I write this blog so that I can work through the craft of novels and short stories. I have a hard time seeing structure or defining other writer’s tricks without writing about their work myself. I can’t just process fiction in my head or in conversation with others–I need to write about it. Sometimes, when I don’t like a book, I don’t write about it. It makes me feel like a jerk. But, in those cases, I am left feeling a little confused and unmoored. So I am going to write about The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, not to be a jerk, but to understand why I didn’t like a book it seems that so many people did.
First of all, I will say that this novel was super readable. I was happy to sit down with it before bed for the last few nights. I know it seems demented, but this is part of what I didn’t like about it. I don’t usually want to read before bed because I like books that make me work, not relax. In this case, I had no work to do–Ms. Wolitzer did all of it for me. I never had to sit and wonder why a character was doing what he or she was doing, why a relationship was going the way it was going–I didn’t even have to wonder what was going to happen next. Everything was right there on the page. Wonder why the central character of the book, awkward Jules Jacobson-Boyd, fell into a worshipful friendship with five “interesting” kids she meets at a summer arts camp she attends on scholarship? Wonder not! Again and again, Ms. Wolitzer makes sure that the reader knows the fascination each person exacts on Jules, and she on them. The inner lives and psychology of all the characters are explained in detail, often ad nauseum. Because of this, I never felt invested or attached to any of them. I was told with extreme clarity why the summer camp they all met at held such sway over them, why the relationships they formed there last their whole lives, and it was almost as if Ms. Wolitzer relied on the trust of her reader to take her word for it. I didn’t feel any of it.
The reason the reader needn’t worry what will happen next comes from a quirk of the novel’s structure. It loops around itself, a scene in the present leading directly into its antecedent. The reader learns that two characters are married, then reads through a backtracking tale of their meeting. There’s no “will they or won’t they” because, of course, they will. This gives the novel a deflated, after-the-fact quality. When I look for suspense in a work of literary fiction, I’m not looking to be scared, but to be actively involved in what might happen, to be looking for ways in, to be tying details together in my head. There was no opportunity for that kind of pleasurable work here. Every page was a controlled, closed experience.
This is truly a pet peeve and not a true criticism (I think) but it drove me nuts that the characters in this novel were constantly, until the very end, referred to by their full first and last names. There were not a lot of people in play in this book–there were no repeated names–there is absolutely no reason I could see to read constantly about Ethan Figman, Ash Wolf, and Jonah Bay rather than Ethan, Ash, and Jonah. They were also constantly qualified by their most salient physical traits. Ethan was referred to, over and over again, as “ugly,” Ash as “delicate,” Jonah as “beautiful”–and, worst of all–Robert as “Japanese-American.” I mean, if a character is named Robert Takahashi, do we really need to have it explained even once that he is of Japanese descent? I won’t count the number of times, but I don’t have to–I think calling a character “ugly” more than once is a problem. After the first time I’m introduced to a character, I get a picture of him or her in my head. Sure, the writer can add to that over the book, but he or she should be ADDING to it, not repeating the same exact description. It seemed like a huge waste of words to me.
This is also a personal preference and would have deterred me from picking up this book had I not read a whole bunch of really good things about it before buying it, but the fact that the novel took place over forty or so years without being particularly long and without skipping over any large swathes of time seemed problematic. Covering that much time meant that lots happened in summary. For example, the dramatic break up of one of the book’s central relationships, which almost caused a mirrored implosion in another one, is resolved in half of a sentence. They just got back together, somewhere off the page. After the whole novel had been leading up to the reason they split. Another example is that, near the start of the book, it is casually mentioned that a child is on the autism spectrum; this fact surfaces as a major plot point later in the book but is completely robbed of its power because the reader already knew, a long, long time ago. These interpersonal dramas were most important in the book, but other issues that were explored included: rape, divorce, AIDS, clinical depression, autism, class, feminism, wealth-inequality, child labor, cancer, LSD, child abuse, the Moonies and–seriously–much more. There was a moment when I absolutely swear she almost made Jules’s daughter transgender; I bet there is a draft out there in which that happened. Too much! All of these issues coexist in real life, but when they coexist in a not-very-long book, none of them can possibly be given enough attention and weight.
So there it is. I’m sure–I know–many people disagree with me about this one. I’m happy this book its champions.