Playing online bingo games: Horrific?
Playing online bingo games: Horrific?
Biblioklept already busted out our Best Books of 2010 list, selecting ten of our favorite novels of the year. Such limitations help to generate lists, which internet folks love to circulate–you know the ritual–but those limitations can also prohibit a discussion of some of the other important books of 2010. So, without further ado–
Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom has, for some reason, topped all kinds of year-end lists already, and been hailed by writers, critics, and readers as book of the year, decade, and even century. We pretty much hated it, saying–
Franzen is deeply intelligent, even wise, and his analysis of the past decade is perhaps brilliant. It’s also incredibly easy to read, but this is mostly because it requires so little thought from the reader. Franzen has done all the thinking for you. The book has a clear vision, a mission even, but it lacks urgency and immediacy; it is flaccid, flabby, overlong. It moans where it should howl.
Still, we felt the need to defend Franzen when he caught flak for, gasp!, getting attention. Other writers had to work hard to get noticed, including Tao Lin, whose novel Richard Yates we found baffling. Lin smartly hijacked Franzen’s Time cover, parlaying it into the kind of media attention a young novelist needs in this decade to get noticed.
David Shields also garnered a lot of attention after publishing his ridiculous “manifesto” Reality Hunger, a book that cobbled together citations from superior writers to make a point that Henry Miller made over half a century ago and every novelist worth his salt has always known: great writers steal. Although Shields’s points about copyright laws and who can “own” stories are salient in world two point oh, his call for the death of the novel is absurd and offensive.
Lee Rourke’s brilliant début novel The Canal is as good an answer as any to Shields–The Canal is a thoroughly modern reconsideration of existentialism in the post-9/11 world, a new kind of novel in the nascent tradition of Tom McCarthy’s The Remainder (of course, as McCarthy–and David Shields–would point out, these novels are “plugging into” other novels). Similarly, Adam Langer’s witty novel The Thieves of Manhattan pointed to the ways that novels can still be meaningful; Thieves jauntily riffs on adventure and mystery genre fictions, squaring them against a parody of literary fiction and the hermetic world that produces it.
Langer’s novel tracks the quick rise and fall of more than one literary star; Yann Martel might have felt such a falling sensation in 2010–Beatrice and Virgil, his follow-up to the wildly successful book club classic Life of Pi, received mostly scathing reviews. He’ll have to console himself with the piles of money that Ang Lee’s film adaptation of Life of Pi will likely generate. In our review of Beatrice and Virgil we declared the book “a page turner, engaging, propulsive, and quite easy to read. It injects the philosophical and artistic concerns of literary fiction into the frame and pacing of a book designed for broader audiences.” We think too many folks mistook Martel’s aims for something higher.
Martel wasn’t the only big name writer whose 2010 novel found critical disfavor. Don DeLillo’s Point Omega was met with a mix of critical shrugs and outright dismissals, with very few champions. We seemed to like it better than most. In our review we said that “Point Omega takes an oblique, subtle, and unnerving tackle at themes of time, perception, family, and, ultimately, personal apocalypse. It’s not a particularly fun book nor does it yield any direct answers, but it’s also a rewarding, engaging, and often challenging read.”
DeLillo’s friend Paul Auster also received mixed reviews for his novel Sunset Park. We loved Auster’s winding syntax and his keen observations on high and middle culture, but found his take on twentysomethings in Brooklyn unrealistic and perhaps a bit pandering (Picador’s updated version of his Collected Prose that came out this year was a far more satisfying read).
The worst novel we read in 2010 though was quite easily Justin Cronin’s The Passage, a calculated attempt to make money, not literature. We have no problem with writers making money, of course–we don’t even mind writers ripping off other writers’ ideas to make money–but Cronin’s book is a shallow, sprawling laundry list of clichés and stolen-set pieces, a failed synthesis of post-apocalypse tropes, and a naked grab at commercial appeal. It seems to have been written expressly to be sold as a series of franchise movies. Because of Cronin’s earlier literary fictions, many critics mistook The Passage for a work of literature; indeed, many praised it. They were wrong.
Of course, our targeting of The Passage feels like backlash of some kind, common to both the internet and the book world. If we’re hating on Cronin for his overexposure, it might be because we feel that there are a host of neglected and overlooked books out there. We put two on our Best Books list: Imre Kertész’s The Union Jack and Nanni Balestrini’s Sandokan are both novellas in translation, not the sort of thing that usually tops critics’ year end lists (let alone get read by the public). We could add Yoko Ogawa’s bizarre, slim novel Hotel Iris to the list. Available for the first time in English this year, Ogawa’s novel is effectively a reverse-Lolita, a David Lynchian-riff on BDSM in a small Japanese coastal town. Not for everyone, but strange, disturbing stuff.
