Wendell's Reviews > The Rift

The Rift by Walter Jon Williams
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Dec 01, 08

bookshelves: trash-horror-guilty-pleasures
Read in August, 2007

_The Rift_ is as bloated and turgid as one of the corpses that keep floating down the Mississippi River in Williams' overwritten riff on the disaster/apocalypse theme. Williams has pacing problems, plotting problems and, more than anything else, the problem of having done such a massive amount of research that he can't bear NOT to make you aware of all the hard work he went through.
Williams starts off with the timeworn disaster-novel device that's as familiar and comfy as your favorite bathrobe: he introduces you to the six or eight different groups of characters that he's going to follow through the novel. You know who the bad guys are; you know who the good guys are. You know, going in, who's likely to survive the coming catastrophes and who isn't, but there’s nothing wrong with that. You don't read these kinds of novels for their great originality. Rather, you read them to see how well the writer spins a tale you know by heart.
In a novel of this size, however, that creates a massive, two-fold flaw. First, there are WAY too many subplots and WAY too many people running around in these 944 pages, yet Williams manages to write so few "round" characters that the conflicts, their motivations, or (especially) their resolutions are cardboard and predictable. But the fact that there are too many characters with a similar absence of depth is symptomatic of the poor choices Williams makes. When he does provide character detail, he often seems to do so at random. (**SEMISPOILERS**: What difference does it make, for example, that Arlette occasionally breaks into French or that she was hoping to spend the summer in Paris? What does the utterly useless and expendable character of Charlie, the” trading whiz” and soulless capitalist, add to the plot? After front-loading an extreme amount of detail about this character, Williams literally abandons him to an “I-can’t-be-bothered-with-him-anymore” conclusion. **END SEMISPOILERS**)
More damaging, from a plotting point of view, is the mundane fact that, each time there is a new earthquake (and there are LOTS of them), Williams retells the same event over and over: Here's how it affected Group A; now Group B; okay, and here's the way they felt it in Group C; over in Group D, meanwhile....
It's massively boring.
No less stultifying is Williams' insistence on quoting thousands of words from letters and newspaper accounts (real or invented, I don't know, but you won't care enough to find out) dating to an actual swarm of devastating earthquakes in the area in 1811. He intersperses these extracts, some of them rather long, at the beginning of chapters and elsewhere in the text. Here’s why it doesn’t work: (a) they all say EXACTLY the same thing in practically the same words and (b) the quotes are placed apparently at random, and do nothing to illuminate the action of the novel at that point.
I’m sure it was a challenge scouring the thesaurus for words that mean: tremble, shake, destroy, and fall down, but after the thirtieth time you read that a house was reduced to a “pile of broken timbers” or that the earth “rose up and smacked” someone in the ribs or that a boat “danced” on the river, you’ll want to reduce _The Rift_ to a pile of broken timbers. We get the picture, Walter. Really, we do. And yet the earthquakes keep coming, for no particular reason, and Williams keeps describing them as though we hadn’t already read the previous 200 or 400 or 650 or 812 pages.
In fact, Williams’ starts the book off with a great section, set in 700 AD or thereabouts, about the destruction-by-earthquake of the civilization that created the so-called “Indian mounds” in the area. But once that scene has played itself out, Williams doesn’t have a lot of room to maneuver: the earthquakes 1100 years later or 170 years after that do the same damage and they do it in the same way: they just do it to bigger and more dangerous structures. Or, let’s put it another way: Williams wants the earthquake to be a major character in this novel, but the fact is that it’s the least interesting character of all because its features can never vary. The PEOPLE are what would make the story interesting, and there Williams falters.
Finally, there’s little satisfaction in Williams’ ham-handed effort to say something meaningful about race relations or about the American south (which is, here, cartoonish and two-dimensional) or about survivalists, religious fundamentalists, and assorted crackpots. (The “rift,” get it?) He’d have done better to leave aside the clumsy moralizing and cultural commentary. It’s a genre novel, Walter, not _War and Peace._
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