Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Mineral Palace

Most books that I deem as horrible make me angry. I get angry because the author wasted my time and energy with their drivel. I get angry because somehow they wrangled publication while other talented writers struggle to have their works made available. With novels, I get angry because the writer has created a world for me, a very powerful thing to do, and not given me any reason to care about my being there. It's like being invited somewhere on vacation and then hanging out at Rite-Aid the whole time.

I'm not angry with Heidi Julavits. The Mineral Palace is a horrible book, one of the worst novels I've read, but I'm not angry with her. I feel sort of sad for her. I have to wonder about a person who can write a novel completely bereft of positivity. Even Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, which I think is one of the bleaker books I've read, manages to evoke some essence of hope here and there. Julavits does not want any of that in this book. Her book reminded me of a series of stomach blows. Just gut punch after gut punch. Even if something could remotely be construed as positive, she found some way to take care of it. One of my favorite lines of the book (favorite in being exemplary of the gutpunchiness of her story) is the end of this section:

He was not the man for her, yet she agreed to be his girlfriend because there were no more eligible candidates at the lake in early summer that year; the Elliott boys had gone to Europe, the Walkers were hiking in the Rockies, Jibby Hatchet had been struck by a car over the winter and maimed.

The novel revolves around Bena, a woman forced to move to Pueblo, Colorado with her husband and child when her physician husband is kicked out of town for not giving drugs illegally to the mayor's daughter. Bena thinks that her husband, Ted, runs around on her. Their child, Ted, Jr., is completely non-responsive to stimuli. Bena befriends a cowboy missing two fingers who is good friends with a local prostitute. The story is about suffering. It's omnipresent. No matter who you are, no matter what you do, you will suffer. Especially so if you live in a desolate hellhole like Pueblo.

It was pretty clear early on that there would never be any hope in this book. No happy ending at all. Why did I stick it out to the end? At first I liked Julavits' writing. She is very descriptive. Elmore Leonard would disapprove immensely. It got to the point, though, where I felt the descriptions were only necessary to evoke continued negativity. I can get that a place is a dive without hearing about every rust stain and crack. The descriptions started wearing on me as much as the story.

There are also a lot of continuity problems. First, Bena supposedly has a thing for numbers and sees all sorts of meaning in them, theoretically like in An Invisible Sign of My Own (and one of the things that drew me to this book). Unlike Bender's book, though, the number manipulation is inane and bungling. Bena comes up with all sorts of transformations to make her interpret events as good or bad. At least she does for about a third or half of the book. Then it stops and something that is supposed to be important and a character trait of Bena is never brought up again. Then there are oddities like Bena sitting on a floor cross-legged but two paragraphs later she is standing and leaning against the wall. It felt like Julavits was so intent on providing detail she couldn't keep track of them all.

This has been a bad month for books. Three of my four zero star reviews have come in the past two weeks. Yikes. Might be time to break out some Christopher Morley.

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