Holiday Reading

Recently I had time on my hands to leave off the usual heavyweight books and sit down for more relaxing holiday reading. Beyond the experience of reading simply for enjoyment, it also showed the contrast that exists in fiction between extraordinary writing and horrible mediocrity. The two books that I mention here happen to be comparable in the sense that they both deal with investigative reporters of past crimes, but the analogy breaks down completely in the respective execution.

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We'll Meet Again
Mary Higgins Clark
369pp, Pocket Books

Fish in a Barrel

What manner of novel becomes a #1 New York Times bestseller and has the New York Times Book Review raving over as having a “diabolical plot [… prepared] so carefully and [executed] with such relish”? One, obviously, painstakingly researched, every detail checked, rechecked, and then checked again. It is unfortunate then, that the extent of research for We'll Meet Again appears to be limited to a Connecticut state travel guide.

Although the author may be known as a mystery writer, this book is much less a mystery than a fawning description of the New England aristocracy that she most likely yearns for. A world in which coffee is drunk from “demitasse cups,” live-in cooks are named Pedro, and which is populated by “attractive and socially desirable women.” One of sterile emotion and flat character. A world that she is eager to demonstrate her knowledge of in the most insipid detail. There are so many references to Interstate 95 and the Merritt parkway that one would hardly deny that Ms Clark must be intimately familiar with them.

It seems that MHC has a love affair with adjectives. What, really, is a “generous view,” and how exactly are “Virginia ham and Swiss cheese removed from a refrigerator with careful pleasure”? Please! The “dried-up” and “tearless” tautologies become “instantly arid”. Then there are these flourishing gems of literary style: “His prodigious memory bank instantly furnished the facts he was seeking.” In other words, he remembered? Or heart-rending emotion: “It was as though the entire time had been simply a dream sequence. Dream? No— nightmare!” Good grief! Could she possibly have been conscious of the delicious irony in naming her television station NAF TV? And what about the obsession with trivialities, such as the precise manner in which these socialites “throw the rest of a sandwich in the compactor.” Who cares?

But enough, because criticizing the literary style of MHC is like shooting fish in a barrel. Unfortunately the story itself is sparse and confused, and eminently comical. Sadistic doctors and evil HMOs are engaged in a conspiracy to kill expensive patients, and when the murder of one of the doctors is witnessed by his wife, she develops amnesia and is convicted of the crime. I can't believe anyone would have the gall to use the amnesia ploy again, but there you have it, MHC is pushing the boundaries of literature— right down the toilet.

A complete waste of time, unless you happen to live in Madison, Connecticut (where it ranks fourteenth in sales by Amazon), or if you like I-95.

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The Odessa File
Frederick Forsyth
Bantam Books


Thankfully there are writers like Frederick Forsyth, all of whose books are captivating. His novels are placed realistically in a developed historical context, so there is a real possibility of actually learning something from reading them. He has a knack for melding his fiction into this context, so that it is often hard to tell one from the other. The edition I read (not the one pictured here) had a note from the publisher saying that they intentionally would not clarify the distinction, with the one exception of affirming that the person of Eduard Roschmann did in fact exist. Presumably we would not have believed that the disgusting horrors attributed to this officer of the SS could in fact have been committed.

Because, obliquely, The Odessa File is a novel about the German SS (and to a lesser extent, the Arab-Israeli conflict) as seen through the eyes of a young German reporter of the post-WWII generation. It is so refreshing that Forsyth does not permit himself the usual gross characterizations, instead indicating distinctions in the acts of the SS, the German Wehrmacht, and Latvian collaborators. At the same time, it is not an historical novel per se. There is a palpitating story that takes place in the early sixties, that unfolds surely, without dwelling or stalling, before coming to a dramatic close. But again, the story, surreptitously, brings one that much closer to beginning to understand how the horrors of the Second World War might have happened.

It is hard to appreciate just how much research must have gone into the writing, as Mr Forsyth calls seemingly effortlessly on details of geography, history, language, the German political system, culture, automobiles, and weaponry. It is in some way similar to Tom Clancy's style, except that Forsyth's knowledge extends beyond weaponry alone and it is not what the novel is about. The detail is all beautifully woven into the story and contributes to it.

This truly is one of those books that will be very hard to put down.

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The Picture of Dorian Gray
and three stories

Oscar Wilde
305pp, Signet Classic

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Every so often one has the good fortune of discovering an author whose work reaffirms all that is appreciable in literature by exemplifying its worst. Oscar Wilde, after reading whose novel and two fairy tales, quickly obviates any further need or desire to be further acquainted. The knowledge found on the cover of my paperback edition, between the obligatory sickly hagiography that usually betrays the expectation it inspires, that The Picture of Dorian Gray was apparently the author's only fruitful attempt at a ‘full-length’ novel, leaves one snickering ante facto in not entirely facetious gratitude. Wilde was seemingly more at home in the realm of fairy tales, and this 217-page full-length novel not by itself finding ground to fill the space between the covers, finds itself supported by three samples of that genre.

