Beautiful prose, lacklustre storytelling

Yet again, I’ve been most sorely disappointed by a book with massive amounts of hype. In fact, I was so turned off by this book, I removed a reference to it during my second edition edits of Journey Through a Dark Forest. The first book Katya reads on her way back to UC-Berkeley in 1946 is now If He Hollers Let Him Go. I couldn’t stand by my former description of it as complex and nonconformist. More like dull and pointless!

I expected a story about a 12-year-old girl who doesn’t quite fit in as she comes of age, with her only friends her much-younger male cousin and the family cook. Instead I got a story which has beautiful prose and technically proficient writing but sleep-inducing, detached storytelling.

The book immediately starts off on the wrong foot with a heaping helping of telly infodump and backstory. While I understand people in the 1940s didn’t operate under modern writing standards like “Show, don’t tell,” that doesn’t preclude an engrossing story. Just look at A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which has quite a few passages heavy on telling. Betty Smith managed to make these events come alive despite not actively depicting them.

Why did this book annoy me so much, and why was it such a chore to slog through?

1. No one likes a story that’s little more than summaries of events. “This happened. Then that happened. Name did this. Name said that. Infodumpy, ‘As you know, Bob’ dialogue. These things happened last year. This happened three months ago.” Impossible to be emotionally drawn in.

2. Confusing nonlinear format. It was often hard to discern whether Ms. McCullers were writing about something happening in real time or in the past, since she shifts around so much.

3. Not nearly enough chapters. There are deliberately long chapters, and then there are chapters that just stretch on and on without any sense of unifying theme or plot. Even deliberately long chapters should be divided into sections, not just roll on and on with no distinguishing breaks.

4. The breaks into Parts I, II, and III didn’t seem coherent either. The only thing marking them as distinct parts is that the protagonist goes by a different name in each—Frankie, F. Jasmine (so freaking pretentious), Francis.

5. Where’s the plot? Even an episodic, slower-paced, character-based story needs to be hung on a narrative arc and plot trajectory!

6. We’re supposed to believe Frankie HAD SEX (at twelve years old!), yet is childish and naïve enough to think her brother and his bride will be totally cool with her tagging along on their honeymoon?

7. The title bears almost no relation to the story. The wedding takes up a paragraph at the end, all that buildup (as it were) to a whole lot of nothing.

8. Frankie is extremely annoying, childish, and psychotic. I’ve no problem with deliberately imperfect and/or difficult to like characters, but this takes it to a whole new level!

9. Frankie does little more than wander around town putting herself in potentially dangerous situations and starting conversations with people who couldn’t care less about her. Most of the rest of the time is spent around the kitchen table. BORING!

10. So freaking rambling!

11. Where’s the evidence this is a coming-of-age story? All Frankie does is change her name! She’s the same insufferable, mean-spirited brat at the end as she was at the beginning.

12. Non-existent character development.

13. It takes a special talent to make a book under 200 pages drag on this much!

14. Emotionally detached prose. I never felt in Frankie’s head.

15. A lot of disturbing content that’s just brushed over as normal or not a big deal.

Ms. McCullers had an interesting idea which was executed very poorly. This is a long, slow road to nowhere. Not only is there no real plot, Frankie shows absolutely no growth from start to finish. If all that dull telling had been fleshed out into active scenes, this book might’ve been better.

3 thoughts on “Beautiful prose, lacklustre storytelling

  1. I remember my first encounter with MEMBER OF THE WEDDING in December 1997 – it was reviewed and analysed in THE MASTERPIECES OF WOMEN’S LITERATURE edited by Frank Magill.

    Thinking of your points here.

    Frankie was psychotic?

    And did she learn to hide the mean-spiritedness better? Or was she more open about it at the end than at the beginning?

    One McCullers book I do enjoy is THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER – those two – Singer and his friend – are so well-portrayed.

    Number 1 is something younger or more inexperienced writers do need to know – hard to get out of the recounting habit especially if encouraged/encountered in speech/conversation.

    “9. Frankie does little more than wander around town putting herself in potentially dangerous situations and starting conversations with people who couldn’t care less about her. Most of the rest of the time is spent around the kitchen table. BORING!”

    And that sort of thing is all too relatable. Some of us might wish we had Frankie’s courage.

    And how do you know that people could care less about you until you try?

    Harriet the Spy is about much of the same thing – told albeit 20 years later and in a big city.

    Like

  2. I haven’t read this book and I’m not ever sure that I’ve read any books by Carson McCullers–maybe some short stories that I don’t remember now. I’m with you on your reasoning and I’m not encouraged to read this book after reading your points. I especially don’t like long chapters since I usually only read a few pages at a time and prefer good stopping points.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Walking through second edition edits – Welcome to My Magick Theatre

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