Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Rudderless Brooklyn

Writing in the New York Times Book Review last May, Laura Miller did readers everywhere an enormous favor by issuing a blanket amnesty for those who abandon books before finishing them. "Why subject yourself to an irksome book when so many sublime ones are available?" Miller asked. A number of writers and reviewers with whom she talked agreed. The talented Michael Chabon, who gives a book two pages to grab him, explained his ruthlessness as a function of time: "I'm very unforgiving. ... I guess I'm less responsible to books than I should be, but my time for reading is so limited and the competition is so fierce. It's a Darwinian process."

Miller continued:

Some might see this as evidence of a culturewide case of literary attention-deficit disorder, but it's hard to justify time wasted in the reading of unloved books. The burden is on the author to prove that what you're holding is something exceptional, and if not in the first few pages, then where? It's also unwise to idealize the passionately committed reading habits of youth; becoming a writer yourself can make you realize how low you once set the bar. ''I had an insatiable appetite for complete narratives,'' says Jonathan Lethem (''The Fortress of Solitude''), remembering the years when he finished every book he started. ''I needed to know what happened. I'd fillet a novel of its story. Now I read more slowly, less to get to the end than for the pleasure of the sentences and paragraphs. Before, it was pure consumer frenzy.''

Interestingly, I thought of Miller's piece while struggling with the first 150 pages of Lethem's book and ultimately giving it up. His ode to "the pleasure of the sentences and paragraphs" is what made Fortress such a frustrating read for me. The portion I read was terrifically overwritten, as if Lethem ached with the need to describe, as unnecessarily precisely as possible, every last excruciating detail in the lives of a white kid and a black kid growing up together in Brooklyn in the 1970s. While his acclaimed Motherless Brooklyn, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, careened along with an entertaining, manic abandon, Fortress feels like a calculated attempt to write something Important, and in the process the book suffers. Suffocated by its attention to detail, the novel come across as unfocused, with nothing to ground it, nothing to compel me to continue to its conclusion

My brother, a more discerning reader than I and a hell of a writer in his own right, offered both a modest defense and a few jabs of his own:

I'm sure Lethem would tell you he's trying to take a giant step forward. From what I understand, most or all of his previous books are exercises in so-called "genre" fiction, especially sci-fi and mystery; even "Motherless Brooklyn" (the only other thing by him that I've read) is at heart a detective novel. "The Fortress of Solitude" feels to me like a very conscious (or self-conscious) attempt to write the Great American Novel -- a serious literary book that will say everything important that needs to be said. ...

For what it's worth, I found it equal parts interesting and frustrating. (How's that for taking a stand?) Yes, parts are overwritten -- the obsessive attention to detail, in particular, feels frantic and precocious, like grad-school fiction. And the second half of the book -- in which a 30-something Dylan ends up unhappy and adrift in California, and feels the pull of Brooklyn -- is pretty unsatisfying because it's so generic and easy; Lethem uses bright, weightless California as a lazy stereotype, the opposite of dark, gritty New York. But a lot of the first half is really something. You don't have to have grown up on that particular block in Brooklyn to respond to Lethem's channeling of summer in the neighborhood. ...

Like I mentioned earlier, it's definitely a product of its time, sharing a voice and a mission, among other things, with "The Corrections" and "White Teeth" and "Underworld" and other recent books about everything.

I guess I give Lethem points for trying, but I can't say I regret bailing, especially after recalling Miller's essay. If life is too short to drink bad beer -- and it most certainly is -- then, too, it is too short to finish frustrating books. Back to the search for something sublime.


9 Comments:

At August 11, 2004 at 2:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Almost nothing is more disapointing than eagerly starting a book and not even making it half-way through. I know, because not too long ago I never made it through just about everyone's favorite of the past year, The DaVinci Code. I found it so slow and going nowhere that I couldn't stand it any longer and returned it to Mrs. Shallow Center. I hope you don't find The Lamb "unfinishable", even though Chris and I agree that the middle goes on a bit too long. I agree about life being too short for bad beer, bad or unreadable books, and how about bad wine? Mom

 
At August 11, 2004 at 3:37 PM, Blogger Wyatt Earp said...

I was reading "The Mitrokhin Archive," which is a complete history of the KGB. Although it was very interesting, at times it read like a textbook. Combine that with all of the unpronouncable (is that a word?)Russian surnames, and it was a difficult read. I stopped halfway through to re-read "Black Hawk Down," but finally finished it. Maybe I should have quit while I was behind, but I was so proud of myself for completing the work that I thought it was worth the fight.

BTW, I am now reading the latest from John Sandford, "Naked Prey," an author which Tom suggested to me years ago. I am glad he did.

 
At August 11, 2004 at 4:44 PM, Blogger Matt said...

Strangely enough, last week I started reading Stephen King's behemoth "The Stand" again. After having picked it up and put it down several times over the years, I decided that this time I would gut it out. And while I wouldn't say I've been rewarded for my efforts, I'm pleased that I have kept going with it. Also, now that I'm about three-quarters of the way through, I feel that to put it down at this point would be saying that all the time I had spent reading it was just a waste.

 
At August 12, 2004 at 9:05 AM, Blogger Mark said...

Odd timing for this post. Just this week I gave up on "Cosmopolis" by Don DeLillo. I kept hearing about DeLillo, but apparently I picked his worst work. I don't know if I would use Jonathan Lethem's (who's "Motherless Brooklyn" I really liked) two-page test, since I would have given up on Ian McEwan's "Atonement" and that ended up being one of the best books I've read this year. I probably would have given up on "The Corrections" too, since it started out with such unlikable characters. I know 30 pages into a book if I'm into it, but I still hate giving up.

 
At August 12, 2004 at 11:28 AM, Blogger Tom G. said...

I feel like such a weight is off my shoulders. For the last couple of years I have been feeling guilty that I have given up on a whole lot of books one-third of the way in. Glad to know there are others like me. Its almost as if once I have gotten the flavor of the book, I'm ready to move on to something else, kind of like just wanting a bit of desert after dinner and not the heaping mound of desert that restaurants force you to get.

I also find it coincidental that Michael Chabon feels that way, because I've put a book or two of his down before finishing. Again, now I don't feel so bad.

 
At August 12, 2004 at 1:29 PM, Blogger Tom said...

I've never tried DeLillo, but have heard similar things. As for Chabon, I've now read three of his novels, and have found each better than the last. I think he's one of the best writers working today.

 
At August 14, 2004 at 10:44 PM, Blogger Tom G. said...

Actually, I think Chabon is one of the better writers around as well, I just meant it was kind of ironic that he said something about not being able to finish books and some of his books are the ones I haven't been able to finish. My own little issue, not his...

 
At August 19, 2004 at 12:17 AM, Blogger gr said...

i am terrible at finishing books, probably because i'm reading 5 at a time all the time. its not that they';re bad, i may have developed some sort of debilitating ADD. i just started thomas friedman's "from beirut to jeruselum". i'm on page 50. here's hoping i can get to triple digits.

also, i am 0-for-4 with Catch-22.

 
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