Friday, February 2, 2018

January's Reads

January was a strange month for reading. There’s only one book I can wholeheartedly recommend, and one more I’m sure my comments will spark controversy over. Let’s start with the positive.

Vivid and Continuous, John McNally. I pull out this concise volume of writing advice every couple of years to see if anything resonates with me I wasn’t ready for before, what might validate what I do now, and just because it’s fun to read. The title is taken from a comment in John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist, that a writer should try to create a “vivid and continuous dream” that “other human beings, whenever they feel like it, may open his book and dream that dream again.” I try to remember this whenever I feel I’m becoming too authorial, and McNally’s little book is full of advice and tips to help me to make it so. (Full disclosure: John McNally taught the Jenny McKean Moore workshop at George Washington University when I participated in the winter and spring of 2002. I was the only genre writer chosen and I doubt very much I would have reached even my current level of success had it not been for the confidence he showed in my writing and what I learned there from John and my fellow fellows.)

Now the flip side:
No Country For Old Men, Cormac McCarthy. I read Blood Meridian several years ago. It was one of the two most unpleasant reading experiences of my life; the other was James Ellroy’s The Cold Six Thousand. I was saved from ignoring Ellroy by a request to review Blood’s a Rover—which I loved—and have since become a Ellroy devotee. Having chosen exactly the wrong Ellroy book as an entry point, I gave McCarthy the same benefit of the doubt and read No Country For Old Men because I’d seen the movie and had heard it was McCarthy’s most accessible novel.

It’s certainly not as much of a slog as Blood Meridian, and the story seems less nihilistic. It’s still not my cup of tea. I could cite several reasons why the writing doesn’t move me. It lacks any lyricism to my ear, for one thing. “Whoa,” you say. “You love Ellroy and don’t like McCarthy because he lacks lyricism?” That’s right. Ellroy may be percussive, but there is a rhythm to his writing. It’s a rhythm not to everyone’s taste—his words sometimes read the way Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring sounds—but it’s his own hip voice and I dig. McCarthy lacks that.

What really turns me off about McCarthy was described above: he never lets me settle into that vivid and continuous dream. Part of this are his affectations regarding spelling and punctuation. No apostrophes are jarring, but not as bad as the lack of quotation marks, which requires me to always have to pay attention to who’s speaking when I should be getting lost in the story.

Bo Catlett summed up what hurts McCarthy most for this reader. I know words weren't spelled right and there was hardly any commas in it at all. It distracts me when it should draw me in.

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