The Comparison Curse

27 Aug

Blurbs comparing a current author to an old literary stalwart present a pretty obvious double-edged sword. They instantly speak to their target demographic (if you liked this, you’ll loooove this!), and manage to make a book stand out just a little bit more on that busy table of new, seemingly identical and obscure debut novels. On the other hand, forget trying to read that book without constantly comparing the two authors. And who do you think usually makes out better? The generally agreed upon genius, or the plucky new modern author who is automatically more fallible simply because of their newness?

Amy Sackville’s The Still Point, published early this year, had a stellar blurb to its name, courtesy of author Francis Spufford: “If Virginia Woolf had had a younger sister with a passionate interest in icebergs, she might have written something like this beautiful, unearthly novel […]” First time novelists would kill for this kind of association – or would they? I haven’t read that book yet, only skimmed the first couple chapters, but spent the whole time looking for reasons why Sackville’s writing was or was not like Woolf’s, like some kind of “Spot the Difference” challenge from Highlights magazine.

Unfortunately, I suffered the same compulsion when reading True Things About Me, by Deborah Kay Davies. ‘The Bell Jar for the twenty-first century’ proclaims Trezza Azzopardi on the front cover. And as gripping as the book was, I couldn’t help but notice all the ways in which it was not The Bell Jar. I remember relating much more with Plath’s cynical mid-century heroine Esther Greenwood than with Davies’ nameless black sheep. Granted, I was probably in my late teens when I first read The Bell Jar, so might have been more inclined to appreciate the angst. And of course, relating to the main character isn’t the be all and end all of a book, but that distinction made reading these works very different experiences for me.

In a nutshell, the True Things protagonist falls into an obsessive, dangerous, darkly sexual relationship with an ex-con. And actually, there’s not much more to that nutshell, making the story more suited to a movie than a novel, I thought. I felt like I needed a few pre-plot points of reference to help anchor myself to Davies’ heroine, but instead I was instantly pulled into this ultra-destructive, downward spiraling affair – which was possibly the point, but it made it all the more difficult to understand the motivations of the heroine. Why is “she” so obsessed with “him?” What, if anything, was so wrong in her life before he showed up, to make her so vulnerable to the charms of such a brutal, repulsive man?

I should also admit that part of my reluctance to relate to “her” was that my deep-rooted prude had a hard time dealing with the frequency and intensity of the sexually violent scenes. I’m guessing most people had the same reaction, but I think I needed something – even just one thing – to make me feel like I knew why this woman would allow herself to be in this situation. Why she would risk her job, friends, family, house, car, personal safety, self respect, life savings (and on and on) for this hunky piece of evil. Her one friend in the book, Alison (finally, a name!), stands in as the reader proxy, with her baby-having, job-keeping, TV-watching middle class values and obvious perplexity at her friend’s bad choices. But her inclusion in the book only increases the sense of frustration, because there’s nothing she can do to help her friend, either.

This lack of connection between me and the narrator continued to distract me throughout the book. Perhaps mistakenly, I kept waiting for her to act in some way that I would act, or for some information to come to light that would explain her decisions. Instead, she pays lip service to the fact that she’s put herself in terrible danger, but doesn’t seem to really believe it. After one particularly gut-wrenching scene, she ruminates on what has just happened with a sort of out-of-body perspective:

Something terrible has happened to me, I whispered, standing in the kitchen. It was like a film set. Obviously the kitchen of a nice woman.

When I managed to ignore (or embrace) the intrinsic uncomfortableness of the book, I was enthralled. There’s a sick sense of enjoyment in watching such a spectacular breakdown unfold. And despite the considerable shock value she wields, Davies doesn’t at all rely on the cheap tricks of sex and violence alone – she describes this person’s deterioration in meticulous, painful, emotional detail. She just doesn’t tell us why.

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4 Responses to “The Comparison Curse”

  1. novelinsights August 27, 2010 at 9:57 pm #

    Good review Lija! I was actually put off reading this book by the comparison to The Bell Jar. I like The Bell Jar, but I’m dubious about those kind of comparisons!!

    • Lija August 29, 2010 at 9:05 pm #

      Thanks. The other problem would be if you don’t even like the first, more famous author. It might turn people off a book that’s actually quite different.

  2. Nymeth August 28, 2010 at 6:58 am #

    I think this would have baffled me in all the same ways it did you. I don’t need to understand a character’s every choice a priori, but the thing I like about literature is exactly that by the end of the book I’m supposed to have some insight.

    And yeah, that kind of book probably does young writers a disfavour. I’d love to read a book like the one Spufford describes, but that’s a LOT to live up to.

    • Lija August 29, 2010 at 9:08 pm #

      It was definitely interesting to have a think about what I actually expect from characters in books. I’m just so used to giving fictional characters some armchair psychoanalysis, and it’s weird when that’s not an option.

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