I have read three books in the past week, but none of them have really hit home. The problem is that I feel like I should have loved all of them.
The first book I read this week was The First Bad Man, by Miranda July. July’s movies are beautifully awkward affairs. Her characters feel deeply, but not melodramatically, and they don’t adhere to the norms that govern social interactions in everyday life. In the real world, a coworker asks how you are doing and without even thinking about it, you respond with “fine.” In Miranda July’s world, the default is not fine. People stare a little too long and intently. Their interactions are absurd, but also reveal July’s insights into the thoughts and emotions we rarely allow ourselves to admit we think and feel. She makes visible the aspects of ourselves we are often unable to acknowledge even privately. And she does it all in a way that is charming and funny and sometimes sad, but never hurtful. So, when I heard she wrote a novel, I knew I had to read it and… I didn’t like it. It lacked the keen observations of human nature that her films have. The characters are not likeable at all. Sometimes this works. It can be fun to dislike characters, but that is not the case here. The only emotion evoked is pity, and that is not fun for anyone.
Also, it should be noted that there is a lot of weird sex stuff in this book. Usually for me this would be a point in a book’s favor, but here it just serves to make the reader feel more sorry for the characters, because aside from the dirty old man (who is a little too comfortable with himself), the others are unable to embrace their kinkiness.
Even now, several days after finishing the book and after putting these ideas down in print, I still have a hard time accepting that Miranda July could create anything that is less than amazing and so I suspect that I just don’t get it (it’s not you, it’s me).
Next I read a short graphic novel, Trillium by Jeff Lemire. If this had been the first book I read by Jeff Lemire, I probably would have liked it more. I had previously read Lemire’s series, Sweet Tooth (read it NOW) and his graphic novel, Essex County (wait, no… read this one NOW) and they are both so unbelievably beautiful and heart breaking (in a good way!) and gripping and… I need more adjectives. They are SO GOOD. Trillium is also good. Great, really, but so different from these other works and I was expecting more like those, so I wasn’t in the proper mindset for it (it’s not you, it’s me).
Lemire is artful at visual storytelling. A lot of graphic novelists are really great story tellers and their art illustrates the story, it enhances the story, but sometimes the story can stand alone from the art. They can exist as separate entities. Both beautiful in their own right, but not as entwined as perhaps they ought to be given the medium. Lemire does not have that problem. His images are essential to the story being told. The frames show movement and he uses them to slow down or speed up time. In Trillium, the art is still magnificent, but he relies more on text and the art is more clever than usual. At one point there are two simultaneous story lines being told in opposite directions and the images align at moments as mirror images of each other. It works, but I was so aware of the structure that I couldn’t immerse myself in the story. I a similar issue years ago with Cloud Atlas, so maybe I’m the one with the problem (it’s not you, it’s me).
Finally, I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. I thought… okay, THIS will be the one. This book has been recommended to me so many times in the last few years that I just new it was going to break my slump. Except it didn’t. I mean, it is beautifully written and the characters are rich and complex and the ethical dilemma posed is profound and I loved the way the people fighting the good fight are still conflicted and the fact that just like in reality politics often gets in the way of justice (until SCOTUS finally came through! #lovewins, but I digress…). Never Let Me Go had all the makings of a really amazing story and I wanted to love it, but I didn’t.
Here is a ridiculously brief plot summary, but it’s all I can do without spoiling.
Never Let Me Go follows three friends through their years as students at an idyllic school called Hailsham and then later as they venture into the real world. Over time we learn that these students are not ordinary people. They have no family beyond their guardians at the school and their lives have been mapped out for them. They are destined to become “carers” and then “donors.”
There were two things I didn’t love about this book. First, the story was parceled out and I felt that each new piece of information was supposed to be shocking, but none of it was. Maybe I have just read too much science fiction, but I wasn’t surprised by any of it. I am disappointed in myself that the rest of the story couldn’t get me beyond that (it’s not you, it’s me).
Second, and this was more of an issue, I felt like there were so many missed opportunities. Opportunities to explore what it means to be human, but it seemed like Ishiguro had an opinion on this and so no exploration was needed. I wondered, too, where all of the fury and righteous indignation was. Surely some of the donors would rise up? Especially those that weren’t as privileged as our main characters?
So, here’s hoping for a better reading week ahead. Suggestions are welcome!