Friday, 27 March 2009

Booking Through Thursday - Best Bad Book

Booking Through Thursday

I am afraid that I am at a loss as to how best to approach a 'Best Bad Book' question. I presume it refers to a book I have liked but which has been received relatively negatively by the wider literary community. You see, the difficulty lies in defining what constitutes a 'bad book.' There are many, myself included, who would argue that if a book is enjoyed by even one person then it cannot be described as a bad book. However, under these terms, this theme cannot get off the ground.

There has long been a snobbery surrounding books, a caste system if you will, and it is this sort of discussion which propagates it. However, I do not mean to vilify this meme as it seems to be attempting to do the very opposite; that is, to debunk these judgements. What replies to this thread demonstrate is how few books there are which are universally disliked. Often those that receive mixed reviews at the pens of the critics are the most popular at the tills and excite the greatest passion in readers. Often those books which receive the highest hyperbolic praise from critics sell poorly and stratify readers into those who love and those who don't even finish. One just needs to take a look at the reviews of Joseph O'Neill's Netherland to see this in action. Conversely you can posit Dan Brown novels, Stephanie Meyer's Twilight saga, and many others as books lambasted by critics yet enjoyed passionately by many many people.

Clearly then the notion of a bad book is a troublesome one. It is possible to argue that responses to it demonstrate clearly that among book bloggers there remains a popular misconception that critics are the gatekeepers of what is good and what is bad. Having worked in a bookshop up until a couple of months ago I cannot begin to describe how little correlation there is between reviews and sales. Sometimes books progress from good reviews to good sales, often they don't. So to base what is a 'bad' book solely on the one dimensional world of book reviewers (mostly middle aged, middle class, white men) is to inherently skew the issue.

Similarly, that James Patterson is still able to sell books by the millions despite not actually writing them, demonstrates that high sales cannot either be an accurate measure of quality.

Quantity versus quality. The two are not mutually exclusive, and neither holds the answer. Nor does the answer lie at some fixed point in between the two. This is one of those great conundrums without an answer.

Perhaps what the question is really asking is which books most polarise opinion, or which books that you have loved have met with criticism or sales which perplex your sense of proportion? That way, when people chose books such as Cormac McCarthy's The Road (lauded by critics, awarded multiple prizes, sold in the millions, and gracing many a reader's favourite books list), or Andrew Davidson's The Gargoyle (similarly universal though with slightly less gargantuan praise) it becomes easier to understand.

Perhaps this theme is an interesting demonstration of the foibles, prejudices, and differing levels of influence within the world of books. Certainly it demonstrates that one man's tea is another man's poison and that, as with most things in life, qualifiers such as 'bad' and 'good' are a simple matter of personal choice.

So having written myself to a standstill and come up with a largely self-evident conclusion, here is my 'best bad book,' a book which I enjoyed greatly in spite of largely indifferent feedback from others.

Don Delillo's Falling Man.

Below I have copied in my review of this book but what I remember most about the criticism of Falling Man was how the critics focused so fervently upon the weakness of Delillo trying to write from the point of view of the 9/11 terrorists. While I agree this didn't work, it was only a small part of the overall novel, most of which I found intensely powerful. Anyway, here is what I said about it at the time:

‘Falling Man’ opens amidst the chaos of 9/11 as Keith Neudecker stumbles dumbstruck away from the Twin Towers. He is in a daze, can barely comprehend that anything is out of the usual. He makes his way to his ex-wife’s house, to a life he knew before any of this happened. The novel follows Keith and the people around him as they struggle to understand an event that is beyond anyone’s power of comprehension.

Keith’s wife, Lianne, is still reeling from the death of her father almost twenty years before. Now she runs writing sessions for those with dementia and worries that her own mind is fading. Their child, Justin, searches the sky with binoculars for Bill Lawton (Bin Laden) who speaks in a monosyllabic language and is certain to return. Lianne’s mother and her art dealing lover Martin argue over the nature of God and jihad. And Keith himself can only begin to remember that crazy morning by meeting with a woman who was there as well.

All the while a street performer named Falling Man is performing stunts across New York, leaping from heights and hanging, frozen in the air, daring people to remember.

This is the world Don Delillo presents, a world which started long before 9/11 but whose consciousness was created in that fateful morning. If anyone should write a book about this subject then this is the man. With ‘White Noise’ he expertly tackled the Cold War fear of nuclear fallout and death and now here he is tackling the modern paranoia: terrorism. He is a master of plotting the psyche of terror and this is every bit as good as ‘White Noise’. Falling Man is exactly what you wish for in a book, intelligent, witty and intensely poignant. Take this dialogue, could anyone else delineate that disbelief better?

“He said, “It still looks like an accident, the first one. Even from this distance, way outside the thing, how many days later, I’m standing here thinking it’s an accident.”

“Because it has to be.”

“It has to be,” he said.

“The way the camera sort of shows surprise.”

“But only the first one.”

“Only the first,” she said.

“The second plane, by the time the second plane appears,” he said, “we’re all a little older and wiser.”

‘Falling Man’ is caught in the crossfire between remembering and forgetting, it is a hazy, snapshot view of the lives that 9/11 shaped. It is written in a distorted, confused manner, with shifts in character and plot and time. This makes it difficult to follow, hard to understand, but then, nothing about the subject is easy. There are those with dementia who can’t help forgetting and the rest of the people who can’t help remembering, those stumbling out of the grey dust of 9/11 and those who are inevitably falling into the grey mist of memory loss.

This is the mirage into which Delillo watches everything merge into uncertainty. The Twin Towers emerge from a still life painting, Keith struggles to tell what is live action and what is a replay in the sport on TV, religious belief leads to disbelief and vice versa, and Keith enters the world of professional Poker playing, desperate to recreate the Friday night game he enjoyed with friends before all of this happened.

You must read this book. Don Delillo has mapped the psychological fallout of 9/11 more superbly than I imagined possible.

So there we have it. This has been my first Booking Through Thursday and an interesting subject upon which to blog. Thank you.

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