Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Must Readers Finish Every Book We Start?

J. Robert Janes, Betrayal, and Chris Cander, Whisper Hollow

I remember telling my students: “Nobody’s ever too tired to read.” Then I started working at the factory. Not only did I find myself leaving my best, most constructive energy on the production floor, but several colleagues admitted them missed having the youthful leisure to read for recreation. I incrementally realized that others jettisoned reading from their priorities like I’d jettisoned learning to restore car engines. Two books recently re-awakened my awareness of this choice.

Canadian novelist J. Robert Janes has published fifteen mystery novels set in Occupied France. His latest novel, the freestanding Betrayal, relocates Janes’ historical thrust to divided Ireland in autumn, 1941. Mary Ellen Fraser, an Ulster doctor’s wife, has fallen in love with a German POW, and volunteers to smuggle letters to her German’s beloved cousin. Except, she discovers too late, she’s actually running coded communiques to Admiral Dönitz, commandant of the Battle of the Atlantic.

Janes lards his prose with passages like this: “By himself, Dr. Fraser was a saint, a prince of a man.” Ignore momentarily Janes double-dipping from the cliché barrel. Rather than having Mary Ellen’s husband reveal himself through action or speech, Janes reveals his characters with adjectival phrases, many lengthy. Descriptions of characters’ appearances occupy entire paragraphs. They resemble character notes from a screen treatment. Would Janes perhaps rather write motion pictures or Downton Abbey-like miniseries?

Between these scenes, lush with description but short on character motivation, Janes frequently lapses into lengthy historical discursions. He makes historical figures, like Dönitz and Churchill, active characters in his story, then translates their internal thoughts into lengthy historical expositions. Besides mind-numbing asides on the burgeoning war, he includes repeated footnotes. David Foster Wallace did this satirically; Janes keeps a straight face. Thus Janes overloads his audience by apparently failing to make basic authorial choices.

American author Chris Cander addresses broadly the same time period, but more epic scope, in Whisper Hollow. The company town of Verra, West Virginia, is a seething cauldron of guilt, repression, and deferred immigrant aspiration. Free-spirited Alta Krol and self-flagellating Myrthen Bergmann live in constant cross-purposes, their feud symbolizing the competing drives of poor immigrants’ children throughout the Twentieth Century. Meanwhile, Giovanni “John” Esposito squelches his modern ambitions under economic necessity until they finally explode.

I wanted to like Cander’s Colleen McCullough-like ambition and sprawling historical backdrop. But she lost me when I recognized two early scenes she’d recycled. Young Alta’s first encounter with her glamorous new sister-in-law, and the dreams this inspires, recollect Fitzgerald’s classic “Bernice Bobs Her Hair.” And John’s argument with his father, “If the mine was good enough for me, it’s good enough for you,” is so wheezy, Monty Python mocked it over 45 years ago.

After that, I couldn’t stop recognizing borrowed moments. Cander ransacks the Twentieth Century American canon; it’s impossible for well-read audiences to avoid recognizing Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Jim Harrison, and others in Cander’s prose. Even her prose stylings evolve as she proceeds, from Jazz Age tones in the 1920s, through the clipped austerity of the Depression, to the Found Poetry patter of the 1950s and 1960s. This reads like a jigsaw puzzle of other, better-known authors.

Though Cander and Janes are established writers with lengthy CVs, these novels both feel like student efforts. Janes has about 250 pages of story in a 470-page book, but keeps adding in historical details like he obsessively needs to include everything he discovered during research. Though he has moments of character interaction between windy expositions, he situates them so far apart, I’ve forgotten what happened previously, and must strain to understand why anybody does anything.

Cander, by contrast, overwhelms readers not with facts, but with influences, like she’s afraid the story she wants to tell couldn’t measure up to whatever she read in literature class. Trained writers knows that type. Their workshop submissions resemble last summer’s Hollywood blockbuster, or slavishly mimic the Dead Masters dominating AmLit courses. Maybe some people prefer not encountering anything new. But I suspect Cander’s well-read target audience will consider this an interesting pastice, at best.

Self-help author Gretchen Rubin writes about struggling to accept that she needn’t finish every book she starts. Many critics insist you cannot really savvy a book without finishing every page. But such critics are career paid writers; words are their life. My factory colleagues, many with families and second jobs, have limited reading time. Boring, derivative, or needy novels are an active imposition. Writers who want actual readers today should keep this limitation in mind.

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