Curse the Names – or – If I had that much loose change in my car I could retire

[singlepic id=138 w=320 h=240 float=right]Title: Curse the Names
Author: Robert Arellano
Publisher: Akashic Books
Year Published: 2012
Pages: 188

First Line: She took my wrist in her hands and placed it on the padded, tissue-papered armrest.

This book was read as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers group.

Curse the Names is an odd little book. The situation is fairly straight-forward: James Oberhelm is a journalist employed by the Los Alamos National Laboratory whose 10 year marriage has turned stale. He’s bored with his job, bored with his wife, and bored with his life. In a somewhat terrified hope of an extra-marital hookup, he decides to meet a stranger at an old abandoned house. That’s when things go all weird… both with the story and the effect it had on me.

Part paranormal thriller, part psychological thriller, and part conspiracy theory thriller, Arellano does a good job at weaving a very tight storyline into only 188 pages. I especially like (and admire) his ability to wring the most out of very few words. I do think there were a few scenes that would have benefited from expansion (primarily with description) given their ultimate importance in the book, but that would have had ill-effects on the quick pacing necessary for this kind of novel.

What kept me going through most of it was that it was told in the past-tense. I assumed I was going to get some kind of resolution to… something. But with 30 pages remaining, Arellano shifts to first person present, and all hope of any kind of resolution quickly fades away as the narrative shifts to one buried in the psychosis of the protagonist. While I don’t need everything handed to me wrapped in a neat little bow, I do need something that lets me know the last 158 pages is actually going to mean something. Instead, I was left wondering not just about the story lines and potential causes of all this disaster that has fallen upon poor, hapless, drunken James, but, because the story itself has shifted into the present tense, I found myself questioning even the few things I “knew” to be true from earlier in the book. The shift in tense was quite subtle and extremely well done (especially the specific point at which it occurs), but ultimately I think it lessened the overall impact by casting everything that happened into doubt and eliminating any kind of satisfactory resolution.

Most important, though, and from which everything else stems, I found James’ drug and booze habits forced and cliche. Rich, bored, and unhappy, a once-brilliant writer turns addict and his life falls apart in a psychotropic haze. His apathy makes him an unlikeable narrator, and his drug-addled decisions and observations make him unreliable narrator. I found his characterization, and everyone else’s, to be rather shallow and steadfast with little growth or development of any kind. While it’s a perfectly valid choice to remain steadfast and keep making the same mistakes time and again, it becomes stale and predictable, which is my overall impression of not just James, but the novel as a whole.

At the end of the day, Curse the Names felt incomplete to me… incomplete storylines, incomplete character development, incomplete settings.

As a humorous side-note (to me, anyway), I’ve never seen anyone “scavenge” as much change from “the cracks” of car seats as James Oberhelm. I bet I couldn’t come up with even a 10th of what he did, and I’ve owned my junker for nearly a decade.