How to begin a review in an Ideal World

[Waiting for Godot] [—[t]]he play [—] opens with Estragon struggling to remove a boot. Estragon eventually gives up, muttering, “Nothing to be done.” His friend Vladimir takes up the thought and muses on it, the implication being that nothing is a thing that has to be done and this pair is going to have to spend the rest of the play doing it. When Estragon finally succeeds in removing his boot, he looks and feels inside but finds nothing.”
(; my emphasis)

There must be a lot of people who live lives in which nothing much is to be done. Is that because they, perhaps like Jonathan Payne, don’t go out of their way to make things happen? Or is it because they are taking their time to do it?

It troubled me to read from Tonya Cannariato’s review of Living with the Truth and Stranger Than Fiction that:

“[g]iven my own philosophical inclinations, this was a tough pill to swallow. Having let the story sit (and having taken longer than my normal book-in-a-day digestion), I can see Murdoch is noodling on some interesting themes, but I can’t say my appreciation for his pedantic style or nihilistic conclusion has sat with me any better.”

After reading that, I’m left wanting to know what those philosophical inclinations are and how they’ve been thought through in relation to the work being reviewed. Since when did the hours of effort and thought that an author puts into their work come down to the matter of whether or not it sits well with the critic/reader? Are some colours harder to swallow than others?

The lip sync was out when I watched that. It didn’t sit well with me. Does it sit well with you?

Just a thought.

What will happen if I relieve Estragon from his boot and use my poetic licence to call it a pair of gloves before he succeeds at removing it?

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About Brad

Braden Karl Frederiksen still has the small wooden treasure chest that his evil Grandmother gave him for his 8th Christmas. He can't recall how old he was when he locked the key inside nor how he locked it in there. He occasionally gives it a rattle and wonders what's making that other sound. View all posts by Brad

9 responses to “How to begin a review in an Ideal World

  • Jim Murdoch

    I too wondered, Brad, but what cheered me more than anything was when my friend, Lis, jumped to my defence in her comment:

    I might be one of those professorial types who enjoys ‘noodling’ over ‘interesting themes’, including the inexorable push of pessimism explored in such a life, as Jonathan’s. To me it’s an antidote to the saccharine sweet stuff we experience daily through the media. And perhaps as you suggest, it might also say something about why so many people relish the nothing-happens style of Beckett’s Godot.

    Having read Jim Murdoch’s writing over some time, I’d use a word other than ‘pedantic’ here, with all its pejorative connotations. I’d call it a studied style, and one which reminds me in some ways of William Gaddis in Agape Agape where he also explores similar angst ridden, nihilistic and literary themes.

    There’s poetry in words, even the heavy ones.

    The thing about Jonathan in his role of everyman is that he never gets the opportunity to get out of his rut. Now, as has been noted, quite rightly some of the blame falls on his shoulders for being an indecisive person but most ordinary people don’t have much scope when it comes to the decisions they might have made. So they take comfort in fantasy which Jonathan does at least as far as his limited imagination will take him. For most of us there is comfort to be had in these because they’re safe; we’ll never know what might have happened because the odds are nothing would have happened, nothing of any consequence.

    Many people when they have a crack at their first novel look back on their own lives as a template and end up writing something closer to autobiography than fiction. Oddly enough that never occurred to me but the idea of projecting my life twenty years into the future did. Of course I took the worst aspects of me to start off and painted a worst case scenario with but as I was in the midst of a bad depression when I started writing and my marriage was going down the pan it’s not so surprising that I imagined such a drab future and it would have been a thoroughly depressing read were it not for Truth who refuses to take anything too seriously.

    I don’t think my conclusions are nihilistic. Existential nihilists argue that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value and Woody Allen has based his entire career on that notion. But, as he concludes at the end of Hannah and Her Sisters, when he sends a depressed and suicidal Mickey into a movie theatre that showing the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (part of the ‘joyous’ declaration of war sequence is featured) Mickey has the revelation that life should be enjoyed, rather than understood. Jonathan’s revelation is that by the time we do get round to understanding life there’s no life left to anything with that knowledge. Only it’s not really Jonathan’s revelation because he’s dead and it’s the living readers who still have some life left to life that get advance notification of that awful truth. The first person to read Living with the Truth was one of my co-workers and the book really affected her. All her life she had wanted to be a nurse but here she was, stuck in the dead-end clerical job with little chance of promotion and she suddenly saw herself in twenty years and the thought made her shudder. I left the job a few months later so I have no idea if she pursued her dream but I hope so. And that’s one reason why it’s good to see someone struggle and suffer on the page because maybe then we can avoid doing so ourselves.

    The thing is though, like Ebenezer Scrooge, Jonathan does get a second crack at the whip. At the end of the second book due to a cock-up-on-the-reincarnation-front he does get to relive his life with what we all would love to have, knowledge of the future. Will he make the most of it? I don’t know and I don’t want to know. That’s what I never went to work on that third book.

