The 40th book of the year so far is a translation from the French, by a Vietnamese writer, Linda Lê (whose family left Vietnam for France when she was about 14.). The English title is The Three Fates
, and I picked it up because I was told that Lê was the Vietnamese writer to read (she is critically acclaimed in literary circles), and I was looking for Southeast Asian writers to add to my list for World Literature classes.
I decided by the third page that I wouldn't be assigning this to my Seton Hill students. The first paragraph actually goes on until about the seventh page; the second one runs something like 11 pages. That's beyond what freshmen and sophomores who aren't literature majors are going to tolerate. The author doesn't care to control the narrative POV, either. In just a couple of pages we're given to understand that one of three cousins, referred to as Southpaw (she's missing a hand), is narrating the book in first person; but she shifts into third, into second, and into what I call Mythic Person as well, all in that first paragraph.
That turns out to be a problem all through the book. One would call the narrative style "stream-of-consciousness" except that there is no consciousness to reliably stream. It headhops, often badly, within single sentences. There is no consistent viewpoint, and therefore there is no consistent reader experience. "Who is seeing this?" one might ask. "Whose thought was that?" Ain't no tellin'.
I can be a fan of stream-of-consciousness writing. I can love me some Joyce or Pynchon. But with those writers (but not Finnegan's Wake) we get stories where something happens, and where there's a narrative viewpoint. Neither virtue is present in this book.
Yeah, nothing happens. There is an event that occurs, but not until the last five pages; and it's something that happens, not a character choice. Then there's a choice to act by a minor character. That's it. So, in essence, the book has no plot.
I have an acronym for a certain type of book, CWOET, that this book almost fits into. (It stands for Complete Waste Of Everybody's Time. Email me and I'll tell you what, in addition to Finnegan's Wake, is on the list.) I can't honestly put it there, though, because much of the writing is clever enough to have been periodically interesting. There's cleverness, and some wit. The author is clearly very intelligent, and widely read. I get that. I kept trying to like this. But in my opinion the cleverness is without sufficient purpose or depth.
Take, for instance, an issue with metaphor. The book is named for the three Fates, and there are three female cousins with lead roles. One of them cuts some thread, near the end. Two of them are sisters. But they aren't actually the Fates, they don't play that role, except vaguely. Also, we are constantly told that they are the daughters in King Lear, and their father is constantly called King Lear, but they aren't all sisters, there is no Cordelia, dad isn't really at all like Lear, and so, unlike Eat, Drink, Man, Woman or Ran, this isn't an Asian version of Lear. What the reader experiences, then, is an enormous phony mixed metaphor that doesn't seem to carry the slightest weight.
If the idea is that we have the story of three cousins and they aren't the Lear daughters and they aren't the Cinderella triad and they aren't the Fates or the Harpies either, nay, not even the Holy Trinity ... well ... that would make a short story, at best.