It’s hard to know what makes for a good novel until you read a few mediocre ones…

51-RYEARqaL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_After a string of books that I put down halfway through, I've been thinking a lot about what makes novels good and what makes them mediocre. It's actually a topic that comes up surprisingly little for me, because most of the books that I read are so self-evidently good that the question doesn't need to be asked.

That's the real answer. A book is good when it convinces you that it deserves to exist. The contours for 'deserves' are very broad and very different from person to person, and that's as it should be. Different people want different things from books. Different people have different reading histories.

Many people seem to be content, in their reading, with a few well-drawn characters and a plot that hums along well. But for me that's not really enough. In fact, I will dispense with one or both of those things if a novel has something to offer. For instance, whenever I read Agatha Christie I'm struck by the flatness of her characterization. Other than a few nervous tics and odd phrasings, Hercule Poirot has no personality. And in most of her books (at least the ones I've read), it's hard to believe that the characters contain enough passion to be able to murder anyone. But she shows you something new. Even after 80 years, her plots are cunning and inventive.

And some books have neither plot nor character. I recently read Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country, which was about...I think it had something to do with geishas? Who can tell? Who can remember? But even months later, I'm left remembering that train rolling through the snow. There's a beauty to his settings and to his words that stays with you.

For the reader, there's really no reason to figure out what makes one book good and another bad. In fact, I think it can a deleterious quest. Readers can convince themselves that they want one thing, when really they respond to other things entirely. For years, I thought I hated quiet, domestic stories, because I liked 'exciting stories where things happen,' until I eventually went back and actually looked at the stories I'd responded to and realized that, for me, the most exciting events in a story occur when a character whom you care about does something that surprises you. I'll always remember, for instance, a scene at the end of Sinclair Lewis' Main Street where the protagonist and her husband finally sit down and talk about the distance that's grown up between them. I'd never read anything like it. They bulldozed through an entire book's worth of antipathy and had the first honest talk that I think either of them had ever had.

For the writer, though, there's a certain allure to systematizing goodness and badness, because it allows you to reassure yourself that, no matter your book's individual faults, it's at least attemptingto be good. Because that's the real failure in most mediocre books. It's not that they tried for something and failed. It's that they didn't even try.

I just read, for instance, Aravind Adiga's Last Man In Tower. In many ways, this is not a good book. It's meandering. It contains too many scenes of the characters doing the same things. And there's little in it that's surprising. The book certainly doesn't compare to his stylish Booker Prize-winning first novel, The White Tiger, or his keenly-observed story collection Between the Assassinations. But it's also not mediocre, because it has glimmers of ambition. The main character, Yogesh Murthy, is a man who's holding out against a real estate developer who wants to buy up his co-op building (making Murthy and all his neighbors rich) in a redevelopment deal. And although our sympathies are with Murthy--a man who doesn't want to be displaced from his home--his reasoning is also so twisted and crazed (albeit still human) that we're left feeling angry with him too. It would've been easy for this book to be mediocre. Would've been easy to make his neighbors seem simple and greedy and for Murthy to seem pure. And maybe the book would'e been more readable if he'd done that. But Adiga made choices that disallowed that reading. And that's why the book deserves to exist.

But is there a lesson here for the writer? Not really.

I do think there's a failure of nerve involved in the creation of a mediocre book. But I still have no idea know how to recognize or guard against that failure of nerve. I suppose that, as in most things, you just try your best.

Three suspense novels that I’ve recently enjoyed (A Simple Plan, Silence of the Lambs, and Murder on the Orient Express)

asimpleplanYou know, I don’t really care about plot. I mean, I write fairly plot-heavy stories, because that is the expectation in the speculative fiction world, but it often seems a bit pointless to me. It’s a whole lot of running here and running there and inserting enough foreshadowing to earn your surprising, yet inevitable, ending. There’s some weird way in which plot just doesn’t feel fun. To me, the best plots are the ones that don’t call too much attention to themselves: they’re content to serve as a scaffolding for the good stuff—the setting, the characterization, the dialogue, the funny bits.

