There have always been unreadable books and I never feel guilty for abandoning them. As a kid I remember Barbar The Elephant, Gallic tales perversely translated and printed in joined-up handwriting by publishers who clearly wanted you to become annoyed with the French at an early age. Tristram Shandy if the obvious contender for the deliberately perverse read, but there’s a brilliant comic book version of it by Martin Rowson that’s no more readable than the original, but nicer looking.
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas defeated me, as have all of his books except ‘Cloud Nine’, but I think his writing is wonderful, just incredibly dense – this is where the Kindle does seem to help lighten the load of dauntingly large books. Mantel’s ‘Bring Up The Bodies’, with its vast cast of historical characters, should have proven impossible but I was completely bewitched by it, and took the more lightweight e-version everywhere I went for a fortnight.
At a dinner party last night I admitted struggling with Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books, to my host’s horror – he even buys Reacher airport knock-offs to recapture the thrills in diluted form. I don’t deny they’re well written, but I struggle to take the hero seriously.
What makes a book hard to read? Sometimes distancing techniques used by writers (as in the case of Cloud Atlas) can knock you back, and also there’s incompetent writing – I remember a couple of US supernatural doorstops supposedly set in a London that felt more like California (in one, early Victorians were using ten pence pieces) but there’s also an indefinable ability some authors have of drawing you in. Thomas Tryon, whom I’ve mentioned here before, had that.
Tryon played the lead in cult hit ‘I Married A Monster From Outer Space’ and almost starred opposite Monroe in ‘Something’s Got To Give’, until she was fired from the film. Bored with acting (and humiliated by Otto Preminger) he thought he’d write, and was damned good at that too. His novels included civil war sagas, and were popular successes. Three were filmed.
Tryon’s first novel, ‘The Other’, was about a Russian grandmother teaching a dangerous game to two brothers, one gifted, one harmful. The narrative contains a blindsiding mid-tale twist, and was subsequently filmed.
The next, ‘Harvest Home’, occupied Wicker Man territory. A family relocates to a perfect American town, but the idyllic setting proves deceptive. They have come here to enjoy the nation’s old ways and get exactly what they wish for – at a price. Their dilemma is presented so appealingly that the reader cannot help but empathise, and is lured into the same nightmarish trap. A faithful but flat television version appeared with Bette Davis.
Tryon specialised in strong female characters, never more so than in ‘Lady’, a sweeping novel about the grand-dame who lightly rules her town between the wars, and who hides a lifelong secret that pinpoints America’s damaging attitude toward miscegenation. Two portmanteau novels, interlinked tales concerning Hollywood players and their efforts to survive public taste and changing times, display insider’s knowledge. One section of the first, ‘Fedora’, became the basis for a late Billy Wilder film.
His story, along with 99 others, can be found in ‘Invisible Ink’, out this week, which I hope to bring out annually as a guide to great writing that through no fault of its own has fallen by the wayside of popular taste.