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June 14th, 2005


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02:40 am - The Rob Thomas Literary Ouevre
Before Veronica Mars, before Cupid, hell, before Drive Me Crazy...Rob Thomas wrote five books. I have read them all. And lo, they were good. I will now report on them, in a non-spoilery fashion, as well as note connections to VM and extract a running theme throughout all his work.

Rats Saw God, 1996. RSG, his debut novel, seems to get all the attention; it's the one teachers will use in their classes if they do that sort of thing. And it's definitely a good book. It follows two timestreams: Steve York's senior year in San Diego, and his sophomore and junior years in Houston, when his life went horribly, terribly wrong. We get his first-person narration of the present; the story of Houston is his English project.

It took me fifty to eighty pages to really get into it, honestly. I was having trouble imagining these words coming out a seventeen-year-old boy's brain. And the narrative drive was...slow. It's carried along by the strength of the prose, whether or not something actually interesting is happening.

Another strength is best described by Chris Lynch, who gets a quote on the back of the book: "Rats Saw God does something special—it treats teenagers as if their lives are complex and interesting....Thomas brings to the party one more thing that YA lit can never have enough of: attitude." I never read a lot of YA lit, so I don't really know how much more complex and interesting Rob's characters are than the norm, but he does do a good job of making the characters people. Which is necessary since the basic story is nothing extraordinary, even though it has its quirks here and there. It's a kid in high school, doing high school things. So in that respect, I was a little disappointed and didn't see what all the hoopla was about. It was competently done, and I was satisfied with the way things ended up and were resolved, for the most part. One thing I really liked was how Steve would make throwaway references to things people had said to him in the past, and then later on, as we read about the past, we get the context of the scene. The narrative was pretty tightly held together, and I appreciated that.

VM Connections:
  • One of the main characters is named...Wanda Varner. Yeah, Rob totally stole his own damn name. The characters aren't entirely similar, but they're not night and day either.
  • Reference to The Outsiders.
  • A game of I Never, complete with an "I've never not" construction.
  • An important plot element is similar to that in an episode. To say more would be a spoiler.

    Slave Day, 1997. Slave Day wins at novel, people. In contrast to RSG, I was hooked within about ten fucking pages. I mean, really, I was hooked before I even opened the damn book, because multiple perspectives rock my world. Slave Day follows seven students and one teacher at Robert E. Lee High School on Slave Day, a fundraiser auction in which students buy the Student Council members and volunteering teachers for one day. For one day, they are their slaves, as the name suggests.

    The brilliant thing is all the characters have different agendas. Why are they participating? What plans do they have? How will their lives change on this fateful day? Seriously, I don't want to say anything more because it's best you know nothing at all going in. You get in all the characters' heads, and they all have distinct voices, and their storylines intersect like less than whoa, actually; Rob doesn't go overboard trying to twist all the different stories togeher. They coexist naturally and realistically, and they play off each other every now and then. And because the the entire book comprises a single day, the narrative has a sense of urgency that Rats Saw God lacked. I do have one minor quibble, though, similar to my complaint about Weevil's spy pen. Rob brings up a question about a certain character and then he never actually answers it. So maybe that is his M.O. after all, use an ending question to create suspense and intrigue but drop it like my logic class. Slaverat bastard.

    Like Neptune High, Robert E. Lee feels like a real high school, living, breathing, populated with strong minor characters. You get the impression that there are other people with important lives besides the ones we read about. The high school in Rats Saw God never feels like that because of Steve's narrow focus. Slave Day is pretty awesome, folks. Check it out.

    Non-VM Connection:
  • A throwaway reference to a Jennings Crawford, a name Rob whores out for a character in the second episode of Cupid.

    VM Connections:
  • sunworshipper found even more than I did, so I'm just linking to her post, especially since some are kind of spoilery.

