In the Heart of the Sea

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick

What did it win?

National Book Award 2000

What’s it all about?

A sperm whale sinks the Nantucket whaler Essex, leaving the crew to cross the Pacific in three small boats.

Was it really any good?

A great story, only capably told. Though I have to admit the cliché-ridden Preface (“a sight that would stay with the crew the rest of their lives;” “look back to that distant time as if it were yesterday”) had me expecting something worse.

The genre of true adventure has boomed since the phenomenal success of Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm. Obviously there are a lot of us who feel that life in the twenty-first century isn’t tough enough. Unfortunately, the entertainment industry has stepped into the gap and made “reality” into Adspeak for anything having to do with absurd physical challenges and televised tests of survival. As a result, Philbrick’s contention that the story of the Essex is “not a tale of adventure” but a “tragedy” is hard for us to appreciate today. (Would such a distinction apply to the story of the Gloucester fishermen? Or the lives lost on Everest?) Whale hunting was a dangerous way to make a poor living in 1820, but in the twenty-first century readers may safely imagine it as a kind of Extreme Sport, the nineteenth century equivalent of rock-climbing or bungee-jumping. Gladiator was the most successful movie released in 2000, and only a year later American courts had to decide whether to allow the broadcast of Timothy McVeigh’s execution over the Internet as pay-per-view. Such things remind us that even killing people may be a form of popular entertainment.

In other words, the time was right for another re-telling of this classic American tale. That it is a modern re-telling is made especially clear in the politically correct sense of poetic justice it carries with it. The whaling industry, for example, has always been an environmentalist’s nightmare, and there is something satisfying to a modern sensibility in the way the tables are turned on the Essex. Then there is the dramatic irony that has the xenophobic crew members choose to avoid making the relatively short run to Tahiti because of their fear of cannibals, only to find themselves driven to the same extreme in their attempt to reach South America.

The past is a foreign country, and we should be wary of judging its citizens by what Auden called a “foreign code of conscience.” This said, the book’s most curiously modern feature is its sincere but overly decorous way of handling race. Instead of pointing out the obvious – that the black members of the crew may have been the first to die because they were not like the others; not, in Conrad’s magic phrase, “one of us” – Philbrick finds a scientific explanation in a study showing low percentage body fat among African Americans. And as for the reason why the people of Nantucket didn’t like to talk about the Essex tragedy in later years:

It wasn’t just the fact that the men had resorted to cannibalism. It was also difficult for Nantucketers to explain why the first four men to be eaten were African American. What made this a particularly sensitive topic on Nantucket was the island’s reputation as an abolitionist stronghold.

This is unconvincing, and left me wondering what evidence Philbrick had for thinking race was such a sensitive topic. The endnotes only offer support for Nantucket’s abolitionist reputation. Without something more, I can see no reason why Nantucketers in the nineteenth century would be upset in the slightest that so many of the victims were black. One would have thought there were far more obvious reasons why the tragedy would have remained a sensitive topic not to be discussed within a close-knit community where almost everyone had some connection to the families of those involved.

If the past cannot be punished under a foreign code of conscience, neither can it be redeemed.


The Elegant Universe

The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene

What did it win?

Aventis Prize 2000

What’s it all about?

On an ultramicroscopic scale, quantum mechanics is incompatible with general relativity. String theory, which makes tiny vibrating strings the fundamental building blocks of nature, harmoniously unites the two within a unified theory of the universe.

Was it really any good?

Yes and no. I have to admit, I’m a sucker for books like these. Most of modern physics is magic to me, and reading about it usually boils down to trying to get a handle on the metaphors. But I also love the big philosophical issues involved. I can spend hours trying to imagine extra dimensions, or what it would mean to be outside of both space and time. And there’s no end to considering the origins of the universe. What was before the Big Bang? If the universe is expanding, what is it expanding into? Will we ever know? Can our limited human brains comprehend such ultimate knowledge?

