I mentioned previously that I’ve joined a few book groups to intentionally push my reading into the late 20th and early 21st centuries, because, if left to my own devices, I’d spend most of my leisure time in the 19th century and the Renaissance. When I have ventured into the new world of literature, it’s been for other worlds: as soon as George R. R. Martin‘s next Song of Ice and Fire comes out, you can bet your Lannister ass that I’ll be dropping everything to go and serve my khaleesi. I also read a lot of current non-fiction, and once a summer I’ll tear through a James Patterson potboiler, but on the whole I avoid contemporary fiction.
Part of this has to do with the sheer fact that by reading older works I gain a deeper appreciation of history. It’s one thing to read a historical text about Victorian England, for example, but it takes a novel to bring it back to life. By virtue of the fact that I’m alive at this moment, I don’t need anyone to tell me what it’s like to be alive now. Of course, gaining a sense of time isn’t the only reason a person reads fiction — the greatest works transcend time and place, anyway.
The bigger issue for me is that when I have tried to read contemporary novelists, I’m often turned off by their narrative voices. I can’t even pinpoint exactly why that is, except to say that too often it seems like authors go far out of their way to be outré, and I find that to be off-putting. That, and so much of our contemporary moment is about the individual and coming to terms with one’s shortcomings and making peace with society, et cetera, which gives authors a tendency towards first person narration, which in turn creates a tendency towards whiny narrators. A whiny character can be humorous, but only when kept in line by a 3rd person omniscient.
Well, rereading what I’ve just written only confirms my reasons for exposing myself to more contemporary fiction: I can obviously be a curmudgeonly fussbucket, and I don’t want to be. So I joined some book groups and tomorrow I’ll be attending a discussion of Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick. Tonight I’d like to gather my thoughts about it so that I’ll have some things to share tomorrow.
First let me say that I enjoyed the book. I read it cover to cover in one sitting on my bus ride from Cincinnati (where I was visiting family for the holidays) to New York City (where I currently live), and it was a perfect read for the bus: just the right length, just the right depth, easy to put down for 20 minutes while I stared out the window at the Pennsylvania farmland and then pick right back up where I left off.
I liked the character of Pat and found myself rooting for him. I’m not a sports guy, but the scenes that involved him watching football with his father and brother were particularly poignant. The references to all the novels that Nikki made her students read were amusing, especially since I’ve had similar thoughts as Pat: Why is everything you read in English class so depressing? — and I’m an English teacher. As a matter of fact, two years ago I taught Pride & Prejudice and a student said to me, “I don’t understand why we’re reading this — there’s no incest and nothing awful happens.” The fact that she thought a novel worth reading ought to have incest in it basically proves Pat’s point. Truth be told, this book’s happy ending was a refreshing change from a lot of the stuff I read; I suppose I’m a bit like Nikki and prefer tragedy’s ability to illuminate human nature, but reading a comedy like this one was fun. I liked Nikki’s insistence that he practice being kind rather than being right — I’ll definitely be using that line.
Having said that…
My issues with the 1st person narration were not assuaged. I found myself liking Pat, but wanting to take a break and get out of his head for awhile. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’m wondering if the forced 3rd person view imposed by the camera might alleviate some of the frustration I began to feel seeing through his eyes.
A number of things bothered me because they just didn’t feel realistic. I have no problem suspending disbelief to a certain point, but this wasn’t Game of Thrones that demands that you accept some pretty impossible things. This book is set in the here and now, so here’s what I just couldn’t buy:
- Pat’s father’s emotional instability. Does a human being really allow a sport to control the amount of joy they’re willing to experience? Like I say, I’m not a sports guy, but I just found his father’s mood swings to be hard to believe. I know there are all sorts of men out there who aren’t very expressive or good with their emotions, but most are pretty consistent in that regard — they don’t flit around like giddy teenagers just because their team won, or treat everyone they know worse for a whole week until the next game just because they lost. Do they?
- Pat’s mental instability. At the beginning I thought he was schizophrenic, but as the story went on he didn’t seem to have too many problems aside from loathing Kenny G and not accepting that his estranged wife wouldn’t want to see him. He spoke like an adult most of the time, except to refer to “apart time” in a very child-like manner. He was obviously institutionalized for a reason, and he clearly lost track of a lot of years while he was there, but he seems mostly fine throughout the present moment of the story. So, when I finally found out that his brain trauma was caused by Nikki hitting him on the head to keep him from killing her lover in a fit of jealous rage, it just made me wonder. Can head trauma make you: A) lose that many years; B) tap into superhuman strength that would allow you workout for 10 hours and run 10 miles daily and then C) stay up all night without sleep to read Huckleberry Finn but D) still say things like “apart time” that make you sound like a 5 year old despite your other highly developed super-abilities; E) internalize Kenny G as kryptonite just because his music played at your wedding? Is any of this actually possible?
- Why go through Tiffany’s elaborate Cyrano act of passing letters when in the end Nikki is still living in the same house and working at the same school, and you could have just gone there the whole time. I thought her whereabouts were completely unknown, but he had no trouble finding her there at the end.
- Tiffany’s sex addiction. Remember what I wrote above about contemporary authors being outré? This bit of character history was one of those moments. My husband was a sex addict, but he died the day I cut him off, so I became a sex addict too. Seriously?
With the exception of Pat’s father’s emotional oddity, most of these things didn’t come up until the end so they didn’t detract from my reading of the book which, as mentioned, I generally liked. I’ll be interested to hear what others bring up during tomorrow’s discussion, and I’ll be sure to add an addendum to this post if anyone happens to change my mind or further my thinking.