Nothing alienates quite like a generally well-loved book that you dislike so much you have to put it down. What do they see that I do not? I find myself wondering. Am I crazy? Are they crazy? Finally, we have to agree to disagree, to dispel the mystery of our great differences with a cliche: it takes all kinds; there’s no accounting for taste; etc.
I pretty much knew I’d hate A Girl Named Zippy, by Haven Kimmel. Its cover hits all the wrong notes for me. I’ve never read a book with “girl” in the title, not Gone Girl, or Girl Interrupted, or The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, or Girl Raised by Wolves; I once bought a story collection called Out of the Girl’s Room and Into the Night for a girlfriend and she hated it. I didn’t much care for This Boy’s Life, by the way, but I suppose that’s a story for another day. I’m sure some of those “girl” books are good, but I object to the labeling aspect of it, the marketing code, the literary agent and editor and publisher and the marketing guru commanding them all who’ve agreed that if you put “girl” in the title, it will reach a certain audience, and so by all means one must put “girl” in one’s title, no matter how stupid it sounds. I like to think such marketing techniques don’t work on me. I switch deodorant and toothpaste and cereal brands every few months because I get bored with the same old thing and also because I hate the idea of loyalty to a corporation. I eschew rewards cards, regardless of what they promise to offer. I hate every airline equally. Online ads never reach me. Once I was trying to write a novel, and I thought one of the characters should wear a cowboy hat. For half an hour I looked at cowboy hats online, partly to procrastinate but partly to get a sense of the character; the novel was never published, but for over a year after that Amazon pestered me with cowboy hat ads. At first the constant ads were funny. Then the whole situation turned pathetic, like having some love sick stalker following you around every day, always trying to fix you with his sad but hopeful expression, begging for a bit of eye contact. Amazon, you just don’t understand me, and you never will, I wanted to explain. I think it’s best we just stay away from each other. Anyway, the other thing I disliked about the cover of Zippy was the picture of the baby. I actually like babies in person, sort of, but not on covers of books. This particular baby was kind of homely/cute, and the intent seemed to be a plea for sentimentality, pity, and a kind of guilt-inducing condescension. Aww, such a goofy-looking baby!
So why did I read it? My intentions were largely noble. I wanted to branch out, to learn something, to experience life as others do, to break out of what the kids call my “comfort zone.”
The truth was that I had always disdained memoirs, and then I wrote one. During the editing process, my editor actually asked me a read a few memoirs to make mine more like them and “less like a novel.” And so I read The Glass Castle, which I liked, a lot. And then The Tender Bar, which I liked less but still liked. And then I launched into a great autobiography kick that completely rejuvenated my love of stories, for by then, and without quite noticing it, I’d begun to tire of novels, and had already written off stories and story collections as mere showcases for MFA techniques. Fiction had simply become too fake-seeming to me. Please note, I don’t care at all whether a story is “true” or not, but I’ve grown lately to crave the illusion that they are true, and most of the recent fiction I’ve been reading seems to telegraph its artifice too clearly for my tastes. I’m now one of those people whose favorite writers are Karl Ove Knausgaard and Elena Ferrante; their books seem honest in ways that make other writers seem posturing. I also discovered Milan Kundera over the past couple of years, and though his stories may seem intentionally artificial, the ideas behind them, and the author’s voice, are authentic. I take books like The Book of Laughter and Forgetting as essays that use thin fictional stories to illustrate their points. So that’s what led to my experiment with A Girl Named Zippy.
Its marketing pitch was twofold: Zippy was funny, but more importantly, it was something rare if not unique: a memoir about a happy life. What can I say? Though Amazon wasn’t able to figure me out, this particular angle got through my defenses. I was intrigued.
I didn’t get far though. I don’t remember the final page number, and I put the book on a “free books” shelf, so I can’t pick out quotations to bag on–and I have to say I have no desire to insult or poke fun. I don’t recall anything about the first twenty or so pages worth ridicule. The writing wasn’t terrible or embarrassing, like the kind of stuff you see excerpted from Fifty Shades of Grey and the like. I just wasn’t into it. The “happy memoir” thing didn’t catch my interest, nor did I believe this particular claim of happiness. What I read didn’t strike me as funny either, though I could tell it was supposed to be. Reading it reminded me of a young guy I once met in a youth hostel, a twenty-something American who wanted to be a stand up comedian. He had the delivery down, but no jokes, nothing funny to say. Even so, he sometimes managed to get people laughing, at least late at night when everyone came back from the bars, drunk. The would-be comedian and Zippy shared this sense of someone working hard to be funny, begging for laughter in the absence of genuine humor in a way designed to guilt trip us into pretending to be amused, and perhaps even fooling ourselves into thinking we are amused, which introduces questions about authenticity, questions about the definition of “funny,” and “happy.” If we are laughing, we must be happy, mustn’t we? I get the feeling that maybe we’re not, at least, I certainly wasn’t happy or amused reading Zippy, so I closed the book, wished the author and her readers the best of luck, and moved onto something else.
