Friday, September 20, 2013

Fiction is Spinach

I've mentioned before, I read fiction grudgingly, much the way a young child eats cooked spinach grudgingly. 

The novel I've most recently
read and liked.
I've tried to figure out why this is—why, as a writer (mostly of nonfiction, but sometimes fiction), I find it so punishing to read novels. It wasn't always this way. When I was young, I was a page-flipping fool.

It comes down, I think, to just a couple of things.

First off, I'm impatient. I want immediate payback from anything in which I invest time these days, partly because I'm older now (and value my time differently than I did when I was 20), but also partly because of the Internet and how it has inexorably altered the value proposition of information interchange. In a single day, I find more answers to things via Google than I used to find in a month of spare-time noodling around. The Web gives the appearance (maybe not the reality) of instant gratification in all things knowledge-related, and this, I think, causes a subtle tectonic shift in one's Weltanschauung. My sense of normal information throughput has been recalibrated. It's hard to describe. Maybe I'll blog more about it later. When there's time.

The impatience problem isn't helped by the fact that, like many writers, I'm a slow reader. I read slowly because there's no other way to hear the words. I enjoy the sound of language, the syncopating rhythms, the chance alliterations, the assonance and dissonance. And I need time to gauge subtext. Nothing ruins a good read like speed-reading. I purposely read slowly, probably no more than 120 words a minute (although in short bursts I can go as slow as 25 wpm).

It also doesn't help that I'm an inveterate movie-watcher. Films these days are very tightly scripted. Usually something dramatic happens in the first five minutes, and sometime between the ten-minute mark and the twenty-minute mark, you have a solid understanding of who the main characters are, what their quests (their missions) are, and which direction(s) the plot will take them. Twenty minutes into a novel, I've read at most 10 pages. Most novels don't give you much to hold onto in 10 pages. Some do, of course. But not many. Not nearly enough.

Some novels (I'm thinking here of Dan Brown's work) make a conscious effort to move the story along in the first few pages, but often at the expense of good writing. So merely propelling me into the story isn't enough. I need to feel that what I'm reading has literary merit, a level of craft, a level of care with language, that's worth my time and thought.

It also has to be a compelling and unusual story. This gets to the crux of the matter, I think. Today's world is much richer, more dynamic, faster moving, and infinitely more perverse than the staid 1950s and early-1960s of my youth. Nonfiction books have become extraordinarily compelling over the years, while novels have receded into the bland landscape of cultural background noise. After you've been gripped by the profoundly perverse and terrifying goings-on in Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine or Robert Whitaker's Mad in America (two of the most remarkable nonfiction works I've ever encountered), you can't help but be convinced that truth is inherently stranger than fiction. Which of course puts fiction at a disadvantage.

Thus I wasn't at all impressed with Little Bee, one of the most acclaimed novels of recent memory, in which you're required to read 150 pages or so (I'm too lazy to check right now) to find out why the unhappily married white lady is missing a finger. Once I got to the big "finger reveal," I stopped reading; I found I wasn't really all that interested in the main characters and their various dysfunctions and affections and affectations. In fact, I felt cheated that the entire book pivoted on such a lame "dramatic turn" (the chopping off of the finger) and that it had been kept hidden for so long. Suddenly the intertwining plights of the poor black girl and the rich fingerless white lady seemed intolerably banal. I threw the book across the room.

So, what do I like? Which novels could I stand to read anew?

I like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, certainly. And Moby Dick. As for twentieth-century English novels, I'm partial to Catch-22 (a book I enjoyed from the very first page), as well as Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. I found Naked Lunch disappointing but was greatly impressed by Burroughs's Junky (the novel I've most recently read and liked). Junky is billed as fiction but is clearly more memoir than novel. As I look at the various novels I've enjoyed, they tend to be written in first-person and have a memoir-like aspect. They also tend to be tales written in such a way that you know from the very first page that you're in the hands of a masterful storyteller. Twain, Poe, Melville, Vonnegut, all tend to be that way. Joseph Heller hits the target with Catch-22 yet misses the mark in nearly everything else he wrote. (Burroughs is likewise infuriatingly uneven.)

I'm currently forcing myself to read On the Road, and once I finish (if I finish), I'll do a full review here. I'm halfway into the 2007 "Original Scroll" version (Penguin Classics), which is a direct transcription of Kerouac's famous 120-foot-long manuscript (typed single-spaced on a single roll of teletype paper). I came close to abandoning the book after 120 pages. But then the group arrives at Bill Burroughs's place in Louisiana and the quality of the writing takes a subtle shift.

It seems the proper answer to my dilemma (the way to get myself to enjoy fiction once again) is probably to unplug from the Internet, slow down the pace of life, relax, be more willing to lavish spare time on Other People's Ink, pry my brain loose from the trappings of cinema and cable news and cell phones and Twitter and the nonstop parade of cacophonous bullshit that constitutes life in the twenty-first century.

We all know that's not going to happen. The fact that it should happen, but can't, is the great tragedy of modern technological life. We're stuck in the miasma. Immobilized in digital riches too rich to measure. It's a miracle we can think at all.