The Chimp Needed a Cuddle

December 23, 2008 § 5 Comments

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Water for Elephants is Sarah Gruen’s New York Times bestseller about a Cornell-educated veterinarian joining a circus during the depression. It is also the worst book I have ever finished.

The book strays in many ways, but Gruen’s number one mistake is not being true to the characters or situation. The narrative is continuously, actively, dishonest, hiding details from you in a blatant effort to surprise you later. An example: the book opens with a chapter that seems to suggest the protagonist’s love interest kills her husband, but it’s later revealed (in a modified version of the same chapter) that the actual killer was an elephant. Oh, and that the dead husband (surprise!) was a paranoid schizophrenic who sometimes hit her. So it’s okay, everyone.

The entire book rests on the laurels of lazy gimmick: “Jacob Jankowski”, our Polish protagonist, joins the circus completely by accident. Once his parents have died in a freak car crash, his inheritance is seized by a bank, and he fails his final exams, he wanders away from town and finds himself in the middle of nowhere, walking along a set of train tracks. When the next train comes, he decides to hop it. “Decides” suggests too much in this context: the train comes, and implicitly Jacob knows that he has to jump it. Why? Because it’s a circus train, and this story is about a circus! I’m not trying to be “punchy” or “cute”; that is the literal motivation presented.

Logic is consistently strained well beyond breaking point. Motives are almost completely ignored. The story propels itself forward on a mish-mash of cliché and incoherence. It’s clear Gruen only barely understands her characters. Jacob Jankowski is our virginal, chaste, “hero”, who, bafflingly, spends the first chapter worrying about losing his virginity (inappropriate at best given the circumstances, his later character) then feels supremely guilty when he actually loses it, or when he kisses (only kisses!) the battered wife of another (insane) man.

It feels almost like Gruen is writing biographical fiction, but has no idea what the motivations or thought processes of any of her characters are– she just rushes from plot point to plot point, without any thought at all put into how her characters get there. “The chimp needed a cuddle”, one of the worst lines I have ever read, is a supreme example of this: Gruen wants to make it known that Jacob is loved by the circus animals he treats, but doesn’t want to spend any time actually establishing it, so when he walks into the animal tent she describes a loving, affectionate, relationship with a chimp we have met only once (under the care of someone else) with a jarring sentimentality that makes the passage unintentionally hilarious.

A similar effect is achieved any time Gruen “emotes” the other animals, most notably the titular elephant. I still have no idea what an elephant “smile” is, or how it can be utilised so frequently and intuitively by that animal, but I’ve been subjected to it enough times for the phrase to carve out some kind of Frankensteinian meaning (an unfortunate tactic, if that is what Gruen was really aiming for). Animals are constantly personified: every expression, better explained by noting a minute or natural change in the animal, gains the sort of emotional, adverbial “human” tag that is hard to relate in any case, least of all on a face alien to human expressions. It’s almost as if Gruen’s experience with the animal kingdom is so limited that she imagines every creature is as effusive as Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse. Or, perhaps she knows something I don’t.

Somehow she manages a similar effect with her human characters. Though the plot is meant to be “sweeping”, encompassing the passage of a significant amount of time (the book is narrated by Jacob on the circus and Jacob later at the age of ninety), the stage it is set on seems infinitesimal. The players are lead-footed and suspended in the air by minute, clumsily driven, pieces of string.

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§ 5 Responses to The Chimp Needed a Cuddle

  • Ahmed says:

    Wow, If I can find a free copy of this somewhere I might just go take a look at a couple of pages. It reminds me of those Erectus Dome stories, which were in turn inspired by every piece of garbage take at fiction that I’ve ever written. Seriously, it has every teenage bad writing base covered:

    COOL sounding name(bonus points for alliteration)!!! *check*
    Patchwork writing *check*
    Consequently awkward attempts at pushing in the details *check*
    REAL LIFE ISSUES!!! Handled in an astonishingly simplistic and under-treated way *check*

    I should dig up this story I once wrote about dog detectives in the 10th grade. I was in a total trance when I wrote it – I KNEW it was total crap, but I thought that somehow I was such a good writer-in-the-making that I could polish this turd into a seminal masterpiece.

    A SEMENAL masterpiece is more like it!!!

  • paorta says:

    haha Yeah! You should dig it up. I’ve written tons of stuff like that too… to a large extent two “novel-type objects” I wrote this past year are in that category… I totally understand why you wrote it, Sarah Gruen!!! But who the hell published it??? How did it become a New York Times bestseller???

  • Well, I definitely won’t be wasting any time with this book during the holidays! One obvious and polemical question remains though: why the hell is this a bestseller?

    The ideas floating around this post really remind me of the small Celine Dion book I just read. There, Carl Wilson explores the deep recesses of his personal taste and asks the question, “what stops me from liking Celine Dion and her music?”

    The answer he comes up with isn’t one tied to the intrinsic worth of the object in question. The fact that this terrible book is a bestseller means it’s really only terrible for a small minority, ie. probably people like you and me!