  • tipota

    “you have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he is expecting to wake up” that was a great line in the clip. i would remind you both that critics because of their profession which is evolving rather slowly, are tacitly required to compare historical populist sorts of categories in an attempt to define it’s aesthetic merit (and salability) and thus when work that is original/free of the constraints of having to define itself outside of what it is, ie, work that is “outside the box” in terms of whatever particular categories are being compared (such as nihilistic vs. literary) and of course, a true critic would consider the history of all time
    regarding creative categories in order to be adequately informed, however this is the structure in which works are reviewed, this is a structure that works on some levels. but i would remind you that most really great work outside the box is met with strong reaction, to me, that’s a good sign.
    i would encourage you to keep on.

    • Jim Murdoch

      @Tipota – I can’t say that Tonya’s comments discouraged me. A review is only an opinion and everyone is entitled to their own opinion. I’m one of those writers who only writes for himself and so if anyone appreciates my work then that is a bonus. The book in question is probably the least literary of my novels actually. It aspires to be one but there’s too much else pulling it down. One reviewer described it as follows:

      In all, this is one of those novels that bookshops must hate: not ‘hard’ enough to be spec fic, not ‘weird’ enough to be fantasy, too realistic for the humour section and yet too humorous to shelve easily with the lit fic. And that, I suspect is going to prove to be its charm; for those who do read it, it’s a singular take on the world, and it will either resonate with you or leave you cold.

      And she is right. The book doesn’t fit neatly into any tradition. Some will appreciate the mix; others, as she says, will be left cold. And that’s fine. What all of us is trying to do is get our books into the hands of our ideal readers. They are out there. Maybe not as many as we’d like but enough. And Brad clearly is one of them. For which I am grateful.

      • tipota

        well said, and the reviewer above also seems to stumble over ‘which category does it fit into’. i suppose ‘singular take’

  • Brad

    “[I]t’s a singular take on the world, and it will either resonate with you or leave you cold.”

    I wonder if that’s really the case. Is that an evaluation of what the novel is and achieves? Or is that a characterisation of reader attitudes? If it is an evaluation of what the novel is and achieves, then I can say it doesn’t represent my reaction to the work. My initial reaction (i.e., what it achieved while I was reading it) was apathy on my part – but not so much apathy that I wanted to stop reading. You could say I was hanging on to the story by my fingernails.

    I just looked up apathy again to make sure I was using the right word. I almost changed it to indifference, but then I found this:

    “In light of the insurmountable certainty of universal doom, apathy is the default mode of existential nihilism…” (apparently that position follows from out of the ‘works of Arthur Schopenhauer’, but it’s not a direct quote so it should be taken with a grain of seasalt).

    I want to be careful not to seem like I am either criticising the critic, or attempting to defend the novel from criticism. Am I at the right juncture to state that? I think I might be, since finding oneself either left cold by something or resonating with it would be like default modes wouldn’t they?
    (Or instances of one and the same default mode)?

    The thing is that when I finished reading Living with the Truth, I recognised why my initial reaction had been one of apathy. I had just read a story that – felt like it – was being told in my voice. When I recognised that, I was able to see that there is no singular take on the world.

    I had to wait until I started trying to do a review of the novel in my Ideal World to find the words to say that. That’s why I’ve come to the conclusion that the quote I borrowed to start this comment with is actually a characterisation of reader attitudes. It follows that Living with the Truth is not a singular take on the world. That much becomes obvious in Jim’s follow up novel Stranger than Fiction.

    That’s not to say I think there’s anything wrong with having an attitude. It’s probably more promising than just having a fixed opinion/position and trying to argue a way into it. I recognise though that I could be accused of arguing my way into the position I started with, but that depends on which way you choose to look at it…

    • Brad

      I should also say that after all of that, Jim Murdoch’s Whole Truth is a story that I can get my teeth into! Thank you Jim and Kathi :)

    • Jim Murdoch

      I’ve mentioned the nice girl who was the first to read Living with the Truth before; her name was Helen. Helen actually had two reactions to the book. Her initial one was far from apathy and has actually been the most powerful reaction to the book to date: she was angry. I will never forget how she started off telling me about how the book made her feel: “How dare you,” she said. “How dare you,” such an odd thing to say to the author of a book but the fact is she was angry with the way I, as Jonathan’s creator, had treated him; she felt it so terribly unfair for him to be allowed that moment of clarity and then to kick the bucket. She was, metaphorically speaking, shaking her fist at God. Later, once she had had the chance to process things she took the book no less personally but realised that what happened to Jonathan happens to most of us, that by the time we make sense out of life we have little life left (if any) to do anything with that information and she shuddered at the thought of ending up there. If anything convinced me that the book was worth finishing it was her and I’m eternally grateful to her.

