Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Criminally bad

In four months of writing this blog, I’ve written approvingly of nearly everything I’ve read. Even the couple of books that disappointed me had some value or brought me some pleasure. I wouldn’t blame anyone reading this blog for thinking I’m just not that picky.

That’s an illusion, however, one that’s possible because I’m pretty careful about what I start reading. I tend to know a lot about a book before I get around to picking it up. I read a lot of book reviews. I remember recommendations from friends, family, and co-workers. I follow a small batch of authors pretty closely and keep up with what they’re writing. And I browse my local bookstore a couple of lunch hours a week. So I rarely buy anything without having a pretty good idea of what I’m getting, and that it’s something I’ll like.

But I do on occasion turn over my decisions to trusted editors. I’ll read pretty much anything put out in the New York Review of Books Classics line. I’ll at least pick up anything that Luc Sante puts his name to. And, as chronicled here, I’ve subscribed to the Hard Case Crime series, which through five books had paid off. A little disappointment here and there, but nothing that I’d regretted reading. The editors and I seemed to agree, in principle, about what made a good crime novel.

That changed with Seymour Shubin’s Witness to Myself, which is one of the worst books I’ve ever read. Shubin has been writing mysteries for more than fifty years, and maybe this one, newly written for the series, is an aberration. Maybe he’s a great writer—the blurbs in the front matter for Witness to Myself make clear that some people think he is. But this is a bad book.

In Anthony Powell’s The Acceptance World, narrator Nick Jenkins deplores a popular novelist for his “inexactness of thought and feeling.” Add careless prose style, and you’ve got Witness to Myself. Ostensibly about a man tormented with guilt his whole life over a murder he may have committed as a boy, it fails to convey suspense, excitement, or psychological depth. Instead, there’s a relentless flatness. Take this paragraph from the opening page:
Alan and I were cousins, the only children of two sisters. We lived for quite a few years in the same neighborhood, in fact only four houses apart. And being five years older, I was like a big brother to him, more than just a cousin. He used to enjoy being in my company, following me around, which I took on as my role even though once in a while, like all kids, he was a nuisance.

Tolstoy renders masses of details both real in themselves and at the same time, in aggregate, as pictures of believable people and places—in the same inexplicable way that matter can be composed of both particles and waves. Shubin here is the anti-Tolstoy, tossing out details that by their very lack of specificity become less than the sum of their parts. There’s no exactness here. Nothing makes an impression—a building block for the next detail to rest on—because these aren’t really details. They’re more like the generic equivalent, as if Shubin arranged the basic elements of “remembered boyhood” and stopped there, before bothering to adapt the parts to fit a specific character.

That slackness also pervades the prose itself. This paragraph is fairly typical:
It was very soon after this that his career began to take a different direction. He had made a good friend of Elsa Tomlinson, of the renowned Elsa and Jonathan Tomlinson Foundation, the national charity that provided grants in many fields including the arts and education. He had been called in by one of his firm’s law partners to help her, a recent widow, reconstruct her will. And she had given him particular credit for it, to the point of having him do an increasing amount of the Foundation’s legal work.

I’m not Martin Amis-level picky about prose: I can put up with some awkward sentences if they’re part of an interesting story. And individually, each of these sentences would be tolerable. I’d quibble with the pretense of familiarity with the Tomlinson Foundation that he tries to casually slip past us by using the definite article in calling it “the national charity.” I’d object to the awkwardly placed “including the arts and education.” I’m capable of overlooking both, though, in a book that’s succeeding in other areas.

But in Witness to Myself, the hasty prose and the generic descriptions combine to give the impression that this world we’re reading about only exists sentence to sentence. One step beyond the current thought is pure absence, as Shubin, with a vague plot in mind, is making up the rest of his characters’ lives and habitats as he goes along. The guilt-ridden murderer starts thinking about buying a gun, so we’re treated to a generic memory of a sadistic childhood neighbor who owned a BB gun. Nothing ever rings true; every element is there simply to prop up the rickety sentence preceding it, making use of whatever comes to mind. Nothing is convincing, so nothing matters. We can’t care.

As I was swearing about Witness to Myself, Stacey kept asking me why I didn’t just stop reading it. I kept going because I wanted to learn that the Hard Case Crime editors had a reason to publish it. Surely something would happen to redeem the book. But I was wrong. Maybe it was included in honor of Shubin’s long career. Or maybe the editors and I don’t share taste in mysteries after all, and I’ve just been lucky so far.

I guess we’ll find out, because like a sap going back to the dame who cold-cocked him., I’ll be giving them another chance soon. Max Allan Collins’s Two for the Money is on the shelf waiting for me. I’ll check back and let you know whether I got the girl and the loot, or a blackjack to the skull.

1 comment:

  1. You know what's an interesting crime novel? Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham. You should read it sometime.

    I'd lend you my copy, but you have it.