Saturday, December 19, 2009

Worst Books of 2009! Fiction!

2009 is finally winding down, and the End of Days clamor regarding the death of paper-and-ink books has never been louder. The Amazon Kindle is (if you believe their publicity statements) selling more than any other physical item in the history of the human race, and smack-dab in the entrance way of every single Barnes & Noble is a sleek kiosk staffed with book-averse clerks hawking B&N's own electronic reader, Nook. What book retailers are thinking in pursuing this 'get out ahead of it' strategy utterly eludes me; it's like if Tower Records and HMV had busily installed kiosks in their foyers offering Napster downloads of all their wares. Prognosticators are saying the days of the printed book are similarly numbered.

If 2009 represents the death-throes of an industry, well, the end won't be pretty - because Nook or no Nook, publishers this year went to just the same exorbitant lengths to churn out mountains of crapola as they did when no electronic readers threatened their existence at all. Thousands of books crossed my path, many hundreds made their way to my nightstand (friends and basset hounds will attest: it's a big nightstand, and it's always stacked high with books), and here we are at the tail-end of the year to sort them all out. And as you could no doubt tell from our trusty elephant-crap photo up top, this particular entry will be devoted to the worst of those many hundreds of books. I'm expanding the list and dividing it into fiction and nonfiction, for your book-avoiding convenience. So let's get started!

Worst Fiction of 2009:

10. Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi by Geoff Dyer - Impossible to believe the fulsome, breathless praise this narcissistic piece of poop has garnered from virtually all corners of the critical world, although not impossible to understand: Dyer might not know how to write (Dyer certainly does not know how to write), but he knows how to nudge and wink and pass a bong, and book reviewers - being pallid, friendless sorts who grew up yearning to be cool - don't seem to have been able to resist the cool-ness Dyer is so relentlessly going for. Come Monday morning, when their collective crush has migrated to some other writer, perhaps they'll turn on Dyer en masse - seeing that would almost make suffering through the acclaim of this one worth enduring.

9. The Murder of King Tut by James Patterson and Martin Dugard - Despite the idiotic claims Patterson makes in his introduction to this tiny little book (which his legions of fans dutifully made a bestseller), it definitely belongs on a fiction list - it's wretched enough as fiction, but with its endless pages of invented hackneyed dialogue and stereotypical plot-twists, it would be reality-warpingly unthinkable as history. Ancient Egypt hasn't suffered an outrage this bad since Napoleon's troops tramped through its ruins.

8. The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell - This one stings a little extra because it genuinely tugged at my expectations: Littell can do good work, and the book is satisfyingly long and ambitious ... all of which made the disappointment even greater when it turned out to be a bloated, overblown brick of pointless Euro-nihilism that neither affirms anything nor interestingly condemns anything. Instead, grotesquerie after grotesquerie is served up in lavish detail to no point at all - which I'm sure Littell's defenders would say is the whole point, that war and atrocity are like that. And they should keep their condescension to themselves, the poor little darlings; I know perfectly well that war and atrocity are like that - but war and atrocity novels - good ones, anyway - are not, and Littell spending 3000 pages wallowing in narcissistic self-loathing certainly isn't.

7. Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem - Some of you will say that of course this book - one long hymn to getting high - would have to be on my list, since I'm no fan of the stink of that particular habit (or the evening-long stupidity it engenders). But that's not true - if Lethem had worked to make his prose enjoyable, I'd have liked it no matter what it was about (I liked Pynchon's Inherent Vice just fine this year, and it's easily as stoned a book at this one). But he doesn't, because he's plainly figured out he doesn't have to - his readers will move his book off shelves regardless of what he does.

6. Nobody Move by Denis Johnson - It's been a handy rule of mine almost from the first moment I started making rules about reading (I'll have to attempt a comprehensive list of them here some day!): nothing good can be expected from a book whose title is a cliche. And there's nothing good in Johnson's lazy little pamphlet of a pastiche - just flat, boring prose so inconsequential you feel extra sorry for all the earnest first-time novelists out there who'd love to have the money Johnson got (for both serial rights and novel rights, geez) for spitting up this drivel. Oh, but we'll be getting to first-time novelists, don't you worry!

5. Under the Dome by Stephen King - But first, a novelist who's been working so long you'd think at least some sort of craft would have penetrated the force-field of his mediocrity ... but you'd be wrong, and you'd waste a hell of a lot of reading time being wrong. King's new novel (written at the rate of roughly 10,000 words a day- in other words, not only without thinking but also without pausing in the physical act of typing - something, that is, that cannot possibly under any circumstances be good) about a small Maine town full of Stephen King fans suddenly cut off from the wider world is full of an irony so painful it has to be involuntary, and that irony is only darkened when a giant bucket of garbage like this gets an adulatory review on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. End of Times indeed.

4. Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli - The writer-artist here has no more willing fan than I am, but this wretchedly stilted, unbearably pretentious mess of a graphic novel does literally nothing right. The artwork is too didactic to be dramatically involving; not only are we never given any reason to like the shallow, irritating main character but we're also never given any reason to keep turning the pages about him; the host of secondary characters are hauled on, talked down to, then shuttled offstage to no purpose at all, and the ending - well, again, I'm sure Mazzucchelli's defenders would say it's meant to be hipster-ironic, but that's just them being fey: it's actually just Mazzucchelli accidentally proving that he does his best stuff when he's got a writer handling the words.

3. The Collected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen - We mentioned earnest first-time novelists, and we did it sympathetically - but no sympathy extends to first novels written with either crass manipulation or frat boy bragging. Larsen's oh-so-precious tale of an adorably quirky little boy with a penchant for illustrating things is a perfect case of a book that considers it safer to trick readers into affectionate sympathy than to genuinely arouse that feeling in them, through work. And by all sales accounts, the trickery has been effective - it's entirely possible Larsen will have a standing reservation for the #3 spot here on the list. There is no writing lazier than gimmick-writing, and no more gimmicky book than this one has appeared on the scene in many, many years. I can only hope that somewhere down the line Larsen learns that "Hate reading books? Try Reif Larsen!" isn't, in fact, a recommendation.

2. How to Sell by Clancy Martin - This is where the frat boy bragging comes in. Martin's book looks on the surface like a standard roman a clef about a naive young guy who comes to the big city and learns the biz (doesn't matter what biz) while learning about life and love, blah, blah, blah. But underneath, this tone-deaf lump of clumsy prose cares about only one thing: making its young author lots of money (through a Hollywood sale, naturally, not boring old bookstores). This is a book entirely without a soul - I'm surprised register scanners could read its bar code.
Once again, most critics loved it because it gave them a vicarious burst of 'cool' - it was called a promising debut enough times so that we can legitimately fear the author believes it.

1. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, Zeitoun by Dave Eggers - Necessary to list these two abominations together, since they share the same things: rhapsodic critical reception, sludgy, colorless prose, a 100 percent total reliance on cliches (saintly minorities, for instance, in both cases), and opportunistic necrophilia. McCann's book ham-handedly uses the tragedy of September 11 to gin up his otherwise entirely forgettable tale of them brawlin' bardin' Irish immigrants, and the insufferable Eggers ham-handedly uses the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina to gin up his otherwise forgettable tale of a good little man confronting The System when all he wants to do is help people. It's not enough to say that neither book would be imaginable without the real-world disaster on which its plot hinges; it's painfully obvious from both these windy, self-adoring works that their authors consider plot-hinging the reason disasters happen in the first place. This is the worst kind of cultural vampirism, and after the praise heaped on Netherland last year, I'm starting to think our current crop of writers simply can't rise to the challenge of transmuting real-life turning points into challenging prose. Eggers has created his Grand Old Man status with his own money (and an unflagging conception of all writing as twee anachronism - a conception the literary world has embraced whole-heartedly without, apparently, seeing the loathsome irony), and McCann has recently had his Grand Old Man status conferred upon him, so they themselves can't help but see their praise as vindication of their grave-robbing. But the rest of us should maintain a proper outrage - novels have a higher calling than the sophomoric melodramas these two have produced.

Up Next: 2009's worst Nonfiction!


brownstudy said...

I would love to read your reading rules. When I'm evaluating books to read to my wife (we've found memoirs are good before-bedtime reading aloud material), I use John Sutherland's advice to read page 69. If it's good, then we give it a try.

steve said...

HAH! I actually know that rule! I always chuckle over it, but of course you know (and Sutherland knew too) that it's mainly fun.

One of my own main methods of evaluating whether or not to read a book is to simply read the first chapter. If it bores me, I stop reading right there. If it irritates me, I keep reading until it bores me. If it intrigues me, I'll usually finish the book. And if it flat-out hooks me - well, that hardly ever happens, and I LOVE it when it does, and those books get consumed in one gulp.

But then, I read much faster than most people, who probably can't spare the time to read the whole first chapter of something ...

And even that only applies where I have a choice! There are many dozens of books in any given year that I read out of 'professional' obligation - I couldn't NOT read them and still call myself a book reviewer. Even if they taste like cod liver oil. Which most of them do.

Anonymous said...

Yes! The best time of the year is when you wrap up the year here. At least we all know we'll have something good to read the next few weeks . . . .

John said...

Yes, I spit milk laughing when I got to, "opportunistic necrophilia." Wonderful stuff!

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