March 18, 2013

I pretty much always finish books – like, always. Even if I don’t buy the characters or if there’s something structurally awry or other significant issue X, Y or Z. I’m a completer-finisher, what can I say. (Obviously, when I’m reading a book for work – say I’m reviewing it or interviewing its author – I always finish it.) But it’s been a really long time since I didn’t finish a book I was reading for leisure. In fact, I can’t even remember the last time that happened.

This seems to put me in the minority: a lot of people I talk to generally put a book down and either forget about it or don’t pick it up again for whatever reason. Possibly I’m good at picking books I know I’ll like and avoiding books I know won’t suit me, and/or I’m bloody-minded enough to forge on with something I’m not really into just so I can understand why it didn’t work for me. I tend to think it’s more the former, because I rarely feel like I would be better off not finishing a book than I would be finishing it.

Buuuuuuut I recently read three books that I really didn’t want to finish. I felt a bit bad about it but I knew from what non-finishers said that I was feeling the same way they did when they put a boring/bad/not right for them/not right for them at that time book down (and never pick it up again). And I think it had a lot to do with style. I read fairly broadly, across a range of genres, so I am open to a lot of things: clichéd storylines, experimental writing styles, a bit of pretension here and there, irksome authorial quirks. As long as a book has something I’m invested in, be it one character or story arc or whatever, I’m generally in for the long haul.

Here’s how I know I didn’t want to finish them. Tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiimmmmmmmmmmmmmeeeeeeee wwwwwwwwwwwweeeeeeeeeennnnnnnnnntttttt bbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy sooooooooooooooooooooooooo slooooooooooooooooooooowwwwwwwwwwlllllllllllllllllllllyyyyyyyyyy (and time can do so much).

I did actually finish one of the books. It was White by Marie Darrieussecq, she of the Google-by-necessity surname. I’d been really wanting to check out her work for a while and when I was trawling the library for books about far-flung places, a novella based in Antarctica seemed like just the thing. I think you’d have to do a fair bit to make a book about Antarctica boring, but I struggled to finish this book. Really struggled, like at the end I just wanted to push the book violently away from me.

As I said, this was mostly because of the prose. The premise is interesting: two people running from secrets in their respective lives decide to join a working team on the French base in Antarctica. Edmée is French, and as the only woman in the team, who is also charge of expensive, limited communications with the rest of the world, she piques the interest of the others. Peter is in charge of keeping everyone warm, the weight of which responsibility is one of the most convincing personal tensions in the book. The plain facts in this book are actually fascinating. Two images from White have stayed with me: a bottle of champagne exploding in the fat cook’s hands as he leaves the plane and finally steps foot in Antarctica; and Antarctica’s five suns. These scientific and experiential details are based on Darrieussecq’s husband’s real-life stint in Antarctica, and are totally interesting.

It’s in every single review, and on the back cover blurb, so it’s no spoiler to say that Edmée and Peter end up having an affair. In the build-up to this, Darrieussecq allows Edmée and Peter to consider their pasts, including present and past partners, but the affair is scarcely affecting – apart from the logistical issues it raises in a small, isolated Antarctic camp – because these portraits are so sketchy. Many critics praised Darrieussecq’s evocation of isolation in White, but I am not sure that isolation is a powerful narrative pressure if the characters it acts on are so thinly sketched. One interesting, but still frustrating, element, is that the narrators are the ghosts of those who have died in Antarctica. Their voice is not quite funny, and not quite serious, playing havoc with the assumption that their deaths were noble – or even the convention for choric narrators to be simply elegant or angelic. Again, though, the variation and inconsistency in the voice gets a bit frustrating.

Above all, though, it was the image-heavy prose that made me stabby. It’s just not my favourite style, especially juxtaposed with the theme of isolation and barren images of Antarctica. To give you a taste, here’s a section that Michael Worton excerpted in his (very positive) Guardian review:

The colour of the leaves of crumpled skin fluctuates, beige/purple; curtains, hangings, shutters. If he leans more heavily on her thigh, the leaves open, one tautens, the other wrinkles up a little more, and their pearly pink interior is revealed to be almost blue there where, like a highly polished slide, the vagina begins.

