Book Review: Pearl by Josh Malerman

When you’re approaching a story about a sentient, malevolent pig, as a reader or writer, the first question you have to ask is: Is this going to be a self-aware approach, or take itself completely seriously?

It’s a question Malerman never seems to find the answer to. On the one hand, there are many scenes throughout the novel that are designed to scare the pants off the reader (and at least one that succeeded in that attempt) and instill a genuine sense of evil in the narrative. On the other hand…it’s a story about a sentient pig named Pearl. Horror is no stranger to creating powerful tales out of the absurd, oftentimes ending up even more frightening for how wild the situation that confronts the characters is. Here, there’s an indecisiveness: no matter which road, it should be fun. Trying to split in half and go down both simultaneously  results in a very flat, aimless feeling. It’s like finally digging into a meal you’ve been preparing all day only to realize on the first bite that you forgot a crucial spice. 

I know it’s incredibly cliche to say “Horror is only effective if you care about the characters it’s happening to.” But in many cases, it’s just true. Thinking back on my initial review of Cujo, an outstanding novel that still held up on my reread just a few months ago, it’s a deep, layered story about two separate families on opposite ends (geographically and economically) of Castle Rock. The giant rabid dog is just the violent freak hurricane that blows a path of destruction right down the middle. But it works because we get to know these characters; we care about the decisions they make in stressful situations, and those decisions are defined by the real-life problems they were in the midst of facing before Cujo ever even entered the picture. 

In Pearl, however, there is no point in which the characters feel deep or developed. What do I care of Susan, whose only known traits are being pretty and having once been ticketed for throwing a loud party? Why do I care what happens to Mitch and Jerry when the only thing we’ve been told about them is that they like to get high whenever they can? The answer is: I don’t. Is it fair to say that Pearl is given more depth, history, and exposition than any of the characters in this story? Probably, though that’s not in its favor; the most effective scenes in the whole novel are the ones where Pearl is not physically present at all, but only suggested, using the personal fears of characters to instill dread and hesitation in them. Pearl is like an impressionist painting in that every time we get too close, the effect begins to break apart. 

It’s not one of my reviews if I don’t touch on the writing (and I’ll throw in pacing here as well), and I was shocked. If this had been written under a pseudonym, I’d have never known this was a Malerman book. The quality in writing and storytelling here is such a sharp decline after the brilliance of Bird Box and Malorie, which I was raving about just a month ago. Short sentence fragments, followed by one-sentence paragraphs for dramatic effect. It doesn’t flow well. We were also treated several times to babbling run-on sentence that lasted nearly a full page if not more.

(Here’s some examples: “He copied, alright. He practically copied in his pants.” “The woo woo sounded as crazy as the thoughts that traveled woo woo through his mind…” “Bad momming. That was clearly bad momming.”) 

Both of these components together reminded me sharply of Imaginary Friend, and my friends know I regard that book as perhaps the worst of all time. Additionally like Chbosky’s miserable tome, the pacing in Pearl is all over the place. It gets into the action fairly quickly, but when you realize the bulk of the novel will take place on a single night, just a few hours, you get the sense of being stuck in a limbo of climax, that some crucial peak had already been reached so why, WHY is the story still going? In both Pearl and Imaginary Friend, I was left with the strong sense that writers were trying on Stephen King’s style, and the fit was not right. 

I’ll stop tearing this book apart, now, but I have to be honest, and I honestly feel that this is one of the worst and most disappointing books of the year. In terms of setup versus execution, writing, pacing, and voice, it felt much more on par with something Grady Hendrix would put out (and if you check out my review of The Final Girl Support Group you’ll know I don’t mean that as a compliment). 

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