When I was growing up, my father, like I assume all fathers, taught me a lot of rules. Though I have internalized a lot of them over the years, there are a few that I still carry to this day word for word, and that I imagine I probably will my entire life.
Bear in mind that all of these were offered as broadly-applicable life lessons of extreme, and roughly similar, importance. They are, in the order that I remember being taught them in:
1) Once you start a book you have to give it 50 pages.
2) Be careful, for the Nine are abroad.
3) Never sit with your back to a door.
4) Never draw to an inside straight.
It is worth noting that I read Lord of the Rings at 8 and learned poker at 13, so you can do your own math and draw your own conclusions, there.
The one that I found myself thinking of today was the oldest: the 50 Pages Rule. This one has actually served me in good stead, for the most part. If the opening of a book is a little wobbly, and you aren’t sure about it, if it hasn’t really done anything for you by page 50 the odds are the rest of it isn’t going to do much for you either. While I’m certain there are exceptions – the 50 Pages Rule is why I haven’t read Anathem – the rule nicely dovetails with some of the guidance I’ve come up with for myself later in life. I’ve said time and again that I don’t have time to watch/read anything that isn’t awesome, and that is really just the spirit of the 50 Pages Rule blown out a little: don’t give a so-so book more than 50 pages because that’s time you could spend reading something better.
I am a big fan of the 50 Pages Rule. I evangelize it as much as anything. It works for me. Likely it will work for you. Try it and see how it goes.
The upshot of this is that there are times when the Rule actively protects you from doing harm to your precious brain cells (and, more importantly, me from doing harm to mine).
I once dated a woman who really liked the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson. In an attempt to bring us closer together (which is the point of dating, after all) I made an effort to engage with and read the things she liked. I started out by one day picking up her copy of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
Interlude, because internet people seem to find my conversations with my father hilarious:
A few years after the events I am about to describe, I saw the American film version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Through a strange alchemy of circumstances involving midwestern travel and me obsessing about a woman I met at a party, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was one of the incredibly rare modern movies that my father saw before I did.
After I finally saw it, I called him up (he was, at the time, once again in the Midwest) and asked him what he thought about it.
He said, “I really liked it.”
I said, “yeah, I did too, for the most part. It was really interesting seeing Daniel Craig be a whiny little bitch.”
“That is correct,” my father said. This is how we talk about movies. One of us makes a subjective observation and the other deems it objectively correct or not. “Overall, it’s dark, and violent, and a little too long.”
I said, “you just described every David Fincher movie.”
My father paused for a second, then said, “that is also correct.”
Some of my father’s rules I take more literally, or follow more strictly, than others. I have been known to sit with my back to a door when it is more or less impossible to do otherwise. There have been times when I have grudgingly stayed in a pot while on an inside draw, though only when I was getting odds on my call.
(I can only assume my father did not include the concept of pot odds in his life advice because he assumed that 13 Year Old Me would not have understood it. This is actually an appalling lapse in judgment. 13 Year Old Me could do calculus; he probably could have grasped “fold unless this number divided by this other number is more than this third number.”)
So, sitting in her apartment one day, I picked up my girlfriend’s copy of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
If you asked me what the worst book I’ve ever read was, odds are that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo would not make the list. It would not make the list solely because I cannot, in good conscience, claim to have read it. I have only read 50 pages of it. In point of fact I have only read EXACTLY 50 pages of it.
I started reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and on about page 3 I started the clock.
At the bottom of page 50, literally in the middle of a sentence – I am not making this up – I shouted “THANK FUCKING CHRIST!” to the empty apartment and hurled the book across the room, and started muttering obscenities about time I would never get back.
To say that The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is bad – or that the portion of it that I read is, at least – is an understatement. It is profoundly, unbelievably bad. I used to think it was just the translation, that maybe it was better in Swedish, but then I saw the movie and underneath some great performances and direction and cinematography there was a script that was still, at a very basic level, broken. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is bad. It is in-the-bones bad.
It is, in fact, so bad that the book doesn’t even deserve a thoughtful response, which brings me to The Girl on the Train, a book which very much does deserve one.
It took me a little bit, sitting here, to figure out how exactly how I ended up reading The Girl on the Train in the first place. I’m certainly not someone who is up on the latest “buzzworthy” books or anything like that, and a cursory glance at it reveals that subject-wise it isn’t really something I’ve ever read in the past. For years how I’ve simply read what I read and liked what I liked and when something broke through that, a new author or whatever, it was more or less a beautiful and unique snowflake.
