The Tiresomeness of the Hedgehog: Some Books on Tape

Lately I find I can’t read anything, or maybe I can’t find anything worth reading, I’m not sure. I get halfway through a book, or less than halfway, a third of the way, a quarter, a chapter, three pages, two paragraphs—and I can’t go on. It’s not just a matter of the effort required to read a book. Books on tape have also failed me—or I’ve failed them. I’m not the type who reads books on tape, at least I never thought of myself as the type. But should you find yourself driving regularly nine hours back and forth from Milledgeville, Georgia, to Carbondale, Illinois, then, you, too, may be tempted to listen to one.

The first book I tried was The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery (translated from the French by Alison Anderson). The book was recommended to me by someone who shall remain unnamed and to whom I’d expressed my desire to listen to something on tape. “Not some potboiler, airport novel. Something literary. Something really interesting and good. And well-written,” I’d said. This book came immediately to this person’s mind. “A bestseller,” he told me. That should have put me on guard. I never trust bestsellers. Well, all right. I decided to give it a try.

Halfway through the third disc I was cursing my CD console. I wanted to drive off the highway, that’s how angry the thing made me. Oh, Barbery can write, no question about that. But in this book at least she had little if any story to tell, and only two developed characters to speak of, an aging apartment building concierge who conceals the fact that she’s an autodidact with a deeply cultivated knowledge of philosophy, among other things, and a twelve year-old girl who has a coincidental interest in philosophy. The story, albeit very slight, is told in alternating chapters through each of these annoying characters.

I can’t tell you how boring it is to read this book; I can only tell you that to listen to it read, even at eighty miles per hour, is an exquisite form of torture. That the actors charged with reading it accentuate both characters’ pomposity makes it worse. As usual when I find myself angered by a book, I had my alter-ego write an Amazon review. Here is what “Andrew” wrote:

A very short story padded with pseudo-philosophy, whose narration, though split between a “precocious” twelve year-old girl and a widowed concierge, merges into a seamless monologue of pretentiousness. Amazing what one gets away with in the name of “literary” fiction! The second star is for talent. Barbery has plenty; I’ll come back for her next book. But reading this is like listening to a spoiled child play Fur Elise over and over again.

Two stars.

There’s a used-book store in Carbondale where you can trade in your used books on tape for other used ones (plus a smaller fee). There, I found Kent Haruf’s Eventide. Haruf’s previous book, his first novel, Plainsong, had been a bestseller. Haruf is a local writer, that is, a writer with some roots in the Midwest. I think he may have had something to do with Southern Illinois University, where Jung persues her MFA (and the reason why I drive to Carbondale regularly). Haruf has worked on chicken farms, hospitals and construction sites; he taught English in the Peace Corps. He seems to know a good deal about cattle ranchers. Anyway he seems like a nice guy.

And he writes well, or he can write well. As I settled in for the long ride home—having merged with the traffic heading south on Interstate 57–I hit the “play” button on my CD console, and let Haruf’s words and his world (very well read by actor George Hearn) take charge. The first paragraph is fine:

They came up from the horse barn in the slanted light of early morning. The McPherson brothers, Harold and Raymond. Old men approaching an old house at the end of summer. They came on across the gravel drive past the pickup and the car parked at the hogwire fencing and came one after the other through the wire gate. At the porch they scraped their boots on the saw blade sunken in the dirt, the ground packed and shiny around it from long use and mixed with barnlot manure, and walked up the plank steps onto the screened porch and entered the kitchen where the nineteen-year-old Victoria Roubideaux sat at the pinewood table feeding oatmeal to her little daughter.

Granted, this owes a bit too much to Hemingway, and that last run on sentence reads like a barrel rolling down a hill. But there’s a sureness of tone and a strong sense of place and of these people, in whom the author feels deeply invested, at first, and in whom he soon invested his reader—or listener.

But then, less than halfway through the book, author and listener both stopped giving a damn. Haruf’s book doesn’t fall apart so much as it winds on and on just like that last sentence, but for whole chapters . . . well, here’s “Andrew’s” take (“Prairie Snooze”):

Haruf’s novel which starts out so well splutters and dies less than midway through and glib violence doesn’t rescue it. Stock characters drift through pointless scenes like ghosts through a haunted house, and I wondered if Haruf gave a damn.

The five-star reviews astonish: to earn fewer stars from his fans Haruf would (apparently) have had to leave the book’s latter 200 pages blank, or mooned them directly. Either performance would have improved over the clichéd yawn we’re treated to instead.

If this review seems resentful, it is. The novel’s first chapters are damned good, the characters real and moving (the cattle auction scene is great). Then to see it all turn to cowplop. Haruf, editor, agent: feel shame for foisting such shoddiness on readers.

