Not long ago, a friend who has been reading literary novels for years recommended one to me – Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami – and gave me the Kindle version. Murakami is award-winning and well-reviewed, so I launched into the book with considerable hope.
I immediately met a protagonist who didn’t care much about his own life and whose memories were dominated by a love affair with a woman who barely registered as a character. I got thirty pages into it before I decided I didn’t care enough about either of them to keep reading.
I should have known better. Years ago, before the advent of Kindle, I brought home a few promising-looking books from the library for Ruth, a voracious reader. Ruth glanced through them and rejected one out of hand. “It’s won awards,” she said.
I’ve written before about my frustration with modern literary stories where nothing happens – stories that are beautifully, skillfully written, but ultimately pointless. But there’s more going on in Murakami’s book than artful stagnation — I’ve read the summary of the plot on Norwegian Wood’s Wikipedia page, and it confirmed my decision to abandon the book. His characters are in a desperate search for meaning while being driven by forces beyond their control through an uncaring world. It’s a dark vision of what it means to be human.
Murakami is not the only one who shares this vision. I got about halfway through Cormack McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, another recommendation from a literary friend, before I realized that I didn’t care enough about Grady’s increasingly painful and meaningless life to wade through the unconventional punctuation. My interest in English history was the only thing that got me to the end of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, where I watched another honorable man slowly flattened by forces beyond his control.
The problem may be getting worse. Back in the eighties, I read and enjoyed E. L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate. It was a beautifully-written and fast-paced coming of age story, with an engaging protagonist and an intriguing supporting cast. A couple years ago, I tried Doctorow’s more recent Andrew’s Brain, and while I found parts of it technically interesting, I was once again faced with a character about whom I didn’t care very much, a story that required considerable effort to follow, and an ending where the protagonist is simply ground down by life.
Why are so many gifted writers drawn to the dark side of life? Why are they driven to present characters who are hard to love or lovable characters in situations that are either hard to follow or hard to endure? Why does it feel like work to read them? And why are they winning awards for this? [Read more…]