    Wilson’s suggests instead that criticism, aesthetic judgements, etc., are first are foremost acts of distinction. To balk at something is to be self-interested and invested in distancing yourself from it; primarily for competitive advantage on the social and cultural market, but also for reasons that are no less than out of your conscious jurisdiction (social origin, economic and educational capital). I find all of these points incredibly compelling when it comes to questions of taste (what isn’t a question of taste?). That said, as insightful and entertaining as this post is, there seems to be a clear bias, or rather clear presupposition, about the ‘legitimate’ mechanics of the novel. I find this troubling. The presupposition is: the novel ought to be realist; coherent, logical, believable; it should certainly not consistently strain logic; display authorial dishonesty or laziness; make characters deceive their design, etc. But my relationship to literature has taught me to put all of these presuppositions under a certain erasure, and consider instead what social conditions would use this criteria to form such a particular abstraction of ‘the great novel’, and why. Why is greatness here tied to realism? Why a fidelity to realism, without a questioning even of its possibility? What about a novel like Lolita, for instance, which is at pains to show us its artifice, incoherence, and unbelievability? Is it then by default a terrible book?

    I guess after much ado, my only scruple would be that art criticism be held responsible for more than just criticism. If you’re going to champion realism, for instance, or literature as x, it isn’t enough to critique y; you have to positively justify literature as x too– and I see little of that going on here.

  • paorta says:

    Hey Garret, I appreciate the comment. I do take issue with it, however. For one thing, you seem to be suggesting that in my critique of the failed realism of Water for Elephants I am championing the idea that characters and situations be realist in all books. I guess if you combine this with my post on Synecdoche, New York, I can see how you would make that assumption. I don’t, however, think that it is true. You say that I haven’t tried to present any alternatives, and it’s true that the alternatives in this post are implicit, but I don’t think that’s the larger case even on this blog. Another thing that must be addressed regarding this post is its intent (which should always be considered). This is not a standalone artifact we must interpret from a distance: this post is very straightforward.

    I don’t think that a novel must be realist to be successful, and I’ve read many books that I’ve enjoyed very much that aren’t. Some of my favourites include Ticknor (by Sheila Heti), Kamouraska (by Anne Hebert) and Midnight’s Children (by Salman Rushdie). Dead Souls (by Gogol) is a novel that does not intend (or seems not to) aspire to be one of these books, but circumstances have caused the released book to be much different (and potentially richer) than if it had been finished as imagined.

    In any novel written in the 21st century, I think it’s naive to fully trust the narration and not assume that the book might contain a sort of “secret novel”; even books prior to the advent of Modernism must be questioned. The question is whether or not these added dimensions (intended or not) improve the book, actually exist, or are worth all of the trouble. Does the book stand without it? If not, it is in danger of being nothing more than a gimmick.

    And what aspect of Lolita is not believable besides the premise? Isn’t one of the great accomplishments of that novel that Nabokov makes it believable? I haven’t read it yet myself, so you will have to answer that question for me. I do wonder what kind of book revels in its own “artifice, incoherence, and unbelievability”? What is satisfying about reading such a book? What is rewarding? If there is nothing “true” in it, why is it read? Can you name a single book that fulfills all three terms?

    I guess I don’t quite understand the argument: I am critiquing the book on its own terms. It would be interesting to approach the novel as if it were meant to be surrealist or whatever, but I don’t understand the point of that. Should all books be given the benefit of the doubt simply because they exist? Because they are read? I don’t think that’s fair. Some books are necessarily richer than others; in that way it’s not egalitarian. Water for Elephants is a terrible, terrible novel. It is an awful read, and it’s clear when reading it that there is no depth to be probed. It would be intellectually dishonest to pretend any different. Analysing its success is much different than analysing the novel.

    As to whether the book is successful, that could be for a variety of reasons. The concepts are… they aren’t consistent, but I could see how they would “appeal”. The notes are all approached, even if they aren’t hit. They all seem unnatural, but without a certain acquaintance with the form (or even real life), I could see them appreciated by someone who doesn’t know any better. This might strike you as an arrogant statement. I think it is true.

    It does not necessarily mean that Gruen has hit upon something, she could just be lucky. I don’t pretend to know much about the publishing industry, but with enough of a marketing budget (and enough praise on the cover) I don’t see why a terrible book couldn’t become a bestseller based solely on the premise, or even strategic placement within an Indigo or Border’s. In the front of the book Gruen is compared to Robinson Davies, John Irving, and Mordecai Richler; having read all of them I think it is safe to say that her book does not demonstrate even a hundredth of equivalent talent.

  • paorta says:

    Having read “Lolita” since then, and stumbling on this post by accident, I finally understand what you mean by bringing “Lolita”‘s “artifice, incoherence, and unbelievability” into this discussion. But “Lolita” would not amount to much if Nabokov had not been as concerned with writing and fidelity of that writing within its particular context.

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