Great Disappointments

Ten LRC contributors warn of “classic” books with over-sized reputations.

Gore Vidal once described Moby Dick as “a very bad masterpiece,” and most readers will understand exactly what he meant. Notwithstanding the book’s mythic grandeur, that huge chapter on “the whiteness of the whale,” for instance, has to be one of the most indigestible bits of fiction ever written.

It was in the same spirit as Vidal’s observation that the LRC editorial staff planned this December’s holiday feature. We approached ten regular contributors to the magazine and asked each to tell us about some widely acclaimed book that had nevertheless failed to live up to his or her great expectations. Written works from every field and genre across the ages were eligible, but we overwhelmingly received lively condemnations of prominent modern fictions. That said, regular readers will doubtless remember the sole non-fiction entry from its prominent place in a previous list we compiled, “The LRC 100: Canada’s Most Important Books.”

So enjoy: hopefully everyone will find a personal letdown—or beloved favourite—on the list!

The Golden Notebook

Doris Lessing

Since Doris Lessing was awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature, her books have been hastily ordered from bookstores, reserved at libraries. The key text is The Golden Notebook (1962). Even then it got ambivalent reviews: “a high aim, perhaps a dangerously pretentious one” … “one of the strangest (and strongest) works in recent English fiction.” In the 1970s, it was heralded as a feminist bible; Joan Didion noted that Lessing’s “granite ambitiousness” overwrites everything else (notably a tin ear for dialogue).

Reader, beware. The Golden Notebook is one of the most frustrating tomes ever concocted. At the heart of its almost 600 pages there is a fine story about women, which even 45 years on is compelling. But structurally? There is a frame story about Anna and Molly called, ironically, “Free Women,” and there are Anna’s notebooks with heavily symbolic covers: black (African experience), red (communist disillusionment), yellow (autobiographical novel) and blue (diary)—and the eponymous golden notebook, her “real” story. Way too many Annas, way too many notebooks and, yes, way too many Dorises, because of course this novel is All about Doris.

Or is this just the impatient 21st-century ADD reader speaking? In its opaque density there are sharp, smart observations and what is now delicious period detail, and certainly there are pearls of gorgeous writing: go to the opening of the golden notebook (so close to the end!) for fabulous female post-coital musings.

—Marian Botsford Fraser

The Sportswriter

Richard Ford

Don’t get me wrong: I was a huge admirer of Ford’s exciting stories when I first spotted them in magazines. He is a very good writer. But this novel lost me.

Reading the earnest narrator Frank Bascombe’s lengthy meditations about why he gave up a promising career as a novelist to become a sportswriter is the literary equivalent of watching paint dry. Vicki, the “silly milly” love interest, might as well be an inflatable doll. Frank is said to be the father of three children—one of whom died, so we are supposed to be sympathetic to his over-arching grief—but it is an unconvincing fiction; Ford’s character knows little of children, dead or alive.

Equally irritating is the effect Ford has on writers imitating him. It is not his fault, but I can spot this brand of malarkey a mile away: meet the masculine but sensitive male narrator who has done some bad things in his life, but has a stylish, confident vocabulary and repartee and wants to be a good man and feels big grief and regret on cue and seeks redemption and does all right with the babes and dispenses faux-weary wisdom about our troubled time on earth.

“Your life can change a hundred ways, I’ll tell you that.”

“I know it, Wade.”

Where is Gordon Lish and his red pen when we need him?

—Mark Jarman

Ulysses

James Joyce

“No one wished it longer.” Johnson was wrong about Paradise Lost, proleptically astute about Joyce’s Ulysses.

Ulysses, for all its fireworks, (now dated) experimentalism, scruple of dense research and manic verisimilitude and fully brilliant passages, lacks the principal merit of any sustained fiction: narrative draw. It is read (by those who do indeed read it all) for its status in literary modernism; out of admiration for Joyce’s undoubted, though erratic, genius; in some cases to prove the reader is smart enough to read it; and, in not a few cases, for sheer bragging rights in the university common room.