Greene has his work cut out for him. Sometime in the twentieth century the links snapped between the world we experience every day and the world explained by scientific theory. Every writer trying to describe advanced science to a lay audience today has to begin by making it clear that nothing they are discussing has anything to do with common sense. While the great scientific breakthroughs of a hundred years ago may be easily reproduced and understood (feeding the growth of the “history of science” as a separate field of publishing and scholarship), the present state of the art is rarified indeed. As Greene puts it, “special relativity is not in our bones – we do not feel it. Its implications are not a central part of our intuition.” Similarly, quantum mechanics is said to describe a nature that is “absurd from the point of view of common sense.” String theory may be elegant, but it is not an elegance that is easily appreciated, especially at an introductory level.

I wasn’t able to keep up with Greene all the time. In fact, I don’t think I kept up with him at all after the first few introductory chapters. A lot of this is my fault, but the author has to share some of the blame. The stories Greene tells to illustrate basic principles are often unnecessarily complex. The diagrams, of which there are many, are helpful in the early going, but are suspicious when we start talking about extra dimensions. Then again, when trying to describe such an exclusively mathematical reality, words and pictures are probably not the most useful tools.

If nothing else, you do come away from all of this with some new ideas about life, the universe and everything. In an elegant summary (except for the mixed metaphor at the end), Greene tells us that “If string theory is right, the microscopic fabric of our universe is a richly intertwined multidimensional labyrinth within which the strings of the universe endlessly twist and vibrate, rhythmically beating out the laws of the cosmos.” I could live with that.


Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee

What did it win?

Booker Prize 1999, Commonwealth Writers Prize 1999

What’s it all about?

David Lurie, an English professor at Cape Town Technical University, loses his job because of an affair he has with a student. He goes to live with his daughter on a hobby farm she runs. A gang of ruffians attack, setting the professor on fire and raping his daughter. They both survive, and go on to cope in different ways with what has happened.

Was it really any good?

Well, I finished it. That may not sound like much, especially considering the fact that the book is only 220 pages long, but getting to the end is never a sure bet with these award-winners.

For a while I thought I might not make it. Literary novels with English professors as the main character are definitely not my thing. David Lurie is a typical creation, a man so refined his idea of a “simple” meal is anchovies on tagliatelle with a mushroom sauce. (Earth to Coetzee: A simple meal is a tuna sandwich.) He is, like most fictional English professors, bored with his privileged life (“There are days when he does not know what to do with himself”), exasperated by his stupid pupils (“He has long ceased to be surprised at the range of ignorance of his students”), and bitter about the new breed of politically-motivated yuppie academic. Indeed, the only real surprise is his thinking that he can get away with having an affair with a young woman whose favourite authors are Adrienne Rich, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. I mean really, how much of a warning does the man need?

The writing, especially in the early going, is spare without being economical. “His needs turn out to be quite light, after all, light and fleeting, like those of a butterfly.” Aside from sounding clichéd, this isn’t very effective. A butterfly’s movement may be light and fleeting, but I wouldn’t say the same for its needs. Then there is David’s imagination of a man castrating himself with a knife: “an ugly sight, but no more ugly, from a certain point of view, than the same man exercising himself on the body of a woman.” I know this is meant to tie in with some of the novel’s themes, but I still wonder who that “certain point of view” might belong to. An ex-wife? A feminist academic?

But I’m happy to say that things do improve. Once the action gets out of Cape Town the story comes into a richer focus, gaining in both depth and outline. Much like the previous year’s Booker winner, Amsterdam, it presents itself as a kind of moral fable. All-in-all it is a harsher book than McEwan’s, while at the same time being less clear-cut. The difference may be one of place. Disgrace may not be typical of South African writing, but a moral vision so frankly accepting of violence, seeing suffering as a greater virtue than justice, would seem odd in a novel set almost anywhere else.

The Diamond Age

The Diamond Age; or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson

What did it win?

Hugo Award 1996

What’s it all about?

A little girl living in the 21st century accidentally receives a marvelous book which prepares her to become a hero.

Was it really any good?

