I want to share my thoughts on three recent reads.These are selected because I very much liked the first two, am confused by the third, but all of them I read straight through without stopping and picking something else up. This is odd for me these days so there was something about all of these books that kept me gripped. Beware, there are potential spoilers with the third book, and also in the reviews linked to at the bottom.
1. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. I read this a couple of months ago. I’m not sure if I wrote anything about it here on the blog, I can’t find any handwritten notes which means I just loved it and wasn’t pulled out of the experience to make either a negative or positive note. Nabokov was SO clever with this one. The form of it, the three sections, the foreward from the ‘author’ (the protagonist); the poem Pale Fire in four cantos, and then the third section, the notes that go with the poem. The whole things tells a story so complete, and yet incomplete, and the originality of the thing is breathtaking. I loved it so much, and am really glad that a couple of people on twitter recommended it (Ryan O’Neill and Paddy O’Reilly. I have Speak, Memory and Pnin ready to go as well now, thanks to Ryan’s and Paddy’s respective recommendations.)
2. Some time after that I read The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner. I DO have notes for this one. I’d seen this novel talked about for quite a while and it had been on the list for a long time (not like Pale Fire that snuck in and went to the top. Cheeky that.) I was impressed with the pace of Kushner’s writing, her prose was really alive and we are quickly into the action. Like really quickly. (And I noted the contrast with Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things*, especially the first 100pp with its very loopy didactic text.) Some of the structure of The Flamethrowers was pretty weird and took getting used to, and also some of the POV shifts were unsettling. There was mention of ‘hipsters’ and I don’t think that word was in usage in the 1970s, not in Australia anyway. NYC? Who knows but I noticed it and spent some time thinking about it which means I stopped reading for a moment. I spent a little too much time and effort trying to work out time locations, and keeping track of time passing, but got there in the end. I noted a character’s attitude to love on page 100 as being ‘surprising and great’, here is what the character says:
Oh God, I’m so sorry. Love is awful. It ruins every normal thing, everything but itself. It makes you crazy and for nothing, because it’s so disappointing. But good luck with that!
I kind of loved that a lot.
3. The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker.
What to say about this book. I thought my year of weird reading had happened with The Luminaries but no, this one is even more of a weird experience. There are bits of this book that are cleverish but I wanted the whole thing to be clever. So, it was disappointing BUT: I found this book really compelling and all I wanted to do was be in bed, with my hot-water bottle, reading it. And also BUT, and this is a big but, it is really really badly written in my opinion. It appealed to me on the basis of pace and story and how compelling it was to read but everything else, characterisation, dialogue and the actual writing style and sentence structure are pretty terrible. I was hoping that the style would be explained in some way, and I kept coming up with clever and elaborate ideas, like it’s a book within a book and the book written by the fictional character is badly written but becomes a huge hit — how ironic! How fabulous! How meaningful and funny and clever. And then there can be commentary by another voice, one that is written well, hey what a good idea. I’ll be impressed if that’s how it works out.
But no. So unless this is some well-planned Never Mind the Bollocks stunt, I just don’t get the fervour around it. Are we all so easily pleased? So undemanding and mediocre in our tastes? The high accolades in the front of the book have stumped me. That Dicker has not only taken on ‘greats of his crafts like Philip Roth or John Irving… he has often outdone them,’ someone says.
Also somewhere else, there was mention of occasional melodrama. Wow. To me, it’s all melodrama. And the exclamation marks run to about seven per page, so be warned. If an exclamation mark makes you shudder prepare yourself to vibrate the whole way through. Someone else called it a ‘major novel’ – excuse me? And ‘110 out of 10’ – VRAIMENT?
This was true for me though: ‘If you dip your toes into this… novel… you’ll have had it’ you won’t be able to stop yourself racing through it to the last page. You’ll be manipulated, thrown off course, flabbergasted, irritated and captivated…’ Well it was true for me, I finished the book straight through, albeit snorting with mockery here and there, but in the end it’s not enough. The writing. It’s so bad. I need to like the writing.
Exhibit one, and you need to know Nola is 15 and Harry is 34. They are in love! (I did that deliberately.) I kept expecting this to be some sort of fantasy on one or the other’s part. But no:
‘No! What’s crazy is continuing to live in this miserable town! What crazy is loving each other the way we do and not being allowed to show it! What’s crazy is having to hide, as if we were some weird animals! I can’t take it anymore, Harry! I’m going to leave. The night of August 30. I can’t stay here any longer. So please, come with me. Don’t let me go on my own.’
