Saturday, October 13, 2007

Taking a Lathe to "Literary" Genre

Last night Brian and I watched the film version of Ursula Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven, which, despite being a made-for-TV effort by PBS from 1979 that was filmed in 3 weeks, is really good. It immediately inspired both of us to dig up Brian's yellowed-to-almost-orange paperback of the novel and start reading it (for him again, for me, first time). And of course it is really well-written, and excellent, doing that thing that words can do that movies can't: bringing the conceptual threads together into poetry, so that the images are more vivid than if we saw them with eyes.

It made me compare the book to Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, which I'm reading right now. (Let me preface the rest of this by pointing out that I am a huge fan of Atwood, and I do not criticize her as an author, just this book, and the mistake it makes.) Oryx and Crake is SciFi, "just like" The Lathe of Heaven, but Oryx and Crake is SciFi that's trying desperately to be considered "literary": as a result, I'm stuck at 1/4 way through and bored to tears. The novel starts off excitingly enough: Snowman lives in a strange post-apocolyptic future and reminisces about his past (our future) while trying to survive, something he's not too terrific at. I know there's more to it, because most of the book still lies before me, and because she's dropping hints that I'm not missing. So what's boring?

The part that I guess gives it its "literary" cred: the verisimilitude, the banalities of middle-class life, the unspoken family conflicts and the thick-as-treacle domestic tensions. ZZZZzzzzzz. If we have to live in his memories, can they please be memories of plots and pigoons, and not of microwave dinners and dad's new girlfriend?

I'm starting to think the book should be about a quarter as long as it is. Especially after picking up The Lathe of Heaven and getting so much of depth and interest and humanity and story and image and nature and love and the desire to make the world better, and the failure of trying, and stillness of natural beings, and the goodness inherent in stillness, etc., and nothing at all that is dull.

I devoured Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale in a single night. I simply could not go to sleep without knowing what happened next, and next, and next. But The Handmaid's Tale was unapologetically itself: only the cutesy epilogue comparing it to Chaucer tried to be "literary," and that was done with such a heaping helping of humor that it didn't at all deflate the story. So why couldn't Atwood create the same kind of success with Oryx and Crake? My guess is that the feminism angle gave her an "out" in The Handmaid's Tale, that she didn't feel the pressure to somehow force the story into a literary mold, because it already had a social purpose. But Oryx and Crake is about a theme as least as old as Hawthorne's "The Birth-Mark": the mad scientist who improves on nature, and destroys it. Well that's just good ol' fashioned SciFi grist for the mill. How to make it "respectable"? Ah, make it dull!

I hope I'm wrong about that, because I'm reading Oryx and Crake to the end, and I want it to get better. But I just keep thinking about the last Atwood book I read, how undeniably good it was, how absolutely gripping, and I just keep thinking, "what happened"?

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