Thursday, June 12, 2008

My Limits

I've always kind of had a problem with stories in which the plot is dependent on people acting in ways that don't seem reasonable to me. It's not about rational or irrational--making stupid decisions out of fear or desire or thoughtlessness is very natural and normal and doesn't turn me off. But the syndrome that turns me off is the one you see in thrillers, where the main characters don't go to the police for stupid reasons like "there's no time" or I don't even know what other dumb reasons. Or when the lovers don't admit they love each other (when it's so OBVIOUS that they both do) for--well, whatever reason. The whole point is that the choices are unreasonable. Or, at the very least, far from anything I would do, or could imagine doing.

For this reason, I'm afraid I'm not going to be able to read An Arsonist's Gudie to Writers' Homes in New England, by Brock Clarke. I picked it up randomly, and started it, and it's funny and strange and interesting. The premise (as far in as I got) is that this guy, as a teenager, accidentally burned down Emily Dickinson's house, and two people died. He served ten years in prison, got out, and is starting a new life--going to college, getting married. The writer is witty, the book is interesting, and there's a good amount of mystery to what's going on.

The problem is that the main character is not just an unreliable narrator; he's a compulsive liar. And when he lies to his wife, letting his wife believe that he's having an affair so he doesn't have to tell her what he did; when he tries to buy the goodwill of the guy whose parents died in the fire with a root beer; really, when he does or thinks or says anything, I just want to smack him. I don't want to follow his hilarious adventures anymore. I don't want to watch him grow as a person. I want to club him over the head and get him out of everyone's life so he won't bother them anymore.

Somehow, I didn't have this problem with Story of a Girl, by Sara Zarr. Thinking about this book is really what made me realize the difference between "unreasonable" and "irrational" in my constellation of annoyances. Because a lot of the stuff that happens in this book would normally irritate the heck out of me--people who are hurt but don't talk openly to each other, a girl whose life has been broken by a jerk but who is still hanging out with him anyway. Irrational ways of being. But somehow, I believed every minute; the emotional repression of the family in this book is painful, but not in an awful way. It made me cry, but I absolutely loved it.

It just goes to show again that it's all about the author. And I think it backs a personal corollary of mine, which is that an excess of cleverness is almost always a bad thing, but a nice, modest dose of sincerity will do a lot for the world.

Of course, I already mentioned Seventeenth Summer, which proves that sincerity is not a panacea, and can be dangerous in large doses.


Helen said...

You should write reviews professionally, because I want to read every book you like, and can't see why anyone would want to read the ones you don't. :) Are you on Goodreads, btw?

LibraryHungry said...

Aw, honey, you flatter me! I AM on Goodreads, by the way; I'll scrounge up your email and send you a link, if you'd like!

Linda Braun said...

Do you think you cut narrators that are teens more slack than adult narrators?

LibraryHungry said...

You know, I hadn't thought about that. I think that my problem mostly comes in when reality itself becomes twisted, not necessarily the point of view. So you might say I'd cut them more slack, since I'd be able to take in stride the fact that a teen narrator was seeing things differently than I did--a teenager who's a compulsive liar would probably keep me reading (and screaming, but still reading) a lot longer. But the point at which the actual events come into question, anyone's going to lose me.