There’s Nothing Wrong With a Good Story Well Told

Most books that sell well have nothing to offer but a halfway decent story. That story may not be well told, but it is still a story.

I think it’s because of this that the readerly world will sometimes sneer at the kinds of books that appear on bestseller lists, and associate books that offer only a good story with shallowness. “Where’s the depth?” “Why should I care?”

But really, there’s nothing wrong with a good storyteller weaving a good story. There’s something wrong when readers can’t recognize how bad the storyteller is (I’m looking at you 50 Shades of Grey). But that doesn’t mean a good, solid, exciting plot is bad.

We think “Everything popular is bad” (Oscar Wilde, incidentally), but just because stories are popular doesn’t mean they’re bad. It doesn’t mean experimental fiction should be embraced, even if it’s unreadable, just because it’s different.

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Take “The Magicians and Mrs. Quent.” It’s not a work of great depth. It’s not making larger statments about humanity, or society, or history. What it is is a rollicking good yarn, where Victorian relationship drama collides with mad magical and political machinations. It’s got an interesting take on gender, love that you can relate to, and characters you can invest in.

It’s not going to revolutionize the novel. Or break barriers. Or even do anything that hasn’t been done before. But it’s fun. It’s delightful and exciting. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

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Traveling Where Angels Fear To Tread: Paul Theroux

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There are some things you only do if you’re very brave or very stupid. Paul Theroux isn’t stupid (he claims to actually enjoy James Joyce), so he must be really brave, because in “The Last Train to Zona Verde” he did the kind of thing that makes most of our parents have nightmares just thinking about: he went to sub-Saharan Africa and poked around.

Funnily enough, despite traveling in places where most Americans are told to stay indoors, the only crime he is subjected to is fly-laden food and white collar credit card theft.

Theroux seems to have mellowed in his age, and the grumpiness that characterized his earlier books is far less prominent in this one. He seems to be looking more for people doing good things than people doing shitty ones.

And that age is very present throughout the book, which Theroux honestly says will probably depict his last trip to Africa. He’s nearing the end of his life, and it’s been a good one, but there’s still more, always more. Not only is there more to see, but there’s the joy of seeing things again, seeing how they’ve changed, turning old eyes on what is unexpectedly new.

Not only does Theroux have an awareness of age, he has an impressive awareness of youth, and of metamorphosis. He’s a wonderfully self-aware traveler (especially in Africa, notorious for grossly unaware tourism), and everywhere he looks he evaluates his own eye. He looks his own prejudices in the face, and accepts them. He looks at other people, and wants to know what they think of themselves–not just what he thinks of them.

There’s a gravitas that many old writers have, born from their comfort and experience. Theroux has it in spades, and it makes this book very likely the best of his travel literature. 436267

A Peopled Constellation: The Luminaries

Do you love not knowing? When you understand the basics of what happened in a plot, but you can feel that you’ve only begun to grasp the novel’s soul?

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Then you’ll love The Luminaries. I’m normally skeptical of books about mostly middle-aged white men, but I read an intriguing interview. A Booker Prize judge said that the judges have read the finalists 3 times by the time they choose a winner, so a novel has to have serious depth to reward three readings. As a person who likes a good deep read, I picked the book up.

First of all, you won’t understand most of what’s happening up front. You’re thrown into a country you know nothing about, with a complicated and multifaceted cast of characters who you will slowly get to know.

And every section (each of which covers only a day, with some flashing forward and back and stories-within-stories) begins with a star chart. The dramatis personae at the book’s front labels people as planets and influences. Each chart shows how they interact with one another. As someone who knows next to nothing about astrology, all I can say is that they were strangely compelling, and probably meant a lot to someone more knowledgeable than I.

The novel itself is so beautiful, so rich and interesting, that you don’t even care how much is being concealed from you. You puzzle over the mysteries, but you keep reading not just to find out the plot but to immerse yourself in the beautiful language, in the rich and strange world Catton evokes. It’s a compulsion, but not like that of a cheap thriller. It’s a deeper compulsion, something just as intense in its own way. It’s an attraction to wonder.

Music: Abigail Washburn, Crooked Still, Sarah Jarosz

A Night Film

Are fear and thrill about being human? What do they mean for our souls? Do we expose ourselves in fear, or do we hide ourselves? And is it inhuman to be without fear?

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These are some of the questions flowing beneath the surface in Pessl’s “Night Film.” It is a thriller, but it’s one for the nerds like me. If you like a nice turn of phrase, you’ll be just as happy with this one as any thriller fan.

The real genius of the novel lies in its quiet dissection of the thriller and horror genre, of the human drive that underlies it. It’s a meta-story, in a way, a thriller about a death (which the narrator finds thrilling in an obsessive need-to-know way) which leads to a maker of cult horror films whose own life is somehow a horror story.

It touches upon, without really digging into or judging, some of the angels of our darker nature. Our desire to believe in the strange, in the fearful. Our wish to be scared is what the novel is really about, our desire to be frightened and come out on the other side.

In that way, the novel is less about the thrill or the horror than it is about our participation in it. There are no totally innocent bystanders in the story, no one who goes unaffected by it. The world is big, complicated, and interconnecting, and we all want to be scared. We all want to be part of the horror story. We all want to be in our own night films.

Music: PJ Harvey. Just PJ Harvey.

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A book, like a song, stuck in your head

Most of the time, you put a book down, walk away, and probably never think of it again. A lot of stories are like that; fun while they last, but transitory, fleeting.

And then, sometimes, there’s a book that haunts you. A book whose last line echoes in your head for days. When you remember it, you feel a gut reaction, as the ghost of the emotional reaction it drew from you gently flutters its wings.

That’s a beautiful book. A beautiful story, with an ending as wonderful as its beginning (no mean feat). That’s what happens at the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

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