Things I Couldn't Get Into

 “The Gambler,” a famed song from the late Kenny Rogers has a line that goes, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em/Know when to fold ‘em/Know when to walk away.” Good advice. Here are four things I started but never finished,­ and a fifth I wish I hadn’t.

The Topeka School: A Novel (FSG Originals, 304 pages was a finalist for the 2019 National Book Award. It’s a bildungsroman­—a work that explores the psychological development of a character—but reads more like automatic writing. The opening spotlights highschooler Adam Gordon, a skilled debater, aspiring poet, and an-oft ignored child of two professional psychologists for something called the Foundation. Once the book jumps from Adam to other characters—each his or her own narrator—it’s hard to connect the strands. Author Ben Lerner was inspired by A Man Named Zeigler, a lesser known Herman Hesse work. I got a third of the way in before bailing on The Topeka School. It's not that I don’t like complex writing; I’m currently re-reading Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, which is no one’s idea of a quick read. To me, though, Lerner seeks to impress rather than entertain. It’s also a bit like Adam: prone to pretentiousness. Adam’s mother, by the way, is allegedly an expert on toxic masculinity. Is that an inside joke? No female character in the book has agency—another reason to avoid this over-hyped piece of self-indulgence.

L.L. Bean is my idea of high fashion. That added to my apprehension about McQueen, a documentary about Lee Alexander McQueen (Bleeker Street Media, 2018, 111 minutes, R for language and nudity). I was prepared to laugh at runway scenes in which the tragically hip oohed and aahed as anorexic models strutted frippery and flashed peek-a-boo looks at their breasts and butts. What I didn’t expect was that the documentary would be so damned boring! McQueen’s family initially rebuffed directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, and their film has the earmarks of being hastily put together before the family changed their minds again. McQueen is a totally conventional pastiche of interviews, home movies, interviews, and runway footage. McQueen (1969-2010) enjoyed a reputation as a flamboyant gay icon and brilliant designer, but he comes off mostly as a bland one-dimensional East End bloke lost in the decadence of the 1980s and ‘90s. After 40 minutes I wondered why I should watch a film about someone I wouldn’t want to engage in a five-minute chat. That’s when this Elvis left the building. 

I love Elizabeth McCracken, but Bowlaway: A Novel (2019, HarperCollins, 407 pages) just didn’t do it for me. It is set in the fictional small Massachusetts town of Salford and opens with promise: Leviticus Sprague, a black doctor and poet originally from New Brunswick, encounters a dazed white woman, Bertha Truitt, sitting in a graveyard. The two eventually have a midlife marriage of the unconventional variety. Alas, the title tells you how the novel spins. It really is about bowling. Bertha owns a bowling alley and the novel becomes a multi-generational Our Town confessional of those who come to the alley and why they bowl. Some stories are discrete; others connect to Sprague, Truitt, and Salford. (Salford is apparently near Boston; the city’s infamous 1919 molasses flood gets some ink.) For reasons not entirely clear, I just couldn’t get into this book. Maybe I struggled with the bowling alley device, or maybe McCracken rolled a 7/10 split.

I was also disappointed by The Starless Sea, the sophomore novel from Erin Morgenstern (2019, Random House, 512 pages). I adored her delicious debut, The Night Circus, which messed with our perceptions of illusion versus magic. The Starless Sea has been compared to the game of Myst. Cross that with an unrealized version of Alice in Wonderland and a bloodless Neil Gaiman fantasy and I’d agree. Zachary Ezra Rollins is the son of a fortuneteller who reads a misshelved library book called Sweet Sorrows, concludes it’s about his own childhood, and grows obsessed with reaching the Starless Sea, which might be his imagination or might be an otherworld. There are pirates, portals to other worlds, a sea of honey, a cloak made of ice, and tons more. I suspect all of this made more sense in Morgenstern’s head than on the page. There was nothing in the 100 pages I read that made me wonder about the next 400.

Have you ever watched a classic film and wondered if “classic” meant “antique?” The Searchers (1956, Directed by John Ford, Warner Brothers, 119 minutes) was one of the first 25 films the Library of Congress added to the National Film Registry. Some consider it one of the 100 greatest American films of all time. There is a prairie full of ways that this film is now offensive: glorification of the Confederacy, whites portraying Native Americans, racism, macho males, docile women….

John Wayne is Ethan Edward, a loner who shows up at his brother Aaron’s West Texas ranch years after the Civil War. He’s psychologically damaged and filled with hatred for Yankees, Indians, and non-whites, including his brother’s adopted son, Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) who is half Indian and is courting a white woman (Vera Miles). Ethan is fond of his nieces Debbie and Lucy, but a Comanche trick sends Ethan and Texas Rangers led by an ex-Confederate captain (Ward Bond) on a wild goose chase. They return to find that Comanches burned the ranch, killed Aaron, his wife, and son Ben. Lucy and Debbie were abducted. Thus begins Ethan’s long journey to find his nieces and confront his inner demons.

It would be wrong to say he overcomes them. Imagine his rage when he finds that little Debbie is now a grown woman (Natalie Wood) assimilated into Comanche culture. The Searchers is at best corny and much of it is deeply offensive. I had also forgotten what a wooden actor Wayne could be. Wilson Hoch’s cinematography dazzles, but the archives is where The Searchers belongs. 

Rob Weir

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