I’ve mentioned before that I am an impatient reader, the type who gives a book about 50 pages to hook and dazzle me before I put it aside, moving on to the next potential winner. A chronic putter-downer, I dispense with underwhelming books a lot — I’ve spurned 10 titles in the past three months — always with a gulp of guilt, a soupçon of shame, a drizzle of disappointment. Are my standards too high? I don’t think so. I simply ask: Astonish me.
A few of the books that didn’t survive my recent scorched-earth dismissals were three volumes I’ve read before and loved but wound up not being in the mood for, rather unreasonably: “The White Album” by Joan Didion and Nabokov’s twin masterstrokes “Lolita” and “Speak, Memory.” I cracked them, read some, and hurriedly (blushingly) lost interest. Perhaps it was the been-there, done-that syndrome. (I’ve read “Lolita” twice already.)
You’re catching me in the act — I’m this close to putting down Catherine Lacey’s hailed new novel “The Answers.” At page 42, I’m not bored or wholly unabsorbed, but I’m getting perilously antsy. The protagonist is drab, the setting is vague, the advancing complications not that gripping. Still, I don’t think I’m done with it — yet. Lacey’s 2014 debut novel is “Nobody Is Ever Missing,” which netted praise and awards. I picked it up. I put it down. I’m giving the author another shot. It does not look promising.
Here’s the problem: I don’t have a back up book if I toss “The Answers.” I have on order at the library Jennifer Egan’s “Manhattan Beach” and Celeste Ng’s “Little Fires Everywhere” — both highly acclaimed literary novels by authors whose previous books nimbly enchanted. I could buy them at the local indie book store, but I’m far too fickle and fussy a reader to gamble cold cash like that. Not long ago, I spent $30 on Michael Chabon’s icky “Telegraph Avenue” — a total bust.
As shown, I’ll discard a book no matter how many laurels it wears or rave reviews it gets from critics and opining Amazon parasites. Recently, Dwight Garner of The New York Times gushed about the late J. P. Donleavy’s 1955 comic novel “The Ginger Man,” calling it a “picaresque masterwork” and so forth. So I picked it up. I read some. Then I scribbled in my journal:
“Started ‘The Ginger Man’ and hated it off the bat. Fifteen pages and I’m done. Don’t like the style, the humor, the taste and texture. Reminds me of Kingsley Amis’ brassy ‘Lucky Jim,’ which I’ve tried to read twice and couldn’t make it click.”
Then there’s the bantam-weight fluff of that satirist of suburbia Tom Perrotta, which, yes, I naturally put down. The book, his most recent, is “Mrs. Fletcher,” a comedy about a middle-aged woman who gets entangled in a web site called MILFateria.com. The novel flies along on middlebrow wings. It’s pop-lit, shorn of profundities and wisdom, though peppered with satirical observations and caustic cracks. I wanted to stick with it, and Perrotta makes the experience easy and breezy. I liked it until I didn’t — too many empty calories, like eating marshmallows. Next!
That would be Claire Mussud’s middlingly reviewed coming-of-age story “The Burning Girl,” which didn’t burn or glow — wasn’t even warm to the touch. I loved Mussud’s “The Emperor’s Children” and admired “The Woman Upstairs.” A new simplistic style hijacks her sophisticated prose, her sink-your-teeth-into ideas, grace and suavity. It has an unbecoming YA tang.
Next up was the book I really wanted to read, Gabriel Tallent’s ballyhooed novel “My Absolute Darling,” which has been called the mightiest debut of the year, the glimmering fall must-read. It follows a rustic, rough-hewn teenage girl named Turtle and her adventures wandering about the forests and craggy coastline of Northern California. Supposedly it’s quite harrowing. I found no harrow.
I read more than 200 of its 432 pages and as ravishing, even astonishing, as the writing is — Tallent should become a nature writer; his descriptions are swooningly lyrical — a real plot, a chunky narrative, never bloomed. There’s a lot of writing going on, but little else.
Maybe I should have stuck around. Maybe I’ll go back to it. Maybe I’ll wait for the movie. Meanwhile, in the midst of writing this, I’ve made more progress on Lacey’s “The Answers.” That sound you heard was two covers going smack.