BOOK REVIEW: HOW TO BEHAVE IN A CROWD by CAMILLE BORDAS

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Image result for HOW TO BEHAVE IN A CROWDI don’t know what to think of this book. It started out so strong, and I immediately loved it so much, and then it was as if a switch had went off: my fondness for it just completely evaporated. It felt like what had initially been a great book in the making had, at a certain point, taken a wrong turn and left its strengths far behind.

What initially struck me about this book—and what instantly drew me to it—was Bordas’s ability to write observations. Keen, distinctive character observations can do so much for a novel. They let you see how characters sift through their realities, reveal what those characters consider worthy of sifting in the first place. And if done well, character observations are often what stay with me after I’ve finished a book. (Sally Rooney’s novels in particular come to mind as examples of masterful character observations.)

Here are some examples from Bordas:

“I loved my family, I believe. Even though I’d known no other and couldn’t really tell, I thought they were all right, decent people. But oblivious. They got lost in their thoughts. They had no sense of the other—of anyone outside our family, sometimes even me.”

“My parents didn’t look very much in love to me, and I thought it was my fault. I guess it’s what happens when you’re the only one to notice a thing: you feel responsible for it.”

“[Leonard] had said…that Flaubert and Bourdieu were the two smartest men who had ever lived. I was four when Leonard made that speech, and the reason I remember it is because I hadn’t really been aware that anyone existed outside of our family before that, and hearing that there not only were other names than ours (Flaubert, Bourdieu) but that they belonged to smarter people than my parents, that no one around the table—not even my parents—objected to it, made me panic and I started crying.”

“Unlike the kids I went to school with, the adults in the church looked friendly, and sad, and all in all it was a good experience. I’d always thought I was the saddest one in my class (except for Denise Galet), and to see that sadness might become a normal trait with age left me feeling hopeful.”

What’s remarkable about these moments, for me, is that they’re at once ordinary and monumental. In her novel, Bordas continually dips in and out of these two; her characters live out the mundane, only for it to be subsumed by the existential; they ponder the existential, only for it to deflate into the mundane. Bordas carries this specific tone throughout her novel: this sense that characters are simultaneously in and out of their lives, so absorbed in their routines that they can see nothing else, or else so far outside those routines that they can think of nothing but the absurdity of their lives outside them.

All of this is to say, How to Behave in a Crowd is what you would consider a “quiet novel.” Things of consequence to the plot do happen, but that’s not really the point. Rather, it’s more about how characters navigate—or don’t navigate—their way around those things.

Despite all of this, though, Bordas’s novel doesn’t work—at least not for me. Yes, her characters’ observations are keen, but keen character observations do not a great novel make. Where How to Behave in a Crowd falls short, I think, is in its lack of cohesion. There is no dynamic quality to this narrative; characters are written into one scene then another with no sense of development. Effectively, the novel ends up feeling like a series of one-note, albeit well-written, tableaus: independently, they are good enough, but in a genre that needs to have some semblance of an interconnected narrative, these tableaus just don’t cut it.

I know I said Bordas’s writing is strong—and it is—but it is also inconsistent frequently enough to notice. At times her observations are written with clarity and authenticity, and at other times they are so implausible and irritating in ways that you just cannot overlook.

1) Things of the implausible variety – Bordas’s characters are far too mature for their age. I tried suspending my disbelief; certainly there are plenty of precocious kids and teens out there. But Bordas was really straining the limits of believability here.

2) Things of the irritating variety – Lines like these: “‘I tried wearing some [red nail polish] for the defense . . . It looked like I’d scratched my way out of a rape attempt.” I’m sorry—what the fuck ? Sometimes I read lines like these and I cannot understand for the life of me how an author could think ‘yeah, it’s a good decision to keep that line in my novel.’

Or else lines like these: “‘I don’t know about that Denise chick,’ she said, ‘but Sara Catalano is a dumb bitch, Dory. The last one in a long line of dumb bitches.'” Are we gonna address that? No? Ok.

