Tuesday, September 27

The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker


Hopefully anyone who's just skimming this page will see the above and associate it with this image and then refrain from spending actual time actually reading this terrible book.

Just like Graeme Macrae Burnet's His Bloody Project, the last book I reviewed on here, Joël Dicker's The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is an example of a novel that's been much better received by serious literary types than I can understand. Unlike His Bloody Project, though, which was an adept and enjoyable work, even though I don't get why it's on the Booker shortlist this year, Quebert is a silly, sloppy, flabby, idiot novel - a banquet of clichés pieced together with a nonsense plot and written by a teenager. And yet it won the 2012 Grand Prix du roman de l'Académie française and was nominated for the Goncourt, and it's an international bestseller. Hmm.

Briefly, the narrator, Marcus Goldman, a young celebrity novelist, decides to try to clear his mentor Harry Quebert, one of the greatest living American writers, who has been charged with murder following the discovery of a body in his garden. The body belongs to Nola Kellergan, a fifteen-year-old girl who went missing in 1975, and with whom the thirty-three-year-old Quebert had been having an affair. He basically ends up writing and publishing a tell-all book while leading the investigation (because, duh, that's how crime-fighting happens in America), and of course he finds all sorts of buried secrets beneath the friendly New-England-small-town veneer, revealed through interspersed flashbacks and documents. So far so compelling.

But the book lets itself down on every level. Let's start with the plot, which is multistranded and sprawling, but which very little effort has been made to make internally consistent. For example, on the same night Nola disappears in 1975, the old woman who sees her being chased through the woods is shot. However, because Dicker's decided that the novel's focus is going to be on Nola, everyone involved - from the police searching for Nola to the townspeople grieving for the missing girl to Marcus narrating in 2008 - completely forgets about the dead woman. Nobody really thinks to try to solve that mystery. She barely gets mentioned, to the point that I forget her name.

And this happens more than once over the course of the book. In the present day, people get killed, buildings get set on fire, suspects literally skip town overnight, and nobody really seems to care beyond the extent to which these acts affect the main question of who killed Nola? even though solving these peripheral mysteries is probably a much more direct route than going to the town diner and hoping to find someone to question about the events of thirty years ago which is how the investigation proceeds most of the time.

The police procedural aspects are just unbelievably bad. Towards the end of the book, Marcus and Gahalowood, his cop buddy, do a double facepalm because they FORGOT, legitimately FORGOT, to follow up a lead about events which happened in Alabama in the late '60s. As if neither of them, a WRITER, and a COP, thought to write it down. Later, an 'aha' moment comes when Gahalowood is casually looking at a key piece of evidence implicating a man they just arrested while IN THE DINER EATING HIS PANCAKES OR WHATEVER because maple syrup on incriminating photographs makes them even more persuasive to a jury.

And don't even get me started on the central love affair between Quebert and Nola, which is clearly intended to be the stuff of great literature - a love for the ages - but reads like a harlequin novel written by a teenager. Quebert falls in love with Nola at first sight when he sees her dancing in the rain on the beach, which is just sheer laziness on Dicker's part. In fact, we are told time and again about how Quebert found it impossible not to love Nola, as in this dialogue between Marcus and his secretary:
"Marcus, I think I'm crying."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because of that young girl, that Nola; I think I love her too."
I smiled and said, "I think everyone loved her, Denise. Everyone."
Yet all we see is a naïve child who is in turn manipulative, whiny, stalkery, and a little psycho. She's not smart or funny or anything to Quebert beyond a hero worshipper, which really underlines the creepiness inherent in the whole adult-child-relationship thing that Dicker tries so hard to make you think isn't actually problematic though it so is.

It's not just Nola who's a really bad character. Literally every single character in the book is an underbaked cliché.* There's the narcissistic celebrity novelist, the sage lovelorn mentor, the grumpy cop with a heart of gold, the shyster lawyer, the overbearing Jewish mother, the rich Harvard-educated businessman and his physically deformed chauffeur. There's the social-climber diner owner and her long-suffering husband. They talk like this:
"But my shirt is making me itch, honey-bunny."
"Shut up, Bobbo!"
When Marcus and Gahalowood visit a mechanic, they meet him with his head under an old Buick, which makes sense because he's a cliché. There's even a police chief who turns up in the last chapter to say you've got 24 hours to close this case! as if that's not a totally arbitrary deadline dreamt up to keep the tension going.

