Friday, June 12, 2009

What You Can Get Away With

Not all authors can pull off all the risky moves all the time.

No one ever claimed I was anything but picky. I think I tend to sound pickier than I am, because it's easier to dissect what doesn't work than what does, even in something that is overall successful. But two examples of things that tend to work against a book for me are coming up for me right now: multiple first person narrators, and memoirs in which the main character (ie memoirist) is really unlikeable.

It really seems like someone writing a memoir is probably putting their best spin on things. I mean, there's a level on which they have almost no choice but to have some sympathy with the character, if you know what I'm saying. And leaving off the "but I'm majorly reformed now" memoir, presumably most people writing their autobiography thinks there's something worth telling about in their life story. I guess, thinking about it more thoroughly, what I'm really bothered by is a main character or narrator whom the author thinks is sympathetic, but who is really kind of wanker. Maybe they're selfish or mean or cold or rude. It doesn't so much matter why I don't like them; if I don't like them, I have little use for them.

Anyway, Intern, by Sandeep Jauhar, is a memoir of this doctor's internship. Now, clearly he's a respected cardiologist and medical writer at the point where he's writing this book. But he does an excellent job of painting himself as kind of a crappy intern. If you thought JD from Scrubs was self-absorbed, my God, this guy. He's older than his classmates, almost 30, because he had his PhD in physics before he decided to become a doctor. He doesn't like physics because it's too insulated, not "real" enough. So he goes to medical school and finds it very hard, maybe too hard. But not challenging, if you see what I mean, because it's not about ideas. I swear, if this guy got any more involved examining his navel, he's going to turn inside out.

Yet somehow it's a pretty good book. Part of it is the behind-the-scenes at the hospital thing. There's an ER style thrill about the medical dramas. Part is also that, clearly all this "God I don't want to be a doctor, and I suck at it anyway and I sure don't want to marry a doctor and why did I do this and what else could I do? " is going to lead somewhere--he made it through, after all. But part of it I can't explain. I want to smack him when he spins his wheels trying to figure out what he "wants" from life--which of us doesn't wonder that? And how many of us have three degrees and still have a deep well of choices and are still cranky about this? Suck it up and pick a life path. But somehow, I'm following him to these places, waiting for him to find the answer. Good for him for talking me into that.

But Jodi Picoult is NOT going to talk me into the typographical nightmare she's set up for me in Handle with Care.

I am reluctant but not unconvincable on the subject of stories told by multiple first person narrators. Barbara Kingsolver does an excellent job with The Poisonwood Bible, but that feature was the reason it took me over a year to get past the second chapter. Inevitably, the narration switch involves not only getting to know a new character, but leaving off some part of the storyline that you're likely just getting into.

When it's just a couple of points of view, it's not as big an issue--I can often be convinced. When there are five, you're pushing it. But when you commit the visual crime of putting each narrator's chapter in a different FONT, I will be your sworn enemy even unto death. Am I not bright enough to follow which character is which? Do you not realize how UGLY this is? The fact that the fonts have different weights, different relative sizes, serif vs. sans boggles the mind and offends the eyes. Five different fonts. I don't even like half of them.

The real crime here is how this pulls you out of the story. It reminds you of the reading you're doing, the mental and physical task, the fact that this story is words on the page, not just unfolding in my mind. Reading is something I almost can't realize I'm doing, but oh, you will insist on reminding me, Jodi, you will. And I'll be bitter for it.

I'm not even sure I'm going to read the book, as punishment for this awful crime. And I'm going to look up who her managing editor was and have words with them, too.

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