According to the back cover of the book, George Singleton is a ‘master of the comic short story’. He has been published in some pretty impressive places, and I like humorous prose, so despite some rather negative things my sweetie said about the book, I secretly held hopes that her negative experience was more an issue with Singleton’s style and that I would enjoy the ride.
Novel is written in the first person, narrated by a man named Novel who spends a significant chunk of the story trying to write a novel. Because of a divorce surrounded by an odd series of events, he finds himself in the backwater South Carolina town of Gruel. Gruel is populated by an odd assortment of characters, but it is a dying town. The locals are convinced that Novel’s novel will put them on the map, and rekindle the economy of the town.
The book is written in a rambling, meandering style that took me along with it. Believe me, I know rambling. The opening two-thirds of the book is about our narrator bumbling along, becoming increasingly paranoid, and telling and retelling his history — which changes, evolving in a very interesting way. There’s a lot of foreshadowing in the opening 75%, which is to say we haven’t really got to the plot yet.
Mr. Singleton’s humor shows through, as do his short-story leanings. In a short story he wouldn’t have had time to beat some of the jokes into the ground with such force. (For instance, his adoptive older siblings are named James and Joyce, and “James, Joyce, Novel” is worked pretty hard.) Other parts seem like they’re in there to set up some sort of comic payoff, but never come through.
One of the jokes Singleton beats on quite often is “Books about writing novels say never to do…” and then in the next sentence he breaks that rule. He breaks a lot of rules in this book, and seems to think that pointing out that he knows he is breaking the rule makes it all right. Usually what he accomplishes is to demonstrate by counterexample that the rules exist for a reason. Rules are made to be broken, but not just so you can point at the rule like a proud three-year-old who just broke a vase.
The town has secrets, lots of secrets. As we learn more about the people of Gruel, we discover that they are not the simple, naïve country bumpkins we first thought. Oh, no, not at all. That’s pretty cool. But wait — under a veneer of obtuseness, their plan for Novel is woefully simple-minded. How do these savvy people ever buy into it? The contradiction is never resolved, in fact, Singleton is caught in his own trap. All the characters he introduces are against the grand scheme for Novel. He can’t show us any of the people who think the plot is a good idea, because they would betray the inherent contradiction.
At the end, lots of things happen. Everything comes to a head, people are coming out of nowhere (James and Joyce? But why?), and our boy Novel is in the thick of it. Then a Huge Coincidence occurs, and everyone shrugs and goes home again, nothing changed, nothing resolved, and a lot unexplained; humor pistols loaded in the first act lie undischarged in the third.
The book grinds to a stop leaving a big a pile of unresolved events that we had passed, that I assumed would have some sort of significance. Just why the hell did the owner of the surplus store want Novel to find the knives buried behind the hotel? As I closed the book, I felt like there was some big explanation I’d missed (notwithstanding the big explanation that was provided). I suspect it never left the author’s head and found its way to the page.
I mentioned in a previous review that just because an author is writing a farce doesn’t mean he can just throw out a new coincidence whenever he loses momentum; everything still has to hang together and make sense in that farcical context. I don’t think Mr. Singleton has learned that lesson yet.
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