Abandoned Books

Reviews of books and authors not much discussed on the web.

Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Jack Finney


No more books -- from now on this blog will just be about fashion! What’s up for Fall 2008?

Naw, just kidding. I’m pleased that a few readers still find their way to this site, as I don’t update that often, discuss books that few people read anymore, get surly about the ones I do discuss, usually, and link to nobody.

(Ah, the World Wide Web. Interestingly, a lot of people from Korea are interested in Arthur Hailey, of all people, at least according to my little tracker thingee. I would love to know why. )

Part of the lack of updates relates to my seemingly-congenital inability to budget my time properly, but some of it involves the fact that I have to read these books, you know, and then think about ‘em and all that good stuff. All on my own time. So bear with me, some titles are easier to find than others.

You’d think that Jack Finney, tonight’s victim, would be easy to find, for instance, but aside from TIME AND AGAIN the answer is “no”. I had a paperback copy of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, which is what signed him up for this , uh, examination, but it took me forever to find the 3 BY FINNEY collection, which at one time was omnipresent on the bookshelves here in Philly.

There’s also a short story collection out there but I’m not going to read it, because frankly Finney gives me the heebie-jeebies. The best way I can describe it is that reading Finney, for me, is the written equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard.

Part of it is thematic; part stylistic. It’s easier to talk about themes, so let’s hit that first. Finney is one of those deeply annoying people who are always looking backwards, thinking that the late 1800’s were a great time, or an alternative NYC which doesn’t have the problems of your current one was a great place (THE WOODROW WILSON DIME) or the town you grew up in was better than that big bad city you're stuck in now (INVASION). It’s crap, not to put a fine point on it. Nostalgia is crap. Everyone gets at least one good line in their life, and here’s Billy Joel’s

“The Good Old Days weren’t all that good; tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”

Truer words were never spoken. Nostalgia is a lie, because of course the good old days sucked as much as today’s -- ask those guys dying of TB in 1880, huh? It’s also anti-life in a very real sense, since the nitty gritty problems of today’s world are never gonna be able to compete with some romanticized gauzy version of the past you’ve cooked up in that head of yours and instead of spending your time engaging with the world in front of you you're looking backwards. And really, when you get right down to it, it’s pretty lazy, just another excuse to get the old coot in the corner a’grumblin’.

This would be okay though -- at least, I could handle it -- if it weren’t for the fact that Finney’s style is so godawful. Everything is written in a very arch, brittle, pseudo-”with it” kind of style, the kind of thing that inspires nothing in me so much as a heavy punch in the mouth.
I mean, here’s a snapshot from the first of the three novels in the 3 By Finney collection, THE WOODROW WILSON DIME, which is some piffle about a guy who finds one of these nonexistent dimes and enters a parallel universe where he’s not a schlub, only to miss his ladylove back in schlubland. Didn’t Nicholas Cage do an inverse of this in some bad movie?

She sat down next to me, fitting herself to my right side like spray paint. I felt the column of her breath, essence of a thousand springs, press my cheek -- and Hades, not hot and sulpherous but cozy and perfumed -- yawned at my feet. My fists up at ear level, I had the evening paper clutched in both hands, almost wrapped around my head. “Good God, they’ve torn down the Brooklyn Bridge”, I babbled.

It’s worthwhile to spend a little bit with this paragraph -- pulled absolutely at random from this novel -- to explore how bad Finney’s writing really is. First of all, note how brittle the whole passage is, as though if you sit on it long enough it’ll crack beneath you. The self-conscious exaggeration, the elaborate self-mockery -- it’s enough to drive a grown man to kill.

But let’s look at it a bit in detail. The first sentence is nonsense -- the Romans knew that if you couldn’t illustrate a metaphor, find a better one. And indeed, paint has no motive qualities, so spray paint can’t be described as “fitting” itself to anything. “Sealed”, maybe.
The “column” is I think meant to be steam, like Old Faithful. But if it’s “essence of a thousand springs” it could hardly be said to “press” against my cheek, unless you mean something like “send me tumbling tenpins”. I’m not sure “Hades” was either hot and sulpherous or cozy and perfumed, if Finney means “Hell” he ought to say so, if he wants to say her breath was Hellish even though it was “cozy and perfumed” he ought to say that, although he’d have to set that up a bit, since you just can’t make that kind of reversal of norms without explaining yourself. If he really has the paper up at his ears, almost wrapped around his head, how does he have enough room to “babble” anything? Etc.

And I picked this paragraph literally at random, just opened the book to it. The novel is full of this crap. Basically, I think it’s a misinformed attempt to write “bright” “funny” writing ala I don’t know, the movie Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? or something. But funny is hard to do in writing, and one of the reasons is that writers who try it end up verbalizing their jokes, which never works because we, the reader, can’t hear your verbalizations. That’s the problem here, I think.

Also humor is a truly subjective thing. The number of books that made me laugh I can count on one hand, and this ain’t one of ‘em.

Everything else Finney did falls more or less into this framework, and I think it’s all pretty bad. Must to avoid, no matter how much you like the Invasion of the Body Snatcher movies. They’re better movies.