Mark Athitakis Newsletter #28

Bad is/is not good.

Front Matter

I don’t think bad books are all that bad. You should read them.

That’s not the same thing as saying I’m in the habit of giving bad books positive reviews, or that my judgment is (absurdly) off-base, or that I have a particular affection for kitsch. It’s more that as a reviewer, my inclination is to look for what makes a book interesting, even if it’s poorly executed. It’s a useful perspective as a reviewer—you’ll burn out fast if you just hate everything. (Probably if you love everything, too.) But I don’t think it’s a bad way to live as a casual reader either.

For instance: Earlier this week Sean Penn’s debut novel, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, came out in paperback. It’s bad. Not bad in the way so many debut novels usually are, with clunky plotting, weak characterizations, and overearnest messaging. But bad in a special way, interestingly bad, bad in the way the car Homer Simpson designed was bad, constructed out of half-baked rants and goofball characters and Kerouackian meanderings. It’s a slim thing that’s deceptively toxic thanks to the host of things structurally wrong with it, like a malfunctioning Diaper Genie.

When I wrote about the book for the Washington Post a year ago, I emphasized this badness, which caught a little attention. (Everybody loves it when a critic says something is bad!) That was gratifying, in a way. But every novelist has ideas, even Sean Penn, and I wanted to spotlight that too. “Penn is fixated on matters of populism and authenticity: Among Bob’s chief targets is a society that has been ‘marketed into madness.’ … Penn has a plain affection for the 1960s counterculture novel, from the let-’er-rip automatic writing of the Beats to Ken Kesey’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ with its suggestion that an oppressive society will deem any outspoken, decent human being insane. In that light, ‘Bob Honey’ is best appreciated as the fever dream of a boomer who watches the news, cannot make sense of it, but cannot contain his fury at it anyhow.”

You could conceivably make a fine novel out of those constituent parts; Penn couldn’t. But it may be that decades from now, Bob Honey will likely possess a certain utility---its badness might reveal just how scrambled the Trump era made writers’ (and publishers’) brains while searching for the right language to address it. In that sense, Penn has written for the ages in a way that the author of last year’s consensus Good Novel hasn’t. I can’t recommend that you read it, but you should read it.

Writing in Standpoint, Theodore Dalrymple recently made a similar point: “The more books we read, the clearer it becomes that there is no book, however bad or merely mediocre it may be, that has nothing to say to us, for every book tells us something,” he writes. To prove the argument, he closes his eyes and selects a random title from his shelves, landing on a 17th century medical guide. (I would like a photograph of Dalrymple’s library.) Discovering his time has not been entirely wasted by this dry and obsolete tome, he doubles down and dispatches his wife to a thrift shop to find him something appropriately shallow. (I’m reminded of Wendell Berry writing in Harper’s about having his wife handle typing duties, a tactic one letter writer mocked as “Wife---a low-tech energy-saving device.”) Said wife returns with a romantic thriller; he doesn’t bemoan his fate or feel his time was especially wasted this time either.

I don’t want to be too glib about this or come off as an apologist for mediocrity. Bad books can reinforce blinkered, stupid, or dangerous ideas. But badness not only puts the good stuff into relief, but is illuminating in itself; literary failures make up an Island of Misfit Toys of tedium, awkward phrasing, overreaching, historical neglect, general idiocy. So many terrible things are possible there, and a certain committed reader can find entertainment in the possibilities.

What I’m Reading

Terry Teachout explores the enduring appeal of the Western. Laura Yan investigates Eugene Gu, a doctor/online activist whose online persona (surprise!) hasn’t jibed with his real-life behavior. Daniel Mendelsohn looks at Ingmar Bergman’s novels and finds a keyhole to both his films and biography. Christian Caryl writes on the artist and critic Josef Czapski, witness to the Soviet gulags. Adam Nayman and Elizabeth Nelson apply more critical attention and devotion to R.E.M.’s Reckoning on it’s 35th anniversary than seems respectable, but it’s an album I love to pieces, so.

What I’m Writing

I reviewed Susan Choi’s new novel, Trust Exercise, for USA Today. “Choi elevates this stuff above high-school-confidential fare partly through the sheer richness of her prose: Choi’s talent is for taking ineffable emotions and giving them an oaken solidity. When a nervous student hits the stage, ‘his eyes are cast up, anxiously, as if he’s aware he is barely retaining the fickle attention of God.’ When Sarah despairs of her feelings for David, she sneaks into his car for solace: ‘The hushed night disappeared from view and she saw only the interior skin of this filthy armor of the boy she loved.’”

Thanks for reading. Send your lists of your favorite least-favorite books and other correspondence to mathitak@gmail.com. I’m on Twitter. I have a website. Buy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.