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Regeneration by Pat Barker

Wednesday, May 28th, 2008

(First of a trilogy, it’s followed by The Eye in the Door and Ghost Road .)

I wanted so badly to like this. World War I poets, post-traumatic stress, early psychiatry… how could you go wrong? I read them over Christmas. It was this or Milton, I couldn’t make up my mind. Should have gone with Milton.

The whole trilogy suffers from "historical fiction" disease: very thoroughly researched, but the characters are one-dimensional, the dialogue stiff, the plot stagey. The first book is the best, but that’s not saying much. At least it centers on the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. The second and third books center on the least interesting character who does some not-so-believable things, shows all known symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (look at my research! cries the writer) and who becomes increasingly tiresome to the point that you are hoping he will die in a gruesome fashion. When I reached the end of the third book I was ridiculously happy that I was rid of him.

The awkwardness of the writing is downright painful and the clichés are embarrassingly plentiful. She also seems to take a real relish in the graphic details of the horrors of war. This sort of thing can be extremely effective, of course, but here it just feels gratuitous. As does her obsession with homosexual sex. Again, it feels added on. Why? Maybe in an attempt to make the books more "edgy" and therefore more likely to be considered literary fiction? That’s my cynical guess. If it’s something else, it’s between her and her therapist. Anyhow, it doesn’t add anything to the story.

The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederic Manning I would say the whole experience was pretty forgettable, except that a few months later, rooting about in a second-hand bookshop, I came across a novel entitled The Middle Parts of Fortune . It was written by Frederic Manning, an Australian who fought in the First World War.

As far as I can tell, this is not a widely known book. A limited edition was published privately in 1929, but when it was published for general circulation in 1930 (under the extremely regrettable new title of Her Privates We ), the editors heavily censored and re-worked it to make it "less offensive" to the ever-delicate general public. Amazingly, the novel wasn’t published in its original form until 1977! (I guess by then people stopped passing out and hitting their heads on the furniture at the sight of the word fuck .)

Remember that tiresome character of Pat Barker’s that I mentioned? The one who became the primary character in the final two books of her trilogy? Well, he bears a striking resemblance to the main character in Manning’s book. Very striking. Only in his book, this character is developed and revealed in subtle and interesting ways. There is, of course, graphic violence, but it is an integral part of the story that’s being told. It really is hard to get over the number of similarities. One difference: The Middle Parts of Fortune is well-written and moving. The sad thing is no one talks about it.

P.S. A couple hours later, shuffling the book piles into order, I was feeling a little sheepish about what I wrote here: insinuating that Pat Barker may have nicked characters, scenes, etc. from an obscure novel written by a WWI soldier. What’s the matter with me? I thought. I’m getting way too suspicious, too quick to accuse. What do I know, maybe Barker’s talked all about Frederic Manning, said what an inspiration he was, how much she owed him.

I decided I’d delete my insinuations and just say Manning’s novel was better. Leave it at that. As I came to this conclusion, I was flipping through Barker’s "The Eye in the Door" one last time before I was put it into the "off to the second-hand shop" pile. And that’s when something caught my eye. I’d completely forgotten the name of a secondary character: Charles Manning. A rather masochistic sex partner of Barker’s protagonist.

This is all too much. This is how it must feel to think you’ve seen a UFO. I have no idea what it means. Common name? Coincidence? Very strange hommage? Am I making too big a deal out it? Too much shoddy contemporary fiction may have finally driven me over the edge. I am open to suggestions.

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Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks

Sunday, April 20th, 2008

“Why am I reading this?”

A unfortunate thought to have on page 251 of an 800 page novel. And for the reader to be noticing page numbers…

I knew a kid in high school who used to agonize over reading assignments. He always knew exactly how many pages an assigned book had and what page he was on. He would formulate various complicated mathematical comforts: “I read three eighteenths already. So, nine more pages and I’ll be seven forty-thirds of the way through.”

Then he would put the book between his palms and squeeze hard while peering with one eye (like a mad cockatoo) at the location of the bookmark. Was he aiming for a more accurate assessment of the bookmark’s location? Or was it a physics-defying attempt to will said bookmark closer to the end? Other humans sure are mysteries.

Unfortunately, I can see how someone reading “Human Traces” might be driven to this sort of behavior.

But I digress. (This was supposed to be a mini-review! “Where’s the mini?” you’re probably asking yourself. “Hell, where’s the review?” Well, the review part will be mini. I’m just avoiding it. I’m still uncomfortable saying negative things about live authors.)

Okay, here we go. I picked this book up because of the subject: the early days of psychiatry, Charcot’s lectures, madness… sounded like something I’d quite enjoy. Sadly, not.

I read somewhere that the author spent five years doing research for the historical backdrop of the book. Shame he didn’t put an equal amount of time into the characters. They’re clichéd types without any discernible character arcs.

There’s another problem here that I’m finding in so many modern novels these days. I call it the “chummy effect”. The main characters are all painfully chummy. It’s unearned and unbelievable. Their relationships have no complexity. It’s like bad television. Plus, they all speak in the same voice: they don’t speak from their own history, point of view and agenda. (John Dufresne has a wonderful section on how to write good dialogue in his book: “The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction”.)

Throughout the whole novel there’s a distinct feeling of putting in time. Like being stuck in traffic. We plod through scene after tiresome scene wherein no one has anything very interesting to say and nothing very interesting happens. Time passes, your fingernails grow, the earth’s magnetic pole shifts ever so slightly to the left.

Then there are the little careless blunders that always make me think the author may in fact be watching television while writing. Things like: “She wiped her hands down the front of her dress…” Two pages ago, the character put on a “plum-coloured silk dress with a tight bodice and a full skirt”. That’s some fancy hand towel!

Another example:

“…managed to extend a yellowish, choreatic hand to the decanter on the sideboard and pour another glassful for the guest.”

Choreatic is in the OED as “archaic, no longer in use”. It refers to St. Vitus’s dance. Would it have killed him to say “shaky”? What is the point of yanking out a word like that here? Maybe if it was in dialogue, used by a doctor. But from the narrator?

The author can produce the occasional pleasing physical description — a hand on the bark of a tree, the smell of dusty upholstery in summer — that feels precise and hypnotically calming. As for “the early days of psychiatry, Charcot’s lectures and madness”, you’d be much better off reading a non-fiction book on the subject. Sadly, “Human Traces” is just time-filler. Plodding, pseudo-literary historical fiction.

Life is too short. (Life is probably too short for this length of amateur book review as well. Thanks for reading to the end!)

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