Tag Archives: bildungsroman

Vernon God Little: What we avoid



There’s no question DBC Pierre’s first novel, Vernon God Little, is an excellent piece of fiction. The book takes a school shooting in Texas (is it Texas? Somewhere near Mexico, anyway) and explores the community reaction to the event – spectacle, denial, scapegoating – through the darkly comedic story of Vernon, falsely accused and prosecuted for the crime. The first person narrator of Vernon is masterfully represented in his fixation on shit and young women, as well as use of diction, phrasing, pace and image that moves past conjuring a character to allow the reader to fully accept and inhabit him (if not identify with – a problem to come to). The narration also does well to explore his complicated feelings around the massacre, the (failure) of adults to take responsibility or engage with grief, his expectations of justice and the justice system and his attempts to reform himself and his relationship with others.

Despite the brilliant narration and the timely thematic questions (what is the role of the press in perpetuating/perpetrating crimes? how does collective culture sublimate grief? how do we understand and make sense of the senseless? what are the effects of poverty on access to justice?) I read this book knowing it was great, but feeling at a remove. If literature is great because (and if) it can allow (or require) the reader to adopt different perspectives, to explore experiences unavailable in lived experience AND because it is masterfully constructed in literary technique, Vernon God Little shines in the latter and wavers in the former.

I should say this book sat on my shelf at work for eleven months before I finally read it. And not because I lacked time or opportunity. I tried reading it twice before. It wasn’t until I’d forgotten my book at home and it was a choice between no novel (a gasp of impossibility) or Vernon God Little that I gave it sufficient time (the 60 minutes of my lunch break) to get invested enough to read the whole thing. It wasn’t a novel that grabbed me. Is it that the first person narrator repulsed me a little? Maybe. (and maybe he’s meant to) It’s not that the experiences in the book are too far removed for me to care about – all kinds of my favourite books are those that I love precisely for their ability to take a seemingly distant experience and make it relevant and poignant for me and to let me see my world and relationship to it differently – it seems more the case that Pierre didn’t do enough to make these foreign experiences connected to this reader. There wasn’t opportunity for empathy, or even sympathy, no chance for identification or care.

So I read the book with a respect for the writing, an understanding that it was an important topic and explored with great literary skill. And yet I found myself unmoved and unchanged in its reading. Uninterested in what becomes of Vernon. Is that a problem of this reader or of the book? You read it and tell me what you think.


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Filed under American literature, Book I'll Forget I Read, British literature, Fiction, Prize Winner

The Goldfinch: Literary and popular

eve_mason_tgf_123013At just under 800 pages Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch isn’t the kind of book you take lightly. That’s a joke of course, because the subject of the book is far from light itself: the maturation of a boy grappling with the loss of family/innocence, the role of art and beauty in making life worth living, the bonds and responsibilities of affiliative relationships (as opposed to ‘filial,’ or familial relationships, affiliative are those relationships with those we freely choose) and the consequences (or lack thereof) of making ‘bad’ and ‘good’ choices (and whether such choices are, in the end, ours to make).

It is a rich, complex, heady story with masterful plot sequencing and character development. It is a book that has been uniformly celebrated by literary critics  and masses of readers in an unusual congruence of what is both literary and popular as both groups connect with the complexity of the protagonist, Theo, who is simultaneously sympathetic for his orphan-hood and frustrating for his continued terrible decision making. The art heist elements lend a certain suspense, the post-event narration allows an editorializing on events as they unfold that does double duty as assurance to readers and warning that supposedly innocuous events are going to have dire consequences. The atmosphere of the novel – a combination of the dire with the luxurious – speaks to the experience of this contemporary reader: a constant striving coupled with a certainty that at no point will the material objects ever amount to real feelings of security, safety or happiness.

While this reader (I might be so bold to say I am both literary and popular – bam!) delighted in the writing and the genius of the plot and its thematic questions, I found Theo and his story somewhat uneven. I devoured the story in Theo’s years in New York, yet found his time with and post-Boris (his great friend) to be alternately plodding and disconnected. I read Boris’ unpredictability and intensity as in some ways a scapegoat for Theo’s choices and also as convenient ways to resolve apparent impediments in Theo’s life. Boris to the rescue! Boris as catalyst! While the relationship between the two character is far from pat – in fact the evolution of their friendship and relationship is fascinating – Boris’s function in the novel at times reads as too much plot incitement.

So too my sympathy for Theo waned as the narrative continued. A characterization meant to remind the reader that we are only so tolerant of those with addiction, mental illness, those overcome with grief and trauma, that we are willing – for a time – to be gracious and understanding and then we want people to “get over it” to “move on” to “pull themselves together.” The Goldfinch resists this impulse. Instead we are made to suffer along with Theo as he makes, remakes, and makes again the same mistakes and poor decisions – while knowing that he’s doing so. I suppose the frustration and annoyance is, then, that I somehow want my fictional characters to do what I cannot. I want them to be braver, stronger, better than I am. So it’s not a complaint so much as a warning that Theo is not a hero, even if he has heroic aspirations, he is instead utterly human and truthful about what that means: to do the wrong thing over and over and to still (somehow) hope and plan to be better.

I find myself struggling to come out with a definite conclusion/recommendation on the novel. I suppose I don’t have to do that with these posts. I can, instead, give you my impressions and leave it to you to decide. Much in the same way, I suppose (though without the genius of Tartt) as the novel does in asking the reader, in the end, to pass judgement on what makes for a good life, a life good enough, and a life that we somehow fall/stumble into without deciding only to realize – with horror, sadness or resignation – that the last page is fast approaching.


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Filed under American literature, Fiction, Prize Winner