Monday, September 15, 2008

MORE THAN IT HURTS YOU Book Club Discussion

Welcome to the first-ever LROD book club.  As you know, we are discussing More Than It Hurts You by Darin Strauss because some of the LROD mice unfairly criticized the man without having read his book, a fact pointed out by Darin himself who was kind enough to show us our errant ways. 

I will start the discussion today with a few of my own thoughts on the book, which ultimately won me over.  When Strauss is at his most relaxed writing, he creates a very compelling story. However, in this particular book, it seems to take him quite a while before he hit his stride.  In fact, during the early part of the novel, Strauss seems overly  self-conscious, his writing a bit artificial, at times even smirky.  For me, More Than It Hurts You did not actually take off until about page 96, which is, alas, a long way to go.  

What happens in the first 95 pages is a lot of posturing and trying to settle in, a bit of searching, which can lead to some graceless and unconvincing sentences: "She was prim as Popeye's Olive Oyle, with the same shapeless frankfurter torso;" and "She fired a huff from the cannon of her nose." Phrases like "raising a Clooney eyebrow" and "a tantrum-repelling calm" really clog up the works.  

A better editor would have served this author well by going through and cutting everything inside the ubiquitous parentheses because they work to slow down the pace of the novel and reveal the author's unsubtle hand.  Clever asides, such as the ones found in More Than It Hurts You, tend to suggest a smirking attitude toward the characters, or the novel, or even the fact that fiction is an artifice--never a good idea.  

Finally, in the criticism column, the prison-release bus chapter, where Muhammad, our doctor/hero's father, gets out of jail, is something of a train wreck in terms of tone and overwriting.  Here Strauss needs the lightest of light touches, but he seems to go at the scene with a pick axe and shovel.

All that said, Strauss does get the marriage of the Goldin's just right.  He tackles complex issues with a delicate balance, and convincingly renders parental feelings during a crisis.  By page 97, I was totally in for the ride, especially won over by the author's efficient portrayal of his female characters: Dr. Darlene Stokes and Dori Goldin, who is, let's face it, a difficult character to nail. (I have a very minor character in my novel with a similar penchant for munchausen, though my character's reasons are very different. Still: I know first hand that it's not easy.)  For me, everything about Dori Goldin seems exactly right on the mark, and happily the narrative satisfies her story completely.

Strauss handles the ending quite masterfully, I thought, by following the startling legal decision with an emotionally keen conclusion for Dr. Stokes and Josh Goldin and finally the Goldin marriage, that seems just right.  

By the last page, I was genuinely impressed.

In my humble opinion, if Strauss can pull back a bit on the overwriting, he can avoid the sentences that get in the way of what he does best, which is unfolding a complex, interesting story about human emotions that are put to the test.

So, that is my two cents.  Now let's hear what the mice have to say.  In your opinion, how successful was Strauss' book? What were his strengths? What were his weaknesses?  Has your opinion of his success as a celebrated author changed in any way?  Has he earned the confident smile from his author photo?


Anonymous said...

A pick axe and a shovel is a bit overstated. I really didn't mind his writing style as much as you did. I liked the pop culture references (Mr. Magoo, Olive Oyle, etc.) and his unique way of seeing things, which you call overwriting. At the same time, I wasn't half as sold as you were on the way he worked out the plot. I found the whole legal part unbelievable, the fact that the doctor would press her opinion so much with Josh. I wasn't as happy with the ending as you were. But on the whole I enjoyed the book.

Writer, Rejected said...

Hmm. I guess I had a book club and nobody came.

Anonymous said...

Aw, I think it maybe needs to be live chat to work well? That, and I need to have actually read the book to join in. I just didn't get it together - too many words to read, too little time. But I enjoyed reading your summation, WR, obviously you put a lot of thought into it. Interesting that you used the word "smirk" more than once - I think "smirky" was the description of the author photo that sparked the cries of protest. Since I haven't yet read the book, I can only continue to comment on the photo... But I'll stop myself. Except to say it's now so familiar that I feel like he's someone I know (and like! Really, really like!).

Glad you had productive times in the woods, I envy you! But I wonder if it broke the habit of your blog for the otherwise-would-be book club members...

peterc said...

I think you picked it like a nose, W,R.

For me, the book started badly, then grew. It felt to me that the over-writing in the start was a demonstration of cleverness.(Alas!) Irked me, but cleverness seems important in US letters.

Once Mr Strauss' storytelling took over from his writing, the book was great.

The prison bus scene stuck out to me as well. Very much a wtf moment. Where was the editor?

Congrats on doing this, even if you get very few takers.

rmellis said...

I enjoyed reading the book quite a bit, even if the experience was complicated by real questions about the plausibility of the plot. Would a Munchhausen's mother flee the emergency room and NOT want her child to undergo testing? The whole point of that disorder, I've always been led to believe, is getting attention from medical personnel. And would a doctor make accusations about it after *one* questionable visit??

I thought the plot would have been much more interesting if we as readers didn't know whether Dori was guilty or not -- if we only had access to Josh's thoughts and the doctor's. Instead we KNOW she's guilty, so Josh's faith in his wife just seems stupid. Does that make sense? I don't see the point of getting Dori's thoughts, since they don't really explain anything anyway.

And yeah, the writing could have used a good shaking out. (That Olive Oyl line really stuck in my craw!)

That said, it was an absorbing novel. I liked the character of Darlene Stokes -- kind of wish it was her story instead. Maybe she and Josh could have gotten together...? Heh heh.

Unknown said...

I liked the book a lot, too; in fact, I though the jail scene was impressive. He showed a world that seems far removed from his own, and did so with lyrical writing. You guys didn't go for it? I guess that's what makes horse races.

But one question: what's actually wrong with the Olive Oyl line? It's evocative, and it does what Nabokov says a metaphor should. It's really condensed and it helps us visualize what's being discussed. It seems original. Plus, it made me laugh. Can't ask much more from a metaphor. What am I missing?

Writer, Rejected said...

Nabakov? Seriously? The Olive Oyle simile inelegantly shorthands an entire character (secondary character, but still) into a cheap pop culture reference. For me, this takes away from the nuance of good literary fiction. Too blunt, too easy, too cartoonish. But as you say, to each his own.

Anonymous said...

So, I don't suppose you've seen this?

Check out page 4.