Recent reading: Head v. heart (AKA the litfic edition)

by Sunita

I’ve been reading across various genres this year, with a lot of literary fiction mixed in. Reading litfic requires mental muscles that I don’t exercise as much in genre, not because genre doesn’t require brain power, but because I’ll happily read a genre novel for its emotional payoffs or comfort-read benefits. If it’s not technically strong, I can live with that. Case in point: the Expanse series book I read earlier this summer. The writing was workmanlike at best and the plot meandered, but it was an interesting world and I was happy to fall into it.

With lit fic, I’ve been having the opposite reaction: the reading experience itself may not be great, but once I’m done and writing up my reactions, I realize the book’s strengths and have to give the author credit for them. Case in point: Ill Will by Dan Chaon. I put this on hold at the library when The Morning News announced its Rooster summer reading challenge.

a separation coverI was excited enough about the challenge to buy the first book, A Separation by Katie Kitamura, but that one turned out to be a major disappointment. As I ranted at my LibraryThing page:

I loathed this book, and that doesn’t happen often. I could live with the stream of consciousness and the lack of quotation marks. I was fine being in her head as a writing approach. I just found her, the narrator, deplorable. I don’t know WHY I was in her head. The book is marinated in privilege, and the occasional line of self-awareness doesn’t excuse the overall treatment of Greece and the Greeks as backdrop to Aimless Rich One-Percenters. But even that I could have put up with, if I hadn’t been so revolted by the narrator, especially in the 2nd half. I was OK with her in the first half, but she really went off the rails for me in the second. In real life you would find this person appalling, so what am I supposed to get from her as a fictional character? What does she illuminate?

Also, I now hate comma splices with the heat of a thousand suns. I didn’t hate them before this book, but I’m transformed.

Nevertheless, I gave the book 3 stars because I thought it was trying to do something interesting and worthwhile, and I could see how the approach might work for a different reader.

The second book in the summer challenge list was described as Lovecraftian, and since I’m totally uninterested in Lovecraft’s life and works I wasn’t up for reading something derivative of him (no matter how well done).

ill will coverBut then the Chaon showed up in my library account and I decided to try again. I fought this book most of the first half. I didn’t enjoy it. I appreciated the writing but I don’t like serial killer plots and I wasn’t keen on the main characters, between the unreliable narrators and the drug-induced hazes. Still, I kept reading it in spite of that, and then the second half grabbed me. I wasn’t completely sold, but I was interested, and while I complained to TheHusband repeatedly about the stuff I didn’t like, I didn’t DNF it.

By the end, which was ambiguous on a number of points, I concluded that it was a very good novel. I still didn’t really “like” it, but it was impressive. It was experimental in parts, the serial killer storyline went in an unexpected direction, and some of the women characters turned out to be more nuanced than the first sections had suggested. It was ambitious, experimental in parts, and gripping even when it didn’t quite pull off what it was trying to do. I couldn’t help but respect and admire Chaon’s work.

marlena coverOn the heels of this successful reading experience, I started the fourth book. Unfortunately, that took me right back to Experience #1. Marlena, like A Separation, has received a lot of buzz and showed up on a number of recommended read lists. But I DNF’d it a third of the way through because even though I haven’t read a lot of the women-centric lit novels of the last few years, it felt like something I’d read before and didn’t want to repeat. Like A Separation, it was solipsistic in the extreme: every character apart from the narrator exists to forward the narrator’s experience (I hesitate to call it a journey because a journey suggests intention, and intentionality seemed consciously buried in both novels). And also like A Separation, the narrator of Marlena makes bad decisions and drifts through life but seems likely to wind up on her feet at the end, unlike the people around her.

Marlena also falls into the popular novelistic trend of Intense Female Friendships Which Shape Lives, One Good, One Bad. A reader called these “Ferrante novels,” which is undoubtedly unfair to Ferrante. But it speaks to the way in which litfic follows every other fictional genre in embracing High Concept descriptions whether they fit or not. Bizarrely, Ferrante was also invoked in a blurb for A Separation. More misleadingly, it was compared to Gone Girl, which was ridiculous because it’s not a thriller in any meaningful sense, and it hurt the book with readers who chose it based on that comparison.

I did get a great reading experience (both head and heart-wise) out of this, though. A Separation was compared in a number of reviews to Rachel Cusk’s recent novel, Outline, which I’d heard about and wanted to try but hadn’t picked up. This motivated me enough to start reading it, and it was fabulous. I can see the comparison: Cusk also has an unnamed female narrator, a Greek setting, a very slim plot, and characters whom we only see through the narrator’s descriptions. But in Outline the characters come alive and the reader becomes engaged by both them and the narrator. The narrator recedes rather than dominates, although we learn quite a bit about her over the course of the book. And the Greek setting never feels exoticized or objectified. It’s where she is, and we get a strong sense of the surroundings, but there are few stereotypes. Outline is an assured, compelling book that feels utterly original. It’s part of a trilogy, and as soon as I finished it I immediately picked up the next volume, Transit.

Lest you think I’m only reading literary fiction these days, I’ve also been reading romance again, and I finally cracked the code to read manga! I’ve been dipping into various manga genres and having a wonderful time, and I’ll report on those soon.