A few years ago, Peter Carey produced a novel called Theft: A Love Story. It is the story of two brothers, the talented artist ‘Butcher’ Bones and his backward brother Hugh, who drift into crime in association with the manipulative Marlene. Without fail, the reviewers picked up on the ‘Love Story’ in the title, and then complained that the relationship between Butcher and Marlene wasn’t fully developed. After all, Marlene doesn’t even appear for several chapters. The reviewers were wrong, because the love story of the title had nothing to do with Marlene. What Carey did extraordinarily well was present the relationship between the two brothers as a love story, and one that earned its place in the title because it shaped everything they did and how the story worked. But the reviewers were looking for something more conventional, and, of course, they found what they were looking for, then complained because it didn’t match their expectations.
This superficiality is something I find more and more in reviews in the mainstream press. The latest book to suffer this way is Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru. Take, for example, the anonymous reviewer in The New Yorker, who seems to think that the book is about Jaz and what happens when his autistic son disappears. Well no, the story of Jaz and his wife Lisa is one of the more prominent stories contained in the book, but these several stories collectively illustrate different aspects of the novel’s theme. In other words, the story of Jaz contributes to the theme, but it is not what the book is about. (more…)