    Doing Time: Notes from the Undergrad, 1997. I recommend reading Slave Day before this one (if you can't tell, I read them chronologically), because it's also set in Robert E. Lee High, and there are throwaway references to some of the characters and events of the book. One character even gets a story all to himself. I think this school is a creative gold mine for Rob, because this short story collection is really damn good, almost as good as Slave Day itself. Okay, that may be an exaggeration, since it's far less dense. But each story packs a wallop.

    Doing Time follows ten students fulfilling their required two hundred hours of community service. Their assignments are quite varied, and each chooses his assignment for a specific reason. Be it good or bad. I was reminded of the praise for Rob's ability to treat teens as complex and interesting again. No one leaves his two hundred hours unchanged. Except maybe that one guy. Most of the stories have some kind of reveal, though it's not some sort of gimmicky plot twist but something organic that surprises both the reader and the character.

    One warning: this book is depressing as shit. Seriously, Rob does not pull any punches with the cynical worldview. Some of these characters are awful, awful people, and they remain awful, awful people. It's not till the last few stories that you can start using the word "heartwarming."

    VM Connections:
  • Sweet Valley High references like whoa. I'm talking really specific, assuming he didn't just make them up. I have this feeling Rob actually read the SVH books. But I can't fault him for it, having read the Babysitters Club books.
  • A character named Eli who goes by Weedy.
  • The use of the phrase "Gotta boogie." Though this may be another book, I can't remember.

    Satellite Down, 1998. Satellite Down has a lot of potential, what with the parental conflicts and the exotic Hollywood setting. And Patrick is an interesting main character, in that he's a good stand-in for the audience as he discovers the ins and outs of Hollywood and Classroom Direct, the news show he gets to work on. For over two hundred pages, I was hooked on Patrick's journey, what he learns about the industry and how it works, and what he learns about himself and who he wants to be. Does he want to be defined by people's perceptions of him? I mean, for two hundred pages, it was giving Slave Day a run for its money in the Best Rob Thomas Novel competition.

    And then in the last eighty pages it turns into a completely different book. All the narrative threads in play, all the burgeoning character development...it comes to a grinding halt, and Rob starts up on this new shit that hasn't exactly grown organically from the previous pages, and it's not that it's bad, it's that it belongs in another goddamn book. It's like the last third of Adaptation, the way the narrative falls apart. And it could have been so much better. Dammit.

    Rob Thomas In-Jokes:
  • A fictional movie called Slave Daze.
  • Throwaway reference to the Lee Rebels.

    VM Connections:
  • Well, there is this one thing that kind of reminded me of VM, but it would be a spoiler.

    Green Thumb, 1999. This book is completely unlike his other books. For one, it's about a thirteen-year-old kid, much younger than his previous protagonists. For two, it's vaguely sci-fi. Boy genius goes to the Amazon to work on a rainforest project and discovers...things. The language is even more implausible than it was in Rats Saw God, since this is supposed to be a thirteen-year-old kid (Rob loves first-person, by the way; he uses nothing else), but he's also supposed to be a genius, so. Just run with it. It's a nice little ride, and the prose style feels very different from the previous books. It doesn't really feel like a Rob Thomas book. Although he does almost pull a Satellite Down and get caught up in other business for a whole long stretch where you wonder what happened to the book and the narrative flow and when will we get back to the story at hand. And something about the end really doesn't sit well with me, and I'll be happy to discuss it (and the rest of the books) in more detail in the comments, but please put a spoiler warning in your title.

    VM Connection:
  • References to Wang Chung and Kajagoogoo. There's also a Kajagoogoo reference in the fifth episode of Cupid. I think Rob really likes Kajagoogoo.

    All right then. Five books. One man. Was there some sort of theme running throughout them? One concept that seemed to pop up everywhere? Yes, there was, and it's so damn applicable to Veronica Mars:

    Nothing is what it seems.

    Obviously, to get into all the reasons why this fits would be spoilery, but it's almost anviliciously present in all five books. Characters are always having their assumptions shattered. They find out things about people they would not have expected. They find that people are much deeper than they imagined. There's always more to things than what's on the surface. And a very strong subset of this theme involves family. Characters very frequently make discoveries about their own family, and these in turn can often reflect on themselves. It's such a simple idea, but it's one Rob loves to play with, clearly.

