Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Loch!

Our book today is Steve Alten's gripping, spectacular, tentacular thriller The Loch, his 2005 novel about the Loch Ness Monster. Alten, some of you may recall, gained what fame he currently enjoys by chronicling another aquatic beastie entirely: MEG, the gigantic, marauding prehistoric megalodon (and her various offspring and rivals) shark in the numerous MEG books Alten has written over the last ten years (I reviewed the latest of them, the deliciously titled Hell's Aquarium, at epic length over at Open Letters Monthly).

He's still writing those books, God love him, but in 2005 he took a slight detour to the Scottish highlands. Fortunately for all readers of good guilty-pleasure schlock-fiction, he took his well-stuffed bag of tricks with him: The Loch has it all - breathless narration, whole shoals of one-sentence paragraphs, paper-thin characterizations easy to grasp, plenty of narrative fake-outs (Alten is particularly fond of pulling these dipsy-doodles on his readers - there's a doozy in Hell's Aquarium), and even a murder trial, in case some Grisham fans wandered into the book by mistake.

Alten's subject will be familiar to all of you, of course. The Loch Ness Monster has been the subject of endless speculation and mania since eyewitness reports started accumulating fifteen hundred years ago, and for every completely debunked fake photo, there are two completely reliable vacationing Presbyterians who couldn't possibly have any reason to fabricate what they saw surface right in front of them one day while they were eating sandwiches on the lake shore one day in 1959. More and more advanced sonar and imaging technology is imported to the loch every time some TV special is hungry for ratings, but considering how many falsified photos and documents have been enshrined on this subject, the only proof of "Nessie"s existence would be a live specimen, squawking and spitting as it's hauled into captivity, Kong-style.

In the meantime, we have books! There've been countless books of all kinds written about the Loch Ness Monster, and they perforce share quite a bit in common. After all, the tangible parts of this mystery are pretty damn boring: a long, deep trough of a lake bordered on all sides by crumbling ruins and po-dunk economically depressed towns, and - absent a playful plesiosaur - that's it. Any novelist looking to jazz that up will only have so many options to hand, which is why, for instance, Alten's book bears such a strong surface resemblance to Jeffrey Konvitz' 1982 Loch Ness Monster novel Monster. Both have subplots about Scottish history that manage to drag Jacobins and Knights Templar into the proceedings. Both bring in modern-day corruption centering on the Scottish oil industry. Both feature skeptical scientists and colorful natives. And on the question of whether or not a Monster really exists, both come to the same resounding conclusion, as you'd expect. And both sift the modern evidence as thoroughly as they know their readers will demand. Here's Konvitz:

"The group's called the Academy of Applied Sciences, and they hit pay dirt in August '72, after they'd lowered their sonar equipment and an aligned strobe camera into the bay. On the night of August 7, the sonar scope printed out a large trace." He indicated the record. "Excited, the team theorized the camera must have photographed the object, too. They developed the film, and this is what they got." He held up a series of photos, apparently worthless, a melange of lines and shadows. "It doesn't look like much, I know. It didn't look like much to the academy team, either. That is, until the photos were enhanced by a computer. The computer picture looked like this." He pulled another photo. "Now tell me if that's not a goddamn animal's body and a giant flipper!"

Astounded, Reddington and Foster examined the plate.

"What was the reaction?" Reddington asked.

"A team from the Smithsonian concluded the object was probably animate..."

Needless to say, Alten's experts come up with the same evidence and reach the same conclusions, or at least most of them do (and the ones who don't usually don't live very long - it's an ironclad rule of Alten's fiction: doubters die). But lurking in the depths of The Loch is a peril readers won't encounter in Monster: the dreaded beast known as dialect. As any reader of "Star Trek" fiction can tell you, the very worst of this species is Scottish dialect, and Alten lays it on with a trowel:

"Zachary, I ken ye're ashamed o' me, but as far as these charges, I didnae dae it. Johnny C. an' me were pals. Sure, we had words, just as we aye had, but whit happened wis an accident. No matter whit ye may think o' me, son, I'm no' a murderer."

If ye ken tha' - er, I mean, if you think that you can stand page after page of that kind of thing, The Loch will certainly repay your suffering! As far as mindless entertainment goes, it doesn't get more mindlessly entertaining than Steve Alten, and in this book he's at his, um, best - mainly because although a 70-foot-long phosphorescent prehistoric shark is clearly nothing any of his readers will ever encounter in their real-world lives, it's different with Nessie. Sightings continue, photos are constantly put forward as legitimate, and every visitor secretly hopes their trip will feature a moment like this:

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