Thursday, January 22, 2015

#77 - "The Golden Notebook" by Doris Lessing

What can I say about #77, The Golden Notebook? It took me nearly three months to read it, and at times I'm not even sure what I read. It's a long, complicated, and often very frustrating book. It is often described as a "feminist novel," but I wouldn't say that at all. In fact, I'm not even sure what that's supposed to mean. I would describe it is an emotional novel, exploring the deep, personal thoughts of its protagonist. I'd also say that despite moments of brilliance, I don't think I really enjoyed reading it.

Anna Wulf, a writer, records her life in four coloured notebooks, black, blue, red, and yellow, each dealing with a different part of her life. Mixed in with this, is a narrative of her real life, which helps provide some context to the diary-style of her notebooks.
The black notebook records her time in Africa before and during World War II, which led to her writing a successful novel; the royalties from which, she lives off of, and supports her daughter from a failed marriage. The blue notebook records her emotional dreams, and more often, her emotional failures and breakdown. In the red book, she chronicles her dabbling with the Communist party, while the yellow notebook deals with her struggles to write a second novel while suffering through writer's block.

I can appreciate a lot of the writing in The Golden Notebook, as well as the complex themes Lessing explores. But this doesn't mean I had to enjoy them. Like many novels that switch between different times and places, the book seems to derail itself. I found myself starting to enjoy it, when there would be a sudden shift, and any momentum that had been built up was lost. As each notebook, as well as the narrative of Anna's life, were each visited four times, the book seemed to be constantly jumping around, almost trying to tackle too many things at once.

For me they didn't always seem to tie in that well with each other either. Even after having finished the book, and being able to look back and piece everything together, I'm still a little lost. The entire Communist party plot, more often than not, seemed to me to be an unnecessary tangent; a hundred-page tangent, spread out over 576 pages.

I also found the constant shifts to be, quite frankly, confusing. Suddenly, I was having trouble differentiating the characters of one notebook to those of another. When I'm reading, I don't want to have to be taking notes, just to understand what it is I'm reading (which is why I fear Gravity's Rainbow).

When I began to try and assess my thoughts of this book, my confusion was first and foremost, but also something I didn't really want to admit to myself. Am I too stupid to read and appreciate a book like this? I like to think that isn't the case, but this book seems to have received universal appraise from every literary critic of the past 50 years.

Well that's fine, I'm not an English-lit scholar, just a guy who likes to read and is trying to explore new books and authors. I realize they can't all be The Sot-Weed Factor, but there seems to be quite a few books from this list that beg the question, can't a book be complex and readable? I'm not expecting Tom Clancy, nor do I desire Tom Clancy, but I'd like something to still be enjoyable.

Lolita, or Midnight's Children, just to name a couple, were books that were much more complex than the average bestseller, and yet they were enjoyable, accessible reads. That is a major reason I've rated those books, along with Gone with the Wind and The Grapes of Wrath so highly, and Blood Meridian or The Recognitions so low; a book with complex themes and characters that is also a satisfying read, is the sign of a great book.

I can't deny the writing was magnificent, with emotion seemingly pouring off the pages. Anna Wulf is a complex and interesting character, with whom I was able to sympathize. But there were too many distractions for me, and I was never really able to get lost in the story or the characters, which I feel is where the book failed.

As a way of providing myself with an emotional break of sorts, the next book will be Wide Sargasso Sea, by Jean Rhys. I don't know anything about it, but at only 156 pages, it can't go on for too long.

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