Wednesday, September 1, 2010

on reading lousy novels

on the advice of my chiropractor I've stopped reading while walking so I'm not reading as much as I used to. (like most people, I read with my head at an angle, which elongates my neck and puts extra pressure on my spine and the muscles under my scapula.) I'm pitifully behind in my new yorker, atlantic and harper's reading; but I decided yesterday to take a day for reading nothing but something junky, and I had just the thing.

the corpse in oozak's pond by charlotte macleod is not a bad novel but it is obviously quickly written and not edited much. it may have had a cursory revision after being accepted for publication as most words are spelled right. but I was around and reading mystery novels in 1987, the corpse's publication date, and don't remember anyone in my hearing using ejaculations like "gad!" or elisions like "m'well" or phrases like "how the flaming perdition do I know!"

there's not much point to complaining about it since it's a tea cozy and follows the dictates of the usual cozies: eccentric investigator--dr peter shandy here, veteran of other mysteries--eccentric suspects--the whole extended buggins clan whose pater familias founded the rural vermont agricultural college shandy teaches at--barely competent although sometimes surprising local police--ottermole who's often shandy's watson--and an eccentrically introduced murder victim which conveniently floats to the top of the swiftly thawing titular pond during the local version of groundhog's day. also, people often talk in expostion.

recently I had a diatribe against the tendency of campus novels to bear no relation to real student or faculty experiences and any hopes I may have had that an agricultural college might resemble a tech school were dashed by the following. you must keep in mind this description starts on page 104 of a 214 page novel and constitutes the only mention in the book of anyone actually being in a classroom:

"shandy had classes the next morning...he found his students restive, as students often were, but not usually in professor shandy's classes. while he endeavored to alert them to the secret, evil work of the nematode, they demanded to hear about the secret, evil work of the fiend who'd dumped a corpse into the midst of their groundhog days revels, and was it true the demised had been wearing balaclava buggins's sunday suit?

"professor shandy assured them that the sacred relic was safe in its glass case in the buggins room and that if they expected to pass his course, they'd better keep their minds on the nematode. thenceforth they tried, but it was uphill work for them--and for him...

"gripped by the sophoclean implications of swope's bronchitic epiphany, professor shandy was able to put such pathos into his delivery that he at last succeeded in capturing his students' full and undivided attention. sweeping them on from spider mites to cutworms, he soared to dramatic heights that had every student scribbling in his or her notebook with the concentrated zeal of a locust attacking a turnip green. they left his classroom shaken and trembling but uplifted and fired with a new dedication to the biological control of insect pests. shandy mopped his brow and asked himself, 'where do I go from here?'"

note also the tendency of books like this to have characters with cutesy names like "balaclava buggins"and his distant descendents marietta woozle and grace porble. is it any wonder we allowed ronald reagan to be reelected, AIDS to run rampent, iran-contra to be brought to our attention and then dropped like a hot potato, and responsibility for the exxon valdez spill to just ooze away when this was the type of thing we were reading and writing?

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