And this extends to my reading. I don’t usually read stories in order to find out what happens next. In fact, if I feel like things are getting too suspenseful, I’ll sometimes go and look up the plot summary on Wikipedia just because I don’t actually value the experience of being kept in suspense.

But, lately, for some reason, I’ve been reading a number of suspense-type novels. And I’ve not only enjoyed them, but I’ve learned a lot from them. You hear so much about how “all the plots have been done before” and how “it’s about execution, not ideas,” but the truth is that a novel can get a lot of mileage off an idea that hasn’t been done before.

For instance, Silence of the Lambs found a clever way to solve the ur-problem of the mystery genre. Basically, criminals are sexy and cool. People read mystery novels, in part, because they want to hear about awesome and charismatic criminals. But, since the whole novel is about catching the criminal, there are a lot of logistical barriers to getting the criminal onscreen before the end of the novel. By necessity, the detective can’t really interact with the criminal very much, since they’re supposed to be trying to figure out who the criminal is. This is particularly problematic in serial killer stories, where a major part of the allure is the grotesque psychology of the killer—this person is supposedly utterly unlike regular people, but you never get to see him.

Some novels solve this by using a split-screen approach. You follow the criminal and the detective in alternating chapters. But this is still a bit unsatisfying, because your super-cool detective still never gets to interact with your super-cool criminal and because it destroys the mystery—now the audience knows exactly who the criminal is and, basically, how he’s going to get caught.

asotlbookSilence of the Lambs is ingenious because it just throws in an extra serial killer. You have Hannibal Lecter, who is not really at all relevant to the plot, to flounce around and act all cool and scary and have witty exchanges with Clarice Starling. And then you have Buffalo Bill, to provide the actual mystery. Although it makes the plot super messy (you could lift out every Hannibal-related section without materially affecting the rest of the book), it also makes for a very enjoyable story. In terms of reading experience, neither half of the book could work without the other. Without Hannibal, there’d be no fun. And without Buffalo Bill, there’d be no suspense.

Also, it's worth noting that Silence of the Lambs is very well-written. It has a stripped-down style that feels effortless, but must've been a lot of work to achieve.

Another one that I recently read was A Simple Plan, by Scott Smith. A student in the MFA program recommended it to me. I could not believe that I’d never heard of this book before. It is amazing. It’s a very typical noir story: three guys in rural Ohio find $4 million in a crashed plane in the woods and they find themselves doing increasingly desperate things to keep it. It’s weird. This novel is so utterly simple, and even predictable, but a few simple modifications to the model were all it needed in order to feel fresh. Somehow, this story dispenses with the noir affectations. There is nothing cool about the hero. He’s a dope: an accountant at the feed store. At some point, he even says, “We’re not smart enough to get away with this.” But he tries so hard. At every stage, he sits down and he thinks and he plans and you can feel his mind struggling to make everything come out right. There’s something so real about the protagonist. Oh, and his wife. His wife is amazing. I guess she’s a femme fatale? But she’s not sexy. She’s cold and calculating but still never human. I’ve never read another character like her in a crime novel.

Agatha Christie’s novels tend to not have much personality, and Murder On The Orient Express is no different. Hercule Poirot is kind of a null as a detective. He’s nothing more than a funny accent. And her characters are just sketches. They’re backgrounds: they have no voice; no realness. Only her settings sometimes escape the general lividity. At times, the snowbound Orient Express started to feel a tiny bit alive. But, you know what, none of that matters. Because Christie really is a genius. She somehow managed to do stories that had never been done before (and, once done by her, can never really be done again). This one had a jaw-dropped ending that I came to almost unspoiled. An extremely successful novel.

