With Blurb Test, we evaluate not a book but a blurb—one of the overabundant praise-nuggets publishers drop to try and entice consumers. Blurb habitats include book jackets, author and publisher homepages, and retail sites like Amazon. Often a blurb is a quick quip from a friend of the author; in this first edition, it’s an ellipses-riddled excerpt from a Los Angeles Times book review.
Excerpted blurbs are tested in two areas: validity (Does the blurb accurately describe the book?) and honesty (Is the blurb true to its author’s intent?). As always, grades are completely subjective.
The book: Ether by Ben Ehrenreich
The blurb: “A compact work of biblical noir… like ‘Bambi’ directed by Quentin Tarantino… In Ether God is one of us: fickle, self-obsessed, senselessly malicious… Drink in Ehrenreich’s sculpted sentences… language for the weary and the dispossessed, the rich or the poor. Have a seat; stay awhile” (Margaret Wappler, Los Angeles Times), from Ether’s Amazon page
It would be hard to argue that Ben Ehrenreich’s second novel isn’t compact or biblical. Ether is only 183 pages (it’s unclear why Amazon says 144; I got my copy from them) and feels even shorter thanks to Ehrenreich’s Vonnegut-esque propensity for trim chapters and rampant white space (a departure from his longer first novel, The Suitors). You could read it in one sitting, but probably won’t want to given the grim content. This is a book that should be read in exactly three days, which means the “Have a seat; stay awhile” suggestion is misguided, in spite—or because of—how many hours Ehrenreich spent sharpening his sentences like knives.
Among others, Ether follows “the stranger,” a fallen deity (i.e., God) who wants desperately to reclaim his spot at the top. Ehrenreich never reveals why the stranger was knocked from his throne and demoted to humanity, but the stranger acknowledges mistakes and vows not to repeat them. It’s hard to take him at his word, though. He is a feeble old man in a dirty white suit, power-hungry and prone to violent outbursts. He tries to strangle a prostitute. He scorches a forest. The stranger is, as the blurb puts it, so “fickle, self-obsessed, senselessly malicious” that, before Gabriel and Michael’s cameos, I considered the possibility that the stranger might actually be Lucifer, a fallen angel himself. Perhaps this is Ehrenreich’s intent—to suggest that God and the Devil aren’t so different after all, if at all.
The blurb’s noir label rings true in the sense that the book is dark, gritty, and unsentimental. But it seems misleading if, like me, you associate the word more with crime fiction and mystery than supernatural meta-narratives. There is crime galore here, sure, and sin piled high, but no one is on the case. The closest thing we get to a detective is the stranger, and the closest we get to a mystery is the question of how his story will end. The stranger makes frequent, unwelcome visits to the author (he’s never named, but it’s the author of this novel) to pressure him into handing over the stranger’s fate. This device, too, recalls Vonnegut (Breakfast of Champions, most notably)—but, for transparency’s sake, I should note that Kurt Vonnegut is my favorite author and rents a small space in my head, which he has been clouding with smoke for years.
So, compact, yes, biblical, yes, noir, kind of. Here is where things go south as far as our blurb is concerned: “like ‘Bambi’ directed by Quentin Tarantino.” (Sadly, this is also the hunk of the blurb that stood out and stayed with me.) On a fundamental level, the Tarantino analogy works in that the book has a clear three-act structure that almost mirrors that of a screenplay: Act One is 49 pages (9-57), Act Two is 75 (59-133), and Act Three is 49 (135-183). The ratio isn’t quite 1:2:1, but it’s close enough, and if you were writing a three-hour movie these allocations would work just fine (though the third act might drag—think Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King).
But plenty of novels follow a three-act structure, so that’s almost basic beyond value. A more noteworthy Tarantinian aspect is Ehrenreich’s juggling of an ensemble cast whose stories intersect and interact with each other. In addition to the stranger and the author, the book is populated by a deaf-mute woman who wants to save the stranger, a bag-wielding homeless man who recognizes the stranger for what he once was, a street preacher and jocular old man (two different people) whom the bagman recruits in his pursuit of the stranger, a pair of young lesbians, a trio of circus-worthy skinheads, a quartet of teenage bullies, a boy named Pigeon. Throw a shape-shifting, fire-breathing weapon into the mix—reclaimed from Gabriel by the stranger—and things are bound to get heated.
