Thursday, 17 March 2011

Disgusted of Tonbridge Wells

I just read a review in the London Review of Books that began by suggesting that the novel in question made, 'Cormac McCarthy's The Road read like a walk in the park.' It went on to describe the novel's main characters:

'Gary and Irene are an Alaskan couple whose marriage is disintegrating. Gary is a graduate-school dropout who likes to recite 'The Seafarer' and who has failed, and continues to fail, in just about every enterprise he sets his hand to...Irene, meanwhile, is a retired schoolteacher whose mother committed suicide, and who starts toying with the idea herself ...their daughter, Rhoda has problems of her own. She's in a loveless relationship with a hapless, horny dentist called Jim, who throws himself into an affair with a half-crazed prick-teaser called Monique. Rhoda's brother, Mark, meanwhile, is a whacked-out stoner fisherman.'

I assumed that the reviewer was going to heap derision on this, to my mind, almost self-parodying parade of absurdly dreary humanity (particularly when it is revealed that a great deal of the novel's action is taken up with Gary's attempt to build a cabin which ends up looking 'like a hovel made out of sticks', leading to the scene where,' when Gary masturbates against the side of the cabin it is the culmination of his yearning and desire for a new way of life.) Instead, to my amazement, the book  is hailed as a 'great triumph.'

Of course, I haven't read the book, so I shouldn't rush to judgment. On the other hand, I probably never will, simply because its premise is so utterly unappealing - to the point, in my mind of being ridiculous (just read through those characters again and tell me you don't stifle a guffaw.) And I can't help comparing the matter from which this novel is formed - reminiscent of so many other unappealing current offerings, including the dreaded The Road - to the books detailed in a documentary about the origins of the novel that I watched last night. Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels, Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy - they portray humanity with satire and scepticism but retain a kind of jollity and verve. Are their visions of existence hopelessly naive and optimistic? Have things changed so radically that we are reduced to narratives of self-hate and hopelessness as our lodestones in the literary universe? I'm not suggesting that Pollyanna should be the new template, but surely there could be included among the dramatis personae of literary novels  - just occasionally - a leading figure who loves their children, who doesn't mind the life they lead too much, who - but perhaps this really is too much to ask - possesses some tiny glimmer of hope.


  1. Well, all I can say to this is I loved The road, and have been called Pollyanna in my time. I leave you to work that out!

  2. I already have a friend called Polly, so I'll keep calling you Whispering, Whispering.

  3. Sorry, to those who have asked what the book was that was being reviewed, I should have said: Caribou Island by David Vann

  4. ... and I've had to turn away a few Zoes in my time. It doesn't pay to double up on friends' names :-) I've been handing out English names over here like lollies. Would you like to know there were a few more Chinese Zoes?

  5. I'm assuming you made it back, Polly - and David has arrived? I've now virtually lost my voice, but hope to be back on skyping terms by the time his visit ends (10 days time?) and hope to see him on his return as well.