I’ve read Lavie Tidhar is interested in Literature (capital L) as much as pulp, and as a result tries to write “ambitious pulp.” His 2011 novella “Gorel and the Pot-Bellied God” shows an uneven balance across that spectrum—to the chagrin of some and to the reward of others.
Gorel is a bounty-hunting gunslinger addicted to the drug God's Kiss. Exiled from his home long ago, he crosses lands taking bounties, all the while seeking a secret mirror that will show him the way home. The gods living and real, he ends up playing games—and being played with—getting to the mirror. Aliens, mistresses, and action propel him to the mirror and the Pot-Bellied God where he gets the surprise of his life—literally.
Significantly tipping the pulp side of the scale, “Gorel and the Pot-Bellied God” is retro storytelling that attempts profound personal resolution. To some degree, it achieves this. The pieces are all in place and the denouement means something to the main character, and perhaps the reader. The issue, at least for me, is the journey to this denouement. The pulp aesthetic detracts from rather than adds to the personal aspects. Gorel does a lot of typical pulp song and dance—shoot ‘em ups, philandering with curvy women, encountering the supernatural, etc., etc.—before the wool is pulled off his anti-hero eyes. None of this deepens his character to the point of empathy—a requirement if the reader is to fully invest in the personal issues at stake.
Tidhar’s rather perfunctory prose and lack of proper scene setting likewise do the novella few favors. He’s here, now he’s there, something happens… The novella feels flat. There are words which in themselves are vivid, but they are not used in combination enough to stir something greater in the reader—or at least this reader.
In the end, I would say a writer’s love affair with literature and pulp does not automatically translate into good fiction: “Gorel and the Pot-Bellied God” is mediocre, at best. Readers looking for familiar genre territory, superficial action, and a conclusion that strives for something beyond, will find it. Those looking for something more would do better to seek out Jeffrey Ford. Beginning with The Physiognomy, they will learn the meaning of originality, vivid storytelling, and, perhaps above all, a properly staged resolution for an anti-hero in the dark fantasy arena.