Monday, May 16, 2011

Dying to Read

Rarely have I read a book with such disparity between substance and style as John Elliott's Dying to Read.  the author's cleverness and breadth of imagination are impossible to deny: his novel is brimming with eccentric yet likable characters, whimsical yet thoughtful dialogue, and absurd yet meaningful situations.  But it's all described in prose so awkward, so frequently difficult to parse, that had the book not come from a trusted publisher I might have given up on it after only a few pages.  I am, I must confess, given to reading like the emotionally-starved English teacher of stereotype, who pauses to cluck at every misplaced modifier or awkward expression.  With Dying to Read it happened at least once on every page.

The most striking problem is Elliott's use of commas, which is so sparing that one is left to wonder whether there was a shortage of them in Twickenham at the time of writing.  That may sound petty, but it isn't really.  Commas are vital to the way the brain interprets compound and/or complex sentences, and their absence where they're expected trips up the reading experience.  When confronted with a sentence like "Like other clients he seemed concerned about the state of his hair for he ran his fingers twice through the thick silver locks which surmounted his still boyish face before his hostess appeared," the mind needs to stop and process all the information that's being provided, which interrupts the flow of the narrative.

Generally the problems of prose in Dying to Read come from these efforts to squeeze more into a single sentence than it can reasonably be expected to hold.  Others, though, feel like the work of a writer who knows enough to attempt a stylistic flourish but not enough to achieve it.  The result is wit without elegance, dialogue where you can see the joke but are too distracted by the woodenness with which it's expressed to be amused.  Expressed in such language, philosophical rumination and emotional reflection feel less profound than they actually are.

Which is a shame, because the central characters, for all their foibles, are roundly-drawn, and the mystery itself is satisfyingly complex, taking in lectures on cynicism, the underworld of spanking fetishists, a talking parrot who may or may not know something useful, and a cross-dressing elderly detective who thinks the best way to solve a murder is to find a piece of fiction that follows a similar pattern.  Events move at a fast pace, and while much of what happens is irrelevant to the investigation itself, germane twists do come up often enough to make the novel compelling despite its stylistic limitations.  There is, I think, no prose sufficiently awful that a worthwhile concept and solid execution can't make up for it, and, for all its frustrations, the prose of Dying to Read is nowhere near awful.  For readers who enjoy whimsical-satirical mystery, it's well worth a look.

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