Did you ever read a book that you didn’t like – and you didn’t know why? It doesn’t happen to me very often (I can usually tell you exactly why I didn’t like it), but this is the story of one of those books.
Chatterton by Peter Ackroyd is a book I read in my graduate Contemporary Fiction class. The book follows several writers in a few different eras, all connected to each other. Sounds good so far, right? Thomas Chatterton ( a real person) was a young poet in the mid-1700s that invented a medieval poet monk and published poems he himself had written, claiming that he’d found them in a church. The poems were very popular and critically acclaimed. Chatteron died before his 18th birthday – apparently a suicide – so we’ll never know if his talent would have grown. He is known as a forger, but of course he wasn’t really a forger. He just lied about being the ghost writer for a non-existent person.
We also meet George Meredith, a real poet who posed for a ‘portrait’ of Chatterton fifty years later, painted by Henry Wallis (the portrait image is on the cover of the book). In modern-day England , we have Charles the poet (fictional) and his family as well as Harriet the novelist (also fictional). Harriet is getting old and still ruled by her guilt and shame for plagiarizing the plots of a few of her novels, and Charles is ill and thinks he’s discovered new information about Thomas Chatterton – like the fact that he faked his death and wrote some of the most famous works of the late 1700s pretending to be famous poets.
The whole book is an exploration of art: What makes art great? Do we read/see art differently based on biographical information about the artist? Where is the line between inspiration and plagiarism? Is any work of art ever truly original? And how can you really know, even if you are the one who ‘created’ it? I don’t think there are any simple answers to these questions, and the book does not try to answer them, it merely gives the reader plenty of food for thought.
I can’t explain why Chatterton does nothing for me. It’s not a bad book. It’s not a boring book. It has interesting themes and characters, and my favorite professor loves it. I reread it to see if I could figure out what I missed the first time around. I did like it better this time around. But in the end, it just didn’t excite me. No light bulb in my head. Maybe because I didn’t feel like Ackroyd really added anything to the conversation on art he was so interested in. Maybe because all the writers in the book are sad creatures that come to sad endings (not poetically sad or lyrically sad, just sad). I don’t know. Still.
Paul Auster sticks in my mind as one of the most challenging authors I read while working towards my B.A. in English. We read The New York Trilogy and I liked him mostly because he was really difficult, yet I could understand him. Not to say it wasn’t a great book – it was – just a very complicated, multi-layered text full of obscure references and stylistic flourishes not always easy to understand. When I had to write my first ten-page paper ever, I chose his book because I knew there was more to write about in that book (all 384 pages) than any two other novels we read that semester. I got an A, and my professor (thank you, Patty) suggested I present it in a Student Showcase, which I did. Maybe that was more information that you really needed to explain my positive associations with Auster, but I have a bit more. I picked up The Brooklyn Follies early this year and thoroughly enjoyed it – another great book by Auster, but much less challenging (though no less interesting).
The Book of Illusions I picked up on that fabulous sale rack at Powell’s. Now looking at it, the eyeball shot on the cover brings hints of Lost (which I’ve recently become addicted to and watched voraciously for weeks on end). I must have bought it before I started watching that show, because it never occurred to me before. I suppose at some point you’d like me to actually tell you about the book I read? If you insist.
I really enjoyed The Book of Illusions. It is the story of a man who loses his wife and children when their plane (which he was not on) crashes. He drinks and drifts for almost a year until he sees a clip from an old silent film on TV that actually makes him chuckle for the first time since their deaths. He becomes a bit obsessed with the comedian in the film and decides to find and watch all the films he made. In the process, he discovers the actor is alive and is invited to meet him. It is a sad, powerful story about grief and guilt and the strange things it makes us do.
I liked the book for several reasons. It is written almost completely in the first-person (as many of Auster’s books are) and the internal monologue rings true, painting a vivid picture of David’s internal life. The narrative is convincingly erratic (like the thought processes of a human being) without being inconsistent or difficult to follow. I love a story that takes the scenic road to get to the point and doesn’t always give you clear directions. His descriptions of the movies he ‘sees’ are so rich, you feel as if you are watching the films with him.
Some of the themes embedded in this narrative are also favorites of mine – the mechanics of how and why stories work, and why they are important. The conviction that we all write our own lives (stories), and therefore we can change our lives if we work hard enough. Affirmation that – regardless of the present moment – the future always offers hope. So it’s not surprising that I devoured the book and closed it feeling happy, uplifted and wishing I could write half as well. He is never boring, never predictable, yet entirely convincing.