I went through Valhalla Rising by Clive Cussler kind of like a minion from Despicable Me 2. You know, the normal, happy, helpful minion…
… who got injected with some kind of evil serum and turned into a wild, raging, irrational creature.
I was fine as long as I reminded myself, Focus on the story. Not the writing, not the characterization. Certainly not Dirk Pitt, oh my gosh. But the story.
It was a cool story. The plot unfolds enjoyably as you go, getting bigger and more complex with each turn. Dirk Pitt (focus, focus, remember the story) has to find out who deliberately sabotaged, burned, and then blew up a cruise ship.
Oh my flaming dang it, Dirk Pitt! With his “opaline green eyes” with a “hypnotic quality” that leads “especially women” to trust him… mind you, he’s observing all this about himself as he looks in the mirror… or his reflection in an airplane window…
Right, the story. Breathe. Focus.
The investigation involves exploring the undersea wreckage, rescuing a hijacked ship, an air fight between antique WWI planes over New York City, and narrowly saving everyone on a crippled luxury submarine.
I can honestly lose myself in the story when Cussler is describing a dive, searching a shipwreck, the scenery (no, really! Somebody who can actually write engaging scenery description!), and a dire situation in which there’s no obvious escape. He rises to the level of a passable writer and good storyteller. It’s like when you bite down on a sore tooth; for a moment, it’s okay. Then you let up, and all the pain comes rushing back.
Usually in the form of Dirk Pitt.
6’3″ and 185 pounds, tanned and craggy and handsome. Granted, he’s about 347% better in this book than he was in 1975’s Iceberg. There he was a fairly disgusting chauvinist; when the Token Female Character gets upset and distressed because they nearly died and then Pitt killed a man, Pitt sneers to his buddy, “Must be on her period.” 2003 Pitt would never say that. He’s very sensitive to the ladies. Because Pitt knows the ladies.
He spots a drowning woman, but can tell she’s beautiful. He contacts an officer of the doomed ship to explain that both his ship and the cruise ship are in danger. Finds out that the officer is female, and says, “You’re an intrepid lady. When all this is over, I hope we can meet. Dinner’s on me.” Yes, folks, while a ship is burning and sinking, Dirk takes a moment to ask a professional sea officer out on a date.
His secretary, with whom he has an “unbroken rule” of no fooling around with co-workers (oh, right, also she’s married), kisses him on the cheek and wraps her arms around his shoulders while he’s sitting at his desk. “I’m so glad to see you again in the flesh!” she exclaims. That’s a mighty warm friendship they’ve got going there.
Even a computer that manifests as a holographic woman lusts after Pitt: “It’s a shame our circuits can’t integrate, Mr. Pitt.” And he shoots back a suggestive reply, instead of looking at the computer’s creator (a male) and saying, “You’re a dirty-minded creep, you know.”
But it’s not just women. Men look into his eyes with “genuine respect and admiration.” And they just can’t believe the modesty of this man! He’s so humble and, you know, modest! They like to comment on it. “You always play the Humble Herbert. That’s what I like about you,” says his best friend. In another place, “The guy was too self-conscious for his own good,” thinks a co-worker. As usual, you need the other characters to point out these things because otherwise you might not pick it up from the story itself.
Seriously, Cussler breaks pretty much every rule of writing, and not in a fun artistic way. It’s as if his assistant found an article on “How to Write Well” and printed out the bullet-list summary. It looked like this:
* Use expository dialogue
* Account for plotholes by acknowledging them
* Use almost-right-but-not-quite-right words
* Stop the action for information, scenery, or interior reflection
* Have your protagonist stare at himself in the mirror while reflecting on where his life is going
* Tell the reader important qualities about your protagonist instead of letting the story show it.
* Repeat information that you’ve already given to your reader, including when having characters discuss what has happened.
But then the clumsy assistant (who was a woman overcome with the sheer magnetism of Dirk’s… I mean, Clive’s eyes) spilled coffee on the list. It obliterated the word “Don’t.” So Cussler took the list, and being the thorough artist he is, accomplished every single item.
Whew, okay, calming down. Okay.
Dirk and his buddy Al are fun to watch; they work as a seamless team, all strong and stealthy and sardonic. I find myself deeply regretting that Cussler thought it necessary to include women in the stories at all.
Because Cussler doesn’t consider a woman a character, exactly. She’s there to dress up the scene. I mean, I think he tried this time, but it didn’t quite work. In several chapters, he referred to the men by their last names every time, but the woman by her first name. Her first name was Misty, by the way, which doesn’t at all sound like a fantasy girlfriend or anything so that’s good. Anyway, there she was in the lineup every time: Pitt, Giordino, and Misty.