Books to try reading when you’re in a bad mood (Coetzee, Hornby, Agatha Christie, and Ira Levin)

I’ve been in kind of a bad mood lately (one that, thankfully, seems to have at least temporarily abated), and it was that kind of mood where I both really wanted to read something—television really held no appeal for me—but was also disgusted by everything that I tried to read. I must’ve read the first pages of at least three dozen books. Especially Graham Greene novels. I kept thinking that I wanted to read Graham Greene, only to discover that I really did not want to be reading Graham Greene. I guess what I really wanted was to be able to go back in time and read The Power And The Glory for the first time. Anyway, the books I did end up reading were fascinating to me—they’re about as different, in terms of comfort reading, as one can imagine. And, yet, they all had their consolations.

____high_fidelity2High Fidelity by Nick Hornby – A few days ago, I and a bunch of the MFA peeps were talking about Nick Hornby in the context of chicklit. He’s the perfect example of an author who would be thrown into the chick-lit ghetto if he was a woman. However, since he’s a man, he can write fluffy, slangy books about youngish people who live in urban environments and have aspirational jobs and relationship troubles. And it’s okay, because it’s literature (another example: J.D. Salinger). Anyway, I’m not one to ignore an author just because he’s the beneficiary of a sexist literary establishment (after all, I want to benefit from that establishment myself someday). I quite enjoyed this novel. I’d seen the movie previously (it’s about a record store owner whose girlfriend breaks up with him because he is immature…alright, I know…that’s pretty much what all male coming-of-age stories are about…) But the novel has some nuances that were absent from the book. For instance, even after they get back together, the main character’s relationship with his girlfriend remains a bit limp and sad. The whole novel was surprisingly sad, actually. The main character has a very empty, friendless life. And it doesn’t feel like much is ever going to fill it up. The book was easy to read and made me feel a lot better.

life-and-times-of-michael-k-a-novelThe Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee – I really didn’t want to read this book. It was the absolute opposite of what I thought comfort-reading should be. It’s a very quiet, very spare, very beautifully-written account of a somewhat-stupid man who takes his mother out into the war-wracked countryside (so she can go back to the farm where she grew up). But I read the first page. And then I read the second page. And then I kept reading pages. And before I knew it I was like a tenth of the way into the book. I kept feeling like I shouldn’t be reading it. This was not what I wanted at the moment at all! But I couldn’t stop. It had a weird immersive quality to it. I didn’t quite enjoy it, not in the same way that I enjoyed the humorous situations in high fidelity. It was more like…it created its own world: a very quiet and a very still world. It wasn’t necessarily the world that I wanted to be, but it was such a novel experience to be in this other place that I couldn’t stop reading. I cannot recommend it highly enough. I feel like every time I read a Coetzee novel, I close it and think, “That was amazing” and then have no desire to read another one. He’s someone who lies in wait, quietly, until I need him.

9781849015882Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin – It’s weird to read a classic horror novel, because the novel doesn’t know that it’s a classic. It doesn’t know that even nine year olds know the twist. It thinks it’s revving up for a SHOCKING ending. Both of Ira Levin’s classic novels, Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, have this issue to some extent. It’s not possible to read these novels with a blank mind: to read them is, basically, to reread them. But re-reading Rosemary’s Baby is really fun! It’s interesting to see the subtle ways in which the men in Levin’s novels are horrible. I mean, the women are never perfect. In fact, one gets the impression that they’re no better, morally, than the men. Rosemary is petty and a schemer and for much of the beginning of the novel she lies to her husband about her ovarian cycles because she wants to get pregnant (even though he is not so sanguine about having a child). But…because the women are powerless, you sympathize with them. And the men…man…they are horrible. Not all the men. There’s usually a kindly older gent somewhere. But most of the men…my god. It is fascinating to see the simple and subtle ways that they gaslight and manipulate Rosemary. I don’t know why this one made me feel better, but it really did.

