Reading Slump! Some Books That Didn’t Work For Me

This blog has been a bit quiet recently. That’s partly due to term restarting, but also because I’ve been struggling with a lot of my recent reads, and I can’t decide whether it’s my fault or the books’ fault. Here’s some short thoughts on some fiction and non-fiction that has disappointed me. Warning: long!

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The premise of Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country sounded fantastic (and look at that cover!). Like all sensible people, I find H.P. Lovecraft’s visions of the ‘Old Ones’ genuinely frightening, but am equally disturbed by the racism and anti-semitism that’s pervasive in much of his work. Lovecraft Country promised to bring these two themes together in the story of Atticus, an African-American Weird Tales fan who embarks on a road trip to New England in 1954 to seek out his missing father. However, the horrors that Atticus encounters are not only supernatural but are fundamentally intertwined with the white supremacist violence that he faces as part of his everyday life as a black person in the post-war United States. I don’t think this was inevitable, but I feel a lot of the failures of Lovecraft Country lie in the fact that it wasn’t written by a person of colour. The exploration of violent racist acts committed by the police and other law officials feels weirdly gratuitous, partly due to the frequency and length of their occurrence, and partly due to the way that the black characters simply shrug their shoulders after being chased and shot at multiple times (and not in the sense that they expect this treatment, but in the sense that it seems to be experienced as somehow non-traumatic). The tone, in short, is totally off, and this feels more like a jaunty road trip. If institutional racism, in this novel, is not horrifying, neither are the otherworldly antics of the cult that Atticus and his friends encounter. I abandoned this novel about a quarter way through.

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When I was a teenager, I was absorbed by A.S. Byatt’s ‘The Stone Woman’, about a woman who is gradually turning into stone. Much more recently, Sarah Hall’s memorable ‘Mrs Fox’ told the story of a woman who turns into a fox, although from the point of view of her husband. Therefore, the premise of the first full-length story in Nudibranch, Irenosen Okojie’s new short story collection, ‘Kookaburra Sweet’ – which is about a woman who turns into liquorice – wasn’t in itself off-putting. I sometimes think that I don’t like ‘magical realism’, but, even putting aside the problematic ways in which that term has started to be used so broadly (I can’t find the original article I read about this, but here’s one that outlines the arguments!), I’m not sure that’s true; I do like magical realism when it’s done well. Unfortunately, this is a tremendously difficult thing to do, and I don’t think most of the stories that I read from this collection pull it off.

For me, ‘magical realism’ in its broad sense is distinguished from speculative or science fiction, or even from horror, by its lack of boundaries. So, in speculative fiction, strange things might happen but they tend to have a rational explanation, even if it’s impossible; even in horror or ghost stories, there are certain rules that govern the monster’s behaviour (‘don’t stay in the old house overnight’). Magical realism, it seems to me, doesn’t really deal in rules or explanations, because it’s trying to convey reality in a different way. However, for this to work for me, the stories need to feel psychologically real, and that was what was lacking throughout much of the first half of this collection. Byatt’s ‘The Stone Woman’ made such an impression on me because of the horror the central character feels when she realises she’s turning to stone. In contrast, Kara, the woman who turns to liquorice, doesn’t seem too bothered; after her fingers almost melt under the hot water from her taps, she just goes back to what she was thinking about before: ‘Sydney had been a disaster. She was broken by it. Almost.’ While I understand that the story isn’t meant to be read literally, this weird mix of realism and the magical didn’t work for me.

Part of this is due to Okojie’s writing. I read her first collection, Speak Gigantular, when it first came out and remember very little about it other than that it felt under-edited. Much of her writing here also has that first-draft feeling; there are wonderful sentences, but then others that just aren’t very good. Often the similes are just too complicated, as in the opening to ‘Grace Jones’: ‘

‘Once the stray parts of a singed scene had found their way into the bedroom, onyx edges gleaming and the figures without memories had lost their molten heads to the coming morning… the phone rang, shrill, invasive, demanding. Still on the floor, the wood cold against her skin, she crawled to the receiver tentatively, as if her limbs were tethered to a thread on the earth’s equator, the thread bending and collapsing into the different stages of her life.’

