Are Modern Books Too Long?

You may have noticed that books have become longer in the last few years. Fellow crime fiction connoisseur Margot Kinberg recently did a strawpoll of crime novels and found that since 2000 more and more of them fall in the 300+ pages category. Others have noticed the reappareance of ‘chunksters’ across all genres – and they seem to be walking away with quite a few literary prizes too (The Luminaries, Wolf Hall, Au-revoir là-haut, The Goldfinch). Does that fly in the face of the much-vaunted evidence that our attention spans are getting shorter and that we spend far too much time online? Are people perhaps reading fewer books per year, but then committing more time to the ones that they do buy and read? I’ve read four doorstoppers this month. Well, we had 2 weeks of rainy school holidays, so I couldn’t get much else done. Plus I’ve had no Internet/phone/TV for the last day and a half (that’s what happens when everything is tied up in a single provider), so there was nothing I could do but read. I’ve already given my unvarnished opinion of ‘The Secret History’, but the other three chunky books never felt too long. Because I am so far behind on my reviews, I will discuss all three of them in this post, but they each deserve a far more detailed review.

farfromtreeAndrew Solomon: Far from the Tree

We’ve all done it as parents: wondered ‘where on earth does my child get that from?’ or ‘what changeling has been put into my cradle?’  Some families go far beyond that: they have children who are exceptional in all sorts of ways – they may be dafe or autistic or  child prodigies, they may be severely disabled or dwarfs or trapped in the wrong kind of gender. They may be difficult to love, like children who are the result of rape, or who are schizophrenic and violent, or who turn to crime.  There is a chapter for each of these situations in this monumental non-fiction book, a labour of love arising from Solomon’s own experience of clashes with his parents about being gay, and based on 10 years of interviews with families all over the United States. About a third of the book are footnotes and references, so it’s not quite as long as it looks, but I could not get my fill of all the personal stories shared here. It is well-documented, yet very readable, because it is all about real people and their very moving, often very difficult stories. Let me give you just one example. After meeting the Klebold family, whose son Dylan was one of the teenagers responsible for the Columbine High School killings, the author says:

The better I came to know the Klebolds, the more deeply mystified I became. Sue Klebold’s kindness would be the answered prayer of many a neglected or abused child, and Tom’s bullish enthusiasm would lift anyone’s tired spirits. Among the many families I’ve met in writing this book, the Klebolds are among those I would be most game to join.

And this is what I love about the book – it doesn’t preach or give solutions. It admits bafflement when confronted with human behaviour and with the enduring power of love.

I’ve heard some criticism that the research is not quite so thorough in parts, that the author sides with one school of thought or another (for instance, there is quite a bit of conflict within the deaf-mute community whether signing or learning spoken language is the way to go, or within the dwarf community whether limb-lengthening is an acceptable surgical procedure). Yet for a reader like me who is new to most of these conditions, it was an eye-opening introduction. It is a popular science book, but one brimming over with emotions and lovely quotes. It will open up your mind and heart, and will make you question your own tolerance of difference and your own power of acceptance. My favourite non-fiction book of the year, no question!

HitlerTimur Vermes: Er ist wieder da  (translated as ‘Look Who’s Back’ & published by MacLehose Press).

The instant I saw that sober black and white cover with the proverbial moustache, I was intrigued. This is actually the shortest of my chunksters: about 400 pages in the original German hardback, and I think it’s just about the perfect length. Too short and it would have been superficial, longer and the satire would have started to feel tired and overblown. As it is, it’s a very funny book, and you keep reading on to see just how far the author will go with his conceit.

Just imagine that Hitler had not died in his bunker in 1945, but had instead gone into some kind of cryogenic coma and woken up in 2011. How would he cope with present-day society? Surprisingly well. In this hard-hitting satire and rather brave book, the author can be quite savage in his criticism of many of the political and social trends in today’s Germany, including day-time television, the cult of celebrities, personal branding, party in-fighting and well-meaning liberalism. Of course, this is perhaps a more humane and less obsessive fictional Hitler, but the implications are chilling. Especially when he agrees (or you agree) with many of the things being said about the euro, certain EU countries needing to pull their weight, rampant consumerism and paying lip-service to ecology.

