Thursday, February 12, 2004

Books That Have Defeated Me

Last night I stopped reading a book and put it into the "pile that goes to the used bookstore so that they get the chance to be all high and mighty about how little they are giving you for your books and I get the chance to meekly say thanks and squirm away." The book was Pandaemonium by Leslie Epstein. I bought it at the Edmonton Mall last summer, where the only purchases we made were remaindered books and whatnot at the Dollar Store (which in Canada is like the $0.70 store). Lest you get the idea we are cheapskates, we stayed at the The Fairmont Hotel MacDonald where we were in eternal anxiety over how and how much to tip the concierge, bell boys (bell persons? But they were always men...) etc. We both decided that staying at 4 star hotels is too nervewracking for us self-reliant and populist inclined types. From now on it's a good night's sleep at Days Inn for us when we're travelling.

So I bought the book because of the blurbs (some of which are on the Amazon site) and because I am a sucker for certain types of books: Books about Academia, Books about Hollywood, and Books about Books. This was a book about Hollywood. Except that it was an Allegory and a Satire. I have no problems with Allegory or Satire as long as the writing can stand alone apart from its allegorical and satirical points. The writing in Pandaemonium can't. The novel is first-person in Peter Lorre's voice. Except that it isn't. I don't know much 'bout writin', but I would think that if you are going to be writing in a famous person's voice, maybe it should be identifiable as such. Nope, no such luck here. I absolutely never got the idea that it was Peter Lorre except from other characters calling him Peter or Petey... And apparently he smells like almonds when excited. Well, don't we all, I ask you? That was just one of the problems. Too many ill-defined characters which you can't keep track of, you can't keep track of where exactly some scenes were happening, etc. etc. I finally gave up.

And this surrender led me to consider other surrenderings I have done (sorry, I mean only literary surrenderings, details of my many Dunkirks, Munichs and Appomattoxes in other areas of my life are for another, more interesting blog.) Here is a partial but fairly complete list:

  • Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

  • Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper

  • For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

  • The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro

  • A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

From this list I can see that I do have a problem with two areas, Allegory and Humor. Gulliver, Unconsoled and perhaps Conferederacy are allegories where I really didn't care about the allegorical content because I was bored by the writing on the page. And it seems that some so-called humorous writing (Confederacy and the above Pandaemonium) leaves me unlaughing if I'm not convinced by the characters or couldn't care less about them - Ignatius Reilly for me was just a boring jerk.

As far as The Bell Tolls and Mohicans, I stopped reading both of them because the writing style got in the way. For Mohicans, I think a cottage industry could be made for diagramming Cooper's sentences to figure out what exactly he is saying. For The Bell Tolls it was like reading Dick and Jane in the Spanish Civil War. Now I liked "A Farewell to Arms" but in The Bell Tolls it was just too much.

Now I am reading Bay of Souls by Robert Stone. While it isn't perfect, it isn't boring, it isn't trying too hard to make me laugh, and has no allegorical aspirations - and it is short, and at this point I'm very happy.

Note Added: I just read some of the reviews of Bay of Souls. It ain't pretty. Two have already admitted reading stoppage and others have been less than impressed. But I think I have enough momentum from it not being Pandaemonium that I'll be able to finish.

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