Certain images reoccur in this collection – body parts turn up in unexpected places, things melt, people perform rituals – but there doesn’t seem to be much purpose to it. Some stories conjure up fascinating worlds but then don’t make much use of them, such as ‘Filamo’, set in an otherworldly monastery, and ‘Saudade Minus One (S – 1 = )’, which looks at a future in which children are malfunctioning. The one story of those I read which worked for me was ‘Point and Shrill’; Okojie’s writing is much more restrained, and it allows the eeriness of the story to take centre stage as it moves from naturalism into horror.

I read about half of these stories, but then concluded that this collection wasn’t for me. It reminds me most strongly of a less accomplished version of Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, so if that’s your sort of thing, this might work better for you.

I received a free proof copy of this collection from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 7th November.

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I 100% thought that I was going to love Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, which was billed as a memoir about two sets of parallel experiences of gendered bodies: while Nelson went through her first pregnancy, her trans partner Harry Dodge decided to start taking testosterone and to have ‘top surgery’. As Nelson writes: ‘2011, the summer of our changing bodies. Me, four months pregnant, you, six months on T.’ Nelson is a fiercely intelligent writer, and, to her credit, she writes very clearly and perceptively about issues of queer identity and discourse that can become very difficult to understand in the hands of the wrong person. To an extent, my reaction to The Argonauts is personal: this memoir simply didn’t speak to me and my own life experiences. Nelson is bent on breaking down certain ideas of what it means to be ‘queer’, writing of ‘the tired binary that places femininity, reproduction and normativity on one side and masculinity, sexuality and queer resistance on the other.’ I can see Nelson’s point: there is nothing inherently conformist in getting pregnant and giving birth, and indeed, the ways in which women’s bodies are treated during pregnancy and birth shows how difficult it is for patriarchy to handle female experience. However, I guess I’m just not that interested in what is ‘queer’ and what is not.

Heteronormative society privileges a certain set of experiences that are rooted in material reality, not identity; it prefers (white) women who have relationships with men, who get pregnant and raise children within nuclear families and who conform to feminine norms of behaviour and presentation. Because of the double bind, this obviously doesn’t mean that women who conform to this way of life don’t suffer under patriarchy. But it seems to me that rather than worrying about how to ‘queer’ experiences like pregnancy, we should attend to the power relationships that are leveraged particularly violently against women who don’t conform; women who are of colour, who choose not to have children, who are single mothers or lesbians, who are butch or gender non-conforming, who don’t have relationships with anybody at all. I guess, in short, I’d rather have heard from Dodge than Nelson; his experience of trans and gender-fluid identity shifts throughout the book, and while he uses male pronouns, his take is a bit more complicated: ‘I do not want the female gender that has been assigned to me at birth. Neither do I want the male gender that transsexual medicine can furnish and that the state will award me if I behave in the right way. I don’t want any of it.’  But Nelson’s take on this challenging statement is disappointingly woolly, and can be boiled down to: just listen to what other people tell you about their identity. Well, yes, but if society didn’t impose categories on us regardless of what we have to say about it, we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place, and we need to say something about that.

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Finally, I read Anna Weiner’s Uncanny Valley, a memoir of working in Silicon Valley in her mid-twenties; I won’t say too much about this one as it isn’t out until next year, but I found that it felt like a good online article that had been stretched out into more than three hundred pages. Weiner has nothing especially insightful to say about tech, and rehearses familiar critiques: the dominance of young white men, the lack of concern for data security, the distance from the ‘real world’. I also found the way Weiner presents herself as totally unrelatable; she seems to think it’s a classic example of millennial drift, but there’s no solid core to anything about this version of her self, and she comes across as unbearably obtuse. You’re probably better off reading her online output; I stopped reading this around the halfway mark.

I received a free proof copy of this memoir from the publisher for review. It’s out in the UK on 14th January 2020.

Is it me, or is it the books? What books have you struggled with recently? And do you have any recommendations to get me out of this reading slump?

19 thoughts on “Reading Slump! Some Books That Didn’t Work For Me

  1. Well you are a good reviewer who I can always see writes truthfully, and even if you were a bit biased against these books in your writing it would still be perfectly clear that they are all flawed as books, not you as a reader! So you have this person’s permission to just move on from these to something better!

    I just read a very peculiar book (novella, really) I’d had via NetGalley, trying to get my stats better. It was so odd and unfinished and unsatisfying. Thankfully, most of the NG reviews already up say the same – phew!

