Saturday, February 10, 2007

Sock, Penn Jillette

Title: Sock
Author: Penn Jillette
Rating: Good

Sock is a book. I am a reviewer. The guts of the relationship is all right there, see? I am the best reviewer. Sock is a good book. Not the best book. But a good book. It has a few characters. Some dead people. A murderer. He's creepy. It's got philosophy. The author hates religion. You'll see that if you read it. It's also got sex. And profanity. Lots and lots of sex and profanity. But it's still pretty well written. Wham, bam, thank you ma'am!

And there you have a capsule review of Sock, in something vaguely similar to the style of Sock.

If that isn't enough for you, read on...

The first thing you need to know is that I had no idea what I was in for when I picked up Sock and started reading. As I mentioned in my review of Teller's book, I like Penn & Teller's brand of magic. I acquired Sock based entirely on that basis, nothing more. I did know that Penn & Teller have published articles in Skeptical Inquirer, and that they were atheists, but I've never seen their cable TV show, and I've never seen their act live. But I really had no expectations at all going into this book. Enough confession.

What you've got here is a strange package. The narrator is a sock monkey. Yes, you read that right, a sock monkey. Thus the title. The prose is distinctly odd, and it was the hardest thing for me to get past in reading Sock. As in my review above, the sentences are - typically - short, sharp, and simple. For the first quarter of the book or so, I kept wondering if I was going to finish it or not just because of that. It got that annoying. (It's hard not to write like that myself now. Ugh!) But then we moved out of introduction and more into the story itself, and things got better, or I stopped noticing the writing style as much.

There's another prose oddity, but it didn't bother me. Just about every paragraph that is written by the narrator (as opposed to dialog or a very few other things) ends with some pop culture quote - mostly song lyrics. These are usually related to the topic at hand, but they can be a bit weird until you get used to them. If you read it, you might be interested in a full list of the references.

The story itself is a pretty standard (as I define these things) murder mystery. Perhaps it's even a bit simpler than most. The hero is a police diver who winds up going a bit nuts end when he happens to be the one to pull his ex-girlfriend's body out of the river. He winds up with a gay sidekick and they solve the crime, but not before a few others wind up dead as well.

The truth in this case, though, is that the story is secondary. It's actually a vehicle for other things. Jillette is strongly - and I mean strongly - anti-religion. He's also strongly against nonsense of just about any other sort. He uses this novel to advance his perspective, and he drives it home with all the subtlety of a Mack truck coming through your living room wall. To give you just two quotes pertaining to religion that caught my attention:
If it's stupid to believe in a religion with a god who looks out for you, how stupid is it to believe in a religion that has no god watching over you? Buddhism is the slowest competitor in the Special Olympics that is religion.
What's the difference between god and a sock monkey?
There is a sock monkey.
This is music to my ears, as I'm both a committed atheist and a skeptic. But if you lean towards the mystical in your life - in any way - you're probably going to find Sock insulting. Anyone who calls god an "imaginary friend" isn't going out of his way to placate the religious among us.

And it's profane. Deeply and profoundly profane. Profanity flows through Sock like water over Niagara falls. And it isn't just swearing for swearing's sake. It's discussions about how to have sex, depictions of sex, and the philosophy behind sex. If he could have found a way to include it, he'd have discussed what color sex should be. Oddly, most of this actually advances the plot or the philosophy, so it's not as awful as it could have been. But if you're of a sensitive nature, this is not the book for you.

So it's got an odd narrator, strange syntax, a strong anti-religion message, profanity, and sex. Put that all together and it turns out there's a lot to think about in here. Jillette makes some significant points about how we live our lives, what we think is important, and so on. His vehicle for making those points is crass - to say the least - but the points definitely do come across. This isn't a scholarly denial of religion, but not everyone can (or will) read those. You should come out of Sock asking yourself some tough questions about what you believe and why.

The reviews on are mostly positive, but a few people really hated it. Amusingly, there is disagreement about the pop references at the end of most paragraphs. It looks like a 50/50 split (among those who commented about them at all); they either love them or hate them. I guess it takes all kinds.

I say it's recommended, if you can take it.