[SPOILER ALERT: This post contains pretty big spoilers about This Bright River and Swamplandia, and lesser spoilers about The Sisters Brothers.]
A friend just pointed out Janet Maslin’s review of This Bright River, from yesterday’s NYT. Maslin and I actually agree on a lot about this book (my review here). All in all, I think she was perhaps a bit harsh, but fair.
Except for this line: “We meet Ben, a onetime rich kid and stoner, who sustains some kind of head injury in the novel’s prologue. That knock on the head accounts for some of the vague, so-what nature of Ben’s perceptions about himself and others.”
Uhhhhh, wrong. The prologue shows two unnamed men drinking at a bar. One offers some pot to the other, and when they go out to the parking lot, the pot-offerer says, “‘I’m sorry about this. I really am, dude. I’m actually going to kill you now.’ … Then the guy hits him over the head with whatever he’s got in his hand.” And he wakes up in a coffin.
That was not “some kind of head injury” and Ben was not there. At the end of the book, it’s revealed that the pot-offerer was Ben’s cousin, Wayne. Wayne thought Ben’s sister had been raped by the other guy at the bar, so he goes there, hits him over the head, and buries him alive.
The fact that Maslin completely misread this scene, to me, discredits her entire review, especially since her main argument is that This Bright River doesn’t hold together—no book will hold together if you don’t pay attention.
This happens too often in book reviews, although rarely as objectively and demonstrably as it happened here. Usually what you see could more charitably be called a misinterpretation, as opposed to Maslin’s blatant misreading.
For instance, when Swamplandia! came out last year, reviewers were fond of saying things like “the novel is a wild ride … [full of] high comedy” as Emma Donoghue did.
In fact, Swamplandia! follows a trio of effectively orphaned children who discover that the world is a brutal, unmerciful place. When the brother goes off to save the family alligator park, he doesn’t even come close, instead finding misery at a minimum-wage job and discovering that his absentee father is a sell-out and a drunk. When one sister thinks she falls in love with a ghost, she goes missing in a swamp and nearly dies, because there’s no such thing as ghosts (and, you might infer, no such thing as love). When the other daughter finds a traveling “bird-man” who scares vultures away, she likes him and hires him to help her find her lost sister—then he rapes her and leaves her for dead.
That’s a wild ride full of high comedy the way a crashing plane is. Maslin herself called Swamplandia! a “deeply haunted” book, which is better, but still doesn’t get the job done, considering there is a ghost in the book. (My review is here, for the sake of fairness.)
In the Guardian last year, Pulitzer prize-winning writer Jane Smiley eviscerated The Sisters Brothers, a Booker prize nominee, the winner of this year’s Tournament of Books, and my favorite book of 2011. She’s entitled to her opinion, but she alleges that the main character “Eli has never developed his sensibility beyond the mental age of about 13.” Wrong. His emotional intelligence is entirely caddywhompus because he kills people for a living and hates it, but he is not mentally challenged.
Smiley doesn’t bother to interpret or read into the book at all—she takes the words of an unreliable narrator as the whole truth and nothing but—and so she misses the nuance and depth that so many others have seen. (I might or might not be the irate commenter on Smiley’s review.)
You could draw a line between Maslin’s mistake and Donoghue’s/Smiley’s, but I would tend to group them all together. All three reviews contain errors that
go beyond a questionable interpretation of a book’s events—these reviewers have failed at their job.
These are mistakes, pure and simple, and the nature of book reviewing makes them hard to catch. I don’t imagine many book review editors fact check their reviews. The NYT obviously doesn’t.
What can we do about this? Probably nothing, except to bring it up and take reviewers to task when they do it. And we can downgrade Janet Maslin a couple of pegs in the ranks of the country’s best book reviewers.