Why I Finish The Books I Start. Usually.

I posted on Blueprints of the Afterlife last time, and the post was kind of sort of a review of a book I was but halfway through. I felt a bit guilty about that, because a book is meant to be read in its entirety, from beginning to end. I thought perhaps I might want to adjust or amend my comments based on developments in the second half of the book.

Turns out, none of that is necessary. I have changed my mind about nothing. The more into it I went, the more I lost interest. For me, the entire enterprise oozed futility. Maybe I don’t get it, maybe I’m missing the point. Or, maybe I do get it, and I simply don’t like it.

To buy a book and embark upon its pages is to take a risk. I am risking boredom, annoyance, and time. I am risking an irretrievable Loss of Potential Entertainment–you know, when I set time aside to be entertained, and I am in fact not. When I sense a book is going very badly, I sometimes decide to cut my losses, but if I can stand to keep reading, I do.

It’s not that I expect the book to get any better, or that I’m reading to find out “what happens,” because I’m already too disengaged with for that. I continue reading to notice my every gut-level reaction, and to notice why I feel that way. Which of my own personal fiction rules has this book violated? I continue to read for lessons I can learn as a writer, for what I don’t want to see in my own work. In the case of Blueprints of the Afterlife, I could feel the author’s anger at ecological ruin, the prospect that we have pushed the planet beyond its breaking point already, so much so that we can no longer live in it as we have. Instead, we must live in a kind of “afterlife,” or shared dream, or virtual reality, and not all that pleasant a one at that. The book is angry, fatalistic, and sometimes funny. The intent is black comedy, but it doesn’t always work, and in the end, it fails me, for reasons given in the previous post.

For contrast, I tried to think of a more successful example of angry, fatalistic, science fictional satire. I came up with:

This is angry, dark, and funny.

If I look to books that fail me for examples of what not to do, then I must also look to books I love for what to do. Confession: I did at one time try to write like Kurt Vonnegut. I was charmed by his short little chapters. (How short? My edition of Cat’s Cradle is 287 pages long. It contains 127 chapters.) Nothing is explained. We are dropped into Bokononism and the development of the atomic bomb. The prose is economical, and somewhat terse. The book is angry, fatalistic, and very, very funny. Oh, and then there are the marvelous additions to our vocabulary: karass, foma, granfalloon, and others. This is what I remember of it.

My halting attempts to write like Kurt Vonnegut utterly failed. This is okay. We need to try these doomed attempts when we are young, for these are the sorts of failures we can learn an enormous amount from.

We also learn from what we read. I can’t write like Kurt Vonnegut, but I can reread Cat’s Cradle, and it is time for me to do that–for the entertainment and for the learning.

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