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A Brief History of the Bones
modern lit
Every once in awhile I end up reading a bunch of "literary fiction" books in a row, whether to see what's going on outside of genre or by some fluke of omnivorous shelf-grazing. Almost always, it causes a rash of contemplation about literary fiction as a genre--because boy howdy is it a genre. And this time is no different. Due to what was staring me in the face in zoethe and theferrett 's guest room, what was on offer in the Frankfurt airport bookstore, and what I happened to pick up when I got home, I read, in quick succession: A Brief History of the Dead, The Lovely Bones, Kafka on the Shore, and A Trip to the Stars. Add to that the not really literary fiction but certainly mainstream YA Feed and out of my own perversity a re-read of The Secret History and it's a feast of angst and high sales and quotes from the LA Times.

To be fair, I didn't even finish Kafka on the Shore. I love Murakami, but this was so boring and uninteresting and meandering that I just had to give up, less than a hundred pages from the end, which I never do, because the tedium of it made me want to die. I seriously cannot believe this won the World Fantasy Award. Also, authors should deeply reconsider whether annoying 15 year olds (who talk like 30 year olds) and their bizarre sexual habits are fascinating enough on their face to justify hundreds of pages of examination. It sounds trite to say nothing happened in this whole book, but it's a buddy flick where the buddies don't meet and their endgame is some murky WWII event (it is Murakami after all) of which only one (who is mentally disabled) is aware and then all of the sudden there are crystals and bizarrely helpful truck drivers and some kid is having sex with his mother and thinks it's awesome. But it's all so banal and flatly written that I don't even care--even less than I care about some of these other books, and that's saying a lot, so let's just leave it with a "not living up to his potential" comment on Murakami's report card. Guh.

Feed, on the other hand, was really and truly decent--though it thrives on the reader being young and thus never having read Stand on Zanzibar or any of the other SF novels that feature a constant stream of advertisement as a literary technique. Again, though, I have a problem with the bored, passive protagonist and his sexual fantasies being more or less all I'm given to hang on to as a persona. And the dying wrong side of the tracks girlfriend having actual serious thoughts about anything while the privileged boy goes on to...not have any. It's just kind of a tired trope. And the lesions were never explained, no matter how awesome the truffle line is. In general, I think that The Great Gatsby is great despite its excerable protagonists, not because of them, and I don't actually want to spend any time with mini-Nick or mini-Daisy, even on the moon. But back to this one in a second. Those would be the outliers, the best and worst of the lot.

I found none of the others to be bad books per se. Obviously, they're bestsellers of varying degrees and somebody loves them, they speak to someone. But I feel like, with every one, they were doing it wrong. Clearly doing it right for someone, but doing it wrong for me, personally, as a reader. And with every one I felt like I got a clearer idea of the actual difference between "literary fiction" and "genre."

The difference, I think, is rules.

I've commented before on litfic's obsession with suburbia, which Alice Sebold hilariously claims in the interview in the back pages of The Lovely Bones is somehow a neglected corner of Americana where all the real stories are and she had to learn as a writer to recognize it as a legitimate source of stories. To which, with all the class I can muster, I wave my brandy snifter and say: LOLWHUT. Look, I get that urban stories are legion--as long as that urban means New York and the protagonists are privileged white people, but suburbia is where it's at for literary fiction. The story of the repressed housewife being dissatisfied while her husband works miserably and her kids act out is getting to be nigh-on universal, no matter whether it's the 50s or the 00s. Hell, it's the plot of Mad Men, Desperate Housewives, Little Children, American Beauty...I could go on, but it's pointless. The siren call of the easy symoblism of an outwardly perfect row of houses and inwardly borked lives is resisted by precisely no one. The Lovely Bones is merely another entry in that restrictive genre of storytelling, and other than its otherworldly protagonist, alters the traditional narrative not even a little. But besides having to sit through yet another reel of how much being a wealthy white family in the suburbs sucks, what I really notices was a total lack of worldbuilding or rules of the game. And more, a total lack of interest in the same.

To be honest, Sebold seems to have no real interest in the afterlife she sets up at all. It's just a vantage point for the family drama, and half-baked serial killer thing (worst serial killer ever, by the way. There is no WAY this guy doesn't get caught in five seconds in the real world). And yet, what few rules she sets up (the dead can't affect anything, mainly) she breaks without any stated reason or justification. Those of you who have read the book will probably know the big Rule Breaking Moment I mean, when not only does our little Susie body-swap for no reason, without intent to do so or any possible sense of why she could, but she takes her last living moment not to talk to her tortured family about who killed her, but to bang a dude she liked in middle school, despite her only other sexual experience being brutal rape. Yay! Love is awesome!

But I just kept saying: why? Why can this happen? And what happened to the other girl's soul?