    In the last two books, an environmentalist/preservationist theme started to creep in, but I haven't seen it represented on VM yet.

    I wonder if he'll ever write another book again. I'll read it, and nothing will be what it seems.
    Current Mood: nerdynerdy
    Current Music: KMFDM - Mysterious Ways
  • (28 memoirs | Describe me as "inscrutable")

    Comments:


    From:fishinginthemud
    Date:June 14th, 2005 02:51 am (UTC)
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    I still need to find the damn books somewhere. I'm about to just give up and go to Amazon.
    [User Picture]
    From:starspentswell
    Date:June 14th, 2005 02:56 am (UTC)
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    You should try your local library and Amazon isn't as good as other places Alibris is a good source for buying.

    [User Picture]
    From:cran
    Date:June 14th, 2005 01:40 pm (UTC)
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    I tried to get Slave Day from Amazon in May, and they told me it would be a month before they could deliver it. Fine, I'd wait. When that month was up (yesterday), they sent me a "we're sorry, but we won't be able to get that item for you after all" e-mail. I've now ordered it from Alibris, but it's going to be another month before it's delivered. It's extra-annoying because I already have Doing Time, but I can't read that until after Slave Day gets here.
    [User Picture]
    From:starspentswell
    Date:June 14th, 2005 02:58 am (UTC)
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    I would love to talk to you about your thoughts. I have read Slave Day, Rats Saw God and Doing Time so far and sitting next to me at the moment is Green Thumb. I have noticed the character and plot recycling... some of the situations he revamped and made work better in VM.

    And I am in love with Tommy Parks. Don't tell Logan.
    [User Picture]
    From:spectralbovine
    Date:June 14th, 2005 03:13 am (UTC)

    SPOILER WARNING: SLAVE DAY

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    Okay, so tell me this: why was Jenny doing Clint's math homework? Why was Clint flunking the quizzes, and why did it never occur to Jenny that he actually was smart and did well in his other classes? I was fully expecting something from Clint's perspective to make his motivations clear (he was lazy? he liked having control over her? he thought it was funny?), but it never came. At least with Twilley, he honestly answered his Big Question with an ambiguous, yet telling, "I couldn't tell you." That dangling thread bugged me.
    [User Picture]
    From:starspentswell
    Date:June 14th, 2005 04:16 am (UTC)

    Re: SPOILER WARNING: SLAVE DAY

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    I thought it was more a Jenny flaw actually... That she needed to feel needed. So Clint let her believe that she was doing something for him that he couldn't do himself. Not to mention the fact that she assumed a level of ignorance in him that was really self absorption.

    I think Jenny is one of the Rob Thomas theme lessons... that people get wrapped up in what they think they know about those they are close with and that means... that they fail to ever really get to know them.
    [User Picture]
    From:casinobaden13
    Date:June 14th, 2005 03:02 am (UTC)
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    I'm jealous that you got to read all of these books. I keep trying to find them, and never can. Sad, sad Bootsy.
    [User Picture]
    From:sadiekate
    Date:June 14th, 2005 03:05 am (UTC)
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    It's like the last third of Adaptation, the way the narrative falls apart. And it could have been so much better. Dammit.

    I've said it before, but it bears repeating:

    INTERNET MARRY ME!
    [User Picture]
    From:ashfae
    Date:June 14th, 2005 04:15 am (UTC)
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    Somehow it wasn't until now that I got the connection that Rob Thomas has been writing Veronica Mars, which now, dammit, I really want to see as a result.

    Regarding Slave Day:

    Rob brings up a question about a certain character and then he never actually answers it.

    Which? Which? Much curiosity. Cannot remember. Email or private note me in OD or something!
    [User Picture]
    From:spectralbovine
    Date:June 14th, 2005 10:01 am (UTC)
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    See my above comment to starspentswell.

