Bad Books, Good Hooks
Be it a third martini, or a second Gulf War, we’re all familiar with ideas that look great in theory but are disasters in practice. In the literary world, those disasters grate especially intimately; there’s no feeling quite like reading a book and wishing it were better, wishing it had seen more of its own potential – or even just wishing its author could write a little better. This month our “Bad Books, Good Hooks” feature examines some of those frustrating books, and you can look for more candidates to crop up regularly throughout the year on our Open Letters blogs, Like Fire and Stevereads.
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
In The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, Laura Miller devotes an entire chapter to why children love talking animal stories: “If we have mixed feelings about the gifts of language and consciousness, we have no intention of surrendering them. Instead, we want to bring animals along with us, into the solitude of self-knowledge, perhaps hoping that they’ll make it a less lonely place for us.”
|She has that right, and I suspect that’s especially true for bookish children. Certainly my way in to reading was the world of sentient animals. First the Burgess books, Dr. Doolittle, Paul Gallico’s cats, and yes, the Chronicles of Narnia. When I moved on, I went from talking animals to just… animals. Mostly dogs. I read every dog book in the library, had a shelf of my own, and never, ever missed an episode of Lassie—I wanted a dog like that so badly I could taste it. We owned a large, undisciplined Shepherd who was nice but not good (she once dragged my mother half a block and broke two of her ribs). I wanted a loving, steadfast canine companion the way teenage girls dream of finding a lover.|
And in the same way that there’s a whole ocean of books speaking to the need for love and companionship and finding that one true other, for me there was The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. It grabbed me by sheer virtue of having everything I wanted in a novel when I was eight years old—super-intelligent, unswervingly loyal dogs, a brave mute dictionary-loving boy, an epic journey. David Wroblewski obviously knows his way around a kennel, and the details of the dogs’ whelping and raising and training were great. The loving nursemaid dog Almondine, Edgar’s lifelong protector, was dear Nana from Peter Pan rewritten for an adult palate. “Almondine followed Edgar up to his room and they lay on the floor, paw-boxing”— just a throwaway line near the beginning of the book, but for anyone who’s spent time rolling around with a beloved dog, doesn’t it make your heart squeeze a little? The book did that to me over and over. It got me where I lived.
I still can’t bring myself to call it a bad book. It was, however, underedited, bloated with distractions: the red herring search for the dog Hachiko, the mysterious stray Forte, Edgar’s extended conversation with an old farmer’s ghost. Using Hamlet as a framing device wasn’t exactly a fatal flaw, but it was often heavy-handed. The book’s climactic barn fire scene, though, was criminal. It thoroughly betrayed the characters, sacrificing all that sensitivity about dog-human relations to a grand finale. These marvelous animals, trained not just to obey but to have some kind of canine moral center, stood by while violence was done to their masters and then turned tail and ran off into the woods—it was wrong on every count. Wrong for storybook dogs, wrong for any dog that’s been fed regularly and trained right. For 509 of its 566 pages, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle played to the myth of the honorable bond engagingly, sometimes elegantly, and so earned my love. But Wroblewski threw it all away in a burst of authorial selfishness, and I’m not sure I can forgive that.
Still, I’m grateful for Edgar, and Almondine, and all the excellent Sawtelle dogs. I’ll never reread the book, but neither will I give it away—in the end my affection was all sentimentality, and that’s reason enough to keep it around. And if Wroblewski comes up with a sequel about how the Sawtelle dogs have a wonderful, magical life in the forest and only come out to save small children from wells, I’ll probably read that too, dammit. It’s all Lassie’s fault.—Lisa Peet
Europe Central by William T. Vollmann
After William T. Vollmann’s World War II novel Europe Central won the 2005 National Book Award for fiction, n+1 published a long, excoriating review. Vollmann’s work amounts to a “sort of anti-writing,” the essayist J.D. Daniels argued. The prose is of a livid hue, the metaphors “preening.” Recalling my undergraduate perusal of Vollmann’s Whores for Gloria (1991), I was inclined to agree with the last two charges, at least. After marching through Europe Central, though, I’m no longer sure they aren’t beside the point.
