Reviews of Books I Haven’t Finished

13 Jan

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.

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