Parts of it. Like Snow Crash, Stephenson’s wildly successful cyberpunk novel, it begins with a bang. Just get a load of the first paragraph:

The bells of St. Mark’s were ringing changes up on the mountain when Bud skated over to the mod parlor to upgrade his skull gun. Bud had a nice new pair of blades with a top speed of anywhere from a hundred to a hundred and fifty kilometers, depending on how fat you were and whether or not you wore aero. Bud liked wearing skin-tight leather, to show off his muscles. On a previous visit to the mod parlor, two years ago, he had paid to have a bunch of ‘sites implanted in his muscles – little critters, too small to see or feel, that twitched Bud’s muscle fibers electrically according to a program that was supposed to maximize bulk. Combined with the testosterone pump embedded in his forearm, it was like working out in a gym night and day, except you didn’t have to actually do anything and you never got sweaty. The only drawback was that all the little twitches made him kind of tense and jerky. He’d gotten used to it, but it still made him a little hinky on those skates, especially when he was doing a hundred clicks an hour through a crowded street. But few people hassled Bud, even when he knocked them down in the street, and after today no one would hassle him ever again.

Well, if that doesn’t get you hooked then I reckon you must be dead. This is Stephenson at this best, and at his best what he is all about is speed. This fixation on velocity has, I take it, something to do with the fact that in the future our dangerously abbreviated attention spans and cravings for raw stimulation will have reduced us all to creatures like Ben: rocketing through urban streets on power skates at 100 km/h while our bodies are jerked off by the latest nanotech. Stephenson’s characters don’t spend a lot of time thinking; they are too busy just trying to react to their environment.

The other thing Stephenson does well is social commentary, which has led to his being hailed as a kind of prophet-guru of the information age and even made him a feature on the corporate lecture circuit. I have to admit I find this strange, since a lot of what he has to say seems to me to be fairly typical by SF standards (most of it is warmed-over Gibson, with the current Victorian fetish thrown in here for good measure), and the trendspotting is nothing any reasonably intelligent and well-informed observer might be expected to come up with. In the end, nobody reads SF to find out “what’s going to happen.” And while Stephenson’s ideas about morality (hypocrisy is the only moral sin in a relativistic world) and technology ( we have to shift our focus from “feed” to “seed”) are certainly provocative, they are no different in kind from the commentary you find on the opinion pages of a lot of popular magazines.

Which leaves us, as always, with the story itself and its presentation.

As you can tell from that opening paragraph, Stephenson is one hip writer; but there’s more to it than just the super-speedy, satirical wit. The most noticeable aspect of his style is the vocabulary, which is often flamboyantly artificial and difficult. The text is littered with words I didn’t even bother looking up, like “callipygious,” “cineritious,” and “concinnitous,” while the Primer itself is subtitled “a Propaedeutic Enchiridion” (a handbook or manual conveying preliminary instruction – you can thank me later).

Unfortunately, and again like Snow Crash, Stephenson can’t sustain the crack-a-jack pace. The second half of the novel is very dull. There is no clear conflict to speak of and the structure of the story is very uncertain. It’s never clear what kind of conclusion the book is building toward, and even at the end there are many questions left unanswered. Looking back, I couldn’t understand why Stephenson had introduced so much material that was irrelevant. Is there supposed to be a sequel on the way? If so, isn’t the first book in a series supposed to leave me wanting more, rather than wishing the author had quit while he was ahead?

And why is it that SF writers always feel they have to end their novels with some kind of earth-shaking apocalypse anyway? When was the last time I read one of these things where the fate of a planet wasn’t at stake? For the record, I have no idea what is supposed to be going on at the end of The Diamond Age. Like most contemporary SF it has revolutionary overtones, but it’s hard to tell who is rebelling against what. The book spends a lot of time describing a rigid class structure (another common motif in the new SF), but the climactic uprising is more a kind of millennial transformation in technology with odd geopolitical repercussions than it is a revolution against the ruling elite. What any of it means I can only guess.

The Third Reich

The Third Reich: A New History by Michael Burleigh

What did it win?

Samuel Johnson Non-Fiction Award 2001

What’s it all about?

The rise and fall of Nazi Germany.

Was it really any good?

Excellent. Well documented, insightful, and refreshingly original in many of its conclusions, I expect it to remain one of the standard works on the subject for some time.

Things do get off to a bad start, with an essay on National Socialism as political religion that I found largely irrelevant to what followed. This Introduction is also the most academic part of the book, given to scholarly hair-splitting over terms and an overview of sources that includes a lot of name-dropping (at one point listing 21 in a row, “to take a few distinguished names at random”!).

