Friday, 22 August 2014

What I've Been Reading: The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt and Bad Dreams, Kim Newman

It appears there has been some controversy about this month's book group selection. No, not the more interesting kind of controversy where people get very shouty and use words like 'immorality', more the sarcastic and passive-aggressive controversy that confines itself to the literary establishment. If you yawned and missed it:

While some heralded The Goldfinch as the literary smash hit of last year, it has left some member of the ancien regime rather less convinced. For the hardline snobs, the novel is "further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture", it is a simplistic, hackneyed, unremarkable book. It lacks that certain special something (*ting*) which separates popularist, middle-brow, genre-dross from Art.

And, well, high handed and out-of-touch as such a condemnation might be... I kind of agree with them.

Don't get me wrong, The Goldfinch isn't a bad book. I quite enjoyed parts of it, even though it wasn't really my thing. Yet, while I don't think any less you if you found it one of those worldbendingly fabulous novels that reaches inside your head and rearranges things, it failed to satisfy. To damn it with faint praise, it was okay. Readable, but not compelling; the characters weren't uninteresting, but it never moved me. It was probably a bit longer than it needed to be. It was a little predictable.

You see, here's the thing that I and the head-in-fundament, genre defying Literary types have in common; we don't always feel books should have a payload, a message, a reveal. We know that plot, that compulsive readability is not the mark of quality. We know that sometimes artistry, or exquisite craftspersonship, can be an end in itself. They just make the mistake of assuming a marker of this is slavish realism.

The Goldfinch falls into the rather sizeable crack between our world-views. In terms of 'Art', of Literarty accomplishment, it is lacking. Its subtext is swamped by plot before being finally hammered out in tedious exposition. It slots together too neatly for a literary novel, but for a genre novel the plot is insufficiently realised to make this moment like the pleasing assembly of jigsaw pieces. It felt a little careless, gave the impression of a writer with literary spurs genre-slumming. It missed on both counts.

And here comes the sting, you see, because so many of my favourite authors have been doing what this book attempts for years, without being given the mainstream legitimacy that Tartt takes for granted. If The Goldfinch is neither fish nor fowl, then the works of John Crowley, Poppy Z. Brite and Robert Holdstock (to name but three) are glorious chimeras. Yet, outside of genre circles, you don't see their work heralded as 'Book of the Year'.

Okay, that turned into something of a rant. Now, for something shorter, sharper and sweeter, if - to pinch a metaphor - a peach on the brink of rotting can be called sweet. Genre time, and that genre is horror of the finest, gross-out variety.

 Published in 1990, Bad Dreams isn't a Newman novel I'd encountered before, and while parts of it have dated somewhat, much of it is depressingly relevant. An indictment of the '80s establishment and its exploitative denizens, much of it will seem familiar to those who've read Newman's other work - vampiric entities, left-wing principles, pop culture and vicious satire. Some of the names used appear in later novels, too, (notably, Jago) and the character of Anna Nielson channels both Geneviève and Katie Reed. While it isn't as accomplished as the better Anno Dracula novels, it's well worth a look in its own right. A tightly plotted, skilful little novel, it strikes hard and viciously in all the right places. Great fun.

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