Caitlin Kiernan’s _The Drowning Girl_

download (6)We talk about “liking” something and “disliking” something in a way that suggests that they’re a very similar sort of judgment, when, in reality, “I like this” is a very different sort of claim from “I dislike this.”

When you say that you like something, you’re saying that you can perceive the beauty in it. And if you can perceive that beauty, then it means that there is some undeniable way in which this object’s qualities add up to something beautiful (for at least one person). But if you say that you dislike something, then you’re saying that you can perceive no (or very little) beauty in it. And that can mean one of two things. Either: a) this object has a beauty that another person would readily be able to perceive, but you can’t see it; or b) there is some way in which this objects qualities fail to add up in a beautiful manner.

However, since almost all works of art generally had to pass through some kind of filter before being presented to the public, it’s almost a given that there is something appealing (to someone) about whatever object you happen to be viewing. That’s why I think there’s something a bit disreputable about saying that you dislike something that other people like. In some way, you’re exposing a deficiency in yourself.

Oftentimes, the problem is too much sophistication. The great majority of people might like something because, to them, it is new and fresh and startling. But if you’ve read too broadly, then it seems old hat. In this case, you can (hopefully) see the qualities in it that would appeal to other people, but they no longer have the power to affect you.

People also differ in their need for novelty. I often like to talk about how one of the main things that a fiction needs to be successful is something new. I’m not interested in reading anything that doesn’t show me something pretty different from what I’ve already seen. But there are plenty of people who (to my shock and dismay) don’t agree with me about that at all. They say that everything’s been done before; all that matters is execution. And maybe there’s something to that. After all, a billion people have done Jane Austen pastiches, but Pride And Prejudice remains timeless and unforgettable. The existence of a zillion imitators didn’t diminish the original. There’s something there that was not replicable. But obviously people do get something out of those pastiches, too.

For me, dislike (at least in literature) is often the result of scars left by other books that’ve disappointed me. For instance, I found Invitation To A Beheading to be really confusing and unsatisfying. So when I read other mystical and dreamy narratives (Falconer, Under The Volcano, The Master and  Margarita), I didn’t give them as much patience. And maybe that’s why I didn’t like them (yes, I was not blown away by The Master And Margarita. It is a deficiency in myself. I accept that.)

Anyway, I instantly responded to Caitlin Kiernan’s The Drowning Girl. There’s something about the voice–it’s narrated by a young paranoid schizophrenic woman in Rhode Island who, although her condition is somewhat controlled by medication, is still struggling to build a life for herself–that I found very captivating. There’s not much in the novel aside from voice. It’s extremely sparse. Two of the novel’s biggest characters (the narrator’s mother and grandmother) are dead. And the only other speaking role (at least by halfway through the novel, where I am) is her girlfriend.

But, despite that chemistry, I found myself constantly on the verge of putting the book down. That’s because the narrator continually circles around and flirts with the edges of some strange magical visitations that the narrator (perhaps) experienced. And every time the narrator self-consciously failed to tell me what was going on, I was like, “Oh no. Is this gonna be one of those huge shell games (like, for instance, Battlestar Galactica or Lost) where they never explain anything and then at the end, tell you to eat shit, because the whole thing was actually supposed to be all about the characters?” And I just couldn’t take that. Call me unromantic, but, at some point in the novel, I like all the cards to go on the table.

Anyway, normally what I do at this point is go on Wikipedia and read the plot summary for the novel and satisfy myself that’s there’s actually some there there. But the Drowning Girl didn’t have a good plot summary. So I did a search for a review that had spoilers. And found nothing! Jerks! Where are the spoilers when you need them?

Finally, I just had to skim through the book until I found the part where the narrator actually got to one of the events she’d been avoiding. Then I read a few pages to satisfy myself it wasn’t a huge bait-and-switch. Once I knew that things were eventually going to go somewhere, I was perfectly satisfied to keep reading.

My point here is not that I hate it when information is withheld until late in the novel. Actually, I have no problem with that. Plenty of realist novels do that (e.g. Invisible Man, The Woman Upstairs, and Notes From The Underground), and it doesn’t bother me. But there’s something about nonrealist novels that withhold information which gets my hackles up, and it’s almost entirely because of a few novels (and TV shows) that gave me a frustrating experience that left me with trust issues.

5 thoughts on “Caitlin Kiernan’s _The Drowning Girl_

  1. Morlock Publishing (@MorlockP)

    > In some way, you’re exposing a deficiency in yourself.

    I was about to object to this, specifically noting…

    > Oftentimes, the problem is too much sophistication.

    Ah. Yes. Exactly.

