Monday, January 18, 2010

A great book I read in 2010

I almost stopped reading Steve Hely's "How I Became a Famous Novelist" in that crucial first fifty pages. I'm so glad I didn't. It's a devastating satire of the current state of literature in America. But it's also a love story and that kept me going through the beginning where it seemed things were going to get too snarky for me. An amoral, cynical slacker takes a look at the best-seller listand decides that he can write a best-seller using every popular cliche in the book, so to speak. His goals for doing so are fame, fortune and winning back his ex-girlfriend Polly who is planning to marry someone else. It's not as easy as he thought it was going to be:

Writing a novel -- actually picking the words and filling in paragraphs -- is a tremendous pain in the ass. Now that TV's so good and the Internet is an endless forest of distraction, it's damn near impossible. That should be taken into account when ranking the all-time greats. Somebody like Charles Dickens, for example, who had nothing better to do except eat mutton and attend public hangings, should get very little credit.

But he eventually does write a book The Tornado Ashes Club that does become a best-seller. But things don't turn out near as nice as they did in his fantasies. And by the end of the book this oh-so-cynical novel has become a love song to the power of literature:

You get lost in the language of it, but not because it's trying too hard. It's not. What it's really about. . . is how the cruelties we inflict on each other start out so small but become inevitable. It's about what kind of creatures we are and how we came to be this way. These fictional characters that only exist as words on a page somehow seem to know better than I do how to live your life.

A stunning turnaround. I also really appreciated the movie mogul character's one moment of clarity when he realizes how wrong it would be to make Madame Bovary into a movie

. . . here's the problem: it has to be internal. You can't dramatize it all. And there's no actress, not even Kate Winslet, who's that good. There never will be. There's always going to be that distance. You can watch a movie. But you can't live it. And Madame Bovary, you need to live it.

Exactly, and that is why I never want to see movie versions of books that I've loved -- after living in them watching just doesn't cut it.