Last night I finished my review of the new satire “Home Land.” One of the things I mentioned in the review itself was my effort to remember that this novel is intentionally grubby and slouchy and isn’t (I don’t think) trying to be a major work of profound meaning and deep insights. (Though Gary Shteyngart proclaims on the cover that the book helps him “to understand how we got to be where we are today, as a country and as a people.”) I posed the question in my review of whether it’s fair to criticize a recognizably unimpressive narrator for failing to impress you with the book he’s narrating. Who’s not impressing me here – just the narrator (who’s been written as an unimpressive loser) or also the author?
Somewhat relatedly…last night I was reading William Gaddis’ “The Recognitions” (does this thing ever end? It’s great, but I won’t mind catching sight of the finish line) and came across a passage that deals with a critic’s response to a book. The issue here is whether a critic is responding to the book at hand or to what his own inclinations would have been for the story. This brief bit, from page 603, comes from a boozy holiday party that’s been going on forever and doesn’t stop (I’ve checked) for another 40 pages.
–He’s a critic. He writes about books, or some God damn thing. Now come on. But Benny pulled from Ellery’s grasp on his shoulder.
–How long is it since you’ve seen the sun rise? he demanded. Then he went on,–How you would have done it. That’s the way everything is, isn’t it. How you would have done it. Not how it should have been done, but how you would have done it. When you criticize a book, that’s the way you work, isn’t it. How you would have done it, because you didn’t do it, because you’re still afraid to admit that you can’t do it yourself.