Sunday, March 28, 2010

Review of The Wild Zone by Joy Fielding

From Globe and Mail (Toronto) --

Wild at heart, stupid in head --

Reviewed by Michelle Berry --
Mar. 05, 2010 --

Joy Fielding's latest novel, The Wild Zone, begins as a joke (there are three men, Jeff, Tom and Will, in a bar) and it also begins with a joke. The very first sentences: “This is how it starts. With a joke. ‘So, a man walks into a bar,' Jeff began, already chuckling.”

The thing is, Fielding's newest novel is anything but a joke. It is serious, disastrous stuff. Full of violence and mayhem and seriously angry and disturbed people.

Jeff, Will and Tom are in a bar, The Wild Zone (the motto is, “Proceed at Your Own Risk”), and they make a bet: Who can be the first to seduce the sad-looking female in the near booth? Who can take her home? These three completely different personalities – Jeff is handsome and rugged, calm but powerful; Will is shy (a PhD student in philosophy) and quiet; and Tom is the crazed, discharged-from-the-army guy – have three very dissimilar approaches to the bet. However, it's amazing how much they have in common.

Suzy, the “bet,” isn't as innocent as she first seems. She draws these men into her life easily, each one competing for her attention for his own reasons, each one sucked into the vortex of her subtle charm. Actually, nothing is subtle in the book. The sex is wild and violent, the drinking and drugs are intense, the violence is gory and detailed.

Well, it is a thriller. This is what Joy Fielding is known for, what she's good at. And although the story is more than compelling (the jacket sucked me in), there is definitely something missing in the telling of it. The writing is raw, but the characters are all stereotypes: Tom, the violent ex-army guy, is the Incredible Hulk on steroids; his anger seeps from every pore. Jeff, his best friend, is much better looking and gets the girl, and everyone else is somehow doing well in life, even though Tom doesn't think anyone deserves it. So what does he do? He rapes an Afghan girl and is dishonourably discharged from the army. Of course, it's everyone else's fault.

And Jeff – well, he is far too good-looking, too calm and too in control. He has the perfect girlfriend, a good life. But he is so horribly macho that he will induce your gag reflex. Everything for Jeff is about sex – violent sex, sex that's good for him – and his body. Finally, there is Will, your typical student, shy, insecure and not good with girls.

Stereotypes are okay, especially in genre fiction. It's like fast food: You go back again and again because you know what to expect and you know what you'll get. But when all the characters are dimensionless and unlikable (there isn't one character I feel for), the twisted and interesting plot falls flat. Why do all these men end up helping Suzy? There isn't anything interesting about her. She isn't even nice. Is it possible to have suspense if your reader doesn't care what happens to the characters?

I guess it is possible, because The Wild Zone is a strangely compelling read. As Lynn Crosbie said in her review of Fielding's Heartstoppers, creating a story that forces someone to read until the end is an “enviable artistic achievement.” She is absolutely right. It's extremely hard to glue your readers to the page. But The Wild Zone does compel you to read on.

Is it just the violence and sex that keep you reading? Perhaps this is why Joy Fielding is a bestseller-list author. Perhaps this is her lurking talent: She sucks you in with end-of-chapter cliffhangers, violent results and wild sex. Maybe then, it doesn't matter if all the characters are idiots. After all, this is a thriller and, as with all thrillers, there is that twist at the end that forces you read until the very last sentence.

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