It’s not my thing at all, and the whole book is like this: little, shardy, decorative sentences/sentence fragments. So when I finished the book (only about 110 pages or so) I felt like I had run a marathon. Still, even though I wasn’t keen on this book, I’m still interested in reading her other books, including her new one and the first novel, Pig Tales, which is a Metamorphosis-style tale of a woman’s transformation into porcine being.

The next book I didn’t want to finish – and didn’t – was also French: David Foenkinos‘s The Erotic Potential of My Wife. I’m going to be brief about this one, because I don’t think it’s as interesting as White. On the back cover blurb, there’s a quote from a French magazine that claims Foenkinos is France’s Philip Roth. Honestly, if I were Philip Roth, I would find this epithet so amusingly inapt that I would frame it and put it on my wall. (I don’t know, maybe he’s more of a throw-into-the-fireplace kind of guy.)

This book’s hero is Hector, the survivor of a suicide attempt and a recovering collector. Hector’s psychological profile is more like a couple of dots on a piece of paper; this book is not a serious look at mental illness. Not that it’s supposed to be; it’s billed as a comic novel. But it’s not even funny, containing laboured jokes that almost seem to come with a belated clash of cymbals as you turn the page. It’s the kind of book that might work as a kind of cutesy Amélie-style film, with lots of visual gags and colour, but the writing doesn’t hold up. I think I got about 50 pages through.

Finally, a book I only got about 10 pages through. Super disappointing in this case, because I’d bought it when it came out and was desperately awaiting a gap in my reading so I could get cracking. However, Jenny Lawson’s Let’s Pretend This Never Happened and I are just never going to be friends. It’s like when you meet a rad person at a party but you don’t quite hit it off? And then you later reflect that it was probably for the best? It’s like that. Lawson’s ‘mostly true memoir’ is written in a hugely over-the-top style (which is probably what bagged her the book contract). Lots of italics and avowals and rambling digressions, peppered with wit and references to eighties fashion. I can’t speak too much to the content, because obviously I didn’t read much of it, but Lawson talks charmingly about her childhood in a very small West Texas town. Though she seems like a very cool person, Lawson’s storytelling style lacks panache. Some of the tales she tells are undoubtedly funny, but she overdoes the humour to the extent that I thought the actual situation was probably much funnier. As I told a friend, Lawson makes things less funny than they probably are, as opposed to someone like David Sedaris, who makes mundane things seem hilarious.

Comments (6)
  1. My uncle says the older he gets, the more likely he is to give up on a book quickly. He says he doesn’t have time for bad books anymore, he has limited life expectancy and reading-capacity.

    Fair enough, I say.

    • totally!!

  2. I used to read everything to the end…now I find that a real waste….too many good books, too many other things to do.

    However, just one thought…if the two French books were translations….don’t you wonder a bit about how well the translatio was done. If read in the original French, would they have garnered more respect?

    • I am always a bit iffy about blaming a translation, because there’s pretty much no way I can verify whether the translation is ‘true’ or ‘good’. I think my approach to this is to look at the book as a cultural product published by the Anglophone publisher that didn’t hit the mark.

      I think there are structural matters that the original publisher/the author/the Anglophone publisher can all take some responsibility for, too, that won’t be as affected by translation.

      But yes, it’s certainly something to think about. Not just the translation itself, but also the cultural context — sometimes this just doesn’t translate well either, whether because the book isn’t written for a particular cultural audience.


  3. Interesting. I am asked if I finish every book I start quite often. The answer is yes, with maybe one or two exceptions a year. Normally, these are huge doorstops that I can’t see dragging myself through another 800 pages of small print agony.
    Also, I have heard of “The Erotic Potential of My Wife.” I picked it up in a library one day and browsed the first few pages. I got the impression that it wasn’t a good translation.

    • Yes, I think I’ll end up being the same: there’ll be a couple of books I don’t finish per year. For some reason, the big ones are the ones I really try to finish, just so I get a proper feel for the book’s project. But I have to say it’s galling when you get to the end and it’s…underwhelming.

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