Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Novel heroins

For all his appreciation of great modern novels, Michael Dirda of the Washington Post does seem to hanker - like everybody else it seems - for large scale, 19th Century novels with extra stiff doses of violence, madness and sex. He calls James Meek's much-touted novel A People's Act of Love "a tremendously impressive work of art", though, beyond pressing all the usual emotional buttons, there seems to be little explanation of why it is art as such.

Perhaps it's enough for most readers that Meek's work will remind them, as Dirda assures, of the famous 19th Century Russians for whom there is "nothing light-hearted or namby-pamby" about life. Perhaps they'll feel closer, as a result, to something elemental. To me it seems rather like the perennial tendency among reviewers and readers toward sentimentality and schadenfreude.

Such discomfort with ordinary consciousness isn't the preserve of established, conservative voices either. London's Scarecrow is keen to introduce us to new and urgent voices, yet for all its assurance that Tony O'Neill's new novel Digging the Vein is "something quite special" in its depiction of drug addiction in California, one only has to read the first paragraph to notice the hurried resort to the most worn-out phrasing. The rest is no different. Scarecrow insists that every word counts "because he experienced each painstaking syllable". I doubt it. Doesn't heroin numb all pain? Clichés do the same.

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