This isn't helped by the fact that the writing is ridiculous, which makes every character sound like an idiot whenever they open their mouth. Here's a phone call between Marcus and Gahalowood:
"I'm on the Interstate. I'm going to see Elijah Stern."
"So you really think he's mixed up in all this?"
"That's exactly what I'm hoping to find out."
"You're totally crazy, Goldman. That's what I like about you." 
Here's Marcus trying to comfort Quebert in prison:
I grabbed him by the shoulders. "We will always be friends. I won't abandon you. This book is the proof of my unfailing friendship."
Heck, at one point, Quebert, one of the world's greatest living writers, says "All I know is that Nola lived inside me, literally," which, this book won the Grand Prix, so, wow, is all I'm saying. The characters also do the remind-me-of-the-exposition...? thing way too often, as if they're lapsing into temporary amnesia, which might explain some of the plot holes.

Also the novel jumps between viewpoints pretty frequently, and will sometimes flirt with omniscience in a terrifically annoying, fourth-wall-breaking way. We'll get haphazard snatches of each character's thoughts in a manner totally unbefitting a murder mystery. Or one minute Nola will be thinking about how excited she is that she's going to see Quebert, and then we'll get a... she did not notice the figure hidden in the bushes. That's a real line from the book. I didn't make it up.

I finished the book though. I guess I thought it would get better, or have a satisfying conclusion, and there were one or two (actually one) halfway decent twists, but the solution was convoluted and had a bit of a comedy-of-errors feel to it, so even that didn't satisfy.

Oh man. I could go on. There's so many truly scathing reviews on Goodreads with some exceptional examples of why this is an awful book and you should never read it. But there's also a crazy amount of gushingly positive reviews, so go and try to reconcile all that because I just can't. I'm so confused.

Notes on the audiobook:

Robert Slade's narration is the best thing about this book. It's still pretty bad. He has two voices, moderately angry and moderately whiny, and the nasal New England accent doesn't help things. I think that I would have liked the book slightly more reading it the old-fashioned way (slightly, mind). But then again, I probably wouldn't have had the stamina to finish it if I had to actually hold something and move my eyes back and forth, so there are no winners here.

Rating: 1/5
Amazon: The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair
Audible: The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair
Goodreads: The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair

* I was talking to Daisy about how everyone in the book was a New England small town / police procedural cliché. She then proceeded to guess every single character in the book with no prompting. She's psychic and everything, but the point that I'm making is that the book is bad.

Friday, September 23

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

I... don't... get... it. It's not bad, that's for sure. But I think I would have rated it slightly better if it hadn't been on the longlist. Heck, now it's even made the shortlist, and it's getting pretty good odds to win (not that I understand odds... though as a statistician I really shouldn't be admitting to that).

For anyone not caught up in the Man Booker 2016 hype, His Bloody Project is currently being held up as the strangest inclusion in a strange long/shortlist that's eschewed better-known or previously nominated authors for more out-there choices. It's a historical crime thriller, basically, so it stands out. And there's been a lot of talk about how this year the judges are rewarding authors who take risks with the form, while simultaneously promoting some more accessible books.

And His Bloody Project is pretty accessible. It's a page-turner, and hard to put down, which isn't always the case with these Booker-type books. It revolves around a triple murder in the 19th-century Scottish Highlands, with the story told first from the perspective of the 17-year-old Roderick Macrae, who committed the murders (and who may or may not be insane), and second from a plethora of documents - witness statements, court transcripts, a medical memoir - relating to the case and subsequent trial. So far, so juicy.

But it's lighter in plot than you might think. From the beginning of the book, there's no question as to whodunnit? It's a little closer to the truth to call it a whydunnit, but really the only question is whether Roderick was insane at the time he committed the murders. His lawyer's argument that he is suffering from 'moral insanity', or 'mania without delusion' - similar to the modern popular concept of psychopathy - is the driving question of the second half of the book. But it's a question I didn't really care to know the answer to.

Other reviews have focused on His Bloody Project's 'grand themes' of class, fatalism, sexual repression, and insanity. I must admit to not really noticing them while I was reading it, though. They were there, on reflection, colouring the action and making the mid-1800s Highlands seem like a just terrible place to live. I suppose I didn't find what the book was saying that interesting on the whole.

Reviewers have also mentioned the grand job Macrae Burnet makes at drawing the historical and geographical setting. And yes, the crofting community of Culduie was deftly brought to life by the author. The characters and places feel real, and there's a genuine sense of claustrophobia, both in setting and in its fatalistic themes, that drew me in. But there was nothing particularly special or memorable about it; the prose and descriptions are competent and assured, but not magical or extraordinary.

