This morning I was listening to slat.com’s book club discussion panel. The book under discussion was Netherland, a novel that I began reading several weeks ago but never finished. I’d meant to return to it but, as with so many books, that never came to pass. I was drawn to it originally based on the NY Times Book Review review that I read.
The three people on the book club panel loved the book. They gushed over it, in fact, one suggesting that it might be better understood 50 years from now. Sometimes I wonder if people will be reading at all in 50 years, much less reading novels that had been written 50 years ago. I remember liking the book, what I read of it anyway, but something about the tone seemed to put me off. I don’t know. It almost seemed kind of whiney. And when the book club panel read portions of the book, I didn’t hear the grandness in the prose that they did, although I thought it was well written. In anycase, I can’t not now recall what book I wanted to read instead.
An interesting dichotomy that formed in the discussion involved the two women seeming to focus on the novel as one about a marriage and how it worked and didn’t work, and why marriage fail or succeed, in addition to the novel being set in context with the events of 9/11. While the one man pointed out that the novel was also a sports novel, because it was very much about the game of cricket, which the narrator seems to throw himself into after his wife leaves him.
It made me think about the kinds of stories that I like. If a book is good it doesn’t really matter to me what it is about, but I do tend to prefer stories about youth and youth culture, the lives of people as the struggle toward and into adulthood. Domestic novels, as they are often called, don’t attract me nearly as much. I do not shun them but if that is what a book is mainly about I’m less inclined to start it at all. There needs to be something else going on in the story.
For example, White Noise by Don Dellilo, which I am currently reading is about a married couple and their children/step-children. In fact, I think for the male narrator this is his 4th marraige, which is a particular kind of dynamic that I like least of all in domestic novels. It just seems to me that there has been an obessive attention to the lives of divorced Boomers, for the most part. Although I am a big fan of Updike who seems to write almost exclusively about that sort of thing. But then he is an amazing writer. White noise is also something Jonathan Franzen calls a systems novel, which he did in an essay in his collection of essays, How to be Alone, which esentiall means that is, at least in part, about the working of the culture or society and what is at play, forces that effect our lives, perhaps in a controlling way, perhaps an ominious way. I like that.
But I’d prefer to read Mary Gaitskill or Douglas Coupland than say, Ann Tyler or Jane Smiley.
Something else I noted during the course of the book club discussion was how the guy on the panel referred at least twice to zombies — being in a zombie-like state, people acting like zombies, etc. This of course stood out for me becaues I have an active interest in zombie stories, movies, etc. Zombies, I think, are to this particualy time, since 2000, what Vampires were to the 80s and 90s. Ann Rice and all that. There seems to be a cultural relevance to the mythology of zombies, the imagery, the nature thereof, etc. I don’t think it is a coincedence that there has been of late an upsurge in zombie movies and books. For my money, The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, which won The Pulitzer for fiction and was actually, surprisingly to me, an Oprah book, is at a certain level a zombie novel. In any case, I found the reference intersting.
There was also a reference to a novel that caught my attention. The two women both referred to Desperate Characters by Paula Fox, which was pub’d in 1970 and is set in Brooklyn, New York. Not surprisingly it is a story about a couple, a marriage, and the women both thought it was amazing where the guy had never heard of it. I was intrigued and turns out the library where I work has a copy. So I nabbed. Hopefully, I’ll get around to reading it. It seems to be Fox’s most popular work and was made into a movie in 1971.
At the outset it doesn’t seem like my kind of book, but I’m going to try and give it a try. It’s slim.