Parable of the Talents

by Octavia Butler

6/10

After loving Parable of the Sower (see my review) I was frustrated by this one. No the 1st wasn’t flawless, but for 2/3 of its length it was nearly so. This one, on the other hand, is more defective than perfect, and despite a brilliantly realized, realistic dystopia — an all-too-rare feat that I would otherwise be slobbering over — my overarching feeling after finishing Talents was disappointment.

Butler still did certain things very well here. The necessary shift that Olamina undergoes in her outreach effort feels natural and believable. There are the same horror elements that were so impactful the first go-round, this time chiefly taking place in a post-modern concentration camp. There’s a shockingly blatant critique of Christian fundamentalism that was as welcome as it was unexpected. There is still an emotional connection with most of the characters from the first book.

Unfortunately those are about all the positives I can point to. The pacing of the book is way off, hindered even further by the detached narration device. I really missed hearing it solely from Lauren’s perspective and found myself skimming most of her daughter’s interpolations (until the very end at least). Having Lauren interrupted by her daughter and occasionally Bankole and one other character not only threw off the rhythm but also called more attention to a narrative flaw that was relatively hidden in the first: namely, there’s no way that Lauren could journal as exactly as she did, complete with verbatim dialogue plus precise body language and movements. It’s not a big deal but it made the proceedings more difficult to engage with.

As for the pace, the first half of the book was almost entirely setting (or “exposition” for you fans of the plot pyramid). Nothing happened that couldn’t have been condensed to a prologue, or maybe even an epilogue to the first one. Nothing happened until Jarrett’s Crusaders came to town. Seriously. Nothing I cared about anyway, because the new characters, and even some of the old ones, were too thin to matter and/or didn’t behave believably. (And yes, I am including the spoiler that occurred during the 1st half.) The pace did step up after that, when stuff actually happened, and it proceeded pretty well until the end when the whole thing jumped the rails entirely after Ch. 21.

This would be a good spot to convey some of my concerns about internal consistency, concerns that nagged through much of the book but became dealbreakers in the abovementioned chapter. First of all and most minorly, we heard throughout Sowers that the border between CA and OR was closed and heavily guarded, yet in this one it’s not. What happened there?

A little more serious is what we find out when Lauren stays with the Elfords in a “middle-class neighborhood even though they could afford their own walled enclave.” So they live without walls, just in a normal neighborhood? These places still exist? Or are we meant to understand that they are in fact protected here too, a la Robledo? If not, is it just CA that is so messed up then, and it hasn’t spread anywhere else? I mean, CA was really messed up, with, like people eating each other and shit, and sex slaves and non-sex slaves but maybe that’s just localized and contained down there? And in the rest of the country there are still universities and airplanes and you can just live as if nothing crazy and horrifically dystopian is going on? Basically, California is the only place that’s fucked, is that the message? I mean I guess that’s understandable, given the current state of CA, but it would help to spell it out a little more. And if so, then why the hell are people still in California? This just made no sense to me at all.

And then the end when the pace accelerates exponentially for characters and their goals (I won’t say more to avoid spoilers), it was astonishingly rushed. It felt like Butler just wanted to be done with it already and crammed in everything, including stuff that could have even been another book. Or alternatively, it would have been better to condense the 1st half and spend more time here. As it was, to believe that all these things happened over a few weeks in Portland was ludicrous, especially when it appears that none of the followers Lauren had lived with for years felt nearly as strong about her message as these strangers she talked with over less than a month.

My passionate criticism reveals how affected I was by the 1st book, and even by some of the characters in this one. Having the storytelling flubbed like this left a pretty bitter taste. Make no mistake — the story is still a good one, even an important one, and the author’s purpose is powerful. But it seems that Butler, much like her protagonist, struggled significantly with her purpose’s execution.

P.s. I still look forward to reading as much of Butler’s stuff as I can, hopefully in the near future.

 

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