Last page reached: 32
In my defense, I tried very hard, putting the book down and picking it up again twice before resigning myself to failure. Still, 32 pages isn’t much of an effort, especially for someone like this author. I bought the book because of, one, the general buzz about the author, and two, a short story called “Puppy.” I read the story in an edition of The Best American Short Stories, where it stood out among the other selections, not just for its basic excellence, but because it bucks the current trend of realism in the published stories we are pleased to call “literary.” Saunders is a throwback in terms of technique, to the sixties, seventies, and eighties, the so-called post-modern era of fiction, when authors started with an assumption that readers were too smart for conventional narratives, and so their stories would mock themselves, winking at the wise readers as they moved along toward their fabricated conclusions. Some of that stuff is pretty fun to read and intellectually gratifying if you get the joke (which pretty much everyone does), but that stance, that smartass voice, grew tiresome after a while, and it was replaced by a return to various attempts at the illusion of authenticity. Saunders updates this post-modern mood in one important way: he is, essentially, a moralist. Instead of using the tongue-in-cheek, cartoonishness to discuss the limits of storytelling and literature in general, he’s here to tell us about right and wrong. Good for him. “Puppy” (not in Pastoralia, incidentally) is about a confluence of two women. One is a wealthy housewife with a spoiled son and a hard working but absent husband. The other is an impoverished “redneck” with a mentally disabled son and a hard-working but abusive husband. The characters are flat, stereotypes, but the final message is devastating. In short, the wealthy woman, who means well and who most of us would consider a “good” person, ruins the lives of the poor woman and her son, even getting a puppy killed along the way. Her problem is an old one: pride. Or to put it another way, a sense of superiority (the word “privilege” is the current term) that she isn’t aware of makes it impossible for her to empathize with the poor woman. It’s a great story.
Pastoralia is the titular novella that opens a collection of short fiction. It’s the first-person account from a man who works–in a curious alternate universe, it seems to me–in a kind of museum populated with live humans. His job, and his less-enthusiastic partner’s, is to act like pre-verbal cave man and woman in a little exhibit that gets pretty much zero visitors. They aren’t allowed to speak English, and spend their time hopping around, making fires, honking and grunting and roasting fresh meat. It’s a strange world and not a happy one. I was into it for a while, but then I wasn’t. It seems to me, the story–a thin conceit really, without what we’d call “characters” or setting for that matter–just goes on too long. Whatever dystopian message is on the way just doesn’t feel worth the trouble of forging on. So far I get that corporations are soulless. Our jobs are pointless. Soon we’ll be obsolete. We’re all probably doomed.Tell me something I don’t know! I just wished he’d got on with it.
Or perhaps my rejection of the book is more personal. At the point that I finally lost all patience, the female character’s drug-addict son arrives. In that comic-strip technique, the character shows himself to be utterly selfish, utilizing the psychologizing-victim-babble of the day to justify his horribleness, to demand more privileges and deflect all responsibility for his own horrible acts. I sense the author is going for laughs, but for me, whose brother is a deeply troubled addict, it just wasn’t funny. Perhaps others disagree.
In closing, I’ll likely give this book another try sometime, probably skipping ahead to the next short story in the collection. I have found that the skills it takes to write a novel and a short story aren’t as overlapping as most assume. Some writers just don’t do long very well, and others aren’t very good at short. And hey, there’s no shame in that. Most of us aren’t too good at either.
A friend of mine shocked me one day by proclaiming that once he starts a book he always finishes it. I’m just not like that. When I begin to hate a book, or lose trust in the author, I toss it aside, perhaps too hastily in some cases. The result is that my house and office are cluttered with cast-off novels, story collections, memoirs, and so on. They oppress me, these books that I usually have paid good money for, lying about or taking up shelf space, giving off this one message: you are a loser, a quitter, I was just about to get good when you gave up. Sometimes I actually do pick them up again, and on one instance–the only such in memory–the book proved my initial instinct wrong. Every other time it’s been the same thing, more angry reading, boredom, and finally defeat.
I hate the waste of it all. The wasted time, the wasted money. I also feel weird, off kilter, because pretty much every book I begin starts with full-throated recommendations from smart friends or, more often, literary consensus. I should like such and such. Everybody else does. Why can’t I? Am I stupid, still a plebe with greasy fingernails even after decades of education meant to transform me into something better, more delicate, sweeter smelling?