One might be forgiven for assuming that the novel portends to explore an emotional or philosophical metaphor of a relationship between the eponymous painting and its subject, but the implied exploration is unfortunately mostly specious. The metaphor, to be sure, is there, but it is a mere seed that never takes root or grows out of its entirely obvious and superficial form, and the story thus fails to fulfil its promise.

Furthermore, the filling leaves one with a bad aftertaste. None of the three characters have any endearing features to redeem themselves for the gall they otherwise freely spew. ‘Lord Henry’ in particular has no characterizing dimension other than denigration of everything else in the form of dull pseudowitticisms, from which comparison we take it the aristocrat was intended to benefit. We learn his contempt of clergy (bishops “don't think”), stockbrokers (“even a stock-broker can gain a reputation for being civilized”), dowagers (they are “overdressed”), academicians (tedious), the middle class (not modern), Americans, marriage, women, and Jews (I don't believe any mention of the religion ever lacks the adjective “fat”). The misogyny in particular is so pungent and the female characters so weak that the protagonists cannot otherwise but treat them with the contempt that they do. If indeed “women are decorative” it is merely because the men do not have a vision that sees beyond superficialities. This is no parody of aristocratic vanity (in the style of Thackeray, for instance) so one quickly finds oneself wishing for one of these maligned targets of Lord Henry's dull wit to return the favor with a dull but well-deserved kick in the ass.

When the characters are not railing against the world, they are theorizing about it, but the obvious inconsistencies and utter inanity of the theories make them impossible to consider seriously. To give an example, and not have one character take the brunt of all the book's failings, the artist Basil Hallward states first (speaking of his own work) that “every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not the sitter,” but six pages later that “an artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them.” A story dealing ostentatiously with a profound relationship between ars and artis, in which the artist doesn't remember from one moment to the next whether or not he put feeling in his art, reveals that its author has lost control of his subject. Othertimes the theories are merely silly and quite impossible to take at face value. What to make, for example, of the idea that “beauty is a form of genius— is higher, indeed, than genius, as it needs no explanation,” or that “people say sometimes that beauty is superficial. That may be so, but at least it is not so superficial as thought is.” This is just tripe without considerable meaning.

Within this theorizing there are faint reverberations reaching toward some oblique philosophy of hedonism, but never quite advancing beyond a mere slogan. Without actually doing the work of fully expounding the philosophy, or having the courage to fully sound its implications, in the way that for example de Sade did, the author cannot reasonably expect us to sympathize or find the actions of his characters anything but wholly unsatisfying and their reactions rather balmy.

Wilde quite clearly has no desire (charitably assuming it is not from a lack of potential) to prepare and construct a plot. One of the adjunct characters, Jim, whose sister Sibyl later commits suicide over the protagonist, finds out he is a bastard son, his mother was orphaned, and forgives her (what for, we are left to guess), all within the space of three quarter page. Dorian's swings of attitude toward Sybil from ignorance through love through despisement through sorrow to self-forgiveness are so extreme and irrational that they make a pastiche of emotion. Jim's completely unfounded anger toward Dorian is so unrealistically sudden and out of proportion that it is obvious how Jim's fears will be realized and that there will be a confrontation. There is no mystery, less a sense of a world to discover than of being dragged along by an uninterested parent. The rhetorical questions Dorian asks in his histrionic despair are answered immediately, it is for me simply to get in, sit down, shut up, and hold on.

Even more fundamentally, the characters are shallow, undeveloped, and quite stereotypical, the dialog stilted and unrealistic— altogether a surprisingly unsophisticated style, especially in the light of the beautiful writing of his contemporaries. Dialog has a tendency to spin off into unrelated tangents that are unceremoniously and artificially ‘snapped back’ to the main thread. Henry's inability to speak in any other form than witless aphorism is at first merely unfunny, then quickly boring, later irritating, and finally not bearing further reading. And this is unfortunately barely the only character development in the story at all, the only other characters having little strength of will of their own to resist mimicking this trite ascerbicism.

If the book has revealed anything at all, it is not a deeper analysis of art or hedonism, but a much more animal homoeroticism. Dorian Gray is much more than anything else a love story with the trimmings (envy and a murder-suicide), and all the less respectful because it dares not speak its name. Female emotions are contemptible, but the same expressions of liking (Wilde can never bring himself to call it more), admiration of beauty, and extreme flattery by men towards other men, are accepted naturally and not subject to this contempt.

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