Art is long, and time is fleeting, so how do I decide not only what to read, but, just as important, what not to read? I have no settled method, so let me look at a few recent examples of relatively contemporary novels that I started without finishing, before I carry a pile of books back to the library. Fair warning: I will necessarily be making negative judgments about novels I have not read straight through, which is usually a fool’s errand; this should be seen as more of a playful exercise in readerly realism than any kind of serious criticism.
I will begin with the most innocuous reason for not finishing a novel: not being in the mood for it. I am willing to believe that Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist is a good or great book. Unfortunately, I am not interested just now in decoding a semi-absurdist social allegory. I read the novel’s first brief section and saw that it is one of those books where the first however-many pages are not going to make much sense except retrospectively. The novel immediately immerses you, SF-style, in its imagined world of presumably symbolic elevator inspectors, but little in the first couple thousand words was interesting enough independent of this context to make me want to expend the effort to master the novel’s system. Also, the physical descriptions and social observations were astute enough, but the noirish genre, signaled by the tone of the prose, the setting, and even the book’s physical packaging, also put me off, as I did not enjoy my recent reading of Chandler enough to want to return to the mean streets of literature so soon. Nevertheless, as I said, if this is a good novel that caught me on a bad day, I would not be at all surprised, and I will get around to it, or something else by Whitehead, eventually.
I am also uncertain about my decision not to go on with Rachel Cusk’s Outline. The praise has been lavish, it has be said. But some of that praise, as reproduced on the book’s back cover, made me want to give up on Outline before I had even opened it: Jeffrey Eugenides comparing the novel to “the Higgs Boson, which appears only when bombarded by electrons,” for instance, or Leslie Jamison calling it “a series of searing psychic X-rays bleached by coastal light.” What are people thinking when they write this crap? Opening the book, I found it to be modish autofiction, a trend that has a distinguished recent forebear in Sebald and has produced a good novel or two (I liked Teju Cole’s Open City), along with a few books I not only didn’t finish but wanted to throw into the nearest dumpster (Knausgaard, Lerner). Impatient with Outline‘s first page, I started flipping around; alas, a previous library patron had marked what I suppose are the “good parts.” Here, for instance, is a passage next to which my precursor drew a line (in pen—in a library book! I blame neoliberalism):
…perhaps the novel is infecting us back again, so that we expect of our lives what we’ve come to expect of our books; but this sense of life as a progression is something I want no more of.
Which cliché of a senescent late modernism does make me feel a bit less guilty for not progressing linearly through the novel. I went from marked passage to marked passage until I got to the final paragraphs:
In that case, he said, I will spend the day in solicitude.
You mean solitude, I said.
I do beg your pardon, he said. Of course I mean solitude.
I don’t even know who is talking here, but the solicitude/solitude slip, no matter how well-prepared by the preceding narrative or ironized by its context is not persuasive on its face (the two words don’t have the same number of syllables, and who says “solicitude” anyway?) and is moreover self-flattering (oh, the connection between our care and our loneliness, aren’t we special?) in the way that neo-modernist-style novels about writers and readers so often are. Maybe I’m wrong! But back to the library Outline goes.
Another festival of portentousness is Laurie Sheck’s Island of the Mad, wherein a man with brittle-bone disease goes to Venice to find his missing co-worker, herself afflicted with a mysterious sleep disorder, all of which has something to do with Bulgakov and Dostoevsky and a mysterious manuscript. The novel’s narrative method is fragmentary, as if we are privy to excerpts from the protagonist’s diary, which makes it read more quickly than its allusiveness and lugubriousness might suggest. The whole concept is so pleasantly weird that I could not help but hope for Sheck to succeed with it. When I realized that she would be retelling large parts of The Master and Margarita and, later in the novel, The Idiot, I gave it up, though. Why do contemporary writers do this? Sebald retells “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” in The Rings of Saturn and Marías does the same with Le Colonel Chabert—at ludicrous length—in The Infatuations. The effect, generally, is to make one reflect on how far short of Borges, Balzac, and Bulgakov the present authors are falling. Sheck’s own style is so solemn that it would make me pine for the mania, the hysteria, the brio of Bulgakov and Dostoevsky even were she not mentioning them on every other page. If Island of the Mad had been half its length, I would have stuck it out, but 400-some pages is too much to try to read while also casting furtive glances over at my shelf of Russian novels. Still and all, I may yet come back to it if I find the images of its first 40 pages lingering: Sheck’s ambition and imagination are not to be dismissed lightly.
Speaking of light, we come to a slightly older book, Light Years by James Salter, which lives up to the usually somewhat unfair stereotypes about “literary fiction”: it narrates the dissolution of an upper-class marriage in willfully and sometimes nonsensically “lyrical” prose. Salter’s style is made up of terse sentences or, often, sentence fragments, its crystalline compression warmed by hints of metaphor or otherwise heightened emotion: imagine Hemingway crossed with Woolf. But Salter’s writerly determination to sound profound often leads to vagueness or, worse, to nonsense. For example, the novel’s second “sentence,” emphasizing a river’s blackness: “Not a ship, not a dinghy, not a cry of white.” Why a “cry”? To introduce the novel’s keynote of sorrow, no doubt. But you cannot envision a “cry” of color; the word is probably there because Salter heard that synesthesia often accompanies genius. On the third page, there is a description of a pony (rich people have ponies, I guess): “Her eyes are black, lustrous, with the long, crazy lashes of a drunken woman.” “Lustrous” belongs in a shampoo advertisement, but, more importantly, do drunken women have longer eyelashes than sober women? Our author is obviously just reaching for whatever sounds good, whether it makes any sense or not—and yet, how good does the senseless really sound? I did keep at Light Years for about 50 pages, charmed by its heroine, Nedra:
Her dreams still cling to her, adorn her: she is confident, composed, she is related to long-necked creatures, ruminants, abandoned saints.
The catch in the throat between the prosaic “cling to” and the poeticism “adorn” is the tonal marker of literary fiction’s artificially elevated verbal register, which is fine when it works, and I do it too, whether well or not is not for me to judge. But when Salter combines it with the ludicrous imprecision of “long-necked creatures” (I did see Alien: Covenant this weekend…), the potential imagistic inappropriateness of the vague “ruminants” (the first ruminant that comes to my mind is a cow), and the puzzling absurdity of “abandoned saints” (abandoned by whom? and what does this have to do with the length of Nedra’s neck?), the prose collapses into unintentional comedy. I flipped to the final chapters to see how things work out for his troubled married couple, but Salter, epigone of Hemingway’s that he is, gratuitously kills Nedra off in middle age (“[a]s if leaving a concert during a passage she loved, as if giving up an hour before the light”) to wring an epiphany from his hero. This time, I am reasonably satisfied in not having read the whole novel.
So there is a glimpse into my reading habits, in case my usual critical work seems a bit too academic or impersonal. In sum, I almost always feel uncertain and slightly ashamed about leaving novels unfinished, unless, as in the final case above, the prose itself displays significant lapses in thought without the novel’s also boasting other virtues. Feel free to let me know below what causes you to put a novel down.