Commenting on a book you’ve abandoned

The books coverage at The New Leader was often smart, and sometimes provocative, so I was sad to see the 82-year-old magazine cease publication last year. Now it’s been revived online — although someone really needs to learn html — and a correspondent points me to Brooke Allen’s dismissal of the latest Pynchon and Mailer as “late-period self-indulgence.” (Page 15.)

Allen’s patience sputtered out before the end of Against the Day. He challenges the idea that a critic must finish a book to review it.

Here I have a confession to make. In the 15 years or so I have spent reviewing books, I have often been asked whether I always read the whole book I am writing about. The answer is yes; always; every word. But with Against the Day I cried uncle, finally defeated by Pynchon’s relentless assault. Although I literally wept with boredom throughout Mason & Dixon, I read it all. In the case of Against the Day I simply gave up, with a sense of utter relief. Do I feel my confession disqualifies me from writing about the book? Not at all: I suffered through enough of it to see that further perusal would be unedifying. I am not tempted to work out its elliptical and elusive puzzles. I know any enlightenment achieved will not be of a general nature; it will simply be an insight into Pynchon’s mind, terra I am content to leave forever incognita.

On the far other side of the fence, here’s some recent commentary from Jenny Diski and Zadie Smith imputing not just to critics, but to all readers, an affirmative duty to enter and fully experience the worlds of difficult novels. I like Smith’s call for more overtly subjective criticism, and her idea that all novels are failures.

Beyond that, I dunno. Of course I finish books I’m assigned to review, but as a reader I abandon or decide not to pick up novels all the time. And I won’t apologize for that. If I devoted all my energy to the books the Times and the publishing industry tell me to read, I might never discover other excellent, and neglected, ones. As for the Pynchon and Mailer, Coetzee has me wanting to read The Castle in the Forest, but even Mr. Maud’s most passionate testimonials have not yet ignited the desire to spend three weeks with Against the Day.


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