You comma Idiot is, in short, the story of Lee Goodstone, small-time drug dealer and general layabout. One of his friends stands accused of murdering...moreYou comma Idiot is, in short, the story of Lee Goodstone, small-time drug dealer and general layabout. One of his friends stands accused of murdering a 17-year-old girl, a rival is horning in on his drug business, and he has just inadvertently slept with his best friend's girlfriend, by which I mean to say that, while he can't claim the idea wasn't entirely his, at least he wasn't the instigator. Complications, understandably, ensue.
All this is given to us in the second person, a tricky gambit. Some reviewers have complained that the second-person litany of Lee Goodstone's faults alienates the reader; no reader likes to be informed, page in and page out, that he is an idiot. But this misses the point. Second person narration does not, obviously, seek to tell us about ourselves; it's a rhetorical device a narrator employs to persuade us to take a certain perspective on the viewpoint character. And this, in turn, may raise the question of just who is narrating, and why. It gets complicated.
You gotta be ambitious to try it, in other words. And to begin that attempt by calling out the best-known second-person narrative, that staple of creative writing texts, Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City ... well, you gotta have guts.
Both You comma Idiot and Bright Lights, Big City feature protagonists who dabble with drugs -- and won't leave home without their sunglasses. But Harris is the bizarro-McInerney. McInerney's characters are glamorous, while Harris's are losers. McInerney's narrator loses his wife; Lee Goodstone takes up with a woman who has left her boyfriend. And in what is surely not a coincidence, McInerney begins his novel by telling us what kind of guy his protagonist is not, while Harris takes great pains to tell us what kind of guy Goodstone is. Those reviewers who complain that Harris alienates the reader are missing the point.
Jay McInerney opens by making excuses: "You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are...." McInerney's narrator argues that his character is better than this, that he doesn't belong here, that this is not really him. Harris does precisely the opposite. "You're the kind of guy who falls in love after one date," he declares. "You're the kind of guy who rehearses a conversation fifty times in his head and then blows it when it's for real. You're the kind of guy who...." And so on, and so on, and so forth, and so on: Harris devotes his entire opening chapter to ensuring that we know precisely what kind of a guy Lee Goodstone is, and the portrait isn't pretty.
If McInerney's narrator argues for absolution, Harris's portrays a toxic self-loathing. But despite the litany of condemnation, Goodstone soon emerges through his actions as no idiot at all, especially when compared with the company he keeps. He simply doesn't have faith that he can be anything more than what he is.
And this is where the problem lies: the novel, in a sense, seems to lack the faith that it can be more than what it is. The characters don't emerge as fully formed; Harris seems content to leave most of them flat. Goodstone is so averse to taking himself seriously, and so singularly lacking in ambition, that he rarely emerges as anything more than a comic figure. Harris is a more subtle writer than he seems to be, as when Goodstone watches a child, still out playing after all the others have been called it; we're given to understand that he could be watching himself, that he must either eventually go in, or exist forever as a kind of Peter Pan of the streets. But Harris continually undermines these effects by playing for the quick laugh, a laugh that is, unfortunately, sometimes forced. You comma Idiot seems not to be able to decide whether to be a purely comic novel, and so falls short of its promise.(less)
A horse, long of face, its hooves clattering on the cobbles that overlie the bones of settlers long dead, of child victims of diptheria and German mea...moreA horse, long of face, its hooves clattering on the cobbles that overlie the bones of settlers long dead, of child victims of diptheria and German measles, its long face hanging from the arch of its long neck, walks into a bar.
And the bartender says, why so ineffably sad?
This is a joke, as told by a poet-novelist. And The Sentimentalists is a novel, as told by a poet-novelist: over-written, over long even at a mere 216 pages, and, thanks to the Giller Prize, over-praised.
It starts well. Skibsrud has an ear and an attention for the rhythm of a sentence, and the first 20 pages or so are rich and evocative. It seems well done. But with those 20 pages done, with the scene set and the actors introduced, one expects the novel to go somewhere, to do something. It does not. Instead, it drifts about, rather aimlessly, talking about itself. And the middle sags.
Those sentences soon seem too rich in commas, too wordy, too long; Skibsrud is using entirely too many words to say very little:
On those occasions, what I had feared most was only that the space I had felt in me so palpably then might remain all my life in the unbearably empty state in which it had arrived. So to find that, on the contrary, it could disappear completely — and without a trace — without ever having been filled; that it could be compressed so soundly within a body that inside would remain only the mechanical procedures of the lungs and the heart, was a great surprise.
Uh, what occasions were those?
At night, I lay up in Owen’s old bedroom where I had slept so many nights as a child and felt nothing at all, except for the static hum of electricity from the floors below. A sad and irreversible change had occurred, it seemed, and the great and open space which I had always felt within me, that I had thought, in fact, had been me, had disappeared, so finally that I could not hope, I thought, to resurrect it, or feel again that lightness at the exact centre of my heart as I had on so many occasions before. When, in that very room, I had harboured in me an expectation of a world so vast, and of such incomparable beauty, that I could feel it loosening the muscles of my throat; a disturbance of which I could hardly endure.
Ah, yes. Those occasions. I know them well.
This ceases to be a question of style, and becomes a matter of substance, or more properly, of its lack. Reading these sentences, their vague language, their aversion to the concrete and particular, is rather like attempting to read braille through oven mitts: you’re certain something’s there, but you’re damned if you can figure out what. And if the chief joy of this book is to be found in its language, you wonder why you need 200 pages of it; it is like listening to a symphony that consists solely of a pianist repeatedly hitting the same note.
It is not only in its lack of movement that the novel sags. It is also packed with redundancies. Things disappear both completely and without a trace. The narrator harbours in her expectations, as if there is some other place one might harbour them. The garden shed, perhaps? Where is the poet’s attention to language, the economy and force of the poetic line? Adrift in the stagnant middle of this narrative, senses muffled, it begins to seem that one is reading page after page of filler. The novel takes a full 100 pages to get up and get moving.
Even 60 pages in, we know nothing of the characters. And this seems to be Skibsrud’s point, that we cannot see inside of other people. But neither do we have any concrete sense of their outer lives. Nobody does anything; nobody says anything — dialogue, through the first half of the novel, is often reported indirectly. The narrator may tell us that her father laughs, but we never understand why. We never hear the joke.
Indeed, we never hear any jokes; one thing the reader will not find herein is a laugh, or even a smile. The horse walks into the bar and we all are ineffably sad, though we know not why, and we hope, or think, that the emptiness at the very centre of our hearts will one day soon be filled with the expectations that we keep hanging beside the hedge trimmer out in the garden shed. But it will not be so, for life is ineffably sad.
And here is the crux of it: novels of this ilk flout the narrative building code by ignoring such load-bearing beams as character and plot. They dramatize nothing; indeed, they place themselves above such concerns. They labour to convince us that they are more literary than literature itself. But The Sentimentalists, in its continual tone of sadness, falls prey to melodrama’s cousin, sentimentality. We do not live our lives in a fog of sadness. To pretend that we can, to repeatedly strike this same note for 200 pages, is emotional masturbation. Having thrown away the tools by which emotional effects are earned — the stuff of drama — the novel strikes desperately at that same sad note. And all that sadness, like the joke about the horse, is without force. The Sentimentalists grasps to make us sad because it fails to understand the truth: without joy, there can be no heartbreak.(less)