***WARNING CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS about a book you should actually read because, and I know this is gonna sound weird when you read what I’ve said about it, because I’ve kind of ripped it apart, it is not that bad and you should (if you’re a quick reader, as there are so many other books that are better) read it. In case you don’t care what happens in White Oleanders by Janet Fitch, read on. If you do you have been thusly warned***
Stream of Consciousness has a hell of a lot to answer for, in my opinion. Sure, it’s clearly brilliant and marvellous and the best thing ever, allowing the writer to be more expressive and poetical in their language, and as a prime example of the paradigm ‘show, not tell’.
It is also responsible for a host of books that use elements of this initially modernist approach in their post-modern writing, some more successfully than others. ‘The Other Hand’ by Chris Cleave, for example, incorporates real time thoughts and actions of the character Little Bee in a close-to stream of consciousness style first person narrative. I know that as a book club we have been much divided over this particular book, but I thought that Cleave pulled a very difficult style (in a completely alien voice to his own as well) off superbly. I read the book in a night, and would (and have) recommend it highly.
Then there are the books I am currently in the process of dragging my way through. White Oleander by Janet Fitch is the massively popular coming of age novel that was chosen to be part of Oprah’s Book Club in 2000. If you look online there is review after gurning review that basically gets on its knees and begs for this book. People gush endlessly about the ‘daring use of language’ and the ‘poetry’, how Astrid, the epoch’s narrator and ‘heroine’ speaks for a generation with her narcissistic, wishy washy and quite frankly dull never ending ramblings chronicling her life from the age of twelve, when her equally boring and self-centred mother Ingrid is imprisoned for the murder of her former lover. Astrid’s tale follows a seemingly never ending trail of neglect and abuse as she goes from one foster home from another. To say that her life grows ever more tragic is untrue, it jerks around like a puppet (I hope to God that’s the narrative device that Fitch was hoping to achieve, because it’s the only one that bloody works) showing how the state’s care for vulnerable people is bad at best, and catastrophic in most cases. Not only is our vapid heroine shot at by her foster mother, she is also starved, beaten, abandoned and made to watch over a suicidal woman. She is also a part-time prostitute and sleeps with a much older man at the age of 14, presumably learning from the example of her self-obsessed narcissi mother.
Astrid is from the ‘whatever’ school of heroine. I wouldn’t be surprised to find her in love with a 107 year old vampire in the sequel, except that she ‘doesn’t let anyone touch her’ (they’d be freaking perfect for each other. Fan fiction alert I think). She is clearly disturbed by her upbringing with her mother (who I just want to punch in the mouth), but follows the typical teenage try-hard way of falling hugely in love with unsuitables, drinking, smoking, having crushes on the woman next door, being alternatively embarrassed and obsessively clingy to her foster parents (a rag-tag mix of undesirables, most of whom would probably be on some sort of List in this country) and caring/not-caring about her looks (she’s absolutely stunning, but gets hideously mauled by some dogs about 200 pages through. Because nothing insanely tragic had happened for the last half hour). I know that there is some contention towards this, because, you know, teenagers are sooo important and no body understands and all that but your know what, none of this is new! All teenagers do this (all teenagers where I grew up anyway, I’m sure there is certain places around the world all teenagers would read this bollocks and laugh hysterically. You think this is tragic? This? I’ve been sewing jeans in an airless windowless hovel for the last fourteen hours and you’re complaining because the art on your state-sponsored young adults’ institution isn’t expressive enough? Ha!). All teenagers are surly and think the world hates them, and want to be remembered for their art and think up long winded boring sentences that go on forever and make no sense to anything but themselves and their far-out friends that clearly are the best thing ever because no one else will ever understand the pain of my so-called life. Man. But with more flowery adjectives in it.
And whilst we’re on the subject of language, having more that one word with three syllables in a sentence does not necessarily equate that said sentence with poetry. It isn’t so much the sentences that bother me; it’s the endless, endless use of metaphor. I wouldn’t mind if she had a theme and stuck to it, but it is literally like the author collected a random group of images or items that could conjure something up, put them in a hat and drew them out at random every couple of chapters, regardless of content. Thematically she jumps from the oleanders of the title to pearls, to wind, to angora wool, to lips, to guns, to God knows What. I tried to follow her logic in doing this but honestly could not be arsed. This book has provided some laugh out loud moments for me on the train this week, notably the line “Only worry you fall in love” he said, his voice like a hand between my legs”, which is just so Beginning Writing Semester One I felt like I should be taking notes.
I am enjoying this book, purely for its ridiculousness, the same way I would enjoy say a really whiney piece of Youth Theatre. I’m clearly far too old, boring and sensible to understand the brilliance of the writing and the creative ideal, but I really do not get all the five star reviews because even when I was seventeen and undeveloped I would have recognised this as vainglorious toss. I hope. Then again, looking back on some of my journals, maybe not! If you like Esther Freud, Virginia Woolf, Jeffrey Eugenides or Twishite then you’ll love it, and to be fair it does make you think about the state of youth in America. But I still think ‘Push’ is better.
This month I’ve also been reading the frankly brilliant debut by Jenn Ashworth, ‘A Kind of Intimacy’ that was sent to me in the post by my beautiful clever BSc sister (well done Bob! Proudness abounds!). Just fantastic, up there for debut of the year, definitely. She’s written a couple of others as well when I can get my hands on them I shall def by looking forward to it!
2 thoughts on “Oh go write a poem about it…oh wait, you did!”
I love this.
However, you have based one section on something that is fundamentally wrong.
No one need ever read 'White Oleander'.
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