I mean, really, what IS it??
Okay, technically it's a book-review, as you may have guessed from the previous chapter, but what precisely makes it so fecal? The short answer, I suppose, is that the crappy critique, dominant atop the "book reviews" page (Edmonton Journal Oct. 23, 2011) and occupying almost half of it, is the logical result and natural product of our brick-sh*thouse civilization (and my apologies to the "reasonable accomodation" folks whom will undoubtedly tut-tut this harsh judgement and/or ship my pathetic tarred-and-feathered carcass back to Saudi Arabia if I hate Canada so much).
And the reviewer herself? I'm inclined to soft-pedal her transgressions, in part because they seem typical, not invidual; in part because I'm a hopeless male with incurable delusions of chivalry; but perhaps mostly because I know that the book-reviewer pay-scale is comparable to that of a Nineteenth-Century Junior Coal Removal Facilitator. If you expect better writing, then PAY better, dammit.
In fact, although she is merely listed as "freelance reviewer" I'm pretty sure she is (or was) an English professor at my alma mater. Someone I've never met. Whatever. But her review, titled "Tale of matriarch's loss a poetic saga" is flatly dismaying and depressing, even to a pessimist like myself, whose expectations in life have been minimized by the best operant-conditioning available.
The bleakness starts with the cutline under the photo of the book's author (okay, the cutline almost certainly wasn't written by her) which announces "Playwright and novelist Sebastian Barry's latest novel, On Canaan's Side, picks up on threads he has explored in previous novels, such as the The Secret Scripture." Maybe I'm just nitpicking, but this sentence has far too many commas. It doesn't need any. And why are the two book-titles not italicized? I know I'm being a totally fossilized reactionary raising the subject of italics, but really--what was the point of chopping down entire forests to produce (over years, decades, centuries) vast heaps of style-guides, grammars and the like, all stressing that entire published works should be italicized?--so the reader knows what is being discussed--only to have some post-modern denial-of-expertise expert shrug and say, "Do it any way you like" (presumably because freedom is the ultimate criterion, baby).
Again, does any flesh-and-blood human actually "explore threads"? Even internet-threads are just browsed, right? If you go further, to systematic exploration, you are probably some kind of stalker. Nope, exploring threads, whatever that might be, is just a vague, tired, abstract metaphor, suitable only for professors and other professional dullards.
Onward to the review itself, which begins by calling Mr. Barry "celebrated." Celebrated? Well, perhaps it could have been worse. He might have been certified iconic, at which point I would have slashed my wrists. Seriously, I'd never even heard of the author before I picked up the clipping. And while I don't track all fiction (who has a lifetime to surf the deluge?) I do track book-reviews fairly fussily, monitoring at least the trends that are trendiest. So who is this guy?
But let's summarize the review, since my blog-post is plodding and dragging a wee bit. In it our reviewer delineates a novel of an Irish mother who moves to America for a better life, but loses both sons, one to an IRA assassin, one to post-traumatic stress disorder (whether the latter is a death is not made clear). There is little else regarding the substance of the novel, although my snout deduces from said meagreness that the story is somewhat melodramatic, and the remainder of the review, about 80% by my estimate, dwells heavily on style.
And this style too comes across as overblown, although the reviewer seems impressed by it. For example the book's whoop that "My heart lifted like a pheasant from scrub" strikes the reviewer as one of "those spears of poetry that penetrate the dark like shafts of moonlight." Sorry, for me the line is just a lame parody of that running joke in Little Big Man, "My heart soars like an eagle."
Have we no guffaws left for such rhetorical heaving and eye-rolling? Apparently not. There be poetics by the hectare in modern fiction, symbolism by the gallon, alliteration and litotes by the liter, hyperbole unlimited, blah blah, yet amid all our culture-heroes, none dare call it flapdoodle. Personally, I'm blaming F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, where the whole style-over-substance buffoonery seems to have started. Let some post-modern warrior smite this pestilence of metaphor! (or is that a mixaphor?) And let academic/overeducated reviewers get down from their towers and into the semi-fresh air of the real world to clear their heads.
And that's all. I could dredge up a few more complaints, like why a book seemingly about the 60s has on its cover a 20s-ish flapper, or why a bigshot publisher like Viking bothers to publish such seemingly uninspired stuff, but let it pass. The damn lawn remains unraked. Nor is anyone reading this blog, in all likelihood. As a final bringdown, it occurs to me that in writing this I haven't manged to dump a single bolus of office-crap, as I had planned. I may even need to file that damn clipping now.