What Happened to the Novel?

[Mild spoiler alert, but if you read this all the way through, hopefully you won’t buy or read either Michael Chabon’s “Telegraph Avenue” or JK Rowling’s “Casual Vacancy”, the two novels I’m about to skewer.]

What has happened to the art form known as the novel? I’ll drop the superlatives of “great” and geographical restriction of “American” and just aim for solid writing, character development, and the aperature into the depicted time and place that make you feel not only that you rode along the timeline with the characters but you and they are better for having taken the trip.

Let’s dissect Michael Chabon’s newest, Telegraph Avenue. While the book is broken into multiple parts, it can be summarized as: 1. I Have A Dictionary 2. I Engage In Self-Stimulation 3. Nothing Happens. It was a tiring read — mostly because the first third of the book is an exploration of adjectives that would cross an SAT tutor’s eyes. I love discovering a new word, making a note (typically using Evernote) to glean its meaning from context well conveyed. But when that’s happening three times per page, all that’s conveyed is a sense that the author would like you to believe he or she is smarter than you. That is likely the case, but I go to work for that feeling in a positive way and not have to pay $15 for the privilege. Worse, in my opinion, is that the mechanic of cross-referencing jazz titles to the narrative would have worked had Chabon actually pulled the thread a bit tighter and used it to explain why those titles were chosen, or why the characters related to them. Most out of place, and the moment that made me decide I didn’t like the book (maybe 150 pages in) was a passing reference to Yes’ “Close To The Edge”. It was meant to be, I think, a lateral reference, a work of progressive rock that somehow had as little business being in a used jazz record shop as, say, the typical reader. But do your homework: Bill Bruford, drummer on that album, moved on to be an outstanding jazz percussionist, and a writer could use that point to explain why that particular album was chosen for a reference. Instead, with a parenthetical remark, it left me feeling like the research was Wikipedia deep.

The entire chapter about the parrot is onanistic.

And at the end of this journey through more changes and styles than a King Crimson song (Bruford played drums), I’m left wondering what’s resolved. Aren’t novels supposed to stimulate feelings of love, loyalty, allegiances, familial duty, or catharsis? At the end of the Avenue I felt more like I was relieved it was over, and that the characters had trudged through, perhaps a bit worn out from the journey, but that nothing had really changed, and they were all mid-level screw-ups in their own too-disjointed lives.

And speaking of disjointed — Skip JK Rowling’s Casual Vacancy as well. At times I wondered if she went back to “Write what you know” as the oldest writer’s maxim, and was attempting to be autobiographical with her accounts of the poor in the UK’s housing projects. But as the novel progressed, I got the distinct feeling that this a weird confluence of tricks that worked in Harry Potter applied to people.

More specifically, in each of the Harry Potter books, there’s some magical object that’s introduced in passing early on and ends up playing a major role in denouement as the time-and-space bending plot lines are explained. The Room of Requirement, the Time Twister, the exchange cabinets used by the Malfoys — each one had some special feature, some singular donation to the plot that turned them into Chehkov’s gun on the mantelpiece, fired much later and hitting more targets with one shot than a Muggle weapon.

This handy plot device works for things, but not people. Each of the characters in Vacancy has a flaw – selfishness, mania, delusion, compulsion – some medical, some psychological, some contextual – but the flaws’ origins aren’t explored (Why exactly is Jolly a cutter?) nor do they lead to these novel arguments and tension and release points that I’m looking for (So Jolly stops cutting after a near-death experience, one sentence, and done?). If the intent was to give us a slice of life view of the UK, it fails, if it was to be a novel for adults, why is it the punk kids try, very hard, to steal the show again?

At its very worst, it’s Scooby Doo / Charles Dickens slash fiction.

So yes, I read both books, cover to cover, and didn’t have that halo effect upon turning the last page that I’d experienced something wonderful, a mental departure that I’d revisit, or that I’d spent a thought-provoking week as a guest in someone else’s timeline. I was a guest, certainly, and I was happy to take my leave.

2 thoughts on “What Happened to the Novel?

  1. Geoff

    Thanks for the tips. I tend to avoid Chabon anyway, but I was tempted by the JK Rowling.

    Anyway, if you haven’t yet done so, I recommend that you read “Cloud Atlas”. You should read it before you see the movie, and since you MUST see the movie… Perhaps it will restore your faith in the novel.


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