Peter the BrazenApril 9, 2014
I’m finally done with Peter the Brazen, and I feel I can say definitively now that it is the worst. The worst. I hardly know what else to say about it, or how to catalog its various failings.
I thought I was going to enjoy this book. Peter Moore is a wireless operator, and he’s the best wireless operator. He can hear things no one else can hear, and other wireless operator recognize…I don’t know, the inflections of his Morse code, or something. And he doesn’t have a lean, sardonic countenance, but he does have a tendency to smile inappropriately, which practically amounts to the same thing. So, all of that boded well. And I was prepared for some racism, because this is the kind of book where the existence of actual Asian people is completely irrelevant to the glamour of Asia. But in general I thought that this book wouldn’t be very good, but that I would enjoy it.
I was wrong. I was so, so wrong.
We can start with the racism, which is of the “protagonist who supposedly knows China like the back of his hand can’t tell the difference between people from Asian countries” variety. There was a Eurasian girl who wasn’t evil, and maybe one or two Chinese people who were well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful, but as a whole, George F. Worts paints the entire population of a continent as pretty much worthless. Not that he has a very high opinion of humanity in general — I saw here the same kind of cynicism that made me uncomfortable in Girl Alone. He also gets in some jabs at Dutch people — no discernible traits besides being boring and liking to eat — and Mexicans — the “fiery gladness” of knocking a “greaser” into the ocean. There’s not anything in particular I can pick out to take issue with, just grindingly awful racial determinism throughout.
As bad as the racism and xenophobia were, the misogyny was worse. Peter Moore is apparently irresistible to women, but I’m not sure why. I mean, if two women have similar coloring he can’t tell the difference between them (even if he’s in love with one of them), and if they’re “exotic” he makes up stories about them for his own amusement, and if a woman tells him her husband beats her, he doesn’t believe it until he sees the bruises and then asks her why, as if she must have done something to deserve it. Which I guess makes sense, since he mostly views women as men’s possessions anyway.
Worts credits him with “quaint, mid-Victorian views regarding woman,” and if mid-Victorian views regarding women consist of distrusting them and treating them as objects then, yeah, he does, but I don’t know why we’re supposed to like him for it. I kept thinking of a quote from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: “I’m told the women literally bow down before him, if that’s what women do.” Women do literally bow down before Peter Moore in this book, but no, that’s not what women do.
Then there’s the writing, which is terrible on two levels. At the sentence level, it’s hideously flowery. People who refer to guns as “blue steel” already have a mark against them in my book, but that’s just the beginning of Worts’ excessive reliance on colors for description. I think my favorite bit was the number of synonyms for “red” he used in describing a cinnabar mining city. Here is a bit of it: “And instantly he was obsessed with the flaming color of that man’s unappeased passion. Red—red! The hovels were spattered with the red clay. The man, the skinny, wretched creature who begged for a moment of his gracious mercy at the gate, dripped in ruby filth. The mule sank and wallowed in vermilion mire.”
There are a lot of bits like that.
My favorite sentence, though, was one of the less flowery ones: “And Peter was all alone, although his aloneness was modified to a certain extent by the corpse at his feet. ”
The language is hilariously terrible, but everything else is just terrible. I don’t know what to call the other level on which the writing is terrible. Plot? Character development? Basic logic? It’s probably all of the above. The way people act just doesn’t make sense. The omniscient third person narration says things that exist in an alternate reality where it does make sense. Peter spends a lot of the climactic action scenes unconscious, although I guess that’s for the best.
And nothing is ever resolved or explained. Like, Peter spends the entire book trying to figure out why the guy who rules the city of Len Yang keeps kidnapping beautiful young women to work in his mines. And I would still kind of like to know why, but I suspect that there isn’t actually a reason. If there is one, Worts certainly doesn’t let us in on it.
There were moments, even halfway through the book, when I though the whole thing might genuinely be a joke, it made so little sense. It’s not just the usual thing where an author ascribes to a protagonist all sorts of qualities that they don’t actually seem to have. It’s a more far-reaching version of that, where you can tell the author is ascribing to the narrative all sorts of things that aren’t there. I mean, it’s also got the thing where the protagonist is supposed to be super competent but in practice is terrible at everything, but that’s sort of commonplace compared to the whole story’s weird, disjointed, “does George F. Worts understand how events are supposed to follow each other” quality.
So, uh, yeah. This book is objectively terrible. It’s also subjectively terrible. Don’t read it. The bits that are terrible in a funny way aren’t worth it.