In Praise of ‘Difficult’ Novels

What makes a novel difficult? Well, just about anything that doesn’t conform to the conventional unfolding of plot and character. And yet the whole point of convention is to produce a book that tricks us, that we can read as if it weren’t a book at all but an alternate reality into which we had slipped. ‘Easy’ books hide their very bookishness with artifice and illusion, and the reader willingly accepts being duped. You could think of a book, then, as being to life what a dream is to a waking state. We know we are dreaming, but the experience is so uncannily life-like and intriguing that we forget. So-called ‘difficult’ books are like lucid dreams, into which a different level of consciousness intrudes; we are made aware of the fact of dreaming, aware that this is not the same as reality, aware of the constructed and arbitrary nature of the whole experience. And why would we want to encounter this supposed ‘difficulty’? Because being aware of the hidden truth of creativity makes it even richer and more intriguing than before.

sleeping patternsJ.R. Crook’s beguiling novella, Sleeping Patterns, is one of the most original little experiments in fiction that I’ve come across in a while and the strangest hopscotch of a love story. It’s dedicated to the memory of the author, J. R. Crook, who is, never fear, alive and kicking. And then introduced by one of the principle characters, Annelie Strandli, known mostly in the narrative as Gretha. She has received the following narrative through the post, in chapters that have been shuffled like a deck of cards into the wrong order. This (dis)order is maintained, though the numbered chapters give the reader a clue as to whereabouts in the chronology of the story we are.

The location is a student hall of residence in South London, where the Finnish Gretha has come to study, leaving her boyfriend, Gunnar, behind her. She becomes curious about a shy, withdrawn student, Berry Walker, who is an insomniac and an aspiring writer. With the help of her friend, Jamie Crook, she manages to steal into his room occasionally to filch pages of a work in progress out of his desk drawer. The manuscript pages tell the parable of Boy One and his friend Boy Two, who are in early adolescence. Boy One is a dreamer who cannot help falling asleep in lessons, much to the rage of his teacher and despite his friend’s attempts to keep him awake. But Boy One believes in the power of dreams to tell a different kind of story, and one more significant than that contained in the real world. He’s encouraged and abetted in this by the cranky prophet who runs the sweetshop, and whose crazy philosophies entice him. Is this, then, the prequel to Berry Walker’s appearance in Gretha’s life, is it his fictionalised backstory? Does it explain his inability to sleep and the importance Gretha holds for him?

Gretha eagerly pores over the pages she discovers, avidly seeking for the meaning they contain, just as the readers of Sleeping Patterns are obliged to search out small details in the mixed-up chapters of the narrative in order to orient themselves in the events of the story. Mimicking the disrupted sleeping patterns of Berry Walker, the unfolding narrative is broken up and scattered. Both inside the story and from the reader’s perspective we begin to question what’s real and what’s fictional, and to find different sorts of patterns to help us. The story itself is not complicated, and the language is pure and simple, so this is not a book that confuses, despite its structure. But it does give the reader the strange experience of watching the mind scurry about putting the bits of the puzzle together again, trying them out in different orders, waiting to pounce on a useful clue. Everything is resolved with the arrival of the final chapter (placed last in the book, as well) and given a surprising and yet satisfying twist. At this point the elements of narrative slot into place like bullets in a chamber. But having the story in place only gives rise to a whole new layer of interpretation. Who loved and who was the beloved? Who was writing and who was reading?

Sleeping Patterns draws for inspiration from the theory of Roland Barthes who wrote an essay entitled ‘The Death of the Author’. In it, he argued that meaning was in the hands of the reader, and that searching for authorial intention, as critics had previously done, was futile. The ‘death’ of Jamie Crook that opens the novel is a neat salute to Barthes and a clever way of showing the reader how the theory works, rather than telling it. But you don’t need to know anything about literary theory to enjoy this novel; you just have to go with the flow, keep your wits about you, and be ready to take up your changing and evolving place in the dance of readers circling around the eviscerated fragments of J. R. Crook’s cunning story.

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28 thoughts on “In Praise of ‘Difficult’ Novels

  1. I have to get a copy of this immediately. All my research has been into narrative structure, what you can do with it and how you go about signalling to the reader what is going on. I can see I am going to be pouring over this for weeks. Thank you so much.

  2. I like this kind of difficulty and will put this book on my (very long) list. You make it sound attractive in the way I enjoy Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World.

    • And I will put Harkaway on my list, as that’s a book I’ve never heard of before. I also love being intrigued by stories that draw attention to themselves in unusual ways. I guess it’s part and parcel of what we do (or used to do in my case).

  3. Difficult books are ones a reader has not quite figured out yet.

    Difficult books may be difficult in our inability to read them.

    Great books are difficult in that they never finally give up their meanings and constantly have new meanings, in this respect being reliable.

    We are unreliable readers.

    Great books can fool us into thinking we have their meanings – until next time!

    This sounds like the sort of book I very, very much like.

    I think you might like ‘Sweet Tooth’ by Ian McEwan, which reads like a traditional narrative but is not quite.

    Perhaps it might be an example of the unreliable narrative [along the lines of the unreliable narrator], perfect for the unreliable reader!

    It’s a book about spying and recording information and interpreting information and writing.

    The conjunction of spying and interpretation/misinterpretation seems to be popular at the moment, as with William Boyd.

    I think I know what I’m writing here, but I have no idea what you are reading there, language being a code.

    The spacing of these comments is to allow the reader to read between the lines.

    With books which foreground form, the end should justify the means or the means should be justified by the end.

