Liking and Disliking: Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin

mccannLately I can’t seem to stop quoting Henry James’s remark that “nothing, of course, will ever take the place of the good old fashion of ‘liking’ a work of art or not liking it: the more improved criticism will not abolish that primitive, that ultimate, test.” However much we try as readers and critics to bring something resembling rigor to our analysis of a book, there’s always a fundamental (though not immutable) personal response at the heart of it, isn’t there? No two people ever really read the same book, after all. I often think of criticism as an attempt — more or less fully realized — to show someone the book as you see it, very much in the spirit of Kazuo Ishiguro’s remark that being a novelist is an appeal for companionship in experiencing life: “Perhaps you’ve never looked at it this way but now that I’ve put things this way, don’t you recognize this, too?” Agreement may not follow, but better understanding will, perhaps of the book, perhaps of the reader.*

What makes one reader like a book — love it, even — and another not like it, or even despise it? This question was much on my mind as I read Let the Great World Spin because from the moment I plucked it off the shelf at the Brattle two years ago it was the subject of just such a debate: one trusted reader warmly recommended it, while another (OK, it was Steve) told me emphatically not to bother with it. I ignored Steve’s advice, but clearly his disdainful judgment introduced just enough ambivalence for me to defer actually reading the book for a pretty long time!

And now that I’ve finally read the novel for myself, what did I think? Well, it more than passed “that primitive, that ultimate, test” for me: I really liked Let The Great World Spin. Because I had heard it was a “9/11 novel,” and because it is festooned with blurbs praising its “lyricism” and “heart,” I was worried that I might find it overdone, manipulative, portentous — but I didn’t. Each section is from the perspective of a different character: I was drawn rapidly into each story, and as the relationships between their individual parts emerged I appreciated more and more how delicately it was done. There were moments of recognition as each story took its place, but nothing felt forced: every moment, and every voice, had its own history and its own integrity. All of the stories are about love and loss and longing, and they are held together by small acts of grace or moments of connection: there’s no melodrama, no hyperbole. This kind of polyphonic narrative always risks becoming more about artistic showmanship than about the story or characters (for me, this was the effect of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas), but I found McCann’s virtuosity at once impressive and understated. Even the high wire act around which the whole novel is arranged remains, for us, just out of view: our attention is (in McCann’s words) on “the ordinary people on the street, the ones who walked a tightrope just one inch off the ground.”

There’s no arguing with my response to Let the Great World Spin. It turned out to be one of those books that make me seek solitude as the end draws near: I wanted to stay quietly within it until it had completed its work. It didn’t affect me as deeply as, say, The Orphan Master’s Son; it’s not as dazzling as The Last Samurai or as darkly brilliant as Wolf Hall or Bring Up the Bodies; it’s not as important as The Lost. But I am really glad I read it: I liked everything about it.

At the same time, there’s no arguing with Steve’s visceral rejection! So that has me thinking — not so much about what accounts for this particular difference of opinion, or experience, or judgment (though maybe he and I will talk it over when I visit Boston again next month!) as about why we hate books, when we do. I’ve been trying to think of books I really hate. I’ve certainly written here about quite a few books that I didn’t like at all. Usually, though, they aren’t books that I think are outright bad but books that are good in ways I don’t enjoy (Flaubert), or good at things I don’t think are very nice (FordSt. Aubyn). I disliked a lot of Terry Castle’s The Professor: that’s the closest I’ve come lately, that I can think of, to actively hating a book. Except for maybe The Paris Wife: that was pretty lame. Oh – and there was The Sixteen Pleasures! But I was more disappointed in it than anything. I thought Lord of Scoundrels was laughable, “a parody of my worst imaginings about romance novels” — but that was only the first time I read it, when I really didn’t get what it was doing, and even then I wouldn’t say I hated it. Hate is such a strong word! (It might not even be the right word for what Steve feels for Let the Great World Spin, though it seems a reasonable inference from his calling it “paper-thin idiotic drivel.”) It suggest an absolute negation, an active hostility, that may be incompatible, for me, with actually reading a book all the way to the end. Steve wants back the time he spent reading Let the Great World Spin: I can’t think of a book I’ve read (at least since I started blogging –sometimes it feels as if my prior reading is all one undifferentiated blur) that I truly regret having read because the experience was so unpleasant. I’ve been bored, unconvinced, puzzled, underwhelmed, repelled, occasionally scornful; I’ve more than once thought a book didn’t live up to its hype. That’s all bad enough, but that’s as bad as I can really say it gets.

I wonder if what keeps me from taking that final stop into hatred is my ever-lurking sense of my own fallibility as a reader. I already mentioned Lord of Scoundrels as an example of a book I came to read differently (better), and there are many other examples of books that I came to like more as I got to know them better, as I found contexts for them and ideas about them that reduced the role of my personal taste in my response to them. Many of these are books I have worked with for teaching, though: I am unlikely ever to reread and research most of the books I write about here in the same way — and even those I review more formally for Open Letters, though they certainly get scrupulously reread and reconsidered, are never the focus of my sustained attention over time, meaning I do not have the opportunity to grow into them, or they do not get further opportunities to educate me about themselves! I am morally certain that many of the books I’ve blogged about don’t really deserve, or would not reward, that investment, but nonetheless I know perfectly well that mine is not the final word on them — nobody’s is! So even my most arrogant pronouncement rigorous disquisition on the merits or demerits of a particular book is underwritten (if only implicitly) with a little humility. And yet I am as sure of my own liking or disliking as anyone else.

Have you ever hated a book? When you do — or when you just dislike a book intensely — do you think there’s a particular quality or feature that you’re responding to? Can you think of a time you really regretted having read something? What do you think when you discover that someone really liked or disliked a book that you had the opposite response to? Also, if you have read Let the Great World Spin, did you like it? 🙂

*One of the things I did over the last two weeks was write about 1000 words laboriously explaining this view of criticism — complete with some discussion of “coduction.” But I then decided it did not fit in the larger piece I was writing so I cut it all out. I’ve saved it in another file, just in case, but in the meantime, I’m glad I got to sneak this nice Ishiguro quotation in somewhere else!