I recently finished reading Daryl Gregory's first novel, Pandemonium (Del Rey, 2008). It's a very good book, and very hard to describe. There are these demons, see, only they're not really demons... only maybe they are...
The book takes place in contemporary America, with flashbacks to the 1970's and the 1940's, and it contains an astonishing range of pop culture entities: music, comic books, Jungian archetypes, palindromes, interior decorating, board games, schools of psychiatric thought, exorcists, Eisenhower's golf handicap. These are all juggled deftly and, amazingly, all turn out to be relevant as the complicated plot slowly unfolds. I did not see the major plot twist coming at all, but it fit perfectly, as does the bittersweet ending.
However, what mainly captivated me was the writing. Gregory has a crisp, playful, style that is not afraid to go over the top a bit. An example:
"The song ended, and in the break I yelled out, 'Hel-lo!' The next song started -- another eighties number, but U2 this time. A minute later the door opened and O'Connell leaned in. She was in rock-chic mode again: black T-shirt, black jeans....Bono was emoting through his second verse when she came back into the room carrying a vinyl-padded kitchen chair in one hand and my blue duffel bag in the other."
This breezy, highly visual prose is perfect for the first-person narrator, Del, who as a kid was obsessed with comic books. Similarly, Del's dialogue with his older brother captures well the tension, affection, and exasperation that can exist between one sibling who is a success and one who is not. In fact, Gregory is universally good at dialogue; he even writes lines for Richard Nixon that sound exactly like that paranoid president.
Only one thing in this book troubled me, and mine may be an idiosyncratic reaction. Philip K. Dick, as well as his creation VALIS, is a character. My problem with this sort of self-referential SF -- even when, as in this case, it's justified by the plot -- is that it pulls me out of the story, into Dick's stories. The references to A.E. Van Vogt, as well as the long discussion of SF versus fantasy, did the same thing. Pandemonium is not metafiction, and I objected to those elements that jarred me out of the compelling world that Gregory has created.
And it is compelling, from the first few paragraphs on. If you're looking for something different to read -- quirky, fascinating, crammed with interesting takes on the modern world --Pandemonium is it. Highly Recommended.