Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Cranky Pants

In an effort to up my reading game, and possibly get some inspiration for my own writing, I have joined a book club. It's filled with a diverse group of intelligent, educated women, and I'm kinda grooving on that aspect of it. This book group has prompted me to start reading outside of book club suggestions. Which brings us to my problem. I have been more disappointed than not lately with the quality of the books I'm reading. These books are filled with a lot of beautiful language, but as a book they don't seem to work.

What do I mean by that? Well, characters follow a reasonable arc that dove-tails into a reasonable plot. Pretty much that's it. Lots of the books I'm reading have main characters doing things that don't make sense in terms of the characterization that has preceded them, and yet the author tells us (in so many words) that this is legitimate. I'm sorry. Writing doesn't work that way. You need to make the trajectory of the tension (which is the engine of ANY book) make sense. You can't just say you need A to happen because if it doesn't, then you don't have the set up for B. A and B need to work hand in hand.

Increasingly an author seems to have a deft hand with language but leaves me frustrated with either the character arc, the plot, or both. Many of these books are award winners and on best seller lists, and I'm basically stumped here. Why, I ask? They are not bad books, but they aren't, IMO, the best books they could be.

Listed below are a couple of books I've read lately that I liked a lot:

My Sunshine Away by M. O. Walsh. A coming of age story with some substantial triggers for those who are affected by those things. It says some profound things about teenagers and the suburbs and how the veneer in those communities is so thin. Also some interesting insight into the cruelty of teenagers. The author is from the south and there is a bit of gothic sensibility about it. At one point he sort of goes off on the deep end trying to explain the south, and if I had been his editor, I would have yanked him on the ear and said, um, no, you're telling not showing, and believe me, you've shown it so well that you don't need to repeat it here, but he quickly gets back on track. It's a beautiful book about ugly things.

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. This is set in Winnipeg, Canada, and is a story of two sisters. Again, there are triggers. One is a perennial fuck-up, and the other is a world famous concert pianist. Toews was raised as a Mennonite and it's a dominant theme in her books. I've read another one of her books and it was almost identical to this one in terms of the protagonist rejecting her Mennonite past: the classic story of the insider who becomes an outsider. Add lots of snow and cold. But the most fascinating aspect of this book is the larger question it raises about art and love. If you love someone, do you love them unconditionally and what does that demand? I liked this book a lot. There are some scenes in a hospital setting that I found ludicrous--unless the Canadian medical system is basically cruel and incompetent, which I strongly doubt--but it's a relatively minor quibble.

I guess what I'm saying here is that there were parts in both these books that had me rolling my eyes, but in neither case did it harm the integrity of the book. These books worked in the grander scheme of things. And it goes without saying that the writing was superb. By that I mean the language, the cadence, the "song" of the prose.

So there are two recommendations from me. Neither of these are easy reads, in that there is suffering and loss in both of them, but they are worth it. Four thumbs up.


Abigail said...

Your posts always get me thinking; so much more substantive than the typical “here’s what’s happening in my life” bloggery! Regarding books that go along making sense until a major character does something that is wildly out of character, have you read Lauren Groff’s Arcadia? Beautiful language, thought-provoking insights, and yet many readers found the events of the last section came out of left field. A shrewd friend suggested that maybe Groff’s editor made her add it. I can certainly believe this: author friends often tell me nightmare stories about agents and editors who take novels in which all the elements are well integrated and demand that the authors glom on elements and scenes that readers are supposedly looking for; and I had colleagues who used to make such demands. Then again, it could always be the author’s fault: if you’re not skilled in mystery-writing techniques, it can be a challenge to view a character as an organically evolving entity, not a static one. I am forever having to challenge myself with “where is this person going?”

Have you read Michael Chabon’s shorter novels, such as The Final Solution or Gentlemen of the Road? If you have an ear for the song of the prose, you’ll find it there. Whether these books have deeper intellectual heft to go with the music depends perhaps on what you are looking for. Good luck with your reading group!

Claire M. Johnson said...

@ Abigail

Hey, nice to hear from you! I think there is always a disconnect between market demands and what you want to say/write. There are some books where it's obvious that the author didn't know how to end their book. I think Gone Girl is like that. The ending sort of hangs there like the author just ended up throwing up her hands.

I felt the same way about Arcadia. And my feeling there is that the story really ended at the commune. That is why I think My Sunshine Away works well because the story is about them as teenagers. The last chapter feels a little epilogue-ish but it didn't bother me. It felt, like you say, organic. I haven't read much Chabon (such a lovely, sweet man; his wife and I did a gig together as she used to write mysteries and I met him a couple of times). I did pick up Wonder Boys and found it both charming and his love of language was evident even then, even if I found parts of the novel silly and pushing the envelope in a way that didn't work very well. The British seem to have a lock on ridiculous situations that make perfect sense in the world of the novel. I felt that Wonder Boys was less successful in that regard.

Then again, it could always be the author’s fault: if you’re not skilled in mystery-writing techniques, it can be a challenge to view a character as an organically evolving entity, not a static one.

That is the problem with a series concept. I firmly believe you can eke out five mysteries in a series and then by that point you're done, more or less. Because what else can you possibly say about a character that you haven't said in five books? After that point you have no choice to write a heavily plot-driven narrative with not so much characterization (which isn't as interesting a book to me). Tana French hit on a novel way to get around that by having her books focus on the murder squad as opposed to a single detective. And it's interesting to the different perspectives we get of recurring characters seen from different POVs. Nice idea and works well.

Back to my previous point, I think that a lot of these books feel unedited to me. That there are points where as the reader I go, whoa, stop right there. As you know, I'm also an editor, and it's a rare book where I can turn that persona off. I went through a period where I was something of a Fitzgerald/Hemingway fanatic (actually I was a expat 20s in Paris fanatic and the book The Paris Wife was a wonderful, IMO). And I've read the exchanges between them and their editor, Maxwell Perkins, and that relationship that used to exist between author and editor doesn't seem to exist anymore. Where the editor says, I know what you're trying to say but this doesn't work in the gestalt of the novel. A lot of these books feel unfinished. Or the author got tired and needed a push from someone to keep working at it. Now these books seem to be published. There isn't the time to rework a novel. The language? Wonderful. Sensual. Spell-binding. But books are made of more than just language. IMO.

I don't know where that magic line is. Where you can have a plot point that is ridiculous and yet the reader lets it slide, where in another book it is unacceptable. Obviously that line is very personal but I always think--even in those cases where I object to a plot line but also let it go--where's the editor?