Saturday, December 30, 2006

2006, A Year in Books: Worst Reads of the Year

As I wrote in yesterday's best books roundup, this is not going to be an very long list--it might just be that I'm developing a better bullshit detector, but I didn't read many genuine stinkers this year. Which might seem like something to be grateful for, but I've found that a truly terrible book can be a blessing in disguise--few things are as fun as a no-holds-barred rant against a novel that offends one's sensibilities simply by existing in the universe. Which is what the year's worst reads roundup is all about--it's how I compensate myself for having read these books in the first place. As it was last year, this list is presented in ascending order of horribleness.
  • Misfortune by Wesley Stace

    I think Wesley Stace must live in a cave. How else to explain the fact that, in his debut novel, Stace chose a premise all but identical to that of Jeffrey Eugenides's sublime, Pulitzer-winning novel Middlesex--male child raised as a girl--and then sat back and did nothing with it, smugly certain that the sheer neatness of his core idea--and of the choice to set his story in the 19th century--would sustain a 500 page novel? Whereas Eugenides used his central character's predicament to explore questions of identity and of the meaning of gender, Stace--whose setting leaves him a natural opening to explore the gap between social and biological gender--has nothing to say about his chosen topic, and to make matters worse, his main character is a ninny whose single decisive action over the course of her entire life is to try--and fail--to commit suicide, and who otherwise relies on others to come to her rescue while she bemoans her sad fate. She chooses to live as a woman even after she learns the truth about herself, but at no point do either she or the narrative come to any conclusions about what being a woman means. The result is a novel that does nothing--doesn't entertain, doesn't make us think, doesn't convincingly recreate its era--except sit there for 500 pages feeling secure in its innovativeness.

  • Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters

    It's hard to avoid the suspicion that if it weren't for the 'lesbians in period dress' angle, no one would have paid Waters's tepid, underperforming debut the least bit of attention. The novel follows the rising and falling fortunes of Nancy, a small-town girl who follows her heart to the big city, as she bounces from one girlfriend to another--a gallery of lesbian stereotypes painted in the coarsest and broadest strokes imaginable. Nancy herself is a thoroughly unlikable character--she's rather dumb, is capable of a breathtaking selfishness, and is frequently whiny, needy, and vain. Worst of all, she's boring. Waters seems to have been aware that her main character wasn't earning the happy ending she was clearly headed towards, and some 50 pages from the novel's end she sets out to remake Nancy's soul by confronting her with social inequality and having her embrace socialism. It is through the latter that Nancy achieves redemption and earns the love of a good woman--in a scene so corny it would have raised a Harlequin romance editor's eyebrows. Waters has written at least one enjoyable novel since Tipping the Velvet's publication, but it's a great pity that she felt the need to inflict this unbaked first effort on an unsuspecting public.

  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

    Never Let Me Go was one of the first books I read this year, and in a way I suppose that was a blessing, as everything that followed this dull, poorly-written, self-important little novel was pretty much an improvement. Ishiguro's novel is an attempt to grapple--through the device of a half-baked SFnal allegory--with human mortality and the ineffectual methods we employ to ignore it or bargain it down, and I'm willing to stipulate that criticizing it for being bad--and by 'bad' I mean 'horrendously, embarrassingly bad'--science fiction isn't being fair to Ishiguro, whose focus was on the novel's philosophical aspect, not its SFnal premise. But it's still a bad novel--boring, peopled with boring characters, and written in the boring voice of a person who, for some inexplicable reason, seems to think that anyone with more than half a brain will care about her insipid, rambling reminiscences of schoolyard adventures and childhood crushes. Which they won't, because those reminiscences are--you got it--boring. Which is all clearly intentional on Ishiguro's part. He means to stultify his readers. He means for his main characters to be unappealing. He means to write at a level only slightly more sophisticated than that of your average sixth grader's book report. It's all part of setting the novel's tone. It is this tone, however, that renders Never Let Me Go completely inert--why should we care about the novel's philosophical core when we can't be bothered to give a damn about its fictional surface or the characters who people it? Never Let Me Go isn't a bad novel because of its stylistic shortcomings, but because of its rhetorical ones.
Dishonorable Mentions:

8 comments:

Tim said...

It seems you and I are among the few "book types" that saw Never Let Me Go as a book that would have been considered bad SF but for the name of the author. See http://prairieprogressive.com/?p=372.