    So you'd read his books before?
    [User Picture]
    From:ashfae
    Date:June 15th, 2005 08:11 am (UTC)
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    Drat. Can't remember well enough, though I don't remember being bugged by it at the time.

    And only Slave Day, alas, though I liked it enough that I've always meant to seek out others.
    From:hobviously
    Date:June 14th, 2005 05:27 am (UTC)
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    I wish I had munny.
    [User Picture]
    From:cadhla
    Date:June 14th, 2005 09:56 am (UTC)
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    You do have 'local to me', and I have all the books. There could be lonage.
    [User Picture]
    From:chrisjournal
    Date:June 14th, 2005 08:39 am (UTC)
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    Now you've made me want to read these books! I was gonna give it a pass, but I'm soooo sure you hit the nail on the head with your overarcing theme, and I wanna see what he's tried in the past as "resolution"...
    [User Picture]
    From:horsefacehannah
    Date:June 14th, 2005 12:00 pm (UTC)
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    Oh yay, Slave Day is the only one I haven't read yet, so I'm glad to hear that it's good. Now I just have to find it in my disaster of a house.

    Don't forget, in Green Thumb Grady also shouts "We're burning daylight here!" That cracked me up more than a little. And I guess you could connect the spitwads in the first chapter with the Norris flashback?

    As for Satellite Down, the main thing I felt related to VM was the city of LA as a character in the book, especially when he walked down Hollywood Blvd to Tower etc. The last part of that book totally threw me off, too.
    From:downhill_spiral
    Date:June 14th, 2005 01:49 pm (UTC)
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    Damn. Now I've got five more books I have to hunt down and read. Thanks a lot, bovine.
    [User Picture]
    From:alliterator
    Date:June 14th, 2005 01:56 pm (UTC)

    Spoilers for Doing Time

    (Link)
    I just checked out Doing Time from my local library (thank god I'm home, cause my school library had none of his books), so I'm anxious to read it. I've already read a few of the stories and I was impressed; especially by the pet story at the beginning and how it was unflinching in the way it portray suicide and spite. And man, you think at the end, the girl would be all sad that her mother killed herself and then WHAM it turns out her mother also killed her dog and that's why she's so sad and angry. Rob Thomas really likes the surprise endings, doesn't he?
    [User Picture]
    From:spectralbovine
    Date:June 14th, 2005 02:01 pm (UTC)

    Re: Spoilers for Doing Time

    (Link)
    Yeah, that was like...shit, dude. And Fiona realizes there's more to that girl, and, in fact, people in general, than she thought before. But she can't admit it publicly. There were so many stories I wished had gone on longer, because I wanted to continue following the characters.
    From:babsonite
    Date:December 6th, 2005 08:14 pm (UTC)

    Re: Spoilers for Doing Time

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    I know this is like 21 gazillion years later, but I finally read it!!

    This is such a powerful book. There really is no author you can compare to RT, his voices are so unique. I loved the first story a lot, with the football player. The end of Blue Santa was so, I don't know, awful of the storyteller, but he treated it so subtlely, which made it even more awful. (Like, awful in a good way). And Loss of Pet had me in tears. I was a bit confused about Extension 4.

    Anyway, some more VM re-uses: Conathan as a last name (Celeste's maidan name)
    There were more...My brain is just not functioning...
    [User Picture]
    From:spectralbovine
    Date:December 6th, 2005 10:28 pm (UTC)

    Re: Spoilers for Doing Time

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    Oh, nice catch on the Conathan! Ha.

