Sunday, January 21, 2007

Astonish Me

No one was more excited than I was when Maureen Corrigan of National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” described Alice McDermott’s new novel as “astonishing.” Several years ago, overwhelmed by the flood of material unleashed annually by the publishing industry, I decided to establish a screening program by purchasing only books that at least one reviewer had described as “astonishing.”

Previously, I had limited my purchases to merchandise deemed “luminous” or “incandescent,” but this meant I ended up with an awful lot of novels about bees, Provence or Vermeer. The problem with incandescent or luminous books is that they veer toward the introspective, the arcane or the wise, while I prefer books that go off like a Roman candle. When I buy a book, I don’t want to come away wiser or happier or even better informed. I want to get blown right out of the water by the author’s breathtaking pyrotechnics. I want to come away astonished.
Thus, I was overjoyed to get the great news about McDermott’s “After This,” because while I’d heard wonderful things about her previous books, I could not recall anyone anointing them “astonishing,” which meant that I never bought any. Having recently picked up Alice Munro’s new story collection, “The View From Castle Rock,” which The Seattle Times described as “astonishing,” and the Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee’s “Slow Man,” deemed “an intense, astonishing work of art” by no less an arbiter of taste than O, The Oprah Magazine, I was rounding out the year in solid fashion with a troika of masterpieces that promised to be nothing short of astonishing.

These are good times for the astonishable reading public. Among the masterpieces by Orhan Pamuk, who won last year’s Nobel Prize for literature, was “The New Life,” described by The Times Literary Supplement as “an astonishing achievement.” Pamuk’s Nobel coincided with the premiere of a Court TV series based on James Ellroy’s “My Dark Places,” a book that had been quite accurately described by The Philadelphia Inquirer as “astonishing ... original, daring, brilliant.” Not long before, Ayelet Waldman came out with “Love and Other Impossible Pursuits,” which, while apparently not astonishing in and of itself, did include a character that the novelist Andrew Sean Greer described as “astonishing.” Then, Abigail Thomas published “A Three Dog Life,” singled out by Entertainment Weekly as “astonishing,” and an “extraordinary” love story — “Grade: A.” Personally, I find the Grade A business redundant; if a book is astonishing, you’re obviously not going to give it a B.

The Book Review itself has not been hesitant to use the word “astonishing,” which appeared recently in reviews of books by Thomas McGuane and George Pelecanos. Some people may protest that it’s ridiculous to make book-buying decisions purely on the basis of a single adjective. I could not agree more. But let me stress that while I buy only books that have been designated “astonishing,” I do not buy every single “astonishing” book.” For instance, Kurt Eichenwald’s “Serpent on the Rock” may very well be the “astonishing inside story of a blue-chip Wall Street firm whose massive securities fraud decimated the savings of a half a million people,” but that wording was supplied by the author’s publisher, not by some amazingly sophisticated person at O or Entertainment Weekly. So it could be a case of an entry-level cheerleader in the publicity department choosing the word “astonishing” when “hair-raising” or “jaw-dropping” might have been more appropriate.

For similar reasons, I shied away from M. T. Anderson’s “Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation,” even though it won last year’s National Book Award for young people’s literature. Just because the author himself uses the term “astonishing” to describe his subject doesn’t automatically make the book astonishing; it could be merely stellar, sensational, breathtaking or un-put-downable. For somewhat different reasons, I avoided Kate Atkinson’s “One Good Turn,” because even though it was described as an “astonishing thriller” in an ad in The New Yorker, this assessment came from one Linda Grana of the Lafayette Bookstore in Lafayette, Calif. Linda Grana may be a critic of the first water, on the same level as Samuel Johnson and Dale Peck, but if the word “astonishing” does not appear as part of a review by a designated cognoscente in a mainstream publication, I do not buy the putatively astonishing product. I can’t be buying books just because somebody in a bookstore somewhere said they were astonishing. I’d go broke.

One personal idiosyncrasy is that while I adore books that are astonishing, I do not feel the same way about other genres. Films as varied as “The Queen,” “The Last King of Scotland,” “The New World,” “Catch a Fire” and “World Trade Center” have all been labeled “astonishing,” but for me the word does not resonate in a celluloid context. And while it may be true that “Half-Nelson,” “Gabrielle” and “X-Men: The Last Stand” are all astonishing motion pictures, I have not seen any of them, as I personally do not enjoy “astonishing” motion pictures.

I prefer movies that are haunting, visually sweeping, mesmerizing or thought-provoking, and am highly partial to films that take no prisoners, challenge me in a way a good piece of speculative fiction should, or make me want to stand up and cheer. “The Squid and the Whale” did not make me want to stand up and cheer, even if Laura Linney is a national treasure; it was the kind of film that did in fact take prisoners. I feel the same way about music; I don’t care how astonishing Maurizio Pollini’s technique is, particularly when he’s playing Lizst’s Sonata in B minor; pianists with astonishing technique are a dime a dozen. Anyway, I prefer pianists who play with icy, laconic detachment.

Are there ever times when I worry that my obsession with the word “astonishing” prevents me from buying a great book? Sure. But, the truth is, if nobody describes a book as astonishing, it probably isn’t astonishing, and if it isn’t astonishing, who needs it? Marilynne Robinson’s long-awaited “Gilead” has been described as “poignant,” “absorbing,” “lyrical,” “meditative” and “perfect.” It’s also been called “magnificent,” a “literary miracle,” “Grade A” and, yes, “incandescent” by Entertainment Weekly. But nowhere have I seen anyone officially call it “astonishing.” I’ve already explained how I feel about incandescent books; if I had a nickel for every incandescent novel I’ve ever read, I could retire tomorrow. But I don’t, so I can’t. First book that doesn’t leave me astonished, your mistake; second book that doesn’t leave me astonished, my mistake. Sorry, Ms. Robinson, close but no cigar.

Joe Queenan’s most recent book is “Queenan Country: A Reluctant Anglophile’s Pilgrimage to the Mother Country.”

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

1 comment:

Lake Oz Fic Chick said...

love this; thanks for posting it!

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