That started to change for me last fall when I read an interview with Stephen King (whom I admire a great deal) and he mentioned how he was kinda pissed that The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell, was a straight-up literary masterpiece that would get ignored by a lot of the book cognoscenti because it had science fiction elements in it.
I could not, at the time, remember a specific book recommendation from Stephen King, and decided that if it was good enough for him it was good enough for me, and when I finished Revival I went and grabbed The Bone Clocks and had a reaction that transcended positive. (There will, at some point in the future, be many glowing words in this space about David Mitchell.) My reaction was so transcendent, and branching out had proven so fruitful, that I decided I was going to actively expand my literary horizons, snowflakes be damned.
It goes without saying that the recommendations engine on Goodreads is… well, more or less the recommendations engine equivalent of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Amazon’s recommendations, however, are usually frightening in their excellence, and every time I have read or looked up a new book since The Bone Clocks, I have added a bunch of Amazon’s suggestions to my “to-read” list, which now sits at a bloated 80 or so titles.
It will take me a while to get through the list. There are worse problems to have than “too many good books to read,” surely.
Here’s the thing about The Girl on the Train: after finishing it this morning I went and read a bunch of reviews of it, and so many of them mentioned Gone Girl it made me a little sad, and more than a little angry.
I must note at this point that I have not actually read Gone Girl (#45 on my to-read list), but that isn’t necessarily germane to my argument in this instance. Unless the book is vastly, VASTLY different from the movie – which I have seen, and nothing in my researches indicates the differences are in fact that vast – the similarities between the stories seem little more than superficial. A missing woman. An unreliable narrator. And… I dunno, that’s kinda all I’ve got. The “unreliable narrator” thing in Gone Girl isn’t even the same SORT of unreliable narrator in The Girl on the Train.
So what are we left with, then?
Don’t talk to me about genre. I do not give a flying fuck about genre. Genre is bullshit. It’s just another way to separate Us from Them, the intellectual haves from the have nots. All I care about anymore is theme and execution. All I care about is whether or not your book, or movie, or comic, or show or whatever is ABOUT something, and whether or not you can get that something across with some degree of skill. Gone Girl is about something. The Girl on the Train is about something. They are not, however, about the SAME thing, not remotely, and that makes the comparison wholly unfair.
Let me put it another way: are The Godfather and Miller’s Crossing the same sort of movie? Should every review of Miller’s Crossing reference The Godfather? Of course not. It’s unfair.
Would every review of The Girl on the Train reference Gone Girl if the books were called The Boy on the Train and Gone Boy, and if they were written by Paul Hawkins and George Flynn?
I’m just going to leave that there and move on.
Let’s get something out of the way straight off: I liked this book. I liked it a lot. I liked it enough that when I turned off my Kindle before getting off the train this morning (BA-DUM-BUMP!) I did a quick mental calculation of how much I had left in the book, how much I really wanted to finish it, and how much work I had to do at the office today, and decided I could safely sacrifice a good bit of the morning at work finishing the book rather than waiting to read it on the train home (BA-DUM-BUMP!).
I liked it for… well, all the usual reasons I like something, to be honest. It has clear themes, and themes that are favorites of mine to boot, foremost among them being an exploration of the lies we tell each other, and the lies we tell ourselves, and how one of those is much, much worse than the other. I admit that this is somewhat by necessity a function of the whole “unreliable narrator” thing, a literary notion I despise, as it drags me back to forced readings of Catcher in the Rye.
It works here, though, because each of the narrators is unreliable in her own way, and that kind of parallelism is that much more book-catnip for me. Oh my, yes, I looooooooove me some structural parallelism.
It’s really quite ingenious, when you get down to it. Rachel is unreliable because she literally has no memories of parts of the story she’s telling. Megan is deliberately obfuscatory, leaving out important parts of her story until it’s too late, for her and for us. And Anna…
Okay, I’ll admit, I’m honestly not sure what the Anna chapters are supposed to accomplish. The first one comes out of nowhere – I was listening to my synced audiobook when it came and the third voice made me shout “WHAT THE FUCK?” in my car – and while there are bits of narrative in the later instances (which we’ll get to shortly) I don’t know what thematic purpose the chapters serve as a whole, especially early on, other than to really hammer home the point of, “hey, isn’t Anna awful?”
Because don’t mistake – Anna, the new wife of main character Rachel’s ex-husband, is truly loathsome. (Not in the way Amy Dunne is loathsome, but nothing that doesn’t birth itself out of your chest cavity is.) Another, lesser book would have tried to soften her up, to make her a perfect mother, a victim of whim or circumstance. A lesser book would have tried to cast Anna as some sort of latter-day Mrs. de Winter; The Girl on the Train sticks to its guns and keeps her Rebecca, and god how I love that about it.
