Friday, October 11, 2013


It's quite a challenge, taking a trope as concrete and action-oriented as superheroes and setting them to work in an intellectual, abstract, intangible arena like language and usage. It takes a brave writer to try.

Tony Noland is nothing if not brave.

Disclosure time: Noland is one of my earliest Twitter friends, whose flash fiction and blog I've been enjoying for years. I therefore had a fairly high level of expectations for Verbosity's Vengeance, his first published novel. Especially since it's basically a superhero novel for language nerds. I mean, come on!

But like I said, that's a pretty conceptually difficult thing to pull off well.

It's also kind of a difficult thing to read. The language and syntax nudnik (of which I am one) has to evolve the ability to shut down that nudnik tendency if she is to enjoy much modern fiction because, let's be honest, few writers are really careful enough not to commit the odd hilarious sin now and then, usually involving misplaced modifiers or pronoun agreement gaffes.* Letting those distract one too much spoils the pleasure of reading fiction.


It's really, really, really hard to shut down the nudnik tendency when grammar and usage are the very stuff of the story, as is the case here. Our hero The Grammarian (whose mundane identity has him dealing in rare and antique books and manuscripts! How can we not love this guy, Cliff Janeway with superpowers?) battles supervillain Professor Verbosity via innate powers and gadgets that turn grammatical constructions and sentence structure into weapons that work in the physical world; an early fight scene has Verbosity all but defeating the Grammarian via an exceptionally baroque and lengthy sentence of such weight (made literal by his gadget) that the Grammarian is pinned down helplessly while desperately parsing the sentence for any errors he can turn to his advantage.

The experience of reading a fight scene like that is painfully meta, the nudnik reader as helpless as the Grammarian in her struggle to sink into that happy reading trance and enjoy the scene. One can't ignore -- or enjoy -- the language when one's attention is constantly being drawn to that language's status as language. Had this not been the work of a friend in whom I have a lot of faith, I might have stopped after that first fight scene. But I really wanted to see if Noland could overcome this handicap of his own making.

Mostly, he does, by means of some clever and entertaining conceits. Like that whenever our hero uses his powers, which are derived from the language centers of his brain, whether its for attack, defense, or healing his often considerable wounds, his intelligence plummets.

There is also the fun to be had of a good round of Guess the Villain. We don't know who Professor Verbosity is; he could be pretty much anyone else the Grammarian meets in his mundane life. Is it the brilliant, pretty scientist? Is it the brash, successful businessman? Is it the pushy salesman the businessman seems hell-bent on planting in the Grammarian's bookstore? Each has qualities that might do well for a supervillain; each has an intense-bordering-on-creepy interest in his alter-ego. If one of them is the villain, do they know the Grammarian is also one Alex I. Graham, former video game tycoon and current book dealer? Do they suspect? And when will Professor Verbosity strike next?

Verbosity's Vengeance, in other words, winds up being a fun read (with a bit of an entertaining twist toward the end that really made me smile) once the reader's brain powers through the meta-weirdness. It has some first novel problems including a few instances of dialogue disguised as exposition, but it rewards the minor effort required to get past these. I look forward to more of this brainy hero's adventures.

*And publishing houses, let's face it, have been skimping on editing for years now, throwing the task to any old part-timer who didn't look busy enough that day, it seems like. And indie writers don't always have the financial resources (or, sometimes, the humility) to hire a good freelance editor. This is, therefore, increasingly a big, big problem for your basic nudnik reader of 21st century fiction. Ow.

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