One day, early this century, as I scanned the stacks of my favourite backpackers’ bookshop in Bang Lamphoo, I was amused by a cloud-sea cover with an improbable title, She’s Come Undone, a funny author’s name, Wally Lamb, and an Oprah sticker. ‘Oh, gosh, one of those,’ I thought. I almost didn’t buy it.
If I hadn’t, I’d have missed something: it’s a very good yarn, of the ‘creative writing workshop’ variety, with two outstanding qualities: it has, if not quite style, a distinctive, chummy tone that grows on you and, more important, enough savoir-faire to render congenial (to someone who feels almost pathological revulsion against obesity) a 257lb masochistic girl aptly named Dolores who hasn’t a clue how to get a grip on herself and merely reacts to the miseries a fertile and outré plot heaps on her, never mind the feel-good flip at the end. That I smiled or laughed often as I read wasn’t necessarily complicity, though, but it helped relieve the thoroughly depressing noir climate of the whole saga.
Very well then: I hunted for Lamb’s second novel, This much I know is true, which shifted the burden to twins, one average, the other schizophrenic. Again the Oprah anointment. Again the tone, the empathy, the seething plot, the spleen, the occasional laughs. Wally Lamb confirmed he was a John Grisham with psychological depth, one notch below, say, John Irving in A prayer for Owen Meany.
The first and second novels came out at a four-year interval in the 1990s. Having discovered them late, I didn’t have to wait ten years like everyone else for the third, but bought it as soon as it came out in paperback.
I just finished reading The hour I first believed a couple of nights ago – and must confess I jumped over quite a few of its 600 plus pages, as soon as the main plot – based on a stormy relationship between husband and wife drastically affected by the Columbine student shooting here powerfully featured as docudrama – gets undone in favour of an entirely different book: the family saga of the husband-narrator in soap opera mode. This soufflé has been too long in the oven: by the time it is served, it goes flat.
On the one hand, more than its predecessors, this novel is a tour-de-force of writing skills as taught in workshops (by the author himself), in matters of style and, even more so, of topicality: it’s as though the author has been flicking, airplane pilot at takeoff fashion, all the switches of what’s trendy in these (American) times, from AIDS (Roger!), drugs (Roger!), juvenile delinquency (Roger!), etc, to depression, consumerism, friendship, love, betrayal, compassion, sacrifice, violence, religion, life, death, dogs, cats and prayer mantises – and not just that, but history titbits and walk-on parts as well, from Mark Twain to 9/11 and all that. Furthermore, for having taught writing in female penitentiaries, Lamb goes heavy-handed on that scene.
So that, on the other hand, the whole enterprise collapses under the weight of its ambitions. Even by popular yarn standards, The hour I first believed is a flop.
As it happens, I was reading the latest issue of the London Review of Books today to cool off in between spells of home cleaning, and the feature story, announced as ‘Down with Creative Writing’ on the cover, rang an immediate bell: ‘Get a Real Degree’ by Elif Batuman, reviewing The Programme Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing by Mark McGurl, offers potent reflections on what distinguishes ‘creative writing’ from ‘literature’ and how the most accomplished of the former will never hold a candle to the best of the latter. Jargon aside, there’s much food for thought in this piece, to show that what I detect in Wally Lamb’s writings is a widespread disease affecting many of the most popular American writers of the day, who mimic genius with tricks: middle-brow literature as a commercial commodity – but that’s my own comment.
You’ll find the article at lrb.co.uk/v32/n18/elif-batuman/get-a-real-degree – download it promptly before you are made to pay for it.