Once out of these woods, it gets a lot better. Perhaps the most impressive thing about The Third Reich is its comprehensiveness. All of the basics are accounted for, including overviews of the military campaigns and a brief biographical sketch of Hitler, but Burleigh also covers important domestic developments such as the degradation of the rule of law and the Nazi takeover of German social welfare organizations and programs. An extremely effective use of anecdotes drawn from the mountain of archival materials help humanize the story at every stage, and many interesting conclusions, general and specific, are drawn along the way.

Burleigh’s quirky style and impatience with re-inventing the wheel is generally well-suited to such a giant task. Only occasionally does the writing itself bog down (example: “Kahr, despite having offended Seeckt by protecting General Lossow, the Reichswehr commander in Bavaria, when Lossow refused to close down the Munich newspaper the Volkischer Beobachter after it attacked the Reichswehr leader, was unwilling to move on Berlin, without Seeckt’s own involvement, and his involvement was conditional upon Kahr distancing himself from the putschism of Ludendorff and Hitler.”). The greater danger is posed by Burleigh’s tendency to be overly cute or dismissive and his penchant for tenuous modern analogies. An account of Hitler’s beginnings is titled “The Oddity’s Odyssey”. German pastors favouring Nazism are described as “perhaps following their flocks in a pathetic bid for popularity, like trendy vicars of the ‘happy-clappy’ persuasion playing electric guitars in their churches.” Normally, we are told, crackpots like Hitler “go quietly crazy amid genteel delapidation, like hippies gone to seed in seaside towns.” Members of the SD (secret police) are said to be “vaguely reminiscent of the highly logical people who, it is said, are drawn to the ideas of Scientology.”

I found this aspect of the presentation to be weird and distracting. In the end, however, it takes nothing away from Burleigh’s impressive achievement.

Cold Mountain

Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier

What did it win?

National Book Award 1997

What’s it all about?

A wounded Confederate soldier named Inman gives up on the Cause and sets out on a long and perilous journey home to the Blue Ridge Mountains. His sweetheart Ada tries to make a run of her father’s farm while she pines for his return.

Was it really any good?

Not much. On the plus side, Frazier is competent when it comes to getting through a conventional narrative. But aside from that, in terms of its language, style, emotion and character, this is a numbingly derivative and pretentious book.

What makes a book “literary”? Well, aside from being written by an academic, the surest bad sign is the amount of time the characters spend reading or writing. Even worse, the amount of time they spend thinking about reading or writing. The first two chapters here get us off to a bad start, as we see Ada agonizing over writing a letter and Inman forming a special attachment to Bartram’s Travels. And by the way, where did Inman get so literate? Certainly not at his local schoolhouse (which he stalks out of). How is he supposed to be reading – aloud no less! – Bartram’s descriptions of the “floriferous and fragrant bowers of Magnolia, Azalea, Philadelphus, perfumed Calycanthus, sweet Yellow Jessamine and cerulean Glycine frutescens”?

In term of style the whole book reads like a kitsch imitation of better Southern writing. There are a lot of the Biblical constructions and ironic understatements that have made up the Southern stock-in-trade at least since Faulkner. Meanwhile, the wandering figures of pure evil recall the gang of outlaws in McCarthy’s Outer Dark, but the similarity only serves to highlight the difference between Frazier’s drippy monotone and McCarthy’s orchestral syntax and over-the-top vocabulary. In Cold Mountain only one language is utilized. The author as well as all of his creations speak in the same cadenced and inflated drawl. Note the following paragraph:

When he arose from them, they were naught but thin hulls and his beard dripped pink juice into the dirt of the road. Inman stared down for some time onto the pattern the drops made to see if it held significance in the direction of augury, for he knew he needed aid, no matter from what strange fount it arose. The drops in the dust, though, offered no ready sign, neither pictograph nor totem, no matter from what angle he viewed them. The invisible world, he declared to himself, had abandoned him as a gypsy soul to wander singular, without guide or chart, through a broken world composed of little but impediment.

There is no break in either the rhythm or the artificiality of the construction from what the author observes to what Inman declares to himself. But while the writing has a flow, it remains unconvincing. The “naught but,” “what strange fount” and “wander singular” catch on the throat. They have been placed there for our special consideration, but seem to have wandered outside of their natural habitat (wherever that might be).

