A FREY ENDGAME
I don’t really read much current young adult science fiction/dystopia works. I don’t think I did as a teen even, I was already on to William Gibson and cyberpunk. Plus I think Roger Cormier was about the closest they had then. I leave the current crop largely to my daughter. I don’t see a strong enough pull when I read the back covers to make me want to delve further. I make do with the film versions of HUNGER GAMES, DIVERGENT, et al. when they make their cineplex appearances. I do that so well that I’ve been dis-invited from going to see MOCKINGJAY PART I in a few weeks. Which simply proves you can’t take a Joe anywhere. But every now and then, one of them does succeed in piquing my curiosity. ENDGAME: THE CALLING by James Frey and Nils Johnson Shelton happened to be one of them.
Now, when I hear Frey’s name, the first thing that comes to mind is charlatan. Fraud. I have to admit I didn’t even realize he had been a driving force behind the earlier I AM FOUR series, another book I had missed, but caught an miserable film version of. Perhaps because, again hearkening to chicanery, his name had been left off of it originally. And on the face of it, ENDGAME certainly seems a charlatan’s game. A real life treasure hunt for $500,000 to be claimed by a lucky reader in Las Vegas for solving the puzzle encoded in the story, the story of twelve teenagers from all walks of life prepared since birth to battle to the death to claim the ultimate prize. Not particularly, in this age of BATTLE ROYALE and HUNGER GAMES, and yet something drew me to this pale gold book. Perhaps it was the Frey connection, like watching a tawdry magician ply his tricks once more, to see if he can still mesmerize, or whether he will fail. Perhaps I was just in the right mood when I picked it up at the bookstore.
The opening chapters are a slog. There are some serious gaffs in style and sentence structure that make you wary of the editors that let it run by. More worrisome, for me, was the primary character of identification, Sarah Alopay, and her boyfriend, Christopher Vanderkamp, we are sidled with at the beginning. We are tantalized with much more interesting characters from across the world, an Ecuadorian gang leader, a mute ninja, an anti-social hacker, an Aborigine tracker, amongst others, any of whom I would rather spend time with except for the primary characters for the first fifty pages. I was tempted to give up on several occasions, but the quick tempo kept shooting me glimpses, these hopes for something else. And, it does finally kick in with the reveal of the main quest of the book. Yes, the blandest Native American teenage girl on the face of the earth takes up half of the novel, but she is quickly divested of the boyfriend and paired with more interesting characters, as is the boyfriend. Frey and Shelton seem unsure of their audience and hedge the bets at the beginning, but once they move beyond that dichotomy, the book really works.
We see a real breadth and maturity of characterization developed amongst the other eleven Players. Each of the twelve is given space to breath, their own insight and dominion, even those destined to end their quest early. Frey and Shelton take the time to build up this world, an almost earth, hinted at with strains of Lovecraft’s Elder Gods and Erich von Däniken’s CHARIOTS OF THE GODS, while making it their own. Each Player plays their own part, has their own history that doesn’t bog down the story, and their own puzzle to solve within the puzzle. We get this interesting mosaic as we drift from Player to Player across the world. As per the model of the Young Adult novel, it is breezy and quick reading, and yet, there is still a good measure of depth attached – to both the characters, their world, and the story that drives them. It’s not all face value. It’s not all a charlatan’s game.
As for the real life game encoded in the book, like the footnotes that lead to website links? Well, the King of Luddites ignored those entirely. I continue to be an old-fashioned book guy. No hyperlinks in the text, no soundtracks, no websites. The interactive novel is not my métier. So, rumor to the contrary, I am not Nic Cage-ing it out there looking for the Vegas treasure. The true measure for me was, as a book, I enjoyed the plot, and I was taken with (most) of the characters. Even with skipping the lines of code in it. Mileage may vary.
My biggest concern as ENDGAME climaxed was, where does it go next? As I said, it’s a delicate balance of characters that Frey and Shelton juggle, and that balance is irrevocably thrown askew in the last few chapters. You know it’s coming, and yet, there are some surprises, and a real sense of loss. I hadn’t thought I’d developed that much rapport with them. I’ll be curious to see where the next book goes, which means the tawdry magician worked his spell on me.