It’s difficult to pinpoint why it’s so, but there are certain books I’ve read that are decently well-written but that simply do not leave anything behind in me, except the vague, unnerving notion that I’ve a poor, misbegotten memory. For example, Plainsong, by Kent Haruf, or The Great Fire, by Shirley Hazzard. These novels sit on my bookshelf, puzzling me when I remember to notice them. Now I can add Edna O’Brien’s Wild Decembers to the list.
What is it that makes these otherwise prettily written novels so ineffective? It isn’t that “nothing much happens” in them–that would be both false and irrelevant. In Wild Decembers, for instance, a great deal happens: multiple betrayals, stolen embraces, legal battles, an unwanted pregnancy, institutionalization in an insane asylum, and, finally, even a murder. Is it because the tales are meandering, dream-like? It does sometime seem that the language itself, so poetic and careful, serves a certain mood rather than the narrative. O’Brien’s writing reminds me of Marilynne Robinson’s, but, obviously, to lesser effect.
To show you what I mean, I provide the opening paragraph from the novel’s prologue:
Cloontha it is called–a locality within the bending of an arm. A few scattered houses, the old fort, lime-dank and jabbery and from the great whooshing belly of the lake between grassland and callow land a road, sluicing the little fortresses of ash and elder, a crooked road to the mouth of the mountain. Fields that mean more than fields, more than life and more than death too. In the summer months calves going suck suck suck, blue dribble threading from their black lips, their white faces stark as clowns. Hawthorn and whitethorn, boundaries of dreaming pink. Byroad and bog road. The bronze gold grasses in a tacit but unremitting sway. Listen. Shiver of wild grass and cluck of wild fowl. Quickening.
Mercilessly poetic, no?
Wild Decembers is also a fairly ordinary tale, and one that has little emotional resonance. Perhaps it is this last point that makes it so forgettable. The battling between Joseph and Bugler seems silly, inaccessible. It’s difficult to care about because it’s too easy to dismiss Joseph. He seems, literally, insane. And then his sister Breege, who, though absent in many (most?) scenes, is perhaps the story’s central (or at least more relatable) character, also dances out of the orbit of our empathy by the novel’s end. Should we just accept her strange reaction, her silence, because O’Brien writes so obscurely? I would think not. Described in plain language, the whole episode–indeed, maybe the whole novel–would seem tawdry. And finally the stoic, dazzlingly handsome Bugler: almost just an ordinary cad, a cad with a conscience.
I could not sink my teeth into it. It didn’t seem worth sinking into.