Emma Donoghue – Frog Music

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The first line is already awful before you get to the end of it. No book that starts with such a stiff sentence can be great. Emma Donoghue thinks that telling us the characters are in the front room this early in the book means something. It’s not. It’s just another extra word, like a lot of words in this book. I have written so much about terrible maximalism in novels, it’s getting hypocritical. Yet books like Frog Music keep coming my way.

What happened between this and Room is a more interesting mystery than the one in the book. Room was blessed with flowing, unique writing. The langauge conveyed an atmosphere and the psyche of the character. It’s been too long since I read it, so I cannot remember whether it was more manipulative than deep, but it was a brave experiment that worked. It felt like the logical sequel to claustophobic films like Cube. Frog Music is Emma’s attempt at lifting the thriller genre, but I doubt there are worse mysteries out there.

Room worked because its claustrophobic genre relies on characters to drive the story. Thrillers need good pacing, easy writing and attention-grabbing events. Emma can’t divorce herself from a character-driven story, but she also can’t experiment with the Thriller genre’s main elements. She tries to write a Harlan Coben novel with the style of Ian McEwan. It doesn’t work.

The novel tries really hard to get you inside it. A lot of things are being described, and you’ll always know what the sky’s like or how high the temprature is. Each place gets an epic poem. The story also happens in a big city, so Emma spends a lot of time trying to give us a tour there. It borders on romanticization, but Emma describes plenty of the city’s uglier side.

Emma doesn’t have McEwan’s skill, though. McEwan built long sentences that were easy to read even if they ended up as non-sequieters. The langauge was beautiful, and McEwan was more selective in his descriptions. It felt like he described everything, but he just described a lot. He still had focus. In the hospital scenes, he confined his descriptions to the sick, the wounded and the attempts at treating them. By focusing on this one thing, McEwan makes the reader feel like they’re really there.

Donogue lacks this focus. She just throws any imagery she can think of. Descriptions of how full of life and cool the city is sit next to descriptions of poverty, who sit next to descriptions of the weather. There is no order, or structure to these descriptions. These various categories don’t compliment each othe. They just come from the mindset that thinks you can immerse your readers in your environment by describing every detail that makes it.

There’s also the litany of useless paragraphs that do nothing to move the story. They only repeat past events and possible outcomes, but that’s not very helpful. This is a novel, not an RPG game. Showing me the various dialogue options is useless because I can’t choose. Check out this awful paragraph.

“McNamara’s nightshirt, folded on the bureau. Could Jenny have gone back to the city already? Did she leave first thing in the morning, or in the middle of the night, right after Blanche lost consciousness? Could Jenny not even look her in the eye today?”

What’s the point of writing all these questions? The reader has plenty of questions of his own without the author forcing more on him. How is writing these questions down helps the post, or develops the themes? This is not a first person story. It’s okay to ramble sometimes in a first person story, because it’s a look into the character’s thoughts. This is an omniscient author, and a very bad one.

The characters are also just as dull as any bad thriller. The character-driven story only makes it more apparent. The story is driven by Blanche’s decisions, which is great. She’s an awful character though, and so is the story. She doesn’t have any character of her own. None of her choices point to a personality. She’s pretty stubborn, and she loves her baby. It’s not much of a character to build a story upon. The whoe baby thing is especially sad. Donoghue has an eye for women’s issues. Blanche and Jenny take the center not as womem but as human beings, but they’re shallow human beings. Blanche only cares about her baby and Jenny is very cool.

Jenny is even a worse character to drive a story. She’s very cool. We learn how different she is. She wears pants. She has sex with women. She hunts frog. She’s far from a ‘lady’. There’s supposed to be a feminist message here, perhaps. It gets lost among the blows from Donoghue’s hammer. She keeps beating into the reader’s head how cool Jenny is. That’s not very different than beating you on the head with the sexiness of Scarlett Joahnson.

She succeeds a little better with the antagonists. They’re assholes, but reasonable ones. Arthur is an interesting character. Donoghue beats the mighty Atwood for once because she’s aware that the power of attractive people gets them drunk. Arthur’s story of a fallen sex icon is an engaging one, especially how hits the bottom. Ernest’s arc also offer some surprises. They’re not completely fleshed out, but as antagonists they’re not here so we could hate them. They’re here so we could see their mistakes and falls, to confront why their ideas are wrong. Maybe Donoghue was afraid writing a book about an asshole like Arthur, but the fall of every girls’ dream guy is more interesting than this pseudo-thriller thing.

