Sunday, March 20, 2016

OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout

Proving again that I've yet to learn my own lesson about contemporary American literary fiction (not to mention the lesson of William H. Gass's biliously hilarious essay "Pulitzer: The People's Prize"), I picked up Elizabeth Strout's '08 Pulitzer winner Olive Kitteridge and was immediately disappointed by Strout's ugly, ungainly, car-crash-in-a-junkyard prose. Her attempts at lyricism tend to tangle, clank, and bloat; her sentences and paragraphs seem shockingly unedited; her modifiers frequently dangle obscenely. Her prose suffers from a kind of syntactic neurofibromatosis: too many paragraphs are clotted with failed phrases like so many unsightly tumors. Her narrative skills likewise lack essentials: she handles time clumsily, reaches for easy clich├ęs, and tells stories that so predictably conform to generic expectations as to induce a feeling of deja lu ('Surely I've read this before...'). By page 8, I was reading with a pen in my hand and line editing the damn book myself!... Looking down at Olive Kitteridge on my desk as I type this, I see myself as a traffic cop at the scene of a fender-bender: Nothing to see here, folks; move on.

The best I can say about this well-reviewed and Pulitzered book is that at least it fails at a rather high level. It's not a Dan Brown-level failure. It leaps for lyricism and fall splat on its ass. But at least Strout makes an effort. An MFA program instructor, she knows what prose is, even if she doesn't write it very well. She aims at Updikean realism but lacks the talent to strike any but the outer circles of that hard target. Strout knows, technically, what she wants to write, but she doesn't have the natural talent to create it with artful ease. The unfortunately overrated Olive Kitteridge is dime-a-dozen MFA realism, standard stuff, nothing special, nothing new.

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