and how does that make you feel?

Of all the books people have raved to me about recently, the only one I really enjoyed was The Magicians, by Lev Grossman. What a great book that is! I like it a lot. A few years ago I wote a story called ‘Fucking Narnia’ that was pretty much based on the same idea, of adults from this world somehow accessing Narnia, and having to deal with it, as adults. My story really didn’t work (shame, because obviously it had a great title), but The Magicians would have blown it out of the water anyway, because it has such a well-realised setting, with proper characters and insane plotlines, which are nonetheless completely plausible within the logic of the world(s). I think the real genius of it was the way Grossman did the Harry Potter/Narnia mash-up thing. It’s the kind of story that could have been really-diculous, but ends up being just perfect.

(That reminds me of something Michel Gondry said about making art. It was something along the lines of, ‘you know you’ve got a good idea when it feels somewhat ridiculous.’ Furnish me with the actual quote, anyone? He said it in the DVD extras for The Science of Sleep, a film with the most beautiful fluffy animation and lovely multi-lingual appeal.)

Two of the other books that have been the subject of rave reviews lately are 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, and A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan.

1Q84, as I have written about here, I found extremely bland and, whilst I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was boring, I would say it was flat and completely forgettable. For me, it had none of the impact of Murakami’s earlier work, none of the mysterious other-wordliness (despite being set in an actual Other World), and none of the emotional connection I’d been hoping for.

I finished A Visit from the Goon Squad last night, and was pretty disappointed with that, too. It’s well-written, no doubt about that. It’s very well written, indeed, so you hardly notice it flowing by. But again, it made very little impact on me. I felt that I’d seen it all before. Specifically, it reminded me of A M Homes’ writing, which, to be fair, I’d liked a lot a few years ago, but which now strikes me as a bit too self-consciously ‘literary’.

I mean, what’s wrong with a linear chronology, and one or two characters that you care about? That you feel something for? What is the purpose of writing, if not to connect you to other worlds and other people? For me, if a novel or story doesn’t provide that emotional connection, then I don’t care how clever or well written it is – it has failed in the fundamental task of all literature. One of my favourite writers of all time is Philip K Dick, because all his stories connect you emotionally to the rest of the world – to the universe – to PKD’s own messed-up head, if nothing else. Frightening, disturbing, even funny – but they never leave you feeling flat. Another writer I love is Rikki Ducornet. Her novel Gazelle is one of the most stunning books I have ever read. It made me feel a thousand things, stirred up memories and desires, and connected me to a place inside my own self, where I finally understood something (a particular, personal thing) more deeply than I ever had before.

Of course, this ’emotional connection’ is a subjective experience, and I’m sure I can find hundreds of people who were deeply moved by books that left me feeling nothing. To me, though, it all comes down to the characters. A novel doesn’t have to have a linear plot, but I do think a book has a better chance of connecting with a reader if it has strong characters, precise language, and concerns itself with fundamental conflicts of the human heart. Love, fear, death, betrayal, regret, pain.  Sometimes writers seem to forget this. They get lost in their quest to be brilliant, and end up producing convoluted books that don’t seem anything like storytelling to me.

When I was seventeen, I read The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles for the first time. I remember I stayed up until three a.m. finishing it, and when it was finished, I cried and held it to my heart. I felt bereft that the story was over. The characters and the conflicts they embodied seemed very real and powerful to me. I wanted to keep reading it forever.

It’s not often that I feel that way about a book these days, but I still long to encounter characters I believe in, who I care about, and who seem real to me. That is more important to me than making some clever statement about the state of politics or post-modern anxieties or the world after 9-11. I want to read books that make me feel something. That’s why, for me, The Magicians is a far better book than 1Q84.

What books have you enjoyed recently? What would you recommend to this jaded reader?

8 Replies to “and how does that make you feel?”

  1. I think you’re absolutely right about that ’emotional connection’ being a subjective experience. Which is why I rarely recommend books, films etc to people. Goon squad resonated with me emotionally, despite the elaborate structure, and I’m quite fond of that kind of multiple viewpoint thing anyway, but I found it kind of hypnotising. Conversely, I tried to read that John Fowles novel and couldn’t finish it (although I enjoyed ‘The Collector’ which is pretty seriously disturbing). If you haven’t read Ishiguro’s ‘Never let me go’ I’d also recommend that as the other book I read this year that really moved me. Otherwise, try ‘A Fraction of the Whole’ by Steve Toltz.

  2. And I didn’t think Goon Squad was bad, as such. But there was never a point where I really cared about anyone, and in the end I felt that I had gained nothing from reading it. On the other hand, the prose itself was enough to keep me reading until the end (in the increasingly desperate hope that something would happen) – you’re right to describe it as hypnotic. I would try something else by her. Maybe it was just this story that didn’t interest me.

    I read ‘Never Let Me Go’ a few years ago and loved it. I really like Ishiguro’s writing in general. He is subtle and writes fascinating characters. ‘The Remains of the Day’ is another one (not a spec fic one) with deeply engaging and memorable characters. That’s all about things that don’t happen, roads not taken – and it is testament to how brilliant it is that I have a clear memory of the characters and story even though I haven’t read it for 20 years.

    Where are the books that I will still remember and cherish after another 20 years?

    Haven’t read the Steve Toltz, so I’ll put that on my list, thank you! I would really like to find whole new worlds of writers and books I’ve never come across before.

  3. On the subject of books that have had quite an impact and that I always return to thinking about, I would suggest Dhalgren by Samuel Delaney although it felt more like being carried down a literary river rather than reading a story (I am still not entirely sure what it was about but then I think that doesn’t really matter as it is more about the journey).

    Thanks for putting me on to Matt Ruff and Christopher Priest. Obviously I would have to recommend them to you if you hadn’t already fulfilled that role in reverse.

  4. If you haven’t previously read it, I would recommend Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle – for Merricat’s vivid narrative viewpoint, and also the relationship between the two sisters.

  5. Oh, Kate, I LOVE that book! I simultaneously want to read it a hundred times to see how it works, and to leave it untouched so I can always enjoy it as a reader. It is a superb novel.

    Neil, I am reading something by Matt Ruff at the moment – Sewer, Gas, and Electric. Everything he writes is in a totally different genre to everything else he writes, which is quite a feat, I think. I have not read any Samuel Delaney, and will put that on my list, thank you 🙂

  6. Half of a Yellow Sun had me in bits, but I think most people have already read that!
    Best children’s fantasy really written for grown ups – The Last Unicorn by Peter S Beagle. Best strangely prescient, China-as-new-world-superpower SF – China Mountain Zhang by Maureen F McHugh. Best short stories about life as a Native American today – The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist-fight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie. Major caveat – the first two have been favourites since I was about 17 so I have no objectivity about how good they are! While reading Norwegian Wood a Japanese student recommended Banana Yoshimoto – I like her.
    This is reminding me how few books I have read in recent years…. damn job. Will have to take advantage of all my new-found free time! Errrr….

  7. Hi Jeni 🙂 I loved Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto. What a great name she has, as well! I seem to recall trying something else by her and not enjoying it as much.

    I haven’t read Peter S Beagle, or Sherman Alexie. Although I would recommend Louise Erdrich’s ‘love Medicine’ for an amazing insight into life on the reservations. Maureen McHugh is one I’ve read a little of. Will put these ones on my list, too.

    This is good! Keep ’em coming!

  8. Louise Erdrich, yes! For classic native American fiction you cd also try Ceremony by Leslie Marmion Silko and House Made of Dawn by thingy Scott thingy – didn’t get on that well with the latter but it’s the one that won the big prize (Pulitzer?) so I should maybe give it another go…

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