Sunday, July 12, 2009

Reviews: Incomplete

Well, today I returned two different books that I was in the midst of reading. My rule of thumb is that if I read 100 pages of a book--or a significant number of the stories in an anthology--without getting hooked, then I'm done.

The novel I failed to finish was Children of Men by PD James. A very well-written book whose subject matter was just too bleak to overcome the deliberate pacing of the story and the lack of a sympathetic narrator. The premise is that all of a sudden in the late 1990s all the women in the world can no longer become pregnant. No real explanation is offered for the Omega Event and it's a tribute to the talents of James as a writer that I didn't feel frustrated by that. There is a lot of well-crafted imagery in the book, but 100 pages in I found myself unable to feel a great sense of loss at the idea that the characters or their post-Omega British society were going to die out. And that's saying something, because the narrator is a history professor. My wife teaches history at a university and I briefly studied to become a history professor, so you'd think a character in that profession would have my sympathy, but I didn't like the guy or what he was doing in his life enough to care what happened to him.

It struck me as odd that, aside from the very first scene, there was nothing 100 pages into a short novel aside from the premise that had anything to do with the movie Children of Men that I watched. I mean nothing. Not the main character, not the unwinding of the story, not the relationships between characters or the depiction of the society itself. Well, both were depressing, but the novel is depressing in a quiet, almost apologetic (why can't we make a better end of things than this) sort of way, while the film was depressing in a bleak, desperate fashion (everything is disintegrating, the center does not hold, etc.).

Maybe the two plots have more in common further on in the novel, but I just couldn't motivate myself to read it. Not because it was poorly written in terms of the crafting of sentences and images, but because the story it told did not grab me. To be fair, I've never been a big fan of post-apocalyptic tales: I saw two Mad Max movies and that scratched the itch sufficiently. So although this is a clever take on that genre, I needed something that felt like more than a collection of black and white still photos of a dying English countryside inhabited by ghosts. And I suppose I'm the type of reader that wants to reach that point before I get nearly halfway through a novel (this one was maybe 240 pages), much less 100 pages in.

The second failure to finish book was You Are Not a Stranger Here, a collection of short stories by the author Adam Haslett. The opening story, "Notes to My Biographer," is a brilliant look at the effects of age and mental illness on an individual and his son. Really fascinating. But after I got halfway through, I got weary of stories about depressed gay men, depressed people with mental illness, depressed dying gay men with a hint of mental illness, depressed young men with signs of mental illness, and so forth. Notice a theme here? Again, I think the issue here was partly that these stories would have stood out more on their own rather than collected where the similarities of theme could become so overwhelmingly depressing. Then again, the later stories in the collection might not be like this. If so, the collection needed a better editor. On a music album you don't put all the slow ballads one after the other.

I might pick up this collection again in the future and start where I left off, once some time has allowed the themes to feel fresh again. Haslett is a talented writer and it is easier to stomach unsympathetic or distant characters in the short story format as compared to the rather annoying professor of James's novel.

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