It is a book of a thousand dexterities, alluring variety of form and word, marvels of mime and tone … but. It has deep and fearful languors: the catechism section, Nighttown (Joyce’s surrealist episode) and that great Niagara of unpunctuated and pseudo free-association, the Molly Bloom soliloquy, which is the most famous and incense-choked tedium in all of high English literature.

The true martyrs who second- or third-read Ulysses are sustained only by a worshipful reverence to acknowledge the dense, brilliant, obsessive mind that composed it.

Ulysses as a story is dead. It lacks the compelling artistic energy of managed suspense, which—even in the most artful of modernist fiction—is still the one pre-condition of the unwilled pleasure that inheres in any truly joyful reading.

—Rex Murphy

First Love

Ivan Turgenev

When the great American novelist Henry James denounced the first-person voice as “barbaric,” he no doubt had this novella by Turgenev in mind. First Love is a graceless piece of work. It tells the story of a young man who falls in love with a gorgeous older princess only to discover she is having an affair with his father. Riddled with melodrama and saccharine emotions, it is told in the worst possible confessional mode, all soul-searching angst. Some typical hysteria from Turgenev’s young man: “my blood was on fire and boiling within me” and “all the fair blossoms of my heart were roughly plucked at once, and lay about me, flung on the ground, and trampled underfoot.” We are treated to long passages of clumsy pathetic fallacy and forced foreshadowing.

To argue that Turgenev’s flimsy hysterics are merely an affectation of his era does not hold—for he had as contemporaries the geniuses Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky; even his closest literary friend was Gustave Flaubert. The shortcomings appear to be, unfortunately, entirely his own.

—Esi Edugyan

Underworld

Don DeLillo
“Beware the man of one book,” warned Aquinas, meaning: avoid fanatics who believe in one version of the truth, one narrative that answers all questions. Beware, then, Don DeLillo, a writer who—despite his reputation as a “postmodern” novelist—has spent his entire career writing One Book. Sure, there are slight thematic variations—Sports, Capitalism, America! or Pollution, Religion, America!—but he always comes back to the same old 1960s song. You know the tune: the psychological repression of technological capitalism creates a death cult of modernity.

Which brings us to Underworld, DeLillo’s non-linear brick of baby boomer narcissism that amounts to an 800-page staredown with the reader. Want to know who blinked first? Read the glowing reviews. In DeLillo’s hands, 20th-century America is transformed into a continent-sized analyst’s couch, but like most big books, you can get everything you need out of it just by reading the section headings. Prologue: The Triumph of Death. Epilogue: Das Kapital. In between, follow the bouncing baseball. Underworld is the novel that firmly established DeLillo as the Michael Moore of American novelists: if you have only one thing to say, say everything.

—Andrew Potter

The Plot Against America

Philip Roth
Unlike the case with many acclaimed novelists, some of Philip Roth’s best fiction came later in life. In works such as American Pastoral and I Married a Communist, Roth grapples with big themes—the destructiveness of terrorism and McCarthyism—but his characters are always larger than the politics that they live through. I look forward to each new novel as an unrivalled treat.

All the greater my disappointment with The Plot Against America, a counterfactual history told as memoir. It is the story of a young Roth growing up in New Jersey after Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Roosevelt for the U.S. presidency and reaches an understanding with Adolf Hitler. The United States becomes not quite, but almost, fascist, and the fear, the apprehension that run through the story are palpable. Yet the fear that “presides over these memories” disables and overwhelms the characters. Young Roth and his family know too much rather than too little, so that what should be terror descends into paranoia. The struggles of a young boy become less, not more, than they should be, in large part because the politics burden the narrative so heavily. Perhaps we have reached the limits of the politics of fear, even in fiction.

—Janice Gross Stein

Nostromo

Joseph Conrad
What’s wrong with Nostromo, which some consider to be the best novel written by my favourite author, Joseph Conrad?