Critics also seemed to roundly ignore the full publication of Ralph Ellison’s second, unfinished novel, Three Days Before the Shooting . . . , which we wrote about twice (here and here) but never managed to finish, which doesn’t really matter because he didn’t finish it either. A much shortened version of the novel was published as Juneteenth in the ’90s to mixed reviews, but it seems strange that this version, collecting all of Ellison’s manuscripts and notes, should go so unremarked upon (still, it’s a big long sucker of a book; perhaps someone out there is still unpacking it all).
So what did we miss? What other books of 2010 remain thus-far neglected? What books did you love? Hate? Let us know.
Apocalypse literature, when done right, can inform us about our own contemporary society. It can satirize our values; it can thrill us; it can astound us with its sheer uncanniness. I’m thinking of Russell Hoban’s Ridley Walker, Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novels, Cormac McCarthy’s novels Blood Meridian (yeah, Blood Meridian is an end-of-the-world novel) and The Road, Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence and Brave New World. There are many more of course–hell, even the Bible is bookended by the apocalypse of the flood (and Noah’s escape) and the Revelation to John. Then there are the movies, too many to name in full at this point (China Miéville even called for a “breather” a while back), but the ones that work become indelible touchstones in our culture (George Romero’s zombie films and Children of Men spring immediately to mind).
So, my interest in such works foregrounded, perhaps I should get to the business of reviewing Justin Cronin’s massive virus-vampire apocalypse saga/blatant money-making venture The Passage. But before I do, let me get anecdotal: earlier this summer, because of my aforementioned interest in apocalypse lit I tried to listen to the unabridged audiobook version of Stephen King’s The Stand. I bring this up here because Cronin’s book is utterly derivative of The Stand. I also bring it up because I had the good sense to quit The Stand almost exactly half way through–good sense I did not extend to The Passage. Yes, dear reader, I listened to the whole damn audiobook, all 37 hours of it. It helped that I had a home renovation project going that took up most of this week. So I listened to Cronin’s dreadful prose, hacky twists, and derivative plots while sanding joint compound and painting for eight hours at a stretch. True, it’s a much easier audiobook to follow than, say, something by Dostoevsky–but that’s only because anyone with a working knowledge of apocalypse tropes has already seen and heard it all before.
So what is it? In The Passage a government virus turns people into vampire-like zombies with hive mines. There’s a mystical little girl at the center of it all. Does she hold the key to mankind’s salvation? Does all of this sound terribly familiar? Cronin’s book begins in the not-too-distant future, tracing the origins of the virus that will unleash doom and gloom; then, about a third of the way in, he skips ahead about a 100 years to explore what life is like for the survivors. While the commercial prose had taxed me about as far as I could go, I have to admit that this twist a third of the way in intrigued me–what would life be like for these folks? What savagery did the “virals” (also called “smokes,” “dracs,” and a few other names I can’t remember) unleash? Luckily, there’s plenty of exposition, exposition, exposition! Cronin saturates the second part of his novel with so much background information that he essentially ruins any chance the book has to breathe. There’s no mystery, no strangeness–just many, many derivative plots and creaky set-pieces thinly connected with enough chapter-ending cliffhangers to make Scheherazade blush. This wouldn’t be so bad if Cronin’s characters weren’t stock types that would seem more at home in an RPG than, I don’t know, a novel. It’s hard to care about them as it is, but as the novel progresses he frequently puts them in mortal peril and then saves them at the last-minute–again and again and again. The derivative nature of The Passage wouldn’t smart so much if the characters weren’t so flat and the prose so mundane. The action scenes are fine–just fine–but when Cronin gets around to like, expressing themes and ideas the results are risible. It’s like the worst of Battlestar Galactica (you know, those last three seasons), maudlin soap opera that tips into mushy metaphysics.
But I fear I’ve broken John Updike’s foremost rule for reviewing books — “Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” I think that Cronin has set out to make money here, and he’s written the type of book that will do that, the kind of book that will make some (many) people think that they are reading some kind of intellectual alternative to those Twilight books. There will be sequels and there will be movies and there will be lots and lots of money, enough for Cronin to swim in probably, if he wishes. In the meantime, go ahead and skip The Passage.