Anna ends up being unreliable simply because you hate her so much. Call it the Jimmy McNulty Effect. I can complain about the chapters’ existence, but not with how well they’re executed.
All of which is a roundabout, discursive way of saying* that this is a Book With Really Well Done Characters, and that alone is usually good enough. I’ve long said that I’ll suffer a comic with bad art for great writing. I’ll also suffer a silly/boring/nonsensical plot for great characters, and this book has them.
I was especially shocked doing my post-read research to learn that Paula Hawkins is not, in fact, a former alcoholic, since the parts of the book detailing Rachel’s battle with booze are some of the finest I’ve read. Imagine something that specific and that personal that you know nothing about, and then imagine trying to write about it convincingly. It’s no mean feat. Rachel’s struggles are real. Megan’s struggles, too, are also very real, though they are of a different sort and come from a different place.
Beyond character and theme, though, that’s the other thing that impressed me so much about the book: it is, at a technical level, executed with extraordinary skill. The story is told across three separate narrators and three overlapping timelines, and not only does it make sense – I mean in a purely “this happened, and then this happened, and because of that this other thing happened” sense, though it does also work in that respect – the story is clear enough to follow, yet leaves enough unspoken to increasingly tantalize the more of it you read.
The different narrators have different voices. It’s hard enough for a writer to have ONE voice, let alone three. There are scenes that mean one thing the first time you read them, and then when you possess new information you can go back and the scene has a completely different meaning, and both work with your understanding of the story as a whole. Hawkins was a journalist – possibly, one might say, the most trained sort of writer there is – and her commitment and her discipline really shine through. (I also looooooooooove me a disciplined writer.)
And, through all of this, she only loses her mind once.
I’m trying very hard to avoid outright spoilers here, because I am very much of the mind that this is a book you should read (I mean, unless you hate things that are interesting) and part of me feels that knowing “how it ends” may impact your enjoyment of it. So I’m going to try and describe the one bit where she loses her mind in the broadest way possible, so as to alert you to its existence without giving away what it actually contains.
The “end” of the book, such as it is, the last however many pages or paragraphs or whatever – the longer you read on a Kindle the tougher it gets to make distinctions like that – are fine. Actually, they’re rather perfect. I loved that last bit. And everything that leads up to the scene that comes before that last bit is, as I have been saying for a thousand words or so, also very, very excellent.
Unfortunately, between that last bit and everything that comes before it is the climax of the book, and it… ugh, I found it profoundly disappointing. Not because it’s bad, or doesn’t work within the confines of the book as a whole. It does. In a purely story-based sense it does. That penultimate scene ends the way it absolutely has to end. I have no argument with that.
What I have a problem with is how it gets TO that ending of that penultimate scene, which is out of that other, lesser book I mentioned earlier.
Hawkins spends the entire book crafting this story that relies very intensely on character, and observation, and psychology, and memory, and all these very cool, very ethereal, very heady things, and then the climax of the book is this violent action sequence out of a shitty Adrian Lyne movie, or something, and I sat there reading it muttering, “oh, no, no, what are you doing? Noooooooooo no no no no no.” It’s so bad, and so out of place, and so incongruous with the rest of the book that the showbiz part of my brain is intensely wondering if that whole bit isn’t in there solely because of editorial pressure to jazz up the ending, that somewhere out there there isn’t Hawkins’ original text for that climactic scene, where things happen the way things in this book happen instead of the way they happen in a book that has not spent 300 some odd pages being so careful to NOT do things in that junky, market-driven way.
I’m pretty sure that given enough time and effort I could come up with a decent scene that accomplishes the same things as the climax of The Girl on the Train but doesn’t happen the way it does in the book, and if -I- can come up with it then I’m pretty sure Paula Hawkins probably could have as well. Because aside from a publisher’s thumb pushing down on it the only other logical conclusion is… I dunno, first book jitters? Maybe? I guess it’s possible. The book doesn’t really show that anywhere else, but if you’re going to have them maybe it’s best to concentrate them in ten pages or so.
That is such a minor blemish, though. Ten pages that don’t quite work, compared against so much else that does. Almost everything else that does, really. It’s not perfect. It’s not the best book I’ve read the last year. (Still The Peripheral.) It’s not even the best book I’ve read in the last month. (Still Perfidia.) But it’s damn good. Good enough to give the first 50 pages a shot, at least.
* aka “what I do”