Thursday, December 29, 2011

Year in Review 2

There were a number of books in the past year that, for whatever reason, just didn’t hit the sweet spot for me. Some of these books were overhyped. Most weren’t reviewed for this blog---I can’t write about a book when I don’t have much enthusiasm for it one way or another. I didn’t finish the others (my tolerance for books that don’t work for me has gotten pretty low in recent years. I can read 200 to 300 pages, struggling to work against waning interest and boredom, before throwing my hands up in defeat). So why compile such a list in the first place? Since this is a review in the past year of reading it makes sense to look back on those experiences that didn’t work out as well as I thought they would. I enter a relationship with a book with great enthusiasm, finding in those first few pages an exciting chance to explore a new adventure. I don’t read expecting to be disappointed (though on those cases where books have been overhyped I might admit to being a bit suspicious). So I compile this list not to be a hater, but rather to note which books didn’t move me and why. But more than that, each book, whether loved or not, explains a little bit more about who I am as a person and as a reader.

One book that had gotten a lot of hype in the previous two years was Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. I thought the premise was intriguing enough, but in the end I was underwhelmed by the effort. There were so many possibilities that Bender could have taken with that premise, but she instead settled on the tried-and-true route of far too many contemporary literary writers: suburban ennui. The subplot revolving around the narrator’s brother, Joseph, had far more potential and I wished Bender could have centered the novel around him since it was apparent that that was where her interest lay. As I wrote in my review, I did enjoy reading the novel, but its unfulfilled promise kept it from being a truly satisfying experience.

Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer prize winning A Visit from the Good Squad was another novel hyped within the past year that I read but did not review for the blog. Much has been written about its form and how it sought to push the envelope in novel structure. Since A Visit from the Goon Squad was a collection of interlinked short stories, I failed to see what was so revolutionary about it. One chapter, told entirely in Powerpoint, offered a glimpse of what Egan was attempting to accomplish, but overall I wasn’t as impressed as others.  I don’t begrudge Ms. Egan’s Pulitzer, but I do think that we have reached a point in the development of the novel that everyone is looking for anyone to push it forward and breathe new life into the form. As a reader and a writer, I am interested in the question of what new configurations can be got out of the novel, so I’m curious to see whether Egan will continue to explore that path with future efforts.

I’ve just started reading Jonathan Lethem’s latest collection of nonfiction works The Ecstasy of Influence, Nonfiction, etc., making this the second Lethem book I read this year (in by a squeaker). The first was his 2009 novel Chronic City. While I appreciated reading it for the most part, I didn't find it earthshattering either. Like Colson Whitehead (whose latest I partly review below), Michael Chabon, Kevin Brockmeier, Aimee Bender, George Saunders and other contemporary writers, Lethem is interested in (re)blurring the lines between literary and genre fiction. Part realist fiction, part fantasy/sci-fi, Chronic City takes place in an alternate universe otherwise known as Manhattan, where an escaped tiger and an international team of astronauts stranded in space, one of whom happens to be the girlfriend of the novel’s hero Chase Insteadman, a former child star who occasionally does voiceover work, become a part of the urban landscape. As intiguing as that premise might sound, in the end, the pieces didn’t gel. Perkus Tooth, a culture critic who intrigues Insteadman was introduced as a wildly eccentric free spirit whose profound statements on culture (particularly on Marlon Brando) was meant to leave everyone who comes in contact with him in awe, but instead he turned out to be a bore. I was often left wondering why Insteadman was willing to bend over backwards for such a nondescript man (Hari Kunzru's review offers a huge clue that I certainly did not pick up on while reading). The mystery concerning Insteadman’s supposed girlfriend and a mesmerizing chaldron didn’t have much impact either. Still, Chronic City held my interest, had some interesting turns, and was funny at parts.

I wanted very much to like Zone One, Colson Whitehead’s latest novel. I’m a fan of Whitehead’s works and have read practically everything he’s written (The Intuitionist will always be one of my favorite novels of the last fifteen years). And yet like the others on this list I was disappointed. I’ve been debating about whether this is a failure of the novel or a failure of my own expectations. Granted, when I heard that he had written a zombie novel, I went in expecting a genre novel with a literary bent. What I got instead was a literary novel that happened to be about zombies. While reading I was left with one question: does the desire to make genre fiction more literate overwhelm what makes genre fiction so attractive to readers in the first place: larger-than-life characters, plot, action? I’m not suggesting that genre fiction can’t be literary or vice versa, but I also wonder how much the readers’ expectations limit both literary and genre fiction for both readers and writers (or is this simply a failing of mine and not others?). These are interesting questions that deserve far more space than I am allowing here. Needless to say, as much as I wanted to enjoy Zone One (Colson's wry observations about pop culture notwithstanding), I did not, and wound up not finishing it. Perhaps one day I’ll pick it up again and read it without any literary preconceptions to get in the way. 

Isabel Allende’s novel Island Beneath the Sea, about love and political intrigue during the Haitian Revolution had, like the other novels, a lot of intiguing potential, but played like a Harlequin romance set against an historical backdrop.  In the past, Allende has written urgently of historical subjects, most particularly of her personal background growing up in Chile (Allende was related to the late Chilean president Salvador Allende). This latest effort seemed a bit of a trifle and lacked any sense of urgency, despite the important events shaping both the Carribbean and American landscapes.

Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, more than any on this list, had received the most fanfare when it was published in 2010. It’s still discussed and written about on blogs and print publications, often to appreciative, analytical reviews. Even the president weighed in by picking up an advance copy while on vacation last year. And yet it goes down as one of those novels I simply could not get through to the end. While it started off fine enough, I soon found it harder and harder to keep turning the pages as the novel got bogged down in the self-absorbed musings of its main characters. After a while, I stopped caring. It wasn’t so much that its main characters were unlikable. Unlikable characters are certainly not a deficit to any novel. Rather it was because they were both unlikable and boring. Novels about the upper middle-class who have everything they could ever possibly want, but are still miserable might have been revolutionary when John Cheever and Richard Yates started writing (or for that matter Gustave Flaubert, Edith Wharton, Henry James, etc., etc.), but why does this subject still earn critical praise now when very little new is wrenched  from it (or do I even need to ask?) It became apparent that the novel was more a hook on which Franzen could hang his musings about liberal politics and people who sell out their principles than an actual story in which characters became more than just archetypes to which readers can nod with hipster recognition. Unlikable or not, I needed to care what happened to these characters and I simply did not.

There were certainly plenty of other books that I read, both with relish and disinterest that I either did not review or did not have any particular bent toward. All in all, 2011 was a productive year for reading and I look forward to seeing what will turn up in my hands next year.

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