Do you ever read a novel that feels like the author is trying too hard to be a novelist? Where all the ingredients are present but none of it feels organic? This one falls into that category for me. It makes me wonder about the annual November novel writing challenge NaNoWriMo, which I was very tempted to join this year. Those who participate challenge themselves to write 50,000 words during the course of the month. Although I am sure some brilliance comes out of the challenge, there must be a lot of participants who would be happy for their efforts to be as mediocre as Dolnick's. (It all reminds me of that hilarious scene in Family Guy where Stewie makes fun of Brian's efforts to write a novel. A clip is posted below.)
I should admit that the setting of At the Bottom of Everything was, for me, like waving a big piece of bloody chum in the water. Set, not just in Washington, DC, but in the part of DC in which I live, I was hyper sensitive to Dolnick's use of place names and local color. In a few cases I think he may have gotten a few things wrong--not so embarrassingly that I feel the need to hop on the Metro and confirm whether or not this is the case--but wrong enough not to trust the author's eye. Perhaps worse, and far more prevalent was the Mad-Lib quality of the locales used in the book. Except instead of being asked to insert nouns and verbs, etc. the author was asked to insert blindingly obvious upper NW DC place names. It got to the point where I began to think that Dolnick did a two-month internship in DC and went back home thinking he was a native. But when I Googled him it turned out that he was born and raised in DC--kind of. He grew up in Chevy Chase, Maryland, the toniest of first ring DC suburbs. Our answer to Westchester County. So what, right? That doesn't preclude him from writing authentically about the city. (In fact, in some ways he writes very authentically about it, after all I live among a lot of precocious white kids who shuttle each day to their private schools. In a way he did capture that experience.) But it all just felt so clumsy. Even the name of his fictional school, Dupont Prep was a little too corny and obvious to be believed.
At this point you may be thinking one of two things: 1) who cares, this could only matter to a local; and 2) it's a piece of fiction, it doesn't have to exist in reality. True on both points, but then don't feel the need to give everything a name. The number of times he mentions Macomb Street is a little crazy. It is completely irrelevant to the plot and isn't descriptive enough to mean anything to someone who doesn't know the street. "The car rolled down the street onto Connecticut Avenue..." would have been just fine.
And not only is there no such thing as the Cleveland Park Police, but drawing attention to the name adds absolutely nothing, nothing, nothing to the story.
What's worse than all this clumsy, local name dropping, is what Dolnick leaves out. More than a few details about some of the plot pivots that would have been very helpful and given the book more dimension are left out entirely.
- After being fired from one job he gets another one that never gets mentioned (or did I skim over that point?).
- He goes from sharing an apartment to having his own without any sense that his character could afford it.
- He abruptly heads off to India to find his friend but there is no mention of how he was able to leave this new mystery job or how he was bankrolling the trip.
- Both his big romantic break-up and the rebound affair he has with his employer that play such a prominent role in the first part of the book just kind of disappear without any meaningful follow-up.
- One of the peripheral characters whose life is tremendously impacted by the tragedy is completely ignored until the denouement.
- [spoiler alert] How does a car roll down a hill and cause an accident yet miraculously stop so that it doesn't hit or get hit by the swerving SUV; is not seen by anyone but the other driver despite the fact that the author tells us that the street in question is never without activity; and is backed up the hill by two teenage boys so that no one ever finds out?
Then Dolnick adds in a bunch of email that neither advance the plot nor provide much more than philosophical filler. And of course a superfluous vision quest to India so the characters can have catharsis.
And then, and then, who cares.
Reading reviews of this book on Goodreads, on other blogs, and in the mainstream press leads me to think that people have really low expectations for contemporary literary fiction. It also makes me want to rethink my recent interest in books published this century.
Funniest clip ever about writing a novel...