The Nine Planets

by Edward Riche
ISBN: 0670044563

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A Review of: The Nine Planets
by Chris LaVigne

The world is a sham and Marty Devereaux knows it. Vice principal and co-founder of a St. John's private school, Marty is an expert at keeping up appearances, carefully crafting reality to suit the tastes of his wealthy clientele. He is skilled at constructing pleasing facades. Needing to create some semblance of tradition, Marty sets up a phony trophy case filled with impossibly ancient awards for the school's opening day. Marty's school, The Red Pines, is only the most obviously fictional piece of a world Riche constructs by means of his characters' dishonesty, their bold, unflinching willingness to deceive. For Marty, the central character of The Nine Planets, the real is what you can get others to believe in.
Marty is a cynic and a nihilist. When asked whether he supports the development of a nearby natural land reserve, he explains, "I don't have feelings one way or the other. For much." This apathy puts Marty at odds with his friend and co-owner of The Red Pines, Hank, a recently-converted environmentalist leading the charge to save the land from development. Marty has nothing but disdain for his partner's new cause, detesting "people who discovered' things about themselves late in life."
Marty believes himself to be "fully formed." His life is neat and simple, much like the "ordered austerity, the tidiness, of his house" which he cherishes. Keeping his life uncluttered involves a fairly high degree of emotional detachment. "In Marty's experience. .. .nothing caused more suffering than love." It matters not whether he's dealing with his playwright brother, his activist sister-in-law, his sixteen-year-old niece, or his longtime lover; Marty makes sure his heart never interferes with a rational assessment of the circumstances and the people around him.
Riche's novel presents a grim and unsettling portrait of a die-hard pessimist-a man for whom the glass isn't just half-empty-it's poisoned. The world has no hidden meaning for Marty. He sees no reason to live other than to put off dying. He convinces himself that those who think they have a cause worth fighting for-activists like Hank or Marty's sister-in-law Meredith-are either too stupid to see the inevitable futility of their efforts or take pleasure in showing off their moral virtues. In Marty's mind, do-gooders are not motivated by genuine altruism but by a superiority complex. They pat one another on the back "for being paragons of social, cultural, and environmental high-mindedness." Marty sees activism as moral snobbery rather than a possible alternative to the nihilism he embraces.
What matters to Marty instead is financial opportunity-specifically, the kind offered to him by Gerry Hayden, a newly globalized capitalist who runs his businesses out of offices in the Bahamas and Ireland for tax reasons, and owns Pizza Huts in Lebanon. When Hayden approaches him with an idea for a chain of franchised private schools based on the Red Pines model, Marty faces a dilemma: the first school is to be built on the same land that his partner Hank is trying to save. So what does a callous old man like Marty do? Why, sell out his best friend, of course!
If Marty sounds like a jerk, that's because he is one. He's about as much fun to be around as a paranoid skunk. This is a serious problem considering that Marty is present in nearly every scene of The Nine Planets and much of the novel is filtered through his curmudgeonly observations. Riche deserves credit for trying to write his book around such an unconventional protagonist, but ultimately it ruins his novel. Having to endure Marty's company for 300 pages makes for a labourious reading experience.
Riche has shown in the past that he knows how to be funny. As well as his first comedic novel, Rare Birds (which he also made into a screenplay), he has written scripts for the hilarious television show Made in Canada, which follows a group of unethical, intellectually-challenged television producers. The series shares the same mordant sense of humour as Ken Finkleman's The Newsroom, plumbing laughs from the depths of its characters' repulsive and selfish behaviour.
Riche might have planned Marty to be a satirical character in the same mould, but he's far too gloomy and bitter to evoke any laughs. The problem with Marty is that he's not an idiot. The backstabbing producers of Made in Canada and the shallow news director of The Newsroom are funny because they're fools. Their behaviour is the result of stunted development. They don't know any better, whereas Marty's conduct is the product of thoughtful and self-aware choice.
Marty is terribly jaded, but then the world he inhabits is so bleak that his outlook is not surprising. Riche's portrayal of the youngsters attending The Red Pines does nothing to put their generation in a promising light. Worse is Marty's niece, Cathy, who wanders aimlessly through the city wishing she had a job just to kill time. Outdoing even Marty, Cathy offers the gloomiest appraisal of existence in the book: "Most of life was a pose. You went from one to another as a way to get by."
Like the first few victims of a teen horror movie, characters in The Nine Planets succumb to their fates without much of a fight. Since, as they see it, no truly authentic act or conviction is possible, they decide to forego any belief and abandon any hope of ever doing something that matters. If the world is a sham, then why contribute to it? Why not just go along for the ride? The Nine Planets asks readers to believe that the world has always been broken and simply cannot be fixed. Cathy reaches a similar conclusion when she thinks about how gender inequities might affect her when she grows up: "Yes, all that endless, boring, Jurassic-age feminism that her mother got on with . . . it was all true. But then what, what did you do?" Riche's characters know that certain things in the world are wrong, but they lack the will or imagination to effect any kind of change for the better.
American novelist Chuck Palahniuk has written about the same themes Riche addresses in The Nine Planets. Like Marty, Palahniuk's characters begin with the conviction that life is pointless. However, in novels like Fight Club and Choke, Palahniuk shows how his characters are able to channel their apathy and existential angst into purposeful action (he could also teach Riche a thing or two about satire). Palahniuk is just one example of a writer whose characters' profound cynicism does not lead to scornful withdrawal from the world. By contrast, Riche's characters are too closed-minded, and Riche seems unwilling to move them out of their easy nihilism into the more challenging realm of hope.

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