on the anger we feel at fictions

by s.

This summer, I have been very straightforward and very persistent in pursuing goals. Most of them are the sorts one doesn’t mention until after they’ve been completed (or after you fail and are sitting quietly somewhere watching the ice melting in your bourbon), but one of those goals is the classic Summer Reading List.

(Let me tell you, everything about putting together a summer reading list feels as fresh and worthwhile a pursuit as new Lisa Frank pencils on the first day of school.)

To this end, my mind has been inelegantly sprawled across the pages of four different books this week. Two of them I think I might hate, and the other two are really just there for moral support. Naturally, both of the hated books are critically acclaimed.

Here is the thing about “The Alchemist”. Listen carefully, because this is going to be hard for you to hear from me. This book has been on my list for some time for two reasons. First, people whose opinions I genuinely trust told me it was wonderful, and in fact life-changing. Second, I thought it was essentially going to be a classier verson of “Eat Pray Love”, and I sort of enjoyed “Eat Pray Love.”

As it turns out – and I will admit, I have not finished – this is the kind of most basic parable I feel uncomfortable attempting to follow along with. It is full of omens, and full of life purpose, and full of strange men who a farmer boy decides to trust and run away with. It is weird. The prose is simple and impossible to dive into, because every time you try, you get poked in the eyeball with an obvious metaphor. This book is exactly that kind of painful for me to read, and yet something inside of me will drive me to finish it.

As respite, I paused in the middle to pick up Gabrielle Hamilton’s “Blood, Bones, and Butter.” I already knew this wouldn’t be the “Eat, Pray, Love” of chef books, because Rebecca had already hinted that Hamilton didn’t really come off as the shining star of the piece. I was fine with this. As Rebecca also pointed out, it is likely that neither she nor I are very nice either.

What I hadn’t prepared for was the narrative to be so – for lack of a better phrase – weirdly edited. Hamilton’s jumps in time rarely did her many favors, and certain elements of the story were so absent that it was hard to follow her path. It is hard to drive with a narrator to an estranged mother’s house when you haven’t been given the necessary tools to truly feel the estrangement.

This is what’s at the heart of the struggle with “Blood, Bones, and Butter.” Many of the passages about food are incredibly well written; Hamilton’s mental portrait of Italy is as fond and loving and touchable as any good fiction. But she is an angry woman, and despite her protestations to the contrary, it feels as though she is always willing to sacrifice flow for the opportunity to mention something that makes her a badass. I do not doubt that this was not her intention, but I also found myself tripping over it.

There are people who will tell you it’s impossible to enjoy a book with an unlikeable narrator. Those people are missing a point. Do we like Humbert Humbert in “Lolita”, really like him? I hope not. But what he does – what any narrator needs to do – is to bring you into their world long enough for you to think that you like them, and then keep you there until you close the book at the end. Then, and only then, should you look up and feel like you just got hosed.

There is a horror that creeps into when you are stuck in the middle of two books and you are hating them with the surprising fire you save for ex-friends; it is a dull and sinking sort of trapped, and I imagine it is responsible for the myriad people who can look you in the eye and say they don’t like to read. For those of us who don’t give in quite that easily, there is still the sense that you have been dumped in the ocean with no land in sight, and you are possibly about to drown. It is not bad writing that does this, it is your feelings about writing, and so in effect, you know that trying to stay afloat is somehow a fight against yourself.

I keep turning pages, buoyed by the knowledge that any good writing about food is still good writing by food, and hoping that “The Alchemist” is merely an exercise in patience and karma that will someday lead me to bigger and better things, or at least that it will just be over.

Or that the alchemist is really a unicorn.

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