To try to answer this question, and to recycle, in a sense, the time and money wasted on these many books, I thought I’d go public with some of my efforts. Here will follow some recently abandoned books, how far I made it and why I gave up. I’m curious to hear your reactions. I’ll start with a controversial one.
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.
Last page: 96.
I expect some blow back on this one. The winner of the Pen Hemingway. A “modern classic.” One of the best writers I know commanded me to read it. It’s the kind of book that blows people away, changes their lives. I hated it, at least the one-third I read. The language is what’s most praised about it and it’s what I hated most. I kept hearing the voice in the lilting tones of a poetry reading. I actually like poetry readings and I like reading poetry, but the thing with readings is that you aren’t compelled to pay attention the whole time. A few images impress you, a few complete poems make sense. Otherwise, you watch the poet, look around the room, and know whatever poem is happening will soon end. Likewise for reading poetry. Read one, take a break. Read another tomorrow, or next week. Go crazy and read three in a row. Whatever you like. When I read a novel, I settle in for at least an hour in the world the author has created, and being subjected to hyper-artificial-sounding language for that long is taxing and irritating and distracting. To my ears, this author/narrator sounds pretentious and full of shit. I feel like I’m being lied to, conned in a way.
Other than the language, the story is about two girls in a small town, their troubles basically. The setup is quite similar to another book I’m reading right now, and LOVING: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. The difference between Ferrante’s and Robinson’s characters is that Ferrante’s girls are in constant conflict, with each other and with the world around them. They love each other, need each other, but also desperately want to destroy, to defeat each other. Their desires are huge and electrify the narrative. Robinson’s characters are lifeless observers in comparison, sitting around waiting for (mostly bad) things to happen to them. Robinson’s outsized language, it seems to me, is meant to make up for this lack of narrative drive. In short, choose twenty pages in Housekeeping and you’re likely to get eighteen pages of the author/narrator’s flowery observations on, for instance, the wind rushing through the town and animating the leaves, and two pages of people doing stuff. Those numbers need to be reversed.
After the last two stories under discussion, this one may seem downright conventional, and yet, its shape is quite distinctive. Let’s try to get to the bottom of this rather understated, curiously affecting story, by discussing the following questions.
Why do you suppose the author chose to tell the story from Rose’s point of view? How would it have been a different story from Mr. Bouverie’s point of view, or his wife’s, the lover’s?
Speaking of point of view, how would you describe the narrative voice? The point of view is certainly Rose’s, but the narrator looking over her shoulder seems to be another presence entirely.
The conflict, of course, is the ongoing affair, but most of the story barely confronts this painful happening. Why should the author concern himself with the coffee house, Rose’s house, and the tutor room, instead of the bedroom where the real action is taking place?
Describe the “weave” pattern. What are the threads? How do they “tie” together?
Much of this story’s power, or charm at least, rests on allusions. Can you find any famous allusions here?
How does the final paragraph justify the rest of the story, link all the various aspects together?
Here we have a story that combines–to unusual effect–lightness of tone and heart-wrenching pathos. It’s quite funny throughout and, finally, sad as hell. Taken in the context of our textbook chapter on revision, please consider the following questions.
How does “chemistry” function in this story, both metaphorically and practically? To put it another way, how would the story change if they’d met in, say, history, or English, or whatever? Surely any of those other classes might assign students to be partners.
How has the author prepared us for Barbara, against most common sense, actually going out with Keith in the first place? Why does she do it?
Do you feel sorry for Brian? Why or why not?
What role does Trish play? Why is she vital to the story? (Or is she?)
Usually stories are either funny or sad. Not too many of them are both. Why is this, and how has the author managed to have it both ways in this story?
Look at the earlier draft of “Keith” in your text, and read the penultimate section. In the earlier version it takes place while Keith is washing his truck. The final version is set in the airport. Why did Carlson make this change?
Here we have a lyrical, genre-blending story/essay/prose poem. A lot going on here, formally. And underneath it all rests an ancient story about a son losing his father. Consider the questions below.
Having just read Rick Moody’s “Boys,” we can’t help but see some similarities, as well as important differences. Please compare these two stories.
Surely we have a conflict here. Father has died, and the son is shocked, wounded, and must deal with the death, both physically, intellectually, and spiritually. But is there a crisis, or climax? If so, identify it.
How does the metaphor of truth being a broken mirror work for this story? What is its message?
In your opinion, did the writer get away with turning his father into a ghost? What’s your criteria for making this judgement.
Is this more a story, poem, or essay? Surely it blends all three, but does one genre carry most of the weight?