Spleen (retrieved from 2007)

I started writing notes for my end-of-month entry about books I’ll have read, but realised that one book stirred me to such spleen that it needed an entry all to itself. This is not a review, so I’m not going to even name the novel: my aim is to get the thing out of my system rather than to protect you from it (though I’m leaving in enough clues for you to figure it out). Since it has received high praise in some quarters, you may well enjoy it. But here goes anyhow.

It’s probably a commonplace among Cultural Studies cognoscenti that different texts are meant to be read in different ways: the kind of attention you bring to a novel by Jane Austen is different from the way you take in information from an advertisement on the back of a bus in traffic. If you bring to either of them the kind of attention that is appropriate for the other, you’re likely to get cranky one way or another. The advertisement will insult your intelligence; Jane will go on about not very much. I met this idea in Meaghan Morris’s excellent and challenging Too Soon Too Late, and it came in handy when I was trying to understand the success of the book I’ve just finished reading. Read with anything like close attention, the book is atrocious. Hardly a page goes by without the kind of error that an attentive copy editor would surely have picked up, let alone an author who cared about detail. My favourite example isn’t printable here because I aspire to a PG rating. Suffice to say there’s a cleft in a most unusual place, and the word ‘soul’ is used twice in a sentence along with three anatomical words that are definitely not PG. But take these little gems:

The Doll followed a small monsoon of Asian tourists pouring into the hotel’s lobby, the eye of their storm a woman with a long stick topped with a plastic sunflower.

If you don’t object to a pouring monsoon with an eye, presumably borrowed from a cyclone, then how about this:

Wilder said nothing. Wilder knew nothing drove him madder than saying nothing. She changed the topic, knowing that made him angrier still.

Of course anyone can make mistakes like this. But they’re not supposed to get into print, at least not in books that are touted as being by internationally prestigious novelists, and certainly not with the frequency they occur here. And I’m not counting the occasional genteelly aspiring ‘and she’ where ‘and her’ would be correct.

Then there are things that don’t lend themselves easily to quotation. The main character is set up with a verbal habit of calling people ‘my friend’, a habit which disappears altogether until it is suddenly brought back into play about 200 pages later. There’s a chapter early on where a male character broods on the parlous state of his marriage (if you can get past the narrator’s clumsiness enough to register this sort of thing as brooding: ‘The sex was absurd, pointless; an affirmation only of what they didn’t have – the affection, tenderness, hope and dreams that had once been theirs’) and on how deeply he loves his sons – but the sons don’t even get names, and although the chapter starts with him standing in the doorway of his youngest son’s bedroom, we discover four pages later that there are only two of them. It’s for all the world as if the writer didn’t know at the start of the chapter how many sons there were, made up his mind after four pages, and didn’t care enough to go back and make that ‘youngest’ a ‘younger’. I don’t think this is just me being a pedant: it’s as if no one bothered to make the world or characters of the book convincing, as if the actual imagining of the story is left to the reader.

It occurred to me that I’d read this kind of writing before. This book has been compared to Peter Corris‘s Cliff Hardy books – unfavourably by Germaine Greer, bless her old-fashioned literary sensibility, favourably by others. Wrong comparison! This book strives to emulate, not the taut, hard-boiled prose and pose of Corris (though the statement on the first page that ‘the innocent heart of Jesus could never have enough of human love’ is probably best read as a gesture towards a tough-guy voice), but that paradigm of successful writing of our time, The Da V i n c i Code (spacing to avoid giving it even more Google-juice). The narrator here throws words at his idea in the same way Dan Brown does there, evidently hoping that enough of them will stick to get the general effect he’s after. Back to the idea I picked up from Meaghan Morris: the book isn’t meant to be read carefully with attention to the words. There’s no room here for the pleasures of the text. It’s meant to be skimmed: the reader isn’t meant to care about the words on the page, but to take in enough of them to allow a satisfactory story to be extracted. So syntax doesn’t matter, nor do precise meanings. A first draft will do. I’m not saying that the book is written without research or passion, or even without ambition to move its readers, just that attention to detail isn’t considered necessary: there are enough rude words for spice and an accurate enough presentation of a corrupt society, especially a corrupt press, to satisfy the like-minded. There’s a scene in which the provisions of Australia’s recent anti-terrorism laws are spelled out laboriously. As one of my sons said, ‘It’s badly written, but it’s got some good ideas.’

None of this would matter so much. I mean, when you find awful writing in a novel by Lynda La Plante, or Steven Bochco, you probably shrug like me and go on enjoying their television offerings. But the publicity machine accompanying this book wants it both ways. On the one hand, there’s a note on the back cover telling me where I can download reading group notes, and the prelim pages inform me the author is regarded ‘internationally as one of Australia’s pre-eminent novelists’. On the other hand there’s a web site featuring a ‘trailer’ with close-ups of large breasts and fluorescent knickers bumping and grinding away, and a high-adrenaline slogan that actually doesn’t reflect the content of the book at all. No doubt there will be a movie. Maybe it will be good. Meanwhile the passionate heart of the book is ostensibly a denunciation of lazy, venal or corrupt public discourse in which people’s reputations and even lives are shredded in the service of the greedy, the ambitious or the politically expedient, while the majority of people acquiesce out of laziness, gullibility or unreflective cynicism. The book, in its Dan-Brownishness and its marketing hooha, is part of the thing it pretends to denounce.

It’s published by the company who publish Tim Winton. I imagine that makes them serious publishers. (And either Tim Winton is a bloody good reviser of his own drafts or they treat his work with less haste and more respect than this.) No wonder there are people who say they don’t like Australian fiction. I did read to the last page (a gracious though possibly defensive note on sources), and now I need to reclaim my mind. If I didn’t have work to do I’d get out the video of the excellent German film it claims to have stolen its plot from.

9 responses to “Spleen (retrieved from 2007)

  1. kathyprokhovnik

    Well I’m intrigued! But the general nature of your comments – about books that have glaring errors and are full of awful writing making it to market – is so true. There’s a book out currently, the second book by the author, that is reviewed everywhere in the same glowing terms, accompanied by rave reviews for the first dreadful book that I had the misfortune to read, and I just keep on thinking – emperor’s new clothes?

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    • This is a very old post, Kathy, that I retrieved because I linked to it in a more recent one and felt obliged to make public. Yes, there’s not a lot of point getting upset when it just is what itbis

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    • Now I’m intrigued too. It must be time to meet in person so I can find out who you’re talking about. I have three possibilities in mind, but I haven’t hated any of them myself.

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  2. I remember reading this and being quite shocked, because (unlike Kathy) I am a great admirer of this author, and was devastated to think that there might be readers who read this first and thought it indicative of his work. I think his heart was in the right place: these days there are plenty of writers engaging with the issue of terrorism laws, but at the time this was published the government had it all its way: there was no discourse, the Opposition was on board as well. So I think it was dashed off and into print to raise a discussion, and it was pitched at the sort of people who read the Da Vinci Code along with the Sun Herald. If it had been written in his usual style they wouldn’t have touched it.
    So yes, flawed indeed, but I’ve forgiven him for it.

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