March 12, 2009

The Nature of Bland

Whenever I'm asked "what's your favorite novel?" or "What's the best novel you've read?" I hem and haw, explain that it's impossible to name just one best novel, that "favorite" is not the same as "best", that it changes by my mood, and finally I name a dozen books or so. Hours later I might still ponder the question, scold myself for failing to remember a title, and in extreme cases even call the innocent questioner in the middle of the night to revise my list.

However, if anyone ever asks me "What's the worst novel you've ever read?" I have one answer and one answer only - The Nature of Blood, by Caryl Phillips. Though more than two years have passed since I was forced to read it for a course in grad school, it still stands in my mind as the single worst published work I have ever read (since I got a degree in creative writing I've also read a lot of bad unpublished works, but I trust most of them will stay that way). Worse still, I had to write a detailed critique of the book, which naturally came out as pure vitriol. Of course, rereading it now (the critique, not the book) it's also a little amusing to see how angry I was at the damn thing, so here is my full analysis for your benefit (my favorite parts are in bold):

In The Nature of Blood, Caryl Phillips employs the postmodern technique of narrative fragmentation and juxtaposition to draw links between several stories of the Jewish experience in Europe and Palestine/Israel at three different historical points. Othello is also thrown into the mix, his addition apparently justified by his brief incursion into the Jewish ghetto in Venice and, less directly, by the oversimplifying parallels that can be drawn between his standing in society, and the situation of European Jewry.

The narrative techniques are varied, ranging from straightforward first and third person stories, to historical sketches, encyclopedia entries, dreams, and psychological profiles. The first person narrators are generally direct and reliable, presenting precisely what they experience and witness, including hallucinations and dreams, with few slippages. The third person narrator (or narrators) is usually distant, offering a factual account of the events, except in two spots (180 and 182) where he seems to address Othello directly, employing terms from modern American culture.

These various texts, modes of storytelling, and literary devices are combined to form a strictly postmodern novel, and when taken all together they should amount to an artifact devoid of a single meaning. This is not a judgment of value, but rather a logical conclusion. Postmodernism, as a revolt against authority and significance must also be a revolt against traditional interpretations and meanings. Thus, a novel that adopts the tools of postmodernism should also adopt its message of polysemy. In the era after the grand narratives have collapsed and everything is allowed, open to interpretation, questionable, transposable, ambiguous, and polysexual, a writer cannot expect his audience to walk away with a single shining message.

In The Nature of Blood, however, there is a profound lack of these multiple layers and shades of meanings. Phillips does not challenge any of our ideals or question any of the notions we live by. His positioning of diverse texts side by side implies an attempt to form super-subtle links between characters, situations and cultures. In my mind, however, these links never materialized, or else could only be constructed by overlooking major discrepancies, or by limiting our interpretations to broad, unsophisticated statements.

The only message conveyed in this book is a trivial amalgamation of politically correct clichés. There is nothing new here, nothing that we have not already heard and agreed upon a million times. There is nothing bold in speaking out against the Holocaust, or stating that blood libels are wrong. No intelligent being, at this day and age, would condone racism, bigotry, or discrimination. The retelling of Othello’s story adds no insight to the original text, and the bookend stories about Uncle Stephen and Malka are so plain and pointless they only serve to weaken to overall themes of the novel.

The main issue I had with this novel, however, is not its lack of insight, but rather the appalling shoddiness with which it was written and constructed. The sheer volume of literary offences Phillips commits is staggering. The Holocaust narratives, for example, were such an offensive combination of historical clichés and Anne Frank styled Pastiche that I half-expected Roberto Benigni to waltz through at some point, shouting “Buon Giorno, Principessa” at the top of his voice. There is nothing in Eva’s bland story to makes it unique, interesting, or insightful and the author’s significant distance from the events does not lead him to offer a fresh perspective of them. This seems to be simply an exploitation of the Holocaust to lend depth and gravitas to this insipid literary text. This abuse of historical material is aggravated by the relatively minor offences it is equated to in the parallel stories of Othello and Malka.

The writing is often sloppy and flat, with lengthy descriptions of scenery and historical tidbits that do not reveal character or further the plot, such as it is. Othello’s rich Shakespearean tongue is torn out of his head and replaced with the chatterbox of a ditzy tourist. Early on in his narrative he reaches a profound conclusion, worthy of any vacationing ninth grader, that “much of Venice was quite different from the pretty city of the watercolors”(109). Then, in drawn-out paragraphs he tells us excitedly about how his attendant teaches him about gondolas (110-111), his lady friend teaches him about courtship (112-114), and his language teacher teaches him about politics (116). This narrative technique is so transparent and heavy-handed it’s almost comical.

I often found myself wondering who the target audience of this book is. Who would wade through forty pages of adjective-heavy descriptions delivered by an infuriatingly obtuse narrator? (I believe the phrase “lapping waves” appeared more than a few times in Othello’s languorous descriptions). Who would be interested in encyclopedic passages about Jewish communities of the 15th century, and still benefit, or enjoy, such a preschool-level line as: “In front of each person was a large illustrated Hebrew book of stories, which these Jews read from right to left”(57)?

Perhaps, as my friends and family often tell me, the problem lies with me. When I read a novel I expect an aesthetic experience, not a dry history lesson. When I read a Holocaust narrative I seek new insights, not rehashed clichés. When I read a work referring to one of Shakespeare’s plays I expect it to enhance my enjoyment of the original, not sour it. In historical fiction, a loathsome term, I expect to find an imaginative understanding of the historical details, not half-baked political agendas or hackneyed sermons. And finally, in all forms of fiction, I want to get close to the fictional individuals rather than hear descriptions of their environments or customs. The Nature of Blood is a wonderful example of everything a postmodern novel should not be – technique has displaced meaning, information misplaced the story and, the most grievous of offenses, research has replaced empathy.

Phillips, Caryl. The Nature of Blood. New York: Vintage, 1997.