Monday, May 3, 2010

Around the Ferris wheel

As readers of this blog may know, I don't really do reviews. Not here, at least. Still, every once in a while I feel the need to discuss a book (or an author) at length and the rambling can occasionally resemble reviews (rather in the same way that a casual mention might be considered a recommendation). I can only hope these rambles and rants will be entertaining and interesting.

The topic is Joshua Ferris, author of Then We Came to the End and The Unnamed. The reason for the discussion: Jessica of Both Eyes Book Blog and my own bewildered gut. You see, in the case of Ferris, I'm rather in the minority. The simple story is that I liked End and I wasn't thrilled about The Unnamed. The problems began when I realized just about everybody was thrilled with The Unnamed, and a lot of folk weren't so keen on End.

Ferris mentioned in an interview several months ago (hat tip, The Elegant Variation) that "Some of the bad reviews have been perplexing in their lack of sophistication". He complained (for lack of a better word) that critics could not rise about a childish, simplistic mentality and view of the book, essentially saying that they were reading it wrong. The critical review quote included in the interview just seems weird to me (and perhaps unjustly harsh), but it's still an odd, somewhat arrogant thing for an author to say. When I finished The Unnamed, I came to the conclusion that there are a few levels on which the book could be read, namely a simplistic literal level and a few deeper metaphorical ones. I also came to the conclusion that neither method of reading the book is particularly satisfying. One is overly simplified, the other overly analytical and dense. Am I reading without sophistication, or am I the clever odd duck who realizes the truth?

I know many book bloggers (and many more I can't link to) were impressed with this book. Even I enjoyed it, somewhat. I appreciated the metaphors and the depth, I liked the way I got into the characters and the difficult story, and I enjoyed most of the writing, although there were some moments of awkwardness. And I liked the subtlety of the layers, as if Ferris is teasing his readers, hoping they'll pick up on other levels (unless I'm totally off base and am inventing depth where there is none). But at the end of the day, it had too many issues - the fact that the characters never felt quite as close to home as I would have hoped (aside from main character Tim), the way the metaphors/allegories didn't sit well with reality, and the way, as a simplified story, it seemed to lack punch for the whole of the book.

Did I let myself get caught up in the book while I read it? Yes. Do I understand why people like it? Yes. Do I understand why people love it? No. Ferris wrote a good second book, but it's not spectacular. It's special, it jumps out at readers, but it did not succeed entirely at the depth Ferris so hoped for. I cannot compare it to his debut either, which I liked a great deal more, because the two books are different (bonus points for Ferris). The disappointment doesn't come from expecting another comedic-bordering-serious novel, but rather from the less than great execution of a serious Novel-with-a-capital-N.


  1. I loved, loved, loved And Then We Came to the End and only liked The Unnamed. Although I think I may have liked Unnamed more than you. I think Ferris' chief complaint about some of the reviews of Unnamed was that the reviewers never seemed able to get over the difference in style between the two books. I think one even went so far as to say that Ferris found a great style/formula in his first book and he should stick with that. Which, now that I think about it, Ferris may not have interpreted correctly. Now I realize that the reviewer was probably not saying "I can't get over that this second book is so different" he may have been saying "you obviously can't write normally, so go back to the quirky stuff that you can get away with..."

  2. You're right in saying that Ferris was arrogant in his assessment of the people who reviewed his book. You cannot claim that a reader or reviewer read the book "wrong." In reading it is entirely up to the reader to have their own relationship with the book. Writing a book is one relationship with the material, and reading it is an entirely different one. Ferris needs to come to terms with this, even if he disagrees with their interpretations of his material.

  3. I didn't like "Came to the End" at all - who wants to read about problems with Microsoft Word? I thought this one was much better. On reflection I may have praised it a little too much - its good, but not brilliant in my view

  4. I'm one of those people who really liked 'And Then We Came to the End'--I actually found it quite moving. I was surprised at so many people not enjoying it. So far I've avoided 'The Unnamed' on the possibly foolish principle that, if I liked the first book and everyone else didn't, if they now life the second book, I probably won't.

  5. Haven't read the book; don't plan to. But I always find readers/reviewers/authors "feelings" about books interesting. Particularly when they say things which tend to ignore the fact that there's a great deal of variation amongst humans.

    Point in fact, I've seen people say that such-and-such Amazon review is fake because no one could possibly love (or hate) Book-X. As if we're all of one mentality. I mean some people who read it are 60 and others are 18. Some are in a good mood and some are miserable and ALL of this effects how we understand a book.

    So... so-what if some people are simplistic and don't get a book. Their reviews are pertinent to other simplistic people. The author should be glad for those negative reviews since they'll keep other simplistic minded people from reading it until their ready for it. (1 negative review instead of 20 negative ones ;)

    Great commentary.


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