Sunday, November 8, 2009

Reasons to stop reading in the first 20 pages

When the main character, temping as a clerical worker in a university academic department, grouses about the fat, stupid secretaries she's temporarily stuck among. As a secretary at a university academic department, sometimes a fat one but not, I declare, a stupid one, I was offended to the point of cursing out loud and throwing the book across the room. This was in the early pages of a widely acclaimed novel of a couple years ago.

When the writer recounts, in a tone of arch wit, how she endured an awful cross-country flight stuck sitting next to an African American man she claims had body odor, which the writer explicitly describes as typical for African Americans. Really, she did, and really, I not only threw that book across the room, I tore it up and trashed it. This was in the early pages of a widely acclaimed memoir by a Hollywood wheeler-dealer some years back. Amid all that acclaim not one reviewer had taken note of this extraordinarily offensive racist passage in the first few pages.

The first example shows how every treacherous are the waters into which we readers wade every time we open a book. You never know what gratuitous bit of idiocy might be embedded in what everyone's been telling you is a great book, none of them having noticed or cared about the passage that stops you cold. The second example is of course much more important but, unfortunately, just as commonplace. One of the more frequent refrains of my postings here has been about the stranglehold of bourgeois consciousness in the literary world. This plays out in what writers write, and equally in what reviewers read--what they don't take note of continually astounds and arrests me, as time after time I pick up a book that I'd concluded from the reviews I might like, only to quickly skid to a stop as the stain of unconscious racism or sexism or anti-worker sentiment spills onto the pages making them unreadable and any further time with the book impossible to contemplate.

Or some mix of the above. It happened to me again recently, in this case with a book I'd been sent as a free review copy--the first time that's happened and probably the last. The book is Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer's Life by Michael Greenberg. Gosh, what a lot of laudatory blurbs it comes with. "Brilliant." "Dazzling." "Moving" "A work of art." And so on. Well, I wouldn't know about all that. All I know is that I couldn't make it past the first 20 pages or so. It's a matter of twice being brought up short by the writer's petit-bourgeois consciousness in full display of utter unconsciousness.

True, I was less than enthralled anyway. In fact, I was put off from the start. For one thing, unlike the impression I had from the reviews I'd read, that this writer came from the working class, he's in fact just one more sort-of rebellious child of a small-business owner. OK, so much for some gritty tale of a working-class kid's struggles making a life from writing. Then there's the name dropping about the 60s Village scene, which I find tedious.

But here are the two stop signs beyond which I had no desire to slog.

One of the first passages is about how Greenberg as a youth dreaming of becoming a writer had refused to join the father's business, a scrap-metal yard in the Bronx, and then about how after his father's death his brothers decided to shut it down. Greenberg takes one last trip to visit the site. He recounts his conflicted feelings. He has a brief conversation with one of the workers but never for an instant contemplates, or at least has no word to say in the book about, what is to become of the workers who are losing their jobs, their livelihoods, after their long years of labor created the profits off which his family has lived. Hey, I know, fuggedaboudit, right? They're just some dumb workers, this isn't their story, who cares what happens to them. I can't forget about them, though, I'm funny that way. Especially workers in the Bronx who are left to fend for themselves when their exploiters flee.

So there I sit, already fuming, and here comes the icing on the cake: a reference to the "crack whores" who used to populate the Bronx streets. Human beings--women--impoverished, oppressed, exploited, desperate, ill women, reduced to a snide shorthand, "crack whores." And I'm supposed to care about this guy's life?

Still, I read on for another dozen or so pages. Until I finished the lovely little chapter about how his first son was conceived. Long story short: he and his girlfriend happened to find themselves in Argentina at the time of the fascist takeover; she accidentally found herself nabbed and jailed; don't worry, he was able to spring her with the aid of a wad of cash and the support of the U.S. embassy (a.k.a. the fascists' backers); they got the hell out of the country and holed up in a motel, shellshocked at her four-day ordeal, having sex that ultimately brings forth the issue of his firstborn. All this is told in under three pages, all of it is of the "then I did this and then I did that in an exotic crazy place where exotic crazy things were happening and it's all fodder for my writer's life boy have I had a writer's life or what" school of memoir--and none of it breathes an ounce of concern or awareness about the reality of the dirty war in Argentina other than its standing as background to how his son was born. Not a reference to the tens of thousands of the Disappeared, to the war against the workers, the unions, the students, the women, to the mass murder that brought long years of misery to the masses of Argentina. Not another page worth turning.