Books: Breathless

Can you like a book while being completely disappointed in the ending? Dean Koontz’s endings often seem weak, but on the whole I enjoy his books. The characters and their stories are worth reading, even if the overall plot resolution is less than satisfying.

Breathless, however, seems to need a better ending in order for the whole book to make sense. The suspense was hardly such that I was breathless as I read it. But each of the several subplots not only leads one to expect an explanation to the central mystery, but also demands one in order to make sense of what has gone before.

I’m not sure now exactly why I put Breathless on my wishlist at amazon.com. I vaguely remember some kind of promotion that required adding an item to the wishlist from outside the amazon website. I had nothing at the time that I was particularly looking for, so I browsed among favorite authors and genres looking for something to add. I think Breathless is what I came up with, probably on the basis of the editorial review.

Normally I pay more attention to reader reviews, but there were few if any of these, as it had just recently been released. It was no big deal, though, because if I did win the contest or whatever it was, I would get a free book, and I’m less picky about books when they’re free. I generally only buy books if I’m sure I want to have them available to reread, but if I can get them for next to nothing (such as at a garage sale), I’m much more willing to take a chance on a book that I may or may not like.

A few weeks ago, I stopped at a used book store on the way home from work. I drive past it going to and from work, and I felt I had shown great restraint in not having visited yet after nearly three weeks of working so close by. There was a time when I had a mental list of books to look for when I went in used book stores, but this time I didn’t. I just browsed among my favorite authors and genres, looking for something to catch my eye.

What caught my eye was Breathless. I had noticed, when ordering textbooks for my son in college, that it was on my wishlist. At the time I didn’t remember about that promotion or contest, only that I had put it on the list, so it must be something I wanted. Used book stores charge quite a bit more than garage sales – although significantly less than retail – but I decided it was a good enough bargain for another Koontz book to read.

It’s hard to know how to sum up the book. There are several story lines that initially appear to have nothing to do with each other, and it takes a good deal longer than in most books for them to come together. (Three intersect the others only at the end, and in one of them the link seems almost coincidental.) Yet the strange creatures that are the center of the most interesting story line presumably have something to do with the others.

The creatures are mysterious in terms of their origins, their nature, their abilities, and the purpose of their appearance. They are playful and joyful like the dog who is thrilled with his new playmates, but they also have a few traits more like those of humans (such as hands that can open a jar of peanut butter). Tensions rise as Homeland Security learns of their existence and comes to confiscate them, and do who knows what sorts of testing on them.

And then suddenly it is all resolved, the creatures themselves having proved more than capable of taking care of themselves. The ones at the center of the story turn out to be only two out of 70,000 pairs of such creatures that suddenly appeared on earth. They look nothing like humans, yet a study of their genome shows it to be identical to humans’. They are a source of hope, radical change for the better, and pure joy. How that is, is left unsaid.

Also left unsaid is what role, if any, they played in the descent into apparent madness of a man who murdered his identical brother. He hears voices, sees things moved or taken when no human could have been present. In the end, he apparently kills himself. Does the presence of these creatures in the world make good people better and while turning the evil of bad people in on themselves? That’s the only explanation I could come up with.

And why would creatures who share their genome with humans, but not their appearance or penchant for selfish behavior, be their salvation? If humanity had the capability to save itself, why bring in strange otherworldly creatures? If outside help is needed, why would it be, in some sense, also human? I puzzled over this until it occurred to me that such is the central message of Christianity: salvation came from outside humanity, yet it came through one who was human, Jesus Christ.

I don’t know if that’s what Koontz had in mind, though it’s hard not to think so. There is nothing in the book to suggest it, but then he may have wanted to present the idea in a way that people would be open to even if they have been turned off by the Christians and churches in their experience. There is a spiritual dimension in many of Koontz’s more recent books, which is one reason I like them. But it is a very general sense of spirituality, unlinked to a particular religious tradition.

I suppose just getting people to think about what the meaning of the book might be can be seen as an accomplishment. These thoughts I have had after finishing the book somewhat mitigate my disappointment with its ending. But I’ve read other thought-provoking books – by other authors – that had far more satisfying endings. For a while, at least, I think I’ll go back to reading some of those.

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