I have previously derided Tom McCarthy’s comments about the ‘the novel being the anti-novel,’ but, finally, I am beginning to see the light. The last two books I have read have been what I can only term ‘concepts’ novels, that is, books that do not take the form of a traditional structure.
We are invited to believe (or suspend belief) that A D Miller’s Snowdrops is a pre-nuptial confessional: 288 pages of the stuff. O.k., I commit myself to going along for the ride. I’m familiar with the confessional. I understand the desire to get a few things out in the open. Where I take issue is what kind of man would describe passionate scenes in a sauna with a nubile young Russian to his bride-to-be? Throwing in lines such as ‘I’m only telling you this because I think you can take it’ doesn’t really cut it for me. Unless, that is, he doesn’t really want to marry her in the first place…or is that the point?
But hasn’t Miller captured the atmosphere of Russia so precisely? one member of my writers’ group asks. Yes, I agree. The fact that the writing is so good is precisely why it is such a shame that the structure of the book seems flawed.
Likewise, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin takes the form of a series of letters written to an estranged husband. And yet from the very beginning the tone of those letters don’t ring true. The language is literary – unnecessarily so – not an authentic familiar exchange. I keep wondering why Eva would describe in such detail scenes at which her husband was present?
In Kevin, all is made clear with the twist in the penultimate chapter. But I don’t have that Ah! moment. Instead, I am left thinking, Was that clever – or was I supposed to think that was clever? Should the skeleton of a novel be so visibly on display, or should it be subtler?
Both were excellent stories, both authors had something to say. It is how they chose to present their material that leaves me cold.
I think that the reason neither concept seemed to be entirely credible is that both were written, not with the addressee foremost in mind, but with a third party, i.e., the reader. In other words, the premise is manufactured. This problem isn’t replicated in Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal which takes the form of Barbara’s diary because if you can’t be self-indulgent in a diary intended for a readership of one, when can you be? And there is something delicious about delving into someone else’s diary, particularly when it’s author isn’t trying to hide her true self and the content turns out to be scandalous.
For my next read, I plan to chose a story simply told, and with a good old-fashioned third party narrator.