Tiny fancy plates or family diner breakfast: My thoughts on word quality and literary satisfication

So I have a stack of books in my library that I have bought because of recommendations by university professors or from lists on CBC Canada Reads. Sometimes these recommendations have introduced me to some of my favourite authors like Elizabeth Hay, Louise Erdrich, Joseph Boyden, and Nicolas Dickner. But other times, the books turn out to be a disappointment. It’s not because the books aren’t well-written (because they are) or don’t contain beautiful word imagery (because they do), but it’s because the telling of the story is boring (in my humble opinion). I realized that I have a definite preference with books: I like story telling. I love words but it becomes pointless to me if it doesn’t add to the story. If the point of the words are to convey some hidden theme or produce a certain genre or to sound fancy, then the book doesn’t really interest me. For me, the words need to drive the plot. I’ll give you two examples from my most recent reading history.

MomadayM. Scott Momaday’s “House Made of Dawn” is a Pultizer Prize winner and was recommended highly by my Indigenous Writers professor (a class I loved). The book is about Abel and his struggle with his Native heritage and the outside world. The only real picture I got of this struggle was the brief stint he had at the reservation after fighting in the war, and then his story post-prison when told from his roommate’s perspective. But to be honest, beyond a very bare-boned story, I’m not really sure what Abel was thinking or going through. The language of the book painted beautiful landscapes and told stories of Native mythology. But at times, I felt like these stories and scenes were interjected for their own sake not because it contributed to Abel’s story in any valuable way. I was still left wondering: why did he murder the albino man? Who beat Abel up? What happened between him and Milly? I get that Momaday’s book was a changing point in Aboriginal literature. But for me it felt like one of those tiny, fancy plates you get at a restaurant where the food is elegantly displayed, carefully prepared, and delicious but I’m left wanting more and wondering what I really just ate.

RoundHouseIn comparison, Louise Erdrich’s “The Round House” was like a big breakfast plate from my favourite diner: in-depth, simply prepared, and deliciously filling. The wife of the Native Affairs judge is violently raped near the Roundhouse, a location of significance to Native religion and in a difficult legal area as it straddles the reservation and state boundary. The novel is from the perspective of the woman’s 13-year-old son, Joe, as he struggles with his father to find some justice and healing for his mother, and as he grows into his own identity. The captivating story examines the relationship between the Indigenous culture and the outside world, but it is told through the main characters’ stories and is another factor in how the storyline progresses. This theme does not distract from the stories of the characters but adds to our experience of Joe and his friends as they grow into puberty.

SkinofaLion“In the Skin of a Lion” by Michael Ondaatje is another one of those books that are deemed a Canadian classic and I was told by a friend that I was sure to like this novel (even though I was not a fan of “The English Patient”). I did not. I am not a fan of postmodern novels and this book takes that leaning with its multiple narrators and time flipping to tell the story. To be honest, I read this book a month ago and I can barely recall what it is about except for a man from the Prairies who moves to Toronto, works on a bridge, and attempts to blow up a water plant. But any interest that these events would hold get lost in the wordiness of Ondaatje’s descriptions. Again, another fancy plate that presents its story with elegant words and deep themes about the outsider, but the story itself was so thin that I found the whole meal forgettable.

“In the Skin of a Lion” by M. Scott Momaday 1/5 bacon strips

“The Round House” by Louise Erdrich 5/5 bacon strips

“In the Skin of a Lion” by Michael Ondaatje 1/5 bacon strips

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2 thoughts on “Tiny fancy plates or family diner breakfast: My thoughts on word quality and literary satisfication

  1. Charlie

    “But for me it felt like one of those tiny, fancy plates you get at a restaurant where the food is elegantly displayed, carefully prepared, and delicious but I’m left wanting more and wondering what I really just ate.” I love that!

    This takes me back to a book I read a few years ago, Certainty by Madeline Thien. On the surface very good, and it was character-driven so that helped, but it was just all about the language (and I was less objective back then!) If the words *do* something, then all well and good, but it’s rare to find a good book where the language is nice just because.

    Reply

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