[This new column documents the books I give up on in my search for great reads.]
The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern
Given up at p. 15
I get a little skittish with super-hyped debut novels (cf.), so I kept my expectations purposely low for this one. Still, I was immediately uncharmed by its style, which felt sloppy and vague, the handiwork of an unsure author. This line especially caught my attention, from when the magician Prospero (authors: please stop calling magician characters Prospero) meets the daughter he didn’t know he had:
The bright eyes peering out from under a cloud of unruly brown curls are smaller, wider versions of the magician’s own.
How can something be both smaller and wider than something else? Shorter and wider, maybe, but widerness and smallerness are mutually exclusive. This might seem like a small thing, but it speaks to a lack of authority and control (and possibly talent) on the part of the author. I read until the end of the ebook preview, but I couldn’t be persuaded to pay for the whole thing.
I loved DBC Pierre’s debut novel, and I bought this latest one from Amazon UK over a year ago, eight months before its release in the U.S. I read the first two hundred pages with some interest, finding it well-written but largely undramatic. I saved the last third of the book for when I would write the review, just before its U.S. release date. Then I could never persuade myself to pick it up again.
The story follows a glutton (or gourmand) named Gabriel, as he tries to have one last decadent trip before his planned suicide. The trip itself was quite fun, but the second half focuses on his efforts to throw a party at a decomissioned airport, and, no doubt, his eventual decision not to kill himself after all. It felt much more hackneyed than the arcless first half, like Pierre wanted to give his hero something to actually accomplish. For me, it didn’t work.
I was an avid Terry Pratchett reader as a nerdy adolescent (Jingo was one of my favorites), and his latest Discworld novel, which seems to hint at a discussion of the right-to-death issues he champions, felt like a good place to return.
But, I couldn’t seem to get into it, and ultimately I gave up before finding the kind of rich, entertaining narrative I remembered.
The opening chapters center around a cop married to a very rich lady, and it devolves into a relatively dull comedy of manners as he shakes the wrong people’s hands and so forth. Perhaps Pratchett’s mind, understandably, leans toward more serious issues these days. Or perhaps it’s just more suited for nerdy adolescents. I can’t read Tom Robbins anymore either.
If overhyped debut novels make me skittish, marquee mysteries give me the downright willies (I blame this one and this one, for starters). So my hackles went up when Defending Jacob’s first chapter featured a phonetic pronunciation of a prosecutor’s funny name, Logiudice (“(pronounced la-JOO-dis)”), so that we readers wouldn’t lose the thread when this happens:
They called him Milhouse, after a dweeby character on The Simpsons, and they came up with a thousand variations on his name: LoFoolish, LoDoofus, Sid Vicious, Judicious, on and on.
“They,” in this scene, refers to everyone who worked with this guy: legal clerks, police officers, secretaries. Logiudice is a rising state prosecutor, ostensibly deserving of significant respect, but he has weird teeth, and so Landay wants us to believe he would be the butt of everyone’s jokes. And he also wants us to believe that one of the most memorable jokes these people come up with is calling him “Sid Vicious.”
These are stupid jokes that would not emerge among a group of real humans, except perhaps stupid humans whom I do not wish to read about, idiots who need to have a Simpsons reference explained to them in detail. (Note to Mr. Landay: one character calling another one “Milhouse” is not worth an explanation. (Note 2: Milhouse is nothing like Sid Vicious. Both names should not be applied to the same character in the space of two sentences.))
This might sound nit-picky, but I’ve read too many stupid, mechanical mysteries in the last year to get into another one by this kind of tin-eared writer.