But Sebold isn't after that fish. She cares about a. the broken suburban family story and b. writing a scene she wanted to write without caring whether it fits with the universe of the book. Because she's not a genre writer, despite the genre window dressing, she doesn't recognize that the book has a universe, or care about rules, or worldbuilding--because it's ostensibly our world and doesn't have to be built. But for me as a reader this is just insane, because it's ghost time in the house, and the book just throws up its hands and says: weird things happen! We don't have to DWELL ON IT! Let's get back to a suburban dad smashing things.

Two final and beside the point points: one, the death of the serial killer was bullshit and I call shenanigans. There is an implication that Susie made it happen but it's fairly clear she didn't, at least to me, since it's all from her POV and she doesn't say she did it. But the refusal to decide whether the dead can or cannot affect things reaches its most ridiculous toward the end. This is not satisfying, for crying out loud. And by the way, a heaven where no matter what happens you cannot grow or heal or change, where you cannot grow up, ever, where you can meet other people but cannot be an adult, or sexual, or progress beyond the age and mentality of your death is not heaven. That's hell.


Same thing with A Brief History of the Dead. I got the gist of everything in literally the first 30 pages, which are easily the most interesting. I walked out and asked theferrett : "Is anything going to happen in this book besides everyone else figuring out that someone has to remember you on earth for you to live in the purgatory city and that one chick is the last one on earth so everyone she doesn't remember is gone? Because I got that, and there's a lot of book left."

And he wouldn't meet my eye.

What I wanted, with these afterlife porn books--the genre element of choice in American fiction--was some exploration of the world put forward, of what it means to be dead, of why people keep their general economic status, still working in restaurants, etc. Why do dead people need to eat? Does anyone, ever, do anything but stare into the distance and act depressed? But the authors didn't want to write those books. They wanted to write about Antarctica or the standard "the connections that bind us all" or, you know, "emotions."

As a genre writer, it's funny how I put emotions in quotes. We don't like emotions or characters, right? It's all about the world. And the worst genre fiction does get mired in that, the fetishizing of rules and worldbuilding. But, you know, some attention to the fact that you've invented this fascinating premise and are going literally nowhere with it and exploring nothing in it would be nice. And I use quotes because the emotional arcs presented by these books are just not intense or interesting enough to justify flying in the face of logic so often. I can't listen to parents mourning their kid because she hasn't died yet because they're EATING in a DINER and people are WORKING SHIFTS there and they're all dead and WHY? But it's the emotional content of the scene the author cares about, not making it work in an invented world. (Don't even get me started about the fuzzy fade to white handwaving ending of that book, either.) Really? Parents miss their kids? Stop the presses. We have got to get someone on this.

A Trip to the Stars...probably the best written of any of them, but the best example of why genre fiction can't have nice things. Every five pages the author picks up a genre trope, shakes it in confusion, and then throws it away. There's vampires, but they're gone within a few pages and no one cares. The whole thing is an embarrassing Mary Sue (Gary Stu, really) adopted kid's fantasy about how the protag's REAL family is RICH and AWESOME and will take him away to a palace in the desert where he'll get a perfect education from genius tutors and speak Greek and Latin and be awesome at drawing and get all the toys he wants and ALSO be awesome at sports and anyone who doesn't like him is inherently evil and despite all this he has tons of free time to wander in the desert where a spider will give him superpowers (that won't matter and will be forgotten) and his tutor will give him a BABY WOLF and also they're all TRUE DESCENDANTS OF ATLANTIS WTF. (Actually, the Atlantis thing is especially awesome, because supposedly it's their sooper special "double O positive" blood type that makes them Atlanteans. I thought that sounded weird, so I looked it up. Turns out that "double O" just means O, as it's a recessive gene. That means, fare from being the "rarest blood type on earth" it is in fact the single most common blood type on earth and it just so happens to be mine. So now, when justbeast asks me to do things I yell: NO, FOR I AM A TRUE DESCEDANT OF ATLANTIS AND I DO NOT DO DISHES.)

The point is that Nicholas Christopher doesn't give a shit about making all this magical stuff jive with the plot, nor, clearly, does he even recognize the painful Gary Stuness of his story. He cares about the relationship between his two main characters (sort of) and the rest exists so that the back cover copy girl can list a bunch of cool things separated by commas that make the book sound epic. Don't you want to read about vampires in the Old West, alien spiders, Captain Cook, Basque separatists, astronauts, Atlantis, and BABY WOLVES? I know I do! But none of those things matter to the book at all, and the minute one starts to matter, the author crushes them brutally and glares around daring you to remember that there were real fucking vampires like five pages ago and everything that's happening are coincidences that beggar the end of Jane Eyre. It's the real world, right? Shit just happens, and you don't have to explain it.

