Books that want to be movies.

Reading between the lines.
July 26 2004 2:20 PM

A Review … and a Rant

When books just want to be movies.

Book cover

Daniel Wagner's A Movie ... and a Book is the worst book I have ever voluntarily read. Wagner is a 29-year-old snowboarder from Switzerland and has never written a book before. It seems that he has never read one either. Beginning with the absurd title, every page reveals such rich ineptitude in thinking and writing that its 100 or so pages feel endless. The hapless title refers to the labored idea that if you "observe your life from the third person, and if it's funny or strange, it's a movie," while "a book … is when something dramatic is happening to you." The profound insight that arises from this? "Life is a game: it's a movie and it's a book. It's not always easy, but there is always a way." The clunky plot desperately strains to blur the border between fiction and reality—an idea so cheaply popular it should be withdrawn from circulation, perhaps even outright banned.

Wagner's publisher, Alfred A. Knopf—traditionally a serious purveyor of literary fiction—announced A Movie ... and a Book to be one of "the coolest first novels … in a long while." In fact, the title and the blurb ("a must-read for fans of Memento and Adaptation") from Eric Garcia—the genius who wrote the novel that the movie Matchstick Men was based on—suggest that the target audience is a cash-happy Hollywood producer. It doesn't hurt that Wagner briefly lived in New York, where he "hatched the idea for this novel," as if just breathing air there infused one with coolness; this, along with his youthful foreignness and extreme-sport inclinations would presumably make his book—"a strangely hypnotic story about the difference between the fictional and the real"—attractive to the trendy youth who laps up the oeuvre of Dave Eggers or Charlie Kaufman.

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But those guys are serious artists, like them or not. Wagner is no such thing. Take the reality/fiction entanglement: Passages about an aspiring writer alternate with ones about a couple—Liz and Lou—who mysteriously inhabit a deserted island. The writer goes, naturally, through a crisis of writerly confidence, mainly because his agent convinced him that "if you don't follow the trend, and try to do your own thing, they"—o horror of horrors!—"look at you as if you're crazy." Meanwhile, the couple on the island discuss philosophical questions frequently asked by stoned snowboarders: "But do you think there is a bad and dark side of nature too?" queries Liz, to whom Lou wisely retorts: "The dark side is when we take stuff as a personal offense instead of trying to find a way. This kind of stuff doesn't look good to the third person. It looks horrible."

Wagner wrote his thing in English, not his native language, but that cannot possibly be an excuse for the calamity of this book. His writing is riddled with clichés that are daily struck down by conscientious high-school teachers. The characters always think "for a moment," as if a sustained thought is impossible in the Wagnerian world. "Silence" plagues the pages, and it often "follows" speech. The thunder claps "Whrromp!" Every glance is recorded, for no discernable reason—everyone is "looking" or "focusing" all the time. The faces repeatedly "light up." People don't smile—they "start to smile"—and they do things "a little," even if much happens "all of a sudden." Here is a typical passage: "Liz started to smile, then started to say something, then thought better of it. Her smile faded for a moment, while she seemed to concentrate on a thought." Wagner's writing is so thoroughly devoid of any verbal imagination or intelligence that, in comparison to him, a vocabulary-impoverished sports broadcaster sounds like Shakespeare. Moreover … ah, well, that's enough.

Why bother reviewing this sort of thing, a reasonable reader may ask? According to Laura Miller's recent article in the New York Times, 175,000 trade books were published last year in this country (a jump of 19 percent since 2002), 10,000 of them fiction. Why not write about the good stuff?

The significance of Wagner's scribbling is that it is exactly what you end up with if publishing and fiction writing become a pursuit of cheap hipness and movie rights. The blatant soliciting for a movie option altogether mocks the obsolescent category of literate readers—A Movie ... and a Book is an awful movie treatment undercover as a godawful novel. If Wagner's début represents a new cynicism in the industry currently enmeshed in a publishing frenzy, the day when editors will hire some good-looking people to pretend to be writers—the literary equivalent of 'N Sync—could be only weeks away. And I cannot escape a vision of a dark room somewhere in Albania, full of wretched ex-professors of English filling up pages according to outlines sent from the New York headquarters, then mailing the slim manuscripts directly to Hollywood.

Perhaps it should be encouraging to young writers to know they are running out of cool authors in New York, so they have to import them from Switzerland. Or to witness that the democratic ideal inherent in literature—everybody has something to say—has reached its limit in Wagner's case: It is no longer necessary to be able to write in order to be a writer. You just have to appear cool, and some publisher, forgetting what brought him to books in the first place, will pick up the meanderings you jotted down stoned out of your head. Alas, there are readers, the people who might buy the book, believing for a careless moment the publisher's praise and lies. There are those silly people who read, who choose one of those 10,000 novels and spend some time trying, for no particular reason, to listen to and understand a perfect stranger. To those people Daniel Wagner and his publisher owe at least an attempt at writing.

Aleksandar Hemon is the author of the novel The Lazarus Project and three short story collections. He lives in Chicago.

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