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 Loss? Shalimar the Clown? Antigone? 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.
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.
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...