Audiobook Review: American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett

30 07 2013

American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett

Read by Graham Winton

Recorded Books

Length: 22 Hrs 23 Min

Genre: Science Fiction

Quick Thoughts: Robert Jackson Bennett takes on the American Dream, and twists it in so many bizarre ways it becomes a kaleidoscope of what-the-fuckery. An engaging plot full of wonderful characters, that Bennett sends on one of the weirdest, wildest sciency fiction adventures my poor brain has ever had to process. Some narration issues may have held back some of it’s overall potential, but it’s still one heck of a good listen.

Grade: A-

Physics is weird. Confession time: I am not one of those super smart braniacs who understands the intricacies of the way our universe works. Hell, I’m not exactly sure how my cell phone works. Yet, despite my mental deficiencies, I love sciencey stuff.  I get fascinated by talk of all the stuff smart people talk about, like The Higgs Boson, buckyballs, interdimensional travel, alternate universe, quarks, and such, even though I don’t understand jack shit about it. I look at physics like I look at music, I may not understand how the dude gets that sound to come out of a wooden box with strings, but dammit I love listening to it. Yet, somewhere in the monkey part of my brain where I still run screaming from loud noises and fire, physics scares the shit out of me. I don’t know what’s worse, being so smart you understand the laws of the universe, or being just smart enough to be scared pantless of them. Because, Physics is weird. Let’s face it, how many books start with some weird physics experiments, which opens the door to some crazy ass shit. Well, a lot of the ones I read do. I’m scared of that crazy ass shit. I am scared that someday, somewhere, some well meaning scientist is going to try to figure out just how their quantum computer works, or attempts to beam a live chicken three feet, and in process open some portal allowing Cthulhu and the great old ones into our realm of existences to feast upon our souls. Because, of, well… physics. Even worse, I fear that some scientist will be working on some project, and just accidentally turn off our universe, forcing us all to blink out of existence. Even scarier, some weird scientist with face claws and a pack mentality from some planet like 50 or 100 gazillion light years away will screw up some experiment, and shrink the space between our planets enough so they can invade us, and impregnate our throats with their larval babies. Because, really, I love science. It’s all shiny and awesome and may one day allow us to colonize our universe and live for centuries, that’s if we don’t all have alien larva gestating in our esophagi.

Robert Jackson Bennett, author of one of my all time favorite audiobooks, The Troupe, takes on the American Dream, and twists it in so many bizarre ways it becomes a kaleidoscope of what-the-fuckery.  There are a few occasions in my reviewing life where I avoid like kryptonite giving a full synopsis of a book, because some books are better off just going into them pretty much cold. American Elsewhere is one of those books. Bennett has created one of the weirdest, wildest, sort of science fiction mysteries tales that I have come across. It’s so full of these game changing moments, these occurrences that utterly change your perspective of what you were reading, that attempting to describe it to you is as futile as teaching you cat to clean it’s own damn liter box. The strange thing is, these moments aren’t like big time Shamalayan twists. In fact, for much of the book, you have you have some pretty darn good suspicions about what is happening, except Bennett knows this and uses that understanding against you to screw with your brain. You expect certain things, and find them to be true, but are shocked at just how you got there and what implications these things truly have. At times, I felt like he was mocking me, proving me both right and wrong with one sweep of his preferred writing implement. It hurt my brain. Repeatedly. Yet, despite his mind bending plot developments, Bennett finds a way to tell a pretty enthralling story, with some likable characters.  I love that there really isn’t a real traditional bad guy in American Elsewhere. There are bad people who do bad things, and there is, on some levels, and antagonist, but again Bennett plays with the traditional bad guy motivations in ways you just don’t expect. There is one moment where one of the sort of antagonist says, "But is what I did really so wrong?" and the answer really isn’t that easy to figure out. In many ways, American Elsewhere is a family drama written under the precept that every family is a soap opera, and the bigger and weirder and otherworldlier the family is, the soap opera becomes exponentially weirder. Oh, and the big climatic finale was simply epic. It was a big fight scene, twisted and turned and flipped on its head, in ways that make your brain go BOOM! I mean, it was pretty damn awesome, and unexpected, and just a bit sad. It’s really hard to explain American Elsewhere, and why I loved it so much. Wonderful characters, weird science, a creepy idyllic town, a abandoned New Mexico Lab, and a kick assed heroine with a red muscle car. Again, Bennett manages to alter the very fabric of reality in a way that makes for a wonderfully engaging but mind numbing tale. 

There is often a fine line between a really good audiobook, and a great one, and much of it comes down to the narrator. It’s usually agreed that a good narrator can make a mediocre book better, but a bad narrator can destroy the best book. Yet, it’s also possible for an awesome book to still remain pretty awesome, but lose some of its potential due to small choices made by the narrator. That being said, Graham Winton isn’t a bad narrator. In fact, I would have no problem listening to him read a book again. I just think there were moments where American Elsewhere could have been a great mind-blowing audio experience, but was held back a bit by the narrator. First off, I would argue that the entire audiobook would have been served better with a female narrator. Winton’s female voices were pretty strong, but the main character was late 30’ish Hispanic American woman from Texas. While his voice for her was serviceable, if she was maybe a peripheral character, I think his bland voicing of her character held the book back. You can make an argument that the true main character wasn’t Mona, but the town of Wink. Winton did a good job narrator if this were the case. He had a matter of fat tone that served well in the omniscient narrator perspective, but I still think the book would have been better server with a mature female narrator like Hilary Huber or Kirsten Potter. Also, being that the book was set in the Southwest, there was a surprising lack of accents among the characters. I think that the narrator didn’t need to go all out on the accents, but some subtle Texan and New Mexico accents would have added some flavor to the recording. Technically, Winton did a lot right, His reading was smooth and strong, and he paced the novel well, I just would have liked a bit more. Overall, there was nothing in his performance that would make you want to stop listening, and I loved listening to this book, but there was a small naggy part in the back of my head telling me this could have been so much better. That, with just a little more from the right narrator, this could have easily been in contention for my favorite audiobook of the year.



3 responses

30 07 2013
Dave Thompson

Excellent, excellent review, Bob. Very excited about this one – it seems like Bennett could become one of my favorite novelists, because the Troupe was just so damn good.

Weird that a man was chosen to narrate this one. Those kind of choices surprise me, because they seem so obvious. (Like why would you have a Brit read a story set in the American South? Ah, well.)

Still, hoping for a lot of goodness with this audiobook, and cannot wait to listen to it.

19 09 2013
Review: American Elsewhere | The AudioBookaneers

[…] satisfied when it ended. That’s essentially what American Elsewhere did for me. It is, as Bob Reiss called it earlier this year, a glorious “Kaleidoscope of What the […]

19 09 2013
Received: Summer 2013 | The AudioBookaneers

[…] loved this novel and audiobook, and neither Dave nor I came up with a better one-line review than The Guilded Earlobe‘s “Kaleidoscope of What the Fuckery.” Publisher […]

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