Finally there is the story itself. What the story wants – what it really, really wants – is for us to see it as a kind of Civil War Odyssey. What it turns out to be is an idiot cousin to Gone With the Wind. Think Golden Age of Hollywood crossed with Movie of the Week. Ada is a retread of Scarlett O’Hara, the (relatively) well-off, refined Southern girl who has to get her hands dirty and take over the chores while the menfolk are off a-fightin’. Ruby is another cliché, coming across as the nineteenth-century equivalent of a personal trainer as she whips fancy-girl Ada into shape and teaches her to learn from nature instead of books (“We might all take instruction from the crow.”).

A nurse novel for those who think they are above such things. Not as bad a book as The English Patient, but definitely more of the same.

Cimarron Rose

Cimarron Rose by James Lee Burke

What did it win?

Edgar Award 1998

What’s it all about?

A defence attorney uncovers a load of dirty laundry in a small Texas town when his illegitimate son is charged with murder.

Was it really any good?

As a type of genre fiction I thought it left a lot to be desired. Even though it is more a crime novel than a mystery, the solution is still presented in the most perfunctory way imaginable. The answer to the question Whodunnit? is simply tossed at the reader as part of the bloody finale, with little in the way of explanation. (In fact, I’m still not sure what was going on. If there is anyone who can let me know, you have my address.)

There are two reasons for this casual attitude to what is generally considered one of the basic elements in any mystery novel. First of all, Burke is clearly writing in the “tough guy” tradition of crime fiction, which means that the hero doesn’t solve the mystery so much as survive it. Secondly, the plot itself is so crowded with different story lines we all but lose sight of the murder. There is a lack of focus, with no one part of the novel ever seeming more important than the rest.

But back to the bit about tough guy fiction. Burke’s Texas is tough guy territory writ large, with some sort of record being set in this book for the number of references to bulging muscles. The hero can’t resist checking out his buff bod in the mirror when he goes to a health club. The local kids are all football players (the children of ex-football players) juiced on steroids. The menacing serial killer is almost always described as shirtless, the better to show off his gleaming, ripped abs. A tough lady cop is another fit specimen, and even the judge likes to get pumped at the local gym:

Four times a week she lifted free-weights at the health club in a pair of sweatpants and a heavy, long-sleeve jersey. When she did stomach stretches on the bench, her hips and buttocks flattened and seized against her sweats like metal plate.

Of course it would be a shame to have all these muscles and not use them. To say that there is a fight scene in every other chapter of Cimarron Rose could hardly be much of an exaggeration. I can’t think of the last time I read a book that had so many people getting beaten up. And when they aren’t actually fighting they are saying things like “you put your finger in my face again, I’m going to break your jaw,” (etc.). There’s nothing wrong in principle with this brainless testosterone stuff, but after a bit of repetition it starts to wear the reader down. In a book where clues are not as important as instinct you don’t have to pay as much attention to what’s going on. Mystery, while not the most intelligent, is usually the most intellectual of genres. The only part of the body these characters seem not to exercise is their brains.

The story itself is composed in the vernacular of the action/detective movie. The hero, Billy Bob Holland, is one of those defence attorneys who don’t seem capable of handling more than one client at a time. While he maintains an office with a secretary, we never see him doing any legal work aside from representing his son. Seeing as he takes the case pro bono, how does he eat? Other elements, like the ex-cop having to avenge his fallen partner, the western town with a guilty secret, and the notion that there is a certain class in society that see themselves as above the law, will also be familiar to moviegoers (the only audience that matters anyway, as I have often pointed out elsewhere).

Like most popular writers Burke likes to set his work in an intensely moral and providential universe. On one level the symmetry and “good always triumphs over evil” of the novel’s conclusion is laughable, but as a philosophy or belief system it is actually quite close to Stephen King’s, only with human predators replacing King’s bogeymen. The novel’s political angle, pitting the rich families living in the east part of town against the mostly poor but honest working class, is also pretty standard stuff for a morality tale, but Burke gives it enough of an edge to keep it fresh. And any author who goes so far out of his way to make a reference to the Ludlow Massacre scores points with me.

Cimarron Rose is by no means a bad book. Burke is a capable storyteller, even if he has nothing much to say and no interest in the puzzle-solving. And the writing is quite readable in a pulpy, entertainment kind of way. Acknowledging this, however, is about as far as praise can go.


