Wednesday, March 09, 2005

I Like Bad Books and I Cannot Lie, These Other Brothers Can't Deny

Spoilers for today: MY SISTER'S KEEPER by Jodi Picoult, PUSH by Sapphire, THE LOVELY BONES by Alice Sebold, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and HANNIBAL by Thomas Harris. The title is deceptive, as only about two and a half of those books are genuinely bad. Apologies for the title, but I really, really couldn't resist.

Being the solitary woman that I am, I often spend a lot of my unemployed time reading books in bookstores, because they are books I'm not quite willing to buy and I don't want to be at home. Sometimes I read quality books--often, in fact--but occasionally a piece of less-than-quality work just appeals to me, even as I know it's not going to be well-done. I am a sucker for melodrama. I never quite clicked with romance novels, but literary fiction based on melodramatic premises will usually draw me in. One such is MY SISTER'S KEEPER, the story of a thirteen-year-old, Anna, whose older sister, Kate, was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of three. Anna was genetically engineered as the perfect match for bone marrow transplants, blood transfusions and other such procedures for Kate. Their older brother, Jesse, is a juvenile delinquent. The book is the story of Anna's choice, at thirteen, to sue her family for biological emancipation. It is told through the alternating narratives of Anna, Jesse, each of their parents, Anna's lawyer, and Anna's court-appointed social worker, the latter two of whom were madly in love in prep school. You can tell it's different narrators because each narrator has a different font. The shocking twist of plot? It was Kate who asked Anna to bring this lawsuit. The shockinger twist of plot? As soon as she is granted emancipation, Anna is killed when her lawyer's car crashes. Kate gets Anna's kidney and ends up living at least for the next five years, 'cause the final chapter is narrated by her and the chapters have years on 'em.

And I cried in the middle of Borders.

By all counts on which I judge art, MY SISTER'S KEEPER is a terrible book. There is no infusion of age into the voices; any attempt to distinguish one character's voice from another is utterly contrived, the cynical lawyer says cynical things and the very educated social worker makes literary references and Jesse talks about fire all the time and so forth. None of the characters are at all developed; they're pretty much situations, practical or emotional, rather than characters. The subplots are boring and trite, and the central plot is poorly researched legally and is almost impossible to do well anyhow. As I mentioned in my discussion with Lawrence about manipulation (see the comments on the authenticity post), it's a book that manipulates you into coming to a conclusion, rather than into going through a process. Ms. Picoult assumes she knows exactly how you, the reader, will feel in response to the novel's every move. Trouble was, occasionally she was right. I had a similar difficulty with PUSH, by Sapphire, which I read two months ago for my book club. PUSH is the story of a sixteen-year-old girl living in Harlem in the '80s, illiterate, who's been raped and abused by her father since she was seven years old and is pregnant with her second child by him, in addition to being molested by her mother, and finds herself (on the meta-level) in an alternative education/adult literacy program.

Now, PUSH is a better book than MY SISTER'S KEEPER. The voice, though I found it somewhat cloying, is genuine and well-executed, and the characters felt very clear to me. I did feel consistently emotionally manipulated in the same way--every time I felt something I should have felt, and it happened, I could feel Sapphire looking over my shoulder saying, "Yep. That's right. That's exactly what you're supposed to feel. Go on feeling that way." I was the only person in my book club who didn't like this book, and whenever anybody made a point about its construction or its political reverberations I couldn't really deny it. On some level I was a little more pissed at PUSH than at MY SISTER'S KEEPER, because PUSH had craft enough that it didn't have to be as manipulative as it was, we would have gotten there anyway. As we did in, say, LOVELY BONES. I've been very surprised at liking that book, but I do. I've read articles where it's described as "Tragedy Lite" (I wish I could cite that, but I totally can't; suffice it to say that I didn't come up with it), but I found it actually pretty thorough. It did commit the literary sin of believing it knew what its readers' responses were, and yet it didn't *assume* so. It still allowed us into the process, took us on the journey. A lot of people felt PUSH did that, but I thought moving from step to step relied a lot more upon its assumptions of the reader responses.

Of those three, I see it as justified to consider the latter two good books; not so the first. It's maudlin and poorly done. And yet it worked on me. It worked on me as someone who has a sister and understands the complexities and investments inherent in that, and could easily make the jump to imagining a situation like that, but goddamn I had to do all the imagining. Basically, MY SISTER'S KEEPER is a template. So, some books are emotionally manipulative on what I consider the worst, most artistically disingenuous level, and yet, they *work*. The very melodramatic ideas propelling them, no matter how unskilfully they artistically handle character development, plot development, voice, any commitment to the form, are enough to take us where the author wants us to go. It's lazy writing, but it's marketable and it's a skill that should not necessarily be sneered at. I mean, for sure it's functional. As someone I went to high school with said, "A Steven Spielberg movie, that could be really emotional, 'cause he's big on, like, making people feel things, you know?" The notion of "making people feel things" here is key. It's a commonly accepted truth, though I seem to be currently not accepting it, that it's good art that makes you react. Yet here I have found myself reacting to things that I think a) are not good art or b) have substantive artistic flaws.