    Yeah, Doing Time had some really excellently interesting stories. And thanks for commenting, even after a gazillion years! I appreciate it.
    From:feeley20
    Date:June 14th, 2005 10:39 pm (UTC)
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    Interesting analysis and discussion! I'd almost like to read some of these books now. It's cool to see the different ways RT has used the environment of high school and what aspects of it (and his characters) he's willing to explore.
    [User Picture]
    From:cosmicviolet
    Date:June 19th, 2005 10:02 pm (UTC)
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    I've only read Rats Saw God and Doing Time so far, but the story that most affected me from Doing Time was Loss of Pet. It was, as you said, just a "Holy shit" moment. I just wanted to give the girl a hug. So she reminded me of Veronica more than the other characters of his that I have read so far. I was going to make a post about it comparing the two, but I'm having trouble compiling my thoughts coherently, so that's it's more than "Well, they both have messed up lives." I can't believe that story was written for Seventeen magazine originally. It doesn't sound like anything I ever read in there.
    May I also add that Abebooks is good for finding used copies of the books.
    [User Picture]
    From:shybrightly
    Date:June 22nd, 2005 05:15 pm (UTC)
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    Got here from rat_slaves and I really liked this analysis. I've read all of them except Green Thumb. And word on your Satellite Down comments. We were just talking about that over at fox1013 and how it says something about the season finale.

    People here are talking about "Loss of Pet," but the one that blew my mind was the pregnancy story. To have a main character be shown with such flaws, and yet still totally human... it was really great.
    [User Picture]
    From:spectralbovine
    Date:June 22nd, 2005 05:25 pm (UTC)
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    We were just talking about that over at fox1013 and how it says something about the season finale.

    Yeah, that's a really good point. I wasn't as dissatisfied with the finale as she was, but I can definitely see the Satellite Down issue as a, "Hm, maybe that's Rob's MO" moment.

    People here are talking about "Loss of Pet," but the one that blew my mind was the pregnancy story. To have a main character be shown with such flaws, and yet still totally human... it was really great.

    Yeah, that was a good one, especially because he let you figure out so much for yourself. He didn't come out and explain the backstory and characters, but you could tell from the dialogue and actions what the subtext was. "Half a Mind" was good too, because the unreliable narrator is always a fun trip. I also liked Tommy Parks's story, just because it was cool to see him again. That's a Robin Hood I'd like to see.
    [User Picture]
    From:shybrightly
    Date:June 22nd, 2005 05:35 pm (UTC)
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    he let you figure out so much for yourself. He didn't come out and explain the backstory and characters, but you could tell from the dialogue and actions what the subtext was. And that is why I do trust RT. Because he really does have faith in his audience to get what's going on and he doesn't talk down to them.

    "Half a Mind" was so great, in that I felt bad for everybody in that story.
    From:babsonite
    Date:March 26th, 2006 03:25 pm (UTC)

    Satellite Down

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    I finally read this one over vacation this week! What was the thing that reminded you of VM?

    And since I'm a geek, I definitely went through the book and wrote down all the connections to other Thomas works...
    names: Veronica, Fitzpatricks, Trevor (Cupid), Sean
    references: Slave Daze, Lee Rebels, Magic Mountain, Grease, Brigadoon, Sassy Magazine, Doogie Hauser
    The character also was involved in journalism, their was a sign that said, "American also spoken", they played quarters (which is what I think they were playing in LotB), and something about Simon & Schuster (which I think was the school's law firm in AM)

    Also, in the dedication of the book, RT mentions the names Conathan, Patrick Fitzpatrick, and Something Happens

    And further proving that RT is obsessed with mythology, there is a part of the book about mythology and the Phoenix.
    [User Picture]
    From:spectralbovine
    Date:March 26th, 2006 03:32 pm (UTC)

    Re: Satellite Down

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    What was the thing that reminded you of VM?

    The "I'm not your sister; I'm your mother!" bit. Reminded me of the paternity issues.

    And ha, there were Fitzpatricks in SD? Nice.

    Simon and Schuster is a publishing company.
    From:babsonite
    Date:March 26th, 2006 03:35 pm (UTC)

    Re: Satellite Down

    (Link)
    Oh. That reminded me of an episode of Law & Order:SVU

    And there weren't actually Fitzpatricks, but the Ireland guy was saying how you can tell someone's religion by their last name, and that was one of the names he mentioned.

    Then j/k about that one...

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