Sunday, September 19, 2010
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?