Bones by Jan Burke

What did it win?

Edgar Award 2000

What’s it all about?

A serial killer stalks a newspaper reporter.

Was it really any good?

Only as an example of the state of today’s pulp, which is nothing to be happy about.

More than a book we have read many times before – though it is also that – Bones is a book we have seen many times before. The superhuman serial killer (this one’s name is Nicholas Parrish) has become one of the most common archetypes in today’s entertainment industry. Enough is enough!

Does anyone remember where these psychos first came from? I suppose their most notorious predecessor is Hannibal Lector. Even the cover of the paperback edition of Bones is meant to recall The Silence of the Lambs, with a picture of a moth superimposed over a pair of crossed bones. (It seems not to matter that the name of the “Moth” in the novel is purely metaphorical.) But Hannibal himself may have only been an upscale, intellectual version of the seemingly immortal slasher psychos of 80s cinema.

Whatever his pedigree, my main complaint about the use of a serial killer in mystery fiction is the fact that serial killers are without rational motivation. The reason they kill people is because they are crazy. When I read a mystery novel – or any crime fiction – the motivation for the crime is what interests me the most. It’s the main reason such an otherwise outdated school of writing as Naturalism still has the power it does. Getting inside a character is one of the things fiction has always done best, and it is a shame to see so many of today’s authors falling back on what have become all-too-familiar Hollywood caricatures.

The following is typical of the discussion we get of motivation in the book:

“David,” Andy said, “you’ve been around this type of guy before. Why do you think Parrish did that?”
“There could be any number of explanations,” David said, “but if you’re trying to make any real sense of it, well, that’s something for a forensic psychologist to tackle.”
“He’s insane,” Andy said.
“Not by the legal definition,” David said. “He was found competent to stand trial.”

Not only is this singularly unhelpful, it also shows a questionable understanding of the law. The “legal definition” of criminal insanity involves quite different considerations than the test of whether an accused is competent to stand trial. We might expect someone in the business to know better.

(While I’m on the topic of what motivates serial killers, I might point out the way Burke’s Nicholas Parrish is influenced by the media. Though his character is never presented in any depth, it does seem as though he is some kind of copy-cat, even signing books out of the library on “his brethren.” The reason this is interesting is because it seems to assume what most people who defend this kind of entertainment always deny: that the media has any influence on violent behaviour in society.)

Of course, when writing a mystery novel the absence of motivation becomes a big problem. How are we supposed to figure out whodunnit when there is no reason for it being done in the first place? Indeed, why even bother trying? I don’t want to say that classic detective fiction is the only way to go, but if the current crop of Edgar winners is any indication (see my review of Cimarron Rose for an earlier complaint) then it seems pretty clear that mystery has been supplanted as a genre by the “suspense thriller.”

But all of this is digression. Was the book itself any good?

It is an effective page-turner, though instantly forgettable. The real mystery, the identity of Parrish’s accomplice, should be pretty obvious by about halfway through (at least that’s when I had it figured it out, and I’m no super-sleuth). The feisty heroine is another stereotype (yes, we know a strong woman can take on these predators, we’ve seen Silence of the Lambs, we’ve seen Kiss the Girls), and as for Nicholas Parrish . . . well, what can we say about a guy who laughs “uproariously” when he calls the decapitated corpse of a woman he has packed in his freezer a “cold fish,” and then excuses himself for being a boy “trying to get a head!”

Great material.

Despite being so derivative, the book takes itself surprisingly seriously at times, especially with all of the references to von Eschenbach’s Parzifal that are never explained. And there are elements of the plot that remain unconvincing. The escape of Nicholas Parrish, instead of making him appear to be a master criminal (“some combination of Houdini and the Terminator”), struck me as being entirely the result of dumb luck. And the finale – a battle on the rooftop of a tall building while a helicopter circles overhead – is Hollywood pure and simple.

But then, I guess pretty much everything is now.

The Blind Assassin

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

What did it win?

Booker Prize 2000

What’s it all about?

Couldn’t tell you.

Was it really any good?

