Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Fiction: faulty or fabulous

Often after reading allegedly excellent literature, I wonder whether I've lost the ability to immerse myself in a good book. For instance, recently I read A Student of Living Things by Susan Richards Shreve, a novel that earned blurbs of praise from authors I respect and that was favorably compared to Ian McEwan's Saturday. I found Shreve's novel turgid, vapid, and amateurish, but when I looked at all that lavish praise, I wondered whether the fault was mine.

"This is it, then," I thought. "Gone are the days when a great work of fiction could grab me by the eyeballs, ream out my innards, and fill me with molten gold, when a good book could take such total possession of my mind that turning over the final page was physically painful. It's all academic now. Fiction is a closed book."

Then I read something really wonderful like Ian McEwan's Saturday and I realize that the fault lies not in me but in the mediocrity that makes its way into print these days. I understand why readers would compare Saturday with A Student of Living Things: both novels explore the evolution of particular families in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, and both are concerned with the challenges of survival and reproduction in the midst of daily danger. Place the books side-by-side, though, and the Shreve book suffers: it is peopled with paper dolls manipulated in support of an overworked metaphor, while McEwan's novel explores depths undreamed of by Shreve.

Like a skilled surgeon, McEwan exposes the human condition in all its complexity, laying out for readers' inspection the secrets of human dignity in the midst of struggle. The pace is slow and many of the events are mundane and unexceptional, but the characters live and breathe and love and think in a manner entirely believable and worthy of attention. At the most intense point I could not wait to turn the pages, hoping for a swift end to the characters' suffering, but turning the last page left me with a sense of loss, a sadness over leaving the world of the book.

But it's not the end after all. Reading a book like this restores my faith in fiction. I haven't lost it! Fiction is not a closed book but an open door! Now if only I could get someone to paint a big bold M on the doors opening only to Mediocrity, I would be a happy reader.

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