Brock Clarke, An Arsonist's Guide, etc.

I can do no better than to begin by quoting in its entirety the opening sentence of 30GreatBooks' review of Brock Clarke's splendidly titled An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England: "Bleh."

But to clarify, I understand this "Bleh" not as pure opposition, but like the muti-purpose shoulder shrug that Clarke's character Peter Le Clair uses. Maybe I mean "Meh" instead? Anyway, this is one of those novels that get critics Very Excited Indeed. I hoped that it would mean this novel really is exciting, but instead I think the critical reception needs to be thought of as a parallel to the effect on film critics of movies about making movies: they seem funnier and wiser if it looks like your own humour and knowledge. I shrug, say, "Bleh," and move on to something from which I hope for better.

Regular commenter here "Keith Talent" said he'd be interested to see what I thought of this book. His theory, based purely on browsing the Amazon reviews, was that either (a) "it's really bad," or (b) it's had enough publicity that people have bought it who didn't appreciate its literariness. Well, it's certainly not "really bad." And to my eyes, it's not the valuable kind of "literariness," so while that may be why the Amazon readers don't like the book, I don't see that as the strike against them that I normally would.

Clarke has succeeded extremely well at achieving what I take to be his purpose in writing the book: he makes fun of all sorts of literary details, from book clubs and Harry Potter to aphoristic memoirists and confessional narrative, with a narrator that has much in common with John Irving's characters. I thought that even before I read it somewhere online -- but since our book club had only a 10% completion rate in November on A Prayer for Owen Meany, I think you're safe in seeing this as not a compliment.

I proudly claim Ishtar among my favourite movies, but only because it's nearly universally seen as a terrible movie. If Ishtar got terrific press, particularly for what I think of as its very funny scenes of entertainers failing to entertain, I'd be a lot less excited about it: it's a small story, with small interest, and if film critics raved about it, they'd be sold only because it talked about what they already knew. That's the problem for me with reviews of An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England: it's a fun little novel, not much more than summer reading for people who claim not to be "summer reading people," so the review I saw that said the novel gave that reader faith in the "Great American Novel"* made my eyes roll so wildly I'm able to proof-read this post only with my peripheral vision.

Which may explain the length and foolishness of that last sentence. But it also has the same tone as Clarke's narrative voice.

I wanted to care about this book, I did, but I support this post at Alex Carnevale's This Recording:
"I want to recommend this book but I can’t. Instead I am going to recommend Brock Clarke’s next, unpublished book, which will hopefully have the same deftness of writing but take its comedy cues from a less manic source."
I recognize that Clarke is being very clever indeed in this novel, satirizing while seeming to write straight, so I need to take not seriously the narrative devices that move the novel forward: but once I do that, I fail to see much novel here. Gadgetry seduces me, it does, but temporarily. In the end I drop the reciprocating saw and go back to my dead grandfather's handsaw with the busted handle, not because it works so well (it doesn't), but because a trick eventually quits impressing me.

* - For some reason I can no longer find the referenced review....

Comments

Keith Talent said…
Thanks for posting that Richard, I think I'll remove it from my Amazon wish list on that basis, a shame really because had I not read any reviews I might have been prepared to buy a copy on the basis of the title alone - perhaps this is what people have done and have been disappointed.
richard said…
Actually, I'd suggest you check this novel out in your hand first, at a bookstore, because the voice might work for you. It didn't for me, but this book got excellent reviews, even from some places I trust. (Baby Got Books, for example.)
Keith Talent said…
OK, I don't get to a real world book shop very often but I'll give it look over next time I'm there, although from the way you describe it I don't hold out much hope.
Tim said…
I think your comment about "voice" might be the key to enjoying the book. The voice worked for me, and I enjoyed the book. I agree that some of the reviews of the book have been overblown, which has created some fairly lofty expectations.
richard said…
I agree, Tim, that voice probably is the key -- and as you no doubt saw in the comment, you were just who I was thinking about. Sam never got interesting for me as a character; he felt too much like a vehicle for Clarke's conceptual work.
tim said…
I saw the author read locally, and he said that he had struggled initially with the voice. Clarke says that he then read Saul Bellow's "Henderson the Rain King" and became inspired to write in that style.

Thanks for highlighting us as a trusted source.

Since I am the only living person to not like "The Savage Detectives," I can't begrudge others for not agreeing with me.
fiona-h said…
this is funny!!!

..."made my eyes roll so wildly I'm able to proof-read this post only with my peripheral vision."

Very good.
richard said…
Fiona, what's the emoticon for bowing a graceful acknowledgment?

Tim, I haven't read or seen The Savage Detectives yet -- but if it works out, I'll join your campaign against it. I still have The Cheese Monkeys on my desk, right beside the Junot Diaz you sent, so I'll add a surprise to the package. (I was going to use your end-of-07 list to help with the soothsaying, but I can't find it... I was sure you did one.)
tim said…
Glad that Junot found his way to you. I had forgotten all about that. Here's the link to my year end list:

http://www.babygotbooks.com/2007/12/12/my-favorites-books-of-2007-etc/

and the emergency addendum:

http://www.babygotbooks.com/2007/12/12/emergency-favorites-of-2007-addendum/
richard said…
Thanks for the links, Tim - I'll have a think about whether to add something into the package, and if so what....
30GreatBooks said…
Thanks for the shout-out.

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