One-Minute Book Reviews

April 30, 2007

Pulitzer Prize Reality Check #2: 2007 Fiction Finalist, Alice McDermott’s ‘After This’ (Books I Didn’t Finish)

Filed under: Book Awards,Book Awards Reality Check,Books I Didn't Finish,Pulitzer Prizes — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:29 am

This is the second in an occasional series of posts on whether the winners and finalists for the Pulitzer Prizes and other major book awards deserved their honors.

Title: After This. By Alice McDermott. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 279 pp., $24. Paperback to be published by Dial Press in September 2007.

What it is: McDermott’s latest novel about Irish-Americans in postwar New York City and Long Island.

A finalist for … the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, won by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. McDermott was also a Pulitzer finalist for At Weddings and Wakes and Charming Billy, winner of a National Book Award.

How much I read: About 115 pages, more than a third of the book.

Why I stopped reading: McDermott’s writing has acquired a paunch.

Was this one of those book awards that made you wonder if the judges were on Class B controlled substances? Or if the publisher had pornographic videos of all of them? No, but it makes you wonder if someone had a thumb on the scales of cosmic justice, because what I read of After This was much less worthy of its finalist status than Charming Billy was.

Comments: Alice McDermott has reached a treacherous point in her career. She’s begun to strip-mine her material and to pad what she’s said in earlier books instead of doing work that’s fresh and surprising. Maeve, the first person we meet in Charming Billy had been “a plain girl approaching thirty with … no prospects.” Mary, the first person we meet in After This, is “thirty, with no husband in sight” and “not what you’d call a good-looking woman.” This repetition of circumstance isn’t a problem in itself, because great writers – from Jane Austen to John Cheever – have returned repeatedly to characters who are similarly situated. The problem is that McDermott has so little new to say that she has strain for effect. Mary marries John Keane for no apparent reason beyond a desire to escape her loneliness and fulfill her sexual desires. From the wedding McDermott fast-forwards to a day after the birth of three of their children, when the couple’s son Michael looks at his father “as if he were an utter stranger.” A dozen pages later, John Keane feels “with utter certainty” that something bad will happen and, later in the same paragraph, senses the “utter darkness” around him. There’s no reason for the repetitive language; it’s just flab of a sort that occurs on nearly every page, sometimes in sentences that keep doubling back on themselves until you need a compass to navigate them. McDermott also skimps on dialogue and relies on exposition to drive the novel, which results in a Jamesian mannerism that doesn’t suit anybody but Henry James (and sometimes not even him). In Charming Billy she showed that she knows better, so it’s hard to fathom why she’s let her writing go as she has in After This.

Best line: “It benefited a child, she thought, to be forgotten once in a while.”

Worst line: This 305-word jawbreaker: “If she kept her back straight and her ankles crossed beneath her chair and her hands over the keys, if her fingers struck them quickly and rhythmically and the sound of all their industry filled the room, and if she remembered to take some pleasure in it, the sound, the industry, the feel of Pauline’s eyes on her back, even after Pauline had gotten up to take dictation in one of the offices, if she found some pleasure in the changing light as the afternoon moved forward, in the fading perfumes of the other girls as they passed her desk, in the good smell of the paper, the carbon, the old building itself, then time would pass and when she stood to cover her typewriter and to run another tissue over the surface of her desk, to smile apologetically at Pauline already in her hat and coat and waiting like the schoolgirl she surely must once have been for the stroke of five (adding, in her hissed stage whisper, ‘This isn’t the first time they’ve been seen together like that’), she could tell herself another day gone and not so bad at that and what else to do when you’re a single girl of thirty still at home, the war over and no prospects in sight, your body not meant for mortal sin or a man’s attention or childbearing, either, it would seem, what to do but accept it and go on – a walk to the subway, the air chilled even further without the sun but the wind not nearly so bad as it was, and the ten-top ride among the crowd of other office workers, and then the walk home, spears of crocus and daffodil rising out of the hard dirt around the caged trees and along the brick foundations, not so bad.”

Recommended? Only if you’re willing to slog through many sentences like the one quoted above. Charming Billy is a much better introduction to McDermott’s work.

Published: September 2006

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

4 Comments

  1. McDermott sounds like she’s running out of gas! I read a critique a while back by Sven Birkerts. It’s about the old timers running out of gas. (Google ‘Roth, Mailer, Bellow Running out of Gas’) Although they are great writers, I had to agree with the critique.

    I don’t think she’s in that age category just yet…but it sounds like she needs to fill her creative well somewhere else. And those run on sentences …they are tiring…it’s as if I just heard *another* ‘The geese where flying like a V’ metaphor. It was cool once…but now it’s old and tired.

    It’s time to stop and find another viewpoint. She needs something to earn the readership again.

    P

    Comment by P — April 30, 2007 @ 3:54 pm

  2. “Running out of gas” was my thought, too. McDermott is at least a couple of decades younger than Roth and Mailer. But she’s written six novels on related themes, and that would be a lot for anybody. Even Mailer tried to mix it up more in his career by writing not just novels but the highly stylized reporting he did for “Armies of the Night.” I think that McDermott has to play her cards more carefully if she wants to avoid losing readers. Won’t it be interesting to see what she does next?

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — April 30, 2007 @ 4:46 pm

  3. I agree that length of a sentence has nothing to do with whether it is a run-sentence (and that the Updike sentence you quoted is not a run-on and that some of his longer sentences are brilliant).

    But I don’t feel I’m “betraying” anybody by not finishing a book. It would be different if the headline didn’t make clear I had failed to finish a book and I ambushed you with that fact after you’d read the review. But when I don’t finish a book, I always say so in the headline to give you a choice to skip it.

    If I stuck with some books by big-name authors like McDermott, I might be betraying less well-known authors who need the attention more (by taking time away from their books).

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 24, 2009 @ 10:03 pm

  4. I have no problem with dissuading readers from picking up a book for themselves. Most of the books in the “Books I Didn’t Finish” series (including the Diaz and McDermott novels you mentioned) have received oceanic hype elsewhere, often written by people who have not read any of them but who have, for example, simply read a review or gone to a book party. I, at least, am giving these books a fair chance and telling readers what is actually in the book (as opposed to what I’ve “heard”), based on what I’ve read.

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — June 25, 2009 @ 9:25 am


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