Unputdownable

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The rather odd modifier “unputdownable” is frequently attached to a book that compulsively entertains, offers a consistently fascinating narrative, or otherwise works to subsume the reader into an almost narcotic reading state characterized by the manic flipping of pages and circles under the reader’s eyes. Scott Smith’s The Ruins, Stephen King’s The Stand, and Audrey Nieffenger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife come to mind. But so do Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (despite Franzen’s near humorless disposition and narcissistic essays, one must be honest about the work), Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke, Sarah Waters’s picaresque romps, and David Markson’s volumes. An “unputdownable” book need not be explicitly written for the crowd. While there is inherently a subjective component in what one reader finds “unputdownable,” the perhaps unfair line of demarcation I have drawn between the crowd-pleaser and the literary offering nevertheless suggests that there is such a thing as a literary page-turner. (A pal of mine once characterized Human Smoke as “potato chips” and remarked that it was very hard for him to stop reading.)

I don’t know if an “unputdownable” book is the literary equivalent of an earworm — that song that gets stuck in your head and that requires a fairly elaborate system of recurrent playback to get the terrible tune out. You play some goddam irresistible Pale Young Gentlemen song over and over until the melodic tendrils eventually detach from your lobes. For a while, you’re safe. And then inevitably, another catchy song latches onto your brain. And you must either repeat the process or go for a brisk walk or copulate with a loved one or circulate a bong amongst esteemed colleagues whereby the song is perhaps replayed yet again and the earworm sticks unfairly to other craws and the song’s sensations are even more pronounced and more troubling with the dutiful appreciation of tetrahydrocannabinol — in short, you do anything you can to get the earworm out!

But the salient difference between the earworm and the unputdownable novel is that, while the earworm occupies perhaps a three to five minute interval that may be repeated ad nauseum, the unputdownable novel involves getting to the end, whereby the obsessive tendency of experiencing the work is laid to a momentary rest. Unless one decides to repeat the journey.

The last unputdownable novel I read was Andre Dubus III’s The Garden of Last Days, which, save for a bite to eat and a few necessary conversations, I finished in one crazed sitting. I could not put the book down and I was quite alarmed by the rapid manner in which I had wolfed down this 535 page volume. While I mostly enjoyed the book, this is not to suggest that the book was without problems. A characterization of a 9/11 hijacker didn’t entirely ring true, particularly near the end. When one major story thread was resolved — one of the book’s major “unputdownable” qualities — Dubus struggled for about fifty pages before finding his momentum, only to secure the dreaded “unputdownable” pace again.

But despite my quibbles, I certainly wanted to know what was going to happen next. And I would contend that any book with an “unputdownable” quality is successful in some sense. This stance may alarm Dan Green, who has recently (and quite rightly) taken to task the “current literary culture mired in middlebrow mediocrity” and the mystifying hosannas granted to Amy Bloom’s quite putdownable novel, Away. While I do not think that a book should be judged “good” predominantly for its “unputdownable” nature, I do think that there is a rather snobbish attitude and a strange suspicion towards any book functioning as a surrogate form of oxygen. Perhaps this suspicion arises because literature is all too frequently misconstrued as some kind of cultural castor oil that’s good for you. With austere “gatekeepers” now in the practice of prescribing “GoodReads” and other prescriptive remedies that have more to do with authority and less to do with a variegated appreciation of literature, this sulfurous climate sometimes involves separating one’s sense of enjoyment from a sense of appreciation, which betrays John Updike’s first rule of reviewing:

Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

This tendency may also echo the separation of the head and the heart that T.S. Eliot observed in his 1921 essay, “The Metaphysical Poets”:

We may express the difference by the following theory: The poets of the seventeenth century, the successors of the dramatists of the sixteenth, possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience. They are simple, artificial, difficult, or fantastic, as their predecessors were; no less nor more than Dante, Guido Cavalcanti, Guinicelli, or Cino. In the seventeenth century a dissociation of sensibility set in, from which we have never recovered; and this dissociation, as is natural, was aggravated by the influence of the two most powerful poets of the century, Milton and Dryden. Each of these men performed certain poetic functions so magnificently well that the magnitude of the effect concealed the absence of others. The language went on and in some respects improved; the best verse of Collins, Gray, Johnson, and even Goldsmith satisfies some of our fastidious demands better than that of Donne or Marvell or King. But while the language became more refined, the feeling became more crude. The feeling, the sensibility, expressed in the Country Churchyard (to say nothing of Tennyson and Browning) is cruder than that in the Coy Mistress.

The second effect of the influence of Milton and Dryden followed from the first, and was therefore slow in manifestation. The sentimental age began early in the eighteenth century, and continued. The poets revolted against the ratiocinative, the descriptive; they thought and felt by fits, unbalanced; they reflected.

Is it possible that this dismaying disparity between thought and feeling has extended into the reach of “unputdownable” novels? That the shame felt in enjoying an “unputdownable” novel is no less different from a Goldsmith poem that is technically adroit but, in Eliot’s view, quite unfeeling?

One does not, of course, place the work of Stephen King in the same category as Thomas Gray. But to do so misses the point. A reader’s inability to open’s one heart in an effort to find some synthesis between heart and head certainly results in ill-thought douchery from the “important” critics. And I would like to think that an enlightened reader could find something within an “unputdownable” book that may help expand her notion of what literature can be. To thumb one’s nose up at a book that has grabbed the reader’s lapels is to thumb one’s nose up at a vital part of reading. In doing so, the reader confesses quite openly that he’s something of a bore. If literary culture is to endure, then why not consider this quality with the same attention that one considers the rest?

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