On a final note, Bordas does not make it easy for you to sympathize with her characters. I’m tempted to say these characters were “hard to love,” but honestly a bigger part of me just thinks that they were straight-up assholes. I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt, I really did, but they were so unrelentingly unpleasant and judgmental that when they did have vulnerable moments—which were very few and far between, by the way—those moments did nothing to temper their overwhelming shittiness.

How to Behave in a Crowd had the parts of a good book, but it failed to put those parts together into the shape of a good book. And I think that’s why I felt so ambivalently about it. It’s a novel that was well-written and -observed, but also one whose characters were flimsy, pretentious, implausible. That is to say, it’s a novel that could’ve worked, but ultimately didn’t.

three


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MINI BOOK REVIEWS (august-september)

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Image result for what matters in jane austenWith his excellent, keen-eyed observations, Mullan manages to create an intricate, expansive sort of network out of Austen’s brilliant works. The effect is not that Austen’s works are made more brilliant, but rather that they have their brilliance illuminated, clarified, and brought into significance by this book. And it is precisely that which is, for me, the mark of a truly worthwhile piece of literary criticism.

five



Image result for little darlings book

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this was just so painfully vanilla ohhhhh myyyyy goooodd. the character work is dumb at best and pathetic at worst. let’s see: you’ve got the Distressed Mom; the Gaslighting, Evil Husband; the Rebellious Detective Who Breaks All the Rules and Still Somehow Has a Job; and of course the Stylish, Intrepid Journalist. *sigh* at least character archetypes can be interesting sometimes—this, this is just straight up bad writing.

all this of course meant that the plot had to do all the heavy lifting, which it most definitely did NOT lol. like i wouldn’t even call this book “plot-based” because not only would that be an insult to all actual plot-based books, but also because its “plot,” just like its character work, is non-existent. from a pure storytelling perspective, the plot made absolutely ZERO sense. lauren knows some weird witch lady took her babies and replaced them; the reader knows some weird witch lady took lauren’s babies and replaced them. so why, pray tell, should we spend NINETY-FIVE PERCENT OF THE DAMN BOOK waiting for the characters to find out EXACTLY THE SAME THING ???? honestly the fact that i finished this book is nothing short of miraculous

not to paint with a broad brush here, but everything about this book was Bad ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

1.5-



Image result for trick mirrorThought-provoking, nuanced, well-written—Tolentino clearly knows what she’s talking about.

My favourite essay of hers was definitely “The Cult of the Difficult Woman.” It did an excellent job of questioning taken-for-granted assumptions behind feminism—that wide-ranging and not uncomplicated umbrella term—and teasing out their complexities. I also loved “We Come from Virginia,” “Scams” (a fascinating look into scams and their prominence in today’s culture), “I Thee Dread,” and “Pure Heroines.”

3.5-


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BOOK REVIEW: THE DOLL FACTORY by ELIZABETH MACNEAL

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Image result for the doll factory by elizabeth macnealMacneal writes well, but her book lacks a certain depth. Her characters’ motives are at once too transparent and too simple. You come to know The Doll Factory‘s characters, but that knowledge comes far too easily. The problem is that Macneal writes with an explicitness that leaves no room for the reader to figure anything out for themselves. Every feeling and motivation is unambiguously spelled out in a way that flattens rather than develops the novel’s characters. The result is characters so easily understandable that they’re rendered insubstantial. And so what you essentially get is the literary equivalent of giving a PhD math student a middle school math curriculum—what’s easy is not necessarily what will be interesting.

More than that though, and possibly even worse, Macneal’s characterization is often forced. I found this to be the case specially in her descriptions of Iris and her twin sister’s strained relationship. The strain in the relationship I didn’t understand very well, and the resolution of that strain I understood even less.

One more thing: I don’t like the way this story wraps up. For 90% of this novel, we’re focused on Iris’s story: her ambitions, her relationships, her emotions. And then suddenly the story turns into some kind of You-like stalker story with a completely different objective. It was jarring, and felt very markedly incongruous with the rest of the novel. Also, I just didn’t care about it lol.

Overall, a mediocre novel. It tries to do a lot, but never quite hits the mark.

three


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