Novel review: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

By | June 29, 2018

As a result of the various projects I’ve been working on over the last few years, I have many “hats” that I don from time to time––author, publisher, book agent, editor, marketer, and of course translator.

It seems rarer and rarer these days that I take time to read books in English, instead devoting a large portion of my time to reading and translation of Japanese fiction. But when I do read an English book, I can’t but help think about it from the perspectives in the previous paragraph. In this book review I’m going to focus very little on story, and instead give comments from a variety of angles.

On a plane during a recent trip, I happened to glance over at the guy next to me and saw he was reading a novel on his iPhone. While not exactly what you would consider good manners, with enough purposeful glances I was able to figure out the book’s title: Dark Matter. Unable to suppress my curiosity, a minute later I had found the free sample on iBooks (there was actually several novels by that name, so I just picked the most recent one) and began to read on my own smartphone.

This was a rare case where I knew almost nothing about a book before reading it, but being in the dark made reading the intro that much more exciting; that’s one of the reasons I’m not going to mention much about the plot itself here.

The story begins with a man, Jason, who is having an enjoyable night with his family when he decides to step out of the house briefly for a social call. Soon after, he ends up in an uncomfortable situation that worsens by the minute, which escalates into a roller coaster ride of suspense.

Before I knew it I had finished the first chapter, which coincided with the end of the free sample. I had some other stuff to do on the plane, and the short flight ended soon after, so I didn’t have too much time to think about the book right away. I did thank the guy next to me for (unintentionally) introducing the book to me and apologized for peeking over. As you might have guessed, I did pick the right version of Dark Matter, the one written by Blake Crouch.

Besides my usual work and life schedule, I still had a few projects in progress so had little time for other reading–but thoughts of Dark Matter kept coming back to me for the next few days.

I was divided because after the first chapter it was clear this was a book written for the masses, something about as far away from high-brow “literature” as you can get. But, at the same time, the great sense of suspense of this book still lingered in my mind, as did the questions behind the dramatic cliffhanger the chapter ended on.

A few days later I couldn’t help but seek out the book at a library and check it out rather than purchasing it. This way I had nothing to lose; if the book turned sour I could put it down without feeling guilty about money spent.

Only a week later I finished it, and was extremely satisfied with my decision to rent the book. While I was a little disappointed by a few of the plot turns, as a whole it was a very enjoyable read.

As previously mentioned I won’t give too many details about the plot itself. I will simply say it has a backstory founded on quantum physics, and the dedication at the beginning of the book was surprisingly well chosen:

“For anyone who has wondered what their life might look like at the end of the road not taken.”

I have to admit in my hobby reading I generally tend towards to the strange and experimental; to give you some idea, China Mieville is one of my favorite authors. Blake Crouch, on the other hand, is clearly writing for the masses–and while some people might use this in a derogatory fashion I mean it entirely in a neutral sense to describe the genre and style of the book. Despite the fact this is not my favorite genre of story, I pride myself on being able to understand the merits of a variety of genres and styles, whether it is with respect to books, movies, or music.

So what does “writing for the masses” really mean? For a book, I feel that the most important things are that the work is easy to read, easy to understand, and easy to relate to––not just for some elite class but for the average Joe and Jane. This book excels in all of these areas.

For example, while there is some science involved, it is described tastefully (and sparsely) using metaphors, so there is no long, complex explanations to weight down the story. The characters themselves are all pretty generic, with common names, physical characteristics, and roles in life (“the family man”, “the genius scientist”, etc., though these very roles turn out to be a core theme of the book). If you are looking for diverse, unique characters, I’d recommend trying another book. But, to be honest, I didn’t realize this about the book until I had finished it and was writing this review.

I’d like to talk about the “easy to read” part a little. From the perspective of an author, editor, and (to a certain extent) translator, this book had a very notable literary style, skillfully tailored to exaggerate the thick sense of suspense that continued throughout the story. Specifically, the author tended to short sentences with simple grammar, and above all the paragraphs were very short––I’d estimate roughly three-fourths of them are only a single sentence long. If done poorly, this style could have turned into over-simplistic prose you might find in a children’s book, but Blake Crouch pulls it off with flying colors.

One of the ways he achieves this is by avoiding anything unnecessary (in Japanese we say call this “muda ga nai”). This applies to both the words themselves (he frequently drops the second subject where there is a pair of single-sentence paragraphs with the same subject), as well as pacing (he only tells you what you need to know, letting you imagine or ignore the rest). He also uses very simple, yet creative metaphors throughout the book to describe things without getting bogged down in extraneous detail. If I were to try this myself I might end up with something like, “she was the type of author who would never consider quitting her day job”. While the author’s comparisons are much more skillful than this one of mine, I hope this gives you the general idea. The author also makes good use of strong verbs to drive the action. I guess you could call some of these fundamental techniques of “writing 101”, but as both a translator and author, I hope I can learn to use some of them more in my own work.

Often throughout the book I put on my “editor” hat, and found this novel to be extremely well edited. There was probably two or three places that I had a minor issue, but only one stood out enough that I still remember it: a sentence midway through the story that read, “Amanda senses.” While the author dropping subjects was a good technique to accelerate the pace, I felt dropping the object (“it”) here was overdoing it. I’m still torn on whether this was intentional or not.

As another minor complaint, to be blatantly honest I just didn’t like the title of the book or the flashy cover (the former because of how it relates to the story). But if I put on my “marketing” hat, I can see how these things served an important purpose of making the book easy to remember, and understandable to the average person. The title itself, “Dark Matter”, invokes feelings of mystery with a touch of a science, though I’m guessing the average person doesn’t know the details. I think the fact that the “Dark Matter” has been used for several books shows the universality and allure of it.

Near the end of the book, I had the sense that this would probably make a great movie, and when I did some research I learned that plans for a movie had supposedly began in 2014 even before the book itself was released in 2016. (Unfortunately, it seems the project is currently in limbo.) I also learned that a series of Blake Crouch’s novels were made into a TV series, Wayward Pines, and while I was not personally familiar with it (no surprise since I don’t watch TV much) it seemed to be highly acclaimed.

While I guess it is nothing unusual, I was also surprised by the number of people mentioned in the acknowledgments. Several people assisting with editing, beta-readers, agents––it was no surprise that making a book of this quality takes a team of people, although the author himself deserves the lion’s share of the credit.

Out of curiosity I checked Goodreads to see the reviews of this book, but rather than the score itself (4.1/5) it was the number of readers that surprised me: 129,405. (Update: in less than 24 hours after I drafted this article, the number was up to 129,474!)

I had no idea this book was this popular, but I’m glad I read to the end without being biased by knowledge of the author’s popularity, or any information about the story.

I know this article had almost nothing to do with Japanese, but if you want to read the translation of this book in Japanese you can find it here. Interestingly, the average Japanese ratings were not nearly as good as the English ones. Rather than a translation problem (though I can’t say for certain that isn’t involved), I would say that the variation might be due to cultural differences in the markets. Or perhaps stories with some of the core elements of Dark Matter are more common in Japan (it’s difficult to explain why giving away part of the story), and hence readers are picker? I actually preferred the Japanese cover, though like the cover from the English version I don’t think it quite captures the real heart of the book.

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