Last week we presented Ark volunteers’ favourite reads of 2016. Time for the worst ones.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
“I [Patti] was a dreamy somnambulant child. I vexed my teachers with my precocious reading ability paired with an inability to apply it to anything deemed practical.” (We might translate this: “I [Patti] was a sleepy child who fell asleep and then sometimes had dreams. I annoyed my teachers with my super reading powers and my solipsism. Hence the need for sleep.”)
This book is obviously for people who are already completely-taken-with-Patti-Smith and thus are oblivious to its flaws. I, happily, am not one of those people, and was therefore able to discern the miasma of pretentiousness that pervades this book. To put it differently, and completely in tune with Just Kids: I can see more clearly than you can. No. Seriously. This is exactly the message of Just Kids: Patti Smith, over the course of 288 pages, explains to the reader how she and Robert [Mapplethorpe] could see things others could not. Wait. That is actually slightly inaccurate. Half of the 288 pages – 144 pages – are digressions on all of the soon-to-be or already famous people she met in New York.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not a case of ressentiment. I sincerely believe this sentiment about an artist: That the artist is someone who stumbles upon, or taps into something that others have not and can then explore this “something” through different modes of expression. This is why we (the non-artists) need art. What I don’t need, however, is 288 pages, sorry, 144 pages, of someone explicitly telling me how she has this superpower.
On the other hand, and just to say some good things about this book, I did find this, after I had become utterly numb, a touching and heartfelt portrait and tribute to the actually interesting artist Robert Mapplethorpe.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
I don’t even remember really what this book was about, only that it was the winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2011, which shows that I generally tend to disagree with the Man Booker jury when it comes to apparently “humorous” books from white, British males. Reading this reminded me of reading Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question, which seemed like one long satire I was never really in on, but which the British cultural elite seemed to savour with a surprising, self-deprecating relish.
I read this book because I was preparing for Louisiana Literature, where Julian Barnes was to be one of the renowned international guests, but honestly – it bored me. I never really got the point of it, or the urgency of the story. That is the reason why this is my worst read, for even reads you truly hate at least leave a mark. This just left a sort of foggy, transparent memory of a scene with a man in a car and a strange woman who is perhaps not a strange woman, and somehow connected to his wife leaving him. Men whose wives leave them don’t seem to make for interesting literature to me – Tomas Espedal also bores me with his stereotypical, going-to-the-dogs heartbreak descriptions.
However, perhaps I’m being hypocritical, because Caspar Eric’s breakup poem Nike was my favorite read of the year. Maybe it’s a generational thing.
Submission by Michel Houellebecq
Submission by Michel Houellebecq is not a provocative deconstruction of the sacred cows of multiculturalism and religious tolerance. It is, rather, the pained whine of someone waking from a nostalgic fever dream. The novel, which follows a Houellebecq avatar in the form of a Huysmans scholar named François as his research spirals into irrelevance and whose aging body causes the students he used to depend on for sexual companionship to start ignoring him, takes place over the course of a tumultuous presidential election in France that sees the National front loose to the Muslim Brotherhood.
I have only read two Houellebecq novels and, with this being the first, it was only because the insistence of his importance from others that I gave Houellebecq a second chance and read Platform. However, this only made clear how much of a disappointment Submission was and still remains. For all there is to disagree with in Platform, it reads as a novel and an argument of conviction. And he can be funny. This talent is also evidenced on one page of Submission. Early on when the narrator/protagonist, in attempting to explain the pluses of patriarchy to his student/lover, is dumbfounded as he can’t articulate a rational justification because in truth he’d just like to have power. This leads to an internal rant about homemaking and baby Bjorns and admonitions relating to the misleading name of “Rapid Sushi” delivery service, before he laments his lack of courage for not demanding a blow job from her then and there to save the moment and relationship. This is funny because it is the only moment in the novel where you feel the author knows more than the narrator and you get to share a laugh at François’ expense. However, with this summary I have just saved you the hours it takes to read the book.
