Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Something nasty in the woodshed, you say? Let's go take a look!

When recommending books to people, I often run into an annoying little problem. You see, it isn't terribly important for me to like characters in novels. Most of the time, I am apathetic towards “likable” characters, and they create a sort of negative space which is filled by the context of their situation. I can think of a few exceptions (to prove I have a heart): basically every character from To Kill a Mockingbird; the kids from Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy; the butler Stevens in Ishiguro's Remains of the Day. Writing about good people isn't that interesting, though when done well it really stands out.

While forming my early literary tastes (still forming, still stubborn) I often tried to convince my mom to read the books I was excited about. I raved about them, but only later did I realize how bad my advertising techniques were. She would ask, “But do you like the characters?” And I would have to admit that no, I didn't like them, but that wasn't the point! I loved books because of the philosophy, the imagined worlds, the foreign newness and the unexpected nostalgia. All the books I loved for those reasons also happened to be... somewhat disturbing. So, I have to own the fact that I enjoy creepiness, strangeness and moral ambiguity in my fiction.

Few authors manage to completely withhold value judgments, to write fearlessly about how people live, and those who do also tend to invent characters who echo our darkest selves. There is a spectrum of privacy in novels, which I think is not entirely within an author's control. We can only stand to reveal so much about clandestine things, scary things, humiliating things in real life; when a character is written, authors can reveal a little more by showing what they do in secret. But have you ever been reading a novel and thought, “that's not really what that person would say!” or (especially in YA), “in real life those teenagers would just start having sex right now?” In those moments, I wish I could call out the authors and demand to know what they're so afraid of. Then on the other hand, really honest writers make you cringe, make you turn the page with one eye open, anticipating, dreading what you know is coming next-- because you hate to admit it, but these things have happened before.

Last week I met author Donald Ray Pollock, who wrote the short story collection Knockemstiff, released in 2009. His new book, The Devil All the Time, comes out on July 12th. I loved the book, but I'm now confronted with my old problem: how to recommend something that is-- at least on the surface-- a book about bad people doing bad things? The blurb on the back of the book tries this angle: “...a novel that marries the twisted intensity of Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers with the religious and gothic overtones of Flannery O'Connor at her most haunting.”
If I had creative control, that would read more like: “A novel that marries the hopeless corruption of P. T. Anderson's There Will be Blood with the poetic depravity of Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird.”

The writing is great; understated, showing just enough so that your imagination is left to fill in details. The concept of “weaving” storylines and characters gets thrown around a lot, to varying degrees of success and relevance, but Pollock has truly mastered his chronology. He takes his time establishing connections between characters, trusting the reader to piece things together. The whole thing is just intense; although at first I had to stop after every chapter to collect myself, I eventually got so sucked into the story that I read the last 75 pages with feverish momentum.
Maybe there's already a name for this kind of writing, but I'm still trying to define why I like it. I think there's a moment-- sometimes a few pages in, sometimes halfway through-- when I realize that an author is not going to hold back. There's not going to be any omniscient code of ethics, no invisible hand to guide you through the story. You are like a stationary witness in a dream, and finishing the book is like waking up and realizing that the meaning you desire is arbitrary. What a thrilling challenge!
It would be easy for me to choose which friends to recommend this book to. But with strangers, I think it saves time to get right to the point. So, what factors contribute to your enjoyment of a novel?

(The title of this blog is a reference to Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, a brilliant book that truly has something for everyone.)


  1. Anonymous12:01 PM

    Great title, Seija!

  2. Anonymous2:10 PM

    Ha! I think this is why we have trouble recommending books for each other. I'm entirely a character reader and plot/setting/everything else is secondary. But we agree that fantastic writing is mandatory, so there's some overlap. Can't wait to recommend the next book I see with any bones/skeleton/spine stuff on the cover. Or things that have pools of blood on the corners.

  3. Don't pigeonhole me, Anna! It's complex!


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