      As for whether the book is a “singular take on the world” – of course it is; the sequel is just a continuation of that take. All the rules I set up in the first book still apply in the second. That said it’s not a unique perspective that I’m presenting—I’m not saying anything that others won’t have sussed out for themselves before—but I’m hopefully presenting it in a format (a work of fiction rather than real life which tends to be less forgiving) which will grab people by the lapels before it’s too late. I didn’t write the novel to change the world—I wrote it to get some stuff off my chest and try and make sense of my life—but I published it because I realised that it can have a positive effect on people, not simply as an entertainment despite the fact parts of it can be most entertaining. This is not to put down books whose only goal is to entertain but I don’t know how to write them.

  • Brad

    Maybe what happened in my case was that because I took my apathetic state of mind into the reading, I missed the opportunity to feel the kind of powerful reaction that Helen did. Nonetheless, I was left thinking about ending up there in Jonathan’s place. And it’s had a positive effect on my state of mind.

    On Kathi’s point about the importance of being adequately informed – I noticed Tonya’s comment in her review that “[t]here were so many nods to other great authors throughout the writing…” Is there a list of authors or books that you recommend I read before I attempt to do a critical review of the Whole Truth, Jim? I’m not sure I have a future in critical reviewing but I’d like to have a decent shot at trying one.

    • Jim Murdoch

      Jonathan is a bookseller so I deliberately included nods to books that he (i.e. I) knew. Some are significant, others not so much. The first is on page one. When I talk about the “saucer souvenir” I’m referencing Larkin’s poem ‘Mr Bleaney’ which, if you’ve read my blog for any length of time, you will know to be a very significant poem for me:

      So it happens that I lie
      Where Mr Bleaney lay, and stub my fags
      On the same saucer-souvenir,

      Both Bleaney and the narrator of the poem are lonely men living alone. This is underlined by the name of the town ‘Rigby’ which would remind most people of the Beatles song ‘Eleanor Rigby’

      And, of course, late he and Truth walk down Bleaney Street later on. His address is 101 Winston Road, an obvious nod to Winston Smith and Room 101 and it’s in that ‘room’ that Jonathan gets to face the truth about himself at the end of the book.

      I wouldn’t say that reading Orwell or Larkin or listening to the Beatles’ back catalogue would help you understand the book; they’re all just things that are a part of my life experience and, as such, they’re what I reference.

      I’ve just scanned the first few chapters and there are references everywhere to stuff I know or like. For example the old woman called “Hope Hadley” —her name is a nod to the film Aliens; Hadley’s Hope was the name of the colony on Acheron LV-426. Or when they pass “the new houses at Pinter Rise” Truth says, “You know, old chap…” which in itself is a very Pinteresque thing to say. ‘Old chaps’ appear in his plays Monologue (I feel for you, old chap.), Betrayal (Did you enjoy sex with my wife, old chap?), The Room (Sit yourself down, old chap) and probably every other play he wrote; I just plucked those three from Google. Pinter’s early plays especially have a sense of menace about them—I’m thinking especially of The Birthday Party—and there’s no doubt that at first Jonathan must have felt as harassed as Webber does by Goldberg. Winterson Street is a nod to Jeanette Winterson who, like Jonathan, had a religious and domineering mother. It’s there that he sees the girl who reminds him of Jane Fonda in Klute who’s a prettier version of Charlotte Coleman’s character in the TV adaptation of Oranges are Not the Only Fruit.

      Again watching the Aliens saga, reading all of Winterson’s novels of watching the plays of Harold Pinter will do little to enhance your appreciation of the novel.

      In the second chapter we learn that Jonathan had hated Billy Liar. The fact is that I didn’t hate it and, of all the books I reference, it’s probably the one that’s closest in tone to what I was aiming for and about the only book I might suggest you read. Even if you never get round to attempting a review of the book it’s worth a read.

      Living with the Truth is not an autobiographical novel in the traditional sense but it is riddled with biographical details, the vast amount of which no one will ever get. Most of the women’s names are the names of people I knew; the two fishermen were named after work colleagues; my sister’s not called Mary but my best friend’s sister was; then again Dr Okuna got his name from a character in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘The Outrageous Okuna’ for no other reason than I liked the name and so it goes on. Knowing stuff like that is all well and good but best not to get caught up in it. Jonathan’s name is significant through: it’s Jonathan because the main character in the book that inspired me to write Living with the TruthThe Pigeon by Patrick Süskind (which you might also have a wee look at)—was called Jonathan Noel; I changed the surname to ‘Payne’ because I was writing about a man in pain.

      We explain the world based on our life experiences. Think of the character Nadir in Community who, because he’s socially awkward, relies on pop-culture references to relate to people. Or any of the nerds in The Big Bang Theory. Look at the examples I bring up in my blogs. We talk about what we know.

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