Thursday, February 26, 2009

Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
This novel is sabotaged by its author. Rushdie’s brilliance as a stylist and the inventiveness of his mind are on relentless display; he overwhelms his own work. The characters and plot can’t move; they’re buried under his ego. And why does Rushdie constantly (over and over!) interject remarks about what will happen later in the story (when something will, ostensibly, take on meaning)? At the point where the authorial conceit had gotten waist deep, I decided to slog on no further.

An American Tragedy - Theodore Dreiser
It’s a tragedy that Dreiser didn’t recognize the virtue of conciseness. Not that I expect minimalism from him; he was an expansive writer. But the reason I stopped reading this novel (at around page 400, just short of the halfway mark) is that he belabored everything, and did so in a lumbering prose. I knew I had enough when I expected the next chapters to hash over the same emotions. Couldn’t someone have clued Dreiser in to the fact that when he had revealed a state of mind he didn’t need to repeat it twenty times? He had a strong story to tell, but we get the material in its crude form, every last bit of it; there’s no selectivity. Dreiser’s first novel, Sister Carrie, also long (though half the length of Tragedy), was more artfully done; he created a full and detailed picture of life, but it was accomplished with a deft touch. In Tragedy he constructs scenes as if he were moving heavy blocks of stone. Instead of getting better as a writer, Dreiser became long-winded and boring.

Germinal - Emile Zola (French)
Darkness pervades this novel like a shroud. That darkness is true to Zola’s subject. We’re deep in the coal mines; when above ground we experience the harsh, bleak lives of the miners and their families. These people are brutish, they’re noble, they’re both. But most of all they’re real, which is what a social protest novel needs to survive. Shining through, like a light at the end of a long tunnel, are those things that many yearn for: love, kindness, tenderness. The book has problems – Zola can be maudlin, and the closing chapter is surprisingly weak (where is Catherine?). Yet the scene in the collapsed mine was so strong that it became an ordeal I had to go through. This is a work of passion executed with craftsmanship. Zola was a realist and a humanitarian with something to say.

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