the man in Mexico. Two people killed and three injured in a drunk--driving accident. A fraud and murder investigation into the alleged suicide of a prominent local banker. A suppressed confession setting an admitted child molester free. House pets found slaughtered in a trash bin.

I cringed, shoving the paper away from me, back into the dark cupboard.

Those were the exceptions, not the norm, Melanie thought quietly, trying to keep the fresh horror of my reaction from seeping into her memories of those years and recoloring them.

Can you see how we thought we might be able to do better, though? How we could have supposed that maybe you didn't deserve all the excellent things of this world?

Wanda, convinced of her people's goodness and the evil nature of human beings, does not realize that the honest, kind worlds her race creates are not possible without the wholesale slaughter of human beings, that, even worse, human beings are created for the sole purpose of being harvested to make more Souls, as the parasites call themselves. She can't understand why the humans are all so angry.

I just love that.

As the novel progresses, Wanda and Melanie become a team, and navigate the narrow line they walk between human and Soul, sharing an aching love for Jared, who is devastated by Melanie's alien possession and has become Wanda's enemy as a result, and their unconditional love for Melanie's little brother Jamie.

As the two of them marched along towards the book's somewhat satisfying conclusion - as satisfying as it can be when the human race is wiped out - I found myself staying up later and later to finish it.

It was worth every minute of lost sleep.


The Host
by Stephenie Meyer
May, 2008 by Little, Brown
Hardcover 624pp
ISBN: 978-0316068048

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