The Secret History is really a bit of a cheat on this list, because the doin it rong is completely different--though related. Once again I question why I want to hang out with the cast that got rejected from The Great Gatsby for being too assholish. These guys, all of them, are literally the worst people ever. And there's no reason that the worst one, Bunny, who gets killed on the first page, should have been let into the sooper special circle of classics students that the protagonist has to shit angel feathers to get into, where you have to be charming and smart and attractive and be approved by the perfect amazing teacher, given that Bunny is a colossal shit. Who can't do Latin or Greek. What the hell.

But my main issue is that only one thing of any interest occurs in this entire book. It happens to be the only genre element--the kids do a ritual to summon Dionysus and homes shows up. That is awesome, my friends. It's tossed off in three pages of dialogue. I suspect if you asked Tartt, she'd say it's a nod to Greek plays where all the action happens offscreen and is reported by a messenger. Yeah, whatever. It's the only interesting part of the book and it's what the book should have been about. We should have seen all those aborted attempts, and the group growing close and then fracturing over failures, not just be told about it by a bored 21 year old who talks like he's 90. Good grief.

But then, that would have been a genre book, right? If you center stage the weird shit, rather than using it as a fetching window treatment, then it's not Serious Literature. But what we're left with is a bunch of Literature that makes no sense because the authors are essentially operating a forklift they're not rated to handle. It's awesome! It goes up and down! It crushes things! Wheee! But if you don't read the manual, you end up with a messy factory, and everything is out of order and nothing makes sense. A novel should have its own internal system, its own logic, that coheres, that connects with itself. It should not be full of random incidents of magic that connect with nothing just because watching people grieve for three hundred pages is much harder to make interesting without ghosts or vampires. It feels lazy to me, intellectually lazy, to throw out scenes and leave them hanging, breaking all the rules of the world, with no explanation. And yet I see it again and again in these books.

I'm reminded of a speech from Six Feet Under, a show that for awhile managed to pull all off this afterlife/family drama stuff pretty well:

It may seem weird to you but there is a reason behing everything that we do here...

I remember being very underwhelmed by The Secret History and thinking, wtf? why is this getting so much hype? Totally overrated.

I adore it when you rant! ~big grin and a satisfied sigh~

give me hack writers anyday over purveyors of Lit'tra'shure.

David Mamet wrote a terrific article several years ago about so-called genre fiction being where all the stories are now, because litfic was too busy focusing on style to care about plot. Sounds like you've got a similar take on it.

The thing is, litfic, just like most fic, is all about transparent prose, so I can't even say that they're all about style. I see very flat, stylistically neutered books, AND they don't care about the rules they set up AND the emotions ring incredibly trite or false.

Not to say some genre doesn't do that, but I don't think litfic is a triumph of style these days.

I liked A Brief History of the Dead, but agree with you that the premise was rather quickly gotten.

Disappointed to hear the Murakami was bad, as I'd planned to one day get to all the World Fantasy winners. You know, when I have buckets of spare time and am Old. (What Murakami do you love, then?)

Is there anyone in literary fiction that you think gets around to 'doing it right'? And what do you think of the whole slipstream vs interstitial labels in this company, or are those really only being used within the genre communities?

I guess I'm asking if you think litfic in general is worth bothering with, apart from it's connection to a certain popular sense of 'culture.' My sense from your post is that it's all a certain kind of nostalgia for a subculture my generation was never really part of.

Next post being: nostaligia for the 60s/70s that I don't care about. ;)

I love Wind Up Bird Chronicle. Wild Sheep Chase is also good, but Wind Up is amazing.

I do think slipstream and interstitial, despite efforts, is only being used in the genre community, in part because of the inferiority complex we all have about being accepted as literary writers.

I could list litfic that I like--The Last Samurai, Possession, etc, but to be honest, it's hard for me to come up with books that have NO unreal element to them. The Satanic Verses, Landscape Painted with Tea--the best has some of each, some realism, some fantastica. So I guess I'm asking if I'm allowed to include books that are considered literature but are really genre.

Stand on Zanzibar! Hurrah!

I've been told the first 1/3 of Secret History is okay, and not to bother with the rest of it.

The whole "never age in heaven" is something that always bothered me. What about children who die before they learn language skills? What about the mentally damaged? Or the opposite, what if your family have changed beyond recognition by the time you get there? Are you stuck at a best-case version of yourself, with accidents/deterioration undone, or can you learn once there and keep changing?

Afterlife porn seems to be a growing genre. Forbidden Planet in london had to get rid of their much-loved book section "Macho Dudes With Guns" (it had a stencilled sign saying precisely that and everything) to make room for more shelves of "paranormal romance". It's taking over, there's more every time I go in there.

Paranormal romance isn't always afterlife porn--though man, I GOTTA go to Forbidden Planet.

I honestly think The Secret History is pretty much not good all the way through, for many, many reasons. It probably needed its own post.

