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.