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Should I keep reading?

December 16, 2010

I began reading Peter Carey’s novel Theft with enthusiasm last week. I’ve read Carey in the past and always felt that I was in the presence of a highly interesting writer, in terms of language, his characters, and the stories he chooses to tell. I admit, though, too, to occasionally feeling a pull in the opposite direction, a rub, like I was being petted against the grain of my fur, never quite sure if I liked the actual novel I held in my hands.

The language on the first page of Theft made me wake up, sit up, and take notice: “I don’t know if my story is grand enough to be a tragedy, although a lot of shitty stuff did happen. It is certainly a love story but that did not begin until midway through the shitty stuff, by which time I had not only lost my eight-year-old son, but also my house and studio in Sydney…”  This is the voice of Butcher Bones, the narrator of most of the novel, a painter with an enormous disregard for, at the very least, the property of others. He has just been released from jail, and moved, with his brother Hugh, to the vacation home of a patron. “Later everyone would get in a bloody uproar because I had supposedly vandalised the coachwood with the Sheetrock screws, but I can’t see how else I could have laid the ply on top of it…. I was there to paint, as everybody knew, and the floor of a painter’s studio should be like a site of sacrifice, stabbed by staples, but also tended, swept, scrubbed, washed clean after every encounter” (6)

In Chapter Three, Hugh, who for reasons not entirely clear cannot take care of himself so he is in his brother’s care, takes over the story with similarly brash language. In this chapter, he tells us that the brothers come from a family of butchers and about how they got the names Bones. “My dad woke up one New Year’s Day to discover someone had changed the sign above the shop from BOONE to BONES. We were Bones thereafter. BONES BUTCHERS” (20). If a chapter has words in all caps, it’s told from Hugh’s perspective.

Strong-voiced narrators, the creation of and politics around art, brothers who both could be falling for the same woman, Marlene, a mysterious character who shows up  in the first chapter wading through the mud with her Manolos in hand–I was intrigued. (On a technical level, too, I was curious to see how Carey kept the reader’s engagement with a pretty off-putting man. Neither of the protagonists of the novel I’m working on are easily likable characters so it’s a continual area of focus for me.)

One hundred and some odd pages of Theft later… Checking to see how much I’ve read and multiplying that by two to see whether I’m half-way through is never a good sign. But that’s what I found myself doing, a couple of nights ago, and I was a bit frustrated to discover that I hadn’t reached the middle yet, though I was almost there.

So why did a novel that started out with such promise for me become more of a chore to read? And when a book starts to feel like a chore, I have to ask myself: Should I keep reading?

Confession #1: At some point in my life, around my mid thirties with two small children and a full-time job, I started putting books down. I gave the book what I felt was a generous number of pages, 50, 60, even 100, before I decided not to continue. The books I put down just weren’t that interesting to me, for whatever reason. I felt no guilt. I can’t even remember what the titles of most of these unfinished books are. At around the same time, I swore off any deeply engrossing but ultimately awful novels along the lines of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. I spent three days one summer holiday snared by that huge book, and felt, when I finally put it down, that I had wasted a precious part of my life.

Confession #2: I sometimes put down really good books, and sometimes only pages before the end. This I do feel weird about. I have had the experience on a few occasions of reading beautifully told books, and liking them, and wanting to finish them, and then at some point usually close to the end feeling like I’d had enough. I was saturated. Full. Done. It is like pushing away your plate with three, ricotta-filled fresh ravioli still on it. You want to keep eating but you just can’t. I did it with Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. I put down The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz. I know, I know. Twenty pages to go and I couldn’t just finish? I was raised to finish what was on my plate. I went on to read all of Home, and I look forward to Diaz’s next book so it’s not that I don’t like these authors. I do. Is it wrong to not make myself read those final pages?

It depends, in part, on how important endings are to the total experience of a book. If, as a friend argued weeks after the fact, I should have kept reading Oscar Wao because it came together in an amazing and satisfying way in the last few pages, I did the wrong thing by stopping. In fact, when she told me this, I felt I should have given the extra half hour it would have taken to finish. But it was too late. I was no longer inside the book so I couldn’t go back and experience the ending in the way that it should be experienced. I felt regret that something might have been revealed to me, I might have felt something startling and deep, a kind of awe, if I hadn’t stopped.

If I untangle this reasoning, a part of it points to continuing the forward moving experience of reading a book for the first time in order to fully feel the ending, and how that can’t be duplicated or repeated, and another part points to the author, the craft–reading to the end to find out how the author constructed or accomplished something.

As I write this, I realize that neither of these are my primary reasons for reading, though they are somewhere in my consciousness. I read books for the beginnings and the middles and the almost ends, for the feeling of immersion in the world of others, both the characters and story but also the world of imagination, and the world of the author’s mind, as it plays itself out in sentences, in metaphors and structures. I read for the pleasure of the company. There are books where the plot puts pressure on me to read more quickly to find out what happens, but I don’t actually enjoy that part of the experience. I’d rather be leisurely, steady.

The problem, then, remains. Should I keep reading Theft? If I don’t want to read only to get to the end (whether it’s the end of the characters’ story, or the end of the novel from a craft stand point), why should I keep reading?  The only reason I embrace is that I should keep reading because I might start liking it again.

But, because I have spent a few more evenings trudging through a few more pages, I’ve lost my connection to the pleasure; I’m out of the book. This morning I looked for reviews of Theft.  There’s nothing that kills a book more quickly for me than reading reviews while I’m reading the book. Before (if I can forget what it says), maybe. After, yes, absolutely, for different perspectives and insights. I have to admit now that the only reason I’ll finish is guilt (I do, it turns out, have some) and craft–ironically I want to figure out why I don’t want to continue. Is it that I’m sufficiently put off by Butcher Bones that I want to escape his presence? Or is it that neither he nor his brother Hugh have–and I’m now over half-way through the novel–changed?

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