At what point, as a reader, are you justified in giving up? This is a serious question, and arises more often than you might think. After all, reading a novel is a big investment of time and you have to know when to cut your losses. I know one fellow who is prepared to call it quits after the first paragraph. “You should be able to tell right away,” is what he says. While I wouldn’t go that far, I do think it’s fair to say that if you don’t like a book after the first few pages then it’s unlikely you’re going to change your mind as things progress. As a reviewer you are sometimes obliged to make an extra effort, but there are still limits.

I read five pages of The Blind Assassin.

What made me give up? Well, I was initially repulsed by the Acknowledgments. But I think I’ve already said enough about that elsewhere so I’ll let it slide.

The next thing that threw me off were the epigraphs. Now as a matter of personal preference I have to say I like epigraphs. They always run the risk of making the author seem a little pretentious, making grand claims to profundity for the book you are about to read, but I like them all the same. Two epigraphs can also work. With two epigraphs one can be played off against the other, like a verse from the Bible followed by some lyrics from Led Zeppelin. Two epigraphs tell you that this is a really complex work, one whose themes can’t possibly be addressed by a single source.

The Blind Assassin has three epigraphs.

One senses that the author is now laying it on a bit thick. This sense is heightened by the epigraphs themselves. The first is from Ryszard Kapuscinski (don’t ask) and describes an act of historical barbarism that probably could have been introduced at some point within the text just as easily. (Maybe it is. I didn’t get very far.) The second epigraph is an “Inscription on a Carthaginian Funeral Urn,” and it is clear that we are beyond the point of seeming pretentious. Finally there is a quotation taken from Sheila Watson: “The word is a flame burning in a dark glass.” This throws me completely, and not just because I don’t know my Sheila Watson from Ryszard Kapuscinski or Carthaginian funeral urns. In order to be effective an epigraph has to have a specific relation to the text it introduces. But how specific can “The word is a flame burning in a dark glass” be to anything? Such a flabby line could just as easily have been the epigraph to Heart of Darkness, The Waste Land, To the Lighthouse, or Middlemarch.

Full of misgivings, I finally approached the text.

Since I don’t have any idea what The Blind Assassin is about, I have to limit myself to a consideration of style. There are a number of curious features to Atwood’s style, none of which are very pleasant. The first thing that strikes you is the sentence structure, which seems to be a transcription of bad free verse poetry into paragraphs, with a profusion of colons and semi-colons used to indicate where the line breaks were supposed to be. This is not at all to say the prose is “poetic” (the most overused and incorrectly applied adjective in the reviewer’s lexicon). Whatever else it would require, for any prose to be truly poetic it would have to have some kind of regular rhythm to it and not just be a pile of dreamy images. Atwood’s prose is like bad free verse in that it has no rhythm at all:

Also I ought to warn Richard, at his office: he would wish to have a statement of grief prepared. I went into my dressing room: I would need black, and a handkerchief.

What is it with these colons? There are seven in the first two pages (big print, wide margins), along with three semi-colons (in my opinion a rather affected and usually needless piece of punctuation). In the third chapter the semi-colon pops up everywhere, including at least four sentences (again within two pages) with two each. There is something lazy about such writing, as though Atwood doesn’t want to put the mental effort into writing a well-constructed sentence with a natural flow. The artificiality of the style draws attention to itself, as though it wants to force us to recognize how important it is by grinding to an inarticulate, inexpressive halt. Take the end of the first chapter:

But some people can’t tell where it hurts. They can’t calm down. They can’t ever stop howling.

And the end of the third:

His smoke-stained fingers. The distant glimpse of water. All drowned now.
Drowned, but shining.

This is Very Important, Very Serious stuff. It is writing that is being put on display, which is something bad writing should always avoid.

And it is bad writing. The second feature of Atwood’s style that strikes one is the imagery. Again, one gets the sense that this is the prose of a lazy poet. On the first page we are confronted with this:

A hot wind was blowing around my head, the strands of my hair lifting and swirling in it, like ink spilled in water.

Huh? How so? Hair blowing in the wind doesn’t look at all like ink spilled in water. And how on earth can the narrator describe it in such a way when it’s her own hair? Is she looking at herself in a mirror? An apt image that would be. More likely though she is imagining herself in a movie, the strands of her hair gently stirring as if in slow motion. Very poetic, that slow motion stuff.