So then, what makes a book good? To add to this mix, I recently read Thomas Harris's HANNIBAL after reading SILENCE OF THE LAMBS three years ago. SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is actually fairly excellent, but even then just because of the genre I felt almost unfair saying Thomas Harris was A Good Writer. Intellectual snobbery already, before I'd even been thoroughly trained in it--but except for teen writing serials when I was younger, I've never really managed to connect to genre fiction, even as I've read fiction of all Genres that I liked. (Except romance novels, but I need to read more of those because I've a feeling I could make a living writing them.) But SILENCE OF THE LAMBS is really impressive. It maintains its sense of suspense and urgency throughout, it really develops its characters and gives them compelling relationships that you want to follow, it's creepy as fuck, and it's really, really hard to put down. If you like the movie, it's at least as good as the movie; if you don't like the movie, it's better. So I was excited to read HANNIBAL, and was happy to be reading it until its last six chapters. Until that time, I was wandering my social world defending thrillers. (You know what's great about thrillers? They're so carefully constructed to create suspense that you know you're not running into basic novelist-masturbation--you know every idea that appears is there for a reason and will be relevant to the story. Which is a really exciting way to read.) But then I got to the ending of HANNIBAL, which is one of the more sexist things I've ever read, and felt completely betrayed. Here's an incredibly strong female character in a genre usually lacking in female characters, written by a male where aforementioned rare characters are almost always written by females--but all she *really* wanted the whole time was to be taken on by a man who sees her as an equal after the true Oedipal nature of her feelings for said man, Dr. Lecter, are revealed by means of constant drugging and hypnosis. She really didn't have any integrity, any compelling interest in her actual job, etc.--she just needed the finer things in life to be revealed to her by the only man who could truly appreciate her. I felt *really* betrayed by Thomas Harris. (And really proud of Jodie Foster for turning the movie down, and really disappointed in Julianne Moore, whom I used to like but who has been making some really shittastic film choices lately.) My father points out that he was probably really, really pressured to write a sequel after the runaway success of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS as a novel and a movie, probably didn't want to do it in the first place, but I found it really hard to have any sympathy. It wasn't just a bad book, it was in my view an offensive one.

This enters into what seems to be a thornier aspect of bad books/bad art in general, which is its moral universe. Every work of art exists in a moral universe it's created (though I have to admit that I follow it better in somewhat linear--i.e. not purely visual--art forms). Now can good art be made into bad art simply by means of existing in an abhorrent moral universe? Sigh . . . I *really* need to see BIRTH OF A NATION. It sort of offends me to think that aesthetic has no moral dimensions, but on the other hand how could it? I mean, everything exists in the context in which it was made, but at no one time is there only one context.

My father also believes that HANNIBAL was simply a bad book. In it Dr. Lecter was invincible, did anything he set his mind to, whereas in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS his conflicts with difficult odds were in a counterbalance--watching them shift back and forth and *then* watching him eventually win was the pleasure of reading it. In this book you knew he'd fundamentally succeed at what he decided to do at all times, the only suspense was about what he would decide to do and precisely how it would come into conflict with all these things that other people wanted to do. Which is fair, I guess, and probably I didn't notice that as much while I was reading it simply because I expect less of the genre in the first place. And that totally needs to change. There are so many elements that go into defining "genre fiction," and thus far, for example, I've really liked every sci-fi book that my unapologetic sci-fi nerd friends have instructed me to read. There just haven't been that many of 'em.

And so . . . I like bad books with bad artistry, but not bad books with bad moral universes. And yet, I'm an artist myself, and am a lot more interested in getting into debates with people whose moral universes don't precisely jive with mine to see where the overlaps are and what I can understand--basically, I see myself as a lot more judgmental (there is some debate over the spelling of this word these days--"judgmental" or "judgemental"?) in the arts than in morality/ethics/politics. I can do an *if* I believed this, *then* I can see how this that and the other politics would become more important to me and I would have voted for Bush, and I'm incapable of believing that of art. To me, bad art is ultimately just bad art, and while I can generally explain why I believe it's more fundamentally wrong to make some artistic choices than to make some political choices, which I can see as simply a disagreement, even knowing those decisions offend and frighten me and have way wider repercussions.

WTF, mate?


At 10:12 AM, Blogger Connor said...

I don't have much that it really insightful to contribute... it does seem that, whatever the conventions of craft and structure that go into art, we know that the ultimate gauge of success is someone's opinion (or at least the best "concrete" gauge).

Politics, etc. are much more literal... presumably if you do x, people will live longer, have more to eat, stay where they are, or whatever.

In a way, your criterion for enjoying an art work reminds me comments (reasonable) people might make about different religious perspectives. There's still a fundamental logic at work, but at some point you're taking your perspective on faith, and ironically, that makes you less yielding.

It was interesting earlier this year to reread six volumes of the Dragonlance saga, which I loved when I was younger. On the one hand, I cannot fathom how I ever compared this series to Tolkien and Asimov (even while I was able to better appreciate the craft involved in all three). But I still enjoyed them. There was a compelling universe there, and that was all I needed, even though so much else was lacking.

At 5:47 AM, Blogger meridity said...

Although I agree with you about how Hannibal, in Hannibal, was unfairly set up to come out top, I don't agree that the last six chapters crapped out. Or, at least, I don't think they crapped out completely.

The situation that Clarice is left in at the end of Hannibal is exactly the situation that would have caused her the most horror and revulsion had she been confronted with the idea before the prolonged drugging and hypnosis. I think that the end is meant to be horrific; instead of just killing or maiming Clarice's body, he managed to take his craft further and maim her mind. That's what was terrifying to me; the idea that somebody can get into the mind of someone we can really admire and make them live and even worse, enjoy, a life that would normally be repellent to them.


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