In fact if I could describe the whole book in a word it would probably be 'competent'. It's well written and a compelling read, but I can think of other historical mysteries that play the same post-modern strings - unreliable narrators, unusual formats, unresolved questions - better (see, for example, Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries, which won the Booker in 2013, or Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost). I did like the book, and probably if it hadn't been on the longlist I would have given it four stars instead of three, but I went in with my expectations raised and left with them unfulfilled.

Rating: 3/5
Amazon: His Bloody Project
Goodreads: His Bloody Project

Friday, September 16

Book News: The Da Vinci Code - Young Adult Edition

I obviously wasn't paying attention back in May when Penguin Random House announced its plans to release a YA version of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, baffling Twitter, who correctly asked why anything by Dan Brown would need redrafting for young adults, before deciding that probably he planned to add longer words and more complex characters.

So I was surprised when I saw it last week in the Rideau branch of Chapters in Ottawa, part of a display titled "Read It Together" which suggests parents reading the standard version while their pre-teen children read the YA edition. I had the same reaction as the rest of the world, though: why would Dan Brown have to re-write The Da Vinci Code for young adults? I was 13 or so when I read it and it was really pretty simple! 

I opened it to check how it differed from the standard version, conveniently lying right beside it on the display. Here's the first three paragraphs of the first chapter in the standard version:
Robert Langdon awoke slowly. 
A telephone was ringing in the darkness - a tinny, unfamiliar ring. He fumbled for the bedside lamp and turned it on. Squinting at his surroundings he saw a plush Renaissance bedroom with Louis XVI furniture, hand-frescoed walls, and a colossal mahogany four-poster bed.
Where the hell am I? 
And here's the corresponding paragraphs of the new YA version.
Robert Langdon awoke slowly. 
A telephone was ringing in the darkness - a tinny, unfamiliar ring. He fumbled for the bedside lamp and turned it on. Squinting at his surroundings he saw a plush Renaissance bedroom with Louis XVI furniture, hand-frescoed walls, and a colossal mahogany four-poster bed.
Where am I?
Have you spotted the single difference yet?

I liked The Da Vinci Code when I read it. I certainly don't remember being put off by any adult themes or language, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to any young adult I knew (not for that reason anyway). But it looks like what we have here is a meeting of the minds between a publisher trying to squeeze more life out of an all-time bestseller and protective parents who shy from a little light flagellation.

I like the new cover though.

Chess Story by Stefan Zweig

In the introduction, and in other reviews, I read a lot about how Stefan Zweig's stories reflect an amazing grasp of human nature. This is my first Zweig - it was recommended to me as his best by a colleague - so maybe it's unrepresentative, but I found Chess Story's characters to be no more than simplistic wind-up dolls. For me, Zweig's story worked much better as a fable or an allegory than as a depiction of human nature.

Take the book's somewhat antagonist, for example: Czentovic is a single-minded, churlish simpleton who cares only for the prestige and money which arise from his uncanny ability at chess. He is egomaniacal and disinterested in others, until he is challenged by Dr. B aboard a ship bound for the Americas. Czentovic's almost polar opposite, Dr. B is self-effacing and timid; he has to be persuaded to play against the master, and, though clearly intelligent, has not played chess for 20 years. His chilling story, about his traumatic imprisonment at the hands of the Nazis and the genesis of his obsession with chess, forms the core of the story.

Neither of these characters are at all realistic, despite the psychologist narrator's eagerness to theorise about what kind of people they are and what drives them. The narrator - who the introduction suggests is a stand-in for the author - succumbs to a psychological determinism common to armchair psychologists: the idea that each person has a core, knowable 'self' which determines their behaviour, and that if you understand that 'self', you can predict what that person will do.

It's a similar issue that I had with the (very different) book Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. In that novel, each main character seemed to have perfect insight into how the other would respond to their provocations, which is ridiculous when you realise that people don't even have perfect insight into their own minds, let alone others. And yes I know that in the 1940s practically all psychology was 'armchair psychology' of a sort, but that hadn't stopped literature from presenting a nuanced picture of human nature since Jane Austen and before.

Which isn't to say I disliked Chess Story. In fact I rather liked it; it's easy, compulsive reading, and I challenge anyone who gets halfway through not to read to the conclusion. Dr. B's story is chillingly gothic, something like Poe's The Pit and the Pendulum in its claustrophobia and breathless, slow creep of madness. The pace grows steadily faster (or was I just reading more feverishly?), and, though it's silly in places, it still made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. So it gets three stars.

Rating: 3/5
Amazon: Chess Story
Goodreads: Chess Story