Monday, October 04, 2010

The perfect vs. the alive

Jeanette Winterson, author of one of my favorite books on earth, The Stone Gods, says in yesterday's NYT Book Review:

[Michael] Cunningham writes so well, and with such an economy of language, that he can call up the poet’s exact match. His dialogue is deft and fast. The pace of the writing is skilled — stretched or contracted at just the right time. And if some of the interventions on art are too long — well, too long for whom? For what? Good novels are novels that provoke us to argue with the writer, not just novels that make us feel magically, mysteriously at home. A novel in which everything is perfect is a waxwork. A novel that is alive is never perfect.

I completely agree. I haven't yet read the new Cunningham book, but I just had this exact experience reading Adam Ross's Mr. Peanut. This book's received a lot of attention, and much of the criticism has been a kind of lament: the Sam Sheppard section is so good, so moving, so real...if only Ross hadn't felt the need to frame it inside a gimmicky, video-game-inspired meta-narrative.

Leaving aside the issue that I myself wanted to write about Sam Sheppard, and am now feeling rather kneecapped, I too had misgivings about the larger framework, at first. One problem is that the Sheppard story is, in and of itself, so powerful that virtually any fiction could seem wobbly next to it. There is a reason why people continue to get sucked down the Sheppard rabbit hole. It's a genuine American tragedy, which also delivers the disheartening news that information is not the same thing as knowledge. There is a ton of information about the crime, some of it horrifically lurid--but none of it adds up to knowing for certain who did it. The event demands answers and thwarts them with equal energy. So Ross's inclusion of a long narrative section that straightforwardly recounts the crime, from various individuals' points of view (including the victim's), is already daring in the extreme.

As for the framing meta-narratives of Mr. Peanut: yeah, probably we do have enough Mobius-strip-shaped books about writing books about writing books...but why not have one more? And why not end the book with two academic lectures on women's roles in Hitchcock films, and in 1950s suburbia, which dovetail into essentially the same thing? Hitchcock himself glued pedantic psychological disquisitions onto his films, notably Psycho, and we all agree this was a mistake, right? So why does Ross, who's specifically writing about Hitchcock, do it too--is it just a parody, or does he believe there's something important about the clunkiness itself? I have begun to think the latter. This is an aesthetic decision, to destroy the "waxwork" illusion of a transparent world and knock readers upside the head: this stuff's important! This stuff kills! Understand this! Such urgency in getting the point across is, in its own way, as moving as a deeply absorbing scene.

True, as I read along, I did keep thinking...I don't know about this Mobius figure. I don't quite like the video-game analogy. I don't see why we're spending so much time in Hawaii. Yet I kept reading, and while I thought I could come up with better solutions at first (No Mobius? Less Hawaii?) they kind of fizzled by the time I got to the end. Yes, the book's imperfect, and the imperfections got me riled. I wanted to argue, and, as Winterson says, this is good. In the strange and fascinating case of Mr. Peanut, much is attempted--and the attempt itself is the accomplishment.

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