Over the weekend, I reread Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald, an inspiration if there ever was one. Does anyone else find it wonderful that she did not start publishing novels until she was 60? And then what novels! For economy of language, wit, clarity, and compassion at all the crap life piles onto people who are just trying to be, who can touch her? She stands alone. I am also very fond of The Bookshop, Human Voices, and The Golden Child. Then I started reading Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch by Dai Sijie, whose Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress I loved. I’m finding this book harder going, partly because I don’t really like the character, I mean this not as literary criticism but simply as a statement of personal preference: I prefer books with at least one character I can like, if not love.
This is why I couldn’t stand The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which I read as quickly as possible. In order to get it over with. Because it has many other problems besides that there is only one likable character in the book (a minor one who takes up very little ink); because the voice betrays no awareness on the part of the writer of any morality whatsoever; because the book itself is amoral; because there are so many little details about life that are just plain wrong, so wrong that one wonders if Donna Tartt is alive. For example, the nonsense with the dog. You can’t take a dog on a bus trip and feed it Danishes. If you do, it will experience violent intestinal distress. Dogs are funny that way; they’ll eat anything, but if you change their diet suddenly, you’ll be sorrier than you ever knew you could be. All the nonsense about Las Vegas and the description of gazing up at the stars? Ahem. YOU CAN’T SEE STARS IN LAS VEGAS. Not ever. Never. The lights are too bright. That was one of the things that made it hard to live there. Has Donna Tartt ever been to Las Vegas? There are many more like this. These are tiny details, but when writers get them wrong, they erode their credibility. Some of the writing seems lazy–too many adverbs, too many clichés. Also, there is very little incentive to keep turning the page because the author tells you every single detail. Of every thought, feeling, action. The book is so crammed with detail that there’s no room for you to make any inference, which gets boring. And then the coincidences piled upon coincidences. Like Deux ex machina, except they’re usually problems, not solutions. I used to think I was alone in this opinion, but then a writer in my fabulous writing group said no, she’d heard that critics weren’t digging it, and then I saw this. I did like The Secret History, although at the time, I had the same morality objection.
Not that writers must be priests (although if they write like this, then I welcome the brethren) or religious or even spiritual, but I believe the best writers are, like the rest of us, working out their salvation in this life, which means they have some awareness of some greater good, some higher meaning, some purpose above and beyond the exigencies of daily life and the fun of mocking people. They have lived and learned, which means they have suffered the inevitable sorrows of life, and they have sinned, which means they have, like the rest of us, done stupid or mean or cruel or vengeful or drunken or drug-addled or even criminal things, and so they have compassion for those who do likewise, and are coming from an understanding that we’re all in this together. We’re all just walking down this road.
When I think about the books I love the most, part of what I love is peeking through the window into the writer’s view of life and all. Into the writer’s very soul. But when the view from the window is life is horrible and people are stupid or rotten in some other way, let us mock them because we (and especially I, the writer) are superior, I want to pull down the blinds and take a nap and wake up from the nightmare.
So I started reading A House of Air: Selected Writings by Penelope Fitzgerald instead and am happy to report that I find her immensely likable as the voice of the writer of these writings. She has compassion and a moral compass that she has more than a passing acquaintance with and is not afraid to use. Another book recommendation comes from my dentist, whom I visited today; she is reading Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement and says she very much likes it.
As to the writing progress, I finished writing a blog post that I started in June, so when I posted it, it landed back where it is. (You’d think with all that time, I’d have managed to catch all the errors, but I see there still are a couple, including a lonely parenthesis, thus proving yet again that no matter how one tries, one cannot trick the brain into not automatically correcting errors before they register.) I also spent some time with the magic realism thing. The page count is now 192; the word count, 48,438. And I submitted another story. I forget where, but it’s in the spreadsheet.