Monday, March 15, 2010

Messy Books and Bags of Junk

No, this isn't a post about lousy housekeeping.

I was talking with a friend yesterday about Lorrie Moore’s book A Gate at the Stairs which I wrote about a few weeks ago. I also had a short exchange last week about this book with the Citizen Reader in the comments on her blog. She and I were arguing about our choices for the most overrated book of 2009. She said A Gate at the Stairs and I said it was Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. Here is that post. (Note that most other commentors agreed with CR.)

Yesterday my friend said he thought that Moore’s book was really messy. He called it something like a “big bag of junk” where Moore threw in all kinds of stuff, some of which worked and some of which didn’t. I can’t say I disagreed with him. The whole subplot with the boyfriend who turns out maybe to be a terrorist—that was certainly the plot point that made the least amount of sense to me. And the part where Tassie climbs into the coffin with her dead brother? Oh come on, yuck; no one would do that. So yes, the bag contains some junk.

But I also found lots of things to like in the book, most of which I mentioned in my earlier post. So the question is, how do you talk about books like this, how do you describe how you feel about them? Can you still like a book that is a big messy bag of junk? I say yes!

What if someone came over and gave you an actual bag of junk and you spent a half hour or so going through it. Inside the bag was a broken clock and some old newspapers, but the bag also contained some funky retro jewelry, the soundtrack to Guys and Dolls, and a freshly baked muffin. How would you describe the experience of going through that bag? Fun or disappointing? Some might say that the bag wasn’t worth the trouble because everything in it wasn’t top notch. They might feel obliged to complain about the bad stuff in the bag, and point out to everyone that they noticed it. I, on the other hand, would have fun with the jewelry, and would eat the muffin while listening to the music. The rest of the stuff I would just ignore, and I would pronounce the bag of junk a positively entertaining experience.


Citizen Reader said...

I think your friend gave a masterful review when they referred to this book as a big bag o' junk. All I could think while reading it was how calculated it was to appeal to women's book clubs, mainly because of its grab bag of themes (war, racism, parenting, coming of age, rural vs. urban, you name it).

I have different expectations for bags of junk than I do for books. (And I do appreciate junk--I am a devoted St. Vincent de Paul shopper.) A bag of junk takes a few minutes to look through and is just stuff. A book is a BOOK and should never get a free pass because parts of it are amusing. You can like it and all--I've liked bits of many junky books for different reasons--but I think it's still important to call it, overall, a bag of junk, and not hail it as the second coming just because it was written by a darling of the literary critics.

Fun post, by the way. I love discussing books that bug me. :)

Becky Holmes said...

Okay, you guys are wearing me down. If I were to revise my original post about AGATS I would take out the line where I say "I think Moore deserves her accolades." I would stick with an approach more along the lines of "I liked this book but maybe you won't, and it certainly isn't the second coming" (to steal your words again!)

Ann Summerville said...

I stopped by your blog today. Great reviews. Thanks.

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