So anyone who’s read me for a while has probably picked up on my ambivalence toward the literary canon — that long list of books that Critics have deemed to be Grate Literature, and that frequently gets derided for being overwhelmingly populated by dead white guys.
So the other day I mentioned in passing that I’d given a particular, unnamed John Updike book a try, that I read it for twenty pages and then quit as being about “fucking boring old people.” Well, a friend of mine correctly identified the title in question from that dismissive one-line summary, and linked me to a review that David Foster Wallace wrote for the NY Observer. It is here, and it is amazing, seriously if you haven’t read it yet, do that and then come back. Cuz I want to talk about it.
This book was excellent, and I never want to read it again. Rural poverty gives me the raging heebie jeebies, I don’t even know. This was 300 pages of helplessness and despair in a world where everything tastes like failure. I read it cover to cover.
And then today I sat down and wrote all damn day. I am four thousand words richer than when I woke up this morning.
Takeaway lesson from Bastard Out of Carolina: details. Details, details, details. To make it real, make it plausible, make it unique, make it immersive, make it sympathetic, to make it something the readers can believe every word of and lose themselves in. By rights, each and every character in that book should have been a stereotype, but the sheer amount of humanizing detail about these people and their lives made them much more than that.
Read it if you’re a writer, or if you like stories about fucked up Southern families.
Margaret Atwood is one of those writers whose ideas and turns of phrase will periodically make stop me in my tracks while I’m reading and go, Damn, but I wish I could write like that.
(Keep reading good things, I suppose, and keep growing up, and I might get there eventually.)
That said, I did not really enjoy Oryx and Crake. Her ideas are unparalleled, both in the post-apocalyptic world that her viewpoint character lives in now, and the pre-apocalyptic but circling-the-drain world that we see in his flashbacks. She has a gift for bringing her worlds alive, with a wealth of detail that makes them feel vibrant, plausible, and lived-in. The problem in this is her characters, because her viewpoint character — called Snowman after the apocalypse, Jimmy before — is an unbelievable loser, alternating between pathetic and distasteful, and the titular Oryx and Crake, when they’re introduced later, are more interesting but equally difficult to connect to. I found that I was reading for the world and not the people in it — I was interested in the big picture and curious to find out how everything had gone to hell, but the less of Jimmy/Snowman’s point of view I had to put up with, the better.
Verdict: read A Handmaid’s Tale instead.
ETA: I wrote all that when I was about 30% of the way through the book, and after finishing it anyway there’s nothing I would add except that the last chapter is totally unnecessary and Oryx turns out to be even more of a letdown than I thought she would be. Jesus H. Christ, Atwood is one of the really good feminist writers out there, and this feels like it could have been written by a straight white guy with a “feminist madlibs” card.
Verdict: watch Dredd instead! Because it’s also post-apocalyptic but it has far better female characters, and I’m writing fanfic for it, and I will be so sad if no one reads it.
I decided that I have enough money and so I’m not going to work for a while. This means I can read without feeling guilty about the work I should be doing, and today I read Catherynne Valente.
So I tried to read a book today, since I’m moving again in August and I could do without hauling
six thirteen boxes of books with me this time. I didn’t get very far.
Because GAWD, literary fiction is dull.
I think what it boils down to is that I have absolutely no patience for protagonists whose fictional lives are less interesting than my real life. Bored, spoiled young aristocrat whose only interests are meaningless sex and being judgy? Gag me with a goddamn spoon. Or better yet, gag him.
And it kills me that this genre — these dreary, monumentally tedious accounts of ennui and promiscuity — is almost all that gay men ever write. This is the literature of my people, and yet it’s all I can do to slog through my self-imposed 50-page minimum before I’m like, FUCK THIS NOISE, I’D RATHER READ X-MEN FANFIC. >:(((((
(Incidentally, the reason why this book wound up on my shelf: a number of boys that OkCupid has tried to hook me up with listed Swimming-Pool Library as one of their favorites, and I thought it’d be nice to have some common ground. Yeah not so much, because “WHY WOULD YOU LIKE THAT BOOK? EXPLAIN YOURSELF!” may be a conversational gambit that works on me, but I’ve gathered that other people find it off-putting.)
It’s frustrating, and I can’t quite put my frustrations into words, because I want to be able to appreciate literary fiction. This is the stuff that’s supposed to be objectively high quality, but all I get when I read it are sporadically keen observations about people, protagonists whose reactions and thought processes are nothing like what I’d do or what I can relate to, and not giving any fucks about what they’re doing, usually because they don’t give any fucks. Relationships, romantic and otherwise, are utterly boring because the protagonist has an emotional range that runs the gamut from horny to disdainful. Yes, fine, it’s realistic, but it’s the kind of realism you can get by going outside and not enjoying your day.
How does anyone like this? I’m honestly at a loss.
In other news, I’ve wandered back over to the X-Men: First Class fandom now that ficcers have had time to write epics, and it is delightful! Erik and Charles, christ, the more I read of them the more they break my heart, because they are one of the most perfect tragedies in all of literature.
So rather than recommending Swimming-Pool Library, I’ll rec you some fics instead:
Most anything by AO3 writer Yahtzee; my standout favorites are Winter of Banked Fires, which gets my Best in Fandom award for post-X3 fix it fics, Enigma, and Anarchy in the UK. I like this author for a lot of reasons, but mostly because her work is intensely emotional and even in AUs does total justice to the depth and difficulty of their relationship. (Just don’t expect uncomplicated happy endings — that’s not what you go into XMFC fandom for.)
If You Liked the Book, You’ll Hate the Movie, which is a high school AU, of all things, but really good. Absorbing, atmospheric, frequently hilarious — vaguely like magical realism, in that there’s nothing outright impossible going on, but a lot of things that, when taken together, are sort of improbable. Seriously, I enjoy this more than I can explain why.