Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Raging Writers

I am an incredibly spiteful person.  This might come as a shock (or not), but I'm stubborn.  Blame the Scot in me.

Thanks to this stubbornness, I've rage begun books several times.  I read The Fountainhead in high school just to beat one of my friends.  I knew full well that I hated the World According to Ayn Rand, but my friend Jeff was a true believer in Randism.  I read the book, finished it before him, and delighted in not only ruining plot points but also in ripping apart their flawed logic.

So yes.  I'm the most kind and benevolent person ever, obviously.

In college, I had to read Persuasion not once, but twice.  The first time I was still young and trying to do well in school.  The second time I had to read it because it was the only book we read all semester.  Really.  I've said it before, but I'll say it again--Persuasion is neither weighty nor interesting enough to study for four months straight.

Clearly, I'm no stranger to the unwilling reading.  I've had the experience of reading through sweat and willpower, forcing my way through a book despite repeated throwings of it across the room (aside from the mentioned offenders, Paradise and Herland can join this club).  But last night, for the first time I can remember, I rage quit a book.  I got through the first forty pages, I overlooked several instances of concern, but after a while it was just not worth my time.  So, officially entering the Not Worth My Brain Space arena, I present Hillary Jordan and her novel, When She Woke.

This book violated several of my cardinal sins.  It was unoriginal.  The writing was eye-gougingly awful.  She had no faith in her readers to make connections.  And it's dystopian, anti-religious themes were handled so overtly that they made a mockery of the genre.

When She Woke reads like a futuristic The Scarlet Letter.  Instead of having a baby out of wedlock, Hannah Pryce has an abortion.  In doing such, she commits the crimes of murder and premarital sex, actions that are among the highest of misdemeanors in a world where church and state have become synonymous.  Her punishment is having her skin dyed red, marking her as an abortionist murderer in an intolerant religious community.  She struggles to adjust to her new life, all the while pining after the married father of her child, pastor Aiden Dale.

First off, I do love a nice literary homage.  But I do not love being bludgeoned with a reference.  Doesn't Hannah Pryce look and sound a lot like Hester Prynne?  And Aiden Dale...hmm, that couldn't be a nod to Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, now could it?  Listen.  I'm all for being inspired by another work, and I'm all for wanting to pay tribute to it.  But there comes a point where laziness comes into play, and if a writer is so overtly naming characters and building situations around another novel, at some point they lose control  over their own writing.  The characters aren't theirs, and so the power the writer has over them is limited, making the text feel false and forced.

And a story that is limited by another work gets tedious.  Jordan was doomed from the start.  But it's as if she knew that she couldn't write a nuanced work, so she just threw up her hands and went for the most overt and simplistic storytelling possible.  Why let a reader guess character motivation when it can be bludgeoned over their head?  And let's not stop when the reader's soul is bleeding from the lack of subtlety.  Subtlety is hard.  It's so much easier to spell out actions and thoughts 20-40 times a page.  Besides, readers won't catch on to the depth of the story and how inspired it is unless there are quotes from Hawthorne and multiple references to how unwavering and judgmental the society is.

Which brings us to the religious commentary in the novel.  Even though I am a Christian, I am (gasp!) perfectly OK reading novels that criticize Christian society.  I'm a complete dystopian junkie, and that genre often uses a conservative, overly vigilant religious government as the instigator for loss of freedom.  And I get it.  On some level, I even agree with that ruling.  It's a gentle balance believing in a greater power and wanting to share it, versus believing in one chosen path and thinking that everyone, whether believer or not, needs to walk that way.  The prevalence of judgment is a danger when religion's focus goes from worship to the need to force standards on the populace.  And I believe that type of behavior isn't inherent in religion, but is a distinctly human trait.  People are fallible.  We are weak.  And in my mind, the best dystopian books point out those features.  The desire of man to want power.  Whether humanity is born good, or if goodness is a conscious choice.  The focus on the nature of man, not the nature of God, makes for a more interesting story.

And that is where When She Woke loses me.  The big bad is not a person, but is the Christian institution.  Jordan writes like a spurned lover, the book acting as a reactionary diatribe against religion as a whole.  I kept waiting for it to gain some shades of gray, waiting for the overblown preacher man to appear and take on the questionable (but enthralling) shades of religious fascism.  But no.  There was no hint towards nuance in the character of man.  It was the constant criticism of faith.  A constant stream of insistence that belief in God equals disdain for mankind and hatred in your heart.  Because clearly, the number one commandment is to hate without question and destroy all opposition.  Naturally.

Jordan's narrow focus was offensive, not just for me as a Christian but mostly for me as a writer.  As a lover of the written word and the power of story.  As someone capable of intelligence and discernment.  Critical thinking and examination doesn't mean one-note writing.  It means exploring possibilities, settling into the cracks and crannies of thought and human conscious.  The fact that When She Woke ignores sophistication in favor of freight train storytelling angered me.  The message was insulting, the writing was insufferable, and I can see no value in indulging the book further.

Across the room and into the reject pile it goes.