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Book Review: Debut Novel Stumbles Into ‘Literary’ Pitfalls

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 2/9/2018 12:04:55 AM
Modified: 2/9/2018 12:05:03 AM

Heart Spring Mountain

By Robin MacArthur

Ecco; 351 pages; $25.99

If literary criticism had any pull, there’s a certain style of literary novel that would have dried up and blown away.

B.R. Myers, who at the time thought of himself as less a critic than a frustrated reader, wrote an uncompromising takedown of the modern literary best-seller. Titled “A Reader’s Manifesto,” it was first published in The Atlantic in 2001, when I read it, and as a book the following year.

It’s a mark of how ingrown the publishing industry had become that Myers’ book found no takers until Melville House, a new publisher, made it one of the company’s first titles. No one wanted to publish a writer who dared to poke stick into literary fiction’s cozy nest.

Myers bemoaned the “affected prose” of the kind of contemporary novel that was earning rave reviews, big advances and big sales. “Everything written in self-conscious, writerly prose, … is now considered to be ‘literary fiction’ — not necessarily good literary fiction, mind you, but always worthier of respectful attention than even the best-written thriller or romance.”

He then proceeded to tear holes in the works of such cherished authors as Annie Proulx, Rick Moody, Don De Lillo and Cormac McCarthy. He went after such darlings as Cold Mountain and Snow Falling on Cedars. “What we are getting today is a remarkably crude form of affectation: a prose so repetitive, so elementary in its syntax, and so numbing in its overuse of wordplay that it often demands less concentration then the average ‘genre’ novel,” Myers wrote.

The decade and a half since Myers issued his rant hasn’t had much effect. Many of the literary novels I pick up in bookstores, then quickly put down again, are from the same mold he was describing. “A Reader’s Manifesto” struck a chord with me, in part because so many of the books that got great reviews were written in a kind of code that bypassed such hallmarks of good writing as the declarative sentence, dialogue that expresses or demonstrates a character’s feelings and stories that resemble the lives of real, working people.

A nearly perfect example of everything Myers was railing against has appeared in the form of Heart Spring Mountain, by Vermont author Robin MacArthur. Set in the days after Tropical Storm Irene ravaged the state in 2011, Heart Spring Mountain tells the story of Bonnie, a heroin addict, and her estranged daughter, Vale, a free spirit who returns from New Orleans to southern Vermont when she’s alerted to her mother’s disappearance. The story shifts back and forth in time to take in other characters; Deb, another free spirit, fleeing her country club family for a Vermont commune in the 1960s, and sisters Hazel and Lena.

What all of the shifting points of view and time periods enable is less a novel than an impression of one. MacArthur’s style mirrors that fragmentation. Here’s a more or less representative paragraph:

The images register in Vale’s mind, piece together slowly. The first time she saw her mother with a needle in her arm Vale was sixteen years old; claw-foot tub, wood floors, smell of incense and bathwater. A slow progress of wine, then Oxy, then heroin in that blue-walled apartment above the river.

This is pretty vague stuff. Do the images piece themselves together, or does Vale’s mind play a role? Vale saw her mother with a needle in her arm, but the particulars that reach the reader are pleasing symbols of middle-class status, not distended veins or Bonnie’s head lolling against the edge of the tub. The last sentence could use a verb, but to insert one would break up the pretense of a style that emerges from the book’s shards of information and disjointed imagery.

The voice of Heart Spring Mountain is one of childlike wonderment, despite the liberal use of profanity (who is more impressed by profanity than a child?), which for an adult reader interested in adult concerns can be pretty boring. We’re always meant to be saying “Wow!” at the author’s effusion of language.

It’s no wonder so many adult readers turn to young adult fiction. Katherine Paterson is a much more hard-headed and unsparing writer than most writers of “literary” prose. Even the Harry Potter books are written as straightforward stories that treat readers seriously.

To be fair, I’m probably not the target audience for MacArthur’s book, which focuses on women characters from a female point of view. Then again, that description fits The House of Mirth, Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Dalloway, Jane Eyre and many other novels that I’ve read and reread with pleasure.

When I first read Myers’ piece, I wondered whether his denunciation of literary fiction hadn’t gone far enough. It would be illuminating for a literary critic or scholar to examine why so much contemporary fiction is written in this fragmented style. My pet theory is that it’s meant to mimic the way in which people experience the world, as a series of momentary, often indecipherable encounters that are overlaid with a sort of powerlessness against the forces of modern life.

That’s a fine rationale, but it ignores why a reader might seek out literature in the first place: for a sense of coherence and for beauty. Myers argues, rightly, in my estimation, that literary fiction is more a racket than an art form, with a self-perpetuating “cultural elite” of writers, publishers and reviewers codifying a writing style that seems designed to push readers away. If you don’t “get it,” well, too bad, you’re simply not clever enough.

“Can anyone outside of the big publishing houses claim that the mere fact of newness should entitle a novel to more of our attention?” Myers asks near the end of his screed. “Many readers wrestle with only one bad book before concluding that they are too dumb to enjoy anything ‘challenging.’ ”

He goes on to mention a handful of books, written in straightforward prose with strong characters and coherent narratives. In a 2002 interview, he noted that American novelists “have always been more affected than the British,” so it might be worthwhile to seek out Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop or Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim. Even the great British prose stylists Virginia Woolf and Henry Green wrote their books front to back and in complete sentences.

Myers concludes with a sentence that should heat the cockles of any reader’s heart: “Whatever happens, the old American scorn for pretension is bound to reassert itself someday, and dear God, let it be soon.” I couldn’t agree more.

Robin MacArthur’s reading fromHeart Spring Mountainat Norwich Bookstore this evening has been postponed to April 6. The reading is free, but seating is limited. Call 802-649-1114 to reserve a spot.

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