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.