I’d never read anything by Tim Powers, but he does come highly recommended by a number of SF fans on an Internet group I frequent. When a chance to read the latest edition of Expiration Date arrived, I jumped at it. That same group of SF fans has a phrase that springs to mind here. “I bounced off [insert author or book here] hard,” meaning that said author didn’t impress them. That is, unfortunately, the feeling I had from this book about fifty pages into it. Powers is imaginative, setting a wonderful atmosphere and crafting great prose, but this book did absolutely nothing for me otherwise.
Los Angeles is a city of ghosts - ghosts that can be “eaten” by the living for sustenance, and ghosts who can make themselves just solid enough to be a nuisance. Ghost hunters and sensitives abound in the greater metropolitan area, but there’s one big one that everybody is after. Once eleven-year-old Kootie Parganas breaks his parents’ statue and inhales the ghost of Thomas Edison, the city lights up for every ghost hunter out there. Enter Sherman Oaks, a one-armed ghost hunter who not only eats them himself but also deals in them, and Kootie is on the run for his life.
Meanwhile, Pete Sullivan is trying to prevent his old boss, movie director Loretta deLarava, from summoning his father’s ghost and consuming it as well. But secrets from his past will bubble up and make that more difficult, too. Add an old child star who’s been long dead but hasn’t been able to accept that fact, as well as a psychiatrist who used occult trappings to help her patients until one of them got a little too real, and you have an explosive mix when it all comes together.
I’m not saying that Expiration Date is a bad book necessarily; Powers’ prose is well done and he seems to be a master of setting. The entire book is almost an homage to old Los Angeles and Hollywood, and Powers places you in that setting with so much detail that you feel like you’re actually there. There’s a blurb on the book from Charles de Lint: “It’ll have you turning pages as much for his sheer inventiveness…as for the remarkable frisson that sparks from the page, the playfulness of the language.” I fully agree with de Lint about the inventiveness and the use of language. However, the plot bored me to tears and the characters weren’t that interesting. It was extremely difficult getting through this book.
It’s difficult to say exactly why the characters aren’t interesting, because what’s interesting to one reader may not attract another reader. Powers gives all of his characters unique and intriguing backgrounds, but when they’re on the page, they just lie there. Pete Sullivan is probably the best of the bunch, with his history of running from deLarava and his wandering background because he feels like he can’t stay in one place for very long. He lives in his van which he has set up as a nice living space, and he goes from job to job trying to find a place where he can feel settled. When his sister calls him to tell him that deLarava’s after them both, the plot shifts into high gear, and his travelling around his old L.A. haunts can be interesting at times.
Other than that, the only other parts I enjoyed were when Kootie and Edison were conversing, living on the run from the one-armed man as well as from the ghosts that seem to be all over L.A.. When Kootie dials 911 to contact the police, he gets some random psychic interference instead, including his murdered mother and father trying to contact him from wherever their souls are right now. It’s surreal but effective, and I liked the byplay between Edison and Kootie, even as I didn’t necessarily care for the characters that much.
What makes Expiration Date a worthwhile read is the sheer ingenuity of the world Powers has created, as well as his creative use of language and setting. For some reason I can’t fathom, it’s set in L.A. in 1992, but Powers makes you feel like you’re living on the haunted streets, dealing with the human refuse that life sometimes creates. As the characters travel around Los Angeles, Powers is pointedly specific about where they’re going, naming streets and places that exist in real life, even including real details like the apartment building “The Sullivan,” where two celebrity suicides actually took place.
Despite the reality of the setting, Powers turns everything just enough so that it feels slightly wrong, a world where real people don’t exist but ghosts do. The city feels covered in a psychic mist that rounds off the edges of reality and makes you feel that the ghosts are the normal ones. One reason for my slowness in reading the book was my lack of interest in the main plot (at least until it picks up toward the end) and the characters. However, another reason is the rich imagery that Powers has created, his excellent prose immersing you in the story and bringing vivid pictures to your mind: “In the glare of the streetlight at the southeast corner of Park View and Wilshire, glittering flies were darting around in the chilly air like metal shavings at a machine shop.”
Powers’ writing style will make me give him another try, but Expiration Date is not a great place to start with him. It may be a treat for Powers fans, but for this new reader, the lack of characters I could care about and a plot that seems to meander along with no point, as well as a climax that seems needlessly confusing (though that could be caused by the fact that the rest of the plot bored me and I missed something), all add up to a book that I would not recommend.