|Vollmann is surely among the easiest writers to cherry-pick. For one thing, there’s just so damned much of him. Europe Central’s 800 pages represent a mere blip in his published corpus (five million words since 1987 (and counting)). Moreover, the linguistic accidents critics pride themselves on spotting are the very hallmarks of Vollmann’s style: misty diction; mixed metaphors; images that obscure, rather than clarify; inapposite bursts of pastiche; and above all, a constitutional aversion to subtlety. Here’s the first sentence of his recent doorstopper, Imperial:
The opening of Europe Central, too long to quote here, is a virtual shooting gallery for Reader’s Manifesto-types. But isolating a graphomaniac’s slips and juxtaposing them with the ecstatic encomia of his enablers does not sound criticism make; for every bad description, I could cite you a good one.
The larger experience of Europe Central is that of being drawn into an obsession, and your ability to appreciate it will depend on your patience for other people’s pathologies. Vollmann’s are at once as public as Theodore Dreiser’s (to name another famously clumsy writer) and as hermetic as Henry Darger’s. In Europe Central, he seeks to lose himself in the vastness of the Eastern Front. At the same time, his hobbyhorses – especially the tedious Madonna/whore fetish that flattens the female characters here and elsewhere – render this landscape almost autistically involuted. Europe Central’s reimagining of the life of composer Dmitri Shostakovitch – the spine that connects the book’s many stories – is a performance of noisy self-effacement, early Vollmann transposed to a different key. But at its best – as in long sections about Generals Vlasov and Paulus and Nazi traitor Kurt Gerstein – it brings another mind beautifully to life: if not these characters’, then the author’s own.
Unlike, say, Richard Powers’, Vollmann’s erratic prose advances the aims of the books. He is not after literary realism or the fine writing to which it sometimes gets reduced. Vollmann has been compared to such post-realist antecedents as Thomas Pynchon, but I think the real touchstones for Europe Central are the pre-realisms he studied as a Comp. Lit major – the epics, with their heroic and epithetic approach to description; the sagas, with their archetypal patterning; and the garrulous anatomists of early Modernity – Montaigne, Browne, Burton.
“Stop urinating on me, Vollmann,” J.D. Daniels concluded his jeremiad. But it’s worth noting that some people, if the internet is to believed, like golden showers. Vollmann, similarly, is not for everyone. I’m not even sure he’s for me. But he’s managed to attract enough fetishists, whether readers or editors, to keep the good folks at Viking churning out his exhaustive, exhausting, and weirdly compelling books. Hell, he probably wrote another one in the time it took you to read this.—Garth Risk Hallberg
The Last Ranger series, by Craig Sargent
John Cotter, the pitiless, iron-fisted tyrant in charge of this special OLM feature, has decreed that individual entries shall not exceed 500 words, so I won’t waste any in bootless filibustering or meandering protestations, even though the beauty of the feature’s conceit demands considerably more elbow-room than that afforded by a mere 500 words.
Instead, I’ll come straight to the saga of another beleaguered freedom fighter, Martin Stone. He’s the protagonist, the unwilling badass hero of Craig Sargent’s sublimely awful-yet-compelling “Last Ranger” series, 10 novels published throughout the 1980s and set in a post-apocalyptic nightmare version of the United States, a version even more thickly populated by cannibals, religious zealots, power-mad petty despots, and murderous albinos than the REAL U.S. of A.
Martin Stone – the faithful progeny of ‘The Major,’ a vanished father-figure survivalist whose mountain compound withstood the ravages of the war that destroyed civilization – is young headstrong, smart, handsome, muscular, and quite determinedly libidinous, and he’s got a mission: to find his virtuous sister April, who’s lost somewhere in the mutant-infested badlands of this depraved new world.
|He takes on that world with nothing but his wits and fighting skills – and an apparently endless supply of guns and ammo, a kickass pitbull named Excaliber, and a bitchin’ Harley that never seems to run out of gas. These novels, whose nuclear apocalypse setting was the ultimate ‘great hook’ for the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, continue to fascinate me, though I can’t pinpoint exactly why. After all, most of young Martin’s adventures consist of him being captured by deformed lunatics, tied up, chained, strapped down or otherwise shackled, and then brutalized for his various offenses:
“You fucked up, didn’t you, Preacher Boy?” Vorstel sneered, his three-toothed mouth twisting around like the face of some nightmarish eel at the bottom of the sea. “You was planning to double-cross us.” His fist suddenly slammed down, and Stone’s head rocketed around on his body like it was thinking about flying off on vacation somewhere.