The main problem I have with this Submission is that it seems disengaged from its subject. It is as if Houellebecq noticed his comments about Islam generated a great deal of publicity and he thought he could put away a little nest egg for himself by writing a novel with an incendiary take on this theme. However, he is prevented in doing this well by what seems to be a genuine disinterest in the topic. This could be a fine device; to use sleight of hand to go below an ostensible subject to the talk about something else, but it does require you have something else to talk about. Or perhaps, just something more substantial that being a bit confused and annoyed that the world (everything from geopolitics to the autonomy of other, particularly female, people) seems more complex than it used to when you were a child…
paddy clarke ha ha ha by Roddy Doyle
I must admit that choosing the worst book I read this year was a difficult task. Not because I have a flawless taste in choosing books (which could be a possibility, especially when it comes to choosing readings for myself – for further references ask my dad), but rather because I’ve been lucky enough to read quite good books this year. Having said that, I do have read a book this year that hasn’t met my expectations.
Paddy Clarke ha ha ha is centered on the life of a 10-year-old Northen-Irish kid. Through the novel, the reader becomes an audience member to the kid’s life: the whole story is simply the kid’s story of his life. The narrator’s use of language is precisely what is supposed to be special, funny and great about the book. Reading Paddy Clarke ha ha ha is supposed to produce a similar yet more complex, greater experience as hearing a kid explaining his daily experiences. Nevertheless the only feeling it has produced in me was boredom. The language and its use lacks of style, the whole discourse doesn’t feel natural, and the words don’t seem to flow even in the (numerous and overused) dialogue parts.
Let me justify myself a little more. I don’t think this is a bad book, I just think its use of first person narration is totally unfortunate, useless and unrelatable. The whole idea of seeing the life of a kid changing in the course of the year, facing different family problems, and his development as a person, sounds good in theory but it just doesn’t work. At least not for me.
Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
“I didn’t like it” my dad shrugged as he lent me his copy of Girl on the Train. My father’s brief and eloquent review will be difficult to top as there isn’t that much more to say. This book is essentially void of character (anything interesting about the novel’s protagonist is somehow stripped away in the end when she turns out to be just a ‘misunderstood victim’) and void of any theme/emotional affect/point. As pointed out in a particularly poignant criticism from the New Yorker’s review of the recent film adaptation, the story uses alcoholism as a clever plot device to conveniently conceal and reveal information and build mystery, without ever actually delving into the issue enough to even get its toes wet. It’s just one big build up to an okay-but-not-that-amazing plot reveal that will leave you like an exasperated parent: not even angry, just disappointed.
I Love Dick by Chris Kraus
Truth to be told, there is nothing I can truly criticise in I Love Dick, so perhaps it does not deserve to be mentioned here. But neither is there anything for which I could praise it. Which I find quite strange, especially given the fame and the nearly cultish air surrounding it that reached me long before I even held a copy in my hands. But with no other candidate, and motivated by the feeling that some polemical voice should be raised whenever all one hears is praise, here I am.
There is a lot in I Love Dick, formally, intellectually and theoretically, and the book manages to identify and expose a number of borders and conventions by dissolving them through its witty criticism and erudite flexibility. Yet, somehow, all this does not manage to add up to a good book.
Why? My best attempt to put words on this sensation is that not for a moment does it manage to escape its own premise of being, as Kraus herself called it in the Guardian Podcast, a ‘case study’. And I think it is precisely this distanced attitude adopted by Kraus, this conversion of what she talks about into a case, ergo into an object of a (very peculiar: granted) investigation, which is responsible for both its merits and greatest shortcomings. The life presented is always a life-as-an-object, the people are people-as-objects, the personal is always a personal-as-object, etc. Because given the overarching idea they cannot be otherwise but have to appear as elements of the play, as objects distilled from reality.
On the level of this higher idea, I Love Dick remains uncompromising and truthful to its own assumption, and this is where the book feels sincere. However, here comes the troublesome proviso: it does so only as long as it remains within this higher-order conceptual sphere. And to me, this sort of sincerity is achieved through too great of a sacrifice. Because something vital gets lost: a close and intimate proximity to life and to the world.