03 November 2013

A good review of a bad book (aka a positively negative review)

I think bloggers and reviewers are being too nice to best-selling author Ben Dolnick and his most recent novel At the Bottom of Everything. This flawed, albeit readable, 239-page book is about childhood friends who grow apart after one of their boneheaded hi-jinks leads to tragedy. It had the potential to be a very intriguing story of the gut-wrenching, life-changing dilemma the two friends faced. But, well, something just wasn't right.

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...


  1. "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?" Yes yes yes! (to quote Molly Bloom, although obviously not in the same context, unless you misspell organic. ha ha!)

  2. I often struggle with contemporary authors. They appear to me to try and be just too clever for their experience level and it falls apart. I just want a good story, interesting characters and maybe a lovely location. Forget the gimmicks. Like the cartoon. I would have thrown the martini at him.

  3. Sounds really disappointing and naturally you'll feel more sensitive reading something located so specifically in areas you are very familiar with. I don't think you should give up on contemporary literary fiction though. There are instances (like this book from the sound of it) where the author is too caught up with trying to engage with contemporary issues and current literary styles. I think this is a downside of the proliferation of writing courses in America and now the UK. But don't let it put you off trying out recent books altogether.

  4. I love books with a real sense of place, which means that authors who simply throw place/street/etc names in with the idea that by doing so they are creating one make me want to tear my hair out. It sounds as though this one would be irritating even to someone who doesn't know the area.

  5. I love your last comment re: contemporary literary fiction. I've felt this way for some time. There are some relatively well-written lit fic books out there, but I've found most have some pretty glaring issues that keep me from truly enjoying the book. A lot of them feel like work. And then it makes it work to read it. Eh.

  6. What a great review!

    I am extremely picky about contemporary literary fiction, for all the reasons you state. It feels very samey, for one thing. Hard for people to be original in this atmosphere. Occasionally you find a gem, but who wants to wade through it? Sturgeon's Law.

    My husband Only Reads the Classics, because he says in 100 years time will have told us which of these novels are worth reading. I don't know about that, he's kind of a 40-year-old curmudgeon, but you can see his point.

    That said, I'm currently reading a litfic book set in my town, written by a native, and really enjoying it. :)

  7. It was so interesting to read your reaction to this one on two fronts, Thomas. 1 - you so rarely dislike a book with such verve and 2 - I really enjoyed this novel a lot. I believe that the friend's parents pay for the trip, since he has their credit card. But I was less involved in the logic of individual plot points than taken up by the characters and the energy of the narrative. It was one of those coming of age, male friendship books that enveloped me in a certain, almost drugged, state of mind. Like reading Hesse or Ethan Canin's For Kings and Planets. I loved the individuality of the two characters and the crazy chase through India.
    A chacun a son gout, as they say in Die Fledermaus!

  8. As I read your thoughts I remember feeling much like you did about a novel that took place around southeastern Ma and Cape Cod and the author just annoyed me by her inaccurate name dropping of places and details.

    I can't recall the name of the book, but other readers seemed to enjoy it. For me though knowing the area, I could not get beyond the detail flaws.


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