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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Last Werewolf: A Bit on the Contrived Side

The Last Werewolf, by Glen Duncan, is a bit of a contradiction. On one hand, it rigidly follows its own rules regarding its protagonist: Jacob Marlowe, a 200-year-old werewolf living in modern-day London. That's a good thing, and readers should be more than willing to accept (and be intrigued by) Jake's "supernaturaledness." But then, after some initial stage-setting, the plot spins off wildly and more than a bit convolutedly, making the reader have to suspend disbelief where s/he shouldn't have to. So it's the stuff (Jake is a freakin' werewolf) we couldn't really expect to believe that works, and the stuff we're supposed not to question that doesn't. And that's why I closed this novel thinking, "good attempt, but no." 

We get Jake's "rules" right from the start: Each month, "the Curse" causes him to change to his savage, lycanthrope form, feeding on a human victim. The rest of the month, Jake spends in his human form having deviant sex with prostitutes, chain smoking and drinking expensive scotch.

As the novel opens, we learn that Jake is, officially, the last werewolf. The second-to-last has just been hunted and killed, and since humans seem now to have become immune to "the Curse" — and werewolves aren't able to "change" others to their kind anymore — Jake's carrying the torch by himself. The problem is, he's lost his will to live; he can't find meaning in life anymore. And so he plans, much to the chagrin of his long-time friend Harley, to let the hunters take him down, too.

But, suddenly, fate — or what seem like fate, but is, at best, convenient coincidences, and, at worst, terrible contrivances — intervenes. Jake is knocked out of his misanthropic comfort zone and must re-evaluate what he truly believes. If that sounds too movie-trailerish, then you sort of get the idea. In fact, Jake is constantly comparing what's happening to how it would play in a movie — if this were a movie, I could simply invent a deus ex machina to solve such-and-such problem, for example. But the problem with the novel is that just about every plot hinge actually does feel like a deus ex machina, including the denouement, which feels like it's right out of a crappy Michael Bay-directed movie.

I will say this: Duncan writes with a real flair for the dramatic (though often bordering on overly sensational or hyperbolic). And he's often witty and profound. As well, the "action" sequences here are riveting. But they're too few and far between. In the space between are all sorts of reflections on making meaning out of life and whether it's worth going on. Dull.

This is certainly an inventive story — fitting nicely into the up-and-coming genre of "literary monster novels." But, it all feels too convenient; a hard trick for a supernatural werewolf novel. Three stars. 

12 comments:

  1. Agree completely. I felt like Duncan was wasting his really fantastic writing on high school level philosophy and a kinda silly plot. I've heard his other work is better (and not as...gross...)

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  2. I'm only about a quarter through the book and I'm seriously considering giving it up. You're right, it's really, really dull in some places even though the writing itself is quite good. It has continued to slowly get better, but your review has me thinking I should cut my losses!

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  3. I've heard the same about his other books. It just felt like several times he wrote himself into a corner (Stephen King-like) and then had to use less-than-on-the-level literary tactics to get out of it.

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  4. Yeah, the first 100 pages or so went really, really slowly for me too. But then it picks up for about 50 pages and goes by in a blur. Then it's really boring for awhile again, and then picks up for the last 50 or so pages, but by then you're already kind of rolling your eyes.

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  5. The day after I got back to the States for the holidays, I was standing in the library trying to decide between this and Zone One. (Perhaps unfairly, I stuck them in the same category - you know, Literary Novel + Zombies being pretty much the same as Literary Novel + Werewolf.) Glad I went with Zone One.

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  6. I think I may have actually liked this slightly more than Zone One, but you're right, definitely the same category. Maybe it's not such an "up-and-coming genre" after all...

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  7. I've only read positive reviews of this, but I haven't read it. I'm happy to see a different perspective. I can see how pulling off this concept could easily veer off track.

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  8. Yeah, it was a weird novel in that he had a fantastic groundwork laid, and then seemed to lose his way - and the plot turns got more and more contrived. Oh, but is Jake REALLY the last werewolf? Are they REALLY trying to hunt him? Etc...

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  9. I read Duncan's novel a few months ago, and couldn't quite put my finger on why I didn't like it. I felt it was gratuitous (we get it, he's a monster), and I had trouble following the plot. You've hit the nail on the head with this review — it does feel rather deus ex machina-y to me, with a lot of coincidences.

    When it comes to action scenes vs. reflection, though, I'm totally the opposite of you. For me the action was, again, gratuitous and easily skipped; I preferred reading Jacob's inner monologue. I'm not often in the mood for ruminations on the nature of humanity, but I think I read the book at just the right time.

    That said, I still didn't really like it. :)

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  10. I think the reason I felt like the "reflection scenes" were so dull is not that I don't like rumination, but because it all felt so obvious (of course a guy who can't die is going to wonder about what it all means!), and then, so redundant. We get Jake wondering about the meaning of life for the whole first third of the book, and then we get the whole thing again when (SPOILER) he and Talulla are driving around America.

    But I'm glad we agree on the end result. Thanks for a thoughtful comment!

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  11. You're right! At about 100 pages it really started to pick up.

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  12. Thank you so much! After this starting popping up everywhere, I gave it a whirl and felt really defeated when I set it aside with no qualms whatsoever (not an easy feat for me). I felt it was all a bit contrived and overreaching and wondered if I was the only one.

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