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Archive for May, 2008

Sheep solve crime

I have a weakness for mysteries, maybe because the essential plot element, a crime, provides some pressure under which characters must reveal themselves.  It gives a context for writing that can be insightful, amusing, philosophical and more, writing that escapes the vacuusness that seems to be a part of much postmodern writing.  (I keep talking about postmodern writers, and I’m not sure what I mean by that, except that they seem to be writing in a backwater of the culture.  Novel writing just doesn’t seem to carry the burden of our collective dreams and despairs anymore, but a mystery operates on a very different level.  The essential crime can usually engage the reader, giving a cathartic experience of fear and uncertainty and providing a backdrop for whatever else the writer feels like exploring.) 

Three Bags Full, by Leonie Swann, translated from German by Anthea Bell, features a flock of sheep who discover the body of their shepherd one morning and struggle to solve the mystery, (one sheep, at least, is very clever and several have unique talents).  I urge the reader to have a little patience with the plot, which is thick with details and can be a bit clunky at times.  The reader at times feels like one of the sheep, struggling to make sense of the events (which may actually be intentional!) and just wishing to give up and return to grazing.   The best thing about this book is the really clever and amusing way the sheep react to human actions and the consistent ‘sheepish’ viewpoint of the world.  The sheep jump to conclusions in some cases, simply because they can’t imagine a non-sheep view of the world, where grass and grazing and being one of a flock aren’t the most important things.  At one point, I was actually reminded of The Iliad, as the sheep are running around, acting on their limited knowledge, resembled the men battling in front of the walls of Troy, with no idea of the intentions or motivations of the Olympians who controlled their fates.  While light in tone and possessing some rather bizarre plot elements, this book has a philosophical core, believable characters (both human and ovine) and radiant good humor.  Perfect for a summer read.

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Lately, I’ve been disturbed by the lightness of many contemporary novels.  I am thinking of excellent, able writers, writers who take a philosophical view of life, and can turn a phrase or sketch a character or illustrate a situation in a charming way; however, the books leave behind a vague dissatisfaction, as from watching too many sitcoms in a row or eating dessert first; they are, in a word, insubstantial

The latest disappointing book by a good writer is The New Yorkers, by Cathleen Schine (I’ve not read her other works, but she seems well-regarded).  I was looking forward to this book described in a review as ‘people living in New York who interact through their dogs.’  It’s a likeable enough story, but, again, there’s not much substance and in the end I was impatient with hearing a little bit about a lot of people and following some of the less believable plot elements and even the more believable ones grew a bit tiresome.  For instance, a tree just falls down in Central Park; the gay restaurateur has five children; there is a puppy abandoned in the closet of man who commits suicide.  Any of these could be amplified, could add mood or shading to the action, instead of just being baldly stated and left there or used to push the plot along, or even worse, just to amuse the author.  I know that life is like that; things happen, often we don’t know why. But that’s not art, that’s not why we read novels.  Instead, we are treated to the author’s vision of community as redemption (a trend among postmodern writers) and readers seeking such comfort may nestle down quite happily in the idea of strangers connecting and finding love and friendship, however far-fetched, but it just doesn’t work, because nothing is earned as it must be in life.    The tone of the author is always there controlling the action, assuring us that this world is safe, that we will be safe and that all will come out well in the end.  It’s a comedy, so we know going in that it’s all going to be okay; however, there’s barely a frisson of uncertainty, even when a blackout hits the city and people fear a repeat terrorist attack.  Even sorrows and joys are muffled. The book is light and muffled.  If it weren’t for her engaging style, I would not have continued on, as it is, I think she could do better.  

I’m reminded of two other, similarly disappointing books, A Long Way Down, by Nick Hornby and all of Eleanor Lipman’s books (well, I’ve only read two of hers – The Inn at Lake Devine and The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, but I was disappointed).   You may know of Hornby, several of his books were made into excellent movies:  Fever Pitch, High Fidelity and one of my favorites, About a Boy.  I loved his journal of reading, The Polysyllabic Spree, and both he and Lipman, who has been compared to Jane Austen, are very funny writers (much more so than Schine); however, A long Way Down doesn’t ring true in the same way that The New Yorkers doesn’t.  The writers have good intentions, they are good writers, but none of these novels really amounts to much; they are mere bagatelles.  The reader feels cheated and underfed as the writers go along playing with the little people they have made, moving them around, making everyone more or less happy.  This type of writing seems unforgivably self-indulgent, especially by authors who could do so much better.  My point, finally, is that comedy doesn’t have to be light; in fact, the best comedy has a dark side, an underbelly, and using suicide as a plot point as Schine does or a way of framing a story as Hornby does, for some reason, doesn’t disturb the essential blandness of the stories.  Pride and Prejudice was “light, bright and sparkling,” but it had essential truths, consequences and downsides, and the author was clear-eyed about human nature.  Of course, no reader ever went hungry at Jane Austen’s table.   

 

 

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