The Devolution of Journal Writing

If you’re like me, you’ve been doing a bit of reading during this pandemic. Not that I needed a global virus to force me to read (I read pretty much every night, thank you very much) but I won’t say it hasn’t affected what I want to read. Escapism is in right now, very in. With that in mind, I turned to the latest from author Max Brooks (World War Z) to see what supernatural awesomeness he had for me this time.

Devolution follows a group of people trapped in what I think was very rural Seattle. Our protagonist, Kate Holland, recently moved to a designed community called Greenloop to try and repair the damage to her relationship with her estranged husband. The initial problem: A volcano erupts, cutting Greenloop off from the world and forcing them into survival mode. The additional problem: The volcanic eruption is causing all sorts of animals to move through the area, including the mythical Sasquatch.

So was it good? Yes but I want to actually focus on the one area where it fails. I found Devolution to be very entertaining and engaging, but I also found its least believable aspect to not be the humanoid cryptids, but the journal that our main character keeps.

The Unimaginable Diary of Devolution

Like World War Z, Devolution is told by an investigative reporter who is piecing everything together after the fact. Unlike World War Z, it’s small-scale. We only have a couple interviews. The rest of the subject matter is pulled from Kate’s journal recovered from the area formally known as Greenloop. This means that over 80% of this novel is excerpts from journal entries.

My issue? No human being writes a journal the way Kate did. I say this as someone who has kept diaries. I say this as someone who has read famous diaries. I say this as someone with experience transcribing the spoken word into writing.

What makes Kate’s journal so out-of-this-world? Well, it seems like she is one of those people who remembers every word, word-for-word, that everyone around her says. Her journal is packed with dialogue, even foreign languages, perfectly laid out with no memory lapses.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s well-written dialogue. But like, how does Kate remember so much? She wasn’t Greenloop’s stenographer and even if she was, she would rank among the best in the world – she takes down exactly what everyone says during a volcano, during multiple Sasquatch encounters – this woman will not be denied.

There are multiple problems with this:

  1. It never really reads like a journal.
  2. It stops Kate from being unreliable and gives the reader clarity where confusion might have upped the tension.

At one point early on in the story, shortly after the eruption, we start to see a breakdown in society (think The Mist but with technology instead of religion). We have two societal leaders emerging, one of whom is actively trying to undermine the other. The problem is that, while Kate is unsure of who said what, the reader never is.

We have the transcripts – they are very helpful. Kate never even suggests that she might not be accurately recording what was said. Everything is clear, everything is finite. For a horror story, this doesn’t do the mood any favors.

Tips for Journal Writing Prose

I’ve been thinking a lot about journal writing and journalism as prose. My latest novel relies on these forms a lot. Maybe this was why I was so alert to how much Brooks failed in this area (at least when it came to realism).

If you’ve ever read arguably the most famous journal, The Diary of Anne Frank, then you have a pretty good idea of the rules of journal writing. Yes, some dialogue might get through, but you’re going to have to rely a lot more on the emotion of the moment and of those involved.

Diary of Anne Frank Journal Writing
A screen-capture from Anne Frank’s journal.

As a writer, this means thinking outside the box, you’ve got to give energy to exchanges without capturing all the words. For instance, I may not remember exactly what was said during the latest Joe Biden speech, but I recall his manner being relaxed, I remember him opening his arms in reassurance and speaking with soft but forceful words. By contrast, I remember the latest Trump speech I watched as fiery, with rapid arm movements and raised voice.

Visual ques can enhance this writing. If someone hits a chair in frustration, you don’t have to have to write down how they next screamed “I can’t take this anymore. Your obtuseness and arrogance are crippling us. If you don’t stop now, none of us may survive until next week let alone next month. It is absurd how you…”

Devolution is full of moments such as these, periods of immense emotion where Kate never once loses her perfect ability to capture every line of dialogue. See how it limits the scene in a forced way. It is clear that Brooks’ comfort zone was in dialogue – which works great in all the interview segments. But journals and diaries – those seem more foreign to him than Bigfoot.

Where Devolution Succeeds

Okay, I’ve been harsh, which is odd when I open by saying I liked this book. And I did! I really enjoyed Devolution and would recommend it to anyone who likes cryptozoology or science fiction or horror. It’s great popcorn – a fun, light read that will get your mind turning on the idea of Sasquatch and what these creatures would be like if they were real.

I especially admire the fact that I found this book creepy. Not super creepy – like I didn’t lose sleep or anything. But, in fairness, I read this in a city. If I was in the woods? Or a cabin surrounded by woods? Man, I think I would be extra jittery walking outside at night.

It’s just one of those shames, you know? This is a good book that could have been great – like I found World War Z to be. I applaud his characters, I applaud his writing, but Brooks showed his rigidity as an author.

If you read Devolution, go into it expecting some fun horror. You won’t be disappointed. Just don’t expect a terrific work of literature. Nevertheless, I eagerly await to see how Hollywood will ruin this one (it would make a terrific miniseries on HBO or Netflix).

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