Sunday, February 2, 2014

6 Bad Books by Great Authors

No one can be brilliant all the time. All six of these authors were or are brilliant and have written true literary masterpieces. But these particular works are simply not up to par.

Our Mutual Friend - Charles Dickens
I have never felt so betrayed by an author than when I read this, Dickens's last novel. Those who do not wish to know details of the plot, read no further. The reason I felt so betrayed was this: in the book, an apparently irrevocable break occurs between the wealthy Mr. Boffin and his secretary John Rokesmith. Bella Wilfer, protegee of the Boffins who had previously been on the hunt for a wealthy bachelor, instead marries Rokesmith, in the wake of his unjust dismissal. All well and good. Except that the "unjust dismissal" is all playacting for the purpose of teaching the adult Bella that wealth isn't everything and she was being nasty and mercenary, wanting to marry a husband who could support her. So, she marries Rokesmith, who is in fact, extremely wealthy, and has his baby, while living in poverty for a full year. She is, of course, very grateful - what could be more delightful than to be deceived by one's husband and dearest friends so that one's motives could be oh so condescendingly tested? The misogyny of tricking a woman into marriage (and sex - she gets pregnant immediately) by subterfuge and moralizing playacting is disgusting enough, but it's unforgivable to trick the reader along with Bella. The infantilization of Bella is equally the infantilization of the reader.

What to read instead: Dombey and Son, The Pickwick Papers

Memories of My Melancholy Whores - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Marquez's latest work is a short novella about a 90-year-old journalist who decides to reward himself for his longevity with the gift of a young, virginal prostitute. The madam drugs the young woman and the unnamed journalist spends every night watching her sleep during which he believes he has fallen in love with her. Marquez seems to be aiming for a sort of late redemption for his protagonist, who has spent his life frequenting brothels and eschewing love. Leaving aside both the delusional insanity of loving a sleeping body and the extreme misogyny of this vision of male old age, Marquez's writing simply lacks his usual evocative loveliness and the story is neither convincing nor moving.

What to read instead: Love in the Time of Cholera, One Hundred Years of Solitude

What Maisie Knew - Henry James
This novel reads like an exercise in experimental perspectives, essentially because that is what it is. Though many critics have praised it for its technical dexterity (a notable exception being Nabokov who found it dreadful), it is precisely that dexterity that makes the book feel so extremely sterile. Maisie is the product of a deeply troubled marriage, one which ends in divorce, leaving her stranded among a group of dysfunctional adults, both her parents and her parents' lovers. James intended the novel as a condemnation of parental irresponsibility, but this criticism is rather too baldly illustrated and a bit rich coming from a bachelor, who some biographers have theorized was either terrified of sex or gay; in either case, James never had responsibility for any children. And that is perhaps why Maisie is an incredibly unconvincing heroine - a blank canvas of girlhood with James's opinions stamped thereon, rendering the whole slightly grotesque and unnatural.

What to read instead: The Wings of the Dove, The Portrait of a Lady

Alfred and Emily - Doris Lessing 
Lessing's final work examines her parents' marriage, the first half a fictional rendering of what their lives might have been without the rude interruption of World War I and the second half a memoir of her parents' actual marriage. Though as beautifully written as Lessing's great novels, the book suffers both from its structure and from its origins. The two-part structure is too spare and the scope too narrow. The subject matter is obviously personally meaningful for the author, but one struggles to care very deeply for characters that remain enigmatic and that are, for the reader, mere characters, rather than living, breathing people. It is extremely sad that the last work of this great writer should feel so very much like a mere appendix to her oeuvre.

What to read instead: The Golden Notebook, Mara and Dann

Divisadero - Michael Ondaatje
Divisadero feels like two, or possibly three novels uncomfortably mashed together, which may very well be what it is. What starts as an exploration of the troubled lives of a dysfunctional family that is broken apart by an act of violence soon unravels, the characters change in puzzling and sometimes downright inexplicable ways, and a new subject, a French poet, is clunkily introduced. There are rare moments of lyrical writing, but overall, this novel feels unfinished and muddled.

What to read instead: Anil's Ghost, The English Patient

The Lord of the Rings - J.R.R. Tolkien
This trilogy is way, way, way too long. Length doesn't have to be a problem - it isn't in the case of War and Peace, or Middlemarch, and it also isn't in the case of many great fantasy novels, from Harry Potter to A Song of Ice and Fire. The problem here is that the trilogy is padded with so much material that is unnecessary, from endless descriptions of endless meadows and forests, to veritable mountains of personality-less characters and places they never go to. But a far greater problem is the trilogy's intense seriousness. The charming sense of humor that makes The Hobbit such a good read is completely absent in the trilogy and it is sorely missed. Wordy, long, and solemn almost to the point of self-parody.

What to read instead: The Hobbit, "On Fairy-Stories"

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