Friday, February 24, 2006

DOG by Michelle Herman

I just finished this novel. It's copywrited 2005. There are two nice blurbs about how it's a nice metaphor AND a heartwarming story on the back by "hot" writers J.M.Coetzee and Nuala O'Faolain. It's only 188 pages long, and yet, I didn't like it. What's more I can't imagine why/how it got published out of the hundreds of thousands of manuscripts that slide across editors desks each year (and in case your wondering, it's not personal bitterness--I have never tried to get a novel published). No, it just didn't strike me as a very good story or one that was particularly well-written, or and here's the important bit--a particularly MARKETable one. It's not poorly written. The voice is clear and strong and the prose is pleasant. The description is sparse (well it would have to be in 188 pages) but I don't dislike it for that reason. The progtagonists are a woman and her dog. She is a middle-aged professor, transplanted from New York to the Midwest (much like the author herself, according to the back flap bio.), but unlike the author, this professor is not married with child. She is alone and she realizes around page 160 how alone and lonely she has been through most of her life until this dog comes into her life. She has reminisced although not fondly about past lovers through most of the book because she unconsciously named the dog Phil and realizes that her first serious lover was named Phillip. (She thought she named him after the stack of books by her bed, Roth, Larkin, among others). She got a dog because she was looking at websites about adopting a child and found instead sites about adopting a dog. Perhaps the author took the path the character didn't take--a child, not a dog. At any rate, she is isolated, arrogant about her intellect, fastidious and rather priggish. She has kept herself distant from the Midwesterners for 10 years because she is a New Yorker. (The other character, by the way, Phil, the dog, is a paragon of animal virtue. Housebroken in a day, quiet and intelligent beyond dogness.) Now, I have certainly read and enjoyed books about characters I would hate to meet in real life, but there is a certain something about this character that makes her unpleasant to me, and she is never redeemed. Certainly not in the brief crying jag at the end of the book. There is a certain something, an air of almost self-pity in the character that I find annoying, and what is more consider bad writing. A character may be terrible, may be self-pitying, may be a prig and completely lacking in self-knowledge, but the author must not be, and here I somehow feel that the author does not know that her character is all of these things--does in fact find her a well-rounded person who happens to be lonely. She feels sorry for her own character--perhaps because she identifies to closely. I will admit to starting a poem in college about a similar character--a dry poet who finds herself in middle age amongst lines on scraps of paper that never quite become poems and I was, quite rightly, warned off of continuing in that vein by my professor because of the self-pitying tone. Jean Rhys writes about weak, fragile, needy and clinging women which made me avoid her for years, but when I did read her last week I was amazed at her ability to present these women with a startlingly clear eye despite the fact her books were almost certainly autobiographical novels. You feel sorry for the characters and you may not even like them, but the image is so clear that you can in some ways empathize with them. Like many remarkable writers Rhys was able to be as a writer something she could never be as a person. You never empathize with this character. Part of the problem is the fact that she is completely alone. We only meet one other human and he is nearly a caricature. We hear occasional lines from her students, but never see the scenes where they are set. I'm all for experimentation, and breaking early rules but the fundamental rule of "SHOW, DON'T TELL" has not been broken to much purpose here. The idea that we learn about a character both by what we hear from his own head and from what we observe of others reactions to him is completely absent in this novel. It is, to me, a waste of time and space--amateurish, like a first attempt in a writing class. Which brings me to the other point--how did this get published? It is not traditional, it is not sensational, and it certainly not ground breaking. All I can think is that publishers thought the world was looking for books about dogs and so have obligingly put a photo of an appealing puppy on the cover, looking almost but not quite like the dogs from the DOG stickers and novelties with the fish eye lens rendering real puppies almost SuperDeformed. In contrast I recently read the novel, Saturday, by Ian McEwan. It takes place almost entirely inside the mind of a neurosurgeon in London on a single Saturday starting with him rising too early, and going to bed nearly 24 hours later. We see all of his interactions with others. We live with him through mundane and remarkable moments and in all we have a stunning portrait not just of one man, but of what it means to be human in the 21st century.
In another post I want to return to the idea of "autobiographical" fiction and literature in light of recent events, but that is for another day. As you may be able to gather by now, I don't have trouble thinking of things to write about, I have trouble thinking of a way to stop writing and go do other things!

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