“That’s for lying,” said Vorstel …
Maybe the allure derives from the rampant Freudianism laced throughout the books – a Freudianism every bit as irradiated and mutated as everything else Martin Stone encounters (except that no matter how vile the backwoods encampment is, he always manages to find at least one buxom female with proper hygiene and the requisite number of teeth – and they always make like Adam and Eve, if you know what I’m saying. At least until she gets her arms chopped off and gets tossed screaming into a pit of mutated rattlesnakes):
That “his journey couldn’t end” is boldly stated in book 5 or 6 (The Warlord’s Revenge … The Cutthroat Cannibals … as in Trollope novels, the precise details begin to blur), but to put it mildly, it turns out to be premature. The last book in the series is called Is This the End? And it answers that question, without a hint of ambiguity. Poor Martin. All that sex for nothing.—Steve Donoghue
Quaker Guns by Caroline Knox
|This book is clearly the work of a poet with a deep love of language, of the sound of words, of formal inversions and esoteric vocabularies – nautical, architectural and dress-making terms in particular. The poems are rife with literary and historical quotations, factoids, and allusions. They are the commonplace book of an active and writerly mind.
But they are just a commonplace book. They are not really poems so much as exercises with which a very clever student might dazzle teachers. This student has great style – can write parodies, pastiches, witty ditties on topics ephemeral and perpetual (see, she’s got me doing it now), but at bottom, the teachers may well wonder: if this kid is so good at saying things, how come she hasn’t got anything to say?
A prime example: the book contains a poem that catalogues all the forms of poems used in the book (haiku, a flock of rubayyat, sestinas, sonnets, erasures), giving rise to a Drosté effect: this poem is about the poems in the book in which the poem about the poems appears. Very clever! But what of it?
Quaker Guns is endlessly allusive and associative. But it leaves me cold. Detached in tone and refusing to come to any sort of point, the poems therein deflect all emotion, and actively work against any attempt to invest them with meaning. There’s no there there.
And yet, I keep coming back to Quaker Guns. There is the liveliness of diction, the use of historical facts and allusions, the openness to unusual words and turns of phrase, an overall attentive deftness. And despite their evident rejection of sentiment, in the best of the poems, what is being said forms nearly invisible brackets around what is left unsaid, in the way that arrows pointing leftward subtly draw your attention to the right.
“Dove,” for example, opens with a few beguiling lines from John James Audubon, recounting the interruption of a contentious debate by a dove that lands on one of the participant’s arms. Knox then simply repeats the reported facts several times, in short, journalistic phrases, refusing to either acknowledge or speculate on the obvious questions: How did the participants take this portent? Did it quell their quarrel, or make them lay it aside as unresolved but petty? Was there a portent at all?
Although not voicing these mysteries outright, Knox, through her repetitions, makes her poem frame them. This way of writing fascinates me, and I have tried to develop in my own work this knack for making each word not only denotative, but connotative of leaps of intuition, questions, and emotions unvoiced but somehow apparent. And so, despite all my former dismissiveness, I often return to the mechanical poems of Quaker Guns and shake them, trying to see how they work.—Maureen Thorson
Generosity By Richard Powers
I was glad to learn about this feature because I knew I could use it to offer a brief defense of Richard Powers. Powers was raked over the coals of some prestigious literary braziers last autumn after his novel Generosity was published. I’d been enjoying the unique rewards of his fiction for nearly a decade; it felt base not to stand up for him.
