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Best Left Unread

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I am cursed with the need to always finish any novel that I start. It’s a strange twist on the completist syndrome. Thus it was that midway through reading Iris Murdoch’s novel, The Bell, I found myself writing the following:

It’s not as if there was no “there” there – for indeed there was. It’s rather that what was there was neither here nor there, neither fish nor fowl, as it were.

Now that was a kind of impressionistic response to what had been increasingly irking me as I turned the pages. Also the style of those sentences was very much in line with the kind of inbred, literary writing that I was reading.

So how did it come to that? I’ve read some Iris Murdoch before and liked it all, she normally writes perceptive comedies of manners and the like, irony is her thing. Also The Bell came highly recommended to me – by whom I can’t remember.

Serious literature was the advertisement but limpid cleverness was all I got.

I should have seen the warning signs when it turned out that the introduction was by A.S. Byatt. Now there’s another author who’s hit-and-miss. I loved Angels and Insects but what about Possession? That was chock-full with literary in-jokes and mysteries that amounted to a cup of tea. Unbelievably it won the Booker Prize and a Hollywood flick on top of that.

So what then are the ingredients of The Bell?

A lay community is attached to an Abbey. Proximity to the order of enclosed nuns is meant to heighten the titillation quotient. There are errant wives possibly returning to pre-occupied husbands, love triangles, twins, adolescent confusion about the first steps of love, a swirl of homosexuality is in the mix. There are failed priests and schoolboy misunderstandings. Everyone is off balance. People can’t decide where they stand or if they stand. I guess it’s meant to be unnerving and that you’re not supposed to like the characters.

All this sounds vaguely promising but there is neither comedy nor manners, nor much of anything.

Normally this would be a recipe for something akin to a farce. In a different medium and era, this could be like Women On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown. But no. The denouement when it comes is worth half a smile but not even a chuckle. The inevitable “tragedy” is not tragic. The lessons learned are lost. So what was the point? Or was all this a meta-point about the human condition?

Later on I checked and read that Murdoch was an authority on Sartre and existentialism. That explains something about on why she treats her topics of sex and religion so programmatically. But someone should have warned me. Anyway why go on about it? I finished the novel after all.

Most worrying to me is that I’ve just gone through a trifecta of books best left unread. This got me thinking: I write a lot about things that I like and occasionally about things that I hate, but what about those things that leave me mostly indifferent? What about the “why did they bother” factor? Shouldn’t I be getting bilious about them? After all I invest a fair amount of time in my constant reading. I’ve got a day job and more worries than I can help.

Consider this post then, an attempt to work myself into a frenzy and remind myself to pick more judiciously in the future. It’s fair enough if you dislike, but don’t end up indifferent.

Here, to conclude, are a couple more wet socks that should have remained on the unread pile: you won’t hate them, but trust me, you won’t love them.

The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier

Self-absorbed musicologist and vain opera singer retreating into the Amazon jungle to discover the sounds of lost tribes… Very clever, I suppose. And musical erudition is on display. Also something of a travel journal, Latin American coups and sundry dysfunction abound – a Conrad-like effect is what he’s aiming for. It’s probably a parable about a return to innocence lost or Eden or something. But did I care? High concept but nigh unreadable. The great cuban writer loses himself… in himself.

Original Bliss by A.L. Kennedy

I felt strangely empty after reading this novel. True, there are blighted and diseased souls and, a priori, they should make for interesting subjects. But just because you write well about deviants and their unlikely relationships with bored housewives doesn’t make things meaningful… I wish I could hate it but all I can say is overrated.

Or did I miss the point? Was there actually some “there” there?

Crossposted at Koranteng’s Toli

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  • Nick Jones

    While I read and enjoyed The Satanic Verses, I’ve never been able to finish the other novels of Rushdie’s I’ve picked up.

  • I actually liked “Heretics of Dune”, the one many people don’t get to, having made their excuses and left after “God Awful of Dune”.

  • Ah, DrPat, Mirror, Mirror is sitting very near the top of my to-read pile. I, too, have read and loved the other books of Maguire’s that you mentioned, so I hope not to be too disappointed!

  • Yes, Koranteng, the “why bother?” (and “best left in the bin”) books deserve notice as well.

    Aaman, I would agree with you on the Frank Herbert Dune sequels – but the “prequels” by his son Brian are worthwhlie, IMHO. Not great literature, but readable in their own right.

    My latest experience with a “where’s the beef?” read was Mirror, Mirror by Gregory Maguire. I loved Wicked, enjoyed Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, and reread Lost twice, it was so good.

    Not Mirror, Mirror. And not being a completist, I had no trouble leaving it, open face down to page 45, for months. I suspect it will go to the local second-hand book store to provide credit for two or three other books I will actually enjoy.

  • ‘books best left unread’ – great meme.

    My initial list:

    * Left Behind
    * The Dune sequels and prequels (non-Frank Herbert)
    * Anne Rice after “The Vampire Armand
    * “The God Of Small Things” – Arundhati Roy
    * Ann Coulter
    * Michael Moore