My Guilty Pleasure Gets More Embarrassing

I was in University, desperately seeking some nice pulpy distraction, when my Dad handed me my first Ken Follett novel: Pillars of the Earth. Knowing my love for anything over 500 pages in mass market form, and historical fiction (Clan of the Cave Bear in the 6th grade, up to Edward Rutherford novels in the 9th grade), he simply said "You'll like this. It's about a church." And we were off.
In the succeeding years, I'd often turn to Follett for a day or two of suspense and action. Nothing else he's written (excepting of course the new "sequel" World Without End) is like Pillars of the Earth in scope, or topic. Mostly Follett writes WWII spy stuff, a genre I wouldn't normally come near (you may know of Eye of the Needle which became a Donald Sutherland vehicle). Thing is, I liked his writing, his pace, his ability to transport the reader, his grasp of suspense (cliffhanger on the chapter ends, check!). I always describe him as writing "soap operas for men." Replace WWII France with Port Charles, and it's basically the same sort of stories. But guys like war, yeah? Ken Follett novels are one of my happy, guilty pleasures, with Pillars of the Earth always being a favourite, and one often re-read, like literary comfort food.

Then Oprah came, and bungled the whole thing.

I try to avoid the flavour of the week/month/year books (Da Vinci Code, Tuesdays With Morrie, that sort of thing). If Heather picked it, the odds are pretty good I won't. If Oprah picks it, I'm even more likely to stay away (though I did love The Corrections, controversy or no). Now, I do realise that Follett is already a hugely popular novelist, and that Oprah isn't blessing some new upstart, and outing them from obscurity (but since when has she, and with her kind of power, shouldn't that be what she's doing?). Oprah's also picked books I've long since finished, like Middlesex. So what's my issue here? There are a few:
  • 1. Follett writes pulp. I don't particularly care if it's about 13c England. It's pulp. Let's acknowledge that it's pulp, and not hold it up like it's a novel to change your life, Oprah. Granted her picks have been all over the board, but for the most part, she does try and choose a book that has got some sort of heft. Remember that Steinbeck nonsense?
  • 2. It's already my guilty pleasure, damn you. Don't make it more guilty.
  • 3. As I mentioned, my bookshelf is starting to look pretty Oprah approved, and that pisses me off. It's a bit hard to explain, but I'm a bit of a book snob, like I am a bit of a music snob. I don't want to (have) read the same things that every suburban soccer-mom is reading. Um, don't look at that Eat, Pray, Love entry. Ha!

    I guess I'm ambivalent about the whole thing. All at once, I think my tastes are too good for Oprah's book club, yet I don't think Follett is good enough to be in the same company as most of the other picks. What's next, Oprah? Jackie Collins*?

    * * *

    In writing this entry, I came across a cool Google tool, that I'm sure has been around for a while, and I'm just discovering now. I put "Ken Follett" in the search, and the first result was the Google Books tool. If you click on a specific book it will link you up to reviews and references... oh how nice! And to think, I'd just been using the regular old search page! Anyway, I'll be using this tool a bit more in the future, and see if it comes up with anything cool.

    *Ol' JC was also excellent semester break reading. When you've had it up to here with Gaskell, it's nice to read about Hollywood silliness
  • Writing About Writing About Writing About Writing...

    I admit it: I'm the worst blogger ever. There's no rhyme or reason to when you'll read my exciting prose. Today, half my systems are down, and I really can't do much without them, so I might as well create some content. Because you miss me. You know you do.

    With a salute to Steven W. Beattie, if you're still out there...

    If you want to know why I love Coupland so much, it’s for books like The Gum Thief.

    Reading The Gum Thief felt a lot like reading Eleanor Rigby in a very good way. I had a low-level sadness, and empathy for the time I spent reading both books. To me, Coupland is at his best when tackling the normal people that you miss, pass by, and forget about instantly. You wouldn’t remember either of the main characters, other than to think “Isn’t that guy a little old to be working retail?” or “What’s with the Death Chick?”* Coupland captures loneliness, the way it brings odd people together, and how it keeps them separate better than anyone I’ve read recently. However, The Gum Thief wanders into post-modern territory, where Eleanor Rigby did not.

    Overall, The Gum Thief is a meditation on writing itself, and thus lends itself nicely to post-modern self-reflexive narrative. While Coupland does the book, within a book, within a book, structure that Atwood used in The Blind Assassin, The Gum Thief has a different reason for employing it. Coupland makes the reader think about the process of writing, about who is writing, and why (for the record, I don’t really have any answers, just more questions every time I think about it. However, I think that’s kind of the point). The two main characters are ostensibly writing to each other, yet their voices seem strikingly similar. Roger is, in turn, writing a “bad” novel called Glove Pond about a critically lauded, yet commercially unsuccessful novelist, Steve, and the dinner party he and his wife Gloria host for their direct opposites. Kyle and Brittany (named for Roger’s “real life” co-worker, and her boyfriend) are young and successful. Kyle’s book has sold ten million copies, and his next work takes place at Staples, where the “real-life” Roger works. It gets a bit weird when I try and re-tell it, but Coupland never loses you. There are sidetracks about Bethany’s writing assignment in her one creative writing course, where she was instructed to “be” the toast that is about to be buttered. This assignment is revisited several times throughout The Gum Thief, with both Bethany and Roger tackling the task, with increasing degrees of success. Finally, we are left with a grade, to Roger, from his writing teacher, assigning him a C-** for the whole work. The reader is left wondering which part of the fiction was Roger’s fiction: The entirety? Just Glove Pond? Does Bethany really exist? Can she said to exist in a fiction? Can she be a double fiction? Is Bethany any more or less “real” than Gloria and Steve? Gum Thief succeeds, in high-style, in creating the mind-loops that good post-modern writing should.

    I really, really disliked J-Pod for the same reason dislike a lot of post-modern writing –- the self-congratulatory feel of it all. In The Gum Thief however, you’re not hit over the head with “aren’t I cle-vah?” Much like Dave Eggers’ excellent You Shall Know Our Velocity, it’s voice, not tricks, that takes the book out of traditional narrative structures, and that is the kind of post-modern writing I can get behind. Everyone in J-Pod was too busy being quirky to just be. The Gum Thief has characterization, back-story, emotion, all the things that make characters really exist, in a much as they can within fiction.

    *Actually, I’d probably critique her makeup based on mid-90s goth aesthetic and find it wanting, because I’m old like that. Not old school, just old.

    **This is all from memory. It might have been a C or C+.

    †Mark this in your calendars, kids. I don’t have a lot of praise for Eggers generally.