In my recent review of I Am Pilgrim, I briefly mentioned my annoyance about author Terry Hayes’ apparent overconfidence in his own phrasing abilities. The outcome of this is a lot of cringe-inducing quotes, of which I have taken 6, and put them in a ranked order (I believe the technical term is list). I’ve decided on 6 partly because I felt that it was mainly these 6 moments that were in serious need of public shaming, and partly because 6 feels like a suitable number for a list like this. A top 5 of something feels very natural. It’s halfway to a top 10. It fills the podium and then gives honourable mentions to an appropriate quantity of entries that didn’t quite make the top 3. 6 is a weird, awkward number of items to put on a list, and so it matches the content of the entries. Right now, you probably feel like this justification is quite forced, and you are absolutely right. But I felt like it would be irresponsible of me to unleash these levels of cringe without a little warm-up first. Now that that’s done, be aware that I accept no liability for whatever injuries your palm might inflict on your face as a result of the following contents.
Number 6: Weird Titanic reference
Being on board a speeding cigarette boat meant that my situation had improved – but it was also true that the starboard side of the Titanic initially held up a bit better than the port side.
This takes the spot as the least cringey quote within the selection, as I kind of get where the writer is going with it. It’s something like “Don’t get overconfident even if things are looking good to start with”, I guess. But how appropriate is it really? Did the passengers on the starboard side of the Titanic actually go “Ha! Look at those losers on the port side, they’re totally sinking. So glad that we here on the cool half of the ship are going to make it to New York!” Has Hayes put this strange line in there because the main character (Who is probably named Scott, but nowhere in the 888 pages does he find it relevant to confirm this) is on a boat and therefore in need of a nautical reference? Regardless, it’s pretty forced.
Number 5: Holiday tip for when you’re in a bit of a mood
I had been to Jeddah on my previous trip, so I knew it well enough. There was only one thing to recommend it: Say, you wanted to commit suicide and couldn’t quite find the courage, two days in Jeddah would do the trick.
I would have cringed at this one if I saw it in a TripAdvisor review, never mind in a bestselling novel. It gets me because I think the sentiment is worth putting in there, but it’s been phrased in such an incredibly awkward way. That sentence could have read something like “Jeddah – a place so depressing that recommending it to someone is a form of assisted suicide” and it would actually have been a half-decent sentence, a semi-elegant way of stating an opinion on the Saudi city of Jeddah. But of course they went with a phrasing that has a damn colon in it, for the simple reason that Terry Hayes was so bloody satisfied with himself when he thought of this punchline that he felt the joke deserved an introduction. I have an opinion about that assessment: It doesn’t.
Number 4: The least interesting opinion in the world
“Here in the provinces, without the wealth of a Caesar, it was mostly gladiators and re-creation of famous myths. Of course, those stories were wildly popular too – lots of violence and killing, but not much plot.”
“Sounds like a Hollywood movie,” I said
Is this meant as a commentary on the universal nature of humanity? A thought on how some fundamentals are always present in different cultures despite the countless generations and enormous cultural shifts that separate them? Probably, but it really doesn’t work. And again, it’s because of the inherent smugness there, as Scott-esque (I wanted to call him Scott-ish, but felt that would be confusing) is presenting this as if it is an original thought. Remember, this is one of the leading investigators in the world. I would expect slightly higher levels of observational prowess than the most basic and obvious cliche in western culture.
Number 3: Shameless audience-pandering
After prayers that night the men, so happy for him they took him to a cafe fo dinner, told the Saracen about the remarkable working conditions he would enjoy: the on-site health care, the subsidized cafeteria and the beautiful prayer room. What none of them mentioned, however, was that all the jobs had once been held by Americans.
One of the many things I took issue with in my review of this book was the blatant Americanism, including a portrayal of the entire Muslim world as western-hating, and the implication that if you don’t repeat three times daily that 9/11 was the worst thing in the history of humanity, you’re basically a terrorist. Terry Hayes is actually Australian (Look at me, doing research and everything), and I’m unclear about whether these overtones are there because he wants to appeal to a mainly American audience, or if he just is one of the non-American westerners that fetishise American culture. I’m leaning towards the former, but I’m not sure which one would make me lose the most respect for him. The above excerpt is from a part that has nothing to do with America or its job market, it is about the novel’s antagonist, who gets a job at a factory in Karlsruhe, Germany. But Hayes might have been worried that American readers were losing interest when they hadn’t read anything patriotic in a few paragraphs, so he inserted a few injections of Donald Trump and South Park.
Number 2: How to make a very short sentence seem like too much
Anyone who didn’t need a white cane could see that I had very little.
From a scientific perspective (The science in question being cringeology), you have to admire this sentence. It is only 13 words long, conveys almost nothing, and yet it manages to be overtly superfluous. Hayes decides to write the word “blind” in an absurdly long-winded way, and gets weirdly specific while doing so. Surely, not all of those canes are white? And if you’re going to get that bogged down in details, what about blind people that use guide dogs? I have to stress that this is the only mention of blind people or white canes in the entire book, so there is no context here that mitigates this sentence. If Hayes, the editors, and everyone else who approved this book before publish looked at this sentence and saw nothing wrong with it, they should be sent some white canes themselves. Then they should be savagely beaten with those canes.
Number 1: Terrible, terrible banter
In real life, it might not be a requirement for a secret intelligence operative to have good banter. But we have come to expect from fictional agents that their punchlines are as good as their punches, that they can navigate a good burn as well as a burning building (As you can tell, I’m not going to become a fictional superspy anytime soon). Our hero Schrödinger’s Scott must have been off the day when they covered The Art of Proper Banter at Fictional Agent Academy. When he is interrogating two attactive women (While going by the name Wilson), they start taking jabs at his supposed sexual fantasies:
“Mr Wilson here was just asking if you were bisexual.”
“Oh yeah?” Cameron replied. “And what did you tell him?” She pulled out a seat and sat down. She had no apparent anxiety either, and I had to admire their self-possession.
“I said you were – but only with black chicks. I figured as we were dealing with a male fantasy we might as well go the whole nine yards.”
“Murder isn’t a male fantasy,” I said.
Yeah, you tell’em, Scott!