Review: All Hail Our New Literary Genius?

Garth Greenwell has a new book out and when he published his debut a few years ago, the response from critics reminded me of my many years reviewing for the Detroit Free Press, the Washington Post and other publications.  Back then my colleagues sometimes struck me like a pack of wolves. One would start howling praise for a book and soon the cries would echo everywhere. The raves often triggered the contrarian in me: was the book really earth-shattering?

The panegyrics about What Belongs to You when it came out had put me off, but a creative writing student of mine told me he found it interesting, so I decided to read it.

The narrator was a gay American teacher in Bulgaria who got involved with an increasingly demanding hustler he met in a public toilet. One British reviewer said this novel actually made her tremble, while another hailed it as “incandescent.”  That’s apparently the official word of choice for Greenwell’s work since it’s been applied to his latest book, too.

A New York Times reviewer called that debut an “instant classic” and compared the book to a Jackson Pollack painting, which seemed wildly inappropriate given its overall lack of energy.

Aside from listless prose, the major problem I had was the obnoxious, dishonest grifter. We were supposed to believe in the narrator’s intense attraction to this Mitko, yet his most distinguishing features were a chipped tooth and being well hung.  The sex scenes were minimal and boring, which was problematic since the narrator’s sexual obsession seemed design to drive the book forward.  They didn’t.  It crawled.

While the novel’s framing sections were way too languid, the middle section worked best because the prose was more direct and compelling, less writerly.  In those pages we experienced the narrator’s shameful memories of growing up with a brutal father and a treacherous, manipulative best friend.

I didn’t quiver reading that part of the book and my iPad screen didn’t glow, but I felt the author was far more deeply engaged. He spoiled it, though, when the narrator found a horse in a Bulgarian monastery at the end of that section. “It was tied up, I saw, it could have wandered off anytime it chose; but there was nowhere for it to go, of course, and the cart I supposed was heavy and there was something meager to be had there where it stood.”

Yes, dude.  We totally got it.  The narrator was trapped.  Thanks for clarifying that.  The sequence was like one of those corny songs at the end of a movie filled with lyrics explaining what you just saw in case you were too dumb to understand the two hours you’d just sat through.

Nobody recommended the new book Cleanness to me, but I started it anyway out of morbid curiosity.  I found the same overlong, airless, flat sentences that weighed down What Belongs to You and had to give up.  Greenwell is being compared to Proust, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Henry James, Thomas Mann, and D.H. Lawrence.

Calls for a Nobel Prize are probably next.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery and teaches creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

Happy Birthday Henry James! You Changed My Life!

I had an amazing senior year of college reading and reveling in George Eliot, Edith Wharton, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Lawrence Durrell, Fitzgerald, and Henry James. While all of them inspired me to be a better writer of fiction–my goal in life–it was James who was the catalyst for perhaps the deepest change.

I was reading The Portrait of a Lady–which many critics consider The Great American Novel–at 3 AM when I came to the famous Chapter 42. That’s where the American heiress, Isabel Archer, has started to understand that there’s something wrong with her marriage and her life. She’s hoped for intellectual and emotional freedom, but life with her dilettante husband Osmond has turned out to be very different. Her Roman palace is a prison.

….she had seen where she really was. She could live it over again, the incredulous terror with which she had taken the measure of her dwelling. Between those four walls she had lived ever since; they were to surround her for the rest of her life. It was the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation.

I was thunderstruck. That was my house. My emotional house. Because I had never really talked about or written abut my parents’ experiences in the Holocaust, what that legacy meant to me. In the years to come, this subject matter would become central to the fiction and nonfiction I published and was known for. My first prize-winning story, published in Redbook, would be about a son of survivors and it launched my career.

Within days of reading Chapter 42, there was a clear difference in my work that my creative writing professor noticed. James had opened me up to myself in a way that no other author ever had. I was never the same man or writer again.

Of course, it wasn’t just the story that swept me away: the sumptuous prose, James’s sly humor, and his sharp depiction of the conflict of Americans and Europeans in that era transfixed me.

I’ve read Portrait many times since, always in new editions because I mark up my copies with comments, stars, and underlining. It keeps meaning different things to me, but I always remember that sense of discovery and liberation, and I will always be grateful.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books of fiction and nonfiction in genres from memoir to mystery. He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com. His latest book is State University of Murder.