At least in the Lovely Bones, she's a best case version of her 14 year old self, and she cannot grow up or ever change, and cannot develop mentally--ie sexually, it's a big plot point that she can't.

By the way the last line of the book is AWFUL. It's supposed to show she's accepted her life and become englightened and it SUCKS.

I love this post. You've put your finger on everything I hate about Lit Fic.

But these are the beautiful people, the talented, the entitled to our worship. All we are fit to do is look one another in the eye, bow and chant 'We are not worthy'.

Sorry, cannot write any more. I have to go any polish my master's boots, ready for tomorrow's licking.

That was 'boots'.


You put in words all the things I thought about Lovely Bones but didn't want to waste my energy to write them down. Thanks. I'll be sending people over to this entry whenever somebody asks me opinion about this book. :D

me too. and by the way, I love your icon. :-)

Have never read any of the books you're talking about, mostly because I tend to stick to fantasy. And reading "literary fiction" makes me think I'm back in school, where I earned a Bachelor's degree in English (and almost a Master's until I got bored and a lot of other shit) not reading a bunch of literary crap I didn't care about in the first place.

Alien equals New Jersey

I wonder whether we both get this reaction to "mainstream" from childhoods in Japan? After three years stealing oranges from ghosts, I came back to the US and, gosh, I had no idea what mainstream was supposed to be about. Long Island was like being exiled to a fantasy that consisted ENTIRELY of the protagonists digging holes in the sand for their heads. Not Interesting. Rather talk about having feelings so deep that I'd kill for them. That I know.

Good for you, in other words.

And, typo or not, "symoblism" has joined my vocabulary.

Re: Alien equals New Jersey

I lived in Japan in my early 20s, but I think having had a childhood in an entirely not east coast or midwest part of this country has an effect on perceptions like that, too.

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I'm not saying the interstitial thing won't get there, I just think it's a genre term right now. Of course, I think genre rules.

I guess I was disappointed that the lights did go out at the end. It seemed like the most boring choice. I didn't get a feeling of tragedy, just shoddy worldbuilding and some Antarctic Shackleton adventures.

I might try Sputnik--I adore Wind Up Bird Chronicle and A Wild Sheep Chase.

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Because emotional complexity means sitting around and being self-absorbed, and is pretty exclusive of ever doing anything.

I read your journal regularly, although I rarely comment. You named several of my favorite books in this post--Brief History of the Dead, Secret History and Trip to the Stars. Especially the last one I think few people have read (or at least few people I know have read), so I was curious what you would think. It's interesting to me that the stuff that you thought was a FAIL about the book (the vampire subplot, the Atlantis subplot) was precisely what I loved about it--the stuff that wove the rich, thick texture of this magical universe that Nicholas Christopher creates. I think that is his signature writing style (he does something similar in "Veronica" which is another favorite of mine--have you read it?)--naturalizing the sort of cosmological baseline in the world of his books where you know, in the back of your mind, you glimpse in your reader's peripheral vision, that there are all these *things* happening in this universe--there are vampires, and that's part of the world, even though that's not the main character's story, except for a few tangents and intersections. There is the Atlantis thing, but that's not the main character's quest. I dunno, to me it was this amazing mythohistory of American sixties and seventies, that period that is now such a big part of contemporary America's myth of itself. I love the underexplained, the briefly referenced, these tidbits that make it seem--to me at least--like his universe is ethnographically saturated, and exists with its own rhythms and subplots that transcend the main narrative arc, that spin beyond the scope of the book--that makes it almost real to me.

I love it in the same way I loved all of the scenery in that old videogame, King's Quest IV--the things that are not part of the adventure quest, but that flesh out the universe.

I see your point about Brief History--and I probably have an inordinate fondness for it because when I first read the first chapter from it--published in The New Yorker in the week of Johnny Cash's death--I was struck by how it described to the T my childhood beliefs about mortality and afterlife.

As for The Secret History, I gave it to an ex to read while we were both teenagers, and I think it turned him into a sociopath.

I love your last line.

I guess my problem is the actual story going on in A Trip to the Stars just isn't very interesting to me, and the 60s and 70s are so over-chronicled in American literature that I have a hard time relating to it. And when everything interesting is brought up and then promptly ignored, I just don't have anything to hold onto in the book. If it were ignored in favor of something more absorbing, maybe, but it just feels lazy to me, especially since it doesn't purport to be anything but the real world, some explanation of anything is really necessary. But it's really the combination of that with an amazing number of incredibly convenient coincidences that gets me. In order for it to be a tapestry, for me, there has to be more than 20 people in the world that things can happen to, and the book felt very claustrophobic in its obsession with one group of Very Special People.

YMMV, obviously. It sells better than my books.

Re: books on death and the afterlife - have you seen the movie Wristcutters? If you have, what did you think? If you haven't, you ought to.