Wednesday, December 09, 2009

In Which Literature Is Mocked

Steve Hely is a very, very clever man. Sometimes, when I say this, it's an indictment, but so far, I'm riding high on his cleverness. My only worry is that, after this satire, I might never be able to read a literary novel again.

Sure, he deconstructs the modern "literary" novel with rules like "Include obscure plant names," and "Evoke confusing sadness at the end," and "Prose must be lyrical" ("lyrical" being defined as "resembling bad poetry"). These are things that I've pretty much observed myself. And yes, he takes a cynical view of the writer himself, pointing out that there are few better ways for a hairy old man in flannel to get young college girls to follow you around and maybe sleep with you.

But I think what's slaying me--both in the best of ways and in the risk of spoiling me for real books--is in his descriptions of the numerous fictitious novels that he mentions when his character walks through a bookstore. Some of the descriptions and titles are so on the nose that they're not really satire, just made up: Sageknights of Darkhorn, in which "Astrid Soulblighter attempts to reclaim the throne from the wicked Scarkrig clan," or Nick Boyle's Shock Blade: Lynchpin, in which "Admiral Chao threatens to destroy the Internet and the ShockBlade team is forced to ally with their Chinese rivals."

This was brought into sharper relief after I read the fictional NYT Best Sellers list in the book and then went poking around in Audible looking for some new audiobooks. The one sentence blurbs started to run together and blew my mind. Here, let me show you. Which of the below are made up and which are real?

"When Pippa Dunn, adopted as an infant and raised terribly British, discovers that her birth parents are from the American South, she finds that 'culture clash' has layers of meaning she never imagined."

"On a journey across the Midwest, a downsized factory worker named Gabriel touches the lives of several people wounded by life."

"On Nantucket, a beautiful nun who's given up on love finds herself attracted to a psychic who just may be a dangerous arsonist."

"Cassandra's much-loved grandmother, Nell, has just died, and Cassandra, her life already shaken by a tragic accident ten years ago, feels like she has lost everything known and dear to her."

Okay, maybe you could tell. But they're close. He's got a great ear for this stuff. And then, when the author starts slipping the narrator's "rules for a best seller" into the text (like, "during slow parts, include descriptions of elaborate meals"), my mind is just blown.

I can see people finding the humor to be too far on the mocking side. And I think the cynicism that the narrator ascribes to the idea of being a writer is harsh. But it's mostly pretty clear where the author's opinions and the narrator's diverge. And also, seriously, I'm laughing out loud.

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