It’s perhaps inevitable that as attention spans continue to fritter away all across the educated West, the capacity to take things seriously should wither too – after all, deliberation and estimation are twins. Still, a decade along in the 21st century, it amazes me to find people failing to take seriously their own livelihoods – that seems like Millennial boneheaded anomie taken to absolutely annihilatory lengths. And yet, new powerhouse chanteuse Adele had to cancel tour dates and refund large amounts of money rather than quit chain-smoking; Texas governor Rick Perry spent vast amounts of money and effort to secure his spot at Republican Party presidential candidate debates to which he then seemed largely indifferent – and worst of all (from a Stevereads perspective), any number of authors this year seemed to think all they needed to do in order to merit the attention of the present and posterity was show up and riff for a few pages. They displayed a complacency toward the written word that amounts to insolence – and that is certainly an insult to their readers. Those readers have never had a greater number of published authors from which to choose than they do now, and established authors who arrogantly ignore that fact do so at peril of the mortgage on their pretentious co-ops in Brooklyn. This year’s worst offenders:
9. Every Third Thought by John Barth – The biggest, most regrettable example this year of writers apparently thinking all they need to do is show up to justify their place at the table is the once-great John Barth. Long ago, before he acted like he believed this (or before he took his postmodern hijinks past the point of diminishing returns), he was one of America’s best writers. Drivel like Every Third Thought makes me think we’ll never see a glimmer of that again, which is sad and angering at the same time. If Barth had retained his faith in the power of narrative (and his respect for the intelligence of his readers), he’d be on the other fiction list this time around.
8. The Submission by Amy Waldman – Yes, yes, it’s something every little boy and girl dreams while they’re furtively reading by flashlight under the covers: ‘Someday, I wanna write a 9/11 novel!’ Or perhaps it’s one of the darkest forms of laziness, gene-splicing the ‘debut novel’ strand with the ‘have to take it seriously strand’ in hopes of creating a super-pheromone for critics! The Submission concerns a Muslim architect who wins a contest to design a memorial to victims of a Muslim terrorist attack on Manhattan, and if the whole dog-and-pony show had been set further back in the past and centered around the sinking of the Lusitania, its rather substantial shortcomings would have been glaringly obvious, instead of swathed in sentimentality.
7. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes – This bored and boring pastiche of third-rate Updike starts nowhere particular, goes nowhere particular, and then just stops, perhaps unable to stand the weight of its own droning anymore. The thing is barely longer than a short story, and yet Barnes can’t be bothered to weld the two pieces together in any kind of way. Instead, the main character, a blank template of the stock-fictional author stand-in doing the whole ‘gee, I’m not as young as I once was’ shtick, bears no resemblance to the younger version we see in his memories, and those memories have no importance to the ginned-up ‘unexpected inheritance’ half-plot that comes wandering in like Brown’s cows and hangs around until the author gets tired of it (or just plain tired) and drops it. The end of the book (as in the final page, since it has gives us no other kind of ending) comes as a mercy and an indictment: if this is the kind of lazy, self-indulgent crap that gets book contracts from major publishing houses, there’s something seriously wrong with the whole industry.
6. The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje – To call this endlessly meandering tale of two boys cavorting their way through all the decks (i.e. the levels of society – geddit? geddit?) of a ship at sea a left-handed exercise would be an insult to southpaws everywhere. Ondaatje has always been a monstrously overrated author, but this laughable little squib takes the proverbial cake; every narrative choice in it is easy and predictable, there is no plot, and the herky-jerky little what-happened-next twists the plot takes from time to time wouldn’t strike Ondaatje’s listening grandchildren as convincing (those children would very likely also notice the gaping plot-hole two-thirds of the way through the book – it’s a pity Ondaatje didn’t run his manuscript past anybody who was paying attention). Like so many other novels on our list this time around, the prevailing sin here is an overweening sense of entitlement, a belief that simply showing up and mucking about with dialogue will be sufficient to satisfy your slavering fans.
5. Cain by Jose Saramago – Saramago is almost as prolific as Roberto Bolano, and, in this novel about Cain, the brother and murderer of Abel, he’s very nearly as bad. I’m a fan of Biblical fiction (Petru Popescu’s wonderful Girl Mary appeared here in 2009, for example) when it’s done right, and it could scarcely be done worse than this horrible mess of a novel, which can’t decide whether Cain is Hermann Goering or Jerry Seinfeld, which can’t lay any of its wooden dialogue at the feet of its excellent translator, and which can’t bear to stop mugging for the camera for even a moment.
3. The Third Reich by Roberto Bolano – Rumors of the author’s poor health (there are even rumors that he might have died, but he’s published twenty books in the last two years, each more ghastly than the last – nobody who’s dead has that kind of nerve) cannot excuse this little faucet-drip of a novel, with its easy plot, its predictable ‘war games’ metaphor, its lack of fleshed-out characters, and its pat formulations. I’ve heard it opined that Bolano is a master of atmosphere, and I agree: provided the atmosphere in question is the murk of narcissism and a cult of personality so thick you could cut it with a knife. The author should postpone his next four novels and take a vacation someplace warm.
2. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – The challenge of contemporary fiction isn’t to steer clear of gimmicks – in one way or another, that’s scarcely possible anymore. No, the challenge is to master those gimmicks, to rise above them in the service of higher, better gimmicks. And when it comes to gimmicks, surely none is lazier and more thoughtless than the circus? It comes ready-packed with its own plots, characters, and conflicts, so of course it will tempt authors arrogant enough to think they created all of those things. The circus-gimmick spares those authors the trouble of creating much at all – the gimmick is both exotic and familiar, and lazy readers find it instantly inviting despite its underlying seediness, like a zoo. This was bad enough when the circus in question was the ordinary sawdust-and-felons version plodders could find in, say, Water for Elephants – but it’s ever so much worse in Morgenstern’s hands, because her circus seems magical, but she has neither the wit nor the craft of author she’s ripping off to tell her story. Call this Something Tedious This Way Comes.
1. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides – I suppose in the breviary of authorial indifferences, uninformed cynicism isn’t the worst species – it requires a bit of effort, at least, even if it’s entirely misguided and harmful effort. Uninformed cynicism suffuses this wretched book by Eugenides (why are we venerating this guy with gigantic billboards, again? Isn’t this only his third book?), in which the conventions of 19th century authors whose hems he’s unworthy to touch are both gently mocked and violently misunderstood. For every student or teacher stereotype that’s skewered perfectly (I counted one), there are four or five skewered poorly, which makes for quite a few wounded and angry stereotypes rampaging around the ficto-sphere, possibly jostling Elmore Leonard’s writing-elbow or trampling lost little waifs like Nell Freudenberger and Jonathan Safran Foer. If Eugenides’ piece of skata is meant to be a knowing wink at the wisdom of writers like George Eliot and Jane Austen, a knowing nod to the fact that their concerns are still our concerns, then it needs to stop winking at ladies who’d be embarrassed by its puppyish lunging about (can you even imagine our current Eliots and Austens – many of whom are tight-plotting mystery authors – producing a sloppy farrago like The Marriage Plot? Barbara Pym wrote better stuff looped half off her rocker on ‘pep pills’). And if, as seems to me far more likely, the book is meant to be a wink to us, about how tired and quaint those old novels are in our post-modern age, then arrogance, as is so often the case, becomes a product of ignorance, since any good reader will tell Eugenides that these novels quite easily hold their own against anything the louche denizens of this list are ever likely to produce. No matter which of these readings is right, The Marriage Plot is consummately wrong – and our Worst Fiction Book of 2011.