It was the "most overrated" book on my 2005 list. http://prairieprogressive.com/?p=620

Lazygal said...

I didn't mind Never Let Me Go; didn't think it was great, either. In some ways it reminded me of The Children of Men, by P.D. James - which is a better read than the current movie suggests (Clive Owen notwithstanding).

Sarah Louis said...

I'd be curious to hear your opinion of Nancy Farmer's wonderfully bizarre young adult novel The House of the Scorpion. It has the same basic idea as Never Let Me Go - people cloned for body parts - but with likeable characters and a great deal more spice.

Jonathan M said...

Aaah... the counter-backlash begins.

I thought that the dullness of Never Let Me Go was completely intentional.

The narrator watches as her friends and lovers are slowly carved up and then quietly consents to being carved up herself. What does she do when confronted by this inhuman behaviour? she babbles on endlessly about the minor details of her social life and how nice her hospital room is.

The clones, and the narrator in particular, are completely dead inside obsessing about trifling matters but accepting their grizzly fate with cow-eyed complacency.

This certainly caused me to have quite a strong emotional reaction to the book. I distinctly remember saying "Oh for fuck's sake" at least three times in one session with it. Any book that can produce such a strong emotional response in me intentionally is good art as far as I'm concerned.


As for the book being so boring as it might not be worth reading, isn't that a challenge that faces a lot of people who want to jump the line between reading genre and non-genre? A sizable chunk of mainstream literature is kitchen-sink and about the minute details of people who, in truth, read rather dull little lives.

It reminds me of the time when I annoyed a table full of lit students by doggedly claiming that Jurassic Park was the greatest book ever written because it's exciting and has dinosaurs in it.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

the counter-backlash begins.

Counter-backlash? I would have thought, given the generally effusive reactions to Never Let Me Go, both in and out of genre circles, that my response to it would be classed as plain old backlash.

Either way, you're giving me far too much credit if you think I'm in the vanguard of this movement.

I thought that the dullness of Never Let Me Go was completely intentional.

Of course it is - in fact, I say so in this very post. Unlike you, however, my response to Ishiguro's choice of tone was to disconnect from his characters. They never achieved full-blooded humanity for me, and I was therefore never able to care about their predicament. I also said "oh, for fuck's sake" several times during my reading of the novel, but in my case I was expressing my exasperation and increasing annoyance.

As for the book being so boring as it might not be worth reading, isn't that a challenge that faces a lot of people who want to jump the line between reading genre and non-genre? A sizable chunk of mainstream literature is kitchen-sink and about the minute details of people who, in truth, read rather dull little lives.

Notwithstanding that the transition from genre to non-genre isn't one I've ever made (almost from day one, my reading has been a mixture of genre and non-genre), I'm not sure I agree with this. There's plenty of general fiction - even the classy, award-winning kind - that's plotty and thrilling. There's also genre fiction that's contemplative and character-oriented. It doesn't follow, however, that novels in which plot is left by the wayside, and whose protagonists lead lives of quiet desperation, are necessarily boring - we should be careful to distinguish between the lives of the characters in the novel and the way in which those lives are described. However quotidian and ultimately meaningless the events of the day it describes, there is nothing boring about Mrs. Dalloway. There's a hell of a lot that's boring about Never Let Me Go, and I am reluctant to consider that attribute as a point in the novel's favor.

Jonathan M said...

I meant that my post was the counter-backlash seeing as everyone else commenting seemed to agree with you.

I think that we essentially agree about the book but whereas I'm quite happy to accept the boredom and inhumanity of the characters as part of an interesting effect, you see those facts as grounds for disliking the book.

Conversely, I recently found Living Next Door to the God of Love so unbearably dull that I literally through the book across the room in frustration.

Obviously "it's all subjective innit?" but the tipping point at which one is no longer willing to put up with an author's crap is quite an interesting psychological phenomenon.

Michaela S, San Francisco said...

I can't imagine a more humorless, snider or snobbish response to the delightful, gentle and slyly moving novel, Misfortune. I thoroughly enjoyed it (as did the rest of my book group.)

Mark said...

Nancy Farmer's House of the Scorpion (which won a National Book Award in the U.S.) was published three years earlier than Never Let Me Go, which makes me wonder if Ishiguro was doing some unacknowledged "borrowing" here...

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