Sunday, November 22, 2009

My Literary Agenda

I don’t usually read contemporary books anymore, but am determined to binge on a few more 2009 novels this year, having serendipitously read three of five finalists for the National Book Award, all of which were good, including the winner, Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, not to mention Jonathan Lethem's superb novel, Chronic City, and having a few on my shelf which I HAD to have, thinking I would read them immediately, but then put aside (like C. E. Morgan's All the Living and Richard Flanagan’s Wanting). Perhaps 2009 IS a good year for literature.

Why don’t I read the newest books? Well, I have my own agenda. Usually it’s simply to read good writing in a variety of genres and time periods. I even got stuck reading Greek and Roman inscriptions for a while. Now I am making my way through Jonathan Carroll’s exquisite surreal novels, as well as finishing up Little Dorritt, gadding about with Margaret Oliphant’s Harry Joscelyn (a good book to pull out of your bicycle pannier at coffee shops), skimming Mary Beard's The Fires of Vesuvius (great information, but a bit awkward), and reading some very good fantasy novels at night. (I AM busy, so it will probably take a few months to finish these. They all get finished eventually.)

I finished Valerie Martin’s The Confessions of Edward Day. Although I admire most of her books, and very much enjoyed The Unfinished Novel and Other Stories, I regret to say The Confessions of Edward Day is well-written but disappointing, not one of Martin's stellar performances. Both Blythe Danner AND Ben Gazarra have blurbs on the back, which fascinated me, because I don’t believe I’ve ever seen actors endorsing books before.

This very readable but sketchy novel of the theater is a kind of compulsive read - what will happen next? - but ultimately I didn't respect it. Martin's style is usually concise but poetic and sometimes weird, but here it’s just concise and serviceable. Perhaps a theater person would get a kick out of it, in much the same way that I, a sometime teacher, like novels about teaching. But Edward Day just seems too ordinary to me - is that the point about acting?

The premise is that Edward is writing a memoir of the ‘70s and early ‘80s. Somehow he never comes to life, though he tells us in some detail of the years when he began to make his way as an actor in New York and formed a bond with his girlfriend, Madeleine Delavergne, an actress with whom he had an intense intellectual and explosive emotional relationship, and Guy Margate, a kind of doppelganger/aspiring actor who not only looks like Edward, buts saves him from drowning and ends up stealing Madeleine.

I never learn enough about the characters, except perhaps Edward, to care about them. Most of them are just incredibly dull: the only interesting thing about his nice friend Teddy’s life, for instance, is that his exploitive artist lover, Wayne, is Chinese (much is made of this, but why?).

Martin has done a lot of research and talked to many people in theater - perhaps too many - in the acknowledgements she lists names for two pages - but perhaps she should also have read Entertainment Weekly! Telling me a character studied at Yale or at Blah Blah Drama School, or that two people had sex, or that somebody worked as a waiter, doesn’t tell me much. It’s just not much of a story. Her research on theater gives me some basic information and I’m not saying it’s not interesting, but who are these people? We understand that both Madeleine and Guy are unreliable and neurotic, and it’s hard to say which is the bigger fantasist, but the scenes don’t add up to much. Surely actors are more interesting than this! Edward’s link to them shapes his career. But it’s one of those - and I hate to use this cliche! - tell-don’t-show books that makes it an unimportant volume in Martin’s oeuvre.

I do recommend ALL of her other books, though.

Honestly, I’d rather be reading Booth Tarkington on my Sony reader. And doesn’t that say it all?


Ellen said...

Margaret Atwood gave Martin's books a qualified rave review. It made me suspicious: while she went on about how Martin had caught realities of the modern acting world, at the same time she repeated more than once that she was a friend.

Martin can make masterpieces and she can also be flat. Property was I thought flat.


Frisbee said...

I'll have to look for Atwood's review. I love Martin's writing, but this didn't quite feel like the real thing. This might sell, though: that's what I kept thinking as I read it. It's more a pageturner than a literary novel.

Of course a bad Valerie Martin is still beetter than most of what's out there.