Here’s what’s wrong. The story unfolds in a most unattractive and uninteresting location that is described in superfluous detail. The moral of the tale—that the prospect of wealth can inspire erratic behaviour—is too well known to need repeating. There are too many characters, and some of them get in the way of the plot, such as it is. There is also too much description; we love Conrad because he loves words but this is ridiculous. And it is all so serious; the most trivial sentiments, every innocent gesture, everything, is idealized.

All of this, you will say, is trademark Conrad. So it is. And when it works it is unforgettable. But he follows a precarious path with this formula and, in Nostromo, Conrad slips over the edge, taking the reader with him. We find ourselves in a bog inhabited by unhappy and uninteresting people doing nothing of significance. We search in vain for a reason to put ourselves through this experience. Nostromo is a mess.

—Reed Scowen

As for Me and My House

Sinclair Ross

This dreary icon of CanLit could tempt new readers to change citizenship. In the prairie town of Horizon (a characteristically heavy irony), a thwarted artist and non-believing minister named Philip Bentley suffers and sins. His wife, who does not merit a first name, channels her stunted passions by serving as a wholly untrustworthy narrator. A kind of prairie Madame Butterfly, minus the suicide and sex appeal, she details her husband’s constant hissy fits with doting devotion.

It helps—although not enough—to heed the critics and read it as a homoerotic fantasy. Even the book’s original readers, back in 1941, must have paused at Mrs. Bentley’s laconic observation that Philip “likes boys.” She thinks he is just pining for a son. She also thinks he is difficult because he is an artist, with only the occasional stifled suspicion that he is actually a narcissistic jerk.

The ending is almost insultingly Canadian: the couple flees to the big city, presumably Winnipeg or Calgary, to open a second-hand bookstore. Hint to aspiring writers: As For Me is long overdue for a feminist parody, in which Mrs. Bentley snatches up old whey-faced Judith (the novel’s anemic femme fatale) and heads south to open a brothel.

—Suanne Kelman

The Brothers Karamazov

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

When I was young I found Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov boring, and I gave up. Five years ago I tried again, and I pondered which of the four sons was responsible for killing the horrible father. I forced myself to read a bit each day. I got further, but I was not just bored: the book seemed rambling, and it was painful to read about these people. I reached page 490, which still has a paper clip on it: 211 pages to go.

I find Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment totally engaging. I experience Raskolnikov’s consciousness from the inside, so why not that of the Karamazovs? I know Freud liked the book, but perhaps that was because he hated his father more than I hated mine. Do I dislike the book because unconsciously I cannot face how nasty we human beings can be?

My translation of Karamazov was by Constance Garnet, a smoother-over—we are told—of the idiosyncrasies of Dostoyevsky’s language. After I started to write this, I went out and bought the version of Karamazov by the superb translators Pevear and Volokhonsky, and I read the first chapter. Perhaps I’ll have another try.

—Keith Oatley

Lament for a Nation

George Grant

I first read George Grant’s Lament for a Nation many years ago. In it, Grant lamented the decline, indeed the impossibility, of the loyalist and Tory sensibility in Canada. He rapidly became a kind of locus classicus for those who wished to praise a socially conscious red Tory tradition, particularly in opposition to more relevant and more threatening kinds of conservatism.

Finding Lament among some of my old books recently, I reread it. I found myself underwhelmed by his philosophical name dropping; some of his historical remarks have also, to put it gently, lost their empirical moorings (apparently English conservatism was pretty well dead by the early 19th century, which would have been news to Pitt, Peel, Liverpool or Disraeli). But I was struck above all by its parochialism. The really active force behind his polemic is anti-Americanism. It leads him to forget that the original loyalists did not fight for Canadian independence: they fought for a united Anglo-Saxon empire. Canadian independence was an unintended consequence of that fight; to fetishize national independence is to forget the original point. A conservatism that has forgotten what it wanted to conserve is left only with its animosities; it is conservatism reduced to an affectation, which goes some way toward explaining why Grant is every leftist’s favourite Tory.

—Mark F. Proudman