Violence is another staple of Tarantino’s work, and there is no shortage of pain or torture in Ether. But there is—I don’t know how else to put it—a sense of fun to even Tarantino’s most brutal scenes. (Pulp Fiction, for example: after Ving Rhames has been bound, gagged, and raped by a pair of hillbillies, Bruce Willis asks Rhames if he’s okay. “Nah, man,” Rhames says. “I’m pretty fuckin’ far from okay.”) But there is little if any humor to be found in Ether. Some passages are so gruesome, they recall Blake Butler’s 2009 novel Scorch Atlas, which takes place after the Apocalypse, where everything appears rotten, haunted, or deformed. The same way he bleeds our images of God and the Devil into each other, Ehrenreich muddies the Pre and Post-Apocalyptic, as if to ask, What if the end is already here, only no one has noticed?
Certainly there are more differences between Tarantino and Ehrenreich than similarities. Tarantino is known for the verbosity of his characters (himself, really) and, not coincidentally, the bloated running times of his films: Inglourious Basterds, Jackie Brown, and Pulp Fiction are all two and a half hours; Kill Bill would have been four but they chopped it in half against Tarantino’s will. Ether is quiet (eerie, really) and tight, with long stretches of silence punctuated by violence. And though there are mystical elements to Kill Bill, and Tarantino wrote and starred in the forgettable 1996 vampire flick From Dusk Till Dawn, he’s not exactly known for injecting the supernatural into his work—unless the briefcase in Pulp Fiction contains something magical, which, given its golden glow, can’t be ruled out.
It’s a little late for this, but here is the most concise way I can say that the Tarantino analogy is a poor one: as I read Ether I thought of at least two movies (Dogma, Stranger Than Fiction), and Tarantino had nothing to do with either of them. (I also thought of Preacher, a graphic novel whose film adaptation, if we all keep our fingers crossed, will one day claw its way out of development hell.) As for the Bambi comparison: there are some animals in Ether, and most of them die. But none of them are deer, none of them talk, and few if any of the characters in this book qualify as animated.
On honesty, or, Lost in the ellipses:
Incredibly, the blurb’s four ellipses represent the entirety of Wappler’s Los Angeles Times review. The blurb begins halfway through Wappler’s first sentence and ends on her final word, but on presentation alone, one might assume all those lines had come from the same paragraph, or at least, the same zip code thought-wise. Ehrenreich’s sentences are honed, absolutely, but whoever sculpted this blurb is a merciless word ninja. The first ellipsis alone accounts for most of Wappler’s first paragraph, including the entire context for the least valid, most memorable portion of the blurb—the Bambi-Tarantino line.
Here is the full quote as it appeared in Wappler’s review:
“In Ben Ehrenreich’s second novel, ‘Ether,’ a compact work of biblical noir, several small creatures meet harsh ends, sometimes eulogized by dismissive laughter, sometimes clumsily mourned. A mouse is stomped on, its clotting blood striating the pavement. Hit by a car, a pigeon lands in a flurry of feathers on the road. A deaf and mute woman rescues a hummingbird whose heart is still whirring, but soon death steals it away too. When it comes to the body count of woodland cuties, ‘Ether’ is like ‘Bambi’ directed by Quentin Tarantino.”
In context, Wappler is right: Tarantino is fond of carnage, there are plenty of woodland creatures in Bambi, so if the former adapted the latter for some reason, animal blood would spill with jarring frequency—as is the case in Ether.
But by making such sweeping cuts, Amazon has warped Wappler’s message almost beyond recognition. I understand why they did it—my gut reaction to the blurb was What the fuck? I gotta read this book—but I also understand why George Lucas keeps trying to ruin Star Wars, and that doesn’t make it okay.
FINAL AVERAGE: C-/D+
Evan Allgood's work has appeared in McSweeney's, The Millions, LA Review of Books, The Toast, and The Billfold. He lives in Brooklyn and contributes regularly to Paste. Follow and maybe later unfollow him on Twitter @evoooooooooooo.