Serial killer novel cuts the ice
The Globe and Mail, July 9, 1994
By Peter Benchley
Random House, 324 pages, $29.95
This was no boating accident. We’re dealing here with a miracle of evolution — a writing machine, if you will. All this machine does is eat and sleep and write formulaic thrillers.
White Shark is obviously the work of a large scribbler, genus Benchley. The bite radius indicates its standard habits. Notice the factual portions of the narrative read as though they’ve been swallowed whole from encyclopedias.
What’s strange about this attack is the cannibalistic feeding it indicates. That’s nothing new, but it used to be camouflaged better. You’ll remember that Jaws was basically a rewrite of Moby Dick. Traces of those same habits show up in this specimen, too. One character, Tall Man, is just Ishmael’s old confederate Queequeg with a fresh coat of paint. But this Benchley has been feeding on some pretty hackneyed plots as well. Look what we found in its stomach, practically undigested: old Nazis and a plan for world domination.
Of course its work seems strange to us. That’s because we’re omnivores when it comes to our reading material. We need variety. The Benchley doesn’t. It writes for two simple reasons: to sustain its lifestyle and satisfy the demands of its publisher. If you had a brain — or a publisher — like the Benchley, you probably wouldn’t vary your subsequent writing much either. You’d keep using the same nasty predator plot, and you’d stick with it because nothing in your environment would force you to evolve.
There have been some negligible alterations in this instance: these portions here, for example; where the ecological warnings have been clumsily wedged into the narrative; and here’s a subplot with the protagonist and his estranged son reconciling. But look at our gnathodynamometer (a device for measuring bite-pressure). You can see from these impressions that the Benchley only snapped at the subplots half-heartedly.
Now, I know you’re wondering if this new Benchley attack is any reason to close the beaches. Of course not. The Benchley is essentially harmless, despite its fearsome appearance. The most you’ll experience if you encounter it is the occasional mild, predictable shock and the desire to keep reading, even while kicking yourself for persisting. Stretched out on the sand in the hot sun is probably the only place you can safely grapple with a Benchley without suffering the guilt you’d expect from reading its work.