Pantheon Books, 1986 (hardcover)
Owl Publishing Company, 1998 (trade paperback)
As a reader of book reviews or “literary reviews,” as they are sometimes called, I have always wondered, most particularly with reviews having either a strong positive or negative bent, how much of the content of the review was actually based upon the book’s inherent qualities, and how much was based on external circumstances – a past relationship between the author and the reviewer; the reviewer’s reactions to the author’s earlier books; any financial connection between the reviewer and the publisher of the book; and, last but not least, the reviewer’s internal mood when reading the book in question.
Having recently suffered the onset of anxiety/panic disorder and having spent some time recovering from an emotional breakdown, the last element of that question is particularly pertinent to me. When I respond to a book now, am I responding to the book’s inherent qualities, or am I allowing whichever mood was prevalent in me during the majority of my reading (particularly when reading the final chapters) color my opinion of the book? In other words – is it the book, or is it me?
I was introduced to Francine Prose’s novels by critic D. G. Myers’ enthusiastic appraisal of her career. First I read Blue Angel: a Novel (2000), and later I read her Young Adult novel Bullyville (2007) and one of her more recent books for adults, Goldengrove: a Novel (2008). I enjoyed them all. But one of her titles which most intrigued me, as it seemed to have some cross-over appeal to my fantasy and horror interests, was and earlier work, her comic novel Bigfoot Dreams (1986).
Francine Prose writes in the genre which booksellers and publishers call “literary fiction.” “Literary fiction” as a publishing genre is different from the selection of books termed “quality fiction” or “literary works of merit” by critics such as D. G. Myers. In the view of such critics as Professor Myers, books of any publishing genre can rise to the ranks of the “literary” through the high quality of their creation and their fidelity to their author’s intentions and to the needs of that particular genre. For example, The Left Hand of Darkness, a science fiction novel by Ursula K. Le Guin, can be classified as both a “science fiction novel” and as a “literary work of merit.” Similarly, Professor Myers himself has mentioned Mario Puzo’s popular novel The Godfather as a work which both falls within the “crime genre” due to its plot and characters, and which can also be considered a “literary work of merit,” due to its deep involvement with themes of morality and family loyalty.
The publishing genre which is marketed under the title “literary fiction (also described by Professor Myers as “workshop fiction,” meaning fiction most likely midwifed in one of the nation’s hundreds of MFA Creative Writing Programs) can most often be characterized by a relative lack of emphasis on plot (what happens) and a relatively greater emphasis on character (who things happen to; who drives the story), setting (where and when the book takes place), mood (the emotional impact the words of the story are meant to induce in a reader), or theme (the “deeper” meaning of the story, beyond that which is implied by the surface plot elements; most often theme is revealed through symbolism strategically applied throughout the book). In contrast, nearly all of the other publishing genres (science fiction; fantasy; horror; mystery; romance; Westerns; spoofs or farces) tend to be driven most strongly by plot.
Bigfoot Dreams falls into the sub-genre of comic literary fiction. I estimate its length to be approximately 90,000 words. Of those 90,000 words, I would guesstimate that 15,000 words (about seventeen percent of the book) are directly concerned with incidents, or what we might call “plot elements;” things that happen to the characters, most particularly the main character, New York-based tabloid journalist Vera Perl. The other 75,000 words (or about eighty-three percent of the book) busy themselves with detailed descriptions of the characters; depictions of the main character’s and various subsidiary characters’ thoughts and opinions; carefully worked out metaphors and similes; depictions of various settings; and authorial summarization of various elements of the book’s theme, either directly or through symbolism. It would have been quite possible for Ms. Prose to have written this particular story as a 20,000 word novella and not left out any of the book’s major plot elements. But because plot was not Ms. Prose’s primary concern with this work (or at least less of a concern than it was with any of the other three of her works which I’ve read), the great majority of the book is made up of what fans of more plot-oriented genres might dismissively call “padding.”
I do not mind padding in the books I read, so long as the padding is done right — i.e.: so long as it is inherently interesting, well rendered, thought-provoking, and gives “life” and “substance” to the book, or sets “flesh” on the “bones” provided by the plot. I will admit that, having read three of Ms. Prose’s other books, all of which depend more heavily on plot than does Bigfoot Dreams, I was a little bit surprised by the absence of meaningful incidents in the book (plot elements which have a direct impact upon following plot elements). But I was not initially put off by the amount of “padding,” for I found much of that “padding” to be humorous and sometimes even profound, or delightful in the sense of recognition and truth which particular passages (having nothing whatsoever to do with the plot) could raise in my mind.
