Monday, December 22, 2008

Lush life by Richard Price

Lush Life by Richard Price has been very highly praised. Michiko Kakutani has it in her New York Times top ten books of the year. In the UK, it has featured heavily in the broadsheets’ reviews of the year. In particular, it is widely praised for the sharpness and veracity of its dialogue, the way it picks up the sounds of the streets.

And very true, too. The dialogue is outstandingly good. It feels like a realistic slice of New York life and I, who have never visited it, feel I have gleaned some vicarious understanding of the place. It is tight, well written, the characters realistically and consistently drawn, the plot credible and satisfactory. But does that make it a good novel? To be honest, no.

Lush life is a cold, soulless exercise in mimetics. It is a polaroid snapshot of a city and a time. It is a stark representation of the surface of daily life in America in 2008. In that, it is superb. In one hundred years people will read this novel to discover what it was like to live in the old days. Indeed, it will make a far better historical document than it does a contemporary novel. The problem is that it is shallow. In trying so hard to depict the reality, it says nothing. I guess, going back to the old show and tell debate, what I’m saying is that on a macro level this novel is all tell. There is nothing beneath the surface. There is no depth. Ultimately, there is no point. None of the characters change and I am not changed after having read it.

I feel myself teetering on my usual tightrope above Coetzee Falls here. Although I consistently decry Coetzee and his ilk for the tricksiness of their writing, the way they weave every plotline and reference into an ever tighter, ever dense mass of meaning, I do accept that, to be a genuine novel, it does have to have some meaning. And that’s what seems to me to be missing in Lush Life. It has nothing to say. It’s like a parrot, cleverly repeating the words of its master. You can admire the skill of its mimicry, but you aren’t persuaded to engage it in conversation.

It actually puts me in mind of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street. Admittedly, the connection may not be immediately obvious: Lush Life is, as I say, all in the dialogue, while Main Street is famous mainly for its lengthy descriptive passages. But, although they are approaching it in different ways, each author is straining primarily for verisimilitude. Each is trying to portray a precise moment, evoke a time and a place. And each, to my mind, takes the process of exactitude too far. And so, while in Lush Life we have endless witty and acute conversations between the characters which combine to change precisely nothing, in Main Street we have description after description which, again, reveals what it was like to live in 1910s America but which does nothing to peer into the souls of the people who inhabited it. Take this passage, for example:

Under the rolling clouds of the prairie a moving mass of steel. An irritable clank and rattle beneath a prolonged roar. The sharp scent of oranges cutting the soggy smell of unbathed people and ancient baggage.

Towns as planless as a scattering of pasteboard boxes on an attic floor. The stretch of faded gold stubble broken only by clumps of willows encircling white houses and red barns.

No. 7, the way train, grumbling through Minnesota, imperceptibly climbing the giant tableland that slopes in a thousand-mile rise from hot Mississippi bottoms to the Rockies.

It is September, hot, very dusty.

Now that is lovely. The first sentence in particular captures that eternal American conflict between the pioneering spirit and the march of progress. It says so much in so little. You immediately understand time and place, you know that this is a society undergoing the growing pains of industrial expansion and you sense the ambivalence of the author and, by definition, American society in general. It is a superb piece of writing.

But then it goes on, for page after page, describing in ever denser detail the occupants of the train carriage and the landscape through which they are travelling. Every description is, in itself, interesting enough, but the layering of more and more detail becomes, in the end, self-defeating: the reader stops paying attention. And this is what I found with Lush Life too: lots and lots of dialogue, but in the end it goes nowhere and I find I have stopped listening. Ultimately, I realise, it has nothing interesting to say. A mirror only reflects; it does not allow for deeper understanding. It is akin to those austere Dutch paintings of the sixteenth century – portraits of large groups of men, all looking sombre and worthy: wonderful historic records, but not especially appealing, and they don’t linger in the memory. Compare them to Vermeer or Fabricius or Steen, who teased us with stories untold – a woman reading a letter, a glimpse of another world through an open doorway – and challenged us to enter into their world, the reader as participant. Richard Price, in Lush Life, seems to me to care so little about his characters that he is barely participating in the story himself, far less inviting the reader to do so.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Sinclair Lewis said: America most of us — not readers alone, but even writers — are still afraid of any literature which is not a glorification of everything American, a glorification of our faults as well as our virtues.

It strikes me that this is even more telling of American writers today than it was in 1930, and that the ‘glorification of faults’ is becoming something of a national pastime. It is a curiosity of the age that America gives the impression of being brashly, even arrogantly self-confident while, at the same time, demonstrating a curious but destructive lack of love for itself. I’m not talking about Rousseau’s amour-propre, a sense of vanity which America demonstrates in spades, but amour de soi, that tender self-love which is, or should be, innate and which informs humanity’s dealings with itself. I read novels like Lush Life and wonder where that love has gone.


Alex Keegan said...

Not read the book, Tom, but good for the heretical comments.

I just read a much-vaunted short posted at BC that "felt like" very very good but when examined was US MFA BS.

So "vaunted" will I guess the story is that it would do me no good to criticise it publicly, as my ill-words will be "jealousy" or some such.

It's not common that a book or poem or story tries to major on one good element and too many readers forget that ALL the elements need to at least meet par.


Tom Conoboy said...

Yes indeed, it's not always easy to go against the accepted wisdom. Some writers get reputations and it becomes difficult to say anything critical against them. Ian McEwan is one. I seem to recall you were very critical of his short story collection and I didn't agree with you, but I do now. It was tricksy, with liberal use of shock tactics to make an impact. He's been doing it ever since - he loves his big set pieces. And it's now virtually impossible to criticise him, even for On chesil Beach, which is an exercise in boredom.