    I don’t think it’s a deficiency to be too sophisticated. Oh, sure, perhaps at some points “too much sophistication” is a problem – if your palate is so sophisticated that anything less than a molecular gastronomic meal from El Bulli fails to thrill you, and you can’t enjoy a very well prepared steak, etc.

    But what about the child like palate that only likes spaghetti-o’s? Oversalted, oversugared, bland…is it really a deficiency in my if I announce “I don’t like canned spaghetti rings”?

    True, a good footnoted to add is “…but I entirely respect the right of a 5 year old to enjoy them”; I’ll grant you that.

    Yes, spaghetti-o’s have gone through a rigorous filter: product managers have decided that the product will sell to mothers of five year olds, and this has been confirmed by the market place.

    …but does that tell us that spaghetti-os are good food? Does it tell us that we’re wrong to think less of a 40 year old man who prefers spaghetti-o’s over steak, a well prepared lasagna, or chicken tika masala?

    I think that childish things are good for children, bridging the gap as a child develops a palate. So I do not condemn things as bad if they’re more appropriate for some small group. But that being said, it’s also reasonable to expect some refinement of palate in an adult, and it’s reasonable to say “I don’t like this” of things that appeal only to unsophisticated palates.

    My two cents.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Yes, I don’t think it’s bad to condemn the spaghetti-O lover, necessarily. Like, I was unafraid to say that I didn’t think _The Hunt For Red October_ was pretty bad. It’s just not very good at doing what it’s supposed to do (which is provide excitement). It’s a “thriller” that’s actually quite boring.

      I’ve often noticed this problem when I read subpar (but beloved, best-selling, and often awards-nominated) genre work. It’s not that it fails to succeed on some abstract literary level that I only understand because I’m too sophisticated. Overrated genre work usually fails in the exact same areas where it’s supposed to be good. People will praise a work for having complex worldbuilding (when it’s actually full of holes and cliche) or an enduring love story (when the love story is actually tepid and by-the-numbers). I almost never post about these books, simply because I feel like I can’t communicate with the people who like them except by saying, in effect, that they’re not sophisticated enough as readers. Instead, I’d prefer to think that they grasp some aspect of it that I’m failing to get. Or that they value something about it in a way that I don’t understand. Like…maybe some people just appreciate slower pacing in their thrillers. I don’t know.

      1. Morlock Publishing (@MorlockP)

        Interesting; I think you’re not engaging with my point, but are instead raising an (also very interesting) different point.

        I’m saying: “it is fair to judge things as being objectively mediocre”.

        You’re saying: “it is fair to judge things as failing to meet the standards that they themselves claim to achieve”.

        Mine is more of an objective complaint about items (and implies a “privileged”, as the kids would say, criterion), whereas yours avoids the need to make any objective statements about what is good and what is not, and instead asks the question “is this work hypocritical”?

        At least, I think that describes our two different stances.

        1. R. H. Kanakia

          Yeah, I just didn’t know what to say about your actual point. I’d say that spaghetti-Os are a pretty impressive achievement. And they’re still pretty delicious.

          In the abstract, I suppose it’s very possible to judge that something is objectively mediocre. But I’d be hesitant to do it for any particular work of art, simply because that’s kind of a power play. You’re saying “If you’d read more books, you wouldn’t enjoy this.” That’s a pretty bold assertion to make. You’re basically saying you’re a better reader than the other person. I’d be pretty careful about saying that.

          Furthermore, it’s my observation that this isn’t necessarily true. There are lots of people who are very well read who really enjoy works that I think are pretty mediocre (I think of a work as being mediocre if I can see its appeal, but I think that everything it’s doing has been done better by other works). I can’t really account for that under my “sophistication” model. Sometimes the answer might be that if _I_ was a more sophisticated reader, then I’d be able to perceive the worth in work that I think of as being mediocre. Perhaps its mediocre w/r/t all the qualities that I am capable of perceiving, but is excellent on some other, different, heretofore-unperceived-by-me, metric.

  2. mattllavin

    You might remember that I really liked this book, even though it hit me in a really unexplainable way. I’m looking forward to hearing your deconstruction of it once you finish, if only to help me better understand what I thought of it.
    I agree that its meandering passages and somewhat bait-and-switch tactics were frustrating. Even though it ultimately delivers on the BIG EVENTS that it keeps saying it’s going to have, I don’t remember thinking that those events particularly stood out.

    I was very impressed with the voice, as well as the confidence the author had in telling the story in the way she told the story. There’s something really insular about the book, in that it goes so deep into the main character’s inner life. I thought that was pretty consistent with the self-absorption of that character. The character thinks the story she has to tell is hugely important — however personal and insular — and the author takes the main character seriously about that and delivers that for them. That’s interesting, to me.
    And I loved that there are two entire short stories in the book, written by the protag, and that the stories are good.

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