Devourers & Unreadables

Reading & Writing

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.

15 comments on “Devourers & Unreadables”

  1. Alan G says:

    “Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell” by Susanna Clarke also suffered.

    It was turned down by a local book club as being “too intense”.

  2. Reuben says:

    It’s probably just me, but I’ve never managed to get past page 50 of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea on both the occasions I’ve tried to read it.

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    Ah yes, Tristam Shandy. When read straight through it’s…. burrrr, and read slowly episode by episode it’s consumable, but you have to pick it up and start reading it again each time. Barbar I read, but never could connect with, so thanks for making me feel good about not much liking the books.
    Just finished Wolf Hall and will probably read Bring Up the Bodies, but for me the jury is out on the first book. I hoped to be bewitched, but was more irritated by the “he, him, his” affectation and I thought the interjected descriptions of Thomas Cromwell by the other characters were too staged. Jack Reacher – not to mention Tom Cruise playing him – is impossible for me. I read one and the formula, I thought, was obvious. The thought of reading all the books, even on planes, is not winning. The Other and Harvest Home were excellent. And Clarke’s Strange and Norrell was, indeed, intense which may be the result of her having spent ten years writing it.
    Let the tossing of a foul eggs and elderly fruit my direction begin. (Looking forward to ‘ Ink’.)

  4. John Howard says:

    Dense can be good if written with the reader in mind. I found Peter Carey’s Oscar & Lucinda very difficult to finish. It now sits on the shelf, half read, waiting for me to get it down again. The Game of Thrones series I found an easy read, even with the huge cast and convoluted story line. I used admin’s trick of kindle reading for those. Having said that I got as far as book 5 and found I needed to come out of that world and let it wait for me because the new B & M had come out, new Iain M Banks, new Ian Rankin, new Terry Pratchett and the list goes on.

    Managed Strange and Norrell though.

  5. snowy says:

    Well they did it, they cast the couch bouncing munchkin. Despite the howls of protest, the numerous on-line petitions, the acres of derisive blog comments, they did it. They could have bought the story, dropped the character name and made a half decent film, but they wanted the whole cake. Ah well.

    [If any one has yet to encounter a ‘Jack Reacher’ novel. May I save you reading 400 pages, the plot, (there is only one) goes, mysterious stranger, haunted by his past ‘rocks up’ somewhere, sorts out the baddies and leaves.
    Rinse and repeat.]

  6. Chris Lancaster says:

    Harvest Home is one of my favourite novels. I first read it aged about 16, and was both beguiled and shocked by the way that the strands of life in the seemingly idyllic village are slowly plucked apart to reveal what lies beneath. If Stephen King had written Harvest Home, it would be touted as one of the greatest horror novels ever written. As it is, almost nobody seems to have heard of it. The Other has just been reprinted by the New York Review as part of its Classics series; let’s hope that Harvest Home follows suit.

  7. Vickie says:

    Daring to despise Jack Reacher! I have many otherwise- intelligent friends who swoon over both the books and the author…not for me, thanks. No meat there… (plus these same otherwise-intelligent friends oft discuss how Jack Reacher NEVER has a change of underpants…?)

    On a more sane note, I also remember reading Thomas Tryon’s books in my youth and being quite uneasy while doing so…but, once read, his books are never forgotten.

    and hahahahahahaha re “couch bouncing munchkin”

  8. snowy says:

    Vickie, I don’t want to put bad images in your mind, but JR is so rugged he probably “goes commando” at all times.

  9. Alison says:

    I admit to enjoying Jack Reacher novels, but I’ve never taken them seriously – I just enjoy the escapism. One of my favourite scenes EVER was when Jack was hoiking through some woods somewhere (as is his wont) and was approached by two slavering, man-eating guard dogs. So what did our hero do? He told them to ‘sit’ and they sat. Ah, joy.

    Unreadable books for me – Lord of the Rings is top of the list – just unbearable. And Dan Brown. Lord, how I tried. And Harry Potter – although I didn’t try as hard.

    I struggled with Wolf Hall and threw it at the wall on several occasions, but that’s one of the books I’m glad I finished, but it was touch and go for a little while. Part of that I’m sure was entirely me: I tend to fight against being told what to do and what to read – if enough people say to me “this is great you must read/see it” I immediately bury my head in the sand and refuse to have any truck with it for at least five years.

  10. J. Folgard says:

    I read David Mitchell’s “Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet” last year and really enjoyed it. Strangely, I spent a lot of time in the bookshop, thumbing through his other works (‘Cloud Atlas’ at the forefront, of course) and could never bring myself to take them home. I loved ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring Up The Bodies’, and I reread John Crowley’s ‘Little, Big’ every year, but I also like -no, love!- all those , uh, ‘new-pulp’ sort of books published by Angry Robot, Mulholland Books or Solaris… I guess it’s all about varying your diet, right?

  11. Helen Martin says:

    Strange and Norell – nope, gave up. Moby Dick – never got past the first chapter, Gormenghast – well, I’m having another go, I think, Remembrance of Things Past – nope and then there was a Turkish novel, whose author I do not remember, but the story starts out with a horseman riding through the rain. The rain keeps coming down so you can’t see properly, the rider continues on, the rain keeps coming down. The rider comes into a courtyard (where it is raining) and he stops in the middle. There is blood dripping down his leg and into his boot; the blood drips onto the cobbles, joining the rainwater…. And everything was silent all this time (except for the sound of the rain). I should be used to rain but the whole thing was so depressing I just couldn’t go further. If anyone recognizes this (I think it was a part of a trilogy, the word Iron was in the title, and there was a feud involved) and has anything positive to say about it I might try again.

  12. Alan G says:

    Oh drat! Thank you, Helen – I almost remember that and it’s going to bug me now.

    As to Gormenghast – I read them and happily got rid.

  13. admin says:

    Gormenghast repays perseverance in spades – see the BBC version first as a (very) rough guideline.

  14. glasgow1975 says:

    Ah, The Gormenghast Trilogy was the subject of my RPR for English Higher, with the premise that the castle itself is a character in it’s own right, which kind of hung me out to dry with the final novel not being set there :/
    I have to say I love David Mitchell, and Cloud Atlas was what got me into him initially.
    I’ll slog my way through anything, I don’t like to not finish a book (or clear a plate).

    I’ve read Harry Potter, Twilight, and just finished The Passage, I’ve been given books that are mid-series and will read the previous installments to fit my book present in it’s context.

    The only book I literally had to put down and never pick up again was Margaret Thatcher’s The Path To Power, my god it was just so dull, mind numbingly so.
    It was another present (from my mother) and it still sits there on my shelf, bookmark in place mocking me.
    Perhaps her other memoir about actually being in power would be more readable but I can’t bring myself to try it (also a present from my mother) after the snoozefest of the other.

  15. Vickie says:

    I bought the Gormenghast Trilogy earlier this year on Admin’s recommendation. However, although I am not a lightweight or timid reader, when it arrived, I was a(gormen)ghast at the width of the tome. Good to know I can pursue a BBC route to get kick-started (even though usually I read a book before I see its film version).

    And in another reversal of my usual pattern, after seeing Cloud Atlas, I ordered the book and am very much looking forward to reading it.

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