Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Does this have to be how it ends?

I knew going into reading Kathleen MacMahon's first novel, This is How it Ends, that I would have trouble with it. Straightforwardly, this is because it received an enormous advance, and I'm envious. I'm hoping that by outing that here and now, what I have to say will somehow be more objective, as opposed to simply objectionable. 

Let me also say, however, that I really wanted to enjoy it — no one goes into reading a novel wanting it to be rubbish. There isn't enough time for that. You're always hoping for gold.

Here are the problems I had with it:

1. Contrived literariness
It’s such obviously obvious literary ground. It comes across like a recipe for a 'literary novel' — you can feel the market positioning. 

Can you, by the way, have a 'literary novel'? Surely something's either brilliantly well written, or it's not. Surely 'literature' refers to a piece of writing that's so powerful it stands the test of time, has readers returning to it for years to try to understand both it and themselves better. Nowadays there seems to be a whole genre of insta-literature, with authors aiming for categorization even before they get writing.

Look at the elements: A shoreside house. An invalid bear of a father. A troubled single daughter, inevitably called upon to look after him. This American guy, dimly related,  flying in to look into his past, as embarrassing Americans do in Ireland. The tearaway sister with the rich doctor husband and four gorgeous girls. The little loyal rescue dog, Lola — ah! the leetle dog! My heart is already breaking.

More elements: instant, passionate, improbable love (between dimly-related pair).

A journey, pronounced jyer-knee, into both their pasts.

The timeframe: the election of Obama and his inauguration (hope! optimism! promises!).

Terminal illness. 
Change all round. Is improbable love a bubble? Can it last? Will Lady Luck turn her wheel again? Perhaps hope can only exist in fiction, oh the pain of it all

2. Dodgy characterization
The characters are not clear — Della, the tearaway sister comes through well, but Addie is deeply unbelievable. Her wilful naivety in relation to her father is forced. She comes across as mentally unwell, not because she has just suffered a terrible birth experience and the severance of her relationship with a loser, but because she sits about drawing swimming pools all day long. I KNOW she's supposed to be this way, otherwise what would she learn about life, as hers comes to an end? But the cloudiness of her being is deeply irritating — how could she have got through life knowing so little about herself or anyone around her?

3. Technical wobbliness
The switching between perspectives is very erratic. Most of the time we seem to be in Addled Addie's head. Then suddenly there will be a flash of being inside the heads of Bruno the American, Hugh the father, or Della the sister. This is very difficult for readers to cope with — unsettling in the wrong way. The book behaves like several kinds of novel at once, both experimental stream of consciousness and staunch realist, a cross between Woolf and Toibin. But the writing is not masterful enough to pull off this degree of experimentalism.

4. Overstuffing
When the little dog is swept away, as Hugh the father is stranded (on The Strand), his daughter dying, his own life in shreds, it is too much.

And the ending, being the title of the book itself, is terrifyingly trite. The writing simply isn’t good enough to bear this knowingness.

It’s such rich stuff, that in the end it's like reading a huge Christmas pudding: you can’t stop eating, but you're far too full about halfway through. It is — and I am aware how critical this sounds — cod-experimental.

5. Eye to the main chance: the filmable novel
It is so clearly intended to be filmed — many of the scenes could be turned into a filmscript without alteration. It comes across, therefore, as contrived, knowing, while pretending to be so innocent. The whole character of Bruno the embarrassing American seems designed so that the book can be turned into an American heartbreaker, perhaps casting someone like Mel Gibson in the lead. I felt that I was being manipulated, not shown something, which seems to me what novels ought to do.

6. Failing to deliver on the key premise of the novel: forgiveness
Ultimately I was most troubled by the treatment of the father, Hugh, apparently sadistic, arrogant, impossible and about to be dragged through the courts because of it. It was hard to decide whether he was to be pitied and forgiven or further vilified, within the codes set up by the novel — was he the 'bad man' the novel seemed anxiously to insist he was? The novel seemed to judge him as falling short because of his denial of his own feelings. Yet at the same time it offered up a terrible explanation: his loveless adoption. 

What was it saying? That we have a duty to explore ourselves, to forgive ourselves, to keep moving forward? That trauma in our pasts does not justify our behaving badly in the present? Perhaps. And I agree with that.But don’t we also have an obligation to forgive others? Hadn’t Hugh been punished enough? Did he not also deserve some compassion for what he had endured? The passage in which he is depicted trying to learn to cook mother’s food after the death of his wife is heartbreaking.  

He tried, he really did

And so did I.

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