Monday, August 6, 2007

fool me once

First of all, let me say that I did enjoy reading Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn. I was bored enough with the first two chapters that I almost put it down, but the book got better after that. Or at least better enough that I kept reading. The narrator and main character, who suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome and tries to solve and avenge the murder of his boss, was interesting enough, and the way Lethem drew a link between associations in language and discovering the hidden motivations in people’s lives was done well. The book even had some truly funny stupid jokes.

None of this was material of startling brilliance though. The elements of detection in the novel were handled half-heartedly, being perhaps not quite the point in a book that is only making use of the notion of detective novels in order supposedly to tell us something more significant, or at least to entertain us differently. The characters involved with organized crime weren’t particularly original either, although making some of them simultaneously involved with a Zen Buddhist organization was a clever if ultimately overly obvious twist: men of a world of violent action posing as men of inner peace. So I thank the friend who recommended Lethem to me (half-heartedly enough himself, as it turned out) for leading me to look at the work of this novelist whose book reviews are regularly featured in the NY Times Book Review.

What does bug me though is that Motherless Brooklyn was winner of the 1999 National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, and was named by Esquire as novel of the year. Why would that be exactly? For its mugging references to Raymond Chandler (whose books I kept wishing I was reading instead every time Lethem’s main character mentioned them) while it simultaneously distanced itself from being considered mere genre fiction by the human truths it supposedly offered? And what were those? Would they include the insight offered by the character Julia that the narrator’s boss “said the reasons you were useful to him was because you were crazy everyone thought you were stupid’? In other words, that because of prejudice towards the disabled, their abilities are often overlooked? Is this what prompted Esquire’s statement that the book is “utterly original and deeply moving”? There were some original moments, but I was moved just about zero percent of the time.

I’ll stop carping though. I’m hoping I’ve learned by now that books win literary prizes because they appeal to the values of the judges of literary prizes. Sometimes those values are even good values, and sometimes books that win awards really are extraordinary books. Not this one, but sometimes. And of course all criticisms of this kind always contain that nasty subtext: why aren’t my values the ones being consulted in the awarding of literary prizes? Still, I’m hard pressed to imagine that anyone really does think Motherless Brooklyn is a great book, although it seems that some do. It was a decent summer read, no more.

But here’s my problem. The book was just decent enough that I can imagine someone saying of Lethem, “Well, that one was okay, but you really should have read his book so-and-so.” And I can imagine myself being persuaded enough to buy one more book by Lethem. And if that one was similarly okay? Would I then be led to a third by somebody else, and so on?

In other words, how many times am I willing to let the apparatus of praise keep me reading the work of a writer who, on a first take, I found only marginally satisfying?

I’m wondering if anybody else has similarly been led down the garden path of praise to read repeated books by a writer they don’t like that much. For the moment I’m holding my ground and reading no more Lethem. But I’ve been led down this path a few too many times to think I’ll never be led down it again.


Joseph said...

I had a similar reaction to this book. Not terrible, but not exactly satisfying either. A shrug.

Around the same time, I was told to read Colson Whitehead's The Intuitionist...when I was finished I wanted to throw it across the room.

Elisa said...

Praise can convince me to read a book, but if it strongly doesn't do it for me, I rarely give the author a second chance. I liked Motherless Brooklyn, but two books I found wildly overpraised were Bel Canto and Interpreter of Maladies. Boo! No mo Lahiri 4 me.

douglang said...

I know what you mean in general, although I've never even heard of Motherless Brooklyn. I was a passionate devotee of American fiction from the mid 1950s through the mid 1990s. Two things happened by about 1997. One was that I realized that while I had continued in my efforts to "keep up," I was not doing so. I was still buying new books, but I was no longer reading them. The other was that I realized why that was. The context was gone, entirely.

Part of the problem now is the culture of abundance in which we live. I don't even know what aisle to walk down in the big literary supermarket anymore. The aisles are all arranged according to marketing demographics.

mark wallace said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
mark wallace said...

Thanks everybody for these comments.

Joseph, have fun in Europe, leaving the foibles of the American book industry behind.

