Monday, April 16, 2012

Three recent novels disappoint

Three books I had hoped to like, but didn’t:

Book 38: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

Book 39: Carry the One by Carol Anshaw

Book 40: The Train of Small Mercies by David Rowell

I admire the conceit behind Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son.  North Korea is one of the most insular nations in the world, so the idea of setting a novel there is intriguing.  

The plot largely revolves around a man assuming the identity of a high ranking North Korean official. Everyone knows he isn’t who he claims to be, but they all go along with the deception.

Although he portrays a fictional reality, Johnson succeeds in helping the reader understand the vast gulf between our comprehension of life in North Korea and the reality of life there. The reverse is also true: North Koreans are simply incapable of comprehending life in America.

I couldn’t help but think about the video on the nightly news following the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il that showed a nation of mourners. I’d felt they were faking, spontaneously erupting in tears and wails and gnashing of teeth to convince a Western audience of their love for their dearly departed despot. 

After reading Johnson’s novel, I wonder if the outpouring of grief wasn’t more genuine. Can something be both genuine, yet deeply insincere?

I applaud Johnson’s courage in writing this literary high-wire act, but that’s as far as I can go. The novel never truly leaves the ground.  

In the opening pages of Carry the One by Carol Anshaw, a 10 (?13) year-old girl dies after being struck by a car. The novel’s premise is that the girl’s death has a lasting impact upon the lives of each of the inhabitants of the car.

But Anshaw never closes the deal.

The girl’s impact upon the novel is so transitory that the entire premise of the novel never stands up. The reader never has a sense of who this girl is – not only why she was wandering alone late at night, but her likes and dislikes, her smile, her interests. Would she have been a good mom? An inventive lover?

If the reader isn’t haunted by the memory of the girl – and the adult she might have become – it’s impossible to believe her death has any continuing and significant impact upon the characters. Oh sure, they remember the accident and are saddened by her death, but influenced in any meaningful way – I don’t see it.

And I don’t think the characters do either.

The Train of Small Mercies by David Rowell is another novel with a promising premise that never takes off.
Robert Kennedy’s funeral train is making its way to Arlington Cemetery in Washington D.C. There Kennedy will be buried alongside his brother.

Rowell tells the story of a handful of mourners and the merely curious who have come to watch the train pass by. The idea is both to illustrate the state of America in 196X and to show how Kennedy’s death brought the nation together.

At least, that’s what I think.  The problem here is that the lives of the characters Rowell has assembled are not in the least compelling.  There isn’t a single story that generates any real interest by the reader, or invokes any genuine emotion.

 Carry the One and The Train of Small Mercies demonstrate that it takes more than a promising premise to produce a good novel. These are disappointing books. The Orphan Master’s Son also begins with an inventive premise. It’s a bold effort and although it ultimately falls short, it’s not for lack of trying.

1 comment:

  1. I adored Carry the One, but I also respond positively to the huge impact some seemingly insignificant person or event can have on a person. I don't think the focus of it was the girl--it was the pressure the others felt to be something bigger and better because they took some part in taking her ability to live life away. I also quite enjoyed The Train of Small Mercies, although I responded more to some stories than others. I haven't read the Johnson yet, but I hope to make time for it soon. I'm curious if our taste on these three will be totally opposite or if we'll agree on that one!