I can only go so far in that, unfortunately. Generosity is on the whole a bad book. It magnifies Powers’ artistic weaknesses like no book before it. Powers is a genius – that’s his gift and his burden. Geniuses can be maddening company because you never have their undivided attention: you’re constantly aware that they are thinking of other things even as they speak to you, and processing your most mundane conversation into some broader experience. You’re a part of a pattern.
|Such patterns are amazing to discern, and the more complex they have become, the more magical Powers’ books have been. But Generosity, in comparison to wondrous works like Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance and The Gold Bug Variations, is structurally prosaic. It’s linear, and almost cinematic in its plotting. The narration is closely tied to the characters, so Powers has very little space for the omniscient diversions that have framed his most virtuoso passages. Human personalities and motivations Powers can only clumsily reproduce. He tries to substitute verbal gymnastics for the intricacy he’s often achieved with his interleaving stories, so he exaggerates emotions and overloads his sentences with adjectives and adverbs: “Her eyes are aghast, delighted” or “He wants to eat her flame.”|
Nonetheless, there are moments in Generosity that are unlike anything being written in contemporary fiction. The premise itself is immediately intriguing: a phenomenally upbeat woman is thought by her classmates and University professors to be abnormally euphoric, perhaps possessing a genetic predisposition to happiness known as hyperthymia. Research into her condition comes to the attention of the national media. Her attitude makes her an inspirational bellwether for daytime talk shows; her genome is coveted by a fast-talking Faust at a bioengineering lab. Does this woman contain some secret to joy and kindness? Can people upgrade themselves to be as happy as she is?
The ageless conflict between free will and determinism is being staged here, in the topical parlance of genetics and neurochemistry. Powers uses science to fine effect. It’s not an abstract study to him, but always tied to and complicated by human emotion. And his set pieces, though unremarkable for the grace of their rendering, embody the paradoxes between science and sixth sense. They dramatize, in vivid, relatable ways, the modern world’s steepest epistemological dilemmas.
The best of these scenes in Generosity takes place at an aquarium, where our cheerful heroine has arranged to meet the slick bioengineer to start negotiations for the sale of her genome. As they stroll the aquarium, the scientist begins to become unnerved in his pitch. Accompanied by one evolutionary freak, he finds himself surrounded by tanks full of others, and at a loss to account for it all:
She takes him down to the leafy sea dragons. The scientist has somehow missed these creatures’ existence. He pushes his face up to the glass, boggled. They are, by any measure, beyond fiction, madder than anything out of Tolkien. A sea horse cousin, but gone Daliesque, the deformed things have flowing banners pasted all over them, from dappled branches down to frilly spines. The drapery looks like clunky high school theatrical costumes. Taxonomy’s late-night brainstorming, gone unhinged.
Powers, as it has been hammeringly observed, can be heavy-handed in promoting the essential mystery that lies below the chemistry of his characters. But in brilliantly staged scenes like this one, a sense of miracle and mystery is attained naturally. I don’t think I can recommend Generosity to many readers, but there are things about it I’m not going to forget.—Sam Sacks
Bay of Souls by Robert Stone
Friends have recommended Robert Stone for years – not with press-it-in-your-hand fervor, but with solid smiles. I was curious and not a little suspicious about a literary novelist who impressed not only the struggling poets I met in bars, but also my father – an ex-soldier with unexpectedly exacting taste in books (about my own novel he asked me two questions: 1) Does anyone get murdered? and 2) Does anyone eat meat? – What you need is a scene where someone describes a piece of sirloin that’s so delicious, the other guy has to kill him for it. Then you need to describe how he cooks it, get some grilling tips in there).
|Cracking Bay of Souls, I found myself in a hackneyed story about an alcoholic English professor who falls, gradually and not without self-recrimination, for an exotic and mysterious colleague. In between coke and S&M sessions with the haunted Lara Purcell, Professor Michael Ahern goes hunting with his academic chums in the Michigan woods:
But he can’t bring himself to be that agent. When he gets a deer in his sight, he chokes. And although he abuses himself for his cowardice, he’s reassured on seeing an old timer struggling through the woods with a fresh kill in a wheelbarrow: “It was a thing full of seams and joints and springs. Though it appeared altogether large enough to contain the kill, it could not, and its inutility was the source of his sobs and curses and rage and despair.”