    As for the slump, I’d go for some comfort reads, and for any blogging slump, tell us what your go-to comfort reads are!

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  2. I enjoyed The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson but have heard mixed reviews of both The Argonauts and Bluets. I’m with you on magic realism – for me it has to be slightly grounded in some kind of reality to work. Hope the slump ends soon!

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  3. I appreciate posts on DNFs / books that didn’t really work for people — for one thing, they make me feel I’m not alone in not ‘getting’ certain books, and remind me that there’s mysterious magic at work (or not) between readers and books, such that what we think we will love we sometimes do not, and vice versa.

    I’ll confess I hadn’t heard of Okojie before, but she moderated the conversation between Evaristo and Makumbi I went to at the Southbank Centre last night.

    I’m sad you didn’t love The Argonauts, but that’s just because it was so revelatory for me — I can appreciate that others will be further along than I was when they encounter it.

    I’m halfway through Once Upon A River as one of my RIP reads (though I most likely won’t read or review it in time). I’d tried getting into it early this year when I first got a proof copy and couldn’t make it past p. 15, so it was clearly a case of the wrong book at the wrong time. This month when I picked it up it drew me in right away.

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    • Timing is important – it probably wasn’t the best idea to start The Argonauts when I’m immersed in teaching some difficult theoretical material on gender and sexuality, but I’d borrowed it from a friend and felt I ought to return it soon!

      I’m glad you’re enjoying Once Upon a River.

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  4. Great post! It is so interesting for me to read why people do not like certain books, so I find negative reviews very insightful, even more so than positive reviews, actually. I have not read any books above, but your judgement of them sounds very fair.

    As for a book that I struggle with right now – it has to be The Dutch House.by Ann Patchett, unfortunately. I know you liked it, but I think it was one of the most unoriginal and forgettable books I have read in the last few years. The house, the paintings, the dysfunctional family, the inability to go and change the past, the inability to live in the present without the recourse to the past – all these things just feel so painfully derivative now without anything else appearing in the novel. Especially, in the background of such a bestseller now as The Goldfinch, which frankly does the same thing (but much better) – especially re the topic of the “loss of the mother”.

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    • I didn’t like The Dutch House as much as most of Patchett’s other work – I did find the plot quite tired. For me, it was lifted by her writing, but it’s certainly not one I’d especially recommend.

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  5. I’ve only read one of Okojie’s books—Speak Gigantular—but struggled with it for pretty much exactly the same reasons as you did. The imagery is so tormented as to be almost meaningless (and I notice that, in the quote you use, the word “onyx” appears; it’s also in one of the sections of Speak Gigantular that frustrated me the most! Not that it’s a bad word—it’s a great word—but…what is it accomplishing in this context?!)

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  6. I think the lack of boundaries is exactly what doesn’t work for me in magical realism (or whatever it should be called; I definitely agree with the points about its appropriation) – my brain just craves logic, even if it’s made up logic. I don’t do well with the abstract.

    And I really enjoyed your review of The Argonauts. You brought up a lot of great points to mull over. I did enjoy that book well enough but in retrospect I agree that hearing from Harry would have been the more interesting perspective. I wasn’t wild about Bluets but I am really interested in picking up The Red Parts at some point.

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    • It’s an interesting one – I used to say that I didn’t like magical realism at all, but on reflection that isn’t true, because I can think of examples of the genre that I have enjoyed. I think it is about the internal logic of the situation even if it isn’t ‘real’ e.g. Life of Pi.

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  7. I really enjoy reading reviews of books that people didn’t get on with – especially when they’re as well argued as yours above – I’m unfamiliar with all of them. I’ve read so much about Maggie Nelson that I feel I ought to read her, but will admit to feeling intimidated by her. With magic realism, I’m on safe ground – I don’t mind it at all when it grows out of a narrative naturally, like Natasha Pulley’s The Bedlam Stacks which did it so well, and Ali Shaw’s first two books.

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    • I LOVED the Bedlam Stacks, but it causes some categorisation problems for me – I think it’s speculative fiction (because the events of the book, while supernatural, are really happening and are rooted in internal logic and a system of rules).

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  8. Pingback: Three Things… October 2019 | Laura Tisdall

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