Elisa, absolutely right about Lahiri, if you ask me. I've read the Namesake as well as that first book of stories and if anything it's even worse, if only because it's a longer piece of more of the same. I read them both mainly because I got them free (the publisher sent me both) and because her name has just been all over the university environment. Sometimes I have to read something to know what I don't like. But at least the Lahiri Pulitzer makes (unpleasant)sense, since her writing seems so transparently about how all of us, whoever we are, would like to live suburban upper middle class lives. But I'm still uncertain on what Lethem, somewhat more entertaining certainly, is bringing to his hype.

Doug: yeah, who can even stand to think about keeping up? One thing I do is to ask my friends about new books they think I would like. And now and then I even do like one.

douglang said...

I know. Pretty much all of the fiction I've read in recent years has come from friends, one way or another. Not much, at that.

I'm sure that even when I thought that I was keeping up, it was an illusion, of course, but it was a viable illusion, back then.

mark wallace said...

Hey Elisa:

I thought you'd like to know that Interpreter of Maladies is now making the list of books for many AP English classes:

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
The Awakening
Catcher in the Rye
The Crucible
The Great Gatsby
In Our Time
Intrepreter of Maladies
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas
The Scarlet Letter
Their Eyes Were Watching God

Elisa said...

More like dislike to know. Blergh.

Anonymous said...

You know, I was let down by Motherless Brooklyn myself, hoping to find a more adventerous play with genre here. A nod to Chandler to be sure, but why stare at the nod itself? I do, however, think that another of Lethem's novels, "As She Climbed Across The Table" was quite good--although its rather unreflective sexual politics were a annoying.

Jordan said...

I thought Motherless Brooklyn was terrific, actually, and liked As She Climbed Across the Table and most of the story collections. The big serious coming of age story with the comic book characters, though, has stalled me out the last three times I've tried. And I haven't read his latest yet out of misguided loyalty to the Vulgar Boatmen.

Jordan said...

But to speak to your point about the garden path of praise, I find I'm much more attuned to the stacking of the deck in poetryland, where I'm aware in passing at least of most of the different centers of production, their publicity machines, and their separate and weird history lessons. With contemporary fiction, as with poetry from other countries and times, I'm aware that I'm in the position of relying on gatekeepers, some of whom may be gardening the path, so to speak, but some of whom may actually be saving me some time by speaking up on behalf of work they genuinely admire, and for reasons they explain in a way I understand and could possibly share.

(Yes, I'm saying "no" to the garden-path frame.)

mark wallace said...

I'd love to hear why you thought Motherless Brooklyn was terrific, Jordan. Do you think it had a seriousness of purpose that I'm missing? Or did you just find it terrifically entertaining? I didn't find that it did either all that effectively (it was an okay read at moments), so I'd love to hear what specifically it did for you.

I'm not quite sure I understand the implications of your second comment. Are you saying that you're more willing to trust the good faith of reviewers when you're less aware of the particular ways in which the deck has been stacked by the field in question? Or just that we should trust that the reviewers of a book mean what they say?

Of course, I don't think there's an answer to the question as to whether people "mean what they say." Obviously all we've got to go on is what they do say.

My question about the praise for Motherless Brooklyn is still somewhat unanswered, then. I haven't so far found any of the reasons for the praise of the book convincing. As a piece of detective fiction, it was verbose, sometimes boring, and the detection elements haphazardly handled. As a work of more serious fiction, many of the characters seem cliched and the messages obvious. It had some funny jokes and some good wordplay, but that wasn't enough for me.

I'd be very happy to hear a specific counterargument. Until then, I'm glad to know that you liked it!

Jordan said...

If that's what it sounds like when you'd be very happy to hear something, what's it like when you're pissed off?

I don't have a specific counterargument -- I read the book three or four years ago, interested that Lethem's name kept coming up when poets were recommending novels to me.

So, from feeble recollection: I remember enjoying understanding the nuances of Lethem's location-scouting.. a zen retreat on the Upper East? Call it NYCentrism, but anything set on the avenues of Fifth or Atlantic will get my attention (seemed like there was an awful lot of Manhattan in it for Brooklyn to get half the name). But enough about me.

Everything else I liked in the book was not anything I particularly aim for when I write - esoteric reference, unexpected perspective, textual/emotional gimmickry - and I suppose an uncharitable critic or twenty may have said that giving Essrog Tourette's was like having Charlize Theron play a striking mineworker - straight-up prize bait.

