Literary awards, it would be shamelessly and untruthfully hyperbolic for me to claim, are the bane of my reading life. But they do irk me something dreadful. I realized a long time ago that the books that I have read that have won major literary awards tend to be books that I would ultimately rather not have read; books that are usually wildly popular but whose popularity I can’t wrap my head around. Exception to end all exceptions, of course: Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. This novel is so good that I can’t believe it was even nominated, never mind that it won the Booker. In my opinion and based on my experience of the Booker winners I’ve read, the books that win this prize are mediocre, safe, and clearly designed to win the Booker. Ditto for the winners of the major Canadian literary prizes such as the Giller and Governor General’s.
Sometimes, in spite of how much I know better, I find myself compelled to read an award winner. And sometimes, even though I usually know better about this as well, I also find myself compelled to read a Canadian Literary Novel of Extreme Earnestness. I have never before–before a couple of weeks ago, that is–read a Canadian award winner.* I’ve never before played my snobby and specific reading tastes so falsely; I was convinced to read a novel–a Canadian, award-wining novel–called The Sisters Brothers by one Patrick deWitt. Under normal circumstances, I would never have even considered this book.
But I was vulnerable, you see. I once had a conversation with someone I like very much, but whom I didn’t yet know very well. We bonded over J. D. Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction and so I imagined we were on the same bookish page; at least, that we were close enough to being on the same page that I could risk taking recommendations. He touted and lauded and adored The Sisters Brothers, which immediately made my brow furrow in unattractive and aging worry. He insisted it was neither Earnest nor Lyrical but was, in fact, Hilarious. I unfurrowed a little. We liked the same things about those Salinger pieces noted above. We agreed that “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” was the best tale in Nine Stories. So, I tried The Sisters Brothers, hoping to be wrong and therefore less embarrassed by the dearth of readable books coming out of my home and native land.
So, I put it on hold at the library and after 5 months or so, it was in my hands. I looked forward to it; I was especially excited when I saw that it was clearly labelled as a WESTERN. A hilarious western?? My gawd, yes please! I fairly cackled with anticipatory glee. And so I began reading it, this tale of a pair of mercenary killers bonded by blood and habit and history, going on a quest to blow out the brains of the cringingly named Herman Kermit Warm. (Why, why such a stupid name, deWitt? But then, why, why, WHY the empty gimmick of brothers whose surname is Sisters? Damn your eyes, man!)
I enjoyed it at first, but it wasn’t hilarious. It was…quirky. I thought I should be noting how it was unlike everything I’d read but I wasn’t. I found myself, to my horror, thinking continually of Cormac McCarthy and couldn’t figure out why because Patrick deWitt clearly knows what comprises a complete sentence; deWitt is also not addicted to metaphors so muddled and absurd that if one attempted to unpack them–individually and/or in relation to one another–it could only end in suicide or catatonia. No, Patrick deWitt can write with admirable grammatical correctness and style.
The problem was this: I suspected deWitt’s novel was making a good deal of fun of Cormac McCarthy. Now, given that I loathe Cormac McCarthy for a shyster and self-satisfied twit of the first order, I should have enjoyed this. But if deWitt was making fun of McCarthy, he just wasn’t doing so with enough intelligence or cruelty. Making fun of Cormac McCarthy is like shooting, not fish in a barrel, but one giant fish in one very small fish bowl. You just can’t miss if you decide to make fun of Cormac McCarthy; if I hadn’t read interviews with His Horrid Earnestness, I would think McCarthy was making fun of us as idiots for liking what he writes!! Making fun of other writers well means being smart and funny and mean, but it also means making fun of your own endeavour of fun-making. Please to consult the impossible to achieve or replicate ideal that is Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm.
So, I wonder: was deWitt really making fun of McCarthy, or was thinking so my only way of getting through the book? Because if I really thought that the traces of McCarthy I kept bashing up against were homage, I would have quit that book mid-sentence to immediately embark upon a 30-day juice fast to cleanse myself. In the end, I don’t know. What I do know is that it doesn’t matter either way because my greatest disappointment with the book is actually unrelated to the Cormackiness of it all.
deWitt is, I think, a talented writer and there was nothing at all wrong with his plot in The Sisters Brothers. The problem is that the book reads as though it was designed to win awards and be everyone’s book club favourite. It approaches difficult questions and then diffuses them by having the younger brother, whose name I’ve already forgotten, look up at the stars and think blindingly profound (by prime time television standards) thoughts about the Meaning of Everything. End chapter. Killing, hi jinx, awkwardness, Poetic and/or Mystical Insight, repeat. Then, to make up for the lack of actual depth of any sort, deWitt threw in a bunch of obscene and gratuitous scenes of animal cruelty. Which is likely why people have described the novel, loud and with relish, as “real and gritty.”
What’s worse still is that I think that in spite of deWitt’s attempts to be Deep and Award-winning, that he actually also really wanted and tried to be funny. But cutting out a horse’s eye with a spoon just ain’t funny, and when it’s purely gratuitous it’s not real and gritty either–it’s just lazy and disgusting. I never want to read about animal cruelty, obviously, but if you want to see the difference between horrible but aptly well-placed and merely pornographic depictions of animal abuse, compare J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace to The Sisters Brothers. I hate Disgrace, but I know why that terrible bit with the dogs is there.
So, yes, vitriol. I’m angry with deWitt because based on the better parts of the novel, I’m absolutely certain he could do better–that he could possibly even write something great. But I’m also, perversely perhaps, angry to keep finding that my entirely unappealing prejudices against award winners and Canadian novels keep turning out to be justified. And then I’m irritated that I keep trying when I could just be reading something that I’m pretty sure will be really good.
* Well, not since I entered adulthood anyway. I used to read whatever anyone put in front of me, and that probably included a whole shipload of Canadian award-winners.