A young professional in Chicago discovers the nebulous power of style, which subsequently threatens to consume him as he propels himself towards the American Dream.
Note: The Tom Drake Experience is unfinished, with no recent updates.
Listed: Aug 19, 2008
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Dec 31, 2008: It is often easy for one writer to recognize when a fellow writer has tried too hard in his fiction. This is when prose is no longer hot lightning from head to hand, but something decidedly more difficult and less inspired: ie, the careful task of forming whole words, perfect words, in the absence of creative heat. All of us deal with these moments from time to time: we call them our ‘blocks’. But when a piece of writing is overexamined, is too carefully written to impress, then you’ve got yourself a problem. A story is always strongest when it’s too hot to handle, when you can’t afford to not put it down on the page, sweating as you do so; and it shows, everytime, when you’re actually producing from a place like this. It is unfortunate then that The Tom Drake Experience does not come from such a place.
I am approaching my review of The Tom Drake Experience with two theses in mind. That, first of all, it is entirely possible to explore an idea or a concept through literature, but that the story expressing this idea should be substantive enough to stand on its own, and not be overshadowed by it. This is largely personal preference, mind, because I am aware that there are novels out there which are rewarded for doing precisely this – The Inheritance of Loss and The Catcher in The Rye both spring to mind. But the second thesis on which I am basing this review is: if you want to write a novel in such a tradition, you will have to write it well. You will, in other words, have to allow your language to make up for a lack in the other departments, as well as to support and paint this idea of yours in strong, bright strokes. Only then will you have produced something worth reading.
The Tom Drake Experience is a stab at literary fiction. The about page itself says, quite ambitiously: "The TDE explores a concept . . . (it) explores that which we cannot help but admire, revere and envy."
This is a good idea, and the writer begins by throwing you into Tom’s head. And what a head that is! Tom is an insecure, self-loathing individual, who latches on to gym and fashion to turn himself into somebody worth admiring. The world to Tom is a land of superficial needs and primal urges, and his existence is distilled to nothing more than the amount of respect he is given, the amount of respect he is due, and the amount of worldly conquests he believes the world owes to him. Tom, in simple terms, is a very repulsive individual.
But Tom’s view is also vastly under-utilized. Let us ask ourselves simple questions: what does Tom work as? Is Lexi his wife? If she is (and I believe the writer says she is), then why is vast swathes of their shared lives together not explained to us? The Tom Drake Experience is a very weak story – women are conquests to Tom, and are presented as such; pivotal moments in the story are not expounded upon and explored like they should (his anger in the bar – what were the consequences? What made him change? Why did he react like that?! Is that strong enough a reason?)
A possible explanation for this is that at 27 chapters, the work is still new. But I’m not sure if this will improve as the story goes on – if past experience is any indication, this particular writer is more than happy to let the idea overtake the story. And why write a story, then, if a well composed essay can accomplish the same thing? Idea based literature (Animal Farm, Lord of The Flies) works best when there are strong things to say, and an equally strong story to say it with.
There is a previous review in WFG by Grace McDermott that says, and I quote: "The style is also somehow awkward – it doesn’t flow as it should." This is true, certainly, but it’s also very hard to pinpoint exactly why the writing doesn’t work. At first glance the writing on TDE seems superb – the endings of each chapter, for instance, are often poignant and sometimes tactile – the first chapter ends with
"In this way, Tom Drake became more than a man."
. . . and isn’t that beautiful? But the problems with TDE’s writing are stuck somewhere on the plane of the competent writer, and it takes a bit more effort to distill this out.
Let me begin by defining what a Steinbeck-statement is. For the purpose of this review (and also because using literary terms can sometimes come across as being pretentious) what I call a Steinbeck-statement is the act of taking what is obvious only to you, and making it obvious to other people. Through words. A good example of this is:
"Certain individuals, not by any means always deserving, are beloved of the gods. Things come to them without their effort or planning. Will Hamilton was one of these." (from Steinbeck, East Of Eden)
Steinbeck-statements make up one form of good writing if used well, and Nobel-prize-winning John was a master of them. (Also, the very first paragraph of this review consisted mostly of Steinbeck-statements -which I happen to be fond of, though I’m not sure if it’s called anything like this in actual literary classes, or if you’ve noticed this type of style. But that’s digressing.)
The point here is that TDE is filled with Steinbeck-statements. And the problem with Steinbeck-statements is that if the wordplay isn’t clever enough, or if it isn’t identifiable in a way that would surprise or delight the reader, or if the reader (God forbid) can’t even identify with it at all . . . then what you get is awkward style. Let me throw you an example from Drake:
"She was a girl who could make a man hornier than a few dozen oysters shot with vodka, and the power imbibed from this reality sent Tom’s blood roiling." (Chapter 12: Raw Bar)
TDE’s stylistic problem is that of wordplay. Some people are born with an innate ability to put words together in ways that surprise and delight readers; others have to take a considerable amount of time to get there. Drake is written by somebody who’s still getting there, who often comes up with brilliant stuff (check out the 2nd-last paragraph of Tom Drake’s first chapter), but more often than not produces such awkward sentences as: "The waves had returned and kept coming. Miserable cold mixed with weakness tore at Tom." (Chapter 15: Anemia)
This is how you tell if a writer is trying too hard, without the lightning of a good story: he puts beautiful words together in ways that often end up awkward. You don’t just smell the sweat of labour on the pages of Tom Drake; you often come away with blood instead.
This review is long because I think The Tom Drake Experience is worth my time. It might not be for you, but I enjoyed one of the few literary attempts in web fiction. But this I have to conclude: Drake is one story that tries so much, and tries so hard, but ultimately comes up short.
(NB: Review depends on context. As of time of writing the work stands at chapter 27. It may yet improve)
Sep 6, 2008: Tom Drake is deeply insecure. He hates all that he was. He wishes to be someone else.
It isn’t often that I find myself disagreeing with Grace’s reviews, but on The Tom Drake Experience, I totally do. I’m not going to go so far as to say it’s brilliant, but, to date, at Chapter 24, I think it’s pretty damned good.
This is a story that builds slowly. It starts as shallow [more . . .]
Aug 21, 2008: (Review written after reading 10 chapters).
A part of me feels as though I’m reading a paid advertisement – so many brands are mentioned, and their features and details are expounded upon.
I feel as though I’m reading about the life of a magazine ad – not the model within, who is probably only using their body to pay for university, but the character portrayed within. The man at the bar with [more . . .]
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Jan 4, 2009: Very rarely does a writer capture both a character’s emotional depths and the culture which produced them. Seth K. succeeds at both. He succeeds at drawing a realistic portrait of our celebrity-addled culture and conjuring a remarkable representative for that culture.
When I first read the novel, I became carried away by the beauty of the language. Ironically, this very language is being contested within the WFG forums; see Eli’s criticism. But to me, Seth has an incredibly light hand at [more . . .]
Aug 19, 2008: Young urban professionals, the Esquire generation, can relate to The Tom Drake Experience. It’s somewhat like Fight Club without the blood and gore. The influence of Tom Chiarella is palpable.