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Book Review: ...Snakes on a Plane... Novel Packs a Slithering Punch

Great Beach Read For Summer

By Michael McGraw-Herdeg

Snakes on a Plane

By Christa Faust

416 pages, paperback

Published by Games Workshop 2006

The good news about Christa Faust’s Snakes on a Plane (the book based on the soon to be released movie) is that it lives up to my expectations: about halfway through the book, there are snakes everywhere, and it is awesome.

The bad news is that my expectations for movie novelizations are rather low, and this book never exceeds them. The plot, of course, is patently silly. All the characters are lively and original, but few are particularly compelling. And though the action makes for an enjoyable read, there is little significance to the serpentine horror. In short, Snakes on a Plane is a perfect book to read on the beach, on a road trip, or (if you must) on a plane.

In today’s skeptical world, readers expect stories to make sense; there can’t just be airborne snakes without some justification. The plot of Snakes on a Plane proceeds thus: an orphaned Hawaiian surfer witnesses a brutal murder, flies under FBI protection to Los Angeles to testify against the gang boss responsible for the killing, and discovers en route that his plane is filled with snakes. There are also parallel storylines, in which the killer hangs out with a Triad gang elder and a herpetologist (someone who studies reptiles and amphibians) looks for antivenin.

Seemingly tempted by the possibility of exploring these side plots, the story suffers from the unfortunate occasional tendency to change scenes just when things get interesting. On the whole, however, the main plot stands out pretty clearly; and if it isn’t exactly Tolstoy, well, what were you expecting from a book called Snakes on a Plane?

What saves this book from obscurity is the overwhelming force of its action. With strong, solid language, Faust effectively describes a rampage of deadly snakes in a gripping fashion. Snakes attack through the plane’s ventilation system, and soon they are “everywhere, sliding over every surface, coiling around corpses and dangling from the overhead compartments”. The “stealthy, slithering movement and sibilant hiss of writhing snakes” suffuses the scene. Most impressively, one hapless character realizes too late that “they weren’t just oxygen masks that dropped down from the ceiling.” The book likewise successfully incorporates many witty, self-aware remarks, as when a character mentions the movie “Airplane,” and when a character notes that the emergency preparedness sheet supplied free with every seat is silent on the topic of snake invasion.

Unfortunately, Faust’s writing doesn’t always connect. She gives verbose descriptions of everyday objects, and the first few chapters are full of excessive references to brand names; perhaps this is meant to be a commentary on the state of product placement in modern films, but it still seems a little odd when the evil gangster’s Lincoln Navigator is described as having a “cool, luxurious interior”.

Happily, the most egregious examples of failed writing are also the most entertaining. Choking as a result of snake venom is, according to one unlucky character’s internal monologue, “like when you laugh while trying to drink a Dr Pepper and it goes up your nose, only a billion times worse.” In a similarly unpoetic moment, FBI agent Neville Flynn (in the film, Samuel L. Jackson) aptly notes that his situation “suck[s] about as badly as it [is] possible for something to suck.” It’s clear that Faust had fun writing this book, and it’s equally fun to read.

Faust populates the plane with a veritable menagerie of characters, each with a background story and a physical description, to great success. It is in these characterizations that the writing of Snakes on a Plane truly shines. The inhabitants of South Pacific Air Flight 121 represent a cross-section of real people in contemporary America, and there’s just a hint of mocking social commentary in Faust’s choices. My favorites are the skateboarding champion “Chocodile” and his indie-rocker girlfriend; the germophobe rapper who can’t shake hands, and the Chihuahua rescue activist who happens to be on the same flight as a spoiled, rich blonde girl with a Chihuahua in her purse. They’re not all people that you’d like to hang out with - in fact, only a handful of them are more endearing than annoying - but they’re interesting. Luckily for action-minded readers, the plane is carrying a light load, so Faust is done introducing the passengers after the first hundred pages.

Of course, all this is a setup designed to toy with the reader’s emotions. When the snakes began their rampage, these characterizations made me feel the slightest bit of remorse about rooting for Team Reptile. What does it mean for a society when we’re curiously intrigued by the thought of an airplane full of bloodthirsty snakes? I’m not sure, and Faust certainly doesn’t explore the topic, but she does offer two other dubiously useful moral suggestions in the novel. The first is endemic to the survival horror genre: those who survive possess some trait the author deems valuable. In the case of Snakes on a Plane, that trait is an appreciation of others; those who behave unselfishly make it to Los Angeles alive. The champion martial artist develops humility when a flight attendant’s novice kung fu against the snakes saves his life, and the stuck-up socialite decides to help others survive. Meanwhile, self-absorbed people are killed by venomous snakes. The misanthropist who throws a helpless Chihuahua to a python is doomed; so is a teenager with a vapid internal monologue; and so is the voluptuous woman who takes long vacations to cheat on her husband. In Faust’s universe, caring about others is a survival trait. (Hating snakes is fine.)

The second and more sophisticated of the morals of Snakes on a Plane is that people should not irrationally fear snakes. Various characters repeat the information that the snakes aboard the plane are not inherently aggressive; all the fun of the book is caused by a pheromone, introduced by the same assassin who planted the snakes. Snakes themselves, the herpetologist tells us, are mostly harmless creatures undeserving of society’s paranoia and hate. Near the very end of the book, the herpetologist laments the possibility that the “news stories alone would bring on a whole new wave of rattlesnake killing and mothers making their teens turn over beloved exotic pets.” Though the defense of snakes’ rights sounds utterly serious, in light of the savage, brutal, and thoroughly enjoyable snake attacks that litter the book, I’m thoroughly confused by the mixed message.

If you’re looking for heartwarming character studies, scintillating plot twists, or ironic poststructuralist fiction, look elsewhere. If you’d just like to have a good time, read Snakes on a Plane.