I’m not sure if this happens to other people, I’m presuming it does because that makes this post more relateable, but even if this version of let-down doesn’t happen to you I can pretty much guarantee there’s something in your life that lets you down, holds you up, that just don’t flow like it used to. For me, ever so horribly, it’s books. There are these ghastly times when every book I pick up in some way disappoints me & I’m not proud of this, but I panic. I start to wonder if the good books I used to read were a mirage, the product of a generous & fleeting state of mind on my behalf or worse, that they were flukes and that no new book I read will ever be as great. These fits come in waves. There are periods of great wondrous quality and then dread stretches of nothing.
I’ve come to read the signs of an impending drought, at first there might be a title that sits okay, you know not a wower, not a stay-up-all-night-forfeiting-sleep but just an okay-I’ll-keep-going-but-I’m-not-exactly-sure-why. Then at a certain point during that book I will realise that I’ve spent hours of my life trying to make something into a thing it was never going to be: I was waiting for a mediocre book to transcend itself and become brilliant. The lunacy of my conduct in these situations still surprises me – I’ve mentioned it before so I won’t labour the point except to point out that I clearly haven’t learnt my lesson because a middling book remains a middling book even if there are flashes of redemption – a great book is great from the get go. Period.
At around this time I will stop reading the book.
Then I will start again.
Then I will stop.
Then I will consider starting it again. I do this pathetic little dance of economics; it’s an equation based on low emotions – me weighing up the lack of satisfaction I’m sure to receive if I continue on with the book versus the amount of time I’ve already invested in the book. Usually my need for gratification will win out over my concerns about wasted resources & I will, once and for all, give up.
In the past month I have given up on Neil Jordon’s Mistaken (though I’m only at phase one with that, I’m still planning on going back) & I have firmly and completely given up on The Red House by Mark Haddon. I tried, lord did I try, to make myself be the thing that could change and therefor change all else but in the end I had to concede, it’s not me, it’s him. The book is confusing & muddled. I had no idea who was talking, I thought a cast of 6 was a cast of 15 or more because I had no idea who was who. Sometimes Haddon switchs from one character not just to another character but to another medium so one paragraph you’re reading about the inner thoughts of a divorcee and the next your reading a transcript of the TV show Lost. No shit, that actually happens & just like you’re thinking too: “Night-time. Sayid is lying on the ground. The blur of semi-consciousness. Someone approaches wearing military fatigues…” That’s a direct quote from the book. Who wants to read transcripts of television programs they’ve already seen? It feels lazy and strange, for such a brilliant author, for an author who so wondrously travels to the inner minds of his characters, to use such tawdry tricks. Don’t tell me, for god sakes, show me.
So then I get gun shy. I don’t pick up a book in case my hands are infectious, in case it’s me damaging all these supposedly great books & I resort to reviewing picture books and cookbooks and anything I can get my hands on, books that don’t involve an investment of time and the possibility of dejection. But then I remember that Pema Chodron quote from her wonderful book The Places That Scare You which goes something like: ‘there is no cure for hot and cold’.
Hot and cold. Up and down and what goes down does sometimes come back up.
I read David Vann’s latest novel Dirt and although I have my quarells with it I was able to finish its sexy fucked up dirt inspired hippie-dissing strangeness in a couple of days – like a marathon runner who’s injured her ankle I thought ‘maybe I will run again.’
And then I picked up Emily Perkins new novel The Forrests, read the first page and was restored. Dorothy as a character and Perkins as an author proved that there are books made up of insight and charm that conduct themselves with a bit of magic and which don’t give in to themselves or stop the forward momentum of an interesting plot by choking like lake weed on descriptions of everything, that aren’t heavy on failed technical gambits or pointless repetitions of concepts. The energy The Forrests gave me, the way it reminded me what a good book reads like, somehow stuck to me like a charm and I’m on to a second book that stuns me The Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart – a little like reading a more straight forward Annie Dillard.
The tide has surged, I’m all swept up again.
I know this won’t last forever especially because I’ve made it my work to talk about books that stun me, that move me, that do the best job of showcasing what writing and story telling can really do and as such I’m doomed to hunt out the wheat which clearly means lots of time spent pawing through the chaff. And yes, in a way having those dry patches does make me more grateful for the spates of brilliance I sometimes encounter but I do wish that there was a way of knowing, maybe by hovering your hand over the cover, whether or not a book was good or a waste of time. Though then maybe I’d be out of a job?