Why do so many novels start out so well and end badly? Worse: why do they start out well and turn bad less than halfway through? Are the same agents and editors I castigate above guilty of not reading past the first 50 pages? Do they calculate that their publishers and readers won’t read further, and hence see no reason to fret over the rest of a book’s quality? I’m reminded of those Hollywood sets, where the fronts of buildings look so real you’d never guess they were hollow inside. Or of the dickies people used to wear instead of real shirts under their tuxedos. Have a strong concept, write a good opening chapter or two, and let the cover designer and marketing folks worry about the rest.

Life of Pi was my third disappointment. Of this bestselling melange of magic realist survival tale and philosophical treatise I had low expectations, since bestsellers have never failed to bore me. But this book starts out wonderfully. My God, I thought, having read the first fifteen or so pages, I must now disembowel myself—in despair of never writing so well myself.

I went [to the municipal pool] with him three times a week throughout my childhood, a Monday, Wednesday, Friday early morning ritual with the clockwork regularity of a good front-crawl stroke. I have vivid memories of this dignified old man stripping down to nakedness next to me, his body slowly emerging as he neatly disposed of each item of clothing, decency being salvaged at the very end by a slight turning away and a magnificent pair of imported athletic bathing trunks. he stood straight and he was ready. It had an epic simplicity. Swimming instruction, which in time became swimming practice, was grueling, but there was the deep pleasure of doing a dtroke with increasing ease and speed, over and over, till hypnosis practically, the water turning from molten lead to liquid light.

This is good prose: limpid, without bumps or spurs. And there are scenes in the book’s first hundred pages that are masterpieces of philosophical slapstick, like the one where a pandit, a priest, and an imam each try to sell his god to the protagonist, who insists on worshiping all three.

Then the protagonist’s zookeeper father must relocate his zoo. They and the menagerie board a tramp steamer bound for Columbia. It sinks. The protagonist finds himself at sea in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. And this outrageous premise occasions a hundred pages of excruciatingly dull prose. At least aboard his lifeboat Pi has cans of water to drink! But the reader’s thirst for the good novel he’d started is never satisfied—or hasn’t been up to page 200. That’s the page on which I left the book splayed open on the bathroom shelf and there it has remained.*

(*In fact I must now amend this post, for I have picked up the book again and begun reading where I left off, in part because I suspected my judgment as harsh, premature, and made perhaps in haste and in a dispeptic mood. Anyway I am reading again. And what is most interesting, I’ve noted since, is that while reading in bed–which is where I do much of my reading–I am joined by an orange and black striped calico cat, a stray from the neighborhood who visits frequently and is in the habit lately of spending evenings here with me, sharing my bed, which is quite all right with me since she is quite clean and well-behaved. But the interesting thin is this: that for reasons to do with my insomnia and general neurotic condition I have for a long time now been in the habit while falling asleep of pretending that whatever bed I am in is actually a boat adrift at sea—a life boat, as a matter of fact. And so here I find myself reading a story about a man adrift in a lifeboat at sea with a Bengal tiger in it; and I awake from fitful sleep with the reading lamp still burning and Life of Pi fallen either onto the bed next to me or onto the floor and there, a few feet away, still asleep at the foot of the bed, is my own Bengal tiger—my own “Richard Parker.” And so the book has acquired this extra layer of authenticity for me, a personal authenticity having nothing really to do with the book’s intrinsic virtues, only with coincidence. All the same, I’m disposed to revisit my earlier judgement and say that it’s not such a boring book. But wait: tomorrow or the next day or the one after that I may have changed my mind yet again: stay tuned.)

Having given up on literary novels, again on a friend’s recommendation I tried one of those Dick Francis horse racing detective stories. I forget the title. It, too, started out well. In fact I was all set to say that these damned literary authors should all go to hell—or take lessons from guys like Francis on how to tell a real story. But alas, his book, too, breaks down and turns both boring and stupid less than halfway through, to where I felt I would die of boredom if I listened to any more (in fact and by a complete coincidence the author himself died while I was reading his book; I hope my sentiments had nothing to do with it).

Now I’m at a loss. On the one hand, I don’t relish the thought of another bad book on tape; but then neither do I relish the thought of another nine hour drive with nothing at all to amuse me. I would ask for your recommendations, but I won’t, since I may end up hating them, too, and then we’ll both think less of each other. No, from now on I think I’ll just stick to the radio.

About Peter Selgin

Peter Selgin is the author of Drowning Lessons, winner of the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction, Life Goes to the Movies, a novel, two books on the craft of fiction, and several children’s books. His memoir, Confessions of a Left-Handed Man, was short-listed for the William Saroyan International Prize. His latest novel, The Water Master, won the William Faulkner Society Prize, selected by Random House Senior Editor Will Murphy. His work has won the Missouri Review Editors’ Prize, the Dana Award, six Best American Essay notable essay citations, and two selections for the Best American series. A second memoir, The Inventors, is forthcoming from Hawthorne Books in April of 2016. He teaches at Antioch University’s MFA program and is Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia College & State University.
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