Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Two things…

No, three.

First, thank you for leaving comments to understand why people do or do not leave comments. Blog commenting is still a mystery to me. Onward.

Second, for the first time that I can recall in my reading career (which really began when I was 13 or so), I have consciously and decisively given up on a book. This is almost as startling a development for me as if I had said I have eaten a book.

In college, it took me a solid two years to finish The Heart is a Lonely Hunter /the working title might have been "This Book is a Lonely Plodder"). I just could not "get into" it… but I would not let myself get out of it. Every few weeks or months I would pick it up, read a few of its densely printed, tightly curled words and paragraphs, find myself yawning or twitching in my chair, and putting it back into cold storage. Eventually I did finish it.

But now, perhaps, with age, I am more aware of the fact that "life is too short". Struggling through a book really isn't worth it.

My rule of thumb is to read the first 10% of a book, and, if by that point, I am not into it, I toss it aside. This does not count as giving up on a book, since, unless I am already deadset on reading it, I spend the first 10% of the book quasi-skimming in order to ascertain how seriously I might take the latter 90%. Most books that I read are between 150 and 400 pages, so reading 15–40 pages as recon is not a major loss. Plus, I have normally done so much research on a book before I buy it, or am so taken with its relevance to my interests, that I am basically "deadset" on finishing any book I buy.

But now, I have found a book, of no small repute, of which I have read a full 1/3 (over 100 pages), and simply have no desire or will to complete: Matthew Pearl's The Dante Club!

Here's a sentence I thought I would never produce: Dan Brown is leagues ahead of Pearl in terms of pacing and character depiction (if not development). I actually enjoyed some of Dan Brown's books! But Pearl, sadly, is that treasure which I would sell off to buy a field of weeds.

Pearl has an eye for telling details, all right, but they are so flagrantly literary that they seem to float over the surface of the text looking for any character, anything, on whom they will stick. He seems like the kind of writer, in this first book, at least, that becomes so attached to certain details and metaphors and images, that he will do everything he can to "make them fit". What a clever metaphor! What a pleasant use of assonance and alliteration! What an intimate detail! It all has to go in!

Pearl seems to think it is not enough for a character's soberly stated, because soebrly lived, normalcy to speak for itself. He seems unable or unwilling to treat details and metaphors derivatively as mere parts of the person as a whole character. Instead, he seems to impose upon each person a "clever" poetical leitmotif to make him "come alive". Inner drives are smothered by outer accoutrements. Character, in other words, succumbs to costume. The details of Longfellow's "sad" life, to cite one example of this imbalance, stagger pathetically, almost parenthetically, in the comparison to the lavish references Pearl makes to his quintessentially Longfellowan Beardedness.

I am surprised at myself for rejecting the book, since, first, I really love things Dantean, and, second, I enjoy "smart" books generally. But The Dante Club has got me wondering. Sometimes maybe I just want a mystery to be a mystery. I don't need all the heavy-handed metaphorical descriptions and painfully intentional character development. The fact is, the major "hook" for The Dante Club was the idea of seeing the pains of Dante's Inferno in real life. That's what people more or less bought the book for. Alas, aside from a very strong, grim opening, the book has dragged on for a century of pages with only two murders. If your hook is gory depictions of infernal murder, then bring the pain! The Dante Club is just too "rich" and "layered"––fusing the theoretically exciting elements of Dante, post-Civil War America, Harvard as a symbol of changes in education, the trope about scholarly dandies put to an unusual test of wits and wickedness, etc. blah blah blah––it is all just so baroque. It just tries too hard.

Am I bitter? A little. It's a point of personal pride that I finish the books I begin. So, to come across a book (a book of just over 300 pages, at that!), which rebuffs my voracious literacy, is almost to feel, like Tolstoy's Vronsky, a painful looseness in one's jaw and wonder at one's own mortality. I hate books and movies that are hyped up, and The Dante Club, I have to say, is woefully overrated. (I have a feeling Oprah is somehow to blame.)

I admit defeat; I have been Dante Clubbed.

Third, this is funny:

1 comment:

Janet said...

the third one!EXACTLY! looks like someone i know...