Five pages was enough. There was no point in continuing. Perhaps the most disturbing indication that things were not going well was the brief extract supposedly taken from a newspaper. Atwood’s idea of newspaper writing apparently means getting rid of the semi-colons. Otherwise it is yet another false note. “She denied any possibility of intoxication as Miss Chase did not drink” is not a construction found in many dailies. In fairness, the newspaper piece is not as badly handled as the newspaper style of most writers of literary fiction, but that isn’t saying much. After the newspaper report things return to their usual groove. The third chapter ends with another obtrusive but utterly useless image: “The trace of brown cloud in the brilliant sky, like ice cream smudged on chrome.”

Hair blowing like spilled ink. Ice cream smudged on chrome. Striking similes only work when they are appropriate, when they not only surprise us but work as descriptions of reality. Unfortunately, reality is not the province of fine writing. Maybe that third epigraph has a point: that Atwood’s words are not meant to be read but rather placed behind glass. Such books should be left to admire themselves.

Being Dead

Being Dead by Jim Crace

What did it win?

National Book Critics Circle Award 2000

What’s it all about?

A married couple are murdered and their bodies left to rot on a beach.

Was it really any good?

It certainly wasn’t very pleasant, and I say this not just in response to the nihilism it takes as its theme, and which is introduced in the epigraph: “Don’t count on Heaven, or on Hell./ You’re dead. That’s it. Adieu. Farewell.” As if the attention given to the gradual decomposition of the two bodies isn’t enough, the narrator makes sure to tell us that the daughter’s visit to a church is pointless: “hymns and prayers have feeble tunes because there are no gods.” That’s it. Farewell.

The unpleasant thing about the book is not this, but the fact that it is impossible to sympathize with any of the characters. Joseph and Celice, the husband and wife zoologists who, at the beginning of the book, have just been bludgeoned to death, are revealed through flashbacks as small-minded people only interested in themselves. Like everyone else in the book, they spend most of their time scheming how to get what they want out of others. The rule in life is use or be used.

Affection, like God, is dead in this world. Everyone we meet is hateful. Syl, the daughter, sleeps with a stranger for taxi fare, a single act that establishes her as whorish, lazy and cheap. And full of hate. When her chauffeur, Geo, kindly suggests she start making a list of places to look for her missing parents, she makes a face: “She hated lists. She hated Things to Do.” She resents Geo to the extent that she feels she owes him anything. “It was tempting to get rid of Geo straight away. Already [the morning after!] he was getting on her nerves. He was a whiner and a liability.”

The casual violence of the natural world, the beetles, gulls and rats that devour Joseph and Celice, are nothing compared to the novel’s human hunters. The killer isn’t motivated by any complex psychological urges, but is only another swag fly on the beach. And even the clerk at the morgue who tries to seduce Syl imagines himself a predator feeding on the dead: “He’d like to have her warm and naked on a slab, his scissors slicing through her polymura coat.”

In one sense Joseph and Celice are to be envied since, being dead, they won’t have to suffer the indignities of old age (and of course their lives were boring, empty and meaningless anyway). The narrator even seems to get a weird delight or at least grim satisfaction in the messy end of “our doctors of zoology.” The murder is presented as a sort of terminal comeuppance. The scavengers feasting on their flesh represent nature’s revenge on her too literal-minded servants. Hence the frequent finger-wagging: They should have known better, should have realized that it all would come to this. And yet if only they’d had more imagination – had taken to heart The Goatherd’s Ancient Wisdom, had been more in tune with faint premonitions like the kind you get from the other end of a ringing telephone line. Perhaps then they could have understood a passage like this:

Love was to blame, and passion. Passion such as theirs, brief as it was, was strong enough to shake the balance of the natural world, and test its synchronicity. Where there is sex, then there is death. They are the dark co-ordinates of one straight line. Grief is death eroticized. And sex is only shuffling off this mortal coil before its time to plummet to the post-coital afterlife.

This, we are told, “is a scientific view.” I have my doubts.

To its credit, the novel is well organized and doesn’t draw too much attention to its clever reverse narrative. The writing is also quite effective, with a lot of the low-key, clinical impressionism and irony we have come to expect from writers like Ian McEwan. “If life was an express that hurtled between termini, then it had been their choice to quit the moving train before the final station had been reached and dash themselves against the flying stillness of the earth.” The “flying stillness of the earth” is good.