This year, I’m starting to separate the books I’m reading into two categories: the ones that can keep me awake, and the ones that can’t.

There’s nothing wrong with the books that don’t keep me awake. It isn’t because they’re boring, and it isn’t because they’re badly written. (If they’re boring or badly written, I just stop reading them. I don’t feel compelled to finish every book I start.) I suspect it may be, often, because they’re too well written.

I got thinking about this partly because my partner has been reading his way through George R.R. Martin. The back cover of one of them  called them insomnia inducing, or something similar.

While there is not a book on earth that can induce insomnia in me – I am a world class sleeper – I recently read (along with half the world) The Hunger Games, and found that it riveted my attention and kept me crisply alert well past my usual snooze point. To be honest, I’m not even quite sure why. I’ve read books that are more engaging, more exciting, and more more-ish, in that unputdownable way. But there was something about it, and I can only assume it was the combination of its prose, its narrative, and the quality of its imagination that kept me present, engaged, and reading. There is a ruthless efficiency to this novel: it was well thought through, well imagined, well paced. This is going to sound like a weird comparison, but I was reminded a little bit of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, because both of them are about young women with a skill set far removed from my own, struggling to survive in an inimical environment. They’re both quite grounded in real, physical, outdoorsy detail – of course, in The Hunger Games much of the detail is imagined – in a way that makes both books feel truthful. The Hunger Games is experiential, rather than literary: this is what it might really feel like to be trapped inside a contest where you have to fight to the death, and these are some of the useful skills that will help you succeed. I don’t read a lot of thrillers featuring men with guns called Jack, but I suspect they offer similar pleasures.

An aside: There have been a lot of people trying to connect The Hunger Games with the Twilight series, but only a cursory glance would show you that the two series have very little in common. At its heart, Twilight is a swooning romance, while The Hunger Games is action and adventure. The romance aspects of it are decidedly secondary. (Not perfunctory exactly, but secondary. Perhaps they come to the fore in later books – I’ve only read the first of the series.)

In contrast to The Hunger Games, I’m now reading Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, “a zombie novel with brains”, as it says on the cover. (Despite being about zombies, it is really a literary novel.) Whitehead’s novel has smart, sly, witty prose, subtle and allusive. Although ostensibly set across three days, the narrative moves backwards and forwards in time in a non-linear pattern of flashbacks, reflections and observations. It’s a story about a time after time, about the end of civilisation, the end of meaning, the end of relationships, and all the structuring principles that used to hold us all together. It’s about grief and loss. It also has a satirical streak, poking fun at the medical profession as they invent new categories of mental illness that pathologize everyday existence, or treat even the worst catastrophes as something that can be solved by marketing. His zombies come in two kinds: the ravening walking dead-style skels, and stragglers. These are the dead who don’t know they’re dead. They’re not hungry, and they don’t move. They’re simply transfixed, caught in a moment – looking at a photocopier, making a cup of coffee – from which they never emerge. The novel finds great poignancy in these glimpses into the mysterious lives of others, frozen moments like photographs (nature morte), seen from a point where they’re already gone and lost, destined to remain mysterious, their complexity and human truth lost to chaos forever. I suppose this is one of the great tropes of the post-apocalyptic narrative – that our lives, which seem so important and complex as we’re living them, can be destroyed in an instant, all meaning emptied out, leaving behind only a trail of meaningless belongings, empty rooms, abandoned cars, the shells of bodies shorn of names and flesh and mind, leaving behind only a destructive hunger.

(Another aside: I suppose it’s not so surprising, in this time of global warming, that so many artists of all kinds are interested in a vision of humanity where we’re all turned into hungry, hyper-destructive, mindless creatures who’ll eat up the entire world until there’s nothing left.)

So it’s an intriguing, thoughtful, and slyly funny book. But unfortunately, slippery and allusive prose just leads me down the paths to dreamland. Every night when I pick the book back up I have to back up a few pages just to make sense of where I was up to, because I can always tell my mind was drifting long before I put the book down. And in a book that makes demands on you as a reader, and expects you to be making connections and paying attention, you’d have to agree that that’s not an ideal way to be reading.

I’m actually enjoying Zone One quite a lot. I just feel like I’m not really doing it justice as a reader. Whereas I feel like I got as much out of The Hunger Games as there was to get, and we should both be very satisfied with that.

So I’m looking forward to the day when I can give every book the attention it deserves. One day.

 

 

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