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I just read a book that’s been getting rapturous reviews. It is every bit as beautifully written as advertised. There were whole paragraphs that were very WOW inducing.1 I loved parts of it and not just because they were about cricket.2 But I did not enjoy this book.
I will break my usual procedure and name the book: Netherland by Joseph O’Neill. I’m naming it because it really is gorgeously written. Seriously, it’s stunning. O’Neill deserves the reviews he’s been getting. I think many people will love it. Hell, many people are loving it. I’m writing this to figure out why it didn’t work for me.
The book’s a realist fictional take on the after effects of 9/11 on a marriage, on the narrator, on the city of NYC, centring around the narrator’s experience playing cricket and getting involved with a shady cricket-obsessed entrepreneur. I loved the descriptions of cricket as well as the discussions of the game and why USians don’t get it. I also loved the sequence in which the narrator attempts to get a NY driver’s license. It’s a deliciously funny and accurate description of city bureaucracy.
Yet, other than those glorious parts, Netherland bored me. I found myself skimming, looking for the next mention of cricket.3 I was not engaged by the passive drifting narrator. Worse, I didn’t care about him. I didn’t care about his marriage. I was bored rigid by his reminiscences about his past. He is so distanced from his life, so flat, that he seemed passionless about everything.
But my biggest problem was that there was no discernible plot. Over the course of 250 pages all the dramatic events happen offstage. The more I read the more frustrated I became. Perhaps, though, that’s the same problem: Because I was uninterested—and eventually came to dislike the narrator—I could not look past the lack of plot.
I love Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. It has no plot. It’s about a poor writer stumbling around a city starving. That’s the entire book. What could be more boring? I love that book. There’s way less plot in Hunger than Netherland.
Come to think of it, the likability of the narrator is not that big a deal. The narrator of Hunger isn’t likable. I can think of lots of protags I don’t like, but who are immensely engaging. My problem with Hans is not that I didn’t like him, it’s that I found him and his life boring. Almost every other character in the book is more interesting than Hans and yet it’s his head we’re stuck in.
I tried very hard to like Netherland. I can’t remember the last time I disliked a book that was as good as this one. I suspect quite a few of you will like it. Do ignore me and give it a go!
Have any of you experienced this? Read a book that you didn’t like despite being able to see that it’s really really good?
Note: I have now left the bunker but bits of the bunker are still lodged in my brain. It may be a while yet before I catch up on the crazy email backlog. Or my life. Or anything really.
Posted by Justine at 0:59, 27 August 2008 under Ranting, Reading, Travelling | 17 Comments »
I’m 85 percent through this book and have been for about two? three? months, which is totally weird behavior for me. It’s also stuck through with post-its marking the utterly gorgeous turns of phrase, which also is weird behavior for me. But I can’t quite get the rapturous reviews, either. And for some reason I cannot totally figure out I’m uncomfortable with the whole “9/11 book” thing. Maybe when I finally finish the damn thing I’ll understand why that nags at me the way it does.
Anyway. It’s not just you. At least from the nearly-through perspective!
August 27th, 2008 at 1:16 AM
Ben Payne Says:
Devil’s advocate: Isn’t part of being a “well written” book being, well, not boring?
August 27th, 2008 at 4:09 AM
David Moles Says:
some people are bored by romance, other people are bored by explosions. it’s hard to make “not boring” part of the objective difficulty score.
August 27th, 2008 at 6:46 AM
There’s one book that I’ve heard only great things about, and that I’ve read twice that I just don’t like: Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History.’ I disliked all of the characters. I hated the direction the plot went. I found the writing a bit overdone. And yet — I absolutely couldn’t put the book down both times I read it. I know it’s a good book; it’s just not for me, I suppose.
August 27th, 2008 at 7:27 AM
5. Justine Says:
Molly: Yay, that it’s not just me. Lord, he can write though.
David: Who mentioned objectivity? Not me.
I still think it’s a good book. If I read it some other time I might not have been so bored by it.
August 27th, 2008 at 8:22 AM
carson beck Says:
I haven’t read this book but i’ve had that experience with quite a few books. Some fall under the classics label – like John Steinbeck. I want to like him but just can’t. I can’t get into James Ellroy either. and i own three of his books. The same with stephen king- and i own a few of his… I don’t like them yet i keep buying more because so many people do i feel like i have to figure out what the magic is in their books, why are they so popular? What am i missing?
