Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Of Literature and Other Abstract Thoughts

One of the complaints I've often heard from fellow readers is that a particular book is heavy-going or that the opening pages are not challenging enough, namely, they're boring.

Whilst I can't vouch for what appeals to other literature enthusiasts (after all, art is subjective), I can certainly sympathise with their feelings. To that reaction described above, disinterest, I can add another one: that of failing to understand an author's motivation to write about a particular subject. Especially when the issue is close to home and it feels too real to digest.

I came across both case scenarios recently with two novels: We Need to Talk About Kevin and Saturday by Lionel Shriver and Ian McEwan respectively. Although miles apart in style and plot, one touches upon a topic that is highly sensitive and the other one takes a while to get going.

Without giving too much away, We Need to Talk About Kevin is an epistolary novel that deals with the aftermath of a high school massacre in the States. The eponymous Kevin is the son of Eva and Franklin and it is her letters to her estranged husband that make up the novel's well-crafted plot.

Saturday, on the other hand, is a study on human nature through the eyes of a neurosurgeon, Dr Perowne. Again, without wishing to reveal the ending, I shall give you a synopsis of the book. On Saturday 15th February, 2003, as hundreds of thousands of protesters gather to march against the impending invasion of Iraq, Dr Perowne rises earlier than usual. From that moment onwards and for the next twenty-four hours, he is witness to and an active agent in a chain of events that takes him through the whole gamut of human emotions.

The subject on which Lionel Shriver focuses in WNTTAK, an "evil" adolescent who wreaks havoc in his local community, is a difficult one to enjoy, especially if, like me, you're a parent, and even harder if, like me, too, you have a teenage son. I'm not implying that my fourteen-year-old harbours any fantasies of annihilating his classmates but there are some tough questions on parenting in the novel for which I, sadly, had no answers and which made me feel uncomfortable.

That means that if I was to take the moral high ground, I could make a case against Ms Shriver's motivations for writing WNTTAK, especially as she is, as some people have remarked, childless. But would that be fair?

Some time ago I came up with a motto for my blog: filming is neutral, editing is political. What I meant by that was that we, as human beings, have a non-discriminatory, unconscious (and subconscious) approach to the information we receive. That's the filming part. It's not so much the use of a camera to capture a particular moment, but the use of our senses to capture data without curtailment. This information is then synthesised, edited and, occasionally, translated (and I don't just mean from one language to another). That's the political part. The outcome of this process is the creation of a model of reality that is plausible enough for us to get by in the world; en brèf, this reality we have built ourselves, suits us.

When a writer sits down to write a book, poem or play, s/he will be making use of their own reality or "borrowing" someone else's. Whatever method they lay their hands on, the fact of the matter is that they will create a different model of the world to which we're used and up to a certain extent, different from theirs, too. Our duty, if duty if the right word, as readers, is to come to that blank page the author's now filled up with sentences, metaphors and dialogues and strip ourselves of our own white noise. Only then, can we dive headfirst into the novel/poem/short story, whilst leaving behind our own synthesised world. The result can be and usually is cathartic.

Which is why I can't judge We Need to Talk About Kevin from a moral or parental point of view, or even from a liberal perspective. Shriver's book exists in a silent space created by the author. By silent I don't mean quiet, I mean free from outside influences; undisturbed.

If WNTTAK is an uncomfortable read because of the subject matter, its nuances and its non-judgemental approach, then, Saturday is one of those novels on which I would have turned my back twenty-five years ago. It has a slow beginning with the first dozen pages full of ruminations and medical lingo. Why on earth did I press on?

The answer is a question. Sometimes when faced with a book like Saturday, I ask myself: am I ready to read this? And then I realise that what I'm doing is replicating the same questions that the author might have posed to themselves: Should I write about this? And, am I ready?

To answer yes to that question as readers is to access that piece of art (novel/poem/tale) as a concept of itself and to furnish it with our sensory system from which we will, hopefully, derive pleasure and joy.

