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September 19, 2008 |

By Miscellaneous | Books | September 19, 2008 |

theshack1.jpgCostco is one of the greatest places in the world. Our shopping list regularly includes an oil drum of laundry detergent, a pallet of frozen burritos, and a sack of Baby Bell cheese. It’s also not a bad place to get a good deal on a book as long what you want happens to be a recent bestseller, the latest Oprah pick, newest Nora Roberts or David Baldacci, or whatever has most recently fallen out of Mitch Albom’s anus. Now I am not knocking buying books at Costco; I’ve bought the last dozen or so Stephen King hardbacks there. But for the most part the Costco book selection tends towards the popular, and often these books are inexplicably popular. The Shack is no exception; in fact, it’s the shining example. It wasn’t until a dear sweet friend gave me a copy on recommendation that I wondered what all the fuss was about. I will admit this is my first casualty as a result of my go-with-the-flow approach to Cannonball Read. Perhaps I need be more vigilant when someone, even a good friend, shoves a book in my hand. This book is teh suck.

Apparently, The Shack has caught on like wildfire among the religious set. It’s one of those phenomenons amongst Christians, not unlike the art of Thomas Kincaid, which I completely fail to comprehend. The author, according to my vigilant research, is the Canadian-born son of missionary parents who worked as an office manager and a hotel night clerk. According to interviews, Young claims to have written The Shack as a Christmas gift for his six children (personally had I been one of Young’s kids I would have preferred a gift of switches and coal) until he showed the manuscript to some friends who insisted he get it published. Unable to find a publisher (SHOCK), Young and a couple of pastor friends formed a media company in order to put The Shack into the hot little hands of Middle America. Thanks guys. Really.

*If you have any intention of reading The Shack, maybe you should skip this next paragraph or even the rest of my review owing to the fact that we probably aren’t on the same page opinion-wise.*

Breaks down like this: The protagonist of The Shack is a happily married family man named Mack who’s had a rough childhood but is now happily settled in the Pacific Northwest. His faith in God and all things spiritual is fair to middlin’. While on a family camping trip his youngest daughter is kidnapped. After a few days, the police find the child’s bloodied clothes in an isolated, abandoned hunting shack. Not surprisingly, Mack descends into what he terms The Great Sadness. Three years later, a note appears in Mack’s mailbox from God (no really. It’s signed and everything) telling him to return to the shack. Mack goes and encounters God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit in human form. He has a two day palaver with the Trinity about all matters spiritual. Mack is then allowed to see the spirit of his dead child, reunite with the spirit of his estranged bastard of a father, and learn the location of his child’s body. Of course, in the end Mack returns to the real world a changed man with a renewed faith, and everybody is hunkey-gorey, happy slappy.

Ah, where to begin when I have so much to say?

There’s the title. It evokes images of a bad gorefest film involving gruesome acts committed in the titular building by a man in a leather apron and pig mask.

Wm. Paul Young is a bad writer. I am loathe to term an author as such seeing as I am not exactly tearing up the literary scene myself, but this guy is just not good. He uses a style I like to call “grocery list” writing: “Our hero did this. Then this. Then some more of this. Our hero went there. And there.” There is no panache, a total lack of discernable style, nothing unique. It’s flat, straightforward storytelling. Occasionally, Young tries his hand at some descriptive bits about of the wild beauty of the Pacific Northwest, but it never rises above high school creative writing. He spends an inordinate amount of text describing each and every meal consumed. I never had any real grasp of his characters. The dialogue uses nearly the same voice for each character, no distinct cadence or manner of speech for any of them. The language is equally indistinct and peppered with clich├ęs and phrases not employed regularly since Andy was Sheriff of Mayberry.

Young commits the cardinal sin, at least in my eyes, of all writers. Two characters are speaking. They are the only two people engaged in said conversation. In fact they are the only two people in the scene. Yet throughout their discussion, they use each other’s names. WHO DOES THIS IN REAL LIFE? This occurs in The Shack frequently, three and four times on a single page. Unreal. If my husband used my name even twice during a conversation, I’d give him the stink eye and say, “I know my name, asshead. Don’t wear it out.”

It is Young’s lack of any discernable writing ability that causes the metaphysical fantasy element of The Shack to fall flat on its face. When Mack meets the Trinity, Young shakes up conventional imagery of the Divine. God is “a large beaming African American woman” who loves to bake. The Holy Spirit is a sylph-like “small distinctly Asian woman,” and Jesus is basically a Middle Eastern-looking man in working clothes and a tool belt. Because Young gives me little else to go on regarding these characters except maybe detailed descriptions of their clothing (The Holy Spirit dons embroidered jeans.), I kept visualizing God alternately as Nell Carter and Oprah in The Color Purple and Jesus as Schneider from “One Day at a Time.” At one point in the story, Mack encounters the personification of Wisdom, a beautiful woman with “chiseled Hispanic features.” Can someone please explain to me “Hispanic features”? WTF? I feel like chiding Young in my best Michael Kors whine, “Lazy, lazy, LAZY writer.”

For as much as I am sure Young thought he was being progressive by presenting his Trinity as an almost all female, ethnically diverse bunch, there were facets to the novel that raised my hackles and honest to Jupiter, I don’t offend easily. God peppers her speech with lots of “honeys, “childs and other minor Southernisms, giving her a Mammy air that just stuck in my crawl. There’s even a joke about Jesus’ big nose. Really? It’s 2008 and we’re still making big nose Jew jokes? During one of the many theological talks in the novel Jesus and Mack are talking about the abandoned relationships between God and humans (or something. I got lost a number of times in all the rigmarole), Jesus drops this little nugget of wisdom, “Women, in general, will find it difficult to turn from a man and stop demanding that he meets their needs, provides security, and protects their identity, and return to me.” For this, I have no words.

Young’s theology that he presents in the heart-to-hearts between Mack and the Divine also suffers at the hands of his poor writing skills, but in the end the great “message” of The Shack is just a bunch of watered-down Christian doctrine mixed with modern self-help psychology and swirled together in the spin cycle. Frankly, I can’t really tell you what Young was trying to say in this novel because I got so bogged down in the soupy theology. Occasionally, a few bumper sticker truths would pop up but nothing I couldn’t already find in a dozen other books or Oprah episodes. Not to mention there were numerous incidents in the story that made my much-churched, rational mind go into a tailspin. For example, the Holy Spirit allows Mack to “see as we see” which turns out to be looking at a bunch of colorful auras on everything. But if this is God, the great Creator of the universe, we’re talking about I think if I were allowed to view the world through God’s eyes my puny little human brain would explode like that dude’s head in Videodrome.

The grumpy cynic in me thinks this novel smacks of capitalistic opportunism. Mr. Young and Windblown Media haven’t spent any significant amount of money on marketing the book. Its popularity has been strictly based on word of mouth. In one of the last pages, readers are encouraged to “spread the message” of the book by buying up copies to give to friends, co-workers, even strangers. I’m thankful that my $15 didn’t make its way into Young’s pockets, but somehow I feel complicit in supporting him by owning a copy.

Any suggestions on how to purge my library of this malignancy and avoid letting it fall into the hands of another?

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. You can read more about it, here.

Cannonball Read / Alabama Pink

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