Sunday, 4 September 2011

The Visible World (Mark Slouka)

--The blurb--
"The unnamed narrator of The Visible World, the American-born son of Czech immigrants living in New York, grows up in an atmosphere haunted by fragments of a past he cannot understand. Nowhere is this more true than in regard to his mother, Ivana, a spontaneous, passionate woman moving ever closer to genuine despair. As an adult, the narrator travels to Prague, hoping to learn about a love affair between his then young mother and a member of the Czech Resistance named Tomas, an affair whose untimely end, he senses, lays behind Ivana's unhappiness. Ultimately unable to complete his knowledge of the past, he imagines the two lovers as participants in one of the more dramatic moments of the war: the actual assassination of a high-ranking Nazi official."

--The review--
Having spotted that this was recommended by the Richard and Judy Book Club (praised as their Best Read of the Year), I picked it up with confidence, knowing the Madeley/Finnigan duo to be responsible for the meteoric rise of such literary successes as Notes on a Scandal, Brick Lane, and Starter For Ten. Strangely, I had not heard of this particular recommended read; by the end I knew why.

There are errors right from the start in the respect that the narrator, by telling the story in the first person, ends up giving the reader information that he could not possibly have had access to; telling the story in the third person would have therefore been far more appropriate and far less distracting. It also decreases our trust in the narrator and causes our attention to wander (a problem with another book that I've had recently - but more of that another day). Other elements, which are not necessarily errors but perhaps just personal preferences or observations, can also be criticised: the author is precise in emotion and detail but not in plot or character. Overall, he is just far too vague, to the point of it preventing us from fully understanding the story.

Having read Edmund de Waal's excellent history-biography-memoir hybrid recently, the bar had already been set rather high. It did not help that Slouka had apparently been trying to do something similar to de Waal but failed due to a lack of straightforwardness. The comparisons on the back of the book to Ondaatje and Kundera therefore begin to seem completely over-complimentary, unjustified, and overly generous. This is a shame, as it is a potentially rich and promising story that is ruined by shoddy writing skills.

By the time we get to the climax, we no longer care, due in part to its slowness in coming. There are some moments of eloquence that really resonate - but for the most part, the author skirts around the story and makes us wonder what he did to Richard and Judy to make them dispense such a laudable accolade. It is a little worrying, to say the least, that barely a week after reading it I have forgotten the vast majority of it. We get the feeling, ultimately, that the author used this work as a chance to exorcise his own personal demons relating to his family, with little thought for the readers themselves.

Strangely, in spite of all this, The Visible World seems to have scored highly on Amazon, as have his other novels and non-fiction works. It is stranger still, then, that despite good reviews and the prize bestowed on him by the great morning sofa, the author is still apparently relatively obscure, not even apparently meriting an entry on Wikipedia (and I had seriously never even heard his name before reading The Visible World - let alone those of any of his books). Does this mean that the writer's work is just interminably bad? Or is it that the only thing that's bad is the luck he's had? After all, you can be a good author who is just unrecognised - and God's Fool, his fiction debut, does not seem entirely without its charms. But for its sheer forgettability alone, I think that in general I'll be giving his work a wide berth.

Other works by Mark Slouka
The War of the Worlds: Cyberspace and the High-Tech Assault on Reality (1997)
Essentialism (1999)
God's Fool (2008)
Lost Lake (2008)
Real Life (2010)
Essays from the Nick of Time: Reflections and Refutations (2010)

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