Sometimes you read a book and think, “Well, that was a bad book.” And sometimes you read a book and wonder, “Was that a bad book?” Walter Mosley has been a widely praised author for decades, has won a host of major awards, and is known for his sharp characterization and compelling plotting. So when I read a book of his that just throws me wholly for a loop, one in which I can’t abide either the characters or plot at all, so much so that I have to force myself to reach the halfway point before finally giving up, I have to wonder, “Was that a bad book, or did I miss something?”
Inside a Silver Box offers up an all-powerful being/machine — the titular silver box — whose goal is to stop the last of a genocidal alien race from regaining control of the box (it had been the aliens’ super-weapon) and using it to wipe out an entire species yet again. The box, which ended up buried under Central Park, will go so far as to destroy the Earth if needed to stop the Laz. Before things come to that point, it turns to two human tools, Lorraine and Robbie, who “met” when Robbie raped and murdered Lorraine. Thanks to the god-like power of the box, Lorraine is resurrected, each of them gains a portion of the other, and then they are “augmented” so as to better be able to deal with the Laz. And that’s as far as I got.
OK, let’s face it. An author doesn’t choose to make a protagonist be a rapist/murderer accidentally, so there is something Mosley is trying to do here with Ronnie’s character. But personally, I just couldn’t buy into it. Maybe over some time (a lot of time) I could be brought over, not into forgiveness (which I don’t want to intimate Mosley is going for here) but into at least sticking with the character a ways. But when the woman who was just raped and beaten to death is only a few pages later willingly having sex with the rapist who also killed her, it’s just a bit too much too soon (even rationally accepting the whole it isn’t fully “her” that’s doing it).
So that was one sticking point. A very big sticking point. Generally though, everything in Inside a Silver Box comes way too fast. And randomly. It’s all a bit of a jumble, too arbitrary, with little sense of relation or narrative or characterization. Lorraine and Ronnie spin one way then the other, as does the plot, with no consistency that I could see. Dialogue rarely felt authentic and also felt inconsistent. Descriptive detail is almost entirely lacking (making me wonder at times if things were happening in a total vacuum). And stylistically the prose ranged from mediocre to flat.
Is it bad? Or is that Mosley isn’t telling a narrative in the usual novelistic sense, but is instead not bothering with real characters or plot or stylistic flourishes in order to tell more of a fable so as to explore questions of existence, compassion, class, race, etc.? It’s possible. But to be honest, an author has to bring me along at least part way via storytelling craft to get me to consider the questions he/she wants to raise, and from my perspective, Mosley didn’t succeed. So is Inside a Silver Box a bad book? Maybe I did just miss something, but for me, it was nearly unreadable.