To hear this book tell it, the Mary Tyler Moore show just seemed to happen, and this is the story of people who were kinda sorta around when it did.
The author spends an enormous amount of time on stories that never pay off, and she seems to have no interest in how episodes were actually made. She follows one writer from her early days as a club entertainer to her eventual staff job on the show, and then to her travels in Europe, but we never get any insight on what that same writer's life was like on the MTMS staff. What did she do every day? How did she and the staff break stories, what kind of leeway did she have to alter characters? Did she have a unique take on the characters that made her noteworthy a writer?
Early in the book we're told that the show's creators were hired to write a show for Mary Tyler Moore, and then, suddenly, they have a script. We never get any insight into how that script was created, or where the ideas came from. And when those writers decide to change the script to conform to network notes, well, then all of a sudden they have a changed script. We're never privy to the actual making of those changes.
This lack of detail is especially troubling when it comes to James Brooks. Brooks appears on virtually every page of the narrative, but we don't get any insight into his creative process. We get a sentence or two telling us that Brooks dominated the writers room, but no insight into how that room worked. (Was there even a writers room on this show? I don't know, because it's not in the book.) Brooks goes from an ambitious writer to a TV genius, but we're told it happens, and are never shown how it happened. How did writers pitch show ideas? How did Brooks respond to those pitches, how did he change them, what was his spin? Brooks is one of a handful of people who changed TV forever, and this book gives us no sense of what his day--to-day work was on the show. Why, by the book's end, do I know more about the writing habits of a (sort of creepy) Mary Tyler Moore super fan than I do about the guy who this book is largely about? (And how in the world does Brooks' later co-creation of The Simpsons rate one half of one sentence about Julie Kavner?)
As for the book's narration, it is, frankly, hilarious, though not intentionally. The narrator mispronounces so many famous names, it's like she's setting us up for a drinking game. Howard CAsell? Really? Gavin McCloud went on to play Captain Stubbing, as in something you do to your toe? Desi Arnaz's last name looks like it rhymes with "has", but it really rhymes with "fez" — someone should have told the narrator. And these are just off the top of my head. There are at least 5 or 6 more. Every time you hear one, do a shot. It'll make the book more enjoyable.
There is no doubt that Samantha Shannon has a vibrant imagination and a love of words. The world of The Bone Season is meticulously and imaginatively planned, and Shannon has wonderful names for the characters and phenomena that fill that world. No doubt she will someday write a ripping yarn that takes place inside her creation. This isn't it.
The Bone Season is all outline and no story. Characters and relationships exist to tick boxes rather than illicit an emotional (or even cerebral) response. Paige, the book's main character, is forever reporting on her own response to events — her stomach is sickened, her heart thuds in her chest, her skin becomes slick with sweat, her throat is choked with revulsion with almost laughable regularity — but the narrative is so impatient and emotionally abbreviated, the reader is left wondering if she might be overreacting, or maybe has a touch of the flu. Why is our hero so distraught over *SPOILER* the death of a character she just met? Because, it seems, Shannon's story requires her to be distraught. We don't feel a thing because, y'know, we JUST MET the kid (and by "met" I mean Shannon tells us he exists.) And this isn't an isolated incident. All Paige has to do is encounter another character, and they are instantly a lifelong friend or hated enemy. Nothing is earned. Whole lotta telling going on here, and not much showing, and the result is an epic without tears or laughs or tension.
It is my understanding that the printed version of The Bone Season comes with charts and glossaries that tell us who's who and who can do what. To Shannon's credit, her world is sufficiently clear without these aides. But to my mind, charts and glossaries are the kinds of things fans end up doing on their own, when they love the characters and situations in a novel so much, they can't get enough — they find their own ways to stay in the world of the book a little longer. Shannon serves up the stuff of fandom for us, without ever giving us anything to be a fan of.
A note on the narrator: I've read several reviews complaining that her delivery makes the book boring. I disagree, I think Alana Kerr is wonderful. She does choose to read in a fairly affectless tone, and I confess a preference for that kind of read. It lets the books language stand on its own. If the novel is dull and lifeless, it's not the narrator's fault.
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