Monday, April 06, 2009

A 31% Review.

Is it ever OK to review a book after having read 31% of it?  I don't think this falls under the purview of Pierre Bayard's How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read, but I couldn't say, because I haven't read it.  Certainly when you've read enough of a book that the will to finish it is vanquished by the desire to no longer be subjected to it, you have made a de facto judgment.  The judgment to stop, in this case was the right one, but what about the decision to start it?

I discovered in February that I had, all on my own, already read 5 of the 16 books that would be participating in the Morning News' 2009 Tournament of Books.  I was excited!  In the past, I'd stumbled upon the tournament in medias res, or after it was ended, or I'd not really been interested in the competitors.  But this year I had several horses in the race, most notably, the best book I've read in years, Netherland by Joseph O'Neill (guess I outed my zombie vote there), and I would actually be able to have informed opinions about many of the results and might even discover a book or two that I'd like to read.  Imagine how pleased I was when The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, mewling usurper of the 2008 Man Booker, pathetic Prince John to Netherland's Richard I, Coeur de Lion, was overtaken in the first round by the hitherto unknown to me Harry, Revised

Rereading the judges' and commentators' views of Harry, Revised in Rounds One and Two again after I've read as much of the book as I'm going to has me wondering what bad judgment call got me to read the book in the first place?  Cautionary comments are abundant:  first round judge Jonah Lehrer bemusedly says, of the eponym Harry Rent, "he doesn’t like the Monte Cristo, even though he orders it every time",  commentator Kevin Guilfoile certainly mentions the prostitutes that the author innovatively and ingeniously has Harry visit, and second round judge David Rees is so torqued off by the book and the unsatisfying end, he presents us with a "transcript" of his talk to his therapist about it.  Now, who in their right mind doesn't like a Monte Cristo?  That's a huge red flag!  It's like Robert Shaw as Red Grant ordering red wine to go with the sole on the train to Zagreb in From Russia With Love.  Connery's Bond was INSTANTLY alerted that something was up, and I should have been too. 

After all of this evidence that this book was to be avoided (and the growing suspicion that knocking White Tiger out in the first round was a cynical contrarian manouver), as Eliza Doolittle says, this is "what done 'er in":

"Despite a few too many allusions to Dumas—Harry models himself on the Count of Monte Cristo—Sarvas does an admirable job of fleshing out a 19th-century narrative skeleton with some pitch-perfect descriptions of 21st-century Los Angeles and its denizens, from the Brentwood podiatrist to the diner waitress."

So, you got me thinking some Flaubert-Dumas hybrid set in current LA is what we're dealing with here, and I am supposed to have the mental wherewithal withstand the power of that suggestion?  I am supposed to know that just because you slap a faux iconic Penguin's Classics cover with a Jacques-Louis Davidesqe portrait (evoking the fevered image of Kleist or Constant) over the protagonist's head on your book cover, that it's marketing and it actually has nothing to do with your book whatsoever?  "Pitch-perfect descriptions of 21st century Los Angeles and it's denizens"...?  Only if that denizen is a benighted Michael Scott type 40 lbs later (who has the stunning originality to think, just like every other middle aged man ever in the history of all time that his salvation lies in sex with someone in their early 20s) who escapes one contrived situation only to fall neatly into an even bigger stew.  Kinda like The Hot Rock.  Michael Scott in The Hot Rock I like (great premise...i just came up with that right now!), but not when you're sold on Adolphe for the 21st century.

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