Monday, January 11, 2010



Sitting here with this book in my lap, I am assailed by the memory of a painful phone call from my son. Last winter he put in a stint in Hollywood at Kennedy-Marshall, the producers of Steven Spielberg’s movies, and of last year’s Oscar-nominated The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Perhaps the memory was triggered by the fact that Brad Pitt, who played Benjamin Button, appears in the second chapter of Pilarski’s book. (” ‘Look! It’s Brad Pitt!’ Jodie whispered her scream [sic]. . . In fact, it was not Brad Pitt they saw . . . But the differences made for two very different men. Where Brad Pitt had romantically intense blue eyes, Dan’s were dark brown, with an almost metallic sheen, so that when looking him in the eye one only saw a reflection. Where Brad had full lips, Dan’s were sparely chiseled. Where Brad exuded an athletic ease, Dan moved with reserve. But one thing was certain: the man the ladies sighted was about to become one of the most important men in the world.”

More likely, though, the memory was triggered by what caused my son’s anguish. “Dad,” he agonized over the phone, “all these hopeful guys have sweated blood on their scripts, they have put in years, and within just a few minutes of beginning to read, I can tell whether they are any good or not. Some so obviously don’t cut it that I have no choice but to axe them immediately, and they will never even get a second read, never see the light of day. I feel so bad.”

Like my son, when I pick up a book riddled with superficial banalities, flat, cartoon characters, clumsy, implausible, breathless dramatization, I am tempted to just toss it. When one reads lines such as the above regarding Brad Pitt, or the opening paragraph (which, as every novelist knows, must set the tone for what is to come) --

“It was an idyllic summer afternoon as he stood on the balcony of his house in a tony district of New Jersey. He was looking down into a lush valley of green that surrounded a small, beautiful suburban lake. Under a flawless blue sky, here and there a butterfly shimmered as it flitted among the myriad flowers basking in the glorious warmth.”

-- does one really need to read any further?

One already knows that what awaits are such gems as: “The sky turned ominously gray and powdery”, or “Cold fear gripped him . . “, or “The soot was in clumps traveling like torpedoes towards the house . . . spewing darkness in every direction.” (These, by the way, all appear on the first page.) One has to have the courage to delve all the way to page 6 to find “For an almost-60-year-old Jan didn’t look bad at all. In fact his stocky, muscular build gave the impression of a vitality that was more appropriate for a man in his mid-forties.” How about “And, as if on some prearranged schedule, a sailboat would pass and silhouette itself against the melting orange sun that poured itself like shimmering red liquid into the pink-gray horizon.”? Or “When provoked, he used his piercing glare as a weapon. Those exposed to it felt immediately uncomfortable and were filled with a sudden desire to run, to escape.” “Women loved to be around him, especially younger women who, inexplicably, found his confident serenity irresistible.“ “The scent in her wake was the scent of fresh cut pears. His eyes remained on her wake for a few seconds after she’d disappeared around the corner and he smiled, shaking his head. What a woman! And where the hell is this going?” “As he drank her soul through her eyes, he was suddenly taken aback: Those eyes of hers, those irises, they were the ones from his dream.” And so it goes on.

One is soon treated to a parade of unidimensional characters, the requisite beautiful women, rugged men, an Israeli enchantress, Maasai warrior, intrepid, charming CEO (the author’s alter ego), mysterious encounters in hotel rooms and planes, the usual thriller gamut. Within the first 30 pages, one is whisked in and out of Aruba, the Pentagon, Spain, Tel Aviv, Lebanon, Teheran (caricature of Ahmadinejad, who really surely needs no caricaturing), Kenya, Granada, etc etc. And a comic-book plot line, events that could never have taken place in any world that any real human inhabits. What happens next? A car chase, a bomb scare, an explosion or two, an assassination, whateva? You get the drift. This is the stuff of pulp fiction, action movies, airport bookstores.

The publisher’s blurb tells us that “Chinese Chess is an enthralling combination of well-crafted characters and perfectly detailed events. Pilarski masterminds an American investigation that will leave even the highest investigators intrigued.” Huh? Perhaps if you love pulp fiction, you will consider these cartoon characters “well-crafted” and the unreal comic-book events “perfectly detailed,” and as for the “highest investigators” . . . ?

But perhaps I am not the best person to review this kind of writing. Perhaps the best-seller thriller pulp genre should not be judged by literary standards. Perhaps it’s not art, not skill and writerly sophistication that this material should be judged by, but whether it can be turned into an escapist James Bond action screenplay. By that standard, perhaps there is more to Chinese Chess than meets a literary eye. Mine anyway.

-- Manson Solomon


  1. Anonymous12:35 PM

    Given that you also review the poetry scene,and given that the book - Chinese Chess - has several poems,surprisingly, you made no mention of the poems.

  2. Anonymous12:39 PM

    did you find the protagonist's relationship with his dying son unidimensional?
    did you really read the book?

  3. I am not sure whether we read the same book. I found the book very realistic, with events closely paralleling current events in the world in which we live in today.

  4. I also found it to be a deeply moving human story.