Maybe you didn't find Essrog that sympathetic a character, maybe you don't see creating sympathetic unpredictable characters as all that extraordinary an accomplishment. It's your blog. And for my part, I'd barely read any (adult) detective genre work at all before MB - my expectations were low, my reflexes slow. Unclear whether I'd enjoy rereading it much, or anywhere near as much as I enjoy rereading say, Hammett, now.

As for your second graf, I'm not meaning either of the readings you propose. I'm saying I'm constantly reminded that I there is a trust-curve to climb with all reviewers, literary critics, poet-bloggers. Because I've spent decades in poetryland already I feel like I know how much salt to take with almost anybody's enthusiastic recommendations and refutations. I pay attention to as many provisional maps of the landscape as I can -- I'm shy but I'd like to enjoy the illusion of knowing where the party is happening.

With fiction, with literature from other countries, with the writing of the recent and distant pasts, I have the prejudices of my education to negotiate, big deal book review publications to take under advisement (can't keep up w/ the TLS anymore, but I still like the London Review and the NYRB), a few people I expect to handsell me something I'll learn to love (e.g. Rod, but fewer and fewer.. there are like five or six good used bookstores I can still get to in my city), and then the famous shadow curriculum of books praised by the poets whose work I go to again and again.

What I am saying is: and I think we're speaking in harmony if not in unison: there is in every cultural distribution chain a real pressure to feel farther along the trust-curve with any given gatekeeper -- with every gatekeeper -- than my experience usually warrants. I don't buy that there's a pernicious "garden path of praise" effect at work. It's easier in the short run to go along with the pressure, accept that this or that stilted poet or vain novelist or obtuse critic has the monopoly of the moment on the real deal. The adjectives are interchangeable, by the way.

(Hell, if they'll have me, I'll even contribute a few words to the Chicago Review: The Real Deal poets issue, or at least read the issue with one eyebrow in a brace.)

This has gone on way too long - that's what I get for writing over lunch. Look - I rarely find fiction I can stand at all. If a critic points me to something, whatever genre, that some subway ride I discover was worth the out of the way trip to the library or the store, that's a critic I'll listen to again. They get it right three times and I'll follow them everywhere.. or at least until the fifth bad pick in a row.

Good faith, meaning... we're not going to get far talking with those terms. You mention that funny jokes and good wordplay aren't enough for you - I guess I'm sticking around to find out some more about your concept of sufficiency - or at least, a sense of that concept to complement the one I've gleaned from reading your prose and fiction.


mark wallace said...

I think we may be focusing on different definitions, Jordan, on what we mean by the "garden path of praise." Wouldn't be the first time in discussions like this, that's for sure.

What I meant was, I have this occasional tendency to read several books by a writer whose work I don't like much simply because people keep recommending that work to me. That's certainly a garden path, and I've gone down it many times. Luckily, the several people who have commented here on liking other books of Lethem's (always for me the danger zone, that "other book") haven't done so insistently enough that I'm feeling I should go further.

A second notion of the "garden path of praise" also clearly exists out in the world: the increasing spoken or written praise for this or that writer. The metaphor might also be an "arc of praise." It keeps rising for awhile, and then it does this and that, and then it becomes someone else's turn.

For this particular garden path to be purely "pernicious," I suppose the implication would be that it's absolutely content-less hype, and I think maybe you're critiquing this idea of the garden path: that the hype is ALL marketing tool and nothing elsse. I certainly agree, and if such a thing did exist, it would be easy to respond to and avoid. The issue I was taking with Motherless B was that people do genuinely speak highly of the book, but I'm not sure why.

The "sufficiency" question is a big one, and I can only answer insufficiently that in this case I was doing no more than borrowing conventional definitions. Detective fiction needs brisk pacing, intriguing characters, a tightly-wrought situation, and hopefully some worthwhile cultural insights. Conventional literary fiction offers genuine insight into the lives of its characters. And the new, vaguely postmodern hybrid would be a form of literature that uses the values of detective fiction to reflect on literary fiction, and vice versa--and also, if more radical, to critique the limitations of both approaches.

And my feeling was that while MB nods in all three of these directions, it's not hugely successful at any one of them, while being (occasionally) entertaining enough. It ends up seeming much less than the sum of its tendencies.

Jordan said...

Fair enough. I haven't read enough detective fiction or conventional literary fiction to offer my guess at what either genre needs. And I can see now how Motherless Brooklyn would not measure up to your standards.

Don't mind me, carry on, etc etc.