    • Bookboxed, sometimes I think you read my mind. I’m planning on reading Sweet Tooth very soon indeed, and have a thing about spies that I’m hoping to assuage with a blog week on them! Plus, this is one of the cleverest comments I think I’ve ever had. Are you absolutely sure you don’t want a blog of your own? :)

  4. I really enjoy your reviews. They do not reveal too much, they are not bogged down in lit crit theory, and they digress from the Yellow Brick Road of the N.Y.Times bestseller lists. # Dream job.

  5. What a fascinating book! I am curious to read it now. Have you ever read B.S. Johnson’s ‘The Unfortunates’? It was his novel published in a box, so that with the exception of the first and last chapters you could read it in any order you liked.

    I too like your distinction between difficult and less difficult books, you do have a knack for describing things originally and brilliantly, litlove!

    • I have Jonathan Coe’s biography on B. S. Johnson which I am still intending to read soon… that’s as close as I’ve ever come to him, and really I ought to move a little closer! And thank you for your lovely compliment, you are a sweetheart!

  6. I like how you compare difficult books to lucid dreaming. I like the sound of Sleeping Patterns very much. I generally enjoy books that somehow subvert conventional narrative and will be putting this on my TBR list.

  7. I’m not a huge fan of “difficult” novels — especially when I feel an author is covering up an inability for good storytelling by trying to be clever and smug (in a “you-have-to-be-really-intelligent-and-know-tons-of-stuff in order to appreciate my books” way). Occasionally, though, I meet an author who really is doing something different and fun (even if unconventional and a bit difficult). I love it when I do. This sounds like a book that might fit that bill.

    • Yes, I’ve just found the word I wanted for Sleeping Patterns when writing a reply to Stefanie’s comment – this is a very unpretentious book, for all its interest in theory. It invites the reader to play without demanding anything other than the reader’s good will. I really like the unconventional to crop up in my reading every now and then – keeps things fresh!

    • The author of the post, yes, but not of the book alas, although I wish I were! Thank you so much for your lovely compliment, and to Mrs C for the link! It’s lovely to have you visit.

  8. It’s funny, but I’ve found some famous books complete non-starters for me: e.g. Atonement (Ian McEwan), The Adventures of Augie March (Saul Bellow), the Life of Pi (Yann Martel). So I agree with Bookboxed: “Difficult books are ones a reader has not quite figured out yet. Difficult books may be difficult in our inability to read them.” Thus, I must sit down and figure them out – these are major books after all. (Just to “prove” I’m not a philistine, I recently finished Madame Bovary, which was tremendous; what liquid writing (and great translation, of course) and what a vibrant world Flaubert brings forth.)

    On a related aside, I recently discovered the most difficult method of writing possible. It’s an example of constrained writing called Pilish, and it uses the unending sequence of the digits in the value of pi to specify the number of letters in each successive word of the composition. An entire book was written in this manner (Not A Wake, by Michael Keith). Last night, I managed to use Pilish to write a short ode (to an apple pie, obviously) – it’s on my blog. I like using constraints as compositional devices, but using Pilish really was difficult!

    • Ah but do you think sometimes the difficulty comes from them not being the right books at the right time? Or simply belonging to a style with which we are not comfortable? I suppose I feel I’ve had a crack at reading just about everything in my life, so when a book doesn’t suit I feel very relaxed about saying that it simply wasn’t a good fit with me, rather than worrying about whether I ‘got’ it or not. I read half of Herzog and very much admired Saul Bellow’s writing, but knew I couldn’t keep going until the end! As for pilish, I’d never heard of it before. The experimental writer I know most about is Georges Perec, and I’m not sure he did that one (though I’ll bet he’d have tried if he’d heard about it!) I always thought a lipogrammatic novel was probably the hardest, but Pilish does sound much worse! :)

  9. I always want to try difficult novels, but I think this is where I find my limitations as a reader. Stevie Smith comes to mind, and i am not sure she is someone who would fit this description or not. With books like this I have a fear of floundering or feeling lost. Still I do like trying them as they expand my mind and get me to read outside my comfort zone (something I don’t tend to do a lot of when it comes to books like this–rather than just stories I might not otherwise try–somehow they seem different than difficult books/experimental fiction–are they the same thing?). Anyway, this book sounds like Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch, which I think also has shuffled chapters that you can follow in different sequences. I own it, but you might not be surprised that I’ve not read it. :)

    • I’ve never read Cortazar’s Hopscotch, but I think they are alike. Only this book you are invited to read in just the one wrong order, as the chapters appear. I really think you have to be in the right mood for experimental writing (although there are some readers who prefer it to all other kinds, I know), or at least I do, and then there are experiments I enjoy and ones that don’t sit so well with me. I don’t enjoy every genre novel I read, either, and to my mind, it’s an extension of the same thing. Some books don’t suit as well as others, and there’s a huge number of factors that go into that. It’s been a feature of the book world for far, far too long that some sort of intellectual or moral judgement attaches to what we enjoy reading, but it’s not so. Preferences are just what they are! So never think of yourself as limited, or at least only in the sense that every single reader who has ever opened a book will find some more pleasing than others.

    • It was fun, Lilian, and it was the kind of difficulty that’s interesting, rather than frustrating. And thank you for your lovely comment; I had fun writing the post, too! :)

  10. Loved your review, litlove! I liked the first passage of your review very much. I read ‘Sleeping Patterns’ last year and liked it very much. I liked your description of Crook’s book – as a ‘cunning story’ :) It definitely is. Thanks for this wonderful review!

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