Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Challenging literature ... and Saturday

Andrew Ervin raises an interesting point in a post attached to my previous one: Why do "so many critics (and reviewers) feel the need to apologize for so-called "difficult" literature. I've certainly been guilty of it in the past. 'This is a brilliant novel but a challenging one.' When did difficulty become a problem? Shouldn't we be advocating some literature because it challenges us?"
I don't think we should apologize. But we shouldn't think of difficulty as aliterary value in itself.There has to be some reward for facing up to the challenge. Ulysses is challenging, but well worth whatever effort it takes to read it. Tatiana Tolstoya's The Slynx, on the other hand, poses no particular challenge other than having slog through the gloom.
But let's consider the most problematic novel I've reviewed recently, Ian McEwan's Saturday. The more time that elapses since my reading it, the less I like it. There's nothing difficult about it, but it is problematic. One problem is the clinically detached style, which has the effect of telling you -- and showing -- that the protagonist is an admirable man, but somehow manages not to let you actually feelthat he is.
I said in my review that any objection one can raise to the book can be easily countered as fitting in perfectly with its design. That the protagonist should just happen to be a neurosurgeon who just happens to be accosted by a tough who he happens to notice shows symptoms of Huntington's disease is all pretty coincidental. But one of the themes of the book is that life is grounded in randomness. Yet another implication throughout the book is that everything is governed by iron-clad natural laws that determine what's going to happen. This mix of randomness and determinism is seriously flawed logically.
Then there are the kids. There's the daughter who seems to have gathered material for her first collection of poems by sleeping around. But who has genuinely fallen in love with the guy who has made her pregnant. Again, it all fits if everything is grounded in randomness.
As for the son, he has dropped out of school and wants to be a bluesman. But his grandfather happens to know Jack Bruce (formerly of Cream) who listens to the kid's playing and encourages him. Then there's the master class with Eric Clapton that someone gets him into, and the gig in Manhattan that someone arranges. We're a long way from the Mississippi mud. An overprivileged twit with connections singing the blues. But the blues are grounded in the grittiest of human suffering. We're not talking about learning to write fugues.
It's all perfectly plausible, but it's also missing something, and has a certain smugness to it that, for me at least, spoils everything.
Nevertheless, it is, as I said in my review, fascinating, and worth reading for that reason alone. It's one of those books each and every reader will have to make up his or her own mind about.

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