Grumble, Grumble

I'm starting to get very grumpy about fiction.

First there was Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese. Admittedly, I bought this by mistake.  I had him mixed up with another Indian writer-surgeon, Atul Gawande, author of a recent New Yorker article I had read and enjoyed. Plus, I was looking for a book set in India (one of the places I like to go when I read fiction), and was sorely disappointed to find myself transported instead to Ethiopia.

So those two things did make me irritable.  But shouldn't the book have been at least readable, considering the stunning reviews?  I say--not readable. The author has an annoying tendency to avoid the center--to tell everything but what the reader actually wants to know. Maybe this is supposed to create suspense, or depth, or poetry, but no--it creates reader fatigue.  Sadly (I hate not finishing books) I had to stop after 100 pages.

Then there was Franzen.  Freedom is advertised as "the great American novel" (so says the New York Times book review), a stunning expose of modern life, a wonderful this, and an incredible that.  I will say the first 100 pages are great--excruciatingly funny, very original--but by page 200, I started to think "run on book."  As in, "run on sentence," but the whole book.  And then by 300, I started having the thought that one should never have while reading fiction:  he's making this up!  Yeah, of course, but that's supposed to be the last thing that occurs to you when you're reading a good novel.

The reason Freedom starts feeling made up is that things come out of the blue. Suddenly we've got themes about birds and mountain tops and the Iraq war, after hundreds of pages of Analyzing Screwed Up People. If you want to make a novel feel truly green, you've got to get your green out early on, not half way through.  Otherwise, nobody's going to be fooled. Jonathan Franzen has real feelings for birds and the Iraq war and overpopulation?  Nope, I don't believe it.

As for all the analyzing--I love hearing about screwed up people. That's fine fodder for fiction. But somehow it becomes too much.  Half way through, I found myself wondering why I needed to know quite so much about the nooks and crannies of these particular people's lives.  It was like sitting around for hours and hours gossiping about the not-actually-that-interesting couple down the street.  I'd happily give that some time, but at some point I'd think-- enough is enough.

Admittedly,  there is intermittent entertainment throughout--in fact there's a scene so funny I literally laughed until I cried.  I've read the book feverishly, off and on. But no, it's not the wonder I was expecting.

Last books I thoroughly enjoyed:  Solar, by Ian McEwen, and Unaccustomed Earth, by Jumpha Lahiri.  Have you read anything fantastic lately?


Faust said...

Blidsight by Peter Watts is the best fiction I've read lately. But I rarely read fiction, and then only science fiction.

Actually I guess I did just read Johnson's Rasselas (amazing piece of work, amazing), but that's not fiction. Not really.

amos said...

I don't read much fiction myself and then basically classics. The last amazing work I read was Kafka's The Castle: AAA.

I like John LeCarré and I read The Honorable Schoolboy, which is not his best work. The formulae which work in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy don't work
the second-time around.

I finally got around to reading Middlemarch, which supposedly is one of the few novels written for adults (according to Virginia Woolf). I didn't believe in the protagonist, Dorothea: too lofty, too noble to be real.

Finally, I read Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives, in Spanish. Recommended. It's about two unpublished and probably second or third rate poets, narrated by everyone who knew them, some of who say that they are revolutionaries, others that they are small-time pushers, others that they are just plain bums, others that they are unrecognized poetic geniuses, etc.

Aeolus said...

A friend recommended Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks, which has lots of glowing reviews. I ploughed through 230 pages out of 600+ before I did what I rarely do: gave up. It's very Masterpiece Theatre, and/but with little tension to drive the plot, and rather pedestrian writing.

Have you tried Robert Harris's political/historical thrillers?

Anonymous said...

from 1908 The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett a masterpiece available on Gutenberg

Gerard Stocker said...

Thumbs up for "The Savage Detectives," thumbs down for "Human Traces" -- easily Faulks' most tedious novel. Just finished Gail Hareven's "Confessions of Noa Weber" a book about an Israeli feminist mystery writer who has a 30-year unrequited love for a Russian immigrant. Sounds awful, I know, but it isn't at all.

Anonymous said...

If you like books set in India have you read "God of Small things" by Arundhati Roy? I quite enjoyed it.

Also, I imagine you've read Jonathan Safran Foer's "Eating Animals" but, if you're looking for fiction he has also written some great novels. I loved both "Everything is Illuminated" and "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close"

Jean Kazez said...

Thanks for all the suggestions--next stop, Amazon, to look up some of these people.

The last anonymous, Sadly I've read all of those books:-)

Dominic said...


I'm sorry you didn't enjoy Cutting for Stone - especially since I feel slightly responsible for encouraging you to read it (I recommended Gawande).

I have just recently finished reading CfS - and loved it. I agree that the start isn't great, but it really does become fascinating and engrossing (or it did for me anyway). It has a particular richness for medics like me, because of the medicine that Verghese interweaves through the story. But I also loved the depiction of Ethiopia. It made me want to go there. (I'd encourage you to give it another try if you have the time).

As for other books worth reading - I have almost finished William Maxwell's 'They came like swallows' - a devastatingly beautiful and sparsely written novella. It has some of the most perceptive insights into the mind of a small child that I have read. I will probably go and look up some of his other work.

If you still interested in an 'Indian' novel you might try Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, based (incredibly) on his own early life as a convicted bank robber and heroin addict who escapes to Mumbai, lives in a shanty town, becomes a de facto medic, and gets mixed up with the underworld.


Jean Kazez said...

Dom, Well, I tried to blame you, but I just couldn't manage it. Surely it's not your fault that I can't tell the difference between "Verghese" and "Gawande"!!

It drove me crazy that the birth was broken up with all those innumerable asides--I felt manipulated. But perhaps I should persevere. I actually liked all the medical details.

I decided to go to Iceland next--I'm going to read Iceland's Bell, by Halldor Laxness, one of my favorite authors. Also one of my favorite places for literary travel:-)

Thanks for those suggestions...will return to this thread next time I am empty-handed.