There is barely anything good in this novel. The writing is among the worse maximalism has to offer. The only worthwhile characters are the antagonists. Any theme or meaning is buried underneath this trash. It’s hard to believe this is the same person who wrote Room. Maybe that book was awful too, and I was just inexperienced.

1 lesbian out of 5

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Ian McEwan – Atonement

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There are two competing novels here. One is driven by a character’s flaw and how it brought her to do a terrible thing. The other is a manipulative, Shawsank Redemption-like tale where the author takes a character who has it made and puts a lot of external troubles on it in order to make us sympathize. Surrounding these novels is some great writing that made you understand why so few authors try minimalism.

There’s no reason to sympethize with Robbie. He has no character. He has no flaw to struggle against. The trouble he faces is all external, and it doesn’t take any effort to just pile terrible events on the character. It’s especially easy to pile on these events, and leave the character almost unscarred to show us how strong and capable he is.

Maybe McEwan wants to inspire me to be good with Robbie’s character, but Robbie needs to have a character first. After being sent to the frontlines because of nothing, Robbie remains humanitarian and nice to everyone. He tries to save a woman and a child, and even a pencil pusher that’s almost being lynched.

Why should he want to save him, though? Robbie ate shit all the way. His only companions aren’t very pleasant. Why shouldn’t anger take the best of him? Soldiers are often angry at ‘pencil pushers’ and office workers. These people make a lot of decisions from behind their desks without seeing the bombings and the fighting. There’s no reason for Robbie to try to save anyone, let alone what soldiers especially despise. There is no depth to this ‘goodness’. It’s a hook to try to make us like Robbie, but that’s exactly what makes him so boring and unappealing.

Only at the end Robbie does something less than admirable, but McEwan doesn’t let all his events reach their logical conclusion. Robbie is barely scarred. All that needs to prevent him from hitting the bottom is some cliched crap about the power of love. Does McEwan thinks that after all Robbie went through, a women’s love is enough? That’s a recipe for cheap escapism.

By never letting Robbie succumb to the logical conclusion of going through hell, he paints a world of black and white. He doesn’t want to. He tries really hard to get to the emotional core of the characters. It’s espceially evident in the small characters and Briony, but all of them deserved so much more than being on a novel where Robbie stars.

Briony is, if not exactly complex, a real character. The deed she tries to atone for comes out of her personality. She does it not just to make the plot move because it’s the reasonable thing to do for a character who lives more inside her head than in the world. Everything else about her stems from this. All her other decisions and actions comes from her character. The end of her story is also consistent with her themes.

It’s almost misandrist how McEwan gives zero depth to the male character while writing Briony so real.

The post-modern Gotcha! at the end doesn’t really redeem this flaw. If anything, it just makes Briony far deeper and Robbie shallower. It’s a twist that serves the story, but it doesn’t excuse spending so many pages with someone with less character than a shovel. It doesn’t excuse the complete lack of even hinting at Robbie is not a saint. I recall how Atwood failed back in The Blind Assassin. Being sexually attractive is not enough to make a man a saint.

Between these two stories there is a lot of writing. It’s mostly descriptions, but if everyone described like McEwan then it’d make reading so much easier.

McEwan’s greatest prose is found in the middle, writing about the war effort. His attention to small details and every person who passes by is not because it makes it ‘more real’, or to pad the book in attempts to impress. He writes every passer-by like he’s the star of his own novel. Every one of them has his own little short story. They’re so good that you tend to forget Robbie is even there.

It’s so good that the bluntness can be forgiven. McEwan writes like a sledgehammer. He describes everything, and then writes a literary critique of it. This makes Atonement a funny novel. It’s both long and very easy to read. I’d normally attack an author for being that blunt, but it’s deceptive. The emotional insight he shows with the soldiers, both on the frontlines and the hospital contains much more than what he writes.

How an author can fail on what his story focuses and writes beautifully the sidelines is beyond me. Atonement is written by an author of great talent. There’s enough her to enjoy – Briony’s character, the various digressions and descriptions – that it’s easy to forget where McEwan fails. I’m really tired about reading about sexually attractive, righteous and perfect guys whose only troubles are external. It’s not a brilliant novel, but it has plenty of hints of brilliance.

3 nurses out of 5