Tuesday, December 28, 2010


D'ya ever wonder why, in the name of all that is psychologically stable, you kept on reading a book when it dragged you ploddingly into realms of (sometimes not-so) quiet desperation? 

I don't usually wonder that.

A Thousand Acres?  Not perfect, but enjoyable.  The House of Sand and Fog?  Fabulous. (Devoured in one sitting, breathless, crying, katharsis.  "Mmmmm... Please sir, may I have some more?")  The Inheritance of LossShalimar the ClownAntigone?  Bring it. 

In fact, for Xmas I asked Santa for an "I Heart Hamlet" T-shirt.  He managed a soot-stained program from the Joe Papp production of Othello in Central Park.  I wept happy tears.

And this love of tragedy isn't an artifact of age either.  Back in high school and college, I dug the stuff.  First course, first year at Brown? Ancient Greek Drama: Best. Course. Ever.  And nary an Aristophanes in sight.  All tragedy, all the time. 

So why was the meandering bleakness of The God of Animals so difficult to endure, I ask myself?  Perhaps because what we often label tragic events aren't actually the stuff of tragedy.  

There's a difference between what's tragic and what's merely depressing or downright sad.  The former has something to do with emotional engagement with a single character who commands a certain degree of gravitas, and an intensity of pacing - that snowballing toward the final horror that feels inevitable yet preventable at once - leading to katharsis. And this novel simply didn't have a classically tragic structure to support it.  For me, that lack of solid structure made the difference between a satisfying read and a rather taxing one.
So what is this novel, at least for this reader?  It's one slowly grating downward spiral with a cast of characters who are either clueless or twisted or just plain mean.  Or naively confused or oversexed or abused or adulterous.  Or most of the above. 

Or horses. 

Did I mention that The God of Animals is a horse book?  About a little girl whose mom self-meds one serioiusly clinical case of depression by staying in bed 24/7 and whose entirely obtuse yet hunky dad, upon losing his elder daughter to a rodeo star, displaces his abandonment rage onto female horses and his younger daughter, our protagonist/narrator?  Well, it is.  And things go from that to worse, in a quiet, quotidian sort of way, until there's a blip of possibility, and then - oops!  nope! - it's back to random accidents and uncomfortable adult-child relationships.

Other readers who found this novel more engaging than I almost unanimously note that protagonist Alice's interior monologue rings true for them, offering the ambivalence and confusion and passion of early adolescence with unsparing accuracy.  On this, I concur.  But I suppose I've read so many books (both novels and memoirs) with similar truthiness that this quality alone didn't win me over.

A brief ray of tepid sunshine:  Aryn Kyle's a youngish writer whose prose moves along confidently.  A stronger novel may well lurk in her future.  And she's certainly not hurting now reputation-wise, as this novel garnered plenty of attention when it was released.  I wish her, as I wish you all and I wish myself on this fine evening in the Pacific Northwest,

More fail better.

* Only. Great. Books.  That's my mantra now, and for 2011.  I will be asking expert readers - English teachers and bibliophiles, not book-sellers and publishers out to create a phenom, and certainly not random readers on virtual bookshelves - for their top 10's and I'll curate their lists for us all.  Because even with Amazon and goodreads and literary awards and such, there's no even-close-to-reliable way to find great - or at least very good - books, and there aughta be.  I'm on it!  (And this could be quite a project!)

* May research the psycho-social roots of this re-emerging (Coinage du jour: remerging. Like it?) 'girlie, gritty horse fiction' genre.  Many parallels here to the Jane Smiley's The Georges & the Jewels that I just read last month... Why so few/no realistic boy-based horse fictions lately?  (OK, so maybe Cormac McCarthy's All The Pretty Horses - and the rest of his Border Trilogy - pretty much slew all late 20th/early 21st century contenders?)

* In fact, must redeem horse fiction in own mind by rereading the first section of McCarthy's The Crossing (now there's a tragic novella that will haunt you, in a good way).

* And must reread Joy Harjo's stunning poem "She Had Some Horses" to reset the power of horse-as-symbol in my literary mindset.  If you haven't read it, you must.  Go do so now...

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