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Friday, 14 September 2012

This is not a review

I can’t be alone in having had the experience of reading a review of a film or a book or an album and thinking: “Did that idiot see the same film /read the same book /listen to the same album as me? Did they actually watch the film /read the book /listen to the album?”
Judging by the quality of some reviews, I’d guess that ‘phoning it in’ after a cursory perusal of the work is not that unusual an occurrence. Some might say that would constitute a rather dishonourable practice, but I wonder if that is necessarily the case? Might it be possible not only to write, but to justify a review of a piece of work that you have not experienced in its entirety?

I recently abandoned reading a novel, around fifty pages in. The book in question was ‘The Quiet Girl’ by Peter Hoeg and had been on my ‘to do’ list for a while. I really liked one of his novels from the early nineties -'Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow'- and was looking forward to seeing if the rest of his work was up to that standard.
Giving up on a book is not something that I do lightly, but, struggling with what seemed like an almost Joycean density to the text, I first considered chucking ‘The Quiet Girl’ about twenty pages in. I was suffering from information overload, but the good stuff I had in the bank from ‘Miss Smilla’ gave me the resolve to soldier on in the belief that things would surely settle down.

Unfortunately, about fifteen pages later, my initial misgivings had mutated and grown, like mould on yogurt. Numbed by the relentless accumulation of detail in the text and irked by the cryptic dialogue, my rising tide of irritation was compounded by the extraordinarily detailed descriptions of the lead character’s incredible auditory powers (in which every sound had hidden sharps and flats or underlying minor and major chords). And, to be honest, there is only so much detail one absorb about street names in Copenhagen or the fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach. So, for the second time, I gave serious thought to abandoning the book, but -for reasons too tedious to analyse- decided to give it one last push.

Then, alas, somewhere around page fifty, wading through the bog of another annoying, self-consciously illusive episode involving a ‘mysterious’ young girl, I had to admit defeat; ‘The Quiet Girl’, for me, had taken its last surrealistic leap into cryptic irrelevance.

Now here’s the thing: I believe that I could now write a perfectly valid review of that book. I think my review would include the phrase: 'self-regarding’ and would posit the opinion that the book wasn’t written to enthral and entertain the reader. I would suggest that it was a book written to score intellectual and stylistic brownie points for a writer who must have felt that he had something to prove. I would suggest that, while the author may have intended to expand the techniques of his profession, he had succeeded only in wandering up a cul-de-sac of pretension and obscurity.

I’d like to think that my review would acknowledge that I had given up on the book. By way of mitigation, I would suggest that, had I sat down to a meal in a restaurant and the first few mouthfuls had tasted like old shoelaces marinated in vinegar, it would not have been entirely unreasonable for me to assume that it was likely that the rest of that meal would also taste like old shoelaces marinated in vinegar. Unless I was determined to somehow acquire a taste for old shoelaces marinated in vinegar, I could not only excuse myself from the obligation to eat the rest of the meal, but could legitimately warn my friends to avoid the ‘old shoelaces marinated in vinegar’ option on the menu.

So perplexed was I by this spectacular difference in quality between one of Mr Hoeg’s novels and another that I decided to carry out some research. I quickly came across this revealing phrase from the Danish literary critic Poul Behrendt: "The cold reception of the 'The Quiet Girl' was due to its complexity and scope, which the critics didn't understand".

I get it now. The fault was almost certainly mine. Perhaps, in order to write a proper review of the book, I will have to train my palette to appreciate old shoelaces marinated in vinegar.

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