Briefly Noted: The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, and the meaning of the thriller

Francophone Hit, American Letdown” inspired me to read The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, but “Francophone Hit” describes the book’s sentence-by-sentence weaknesses well:

The dialogue barely surpasses lorem ipsum in its specificity: “Do you have any change?” “No.” “Keep it, then.” “Thank you, writer.” “I’m not a writer anymore.” And life advice from an alleged literary genius takes the form of shampoo-bottle nonsense: “Rain never hurt anyone. If you’re not brave enough to run in the rain, you’ll certainly never be brave enough to write a book.”

Let me add to that list: towards the beginning of the book, Marcus’s first novel is an incredible sales success; he says that “Even the harshest critics on the East Coast all agreed: young Marcus Goldman was destined to become one of our great writers.” I don’t think I’ve read any critic, ever, who announces that a writer is “destined” to become great, because no one is destined to do anything. The vagueness of “East Coast” critics—who are these people, exactly?—is symptomatic of a vagueness infecting the entire novel, as if the narrator has learned to speak through advertising platitudes and brand names: “New Writer! More Popular and Absorbent Than the Competition!” There are occasional bursts of cleverness (“I bought a new laptop, in the hope that it would come pre-loaded with good ideas”), but they are rare. More often we find that “I treated myself to a five-star hotel in Miami.” Which hotel? What makes a “five-star” hotel? Little of the novel rings true to life, and it also doesn’t ring true to an alternate reality constructed from artifice in the fashion of someone like Carlos Ruiz Zafón. For writers, both Marcus and Harry Quebert seem incredibly uninterested in the work of other writers.

There are shades of Gillian Flynn but the comparison does not flatter Dicker; anyone tempted to read Harry Quebert should start with Gone Girl and work backwards through Flynn first.

What made Harry Quebert popular in Europe? I don’t know, though the mystery of why some works become popular and others don’t continues to fascinate me. It isn’t the literary quality of a book: bestseller lists are filled, seemingly indiscriminately, with a mixture of books so horribly written that they’re unreadable to me, along with some books so good that I recommend them to everyone. Being poorly written, or at least not well written, isn’t a barrier.

The real answer to “Who killed Lola Kellergan?” is “Who cares?” Most thrillers are not thrilling and most mysteries are not mysterious; they’re simply boringly written, as if the authors have not read thousands of other books before and lack the will, interest, or ability to try something new and/or beautiful. Literary fiction, whatever its characteristic generic flaws, generally tries to do something linguistically different, and few readers or critics of lit fic consider a specific example successful unless it does something fresh with the language.

The books that do something different—like Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game. I’m not a person who sniffs at fiction because of the tags marketers choose. Every book is begun with the greatest hope. Few fulfill it. Dicker shows promise and may eventually write something great, but it will probably come at the expense of an obsession with greatness as a concept.

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