BOOK REVIEW: In the Valley of the Kings: Stories
By Terrence Holt, W. W. Norton, 2009, Hardcover, By Terrence Holt, W. W. Norton, 2009, Hardcover, 221 pages, $23.95
"Holt is my favorite writer. There is no one in the wide sea of English who writes like him," says Junot Diaz on the back cover of "In the Valley of the Kings," and that should be good enough for me because that's exactly what I think about Junot Diaz, who won the Pulitzer Prize for writing one hell of a book.
Well, it's like introducing a new friend to your old friend -- there's no guarantee they'll like each other. And though I admire Terrence Holt's sheer talent as a writer and Lord knows I wanted to love this book ... it didn't happen.
"In the Valley of the Kings" consists of seven short stories and a novella. The storylines themselves could have been drawn from a pulp sci-fi magazine from the 1940s. Lone astronaut on a doomed flight to Jupiter; obsessed Egyptologist pursuing his vision of a lost kingdom; an unstoppable epidemic that no one recognizes until it is too late. Two attributes separate Holt's work from its lurid forebears: the writing itself, which is skillful, evocative and expertly controlled, and the concomitant absence of juice. Holt flattens his stories. He steamrolls the shapes, curves and dramatic arcs out of them so we struggle not only to recognize what is happening, but also to care about any of it. All of his characters may be about to die, but to the reader they are already dead. (At least when pulp protagonists met their maker, they staggered out screaming.)
In most of Holt's stories we must puzzle through the opacity of the tale to deduce what is actually occurring. This turns out to offer limited pleasures -- especially when the answer to the riddle is surprisingly banal. "Oh, everyone dies." "Oh, he's trapped inside a pyramid." "Oh, everyone dies." (Different story, similar ending.)
The title novella, "In the Valley of the Kings," begins promisingly as a tale of a middle-aged archeologist who may have discovered a secret that will transform the field of Egyptology. Eventually he pursues his hunch to Egypt itself, where the secret -- if it exists -- lies buried deep beneath the sands.
"In any other tomb, the lack of a carving on the door would have sunk my spirits, made me think of turning away from one too obscure to repay the cost of opening. Here, the blankness set off a pounding in my ears, a lightness in my chest, a voice hinting: Here is a secret announcing itself."
But the secret (along with the plot) turns into a not-too-believable tumble from cave to chamber to underground pool that nevertheless lacks the hypnotic pull of a living nightmare -- without which some of the sillier elements of the story become, well, silly.
In "Scylla," the story that follows "Kings," what begins as a compelling, enigmatic sea yarn takes a sideways turn into pure metaphysics. A new Law has ended the seafaring life forever. We never learn what the Law is (it is simply evoked repeatedly as "the Law"), though it changes everything for everyone. And here is the problem with "Scylla" (along with practically all the other tales in this collection): it relies on our acceptance of a central metaphor that is both arbitrary and unstitched to the plot. We never learn enough about the central development to feel the horror -- if that is what we are meant to feel -- or the sadness, or heartbreak, or anything at all.
Holt is far too good a writer to have done this unwittingly. So if you enjoy good science fiction but wish the characters had no emotions or physical connections to life, if you like to skip ahead to the morning after the end of the world, then the elegiac "In the Valley of the Kings" may be just your cup of tea. A cold cup of tea. Maybe that's how Junot Diaz likes it.