Discussing Novels that Go Wrong

Modern masterpieces are what I’m looking for.

Out of the dozens of advance copies piled on my Must Read table, I try each month to ferret out the most powerful, rewarding new literary experiences. The best ones I review for Shelf Awareness and NovelWorld. The very best one I discount and promote at University Book Store. These books are the best of the best. I don’t put energy into a book I’m not behind one hundred percent. I want to spend my time reading, reviewing and promoting the finest literature being published today. I want to look at my twelve monthly promotions when the year ends and think, “Yes, those were the best books of the year.”

Those are the books we discuss in our book group, and rightly so. But there is something to be said for lesser books.

Many times flawed-and-stumbling near-misses make just as good conversation pieces, and sometimes better. Great art can be intimidating. Rather than question an unusual choice in a masterpiece, I’ll first blame myself and assume I don’t understand it. I’m more willing to assess the pluses and minuses of lesser art. I can often learn more about plotting and craft from a story that goes wrong than from a masterpiece award-winner. And discussing where a book goes wrong adds another dimension to the conversation.

Take Perez-Reverte’s new novel, The Painter of Battles. It’s got an intriguing premise, far more ambitious than his intellectual thrillers. A Croatian soldier made famous by a war photograph has subsequently had his wife and son murdered because of it, and has come to kill the photographer. It’s got some brilliant writing, some dramatic setups, and a realistic worldview. It’s all authentic. Perez-Reverte was a war correspondent for twenty years, and his central character is a war photographer whose behavior feels utterly real.

But in spite of the thrilling authenticity of the locales and situations, the intellectual conversations that begin to dominate the book become increasingly annoying, artificial and pretentious, coffeehouse philosophy between the killer and his would-be victim. It’s embarrassing watching these two world-weary studs, rather than fight, settle down to have precious conversations like “How much do you think light weighs?” You’re waiting to see who’s going to kill who. And hoping the female lead won’t open her mouth, since she speaks in vacuous poetics twice as annoying as anything ever uttered by Yoko Ono.

I quit without bothering to see how it ended. But would it make a good book club discussion? Absolutely. I wouldn’t miss it. I’d love to hear how others responded to Perez-Reverte’s odd combination of realism and artificiality.

Same with Katharina Hacker’s German Book Prize-winner, The Have-Nots. It certainly is elegantly written, with three plots converging from three different cities. Nevertheless after fighting my way through half the book, and figuring out who was who at last, none of the characters had become likeable in the least. The central characters are the slightly dense, oblivious young German couple briefly entrenched in a dangerous part of London, Jakob and Isabelle, with a hiding criminal as a neighbor on one side and an abused child on the other. Enough combustible elements, you would think, but out of the blue, halfway through the book, Jakob and Alistair, a fellow employee, come home together, get drunk with Isabelle, remove her clothes and grope her right up to the edge of a three-way – without anyone batting an eye, saying a word, or showing the least surprise for behavior utterly unlike them. I put the book down in sheer disbelief.

Doesn’t mean The Have-Nots wouldn’t make a jim-dandy discussion piece. But who enjoys spending that much time with mean people? As one of the characters observes, even the abused little girl is mean. She hurts the cat. Which reminds me of another flaw in the book. Isabelle picks up the bleeding injured cat. It doesn’t yelp, hiss, screech, or claw her. It purrs in the arms of a stranger. Pure fantasy.

But would I come to a reading group discussing The Have-Nots? You bet. Hearing how other poor souls responded to this odd, twisted book would be irresistible.

Russell Banks’ new novel, The Reserve, is a classic example of this “flawed but fascinating” school. It’s an occasionally brilliant novel with some knockout sequences, mostly in the first half, like the opening chapter’s romantic flying lesson in a little private plane through Fourth of July fireworks. It’s got some gasper surprises, like the bedroom door swinging open to reveal a character bound and gagged inside. But Banks seems to write himself into a hole. He ends up with an unsolvable situation, and when a shotgun is knocked into the air and comes down firing, believability is blown out of the plot like the hole in the character’s chest.

What goes wrong here? I’d eagerly attend a reading group that tackled that problem. Banks is a great stylist. He’s a pleasure to savor as you read. He’s thoughtful and bright and generous. But here he seems to be inventing as he goes. The story has a lot of style and period flavor, but Banks seems to be hoping to stumble on a reason to tell this story, and never finding one.

Vanessa, his leading lady, begins acting like she genuinely belongs in the mental institution she’s fighting so hard to escape. Jordan, the larger-than-life artist hero, so memorable in his two-fisted determination to not be thrown off the posh club grounds by the fussy manager, fades away in the latter portions of the book into a rather unlikable absent husband. The minor characters become more interesting, and then behave inexplicably, reporting on themselves, destroying their own happiness. The plot roars right up to an absent ending, the characters self-destruct, and then Banks sets it all on fire.

I don’t know what Russell Banks was trying to share with me. What literary experience did I just have? I’m dissatisfied and irritated as a reader.

But figuring out where Banks took the wrong turn as the author of The Reserve might trigger a dynamite conversation in a reading group.

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About the Author:

Nick DiMartino is a university bookseller in Seattle, WA. He was a Booklist contributor from 2007 to 2009 and is the author of Seattle Ghost Story (1998) as well as numerous plays.

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