Selected By Cyril Wong
There are short book reviews. And there are short book reviews that bite hard precisely because they are short. This particular one is plain mean. The beginning of this review of Alan Lightman’s Reunion by Marta Salij in the Detroit Free Press of 17 Aug 2003 cuts wickedly to the chase by summing up the book in a series of curt sentences:
Man goes to 30th college reunion. Remembers girl who got away. Feels sad. The end.
You just got five hours of your life back.
Asshole, right? Next comes an attempt to soften the blow, only to pack a gradual wallop:
Too harsh? What if I told you that the girl in question isn't even at the reunion, so there isn't any hope of a confrontation or reconciliation between the old lovers?
What if I told you that the only thing the man does is go into a room at his alma mater and fall into a reverie? Are you on fire to read this yet?
Only devotees of slow stories of rue - somehow I'm thinking Ingmar Bergman fans - would be. If you belong to that camp, my apologies for turning my nose up. You'll adore Reunion.
So saturated with sarcasm is this review we cannot stop enjoying the bitching. The reviewer goes on to insist that all of us will realise, after reading Reunion, that the story told as flashback is, at the very least, a flaw about Lightman’s novel we can all agree upon. When the reviewer describes how the main character, Charles – an English professor – perhaps “wants to brood over the lover of his senior year, Juliana, by himself”, she adds at the end: “Cue violins. Cue mournful oboe.”
The rest of the review simply decides for the reader that since he or she will not read Reunion after being convinced by the reviewer that it is a lame book, the review sums up the rest of the novel without enthusiasm:
Juliana was a ballet dancer, half sylph and half cipher. She and Charles met cute; after an hour in a Manhattan coffee shop, he was sure she was The One.
But Juliana had her art. She was a little old to turn into a ballet star, but she was determined. She spent her days in rehearsal, her evenings in performance, and her late nights on the floor of the dressing room with Charles. Charles quickly confused great sex with great love.
Then Juliana got pregnant. Charles wanted to marry her and raise the child. She wanted to dance. One day, she disappeared. Charles looked for her, for a time.
What you're expecting is a book in which the middle-aged man looks over his past and... goes back to Sheila with new appreciation? Breaks off with Sheila to look again for Juliana? Breaks off with Sheila to find a new 20-year-old ballet dancer? Salutes the callow youth he was, forgives himself, moves on?
None of the above. Charles returns to Sheila feeling all mopey. Surely he's learned something. Wait, there's this:
"The first kiss, the first ecstasy of love, the play of light in the trees on a particular fall day, the endless flood of strength in our biceps and thigh. We have the illusion that all of this will happen again and again. In a way, this falseness of youth is even more painful than the branching channels ahead," the mature Charles writes.
Lightman has moments like this, nicely phrased reminders of platitudes such as "all things pass," made a bit digestible by being so nicely phrased. But not very digestible.
“Pretty sentences, all dressed up with nowhere to go” is the next caustic line the reviewer offers to describe Lightman’s writing. Fiction is ‘ailing’, the reviewer complains, drawing dangerously close to an irrational, general statement about contemporary fiction. “Better minds than mine have complained” is the next thing the reviewer laments, suggesting modesty to promote her credibility as a critic.
Next, the reviewer suddenly slams a whole lot of other novelists:
Lightman's Reunion falls into the category of wistful musings on the sadness of life, dressed up in novel form. Another category is snarky commentary on the shallowness of modernity, dressed up in novel form: Key practitioners are David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, et al. There are other categories, but it fatigues me to list them.
Here's what I do want points for: These are not novels. They are essays, maybe even newspaper columns, sometimes glorified diary entries, stretched out to unconscionable length and price.
How about a novel dressed up in novel form, huh? With characters who face conflicts (you remember those from ninth grade: Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Man, etc.), who act, suffer and grow. I could really sink my teeth into one of those right about now.
And to think Mikhail Bakhtin, the great Russian theorist, tried to promote the novel once as the rare spaces in literature in which anything is possible, and that this is a good thing, as it provides for imaginative experimentation. Salij’s narrow view of the novel form aside, one cannot blame her for this short and nasty but slightly shortsighted diatribe if Lightman’s book is really so bad as to make one irrational.
Critic reads book. Pans it. The end? Drip acid in the Forum!
'The Acid Tongue' is a column that celebrates acerbic reviewing. Mail us if you know of any examples.
QLRS Vol. 3 No. 1 Oct 2003