Thursday 30 April 2009

Vitriol, I has it

Remember when I was reading 6 books at once? Me too. It wasn't pretty, and not just because there were too many books in play; of the 6, I hated one, and was alternately pleased and disappointed by another. Both of the books I'm referring to were short story collections, so it's not entirely their authors' faults; nothing short of 400 pages of sustained YARN can truly satisfy me these days.

The Paper Door and Other Stories by Shiga Naoya
I was SO excited to discover this at a local bookstore (no, not my own) because I've had it on my mental TBR list for years now. Naoya was a literary disciple of Soseki Natsume, who is one of my favourite writers and so I assumed Naoya would be comparable, at least in terms of quality.

Wrong. I put way too much pressure on Naoya. This poor guy could have helped himself by symbolically killing his teacher in some way; instead, he was so overwhelmed by Soseki's brilliance that he wrote almost nothing until after his teacher died and I suspect he missed out on the best years of his writing life for doing so.

The Paper Door and Other Stories wasn't bad; indeed, it was quite good at points but the energy and beauty weren't sustained and I found a number of the stories to be frustratingly similar to one another. Most annoying, Naoya's characters seemed to feel only "loneliness" (his - or the translator's - word, not mine), and never anything else. I don't know about you, but I think "lonely" isn't the most evocative of adjectives.

I think I'd read more of Naoya's work if it were presented to me, but I don't think I'll seek any out.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
Yes, I know, I'm a little late to the party on this one. I think Carver's heyday was in the early 90s; at least that's when I recall all my friends raving about him; I once even found a collection of his works in the Halifax Public Library sporting in abundance the very recognizable handwriting of my friend S. But I resisted the hype, as I tend to.

But recently, I thought I'd finally give him a try to see what all the fuss was about, because a bunch of his stuff came into the store, including two copies of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The best I can say is this: thank goodness it was really short.

At first, I felt the same sort of nothing reading this that I felt reading The Virgin Suicides. But that comfortable enough nothing too soon turned into exasperation, and ultimately disgust.

It was just so boring. Aggressively boring. The stories were all very similar, and all about characters who were usually despicable, but never interestingly so. As far as I'm concerned, this is unforgivable because as any reviewer, blogger, lit critic, half-way competent fiction-writer and Erasmus knows: it's much easier to bring the vitriol with passion and originality than to bring the praise with the same.

In one or two cases, I could see where Cormac McCarthy (in The Road) was lifting Carver's style directly and then turning it up to 11, to which I say: if you're going to be bad, at least do so with gusto, like McCarthy does; at least, have an interesting idea, like McCarthy does! I have new respect for McCarthy's brand of bad, because at least The Road didn't cause my synapses to stop firing out of sheer disinterest.

I think I'm going to stay away from the short stories for awhile...which, of course, pushes my projected completion date on the Henry James collection into 2017. At least there are about eleventy-thousand good novels for me to read in the meantime.


Yuri... said...

What can I say - WOW. Positive words about Cormac McCarthy appearing on Bookphilia! It will take a while to come to terms with this...

Meanwhile, if Carver compares poorly to your opinion of McCarthy, I may just give it a miss (I apparently also floated obliviously through his "heyday").

I hope the next pages you turn bring more pleasure...

Rohan Maitzen said...

I've only read a couple of Carver stories, but I think "A Small Good Thing" is quite wonderful.

Sarah said...

I haven't read Carver yet, I hope I enjoy him more than you do.

I wouldn't give up on short stories completely- Gogol, Henry James, Saki, Angela Carter, Alice Munro, A S Byatt, Joyce Carol Oates and David Malouf all write some wonderful ones.

Bookphilia said...

Yuri: the reading since has been infinitely better - must be the blessing you sent me.

Rohan: If I ever check out that Carver story, it'll only be because you recommended it.

Sarah: I haven't given up on short stories completely but it's been so long since I really enjoyed any that I definitely require a sabbatical.