Last Friday I picked up a book from the library that I put on hold five months ago. I was surprised to find it in my stack. (I may or may not have done a small fist pump of victory as I was leaving the library. I’m not a sporting person, so fist pumps go for things like scoring books and the first day of summer that my favorite Mediterranean restaurant has gazpacho on the menu.) In November and December of last year, everyone seemed to be raving about this impressive debut novel. It was all over favorite and best-of lists.
When I got home I didn’t start the novel right away because I wanted to read Carrie Brownstein’s memoir first, but on Sunday night I tucked myself in and opened it to the first page. Not going to lie, I wasn’t crazy about the first-person narrator’s voice, mainly because it didn’t sound like a voice. It sounded like someone writing a voice. And then, on page five (page five!), I got to this:
“The man wheezing behind the counter masticated me with his eyes.”
No, I thought. I can’t. I can’t spend another 347 pages with this person. But I tried. I made it all the way to page 12, and then I closed the book and set it aside.
To masticate is to chew food. So the man chewed the narrator (a female, if that helps for context) with his eyes. And so, “He chewed me up with his eyes.” As metaphors go, it’s a bit of a stretch but not too bad. It’s the word masticate that stops me. It sounds like writing, not like telling. There’s something visceral about the word chew; masticate sounds…medical, like palpate instead of touch. And maybe it’s the former writing teacher in me, but all I can picture is the author going through the manuscript with a thesaurus and making the prose sound writerly. You know, like people who say utilize instead of use because they think it makes them sound more intelligent or important. (It doesn’t. Stop doing that.) I wondered, is it the first-person thing that bothers me? That it just doesn’t sound like a female from the Midwest in her early 20s on her way to a big city would say that someone masticated her with his eyes? Not that I want a generic sound for that, but maybe I just don’t know enough about this narrator yet to know why she’d use the word masticate instead of chew? But do I want to find out?
And then I wondered, is this style what people who typically read for plot think of as literary? And when does writing become over-writing? Do we all have our limits? A lot of people would accuse Donna Tartt of overwriting—I’m not one of them. To me her first-person narratives sound like they come from actual people (that she has made up), not direct from her own brain. So is over-writing when it sounds like what we’re really hearing is the author pretending to be a character? I don’t know. But I know this: the words matter. At least they do for me.
I cannot question why so many people loved this book because I didn’t read it. I won’t be giving it some crappy review on Goodreads (“I gave it one star but really it barely deserves HALF A STAR!!!!!!”) like people who take it rather personally when a book is just not right for them, as opposed to being a bad book. “Is there a difference?” you might wonder. I think so. I don’t know if this is a bad book or a good book. I just know that I would not be able to turn off the editor in my head, and I’d probably have a severe headache from constantly rolling my eyes. Maybe I’m just a bitch, maybe I’m just picky (or maybe both). I guess certain voices, like certain people, just rub me the wrong way. And so the book goes back to the library, and I have quietly removed it from my TBR shelf.
How about you? I know a lot of people set aside books because they’re too boring, slow, or violent, but have you ever set aside a book because the words just didn’t ring true for you? I’m curious to know if I’m the only one!