Here’s how thing stand. Train Dreams was originally published in 2003.The Pale Kingis not the actual novel the author would have published had he lived to finish it. Neither one of those should win for those reasons.
Which leaves Swamplandia which I think I’m about to return to the library unfinished. This should be a book I would love–quirky characters, a girl with ghosts for boyfriends, a really engaging main character, and the story seems like it might eventually be interesting. But each sentence is just too laboriously perfect. Things aren’t just “red,” they’re “ruby.” You know what I mean? You can’t ever not notice how much work the writer has put into every single word. It takes so long to read each sentence that the experience is like looking at someone else’s vacation photos, feeling like you’re not going to be allowed to move to the next one until you’ve really appreciated how beautiful this photo is. And each sentence is beautiful, don’t get me wrong.
But for me, all the beautiful hand-crafted sentences are keeping me out of the story instead of letting me sink into it. And I can’t quite figure out why or how the strength of the writing of the sentences is undermining the strength of the telling of the story, but it is.
I think you could make a good argument for this book being so well-crafted that, of course, it should have won when the other two nominees clearly shouldn’t have. But, if I had been the person making the final call, I’m not sure this is a book I could have said “Yep, best book in the country this year,” about because it seems like it doesn’t work. Even if I would feel very confident in saying that it’s an amazing achievement in writing.
So, I would have been fine with it if it won, but I completely get why it didn’t.
I did read it, and all of your critique is right on. While I enjoyed it, more or less, it was a struggle to stay engaged through the thickets of twee.
Plus, later in the book, after spending hundreds of pages in magical sort-of-realism, there’s a sudden, sickening drop into real reality that is jarring and feels wrong. And then the waters of implausibility close back over the story and it ends in a far-fetched display of coincidence that boomerangs you back to cloud cuckoo land. Oh well.
It takes so long to read each sentence that the experience is like looking at someone else’s vacation photos…
I sort of feel that way about the Graham Greene novel I’ve been reading for the past six weeks, but in a good way. I’m reading “The Heart Of The Matter,” and it’s only a little over 200 pages, we’re not talking War And Peace here, but practically every single paragraph is so dense with meaning I find myself sort of mulling it for a few minutes, and it’s taking me forever to read the book. For example:
“Why, he wondered, swerving the car to avoid a dead pye-dog, do I love this place so much? Is it because here human nature hasn’t had time to disguise itself? Nobody here could ever talk about a heaven on earth. Heaven remained rigidly in its proper place on the other side of death, and on this side flourished the injustices. the cruelties, the meanness that elsewhere people so cleverly hushed up.”
God. I just repeated those sentences over and over again in my mind. That’s some dense writing there, human nature disguising itself and all that. I love it.
I should probably have read it twice: the first time just for the plot, the second time for the writing.
Oh, Jess, then I think I’m glad I didn’t finish it. I may try to come back to it, but not for a little bit.
Beale, I’d be curious to know what you thought of SWAMPLANDIA!, because I like beautiful writing in service of an idea, but somehow, I really felt like SWAMPLANDIA! ended up being beautiful writing that worked against the idea of the book.
I haven’t read Swamplandia! yet but I’ll add it to my list and let you know …
“the thickets of twee”
Perfect description of this book and why I couldn’t finish it.
I like books to be “let me tell you a story.”
_Swamplandia_ was one of those books that is instead “let me write a book for you.” I was always very conscious of the fact that she is a Writer who is Writing, and instead of using her tools to engage me in the tale, she was showing off how totes awesome her tools are.
This book is one I have added to my growing catalog of evidence for why books written by people under 35 are often so very not good.
Yeah, I really enjoy Catherynne Valente’s writing and she’ll tell you if a lover’s skin tastes like sea salt vs. table salt, but it always feels organic to the book.
That wasn’t the case with this book.