Cut to Lara and Michael in a Caribbean hotel room. They are flying down to a Haiti-like country (not actually called Haiti, for some reason) ostensibly so that Lara can put her dead brother’s affairs in order and reclaim her soul from the Vodou loa Ghede, but actually so that she can do some drug and/or diamond smuggling for some shady Colombians, which has something to do with the CIA, for whom she might or might not work. We’ve had hints of this during the first half of the book – while Michael is out hunting, the limited-third point of view switches to Lara’s on vacation in Washington DC, and in doing so instantly becomes shallow, murky, and burdened with obvious contrivance.
But that damn deer, you see, keeps coming back to me. Once you shoot your deer, you have to carry your deer. All of Michael’s problems seem to lift into a bigger structural harmony that feels meaningful and maybe even true.
If the hunter below was possessed of the violent paranoid’s tortured intuition, of the faintest sense of beings pied out in his ghastly mortification – if he tilted back his head far enough to wail at the sky – he would see the witness to his folly. High above him lurked a Day-Glo-painted watcher in a tree, his masked delighted face warped in a fiendish grin, If he sees me, Michael thought suddenly, he will kill me. Michael slipped his shotgun’s safety off and pulled his gloved finger at the trigger.
Down in Haiti/not Haiti, Lara falls into a trance, and although Michael is seduced halfway into it along with her, he wrenches himself out, afraid for his soul. Although he dives for lost loot to save Lara’s life (long story), he’s frightened by a corpse underwater and lets go of his catch. And of course he’s betraying his own wife all along – he never fully commits, never “shoots his deer.” Yet he’s more-or-less a good man, a curious man who tries both to do a reasonable job living life, but also to satisfy his occasional curiosity. And he ends the book a degenerate mess. He never gets a deer. Something about Michael doesn’t let me go. Something about the uncertainty of difficult decisions, the way real commitment can make one look the fool, the difficulty of becoming one with something alien, up to and including the natural world. I think about Michael.
Bay of Souls is a mess as a novel, perpetually insulting its reader’s credulity, and again and again advertising the learned worldliness and brooding masculinity of its writer. And yet.—John Cotter
The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle
Ask any Sherlock Holmes fan (and all Holmes readers are Holmes fans) what they like most about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous amateur consulting detective and his trusted companion Dr. John Watson, and you’ll get a variety of answers: the delicious period setting of fogbound Victorian England, the ingenious plotting of the mysteries, the vibrantly idiosyncratic personality of Holmes himself, and any number of other possibilities.
Ask any Sherlock Holmes fan what their fondest Holmes desire is, and you’ll get only one answer: More.
Doyle wrote only 56 stories starring his greatest creation, and fans treat them like Holy Scripture. Likewise they revere the iconic Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles (or else they mock it, but even their mockery is reverential). But when they run through the catalogue of their canon, it inevitably ends too soon. We want fifty more short stories, and we want more novels.
How extra bitter it is, then, when we recall that other Holmes novel by the master’s hand. How bitter and angry and sad and angry and frustrated and angry we are, when we think of The Valley of Fear.
It first appeared in the Strand magazine between September 1914 and May 1915 (collected into a book later that same year), and the story it tells is aptly described by one of its characters as a real “snorter”: Holmes and Watson, comfortably ensconced over the breakfast plates at 221b Baker Street, are untangling a cipher sent by a fearful underling of that diabolical criminal mastermind Professor Moriarty.The underling is trying to warn Holmes of a crime about to be committed – a man named Douglas, at Birlstone Manor House, is in grave danger. Our heroes have no sooner solved this cipher than they’re joined by Inspector MacDonald of Scotland Yard, who informs them that John Douglas of Birlstone Manor House has been brutally murdered and is duly thunderstruck that they already know.
The three investigators decamp to Birlstone Manor House, as perfectly English a crime scene as you could dream up: a stately old pile of a house, with an actual drawbridge over an actual moat. There, in a first floor study, is the dead man, his head almost entirely blown off by the discharge of a sawed-off double-barreled shotgun. The man’s beautiful wife and best friend are on the scene, and the details of who-heard-what-and-when are unfolded with the lean and intensely energetic skill of Doyle writing at the peak of his powers.
