Saturday, 15 December 2018

Book review: November Road, Lou Berney (2018)

This hardboiled number failed to keep me interested for more than a chapter-and-a-half. Its two-dimensional characters do not engage the reader enough to keep you reading. The opening chapter is about a New Orleans underworld figure named Frank Guidry who ends up having sex – an act that is graphically described – in his luxurious apartment in that city with a young woman who approached him when he was sitting at a table in a bar. Guidry had earlier sold out an old friend of his named Mackie who had fallen out with a crime boss named Carlos.

The second chapter features a mother named Charlotte who has two small girls and a husband who drinks too much and has trouble keeping a job. Charlotte needed a lot more depth to remain coherent in the splash of events that cascade along the narrative arc in this chapter. I didn’t see why I should be interested in her, her children, or her husband, although it is clear that you are supposed to be.

There was no apparent connection between the story in which Frank appears and the one that features Charlotte. But the threads of narrative themselves are slight and lacked the sort of spark that can engage the reader and keep you turning the pages. With genre fiction often you have a problem with characterisation. The plot is pushed forward by general tropes that have a basis only in literary convention, and the nuances that normally go toward making up the people who are involved in the drama are lost in the schematic imaginings that animate the story. I found Frank merely unsavoury and Charlotte merely pitiful.

And the way that genre denies the legitimacy of literary tropes like stream-of-consciousness or complex metaphors cements it in the reader’s mind as a reactionary form of writing, as though all those newfangled gimmicks were somehow inauthentic and foreign compared to the down-home, plain-speaking simplicity of the American genre take. The early scene on the streets of New Orleans in this novel have all the dullness and predictability of a beer commercial screened during the final game of the season.

This is anti-literature, and it is so determined to erode the credibility of the mainstream that it rolls out every stale trick in the book. It’s so bland to be almost mistaken for the avant-garde, in case you were in the US and were looking for an authentic style of writing to match the impossible visual clich├ęs of filmmaker David Lynch. It’s true that on the other hand there is plenty of bad experimental fiction around the place, but this is just going too far.

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