Friday, 15 December 2006

Perfume That Attracts and Repels

Patrick Suskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is a novel about the life and career of an orphan boy born in eighteenth century Paris. Suskind’s first sentence refers to Jean-Baptiste Grenouille as a "gifted and abominable man", and that does sum up Grenouille as well as any phrase that occurs to me. Grenouille is a gruesome creature, seemingly both because he’s a product of brutish treatment, and because it is his nature to be. His genius lies in his nose, as he has infallible recall for any scent he has ever encountered and a bloodhound’s ability to track the scents of beings miles away, or behind walls. The story of his efforts to experience the world through his nose and conquer the world through his ability to create scents — and the extreme and horrific methods he uses to do so — isn’t a pleasant one, but it is enthralling. I read the second half of the book in a single sitting today despite the fact that a number of pressing tasks awaited me.

It’s much more difficult to review a good book than a bad one. With the bad novel the reviewer has readymade topics and the keen if low pleasure of snarking. When I try to write a piece on a good to stellar novel I usually spend a lot of time staring morosely at the cover of the book, trying to figure out what angle to take so that I can say something other than unadulterated praise, which is boring and will make me sound like a groupie — or perhaps just intellectually lazy. At the publishing company where I work we editors are regularly asked to double-check each other’s productions. When I get, say, an especially carefully prepared newsletter to proofread I often end up putting more effort into checking for errors than usual, because I’m worried if I don’t find a single mistake the other editor will think I didn’t really try.

Also beneath all these other concerns is usually the feeling that I don’t want to pick apart a book I love, anymore than I would want to pull a rose to pieces. I’m so reluctant to maul a well-crafted book with my clumsy analysis, not because I can possibly injure the book, but because the ineptitude of my efforts show up so much more clearlywhen contrasted with its artistry. These motives are all working in me right now, and I’ve decided to solve the problem of an angle by heading off into vaguely related topic that kept occurring to me as I read Perfume.

As I read I kept reflecting on certain other books or short stories that I have read that bear a sort of likeness to Perfume. These other works also involved a repulsive, unsympathetic main protagonist, and are almost unbearable to read because of their content. I suppose the genre can be roughly classified as literary horror. I kept musing over whether each writer had succeeded or failed in what he or she attempted to do. There seems to be no formula for success, as indeed there isn’t in literature. Each work always fails or succeeds on its own merits and in its totality.

A Clockwork Orange was a book that came to mind, for instance. And it is a success, of course. The whole point of Anthony Burgess’s work is the very banality of the sociopathic narrator’s voice and mindset. He’s ordinary, he’s violent, he’s remorseless, he's nonchalant, and you don’t even mind reading what he has to say because he’s so matter of fact about it all and because there’s a certain cool style in his use of slang and nonchalance. The horror lies in the very lack of horror.

The short story Clay by George Romero is another example. In Clay a mentally handicapped, socially isolated man crafts himself companions out of clay, and his efforts to make them as realistic as possible become more and more extreme and monstrous. I deem this one a failure because it has nothing attractive in it to grip the reader. In a horror novel one must provide something that holds the reader to counterbalance the repelling effect of the horror. There certainly is horror and repulsiveness enough in this story, but as I read I found myself physically turning my head aside, pulling back from the book. Nothing made me want to read it but the fact that I had to turn the pages anyway to get the next story in the anthology that contained it. I barely skimmed the last ten pages because I found the story so unbearable. Had it been much longer than 22 pages I certainly would never have finished it.

Another book that occurred to me, that perhaps may seem an odd or unsuitable choice if I’m supposedly discussing the genre of literary horror, is Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall On Your Knees. Fall On Your Knees is more often described as an epic, or a multigenerational saga than as horror. Frankly, I can only call it wretched. I’ll never review it properly for this site because I can’t bear the thought of re-reading it, and I doubt I’ll ever read the sequel, The Way the Crow Flies.

I was obsessed with Fall On Your Knees in a very negative way when I read it some years back. It’s quite long, and I hated almost every moment I spent reading it. The only part I enjoyed was Kathleen’s beautiful and lyrical diary of her days as a music student in New York — which sojourn ended suddenly with a horrific incident that dragged me back into the sewer that is the rest of the book. I remember how in the week or two that I spent reading the book I complained to a friend in email after email how much I hated it. Reasonably enough, she asked me WHY I kept reading it and even tried ordering me to stop. I replied that I couldn’t, that I just had to finish it. It’s a testament to MacDonald’s sheer narrative force that Fall on Your Knees should be so compulsively readable that I finished the book despite considering it the literary equivalent of thumbscrews. And I haven’t — at least, not at the distance of three or four years — a stylistic fault to find with it.

My whole experience of being made miserable by Fall on Your Knees lasted even longer than the actual reading. I could not understand why the book was so popular. Had I missed something? Was I a prissy, limited reader incapable of the empathetic and imaginative stretch it would take to enjoy something like this book? I scoured the internet for commentary on the book looking for a key to understanding how anyone could love it. I read reviews of Fall on Your Knees which usually didn’t seem to be about the book I had read. If my memory serves me correctly, one reviewer claimed it was an evocative depiction of family life in Cape Breton in the twenties. If I were a Cape Bretoner I would object to that assessment quite strongly. Perhaps I'd also produce a statistic or two about the rarity of families boasting pedophiliac, incestuous, bootlegging patriarchs.

Oprah Winfrey later selected Fall On Your Knees for her book club. This did not faze me. Although I applaud Winfrey’s efforts to get America reading and respect that she probably has realized demonstrable success in this endeavour, I can’t show the same enthusiasm for her literary taste. Yes, her books are a step up artistically for those who normally might only read romance or detective novels, but I would hope those who made that step would keep on climbing. I don’t feel any need to align my literary taste with Winfrey’s. She is just one person, after all. I wasn’t even bothered by her pronouncement that she was discontinuing her book club because "there weren’t enough good books", because I automatically amended her statement to "she can’t possibly have enough reading time to find the good books". What did bother me was that before she had singled out Fall On Your Knees, tens of thousands of people were reading the book and independently coming to the conclusion that they enjoyed it.

I still have not settled my internal "is it my failing or is it MacDonald’s" debate over this book, though fortunately the debate eventually dimmed and quieted. I can only say again, as I said about Clay, that a book that has horrifying, repulsive content must have some sufficiently attractive qualities to compensate. Perfume has enough attractive qualities. Grenouille has genius, artistry, and achieves at a high level, which are always compelling, no matter what their context. Perfume is well plotted and suspenseful. The concept is original and the idea that scent is such a profound and unrealized force in our lives is an intriguing one. These things compensate for the repellent force of Grenouille’s cold-bloodedness — and for the silliness of the novel’s climactic scene and denouement (scent may be an unrecognized power in our lives but I refuse to believe it's as powerful as Suskind's scenario suggests).

I can’t say that Fall On Your Knees has achieved this sort of balance between attraction and repulsion. I wanted, somewhere in the course of my reading of it, to experience a positive emotion, to be inspired, to be moved, to admire, to empathize. Instead the experience was more like that of watching the lowest kind of talk show. I came to know too much about a group of people about whom I couldn't bring myself to care, and I was only repelled.

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