Throughout much of the first two-thirds, or 60,000 words, of this book, I considered Bigfoot Dreams to be among the better books I’ve read in recent years, certainly on par with Ms. Prose’s other books, which I had thoroughly enjoyed. However, I recall having read most of those initial 60,000 words in a relatively calm, non-anxious state; when I had found myself to be feeling anxious, I resorted to reading books which required less concentration, such as graphic novels or collections of comic book stories, where the pictures helped anchor my thoughts to the page.
However, I found my enjoyment of the final third of the book to be far less than the enjoyment I had derived from the book’s first two-thirds. I must admit, I read much of the book’s final third while in an anxious state; sometimes a highly anxious state (due to occurrences in my home, or waiting for one son’s temper tantrum to set off another son’s autistic fit).
The question I have a hard time answering is this: did my enjoyment fall off because the book’s quality and presentation fell off, or did my enjoyment decrease significantly because I simply “wasn’t in the proper frame of mind” to enjoy what is marketed as “literary fiction” (or even “comic literary fiction”)?
I must admit that the best mood to be in to enjoy the lulls and “padding” of a “literary novel” is a calm, contemplative mood. Anxiety, by its nature, scatters one’s powers of concentration; if one attempts to focus on something other than the object of one’s anxiety, one’s attention is inevitably drawn back to that source of anxiety and away from any enjoyable contemplation of the mood, theme, or setting of the book one is trying to read. Both pictures (in the case of graphic novels or comic books) or “what-comes-next?” plotting (in the case of genres which fall outside of that genre commercially described as “literary fiction”) can tend to provide an anchor for one’s mind, cementing the attention in the book being read and disallowing one’s attention from being pulled away toward the source or cause of one’s anxious mood.
So it is quite possible that my changed opinion of Bigfoot Dreams during the book’s final third was due to my changed (for the worse) mood.
However, it is also possible that my reduced enjoyment and lessened opinion of the book was due primarily to the book’s own failings in its final third. During the novel’s first two-thirds, several major conflicts are set up by the plot. Will Vera retain the affection and ultimately the custody of her ten-year-old daughter? Will she get back together again with her estranged husband, or will she simply lose her daughter to him? How will she fix the situation with the Greens, the family whose lives she has unintentionally turned upside down with one of her tabloid “imaginary stories” for This Week (she wrote that the couple’s children were selling lemonade made with water having miraculous healing powers; she thought she had made up all the details about the family, but weird synchronicity and coincidence caused her “made up” names for the family to be their actual names, which causes a stampede of health-seekers to camp out on their front lawn and demand samples of the miraculous water contained in their faucets)? How will she survive her being fired from the staff of This Week? If she ends up attending a convention of cryptobiologists to which she has been invited (due to the numerous stories she has written concerning Bigfoot), will she be able to produce a story of high-enough journalistic merit to sell it to a mainstream magazine or newspaper, thus resurrecting her dead career?
In the book’s final third, none of these conflicts receive any real resolution. Vera achieves a satori of sorts at the cryptobiologists’ convention when an elderly couple reports on their sighting of the semi-legendary sauropod Mokele-Mbembe in the African nation of Congo. But all this supposedly climactic insight (it occurs in the book’s final twenty pages) accomplishes for Vera is to make her more accepting of the probable negative outcomes of the many conflicts she finds herself embroiled in. The satori/insight, by itself, resolves absolutely nothing.
This disappointed me. Yes, I read that whole section of the book in a highly anxious state, which made concentration difficult. But I find myself persuaded that, even if I had been in the “perfect” contemplative mood to ingest the book’s final chapters, I still would have found the lack of resolution of any of the novel’s main conflicts to be frustrating and disappointing.
Maybe I just need to stick to the comic books when I’m feeling anxious?
It is a conundrum. What it the book or was it me? I suppose the only way I will ever know for certain is to re-read the novel in a perfectly calm state, all the way through… if such an extended period of calm is ever again available to me.