All the elements of a truly great Holmes novel are here. There are great lines (“We are before our time, and suffer the usual penalties,” “Mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself; but talent instantly recognizes genius,” etc.), great personalities (Doyle makes the crucially smart decision of having MacDonald and the local Birlstone investigator be intelligent, capable men rather than buffoons), and a great conundrum (why would the murderer choose such a loud and messy weapon, and how could he possibly escape with the moat all around and the drawbridge up?). These things combine to form one of the greatest ‘hooks’ in the history of literature.
Then Doyle makes a hideous, utterly incomprehensible blunder: he shifts his narrative completely and tells us the entire back-story of the alleged murder victim. Which takes place in America. And doesn’t involve Holmes. And goes on for an unbelievable eighty pages. Doyle has a weakness for launching into background-excursions – we know that from A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of Four – but eighty pages? By the time it’s over, benumbed readers have forgotten their own names.
After which Holmes hurries back on stage and says “I still think Moriarty’s behind it all.” No deductions, no proof, no justification for that fatal, mind-boggling detour. The End.
A great hook, yes – and a bad book precisely where we would give anything for a great one. We’ve still got the Hound, and that will have to be consolation enough.—A.C. Childers
Armor by John Steakley
Armor is a sci-fi thriller that was partially inspired by and leans heavily on Starship Troopers for its basic premise: a faceless enemy of large, exoskeletal insects requiring extermination. In this case the insects resemble and are slangily referred to as ants. It is never revealed exactly why humans wearing nuclear-powered battle armor have to beam down to the ants’ planet – a poisonous hell known as Banshee – and duke it out with them mano-a-mandible. But after establishing the setting, Armor dumps the fascism and militarism explored in Starship Troopers to explore the psychological effects of being a tiny cog in a massive wheel.
|As the main character, Felix, and his team get ready for the first drop onto Banshee, they receive hilariously telegraphed portents of doom: “Now before you members of A Team get too excited, we want you to know that there has been absolutely no evidence of enemy activity on the eastern side. None at all. Your job will be mostly sightseeing.” Making the portents and dialogue worse a few paragraphs later: “Don’t worry about the lack of back-up. As I have already stated, there is nothing there. You should spend a few boring hours simply waiting.” Whew! That’s a relief, right? Until, of course, the sentence where Felix jumps into the transit beam, which ends in a suspenseful ellipsis and is picked up in the next sentence as: “. . . and ANTS! ANTS EVERYWHERE!”|
Felix’s team is wiped out and we finally get to the meat that gives the book its modicum of staying power. Felix develops a kind of dissociative personality disorder he calls ‘the Engine’ that allows him to cope with the horrors of Banshee. This efficient machine-like side of his personality is augmented by the rapport he has with his armor, and it makes him very good at killing ants.
After only 100 pages with Felix, we abruptly leave him to meet the first-person narrator for the next two-thirds of the book: a jailbroken, smooth-talking pirate named, if you can believe it, Jack Crow – at least he doesn’t insist on being called Captain Jack Crow. Jack has been both strong-armed and bribed into infiltrating a lonely science station. To win the scientists’ trust, he presents them with Felix’s armor, which he unwittingly stumbled upon earlier. The chief scientist quickly invents a way to review the videotape stored in the armor through direct mental link and he and Jack begin living through Felix’s eyes. EKGs confirm the Engine’s presence in Felix’s mind: “A terrified man, whose brain manages to compartmentalize the terror so that he is able to function smoothly. Yet the whole process is overlaid with total fatalism . . . no one exists like this.”
Felix’s machine-like heroism and medically verifiable fear have a profound effect on the noir moodiness of Jack Crow, all of which culminates in a big battle and some (not really very) surprising turnabouts. Though the dialogue is bad (“Damn! I didn’t have time for a concussion.” ) and the setting clichéd, the juggernaut armor and the determination with which Steakley hammers out his pseudoscientific psychological analysis of the characters make this a memorable tale.— Jeffrey Eaton