Monday, August 29, 2011

Negotiating with Margaret

Writers are like friends. With some you have intense relationships - or with their books, at any rate - for a while and then you move on. Others come and go in your life. Now you read them, now you don't. Sometimes you love them, at other times they disappoint you.

And then there are those who become a part of your life. The Canadian author Margaret Atwood is someone with whom I've always identified strongly - and not only because of her passion for the Grimm brothers' fairytales and Greek mythology.

Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (2002) is essential reading for anyone who ever wanted to make a living from writing, a marvellous guide book with most of the ingredients of Atwood at her best. It is clever yet accessible, serious without ever becoming pretensiously heavy, always dosed with humour. Of course it shows neither the full power of her imagination - for this you have to read her fiction - nor the astonishing versatality of her work, but it is enough to leave a lesser writer like me quite overawed.

Atwood, born in Ottowa in 1939, is known mostly for her novels (winning the Booker Prize in 2000 for The Blind Assassin), but she has also produced several volumes of poetry and short stories, children's books and non-fiction, TV scripts, even lyrics and librettos. In the seventies she created a cartoon character called Survivalwoman - writing and drawing everything herself, under a pseudonym - which was featured in a magazine for years. Her novels vary from well-researched historical fiction such as Alias Grace (1996) to science fiction such as The Handmaid's Tale (1985) and Oryx and Crake (2003).

She has received honoroury degrees from famous universities like Harvard and a dozen others, her books are translated all over the world and she has become a kind of national monument in the Canadian literary landscape.

As my son would say, what's not to admire?

My personal favourites among her books (besides just about everyting already mentioned in this blog) include her 1969 debut novel, The Edible Woman (the sort of savoury title I wish I could have dreamed up myself) and Cat's Eye, a novel about youthful friendship and memory with a striking opening line ('Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space'). Oh yes, and I also loved her latest short-story collection, Moral Disorder (2006).

In fact, she seems to be one of the rare contemporary authors whose career I've followed from the first to the latest book, spanning forty fertile years of writing, without ever finding her boring or predictable. Now isn't that the stuff that life-long friendships are made of?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

A third of the whole

Life is too short to finish a book you don't like. This is probably the most precious lesson I've learned in my life as a reader. With so many wonderful works out there that I yearn to read - and more being written every day - why should I waste my time with anything less than wonderful?

With 'wonderful' I don't necessarily mean literary masterpieces. I mean any well-written, well-constructed piece of writing, from a crime novel to a children's picture book, which moves me personally.

The question, of course, is when do you drop a book. How many boring pages do you have to endure before you can be sure this is as good as it gets? Because another invaluable lesson I've learned from a lifetime of reading, is that you should never give up too soon. Not all great books grab you from the first line, like Tolstoi's Anna Karenina ('Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way') or Austin's Pride and Prejudice ('It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife').

Reading is not in the first place about instant gratification. Sometimes the pleasure you get out of a book is directly related to the effort you put into in. And sometimes you have to slog through a valley of incomprehension or boredom before you reach the peaks of pleasure. For me the book that drove home this lesson, was Don DeLillo's Underworld. It starts with a loong description of a baseball game which made me abandon the book two times before I eventually managed to get past the damn game - and fell in love with the rest. To this day I regard Underworld as one of the greatest American novels of the past fifty years.

Nowadays I have the one-third rule to help me decide when to drop a book. I'm not talking about bad books, the kind you drop after a few lines without a tinge of remorse, I'm talking about supposedly good books by supposedly good authors that just don't do it for me. You know, the ones your intelligent friends or some reviewers love, but they leave you stone cold? In these cases I believe I owe it to the author to read at least a third. If it has 150 pages, I'll read 50; if it has 900, I'll keep going until page 300. If I'm not hooked by then, I know I won't get hooked at all. Then I cut my losses and run. Bye-bye, book. No-one can say I didn't try. Je ne regrette rien.

I recently applied this one-third rule to the Australian Steve Tolz's 711-page debut novel, A Fraction of the Whole. This 'riotously funny first novel is harder to ignore than a crate of puppies, twice as playful and just about as messy', according to Wall Street Journal on the jacket, which made me believe it would be perfect summer reading. Well, maybe I'm not as fond as puppies as I thought I was, but I found the playfulness and the messiness rather tiring. Still, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, so I decided to withhold my judgement until I'd read at least a third.

It tells the story of the two Dean brothers, one a criminal, the other crazy, and of the son, Jasper, that the crazy Martin Dean brought up by himself. It starts with Jasper in jail - where else would you be with such a family? - then jumps to Martin's catastrophic childhood, then back to Jasper, a sprawling epic if ever I saw one. It abounds with the kind of self-deprecating black humour that the young Woody Allen was so good at. But I have to admit, by page 237 I was still underwhelmed.

I kept going, though, mainly because I was vacationing in another city with nothing else to read. I only really got into the book in the second half, and by the end I was actually glad I'd persevered. Like when you grow to love a puppy you wanted to drown in the beginning, I suppose.

But I'm convinced it would have been a much better novel if the author, with the help of a rigorous editor, could have deleted at least a third. If only he'd taken his own title a little more seriously. A fraction of a fraction would have been sufficient. Two thirds of the whole would have been a very satisfactory read, thank you.

Who was it who said in every fat book there's a thin one screaming to get out? I don't agree, I love some fat books, but this one could have done with a diet.