Saturday, March 27, 2010

I Can't FIght this Feeling Anymore

Today I did something I rarely do. I gave up on reading a novel. There are very few novels I have ever decided not to finish as I’m usually a pretty forgiving reader. I’ll stick with a novel all the way to the end even when I get so aggravated I throw the novel onto the coffee table and walk away from it for a bit.

Jacqueline Mitchard’s Deep End of the Ocean was like that. I read it, like a lot of people, because it was the first novel Oprah picked for her book club and because I’d met Mitchard at a writer’s conference. The book aggravated me sufficiently that I put it down repeatedly (I remember at least three times in the final 100 pages), but I kept coming back to it because there was some good, deep emotional stuff in there. Even though, ultimately, it’s not a novel I would ever go back and reread, I stuck with it because I’d already read most of it.

The first book I remember not finishing was The Trial by Franz Kafka. I was a junior in college and had been reading it over the summer break. I was fifteen pages from the end and so frustrated by not being able to follow what was happening that I closed the book up and declared I was not going to finish it. One of my housemates, and a fellow writer, said, “Wow, I hope I never write a book that causes someone to do that.” I keep meaning to go back and give the book another try, but probably won’t ever get around to it.

Recently, I failed to finish Gilead by Marilynn Robinson. I’m not sure if the issue was the book or the timing of me reading it. The book was assigned reading for a class I was TAing the semester I had four other classes and my student residency at the dump. I was, quite simply, SWAMPED, and kept falling asleep every time I tried to read the book. After a week of this, and realizing it was interfering with me getting work done for my other classes, I gave up. I do know I had a really difficult time getting involved in the book and reading an essay the professor assigned (an interview with Robinson) completely turned me off on her as a writer. So maybe it was a combination of things. I don’t know.

In this case, the book in question is Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, and I know exactly why I stopped reading it. I couldn’t get into the story-telling world of this book. Set in post 9/11 2001-2002, the book is narrated by a young woman in college somewhere in the Midwest (okay, point 1 – I can’t tell you what the narrator’s name is. Not good.) The voice was totally off for a 20-something young woman. And, I kept forgetting that it was right after 9/11. The only reference to it was when Tassie (that’s it, Tassie – couldn’t she have given the narrator a real name?)…Tassie’s roommate (who, incidentally, hasn’t made an appearance in the book as anything other than a “witty” disembodied voice in Tassie’s memory)…the roommate calls after sleeping with a new boyfriend for the first time on the night of the 10th and declaring that their lovemaking was the cause of the towers coming down. That’s it. Only reference. And if it has an effect on Tassie, I can’t see it. Then, Tassie goes home for Christmas. Her family is some mixture of Jewish and Christian, but, here again, totally off. I don’t buy it. The only hint of Jewishness here is in the relentless serving of “Jewish” food for Christmas – latkes, kugel, brisket. It’s like Moore went to a dinner with a Jewish family and this is what they served so she assumes this is what all Jewish people eat all the time.

The latkes gave me particular fits because Moore describes how one makes matzo balls rather than latkes. Tassie’s mother offers her latkes when she first gets home, but Tassie doesn’t want them, so the mother says, okay, I’ll put the latke mix in the fridge and we can make them tomorrow morning (1 – you don’t make latkes from a mix, and 2 – you put latkes in the fridge overnight and the next morning you have a soggy brown mess from the potatoes releasing water and starch). The next morning, Tassie’s making the latkes and complaining about the egg whites and oil making her hands slick and sticky (1 – you make latkes from shredded potato and flour, maybe a little egg, the only oil is the oil you fry them in and you definitely don’t want HOT oil on your hands, and 2 – matzo balls are made from a mix to which you add oil and eggs).

I know. I know. This is such a minor detail. But the problem is, it was enough to throw me out of the book. And every reference to the Jewish food afterward just threw me out of the book again. I gave the book the 50-page test, and then generously decided to give it the 100-page test because of Moore’s reputation and the positive reviews the book received. I didn’t make it to page 100. I ended on page 71 because Tassie and another character are about to board a plane. It’s January 2002, only three months after 9/11 and there are no references to the attack, no references to the insane security precautions, no anxiety on the part of the characters, nothing. I had to remind myself that, oh yeah, this novel is post-9/11, at which point I decided if I was having to do that much work, the writer wasn’t doing her job. And I put the book down. For good.

I don’t do this lightly, like I said. I tend to be a generous reader because I know how difficult it is for a writer to make sure they get every single detail correct. Unless writers are only going to write about characters who are exactly like themselves (which would be really boring), they’re going to get details wrong. I’m not a 14-year old boy. Now, I’m fortunate that I happen to have one in my house, and I’ve talked to him extensively about what high school is like. But I’m not a 14-year old boy. I’ve probably gotten some things wrong. Nor am I an African American Iraqi war veteran or a meth addict. In all those cases, I’ve done research. I’ve been reading quite a lot about these things and talking to people who can give me first-hand information about what their reality is like.

The question I kept coming back to in Moore’s book, and ultimately couldn’t answer, was what’s the payoff in the book for her creating characters like this. What’s the value of having Tassie’s mother have this pseudo-Jewish ancestry? What does it add to the book? Because it has to add something. These details have to add up to something that gives the book additional dimension. Otherwise, you’re better off sticking with the world you know and getting the details correct.

And, having written this, I hope I never read someone’s blog complaining about all the inaccuracies in my book. But I’m sure I will.

(Incidentally, in keeping with my last blog post: Moore's book received 23 reviews, most of them positive. It debuted at #10 on the New York Times bestseller list and was at #1 on several other major lists, as well as starting out at #43 on the Amazon list, continuing to stay in the top 500 for more than a month after its release. Six months after its release, it's still a better seller than any of the debut novels I talked about in my last post.)


Queen of Cuisine said...

Confusing latkes and matzoh balls would be the end for me, too. Why, I may even be driven to write a witty, yet biting letter to the author. Food confusion is never acceptable!! Great blog.

cindie geddes said...

I once quit reading a book that talked about dingos howling in the Nevada desert. And it wasn't even a simple locale detail. It was critical to the plot. That doesn't even need research. Just a quick google search.

I love your point about if the writing what you don't know doesn't add anything, just stick with what you know. You very succinctly tied up, for me, the whole hoopla of writing what you know vs creative authority. That's going in my circa book of critical writing advice!

However, I have to say The Trial is one of my favorite books. But I felt exactly as you described until about the last 5 pages. Maybe even the last 2. Then I immediately started again on page 1. I don't think I have ever done that with another book. But when I realized what Kafka was saying and how my frustration deepened the theme, I was in book love. So maybe just read those last 15 pages and then see if you want to give it another try?

Lisa said...

It's not a small detail! It's sloppy writing and even sloppier editing - there's no excuse for letting something so simple slip by. That's going to throw any reader who's familiar with latkes out of the story.

I'm not as forgiving as I used to be when it comes to books. If a meal tastes bad, I don't feel like I have to keep eating it. And I don't think I have ever stuck with a book I wasn't enjoying and then, at the end, decided I was glad I kept reading.

Anonymous said...

The latke/matzoh mixup would bother me because it's clear that the author didn't do her research. I'm an academic, and that kind of inaccuracy irks me. Plus--why is the family Jewish? I wonder if the author added that bit in because she thought Judaism is "neat"--that is, quirky, interesting etc.

Never feel guilty about not finishing a book. After all, someone else will read it.