Monday, March 12, 2012

Our Mutual Friend: Uncollected Thoughts

I'm about 5/8th of the way through Dicken's last finished novel, Our Mutual Friend. It's very very good, you know. Except where it's not. Where it's not is when Dickens wallows in cheap sentimentality, which he's done in every book of his I've read (and yes, that's only four books out of 15 or however many). It used to annoy me when Dickens would introduce a small child who smiles sweetly at a main character and then takes sick and dies in a saintly manner. Now I just forbear and keep reading until Dickens is writing once more like a sane man who respects his reader. Still, it's this vein of sentiment that keeps me from calling Dickens a great novelist. He was unquestionably a great writer, and some of his passages are among the best ever penned in English. He was a great experimenter in prose and theme and metaphor, but many things about his books just don't bear up under any sort of scrutiny. If you've read Dickens, odds are that you know what I mean. The plots tend to hinge on unlikely coincidences. The main characters, no matter how low their station, tend to speak in proper English no matter how their fellows speak (why do Lizzy and Charlie Hexam not mimic the speech of the other river people, for example?). So Dickens was a good novelist, but I can't call him great. Your mileage will likely vary.

Still, I'm enjoying the heck out of Our Mutual Friend. I begin to think that the title refers not only to John Rokesmith but also to money itself. Everyone wants to shake money's hand, to invite money home and make it part of the family. OMF is so much about money that Dickens could well have titled it About Money. And all the bits about money, actually, are really great. The Veneerings, the Podsnaps, the Lammles and poor Twemlow are all brilliant characters in brilliant chapters. I enjoy how Dickens slips into present-tense in most of the chapters about the nouveau riche; it adds to the frenzy. The chapter with Veneering running for Parliament is worth the price of the whole book.

I should bear in mind, of course, that I've yet to meet the perfect novel. I doubt such a thing exists, especially because it's likely that my standards change all the time, and by "perfect" I likely mean "exactly as I would have written it," which is, as I say, a moving target. So for Dickens to be a good writer who often achieves greatness means that he is, of course, doing about as good as one can reasonably expect. He's doing better than most of us will ever do, in fact.

And it's that last "better than most of us" that makes it clear to me that I am a very poor critic, and not so good a reader. Try as I might to read for the pleasures of the text, I am always comparing the novel in my hand with the Platonic novel in my head which I strive to write myself. Over and over again I find that I do nothing but talk about my own books, my own process, my own writing, no matter what I think I'm writing about. It's insufferable. I can't help it.


  1. I've never been the biggest Dickens fan ever, but I do enjoy his writing. I have yet to read OUR MUTUAL FRIEND. You have me curious! I love that you're a moving target, hahaha. I won't try to please you as my only reader, that's for sure, but I do highly value your opinion, feedback, and advice. :)

  2. I think I'm a pretty good writer, but I'm not a fair judge of writing; I only see how it's either different from what I'd do or it's something I wish I was doing. I have a hard time just letting it do what it's doing. I long for the old days when books weren't objects of study; they were objects of pleasure. I don't enjoy reading the way I used to do. It was nicer when reading a book had nothing to do with me.

    Our Mutual Friend is pretty damned good. You can see Dickens turning the cranks to work the plot, but still. Pretty damned good. And there's my problem: I view novels as machines, not works of art. I see the gears and chains too clearly.

  3. I know what you mean. Exactly what you mean, and it's frustrating. Sometimes, however, I'm able to just enjoy a book. It depends on where I'm at in my life, I think. And I hate this new way Google has set up commenting. There's no option for it to email me responses, so I have no idea if you respond. I have to remember to come over here. Like I remember that kind of stuff.