A cursory glance through my bookshelves the other day threw up the titles of two volumes I've started but never completed and a third one I haven't even begun. The two I dived in but gave up on almost at the outset, are The Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker and Paradiso by José Lezama Lima. The one I've never dared to read is Paula by Isabel Allende. In the case of the The Temple and Paradiso, it's their dense prose that killed off my enthusiasm. With Allende it's the subject matter; she writes about the death of her daughter. Too close to home. However, a couple of weeks ago I found myself gravitating towards Lezama Lima's classic and after hesitating a bit, took the plunge. I thought it was incumbent upon me, as a reader, to suspend all previous judgement and preconceptions and enter the author's world and in the process, acquaint myself with his/her tableau of characters. Who knows, I pondered, I might not even find it heavy-going at all. But I will only find that out by reading the book.

© 2012

Next Post: "Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music", to be published on Sunday 13th May at 10am (GMT)


  1. I've read both books -- didn't really like the Shriver one but mainly because I personally hate epistolary novels and find them jarring and nearly impossible to be absorbed by. I so admire McEwan -- sometimes when I'm reading his books I'm stunned by his writing and wonder how, how did he do that? But I'm also left, at times, disattached -- not caring, really. Except for "Saturday," which I found remarkable, particularly that shocking ending.

  2. Saturday (the book) is one I gave up on. I had this irritating feeling that McEwan had such a good idea for a plot that whatever the characters wanted to do, they'd have to do what he wanted and that whatever he wanted to happen to them would happen. It's perhaps just that the book I'd read before it at least created the illusion of being very much the opposite.

  3. Interesting points you raise here, particularly the question of what leads us to abandon a book unfinished. When I think back to those I have given up on, I realise that most of them I took up again - often years later - to read and enjoy them. Two or three I then read more than once. Maybe at the first attempt the timing was wrong, or I was not ready, not mature enough. There still are a couple... but who knows, one day?
    Great post. Set me thinking. Thanks.

  4. Dominic, I know exactly what you're saying and to be honest, I felt somewhat similar when I started Saturday. I thought it was pretentious and unnecessarily labyrinthine. But, I'm happy to say that I was rewarded instead with a credible story about human endurance.

    Elizabeth, Saturday was my first McEwan. I'd seen Atonement, the movie, two years ago but movies and books are totally different, so there's no point in comparing them. Plus I have the novel, too. After Saturday I'm inclined to pursue McEwan's writing more. I read one of his short stories the other day in The New Yorker. Didn't finish it, though. :-)

    Dave, age and experience are important factors to consider when thinking of the times one turns his or her back on a particular book.

    Greetings from London.

  5. Like you, I had troubles with Saturday at first with all the detail and that dull squash game. I found the medical and cooking stuff more interesting, but then the novel took off. I still preferred Atonement, one of the best books I’ve read. That book was more problematic in the ending but the first part was perfect.

    Because I adore Isabel Allende, I read Paula. It was a disturbing book due to the topic but still beautifully written and deeply felt. Certainly a hard book to read as a parent.

    The more writing I do, the less patience I have for poorly paced books. I spend a lot of time revising my writing to get that right, often with feedback from others. It should be the editor’s job to ask the author to fix pacing flaws, but these days the publishing world is understaffed and in a rush to get the next book out by famous authors. The earlier Harry Potter books were tighter and less rambling too. Maybe publishers are afraid to touch works by bestseller authors?

    For me, the thing that puts me off, more than subject matter or pace, is poor writing. I will quit a book after 100 pages if it isn’t working for me. What I like about independent bookstores is that I can test drive the book before I buy it. You can also do that with the first chapter of ebooks, but sometimes that isn’t enough.

    I do like these literature posts of yours!

    PS I responded to your Chilean comment on my blog.

  6. Oops, part of my (too long?) comment got cut off. Here's the first part:

    I haven’t read Kevin, but I loved Shriver’s Post Birthday World and the articles she writes for magazines. I once met her in person after a terrific reading. I admire her willingness to tackle hard subjects and she writes so well. Thanks for reminding me that I should read it. As a parent, I’ve shied away from that disturbing subject. Maybe it would be easier to face if one were childless. All authors, other than memoir writers, are writing beyond their immediate experience.



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