elizabeth-costello-jm coetzeeElizabeth Costello by J.M. Coetzee — I’ve actually had this one for a long time. It is undoubtedly one of the weirder novels I’ve ever read. It’s a collection of essays and speeches that were originally written by Coetzee. Most of them were separately published by non-fiction. But, in this novel, they’re put into the mouth of a tired old writer, Elizabeth Costello, who’s achieved a living legend status somewhat similar to Coetzee’s. She travels around the world, visits relatives and old friend, and delivers speeches on realism and the state of literature and animal rights and love. It is an amazing performance. Once again, I thought this would be the last thing I’d be interested in, but I was completely enraptured. Costello is such a vivid and well-realized character. Her relationships are so complex, and the feelings that people have about her are so delicate. For much of the first part of the book, she’s in the company of her son. And he has such odd, conflicted emotions about her. He realized, late in his life, that his mother was a genius, and, because of that genius, he’s sort of started to forgive her for his childhood. So, yeah, the fiction part is amazing. But what’s really astonishing are the speeches and how they fit in with the fiction. The speeches are, somehow, integral to this book. Each one fleshes out Costello’s character and makes her come alive a little bit more. You get the sense of her playfulness and her integrity and her iconoclasm and her peevishness. And you get some sense of what it means to lead a life of the mind and to put so much of yourself into ideas. It’s really amazing that this novel works at all. The fact that it works well is a tremendous accomplishment.

Murder on the Orient ExpressMurder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie – Crime novels would seem to be perfect for a bad mood, but in the last seven days I’ve actually sampled and discarded a ton of them, including a bunch by my favorites: Cain, Thompson, Willeford, Goodis. For some reason, though, Agatha Christie has held my interest. Her novels are so odd. They have so little personality. The characters don’t really pop. Even the settings are just barely sketched-in. But, somehow, those settings really manage to evoke a hazy, mysterious atmosphere. And her plots are rollercoasters. The amount of stuff that happens is simply incredible. I guess this kind of stripped-down book is good for a bad mood. (I’m not done with this one yet, so don’t spoil it! Unlike w/ Roger Ackroyd, I have absolutely no idea what is going to happen in this one!)



The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie

So, I recently read Agatha Christie's The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd. If you haven't read it, you should really read it. It is pretty amazing. I was a little put off by the way that the narrator only has a personality that's filled in with very broad strokes. I'm used to detective novels where the narrator has a ness-ness--an essence--that permeates the whole book. In this one the main character, the doctor in a little village in the English countryside, doesn't really put a strong stamp on the novel. And Hercule Poirot, the detective, also doesn't really feel like he leaps off the page (although he is amusing). The most vivid characters (as in the average episode of Law and Order) are the side-characters. The doctor's gossipy sister is a real prize, I loved her. But also the various people around the manner are interesting, albeit archetypical.

The real joy of the book is the plotting, though. This book has some of the meticulous plotting I've ever seen. It's like a machine. Recently, we had a fiction workshop with Alice McDermott where she talked about how the beginning of a novel should be filled with the people and complications that are going to propel the rest of the novel forward.

Agatha Christie definitely follows this advice. She doesn't raise just one conundrum, she raises fifteen. How did this guy get murdered if the door was locked? Who murdered him if everyone has an alibi? Who was blackmailing his girlfriend? Who was his son talking to in the forest? Who does this mysterious wedding ring belong to? What's up with the anonymous phone call that alerted the doctor to his death? Who was the man who the doctor met as he was leaving the manor? The mysteries just pile higher and higher into this massive tottering edifice.

And they don't get resolved one by one, either. Each time one mystery is answered, it adds two more. And with every suspect who gets eliminated, there's that much more pressure on each of the others. By the end, you feel like anyone can be the murderer. It was fantastic. I've never read anything like it.  And I highly recommend it.

I think this is a perfect example of why all books don't necessarily need to have all things. The fact that this book had less of the typical joys of the detective novel (setting and personality) allowed me to enjoy its superlative plotting. In this case, I wouldn't say that it's thinness is at all a flaw. In fact, considering all the juggling that Christie is doing, I wonder if it would've even worked at all if the novel had been more filled with voice and details. I suspect that it would've failed.

Can anyone recommend another good Agatha Christie novel for me to read? I've been thinking about Murder on the Orient Express.