They had to build a raft and set it afloat to fool pirates who had short-range missiles to take care of uninvited guests. The men worked for two hours making the raft. Wait. Where was Misty? She’s about thirty, healthy, yes, she’s petite, but I assume she can put in some good sweaty labor? Ooh, here we go. She’s back on the boat. Making snacks.
But Dirk doesn’t even see a woman except as a body and eyes and hair. We know this because we’re inside Dirk’s head all too often. Every time he remembers his great love, Summer, who died underwater, he thinks of her eyes, hair, and body. Never her sense of humor, her intense dedication to her work, what deep passion made her dive back under to her death. Then we move to his current love, Loren, who also has hair and eyes and a body. Oh, and a job — she’s a Congresswoman. Apparently Dirk doesn’t really know what she does in Congress; he never bothers to think of the issues that keep her up at night, or the projects she’s passionate about. He just likes her body and thinks that maybe they’ll get married, then decides he’s just not ready for it. Guess it’s a lot to commit to a body with eyes and hair.
But really, purple rages aside, I’d probably like the book okay if it stuck to action scenes and dispensed with Dirk Pitt. But not only do we get Dirk on nearly every single page of the overwritten 531-page book, we also get… no, say it’s not so.
In his defense, I have never heard any experienced author, agent, editor, or teacher actually say, “Do not write yourself into your own novels, using your own name.” Because who would even do that?
Page 160. “Who are you?” Dirk asked the old man.
“I’m Clive Cussler,” the old man replied.
Yes, there’s Cussler, in his own book, helping his own hero out of a tight spot. Including having extra swimsuits (even one to fit the petite Misty) and extra diving gear on his yacht, despite the fact that he’s traveling alone.
This is where I realized that no matter how awful this book was, Cussler is above and beyond anything I can say. He can get away with whatever he wants. He makes tons of money, has hundreds of fans, and writes himself into his own books.
I give up.
And I gave up on the book, 350 pages in. I got tired. It wasn’t worth slogging through the literary assaults to get to the action scenes. I skipped to the end and saw that it involved an improbable development in Dirk’s life, which involved a lot of heartfelt conversations. Dirk’s particularly horrid in heartfelt scenes.
But to sum up: Clive Cussler is an awful writer, this is pretty terrible book, and you might enjoy reading it anyway.
Gallery of Infamy
Here are some of my favorite terriblenesses from this book.
“An accomplished horsewoman, she’d run for Congress and won…” Exactly how was this election conducted? On horseback?
“With soft brown eyes and a pert upturned nose, she’d never married…” What, precisely, does the first phrase have to do with the second one? Is it just there so the reader can reasonably hope that Pitt or Giordino can get lucky with her?
“Strangely, not one of his business associates, the news media or his enemies ever had cause to wonder about the deaths of the people who crossed swords with him… ” That is strange, but at least I know Cussler’s as puzzled about it as I am.
“Despite the trauma of the recent events, they all ate normally.” Oh, good, whew. Wouldn’t want a little torture and near death to ruin one’s appetite for tuna salad and cole slaw.
Young woman’s father is murdered, her father’s closest friend and lover is murdered, her father’s partner is tortured, and she herself is beaten up. The next morning, she remarks that she’d kind of hoped Pitt would come to her bedroom that night. That’s how you know she’s a modern independent woman, she’s in the mood no matter what.
People’s eyes do odd things in Cussler’s world:
* Eyes looked stricken
* Machiavellian eyes
* Cast their eyes on the floor
Dirk’s lady love is a Congresswoman.
Mention of this fact: 3 times.
Dirk considered marriage with her, but just couldn’t do it in the end.
Mention of this fact: 4 times.
The grand love of his life, Summer, died in an underwater cataclysm as he watched.
Mention of this event, which has no bearing on the current plot: 3 times.
The luxurious, expensive cruise ship is burned, blackened, twisted, looking nothing like the beautiful ship it once was.
Mention of this fact: 7 times.
Dirk’s girlfriend — the Congresswoman who actually could double as a model (I didn’t make that up) meets him at the airport. Despite the fact that he hasn’t called or emailed her even though he’s nearly died three times, she greets him with a sultry kiss. She greets the Token Female Character who is traveling with Dirk. She greets Al. She kisses Dirk again. He finally speaks to her: “What car did you bring?” Knowing that she always drove one of his vintage cars.
Also: “There is an erotic love between a female and a spectacular automobile.” And did you know that women care a lot about how big certain a male feature is and they’re also fine with a relationship that doesn’t involve commitment? That’s got to be all true. Otherwise I might think that Cussler doesn’t actually understand women outside his basic high-school boy fantasies.
“So,” says my inner BFF. “You’re home early.”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s just not going to work between us. I ditched him.”