Sunday, August 16, 2009

Two Novels that I can't find the will to finish

Franzen and Rakoff: Two Novelists

Rebecca Stuhr

I have recently looked forward to reading two novels and find that I can't finish either of them. Both of them I picked up at least two times more than I really wanted to and then finally said, nah. It just isn't worth it. And I like to finish books. What happens if you don't care how they end? The first is A Fortunate Age by Joanna Smith Rakoff (Scribner, 2009. Burling, Smith Memorial: PS3618.A437 F67 2009 ). It has been said that it is an homage to Mary McCarthy's The Group. McCarthy's group members were all Vassar graduates and Rakoff's are Oberlin graduates who are living in New York. For all Oberlin students and alumni, the references to Oberlin buildings and practices could be fun, but the characaters won't make them nostalgic for their own Oberlin buddies. These Obies are artsy and literary but lacking in soul or a spirit of community beyond the end of their lovely noses. There is no compelling plot, and what there is of it is mostly moved along (as opposed to revealed) by dialogue, which one does not get lost in. I got about 3/4ths of the way through and set it aside for a book by Jonathan Lethem, a favorite author of mine. This is one of his recent novels, You Don't Love me Yet (Doubleday, 2007). This novel features a group of aging and emotionally sagging young adults in Los Angeles. They are part of a band on the verge of making it big. I stopped reading just after their first real concert takes place. The bass player is a young woman who has fallen for "the complainer" who she meets via her part in a phone service for people with complaints, which in reality is part of a performance art project. She meets him, breaking the rules of the service and project, and finds that he is an older, enormous man. She goes on to get sick drunk and spends days and hours making love with him... barely making it to her concert in one piece. The band's performance is also part of a performance art project by the same artist empressario--the project which goes wrong but the band is a success--the words of the bands songs are all words that the bass player collected from the complainer, writing them down on a yellow pad and handing them off to the band's song writer (a wraith of a young man who doesn't remember to eat but is fed at rehearsals by the drummer). The singer is the bass player's former boyfriend. He works at the zoo and has abducted a kangaroo that is ailing and he is keeping it in his bathtub. I know it sounds fascinating and quirky, but Lethem must have been feeling cynical about novel writing. This novel has a hard unattractive feel to it, or maybe he wrote this under a contract deadline-- it lacks any joy or humor or beauty (at least what I recognize as humor, joy, and beauty) and, as of yet, I'm not sure what the message might be. I will give him another try, but this one I won't finish (and it's short!).

What am I reading that I like? Jonathan Franzen's collection of essays called How to Be Alone, John Buschman's dense Dismantling the Public Sphere (more about this one later), Matthew Battle's Library: An Unquiet History (more about this one as well), and finally Gary Snyder's No Nature: New and Selected Poems. I love Gary Snyder.

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