In my first draft of this review I said ‘Fates and Furies’ was both brilliant and boring. My editor said, “If it’s a bad book we shouldn’t run a long piece on it.” I said, “It’s not bad. I didn’t say it was bad. It’s original and terrifically inventive. It’s just got slow patches and contrived bits mixed in.” In the end she asked me to put some of my objections into a box about boredom (see below). Rereading it now I think it sounds kind of obtuse—is writing about boredom inevitably boring? But after many years of reading books for review, I did think I was entitled to a sidebar’s worth of opinion on the subject.
There’s a lot to like about ‘Fates and Furies,’ the third novel by American writer Lauren Groff. It’s an ambitious, risk-taking book based on a bold idea: that a novel about a marriage doesn’t have to be subtle and intimate, that domestic life can also be the stuff of high drama. It challenges us to think differently about love as a literary subject, while gently mocking millennials’ smugness about matrimonial success. The book’s ingenious construction and exuberant style have won it critical praise, bestseller status, and a nomination for the National Book Award.
It certainly doesn’t lack energy, especially in the first half of the book, which told from the husband’s point of view. Lancelot, known as ‘Lotto,’ is a handsome, privileged, happy-go-lucky boy who embodies the ‘Fate’ of the title. He was born in the eye of a storm, we’re told, to a father who owned a Florida spring and got rich selling bottled water—in other words, he’s a Greek river god, translated to modern America. His wife, Mathilde, had a less fortunate upbringing. Her tale (‘Fury’), which takes up the second half of the book, provides a reality check on Lotto’s self-belief, as well as a look at the night side of a marriage that seems sunny enough by day.
Scattering allusions to Shakespeare and Classical drama, Groff writes in an exuberant, mock-heroic style that is well matched to her subjects’ self-regard. She seeks to capture our longing for personal drama—the way we’re inclined to see ourselves as the hero of our own story. The rich Manhattan couple that Lotto and Mathilde become is an exaggerated version of the lives that entitled New York twenty-somethings aspire to: gaining fame in the arts, living in a hip neighborhood, eating chic foods, and having lots of (married) sex in a variety of positions. The love scenes, written in tongue-in-cheek, Bad Sex Award-worthy detail, are part of Groff’s narrative of excess.
There are terrific passages in the book, such as a sequence in which the first years of Lotto and Mathilde’s marriage are illustrated as a series of parties, each segueing to the next as the couple and their friends grow up together from 22 to 30. Groff’s metaphors are original and lively: We see a falling girl, “her skirt uppetaling like a tulip.” People watch “the creamy unfurl of a contrail in the darkling sky.” Streetlights in winter are “lollipops of bright snow.” (The translators, Maaike Bijnsdorp and Lucie Schaap, have done an excellent job.)
Groff wants to change the novel itself, and says so, in the voice of Mathilde, who sighs that she’s “tired of the old way of telling stories, all those too-worn narrative paths, the familiar plot thickets, the fat social novels. She needed something messier, sharper, something like a bomb going off.” But the book’s deliberate bombast is also its weakness. It goes on too long, in too much detail: every time Groff starts filling in the outlines of Lotto’s and Mathilde’s life together, her lively irony dulls. Long sections on Lotto’s stay in a writers’ colony, or Mathilde’s early life in the house of her sinister uncle, don’t give the novel more reality or power but only weigh it down.
Some critics, including me, have called for more ambition in contemporary fiction, especially from women writers. But ambition is not a matter of length: a novel can as easily dazzle at 100 pages as at 400. What ultimately carries the most weight is the ability to evoke a sense of place, or make us see from a new perspective, or to convey that quality that Marilynne Robinson, in her recent talk in Amsterdam, called “a sense of human consciousness and human inwardness.” You can get there by well-worn paths or new ones, understatement or overstatement. But if you can also overshoot your mark—especially if you don’t know when to stop.
The doorstop dilemma
To my anxious mind, long books seem to be everywhere, conquering the bestseller lists, reminding me at every turn that I can’t read fast enough to keep up. They come from all over the English-speaking world, from New York (Hallberg, Yanagihara) to New Zealand (Catton) to Jamaica (Marlon James). They’re being written in Norwegian (Knausgaard), Japanese (Murakami), Spanish (Bolaño).
I’m not against long books. But I find that my fellow readers and I have begun having conversations like this:
“‘The Goldfinch,’ oh, god, that section with the Ukrainian friend in Las Vegas went on forever!”
“‘Freedom’ is brilliant, you just have to skip the slow parts.”
“I liked ‘The Savage Detectives’ but I couldn’t get through it.”
I protest. I don’t want to spend my reading time being bored.
In a review, though, boredom is the great unsayable. It’s too harsh an accusation. The word is enough to torpedo a book, no matter how much I praise its other merits. And if I’m bored, am I sure it’s the book’s fault? Or have I failed to understand what the writer is trying to do? I certainly don’t want to give the impression that I want more plot; the solution to dullness is not adding prefab thrills. Besides, it’s more interesting to talk about a book’s themes and ideas. To address the issue of enjoyment in that context can come out sounding petty, like complaining about typos.
Boredom is often a problem of length: the extraneous scene, the unnecessary character, the superfluous subplot are curses of our literary age. Yet long novels seem to meet a need, too, to judge by the numbers of people who read them, or at any rate buy them. I’ve always thought their popularity was a question of status. The reader of long books believes herself to be acquiring extra merit, or simply wishes to be thought serious and literary-minded.
But in an essay called ‘Reading: The Struggle,’ British writer Tim Parks speculates that long books may be an antidote to our current state of constant distraction. The shattered attention span of the contemporary reader, he writes, may have led to books that are longer, more formulaic, and more repetitive, “to make it easier and easier, after breaks, to pick up, not a thread, but a sturdy cable.”
His advice, as a veteran reader? Don’t feel like you have to read every page, or that you have to find out how the plot gets resolved. Even a book you enjoy, he argues in ‘Why Finish Books?,’ can be better if you put it down before the end.
Trouw, November 28, 2015. Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies (New York: Riverhead, 2015), Furie en fortuin (Amsterdam: Hollands Diep, 2015).