August 27th, 2008 at 9:27 AM
I am so guilty of this with Pride and Prejudice. I can see that it is one of the best books I have ever read. I was totally into the romance. I loved than Darcy loves Elizabeth so much. But…I was bored. It was so slow. And if Pride and Prejudice is slow, I don’t think I could enjoy Emma or Sense and Sensibility. I was bored and I was so happy I finally finished it! And I can see how wonderful the book is, but I was bored with it.
August 27th, 2008 at 11:55 AM
Diana Peterfreund Says:
Well, aside from the fact that I don’t think Hillary! and I can be friends anymore, I see the point. There are plenty of books that I could objectively rate as good and yet subjectively dislike. A lot of the stuff I studied in high school and college falls under that heading.
It’s the flip side of the “guilty pleasure” book. The one that you know, deep down, is crap, but it’s so delicious nad readable and insert-reasoning-here that you love it anyway. Then again, there’s an argument to be made that if you LIKE something, then the author did succeed in that goal — entertaining you.
August 27th, 2008 at 12:16 PM
I felt this way about King Dork. Funny book, but it’s too low on plot. I NEED PLOT OR I AM NOT HAPPY. The character is puttering around through life and that’s it? Meh.
There’s a guy in my writer’s group who sounds like this. Everyone but me drools over his descriptions, but he has NO plot and writes “drifter” characters. It’s dull as all hell.
I would not argue with Hillary about actually reading Jane Austen. She writes either ALL conversation or no conversation for pages and pages. I like the characters, but wading through that is just hard. I’ll go watch a movie instead.
August 27th, 2008 at 1:53 PM
everyone liked twilight. i dispised it evey single part especialy the girl shes always like blahblahblah complainecomplaincomplaine. i only read half its annoyed me so much. i never only finish half of a book!
ps she hated washington HOW DARE SHE!!!
August 27th, 2008 at 3:38 PM
I’m thinking of a much-praised British fantasy writer. I’ve never been able to finish one of his books, but what turns me off isn’t the writing or the story. There’s just too much ichor. If his books weren’t quite so slimy, I’d probably love them.
August 27th, 2008 at 3:39 PM
For me it is The Golden Compass. I want so much to like and I know it is good but every time I either (a) get distracted or (b) give up. I can’t figure it out at all since I love fanasties. I’ll probably just have to give it another try. Maybe third times the charm?
There’s a lot of books I like in retrospect. Different kind of the same problem I’d say…
August 27th, 2008 at 5:46 PM
I just finished Netherland, and I unfortunately must agree with you. I too really wanted to like it, and yes the writing is stunning, but the main character just didn’t grab me and he pretty much pissed me off. I’m a huge baseball fan and really enjoyed the parts about cricket and immigrants coming together to play cricket in NY. The driver’s license part was hysterical,though I kept thinking you live in NYC why do you even need a dl? I did feel sorry for his cricket bat and gear abandoned in the closet.
August 28th, 2008 at 9:14 PM
I recently read Netherland and had basically the same experience you did for basically the same reasons.
On another note, I’ve been reading your blog for so long, I finally bought one of your books. Magic or Madness. Looks like fun.
August 31st, 2008 at 2:42 PM
My wife felt much the same about Netherland. She expected to like it but from the florid prose that she read aloud to me, well I cold see her point.A writer who was way too aware of the tricks he could pull and wanted to let you know it, too. Which is a shame. New York, outsiders, cricket, expats. (On the other hand, she loved Nam Le, despite the hype.)
Anyway, I can never get too warmed up about Tim Winton. Much built up but too little pay off. I know, I know…
September 1st, 2008 at 1:11 AM
I had a similar reaction to Iain M Banks’ Matter. It is well written, it has interesting aliens, lots of people love it and the first 500 pages bored me considerable.
If anyone is interested I have more thoughts about it at http://www.imperialpurple.net/2008/07/07/matter/
September 1st, 2008 at 9:29 PM
The problem I have with Netherland (which I think is similar to your problem with it) is that the narrator is essentially a blank canvas, there to reflect the effect of 911 on his marriage/wife and the New York/American psyche. He’s unbelievably passive (I’m about halfway through, and he’s just literally described himself as “a bystander” in his work as an analyst), and gah, the passages about his childhood and most of what he gets up to now are SO BORING. I can see that O’Neill’s a beautiful, technically brilliant writer, and I have no problem with entire books being written in this elegiac tone – but you need to make it interesting. So far, I found the confrontation at the cricket match interesting (actually, I loved that scene), the bureaucratic scenes hilarous, and that’s about it.
September 3rd, 2008 at 2:08 AM
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