One day, with nothing better to read, I grabbed a copy of Clive Cussler’s Lost City from my girlfriend’s bookshelf. She said she’d bought it to improve her English, and after having a look at the cover and reading the blurb on the back, I thought that might be the book’s only use. I held hope for something better, but was disappointed: my first impression rang truer than true.
Lost City is exactly the kind of novel Ursula Le Guin discusses in her book Language of the Night as having disconnected itself from the mythic mode of storytelling it so desperately wants to be a part of. Its premise of an aging but tough hero fighting against an aristocracy trying to win both the arms race and find immortality has all the right parts and symbols, but yet completely lacks storytelling depth to bind them cohesively. The description of the hero, Kurt Austin, runs as follows and serves as a good introduction to the verve of the book:
The man was husky in build, with shoulders like twin battering rams. Exposure to sun and sea had bronzed the rugged features that were bathed in the soft orange light from the instrument panel, and bleached the pale, steely gray hair almost to the color of platinum. With his chiseled profile and intense expression, Kurt Austin had the face of a warrior carved on a Roman victory column. But the flinty hardness that lay under the burnished features was softened by an easy smile, and the piercing coral blue eyes sparkled with good humor. (46)
Stereotype rather than archetype seeming to play a stronger role (I unintentionally envision an aging Conan), this description of the main character leaves the reader laughing at his supposed perfection rather than in awe of his “chiseled” looks.
As can be seen, it is a novel for people with extremely low expectations for their reading material. Cheesy action/adventure, Austin’s “flinty hardness” finds itself caught up in an takeover scheme involving a rich family, scientific work in the French Alps, and an undersea operation that may spell the end of mankind. The resulting story taking him all over the globe, Austin wrings justice from the villains just in time to save the people of Earth. And did I mention the philosopher’s stone—the elixir of immortality—for tempting the novel’s evil? Yes, it’s all so candy cliché it makes the teeth hurt.
And the writing, well, perhaps its best to let Lost City speak for itself. Read the following, bearing in mind that Austin has just saved the lead female character Skye from certain death beneath a glacier, and the two now relax onboard his boat:
She walked over to the rail and stared off at the ice field. Sensing her change in mood, Austin put his arm around her shoulders.
“Are you alright?”
“It was so peaceful underwater. Then we surfaced and I saw the glacier.” She shuddered. “It reminded me that I almost died under that thing.”
Austin studied the troubled expression in Skye’s lovely eyes, which were fixed in the hundred yard stare that shell-shocked troops sometimes get. “I’m not a shrink, but I’ve always found it helpful to confront my demons,” he said, “let’s go for a boat ride.”
The unexpected expression seemed to bring her back to reality. “Are you serious?”
“Grab a couple of bagels and a thermos of coffee from the mess and I’ll meet you at the skiff. I like my bagel with raisins, by the way.” (141)
Nothing says romance like raisin bagels.
In the end, Lost City is cliché in all aspects, does nothing to advance literature, and is pulp fit to be pulped. The prose is stale, blatantly imitative, and overworked with adjectives. Overtly borrowing motifs from Poe, reality tv, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and various other sources, Cussler sends his characters through a ludicrous plot that unintentionally takes on comedic proportions, one overdone James Bond scene at a time. (There is one wherein the hero saves the lady-in-distress while simultaneously averting a nuclear holocaust to be unleashed by a mutant strain of algae called Gorgonweed.) Every action and item superlative, the ensuing melodrama effects a comedic facet upon the narrative. The only thing positive I might say is that its simplicity may help improve language skills if English is your second language. Then again, it might also put you off reading anything further in the language...