Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Joel Rose:The Blackest Bird

As I was reading this book I very frequently thought of Nick Hornby's Believer column Stuff I've Been Reading, the collection of which I wrote about last time. Because this book - he would have thrown it away in disgust, and not been able to write about it then in the column, since they have that No-Snarkiness policy.

I got it from my editor friend E, who got it I think from someone at a bookfair, trying to pitch it to her I suppose. E handed it to me with a shrug, saying she hadn't liked it much but since I liked mysteries.... this was ages ago this, and I had forgotten about the book completely. (Well, not completely. I did have this vague feeling that there should be something readable in the house that I had brought in and not my husband, but I couldn't think what it was.) Now, when we were clearing and de-cluttering and bookburning I came across it. Of course, I was tremendously pleased. A murder mystery based on the tragedy of Mary Roger's death, which is immortilized in Edgar Allan Poe's Marie Rôget story! Set in New York in the 1840s! How fantastic! I read the most prominent blurb on the cover:
"Murder, mystery, historical novel, portal to another time, you'll lose yourself for days on end in the perfectly depicted characters, atmosphere and low life of nineteenth-century New York. The Blackest Bird is a masterpiece."
--Anthony Bourdain, author of Kitchen Confidential and Bone in the Throat


Hang on a minute. Anthony Bourdain, who's he? And then I remember - I've seen the man on BBC Food, haven't I. He's a chef. (And now, reading the blurb, I remember reading about Kitchen Confidential in the papers when it was published. I never connected that with the fella on the telly until now.) And he has a blog and all. Anyway, a chef. Why is his opinion all over the front cover? This is not promising. I mean, I don't expect Harold Bloom endorsements or anything, but come on.

But I get stuck in, and for a good while I'm impressed by the thoroughness shown in writing so consistently in an old-fashioned style, right down to segars instead of cigars. This amazon.com reviewer says it's newspaper jargon - I'll take his word for it. But. However. There is a reason why this style of writing went out of style. It's quite cumbersome to read. And I should point out that only recently I re-read Bram Stoker's Dracula (oh that reminds me, I forgot to blog about that. Dracula deserves its own blog entry! I'll do that soon then) so I was used to reading dialogue in which people don't hold normal conversations, they lecture at length using convoluted sentences. This is all bearable, providing you have a narrative drive and characters to get involved in. Here, we don't. The story doesn't seem to know who to focus on. Is it a story about High Constable Hays getting slightly obsessed with Mary Roger's murder? Is it a historical novel about New York in the 1840s? Is it a sort of biography of Edgar Allan Poe? Ideally, it should be all these things. Zadie Smith, for example, she can write a novel from many different characters' point of view and bring it off and together to a whole. This book just collapses into a layering of facts and ideas and endless name-dropping of Famous People from New York History, and the whole thing just screams out "I spent 18 years writing this! Look at all the research I did! Look how much I've read! Look at how I've taken snippets that Poe actually wrote and said and worked them into what he says in my novel!" As for the last bit - yes I noticed. Because it's very noticeable and this is a bad thing. To get back to Zadie Smith - in an article in The Believer (God, I know, I keep going on and on about this, but this time it's just coincidence, I've read a grand total of two articles from that magazine and this was one of them) she writes about how to write. Among other things she suggests leaving what you've written in a drawer unread for a few years, and then taking it out and reading it afresh. This novel was 18 years in the working and could have done with 18 years in a drawer, in my opinion. And then it might still have needed a great and ruthless editor.

I think what upsets me most is that it could have been riveting and fantastic. I forced my way through the whole thing, because after the twist at the very end of Special Topics of Calamity Physics I no longer take anything for granted - but I was ready to give up not even half-way through. I have no doubt that Rose has talent, and has done a spectacular amount of research. The problem is it's just not very good the way it is now. What a waste. That said, in the right hands it might make a great film. This is of course another pet peeve of mine: when books appear written solely for the film rights. Ah well.

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