The novel and me—a love-hate relationship
Being retired I have the time to read a lot. For the first time in decades I’ve been reading, or trying to read, a diversity of novels. For years now, most contemporary novels have left me dissatisfied. Too often I feel I might as well be watching television. So I skim them or cast them aside. What is supposed to make them reader-friendly irritates me profoundly—predicable plots, realistic but extremely banal dialogue, attempts at clever sound-bites, well-meaning moral correctness that is supposed to make up for the pedestrian language, repetition of the obvious and the annoying habit of tying things together through a plot. It is the places, the locations, the inner life of characters as I first meet them that captivates me, then in a typical novel the whole thing degenerates into plot. There is this bizarre compulsion to knit things together in an ending. I feel I am learning nothing new. So I skim read. There are favourite novelists I read and reread, taking delight in their insights and the texture of their prose—for example, Proust, Balzac, Dostoyevski, Virginia Woolf, Patrick White, Michael Ondaatje, W. G. Sebald, Romain Gary, Pierre Michon, Patrick Modiano, Albert Camus, Italo Calvino. The French authors have an unfair advantage—it is extremely hard for me to skim read in French, so I like reading novels in French. But Modiano and Michon have a skill missed by so many English-language novelists—they are happy to write very short, finely-tuned novels that know how to lift at certain moments into a highly individual, precisely articulated luminosity. And Michon, like Sebald, is very good at blending history, writers, thinkers and artists, into his imaginary works. I don’t feel shut down in a mundane world. I feel I am really having my life expanded.
To give more context to my resistance to most contemporary novels I should add that I don’t watch television and haven’t had a television in the house for the past twelve years. It was a decision made by my late partner and myself when we started living together in 2007. We both regretted the hours we had lost already to television addiction. I miss SBS News but not much else. Reading contemporary novels I often feel I’m being sold short, both at the level of language and at the level of thinking and imagining, as if I’m still in the hands of some entertainment cartel. However well-intentioned or socially significant the material, there is a formulaic feel to them. The convention of tying everything together, the compulsory sex component, the happy ending genre, the lack of depth, the ‘coolness’, all make me feel I am wasting valuable hours. So I want to get it over quickly. I skim read. Let’s be clear. I don’t feel this way about some novels and novelists, or about lots of non-fiction that I happily read. Some poetry can also irritate me in a similar way—often American, sometimes Australian or British poetry, when it starts resembling a fragmented autobiography demarcated from prose by little more than the line breaks.
There are some recent novels I’ve read closely and deeply enjoyed—last year, Anil’s Ghost and War Light by Ondaatje; a few years back, A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth; and, just last week, Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other. These last two stand out for their wide cast of characters, each portrayed in a rapid visual manner, beautifully crisp prose and tons of humour. Both (not unlike Balzac) give me the feel of a vast world I am learning about and have a connection to poetry. Evaristo’s verse-style layout and clipped language deliver a fast rhythm and block my skimming habit. To be fair, Evaristo is, in places, a bit clichéd in expression, especially in the last two chapters where she knits almost everyone together and delivers a range of feel-good conclusions, but most of the way through her writing is subtle, humorous, very aware of life’s complexities. If she chooses to emphasise positive outcomes it does serve to avoid the negative stereotypes of black lives in Britain—poverty, drugs, violence, crime—though all that is present as well. I wondered in hindsight if the exclusion of males from the novel didn’t unintentionally underplay the full malevolent reality of racism. Racial profiling, lives lost to prison sentences, the vindictive Windrush deportations, deep systemic racism, which may perhaps traumatise black male lives in special ways, are only partially visible. But as a white male who has never lived in England for more than a few months I am in no position really to comment—only to say that the book held me and was powerful.
Other novels I have read so far this year include Gail Jones’ The Death of Noah Glass, Markus Zusak’s Bridges of Clay and Richard Powers’ The Overstory (winner of a Pulitzer Prize). Of these three only Gail Jones’ novel held me all the way through and felt consistently, satisfyingly like literature and not like a well-meaning product of the print-division of the entertainment industry. I am conscious here of the risk of being merely a grumpy old man out of step with what most readers want. But I also suspect I’m not alone in my disenchantment with the contemporary novel.
It is hard for me to understand the dividing line between novels I’m inclined to gloss over and those I read with full attention. Zusak’s Bridges of Clay had me skimming from the start with the confusing opening chapters and the prose that read like Young Adult Fiction (fine, if you want to read YAF but Zusak’s books are not marketed that way), though once the story focussed on the Polish mother the novel lifted enormously for me. I was engrossed by The Overstory until around the half-way mark when Powers started tying the people together instead of leaving them to float free and letting the trees, the vegetable world, be as powerful a voice as the humans. With the accidental death of a vigilante protester in an attack on a sawmill, plot began to dominate. A clichéd edge to the characters started to build. Soul-searching and collective guilt over what was hardly a murder seemed to be elaborated ad nauseam as the book trundled on for hundreds of pages. Unlike Evaristo, Powers does not seem to do humour. At some point I stopped reading. I couldn’t help comparing it unfavourably with Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees which, in contrast, is beautifully written, lyrical and imaginative and less than a quarter the length.
Why do I have such conflicted feelings about most novels from the last twenty or thirty years, including ones by highly celebrated authors? It is partly to do with writing style—competence where I crave an unexpected, breathtaking beauty; partly to do with plots that so often creak or feel familiar. It’s partly the sheer length of the average novel in the English-language tradition and so the time they demand—the short story or French récit, like Éric Vuillard’s The Order of the Day, have the immense advantage of brevity and so encourage precision and imagination in the writing. But it’s also that so few contemporary novels tell me something new, move me and transform me the way the very best non-fiction can. At the same time so few carry the frisson, the original spark of intensity, that I find in the best poetry. You could also say that I don’t trust today’s novelist the way I trust a clearly knowledgeable and passionate non-fiction writer or a poet writing at the peak of their power. I fear that, at some level, the marketplace is pulling the strings. I wonder whether in the early 21st century non-fiction, poetry and alternate, shorter forms of fiction, are not more viable, resilient forms of literature.
Peter Boyle is a Sydney-based poet and translator of poetry from Spanish and French. He has had eight books of poetry published and has seven books as a translator of Latin American poetry. In 2017 he won the New South Wales Premier’s Prize for poetry with his book Ghostspeaking. His latest collection is Enfolded in the Wings of a Great Darkness (Vagabond Press, 2019).