Thursday, April 26, 2007

eagerly joining the ranks of the common hater, or, a random book review

To finally pick up where I left off...

I've heard Heather O'Neill's pieces occasionally on my favourite radio show, Wiretap. Once I heard a bit by her called "Grandfather Says" (or something like that), and it was so wonderful that I looked her up immediately, discovering then that she was the long term GF of Wiretap host Jonathan Goldstein.

When I heard her book Lullabies for Little Criminals had been chosen for CBC's "Canada Reads" Program (where a bunch of people discuss a few books at length and then choose one that they think all of Canada "should" read), I thought, "Cool!" But then I read it and hated it.

The main problem with Lullabies for Little Criminals, according to me, is that the voice doesn't ring true. (Plenty of people seem to disagree with me on this - a quick google search will reveal many glowing reviews.) It did occur to me that it might just be written in such an unusual voice that I simply didn't get it, but since I get to have a personal, subjective opinion, I'll confess right now that I think it was forced, fake, contrived and pretentious.

See, the way I figure it, one of the known conceits in writing is that the character who narrates a story might not plausibly be a good storyteller in "real life" (bear with me here) - but the author gets to act as the silent conduit or translator to let it be as if they were, as if they could. That misogynist bastard Picasso was right when he said "Art is the lie that tells the truth." I can live with that.

Lullabies is supposedly narrated by a 12 year old girl. Even accepting the conceit that the author gets to unobtrusively facilitate the telling of the story, it just doesn't sound like a 12 year old, even a wildly unusual 12 year old. It sounds like Heather O'Neill pretending to be a 12 year old, and throwing in needless verbal acrobatics in some outlandish attempt to impress on every page. (Read the interviews at the back and you'll recognize the voice immediately.)

Really, if a real pre-teen was to narrate the story of his or her life, even an articulate, precocious 12 year old would jump all over the place, and there'd be unintentional posturing and faking and dissembling. Instead, in Lullabies, we get clunky, precious prose drowning in a torrent of awful similes that trample the occasional beautiful bits that DO work. I feel like the whole book is O'Neill jumping up and down squeaking, "Look what I can do! Look what I can do!"

Here's what I'll consider a litmus test for you: A slideshow by the author, corresponding to bits from the book. I swear, if I ever get a novel published, (which would have to start with the considerable accomplishment of actually writing one, I suppose), you could not pay me enough to do a this, which strikes me as orgiastically self-congratulatory and makes my skin crawl. But you might find it magical. Who knows? I won't hate you for it.

I joked with a friend that the best way to communicate why I didn't like the book would be to just send him a list of similes from it.

Do I come through for you, or WHAT? This is just a start, and I likely missed thousands as I secretly skimmed through this at my desk while all other employees were at lunch. Keep in mind that this is also just culled from about the first 30 pages or so. It's truly unrelenting.

Why just this morning I read a single paragraph that had TWO FUCKING SIMILES in it.

It smelled as if a florist shop had caught on fire and all the flowers were burning.

A glass soap dish shaped like a shell had been left behind and a set of fake nails were lying in it, like petals that had fallen off a flower.

Hell's Angels, buzzing down the street like bees.

The sky was the colour of television static.

Each candy was like taking a chick out of its egg too early.

The moon was like a melting bit of ice in a glass of water.

The snowflakes were like spiders on their invisible webs coming down.

Their voices made it sound like we were at a bottom of a well.

The glasses and jars filled with water looked like a dismantled chandelier.

The smoke came out of his mouth like ribbons being pulled off a present.

The houses reminded me of milk cartons.

The trees around there looked like garbage. They looked like a pile of old fences and car parts leaned up one against the other.

The seagulls reminded me of a scene from a movie I'd seen, where a flurry of hands wearing white gloves were applauding at the opera.

The kids looked like old women going through a bag of clothes at a community center.

He looked like Marilyn Monroe would have when she was twelve.

Sleeping next to Zachary was like sleeping in the middle of a cherry pie that had just come out of the oven.

The ground was silvery, as if some stars had fallen there.

My heart sounded like a flat tire thumping down the highway.

All the petals fell to the ground, as if someone had emptied a hole puncher.

Parents seem as fragile as a glass horse on a shelf.

The tattoo glowed as bright as a stigmata.

That light gave me the same shocked sensation you get after having been slapped in the face.

His hair was dyed different colours in different places, kind of like a dusting brush.

He'd cut his finger open and the cold water turned red for a moment, just like the tail of a fancy goldfish.

When they touched the elastic of my underwear, it was as if I had peed a tiny butterfly.

He talked as if he had just shoved a spoonful of burning hot macaroni in his mouth.

Do I really need to say anything else about it or is my position now clear?


At April 26, 2007 1:11 p.m., Blogger John E. White said...

Your critique was like a cold enema on a winter morning outside in the snow, when the sky above was like a sheet of new aluminum foil and snowflakes were falling like ashes from a fire in a cotton factory next to a river that was the colour of smack being heated in a spoon.

Feel free to use any of the above in your next book. I have more.

At April 27, 2007 3:04 a.m., Anonymous blackbeltbarrister said...

"Sleeping next to Zachary was like sleeping in the middle of a cherry pie that had just come out of the oven."

Oh, dear. Oh, dear oh dear oh dear.

How about: 'Sleeping next to Zachary was like sleeping in the middle of a sock that had been forgotten in the dryer, then redried with the next load.'

At May 12, 2007 5:43 a.m., Blogger Jonathan said...

I have an aversion to smiley faces too... and brackets. How weird does that sound?

When writing long bodies of text, I will often re-structure an entire paragraph to avoid using brackes (parenthesis). lol...

Oh - I hate acronyms like "lol" in large bodies of text too, but also know that I write them in comments.


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