The New York Times’s Janet Maslin today approvingly reviews Steve Hely‘s satirical novel How I Became a Famous Novelist (“…takes aim at genre after genre and manages to savage them all”). Hely’s book tells the story of writer Pete Tarslaw. Tarslaw — who calculatedly exploits every trope of bestselling fiction to produce The Tornado Ashes Club. It’s a funny story, all right, laceratingly well told by Hely. But keep in mind, this is the same Janet Maslin who called last year’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (read her review) “enchanting,” “mesmerising,” “timeless,” “enthralling,” and “irresistible.”
Here’s the cover of the real book:
And here’s the “cover” of Hely/Tarslaw’s imagined sure-fire bestseller:
Decide for youself.
Whatever. I just think that if you are a book critic and you are going to laugh at the notion of popular books that are almost parodically bad, then you ought to have something of a better nose for such a thing when it is sitting right in front of you.
Maslin begins her review of Sawtelle:
“This will be his earliest memory,” “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” says about its title character. “Red light, morning light. High ceiling canted overhead. Lazy click of toenails on wood. Between the honey-colored slats of the crib a whiskery muzzle slides forward until its cheeks pull back and a row of dainty front teeth bare themselves in a ridiculous grin.”
That’s a good way for a boy to meet a dog. It’s an even better way to get acquainted with the most enchanting debut novel of the summer. Written over a decade by the heretofore unknown David Wroblewski and arriving as a bolt from the blue, this is a great, big, mesmerizing read, audaciously envisioned as classic Americana. Absent the few dates and pop-cultural references that place the book somewhere in the post-Eisenhower 20th century, its unmannered style, emotional heft and sweeping ambition would keep it timeless.
OK, let’s look at this.
Red light, morning light. I don’t know what this means. Red morning light? Why is it red? Is it the sun coming up? Wouldn’t the rising sun cast a pale, yellowish light? Is the boy/toddler/baby looking through his eyelids?
High ceiling canted overhead. You would remember the ceiling as part of your earliest memory? And the angle of it? You would describe it, in your earliest memory, as canted?
Lazy click of toenails on wood. OK, Lazy click. Is this even possible? Can a click be lazy? Is this the same lazy click as John Wray’s “lazy twitch” of the subway car in Lowboy? Because I didn’t believe it then, either. A click is a click, people. Clicks and twitches happen instantly. Also, I suppose it’s possible to remember a wood floor as part of an earliest memory, but I’m doubtful about it. Maybe it was tile. Do you really remember?
Between the honey-colored slats of the crib a whiskery muzzle slides forward until its cheeks pull back and a row of dainty front teeth bare themselves in a ridiculous grin.
Can teeth be dainty? Meaning refined? I don’t know. Does the writer mean to say small? We don’t know.
Also, teeth can’t bare themselves. They must be bared.
Also, a dog’s “grin” — if we are stipulating that we are going to call it that and interpret it as such — cannot be described as ridiculous without explaining precisely why it is ridiculous. Certainly the dog doesn’t know from ridiculous. So why is it ridiculous? If you are just trying to modify grin, what does ridiculous tell us? The dog is grinning like Paul Lynde?
Why would a dog make a “grin” at a toddler in a crib? Why would it do that? And if for some reason it did, wouldn’t it be scary for the child?