In 2012, Gillian Flynn published Gone Girl and kick-started our current craze for unreliable narrator stories. 2015 saw the release of The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and the unreliable narrator novel was firmly ensconced.
Rarely have I witnessed two books compared to each other more than these.
Not only was The Girl on the Train trumpeted as “this year’s Gone Girl,” not only did every critic and reviewer on the planet compare the two, but just about everyone I knew picked a favorite and took a side in the which-is-better debate.
Most people I know like both but have a clear preference for one or the other, and there are more than a few who love one and hate the other.
For most, their preference seems to boil down to which narrator appealed to them best. It’s not a matter of which you like best, as neither narrator is intended to be likeable. But both are meant to be intriguing.
I’m convinced that character appeal isn’t all that’s going on here. I think focusing on which narrator appeals the most is circling around a deeper issue.
I won’t be participating in NaPoWriMo this year. I waffled for the past couple of months as to whether or not I should. To explain why I’m not, I need to tell you about a recent revelation I had about myself:
I finally realized that I’m not actually a creative person. More importantly—I’m happy with that. I’m tired of feeling like I’m supposed to be creative when I’m clearly not.
To explain this revelation, I need to tell you a story about LEGO…
I’ve had conversations now with a few other people about this book and discovered that I’m in a minority in my opinion. Most people I know couldn’t stand it. Most didn’t finish it. Mostly, they found it too long, too wordy, too self-indulgent. The general reaction is that Moore desperately needed an editor to reel him in.
I get that. On some level, I feel this way, too. I spent quite a lot of the book convinced that he was over-indulgent and lacking writerly discipline.
However, as others have stated (and I quote Library Journal here), Jerusalem is “[m]ore a work of art than a novel.”
I recently heard a story about a guy sitting in a public place, clearly wearing a wedding ring and clearly scrolling through a dating app. What’s disturbing wasn’t just the fact that he was cheating on his partner, but that he was doing it so obviously, right out in the open where anyone could see.
What a bastard.
It’s times like this when I’m reminded most powerfully of David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” speech (*). He challenges us to try and do better when we make assumptions, to think better. We have a choice whether to assume or not, and if we choose to make assumptions, we get to choose what we assume.
This is a story that hits much closer to home for me, as it happened to a friend of mine. But her story has done as much as anything to affect how I understand poverty, how I understand the role of government assistance, of social safety nets.
And it has done as much as anything to teach me the dangers of making assumptions.
I have a friend who experienced difficult times during the recession of the Bush Years. She and her husband are both capable and hard workers, college educated. He worked in a skilled labor field and she did general office work. They did fine for themselves.
Then he was involved in an accident and was severely injured. He’s disabled for the rest of his life. As a result, he could no longer work in his chosen field. He lost his job, lost his health insurance. And we all know COBRA is prohibitively expensive.
Poverty is something I think about frequently. Working in an urban public library system, many of our patrons are poor. The community we serve has significant neighborhoods of poverty. It’s our responsibility to understand what our patrons need, what life is really like for them.
This is an issue that’s always on my mind but it seems particularly important to speak out about it now.
There’s a group of kids—teens and tweens—who hang out at a local library. Sometimes they hang out at the McDonald’s down the street. These kids clearly live in poverty.
The greatest challenge about reviewing Jerusalem by Alan Moore is summarizing what it’s about. This isn’t a traditional novel and it doesn’t deliver a normal story. The plot is meandering, almost vestigial in some sections. Setting is paramount—language, tone, atmosphere, characters: all of these matter far more than mere plot.
I’ve come to think of this book as being akin to the Bayeux Tapestry—a sprawling and artistically audacious account of a place and its people. It’s a love letter to a neighborhood as only Moore can write it.
In general terms, it’s a quasi-fictional history of the Boroughs—the poverty-stricken Northampton neighborhood in England where Alan Moore was born, raised, and still lives—from ancient times through the near future, not told in chronological order, and actively eschewing the concept of linear narrative. It’s the story of a unique family who lives there through several generations, and various persons associated with them. It’s a story of the afterlife and eternity and the Universe. It’s a story about life and death, art and work, obligation and free will, ghosts and angles and builders and demons. Visions and dreams are as real in this world as reality.
If I had to categorize this book, I’d probably call it fantastical realism. Everyone is going to shelve it in their SF sections. But it’s more than just these—it’s philosophical, historical, political, religious.
It’s holy and profane, poetic and pedestrian, beautiful and gritty. It’s deeply human. It’s hard to explain. You really need to read it.