Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The First Annual Russell Banks Literary Prize

I read a lot these days, and most of it tends to be pretty decent. Some I'll rush through a bit to get over with, but there are really very few books that I finish and think "What the hell is wrong with the person who wrote this?" The last book that provoked that reaction was Continental Drift by Russell Banks.

Mr. Banks has always had a hard on for Hemingway, and is a "man's man." Continental Drift follows the general narrative principles of the movie Crash - bad things happen to good people . . . and bad people . . . and everyone else too. The book tells the story of a poor Caribbean woman and a jaded American man and their parallel paths to warm sunny Florida. Sounds lovely right? Drift is full of murder and death and rape and more rape and men cheating on their wives, and people treating their relatives like shit and people abusing minorities and people abusing white people. Banks really, really dislikes his own characters.

At one point one of the protagonists shoots and kills a man who has come in to rob the liquor store he works at. This provides any number of internal and external aspects to which a good author could dwell upon, but of course Banks focuses on the smell of the dead man's last bodily function. He's that kind of author.

Despite stopping for a stretch midway through reading it, I did finish Drift just to confirm that yes, evil does prevail. But not even interesting evil. Everyone just suffers.

So the next 78 or so books I read afterwards were at the very least tolerable. I read a lot of good stuff, some great stuff, some eh stuff. And then I got to Anita Desai's Fasting, Feasting. The story of an sorta-upper-middle-class Indian family, the first two thirds of the book revolve around the eldest daughter and her parents, who by retirement function as a joint entity. The petty bitterness goes on ... and on ... and on. The family gets tricked out two dowries for the daughter who is clumsy, hopeless and good-natured. But because she never escapes the house she goes through life as a full-grown child, and that's how the parents treat her up to the very end. Any opportunities for her outside of marriage are squashed and yet its not that her parents are that controlling. If she had any drive she could have found away out, but she never does.

Midway through the novel the parents are out of their house for a while and the daughter finds the key to open the closet where the phone resides (yes, the phone is in a locked closet) and makes a call. After using it once and forgetting to re-lock it she is chastised like a four-year old for wasting money. (And this is a family with servants!)

The last third is devoted to the younger brother, the family's golden boy who is worked like a dog so that he can get a scholarship and study in America, which he does. When he gets there he spends his entire part of the book avoiding all other human life (including fellow Indians) like the plague. Most of the action revolves around a summer he spends boarding with an American family. They're all so one-dimensional I can some them up in a word each - sister:bulimia, brothers:jogging, dad:meat, mom:epic naivete (okay, she gets two words).

The low point of the book is the brother explaining his sister's condition in a phrase that's never been used by anyone in the US ever: "Yeah, and [she's] sicking it up -- sicking it up!" I had to stop reading for a minute. I admit, sick is a great term for vomit used regularly by the British but good lord, Desai teaches writing in the US! Out of the 3 or 4 sentences the brother gets in the book one of them is so tone def to American English it's questionable what Desai (or her editor) was thinking.

Fasting, Feasting was nominated for a Booker prize, arguably the most well-regarded book prize in the world. Baffling. Instead I choose to give Desai the first Annual Russell Banks Literary Prize for Character Abuse. Congrats!

1 comment:

Stephen said...

The sicking it up slip is certainly worth a Russell Banks.