Thursday, April 13, 2006

Joint Review #18 and #19: Very Meta

Voyage Along the Horizon
by Javier Marias
(Believer Books, April 2006)

Book by Book: Notes On Reading And Life
by Michael Dirda
(Henry Holt, May 2006)

The last two books I read have a thematic unity: they are both, in different ways, books about reading. Marias' novel is a story-within-a-novel-within-a-novel about a novelist. Dirda's book is literally about what he's read: a commonplace book of quotations mixed with his own summaries of what he's learned from books. (This theme stuff seems to happen surprisingly often with my reading lately – or maybe you can find a link between any two works of art if you look hard enough, and since I've been reviewing them in pairs, I tend to look for the link. Go fig.)

The other thing they have in common, unfortunately, is that I wasn't crazy about either one. Possibly my expectations were too high. The beautiful cover of VOYAGE is evocative of kids' adventure stories, sailor's drawings, maybe even Joseph Cornell boxes, and the jacket flap seemed to promise R. L. Stevenson or Conrad style excitement with some fun pomo tricks. And it's blurbed by Charles Baxter, one of my favorite fiction writers (his FEAST OF LOVE makes my Top 5 Contemporary Novels). Believer Books, like its doting literary parent McSweeney's, pays loving attention to the book as an object, and their small list, though all in paperback, are all delectable packages.

But maybe I'm just not the Conrad fan I thought I was – somehow Marias' faux-nineteenth century story never took off for me. The narrator is more Dorian Gray than Jim Hawkins; he hardly even seems interested in the story until the end. And the same sort of lack of interest, or else unexplainable overinterest, applied to all of the characters. The narrator finds himself, after a boring dinner party, at the reading of an unpublished novel by a friend of the author. The novel concerns a quixotic voyage spearheaded by a charismatic captain and attended by a dour novelist, whose main interest is his obsession with the previous strange adventures of a famous pianist who will also be on board. His attempts to find out more about the pianist fail, as do his attempts to regale the pianist with the story of the infamous captain's swashbuckling backstory (though we get to read that story as well). But the adventures are jarring rather than exciting, and that odd mild disinterest, even when proclaiming great passions, keeps pervading all levels of the story. At the end of the reading, the man who has been reading the novel (whose name our narrator can't even remember) pronounces

My friend's novel is, unfortunately, mediocre. It reveals only the literary pretensions of an eager young writer. Well, I don't know – perhaps I shouldn't be quite so harsh, perhaps I am allowing my anger to get the best of me. and it may even be possible that Voyage Along The Horizon is in fact a very respectable novel, but then what is 'respectable' compared to the destiny I had envisioned for it? A terrible disappointment, I can assure you.

Which pretty much sums up my feelings exactly. It's odd that Marias includes such an apt dismissal of what is in fact his own writing within his own novel, but he was a 19-year-old writer at the time (this is a reissue), and while I certainly couldn't have written this novel when I was nineteen (or any other time), we all do silly things at that edge. Meh – put it down to another book judged by its cover, respectable but not much worth recommending. (I would like to read other works by Marias, though – I've heard great things about his other novels and would like to give him a second shot.)

Dirda's failings, in contrast, are not those of youth, but those of age. He's obviously read a great deal (almost entirely from the Western canon) in his time as a critic and Washington Post writer, and his banks of quotations are rich and evocative of a world of literature, philosophy, and thought worth delving into. But consider this passage, which contains both an amazing description of the Snark in its native environment, and a description which might be applied to Dirda himself:

The strong critic sometimes grows tendentious, supercilious, or holier-than-thou, and actually might be happier as an op-ed columnist. In his turn, the gentler critic can seem to possess no standards at all, to be one of those people who likes everything; he may even relax into a carpet-slippers-and-port literary essayist, dreamily relating the adventures of his sensitive soul among the masterpieces.

I found myself reading Dirda's "literary essays" with a furrowed brow, wondering: has this man ever met a poor person? a poorly educated person? a person who reads graphic novels? Has it ever occurred to him that his prescriptions for "the good life" may not be possible or applicable for the majority of humanity? (Not that I could be said to let my social conscience drive my reading habits, but I also wouldn't presume to prescribe my reading as the universal way to live a true and full life.)

Something about Dirda's Oxford don tone rubbed me the wrong way, and made me suspicious of what might otherwise have been a charming, if slight, "adventure among the masterpieces." There were good moments – the list of what should be included in a good guest room library was intriguing and conversation-starting, if not exactly a burning issue for most of us – but I felt that Dirda could have used a little more contemporary reading (or even some nonfiction) to round out his view of the "life" part of his title.

These two are likely to be the rare books on the front table that I have read, but won't be picking up to hand to customers minding their own business (I sold about three BLACK SWAN GREENs today – yay!). But I imagine their audience is out there. There's a meta-hipster somewhere who's dying for Marias' Conrad-meets-Wilde layer cake; and there's a book-loving uncle with a birthday who's going to be thrilled to receive Dirda's gentle collection. I can sell 'em, but I can't say I loved 'em.