Wednesday, September 4, 2013
A REASON TO NOT READ
I’ve just decided to quit reading Heday, a novel by Kurt Andersen, after 483 pages of the 620 pages.
The problem is not so much with Heyday (though it has some problems) as with me. I’ve become a mean-spirited reader. I’m picking apart the book. In spite of my first-hand knowledge of the time and effort that goes into writing a novel, and this is an ambitious historical fiction, my approach has sunk to a sort of scavenger hunt.
How did this happen?
Anderson set forth to create an ambitious narrative about five people who journey across North America in 1848 and, according to the book’s 26 quoted reviewers, succeeded beautifully—a “tour de force” according to the Baltimore Sun. More glowing tributes: “riveting historical detail” (Entertainment Weekly); “command of the period” (The New Yorker). You get the idea. This book has more compliments than most writers get in a lifetime.
My problem began as early as page 24 when Andersen speaks of “India rubber overshoes.” A flag goes up. The rubber of 1848 melted or turned brittle in the weather, but maybe there were shoes. I gave him the benefit of the doubt. When steel first showed up in spectacles, I hesitated. That was followed by a steel blade on a pistol, followed by a steel plow. Steel was so difficult to produce and so expensive at the time it’s incredible there would be a plow.
A WEDGE IN CREDIBILITY
Anderson had flipped my switch. From that time on, I looked for failures in accuracy, most often anachronisms. When he mentioned celebrating Thanksgiving Day, the plot and characters became less interesting than looking for the author’s next mistake. In any given night, I wrote question marks by items referenced in the text, things such as a urinal, tube of paint, cigarette, pink daffodil. Did they exist in America in 1848? Historical fiction is a genre that lends itself to vicious games of this sort.
To continue reading would be a little like living with a faithless lover not because you love him, but just for the satisfaction of catching him in another deception.