truenovelMinae Mizumura: A True Novel

To say this is ‘Wuthering Heights’ transposed into a Japanese landscape is not quite doing the book full justice. The story is, indeed, very closely based on the characters, the plot and even the narrative devices (story within a story) of the original, but there are many other influences at work here too.  Tanizaki’s ‘The Makioka Sisters’, ‘The Great Gatsby’, Dazai Osamu’s ‘The Setting Sun, and Chekhov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’ are all invoked here, whether directly or not.
The leisurely pace and many digressions bring to mind a Russian or Victorian novel (unlike the brevity of the original Brontë novel), and there may be a little bit of sagging in the middle. The story within a story can feel a bit artificial at times (I was puzzled why there was an additional layer beyond the Lockwood/Nelly equivalent), but it does provide us with even more questions about whose account of events we can trust, just how reliable each narrator is, or just how much we can know of the truth. Above all, I enjoyed the sense of place: the faded beauty of a resort like Karuizawa, the spookiness of the foggy lake, pampas grass and abandoned cottages, in contrast with the onslaught of modern developments and tourists.

Traditional Western villa, Karuizawa, from
Traditional Western villa, Karuizawa, from

It’s this contrast between old and new, between tradition and modernity, between affluence and poverty, which makes this much more of a social fresco than the original work. This is also a panorama of post-war Japan, the initial crushing defeat, followed by the Japanese economic miracle, and then the burst of the bubble and the lost decade of stagnation (just one decade at the time the book was written). There is also quite a bit in the prologue about the perception of Japanese people in the United States and the often troubled relationship between the two countries.

Impeccably translated from Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter (and believe me, it is not easy to convey Fumiko’s quaint, old-fashioned style of speaking in English) and presented in a beautiful 2 volume box set with atmospheric pictures of the locations, this edition is a work of art. I am still floating in the world created by the author, because, of course, we all dream of a Heathcliff and of a love that defies all conventions.


5 Reasons Why ‘The Secret History’ Disappointed Me

Don’t you just love those blog posts that list ‘7 things you have to do before you eat breakfast’ or ‘Top 10 Ways to Leave a Book in a Bathtub’ or ’76 Reasons Why It Would Have Paid You to Answer Our Ad A Few Months Ago’ (this last one is a genuine title)?

The_Secret_History,_front_coverDespite some bold claims that the lists posts are getting tiresome, most search engines and people browsing the internet still seem to love them. Personally, I think they are lazy, overrated… but a great way to summarise and be succinct. Particularly when you are talking about a book that most readers seem to love, but which I personally found rather disappointing. Perhaps it is also a sly response to John Mullan’s article, labelling the book a ‘modern classic’. I am talking, of course, about Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’.

1)      Main characters are pretentious twats – this comes through despite the main narrator Richard’s biased reporting. Now, I have nothing against campus novels and a bit of elitism myself: my set of friends in Cambridge were possibly viewed with an equal mix of envy and disdain. But I like to think that we had some redeeming features to offset our propensity to quote in foreign languages. Besides, we were quoting in foreign languages because we were in fact foreign, not because we were trying to be glamorous and different.

2)      Too long and repetitive. The book could have done with some serious editing: there was too much waffle, skirting around issues, which had nothing to do with obliqueness and everything to do with inability to get to the point. I found myself longing to skip passages or skim-read them. Yes, there are some passages of outstanding prose and self-deprecating humour. I just wish there had been more of these and less of the self-indulgent ones.

3)      It’s been done before – and much better. Need I mention ‘Brideshead Revisited’, ‘The Dead Poets’ Society’, ‘Crime and Punishment’ or ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’?

4)      No clear vision and story arc . The first part of the novel seemed to be building up towards something, and it certainly is clever to foreshadow the impeding tragedy. But then it just fell to pieces, as if it couldn’t quite decide where it was going. I refuse to believe this was a deliberate stylistic ploy. If it was, then it was a rather suicidal and over-long way of proving a point.

5)      The friendship and deep love of beauty did not sound quite believable. Again, perhaps this was deliberate, showing how these young people were deluding themselves into believing they were special or ‘chosen’, but I could not help feeling that they were shallow in their affections as well as their minds, and that they would not have supported each other in a meaningful way throughout this ordeal. If you compare with the original Greek myths (to whom this book is supposedly so deeply indebted): there is real tragedy, real depth, tough choices, blind fate in there. While in this case, the protagonists have brought their problem upon themselves and the tragedy feels skin-deep. Except for the poor farmer – whatever happened to his family?

Maybe if I’d read it back in 1992, when I was a student, I would have been more kindly disposed towards it? But I think not. Cult books have never quite rocked my boat. Maybe I have never wanted to be part of a cult that will have me…