I think Lahiri is a spectacular short story writer, but I've been disappointed by her novels, this one most of all. I won't try another novel from her.
A short story collection, perhaps.
The narrator had a tough task--bringing to life a book with so little action and vigor. The book's greatest lack was dialogue: There was almost none of it, and when it did appear, it was trite and uninteresting. Unfortunately, even when he did get some dialogue to read, he tended to drone.
Rohinton Mistry's "A Fine Balance" is one of the finest books I've ever read--a story of India, told through characters that are beautifully rendered and heartbreaking. Lahiri's book needed to follow that lead: The history needed to matter because the characters mattered, and vice versa. In this book, the history felt leaden and burdensome. The story was dull and flabby and predictable; so was the language. And the characters were stereotypes, always doing something you could foresee 100 pages before.
I used this book to help me fall asleep at night. It was that boring.
The book was weighed down by the constant drone of bitter, sardonic comments from the self-pitying narrator. The listening experience could only have been improved if Walter had written a different book, one with a variety of tones: lighthearted, non-sneering, or self-reflective, for starters. I wouldn't need a lot of those things, but I did need just a few of them, to break up the mean-spiritedness.
Jess Walter is a great writer, and there are moments when this book sings--but far too few of them. The story is tainted by the relentless, self-pitying, whiny sarcasm of the main character, Matthew, who is described as a smart guy but who acts dumber (and a lot meaner) than most 12-year-olds.
Matt is married with two young kids. He's jobless, drowning in debt, and about to lose his house and perhaps everything else. I was completely ready to be on his side.
But my goodwill was ruined by Matt's pathological snideness. Almost every sentence in the book is packed to the bursting point with nasty, wisecracking, stereotypical comments about everyone in Matt's life, from the stupid, malignant former boss (the "Idi Amin of journalism"), to the stupid, over-the-top obnoxious financial advisor, to the stupid pot-smoking gangbangers he meets in a 7-Eleven while--surprise!--feeling sorry for himself.
Suspension of disbelief is a pretty tall order here. Matt leaves his newspaper job to start a website that gives financial advice ... through poetry. (Hmmm. "I think that I shall never see, a thing as lovely as ATT?") Not a single rational human being on the planet would think online poetry+stock tips=profits.
And how can we care about this character when there are so few honest, reflective moments, so few narrative breathers when we can simply see the scenery or hear some non-snarky dialogue, internal and otherwise?
For the first 6 chapters we don't see Matt have a compassionate interaction with his sons, his wife, his father, or anyone else aside from a single street dude who he talks down from a freak-out over a microwave oven.
Matt's advised to make some changes: sell his over-expensive car, shop at K-Mart and maybe even Goodwill on occasion, buy a little canned food, send his kids (oh no!) to public school. He can't do it--it's all too horrifying for him. The snobbishness, added to all the other character flaws, makes this guy beyond annoying.
I can honestly say that the only thing truly enjoyable for me in the first half of the book was a moment when a druggy lawyer read a contract he'd created for his weed-buying clients. When legalese is the most hilarious part of a novel, you know you're in trouble.
He has the perfect tone, but he's still reading a story about a guy we don't like, so even the best performance can't make this an enjoyable experience.
I would have deepened and drawn out his wife's character. As is, she's two-dimensional and nearly unknowable, other than scattershot observations about her shopping binges, online flirtations and hot bod.
I would have cut out the wife's bottle-blonde friend "with the skirt as big as a headband." She's a walking stereotype--the sexy mom looking for hubby number two.
I'd retool (sorry for the wordplay) the wife's high school boyfriend so he's not another stereotype: a hunky lumber store employee with a chiseled face and a woody. And I'd scrap the guy's name (Stehne, pronounced Stain).
The author is such a talented writer, but in this effort he uses cleverness to the point of overkill. The descriptions of the newspaper boss especially needed pruning. Walter describes the guy as the Idi Amin of journalism. All well and good. But he then proceeds to call him the Pol Pot of the newsroom, a bloated despot, a Sadam, a soul-disabled, budget hacking delusional budget monkey, a narcissist or complete sociopath, a sadist, a man who used things "right out of the Khmer Rouge playbook until he dumbed down management to a flock of morons," a guy who "loves journalism the way pedophiles love children," a self-aggrandizing bully, and a delusional general, for starters. We get all that in a rapid-fire space of a few paragraphs. It's way over-the-top.
I'm still a huge fan of Jess Walter! Beautiful Ruins was one of the best novels I've read in decades, and I know I'll like one of Walter's future efforts. I know many, many people who liked Financial Lives, as well.
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