Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Books Like Whoa: Am I Just Dumb?

Today is a big day in the lives of the literati - the great Toni Morrison has released a new book:



Having read several reviews at this point, I am contemplating picking this book up. At under 200 pages and with a compelling premise, it has it's appeal. This impulse surprises me. Why, you may ask? Lean in- closer...

I really, really don't like Toni Morrison books.


Whew. I fell better having admitted it. Because this lack of affinity is a smirch on my literary identity that I find highly disconcerting. I mean, she is the final word in contemporary Southern literature, right? She's the only living American with a Nobel prize in literature... meaning that the arguably most celebrated American writer of our times is a woman. I really want to like her, but my track record with her thus far makes this seem like an unlikely proposition.

It started with a family road trip. My mom had gotten Beloved on audiobook for us to pass the time - I mean, Oprah liked it, so it had to be pretty good, right? We started listening... and listening... and listening. At some point, I blocked it all out as a defensive mechanism and just gazed glassy-eyed out of the window. By the time the pickax hand thing came up, I finally blurted out, "Oh my gosh, this is terrible!" My parents breathed sighs of relief and we all agreed to just turn the thing off.

This permanently impeded my view of Morrison's work. I thought it was me - I figured, I'm just too dumb to enjoy this. But after listening to Slate's Audio Book Club on the topic, I finally understood my disquietude with the work... this style of noncommittal story telling comes off to me as ambiguity masquerading as depth. In Stephen Metcalf's words, what's really so deep about our inability to fully discern not only the action but the author's attitude towards the action? To me, this is like a bunch of undergrad hippies sitting around listening to Hendrix and saying, "It's like, you know, I look at trees sometimes and think- wow. Trees." "Wooowww. Treeeeees."

I tried to get over this problem with Morrison one other time, starting Song of Solomon. Yeah. Didn't get past the first 50 pages.

I feel the same way about James Joyce, Kurt Vonnegut, and even Faulkner at times. I see what they're doing and understand that for a lot of people it works. For me, it just does not. When I get into a novel length work, I expect that the author is going to be my guide. It's not okay with me if you lead me into the middle of a forest and then leave me to my own devices. I want you to have a way in, a clear idea of what we're going to see when we get there, and a way out. Otherwise, I think you're just trying to get away with putting a bunch of pretty words together in the hope to disguise the fact that you don't really know where the hell you're going. I do like some stream of consciousness novels (Mrs. Dalloway is a favorite), but usually they work better for me when the action is smaller rather than something like Beloved. Less space between plot points to get lost.

I should say that this hang up is only focused on long fiction - I have a much more flexible view of things with short stories, probably because they aren't as time consuming. In fact, I like the feeling of getting lost in short fiction. I love Joyce and Faulkner short stories. I've not tried Vonnegut shorts, but I'd like to... and this is why I'm seriously considering giving Home a try. It's almost a novella, so if Morrison gets a little trippy for me, I think I will have a much higher tolerance for it.

Do you have any literary greats that just don't work for you? Do you like these kinds of ambiguous novels?

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