“The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag”

Jonathan Hoag reader

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

And now something I did not like:

The title story of the collection The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag by Robert A. Heinlein. The collection was published in 1959; the novella originally published in 1942.

2 out of 5 stars.

Before the complaints, a few good passages:

[1]

Unattached old men, who seem never to have had a past, sit in these chairs, live in the rooms above, and every now and then one is found hanging in his room, necktie to light fixture.

(p.5)

[2]

He had realized that he did not remember where he had dirtied his nails because he had no recollection of where he had been that day, nor the day before, nor any of the days before that. He did not know what his profession was.

It was preposterous, but it was terribly frightening.

(p.8)

[3]

“Do you imagine a man, simply because his own mind is playing him tricks, doesn’t recognize insanity in others?”

(p.46)

And now the problems:

The story is awkwardly written. I’ll cut it some slack for being seventy-plus years old, but I suspect we have a slightly bloated paid-by-the-word situation on our hands, too.

I can read awkward writing if the plot is compelling. Hell, I can handle very bad writing if the plot is compelling. And the mystery unfolding in Jonathan Hoag initially had me.

Here’s the excellent set-up:

-Jonathan Hoag has no memory of where he goes during the day or what he does for work.

-Hoag was in a hospital with complete amnesia five years ago. He cannot remember anything from before that time.

-Hoag finds reddish material under his nails. A doctor tells him it is not blood. When Hoag asks the doctor what it is, the doctor brusquely sends him away without answering.

-Hoag hires a detective to track him during the day to discover where he goes.

-The detective looks into Hoag’s past; the hospital and doctor Hoag remembers never existed.

-The detective realizes Hoag does not seem to have fingerprints.

These should be the pieces of our puzzle. As a reader, you expect each element to play a part. But this story, after building up more strange developments, introduces a bizarre mythology that overwhelms everything previously established.

Hoag is a god-like creature, okay? And there are other god-like creatures out to get him.

That’s it. There you go.

Here is how two of the puzzle pieces are handled at the climax of the story (the detective is questioning Hoag and Hoag is responding in the first and third person at this point. Because why not?):

“The stuff under your nails – how about that? I notice you left that out [of your explanation]. And your fingerprints.”

“The stuff under my nails has little to do with the story. It served its purpose, which was to make fearful the Sons of the Bird. They knew what it was.”

“But what was it?”

“The ichor of the Sons – planted there by my other persona. But what is this about fingerprints? Jonathan Hoag was honestly fearful of having them taken; Jonathan Hoag is a man, Edward. You must remember that.”

Randall told him; Hoag nodded. “I see. Truthfully I do not recall it, even today, although my full persona knows of it. Jonathan Hoag had a nervous habit of polishing things with his handkerchief; perhaps he polished the arm of your chair.”

“I don’t remember it.”

“Nor do I.”

(p.117)

So the not-blood under his nails was blood of the gods (and had “little to do with the story”). And the fingerprint business is never resolved. Maybe Hoag has them, maybe not. The detective doesn’t care enough to check the man sitting in front of him.

This is narrative cheating. Heinlein has set up a mystery and given us the solution to a different one. The tone of the writing implies that Heinlein considered this larger reveal more interesting and profound. It is not. He has done the literary equivalent of this:

Why is Cheryl hearing voices from her closet?

Why has she started sleepwalking?

Where is her dog?

…where is her husband?

The missing plane’s wreckage was discovered in Florida.

If we were reading about the missing plane the whole time, we would care deeply when it was found. But we were reading about Cheryl. We care about her.

The first half of Jonathan Hoag is rendered meaningless which makes the whole story a failure. There should never be wasted space in a piece of short writing (there shouldn’t be any in a novel, either, but sometimes we call that ‘atmosphere’ and get away with it).

Jonathan Hoag feels like a serial that began to be published before it was complete. Then, when the last installment was due, Heinlein simply said, “Oh, f–k it. It’s a bunch of gods doing god-stuff that mere mortals could never understand.”

(Note: As far as I can tell, the story was published in one go.)

The back of my paperback says:

One of the most extraordinary novels ever! The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag – science fiction? Detective novel? Horror? Fantasy?

All of these – and more.

You’ve got to be careful when piling the genres up. Adding too many often results in none of them succeeding.

If you’re interested in a successful example of innocuous-character-entering-a-huge-mythos, check out R.A. Lafferty’s fantastic story The Six Fingers of Time. (That link brings you to a free Kindle edition.)

Next time we’ll start looking at my favorite Kurt Vonnegut: The Sirens of Titan.

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