26 January, 2011

The book took days (to read)

Book of Days
James L. Rubart

The most recent of the Early Reviewer books from Library Thing; the irony is that the previous book by this author, Rooms, is the first book i’ve not been able to finish in years, so how delicious that i have been asked to read and review this, his second work. I have to say that this is definitely an improvement on the other, at least i was able to finish it ~ though not, it must be added, without some procrastination and struggle. I’m not sure how to continue with this review, there’s quite a lot i want to write, and it seems to go in several different directions. Maybe first of all, reasons for my difficulty in reading it.

I was at least a hundred and twenty pages into the book before i had even a shred of interest in the characters or cared for them in the least; that in itself is a poor route for an author to travel down. If he doesn’t have the characters, though, maybe the author can offer a strong, believable, imaginative, seductive plot; maybe, but not this author. With neither plot nor characters just about all that’s left is the possibility of delightful, insightful, masterly writing style, near the quality of a Faulkner or a Sterne; sadly, Rubart does not have that ability, either. All that these lacks leave, as far as i can tell, for a piece of literature to have in order to be compelling, is its theme; here too, as i’ll detail below, the book fails.

Characters: The protagonist is a successful, on the cusp of being very successful, film-maker who is haunted by his father’s dementia-ridden death, with the belief that he is himself going down the same road of memory loss; secondary to him is his (also dead) wife’s foster-sister, who has her own issues revolving around her family’s identity and her past; together they are drawn to a small Oregon town, Three Peaks, where she seems to have come from, and his father had some experience involving the Book of Days, and once there they meet the other characters in the novel, each of whom seems to have a secret, though none has any reason for it to be secret and none keeps it in the end. The townspeople seem to revolve in several groups, each of which has its own take on the big secret of the town, that there is some spiritual or new age benefit there, perhaps involving the supposed Book of Days which Cameron and Ann are looking for.

The plot, then, revolves around this Book of Days, referring to Psalm 139:16, which Cameron is convinced is going to resolve his memory loss, Ann hopes will help her gain closure with her sister’s death, and Jason Judah, the chief prophet of the new age in town, imagines will confirm his leadership and empower and propel him to greater heights. Against them in their search is Taylor Stone, a man who appears to have some knowledge of the existence (or otherwise) of the Book, but is determined to extend the plot and keep his secret. Perhaps, at this moment i am being overly cynical, and Rubart does have a valid reason for Stone to keep his secret, other than prolonging the novel, but if he does it is never convincingly explained. Through assorted plots and counter-plots Cameron and Ann eventually discover that there is not a physical written book, but it is possible to have visions of the future, or a potential future, in a particular lake hidden in the valleys between the eponymous three peaks.

The problem with this plot, as i have indicated above, is that it is not compelling. There is no good reason to think that a book with everyone’s actions written in it is going to heal Cameron’s memory loss; the secrecy is purely a plot device; the ultimate solution, visions in a lake, is not shown to resolve any of the issues the imagined Book of Days is expected to. All in all, the plot, no more than the characters, gives no good reason to read the book.

Next reason, then, is style, writing ability. Here, too, i’m afraid that Rubart falls down. This book just isn’t likely to become a great classic, a book handed down from generation to generation for the sheer beauty and skill of the language. The language use is simple; not, however, the simplicity of Hemingway, but more along the lines of Dick and Jane ~ which is fantastic for beginning readers, but i don’t believe that group is the target audience.

Finally we could look to the book’s theme as its saving grace, the sole point that makes it worth while any and all trouble and time given to reading it, as it teaches a lesson never to be forgotten, it allows us to change our lives for the better, it carries a meaning beyond the simple characters, the unbelievable plot, the basic language. Except, it doesn’t. After i finished reading Book of Days i was talking with the other person in the household who has also read it, and i was challenged to come up with the message of the book, why Rubart wrote it. I was stumped for, literally, minutes; eventually i was able to say something along the lines of, “Be careful what you decide, because decisions have consequences” ~ surely a foolishly simplistic piece of advice to base a book on. Later, however, i read the note that Rubart put at the end of the book, explaining his purposes and reasons (hmm, maybe he also recognises that his writing needs clarification!); there i discovered that he wrote because, “my desire is you find hope in this story, that you will embrace the idea that not one of the treasured moments...is lost.” The problems with this are at least twofold. First, why should i “find hope” in a book of fiction, which clearly doesn’t offer hope? The hope that some people might (there’s no certainty in the visions) have some views of the future? That is no hope. Second, even within the confines of the story Rubart doesn’t offer hope, as Cameron’s memory loss is not addressed (how can it be, by a series of visions?), let alone cured.

In the end, it seems to me, the only hope that this book offers is that of the believer. If you already believe in a God who controls, or at least has seen, the future, you have hope, and that hope may be reinforced by this story (if you can force yourself through it). If not, it offers nothing.