Reader, I gave up…

May 11, 2022

I’ve just given up on a book for the first time in quite a while, and have found myself wondering what it is that makes me do such a thing. I have a rule for myself that if a book isn’t satisfying me after sixty or so pages, then I stop. Partly it’s about feeling that, at my age, I don’t have what I call ‘eyeball time’ to waste, but there’s more to it than that, I’m sure.

I’m quite careful in my choices, and increasingly I will decide I’m not going to bother starting, especially if it’s a book someone has recommended, or lent me, or is for a book group: ie I haven’t chosen it myself because it fits into my current reading schedule.

I don’t like giving up on a book: partly I’ve already invested a certain amount of time, and so feel I should finish what I started, and partly through an (admittedly naive) belief that if something has reached print, then someone has deemed it worth reading. I often read something, and at the end realise I didn’t like or enjoy it; I don’t mind that as my training in and studies of literature have enabled me to read critically and evaluate.

Moving on to the book in question this time, All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews. This was someone’s choice for our book group. I was a tad dubious before beginning, but duty called. And before I got to page 100, I’d asked myself a couple of times, “Can I really be bothered?” The theme of the story is potentially interesting enough, two sisters, one of whom is seriously depressed and suicidal and the other’s attempts to help/save the sister she loves.

But it just didn’t work for me. I realised after a while it was monotonous: there was no change or variation in the tone of the narrative at all. It just went on, page after page, in the same fashion. Nor was there any variation in pace: the whole thing plodded along. No buildup of tension, then climax, then slowing down for a while, or shifting the narrative in another direction. And then I realised that it was pretty much entirely narrated in the present tense, which to me is a very lazy way of writing, extremely common nowadays, and one which primary school children were encouraged to move on from, or at least vary somewhat, in their early attempts at story.

Now someone might argue that there were deliberate authorial choices behind decisions to write in this manner. To me, however, it smacks of laziness of the kind that a decent editor should have addressed. Some readers might feel fine with such writing, some may never have remarked on it at all. I felt it was shoddy goods, quite honestly.

The sisters came from a Mennonite community in Canada. This background in itself might have added interest to the story and some insight into the characters, but it felt like just a wee bit of exotica thrown in without much of a thought. What finally ended my reading was realising that I didn’t actually give the proverbial monkey’s about any of the characters or what happened to any of them. Again, this may seem a little harsh given the serious subject-matter of the plot, but neither the characters nor their problems were presented in a convincing manner, to this reader at least. We are told one sister is depressed and suicidal, but I never encountered any real insight into these conditions.

I’m cross, really: misled by a book which I had hoped might be worthwhile, and wondering once again about the nature of modern mass-market fiction, especially that written in English: is there anything worth reading out there? British and American novels – says he, generalising wildly – disappeared up its own fundament long ago; interesting and thought-provoking writing is coming from other parts of the world. I’ve had enough of cheap eyeball candy.

Rant over.

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