19 February 2014

I Am Number Four: Reviewed for the Critics

I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore (pp 400, Penguin 2011)

Controversy surrounds this book. 'Pittacus Lore' is the named author but is a pseudonym for a quasi-collaboration between Jobie Hughes, a writer, and James Frey, a writer-publisher-cum-marketing-department-superhero. Frey is accused of exploitative contracting (though his products, nevertheless, sell). To discredit the work on that basis discredits the author. To criticise I Am Number Four due to what Frey may or may not have done is misguided. Notwithstanding much of the internet criticism against Frey is speculative, question-begging, and ill-informed heroism, even if Frey’s critics were more rigorous, Frey’s reputation is not at stake. That is, the book is Hughes’ work and it is Hughes’ skill that should be scrutinised--not the publisher.

I wrote notes as I read I Am Number Four and did not read others’ reviews beforehand. Others’ opinions therefore did not influence me. I discovered Frey’s critics afterwards, too. So my words are not biased in that respect either. It is hoped that more honesty results.

1. Style and Controversy

I Am Number Four is also a film now. The film is good. The book is good. The book may be better: the story builds smoother and characters develop in more comprehensible increments. To enjoy the I Am Number Four novel fully, readers may have to be unperturbed by the style, which can be difficult at times.

That style is--mostly--first person, present tense, active voice. While it usually reads well it is not always consistent. The few times the text would benefit from inconsistency by lapsing to past tense, Lore sticks rigidly to it: 'I am tackled', he writes, which makes the prose stumble. When the pace slows, then, the style can seem clunky. If the clunkiness persists in the faster-action it is unnoticeable.

2. Story: From Movie to Novel

It soon becomes clear the film and book diverge more than is usual in dual projects. Scenes are not just rewritten or excluded in either version but added to, also. In both formats but especially in the novel the plot is fast-paced, plot-driven, and conflict-centred. Lore favours these traits, pushing other literary qualities aside. In so doing, some technical in-world details are ignored. This may feel like an absence for hardened sci-fi fans, who may therefore reject Lore’s attempt.

The story progresses regardless. It livens up in the second half. This awakens one to the possibility that perhaps those absent background details are unimportant. Such complexities--for example notes about rocket fuels in alien spacecraft or explanations for mystical creatures' vocal abilities--have ruined other stories. They do not inhibit this one. The reason may be a faith to a simple, marketable, structure that demands thriller-esque revelations by certain, predetermined pages. Such structure limits the freedom needed to explore properly scientific elements. This leads to my next point about the narrative.

I Am Number Four is a good story. Despite the writing's flaws and despite the simplified relationships between alien species, the plot is coherent within itself. I do have another concern with the language, though: 'off of' is used far too much. By that, I mean it is used.

3. Off Of

I hate the phrase, 'off of'. It is lazy. The 'of' adds nothing to 'off' that it does not achieve on its own. Say it aloud. Now add another 'of' to the end. Add another. And another. Repeat it again. Notice how, when you get the rhythm right, however many 'of's are added, it sounds reasonable, but never changes the initial 'off's' meaning? That is because 'of' only emphasises the 'off'. I accept this may simply be a pedantic tick on my part.*

'Off of' may grow from an abused and mispronounced contracted 'have'. Consider that 'should've' is often pronounced 'should of'. This is acceptable in speech. But not in writing. Not in texts consumers pay to read. Maybe 'off of' has a different genesis. It does not matter. I think its use should still be avoided. Some may argue it is okay to use such phrases in children's books. It is not. Literate children will soon be writing adults, and they are likely to emulate the best examples they know. Moreover, children and other arbitrarily discriminated audiences deserve to read quality writing. This leads to my next point that praises I Am Number Four as a good novel in a reply to critics.

4. Character Arcs and the Ending

Warning: This section discusses and may spoil the ending. It also assumes the ending has been read, so may not make sense if it has not.

The aliens' gifts outshine the human characters’ talents. Some reviewers claim this is contrived and imply it reduces the possible conflict because the races are unequal contenders. I disagree. The claim requires analysis.

Although it is true the alien protagonist is presented as superior to his human peers in the beginning, this facet seems to be a structural device more than anything else. The contrasting human weaknesses facilitate character development.

Mark, initially an antagonist, is weaker than John, the alien protagonist. This is apparent early in the story. It ensures Mark's change--from antagonist to protagonist--and subsequent choice to save John is heroic and courageous--Mark’s human compassion transcends to an advantage and makes him an agreeable person.

This may reflect a very simple arc. But that is desirable if the alternative is no arc at all. It may also be a more complicated arc than it first appears because it is layered. One is already outlined; another layer relates to John, who is a little obnoxious at times. If John were less arrogant to begin with (notwithstanding his timidity), he could not be humbled by his and the humans' combined triumph at the end, and he would not be so relatable. The relative strengths and weaknesses are therefore functional.

5. Opinionated Conclusion

I enjoyed the first half but the stylistic issues made the film preferable in contrast. This affected my opinion. The initial preference may be uncommon in a bibliophile. But it is true here. It did not last. The book improves towards the end. Perhaps my preconceptions, in assumed familiarity with the story (from watching the film), and expecting no surprises, ruined the book’s first half for me. The book and film, though, offer different plots for a similar story. The overall collaboration is immersive. If you have so far only experienced one, you should tackle the other. Whichever way round this happens, with the book, skimming over the worst-edited bits of text may improve your enjoyment.

* ‘Very’ is another poor word. It weakens whatever it modifies. Writers should make stronger initial choices. Compare for example ‘very good’ with ‘excellent’, ‘superb’, ‘brilliant’, or ‘fantastic’. The four alternatives lend to clarity--what does one mean by ‘very good’? They also reduce the word count. And the overall result is livelier, picturesque text.

Created: 7 February 2014. Version 1.1: 10 July 2016.

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