I vaguely remember picking this up as part of a sale on Wordsworth Classics, along with Wings of the Dove. After the disappointment that I had with my last classic pick, I was hoping that the unusual subject matter of opium would hook me better than Henry James would.
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater is an account of Thomas de Quincey’s experiences with opium. Addicted after he treated himself with laudanum as a painkiller, he decided to recount the surreal visions that it caused him. I was actually looking forward to reading Confessions of an English Opium-Eater because what’s a more stereotypically Victorian drug than opium? I figured it would be interesting or at least a laugh. That is if it ever got there. I got through the updated introduction and part way through his explanation of how he got hooked on opium, and I had to stop because I was literally falling asleep at my desk trying to read it. He’d start talking on a point and go on a completely unrelated tangent that is of absolutely no interest to the reader. Like when he stated that he was first introduced to opium as a painkiller, he wraps that bit up nice and quickly, only to whinge for several pages about how another author slandered him and his opium usage. And it just wasn’t a fair representation. And it’s not like the other guy can talk, considering that he also uses opium. Stuff like that, that would just drag the pace to a complete snail’s crawl. I know that my pledge when I started this blog was to complete books if at all possible, but there comes a point where it just isn’t worth it.
I wanted to like Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, but the only thing I find myself able to recommend it for is as a sleeping aid. 1/5
I’ve had The Wings of the Dove on my shelf for quite some time now, and it seemed a good time to have a read of it now. I seem to remember that about this time last year, I had just finished Lady Audley’s Secret, and judging by the blurb, this looks to have the same sort of scandal and tragedy. Hopefully without the sharp veer into unnecessary happy ending territory.
The Wings of the Dove follows American heiress Milly Theale, as she travels Europe in what she believes are her last days to live. Along the way, she befriends a pair of lovers, Kate Croy and Merton Densher, who start conspiring to get their hands on her fortune so that they can be married. I wanted so badly to like The Wings of the Dove, but I just couldn’t bring myself to finish it. I’m sure that the plot and characters are stellar, but there were two things that infuriated me and caused me to not finish. The first was the writing style, which was a mess of overworked vocabulary and sentences overstuffed with clauses. During my attempt to read this, it would be a fairly regular occurrence to reach the end of a sentence and have only the slightest idea of what I’d just read. It’s more than a little aggravating having to continually parse what you’re reading, just so that you have an idea of what the hell is going on. The second thing that put me off was the pacing. I stopped at around the 1/3 part, because nothing of interest had actually happened. That book summary that I gave was taken from book blurbs that I’ve read. None of that had actually happened by the time I quit. When it takes you over a third of your novel to get past the set-up and into the main meat of the story, then you have done something terribly wrong.
A disappointing time all round really. The story and the characters could be very well-constructed, but the whole endeavour is sabotaged by a writing style that is overly complicated and overstuffed with unnecessary clauses. Combine that with a pace that is utterly glacial in speed, and I was close to throwing the book out the window in frustration. I wouldn’t recommend to anyone. 1/5
So A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was another book that I picked up in a bundle. It wasn’t necessarily something that I would have picked up on the strength of its blurb or subject matter alone, but I did find my interest piqued by the fact that it won the Pulitzer Prize. I have found prize winners to be something of a mixed bag, but there’s still something about them that makes me want to try them, just to see how I compare to an “expert” panel.
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a memoir following the author’s life in the years following his parents’ cancer-related deaths. He must take responsibility for his younger brother, Toph, who is only 8 when their parents pass away. Thrust suddenly into the role of parent, he has to try and deal with the fact that his new responsibilities prevent him from a lot of activities that he would like to do as a man in his early-twenties. I haven’t actually finished A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I honestly tried, but the thought of trying to slog through any more of this tripe is just depressing. Until this point, I couldn’t understand how there are people out there who genuinely don’t like reading, but I think this book has made me realise how they feel. So, I suppose the big question is what made me not want to finish this one. What it was that made me break the one rule that I have had since starting this blog in January 2011. It was the writing style. While I have expressed a liking for postmodern fiction in previous blog entries, there was something a little too manufactured and artificial about the way that it was presented in A Heartbreaking Work. Metafiction is just one of those things that needs to be properly signposted, instead of thrown into the mix whenever you feel like it. Eggers also seemed to have a grudge against the humble full stop, as his book was full of sentences that went on for-fucking-ever. I get it, you like fragments. How about a sentence that doesn’t make me want to throat punch you and force you to draw breath like a regular human being. Overall, I just got an impression of some dumb twenty-something who is trying to be way too clever in order to compensate for some deep-seated issues that he really should have worked out with a therapist beforehand. Maybe that’s exactly the sort of impression that I was meant to get, but it doesn’t do anything for my enjoyment of the novel. And it’s sort of a shame, because from what I’ve read of him, Eggers seems like a nice guy, with a lot of worthy philanthropic causes that he supports. I feel like he could have given a better account of himself. So there’s a thing that I feel that I should probably address. Why did this book make me DNF and not one of the other books that I have rated 1/5? It’s a fair question. I think the reason that I got through some other terrible books successfully because they invoked an active emotion out of me. Most of the time my response to my 1/5 rated books has been anger, or occasionally horrified amusement. Regardless of which, both of those states make me feel energised, make me feel like my mind is going a mile a minute, and I absolutely love those moments when I can get that on paper. Since starting this blog, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is the first book that made me feel like my soul was being sapped with every extraneous fragment and with every time he referred to himself or his brother as god-like. Usually my less pleasant reads leave me feeling shaky or overwrought, but never before have I felt sapped of energy. The only word that I can think of for this is grey, like it’s wrung out all the interest in my brain and left me with dishwater for a soul. If this is what some people’s experience of reading is, then I can see why you wouldn’t want to try it again. So yeah, I’m altering my rule. I will now allow for DNFs if a book makes me actively wonder why I like reading in the first place.
Never before has a book left me so drained of enthusiasm. Usually I get angry at books I don’t like. This time, I just don’t have the energy. It’s the first book I’ve DNF’d in over 7 years, and I am just stunned that I found something that could beat even my stamina for not-so-great books. I’m sure there’s an audience for this, but I couldn’t even begin to understand who it would consist of. 1/5