‘What if they arrest us?’
‘Who’ll arrest us? We could be in Canada in three hours. And why would they arrest us? It’s not a crime to leave. To leave is to be free, and who can stop us from being free? This is the land of the free, isn’t it? Freedom is written into the Constitution. I’m going to leave – that’s all there is to it. In two weeks, on the night of August 30, I’m leaving this horrible town. Will you come with me?’
Without thinking he said: ‘Yes! Of course! I can’t imagine life without you Nola. On August 30, we’ll leave together.’
‘Oh, darling Harry, I’m so happy! What about your book?’
‘It’s almost finished.’
‘That’s wonderful! You’ve made such quick progress.’
‘The book doesn’t matter anymore. If I run away with you, I don’t think I’ll be able to be a writer. But who cares? All that matters is you. All that matters is us. All that matters is being happy.’
‘Of course you’ll still be a writer! We’ll send the manuscript to New York. I love your new novel, and I believe in you. So the thirtieth? In two week’s time. Two weeks from now we’ll go away. In three hours, we’ll be in Canada. We’ll be so happy – you’ll see, Harry.’
Oh God can we manage Exhibit Two? Let’s make this shorter. There were letters. So many letters:
My sweet darling, You must never die. Angels never die. See how I am never far from you. Dry your tears, I beg you. I can’t bear knowing that you are sad. I send you kisses to soothe your pain.
Dear love, What a surprise to find your notes as I went to bed! I am writing to you in secret: We are not allowed to stay up after curfew, and the nurses here are real bitches. But I had to reply as soon as I read your letter. Just to tell you that I love you.
So they love each other and want to be together. They met on the beach one day and fell instantly in love. The scene is actualised, and you read it. It’s like I missed something here as well. I know love is in the eye of the beholder but there was nothing on the page or in the story to explain why she is so taken with him, so quickly, and so unshakably. And he her, apart from her beauty. It’s so strange. And do you think Nola is close to Lola as in Lolita? Me too.
Cliched expressions and situations abound: missing letters from safes, jealous mothers, jealous girls, rogue cops, pushy lawyers, cranky publishers demanding manuscripts that are running up against deadlines, mentors, not two but three authors, speeding and crashing cars, dead bodies (a few of ’em), sexually precocious girls, psychos, paintings, druggings, a sneaky breast grope, millionaires (reclusive, naturally), psychiatrists and mental health professionals (2 or 3 of those), suicide attempts, the beach, woods, small town diner, waitresses, walks on the beach, seagulls, feeding the seagulls, house fires (x 2), threatening, anonymous notes, murder (x3?), a comical Jewish mother who is obsessed with her son’s sexuality – ‘is he a homosexualist?’disfigured people including one with the most ridiculous speech problem whose dialogue is written phonetically – ‘It’f a love ftory… Yesf. I don’t know if it’f any good, vough’ I’M NOT JOKING HERE – and no less than three theories about whodunnit (might have been more, I lost track), religious ministers (x 2 from memory) and out-there religious practices including references to demons, the devil, exorcism etcetera, all played against the backdrop of small country town and Obama’s 2008 election!
Here are my notes:
– badly written but compelling!
– so many !s and cliched expressions, no attention paid to making nice sentences, very pedestrian language, ordinary lazy writing (but this would have been okay without the cliches, overwritten melodrama and with realistic dialogue)
– characters WEIRD but not in a good way. Not realistic and very very flat.
Dialogue: atrocious (but in the front blurb, ‘wonderful’ according to someone from The Netherlands.)
I’ve written ‘up to page 491 and I can’t wait to read more. WTF?’ At about that point in the story ghostwriters are introduced as the protagonist is struggling with writing his book. I’m thinking: brilliant, maybe it’s been written by ghostwriters and they can’t write and this will be part of the tricky twist? But no.
There is a twist and it’s out there and layers up the incredible things that happen in this book. I’ve read others describe this book as ‘cartoonish’ and that makes sense to me. The twist is almost in the realm of aliens landing in the second-last chapter territory, you know the reason why some agents ask for a complete synopsis in addition to sample chapters so that they can see you’re not a wacko? Yeah, that.
I just don’t know about this book. Was it the translation from French to English? Surely not. Is it deliberate, a part of reader manipulation? (mentioned above in one of the blurbs.) And does it really matter, is probably the larger question. If novels are meant to entertain then this one does. But I just don’t get it at all. Seems I’m not the only one:
* I did end up enjoying Signature very much once I got past that first slow bit.