Drum roll, please. I’m about to take a swipe at the book reviewers who recently led me off a cliff and out to sea.
As many readers know, my other job is as a book group facilitator. I’ve read scores of works over many years, and perused hundreds of book reviews written by critics who earn a living telling us which books to buy. They’re the deciders; their thumbs-up or down decide who lives and who dies in the publishing world.
I trust these gurus to lead me through the wilderness of pap and pretense to fiction and nonfiction that’s worth reading and discussing. Many of you are in a book group; you know this is a serious business. My “bookies,” who take time out of their lives to talk about books, deserve the best — from me and from authors.
This year, as I compiled my selections, I came across several reviews of a short story collection called “What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours,” by Helen Oyeyemi. I skimmed it, figuring I’d do my deep reading closer to our book club meeting. It seemed a bit confusing, but I figured I’d dig in and discover why the critics were in a frenzy over Oyeyemi’s work. I felt confident. After all, I’d rarely read more ecstatic reviews.
NPR called the book a “flawless masterpiece.” The BBC reviewer said the stories were “enchanting and beautifully crafted.” A New York Times reviewer wrote that Oyeyemi creates “a universe that dazzles . . .”
Strangely, I couldn’t understand the stories (there are nine in the book). I read the words, but they didn’t make sense. I thought I’d had a stroke. How could I not be making sense of these sentences? I read the first 50-page story twice, and caught a thread of plot, but it kept breaking and trying to twist itself around my neck. I moved on to the next story and the one after that, about wretched puppets who may or may not be real and a puppeteer who may be a ghost or not of this planet or perhaps a speaker of a different language that’s written in colors rather than letters.
There had not been one negative review, just a few criticisms of Oyeyemi’s style. Critic Aaron Bady wrote of one story, “To be perfectly honest, I found it unreadable . . . until I heard her explain what puppets mean to her.” I cannot tell you how validating that confession was. The puppet story made me doubt my cognitive ability and my sanity.
Are you getting the picture? Skimming rather than thoroughly reading this book before selecting it for a group was a really bad idea. Trying to prepare, I kept bumping my head against a wall of words that remained impenetrable and undecipherable (to me, at least). When my group met, everyone agreed. Every single one of them, and these are smart people who don’t walk away from a literary challenge.
We asked one another what was going on with this book and the critics? We felt tricked, demoralized and frustrated.
To be clear, there were elegant passages, beautiful turns of phrase and some transcendent descriptions. One I love is, “A library at night is full of sounds: the unread books can’t stand it any longer and announce their contents, some boasting, some shy, some devious.”
But these gems were like bits of glitter in a sea of words that made no sense. No narrative thread. No cohesive center to hold the fragments together.
The stories are like Russian nesting dolls, with one theme tucked into another. We meet fairies, fighting fish and orphans abandoned on church steps. Characters pop up in more than one story in more than one place in more than one century. Nearly every story has a lock and a key that either opens or doesn’t.
Oyeyemi has an imagination that soars and crackles at the speed of light. The problem was, I just couldn’t keep up. Or care.
Who’s reading these stories, and what do they get that I don’t? Is it generational? Cultural? IQ? In my group, we asked what an author owes a reader, if anything? Must the work be accessible, or is the entire burden on the reader, take it or leave it?
Oyeyemi, who presumably would say that she writes for herself, has impressive creds: all the right workshops, a Cambridge degree, literary prizes galore. And, of course, the critics love her.
Therefore, somewhat perversely, I implore you: Read “What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours.” Think of it as a personal challenge. And when you’ve turned the last page, please write and tell me what’s going on in this book and why I spent so many hours trying to figure it out.
Copyright © 2017 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.