It’s a sure sign that what I’m reading isn’t holding my interest if I’ve gone this long without posting. I’m always in the process of reading something, and some combination of work ethic and refusal to acknowledge defeat sometimes makes me continue even when I’m not exactly enjoying myself. It’s taken months for me to admit that I’m not going to finish Dreiser’s The Financier. I just can’t. I’ve been plodding through it at a snail’s pace, and though I’m a good deal in, I’m going to put it to bed.
Dreiser is the Sybil of authors. I can’t understand him for the life of me. When he’s good, his books are just entrancing. When he’s bad, it’s…well, it’s quite bad. And he’s bad in exactly the areas he’s so good in other books. The character development in The Financier is just abysmal. The old adage of “show, don’t tell” is so very appropriate here. Dreiser knows so well how to develop an amazing, nuanced character, so I just can’t comprehend the laziness here.
His main character, Cowperwood–I’m so uninvested after a few hundred pages that I can’t remember his first name–is flat in a way that defies flatness. He is not vanilla. He is like whatever the thing tasted like before vanilla flavoring was added. He is like a chunk of drywall. He is a chalkpit of bleh. And it shouldn’t be that way. He’s supposedly brilliant, as Dreiser constantly reminds us, and every time I’d turn the page Cowperwood would be reportedly the youngest person to ever be making these kind of advancements in the financial world. And he certainly has all the moral ambiguity of Eugene from The Genius and Clyde from An American Tragedy. That often makes for an intriguing character, if not always a likable one. There’s a particularly repulsive scene not too far in where things get pretty rapey with Cowperwood’s wife-to-be, but it’s just the scene I found repulsive. I didn’t find the idea that Cowperwood would take any kind of action, good or bad, believable, so I never got the chance to even hate him. The only reason the reader knows anything about this character is because the author tells us directly or tells us through another character’s thoughts. And this is the unforgivable sin, in my mind, especially if it seems stilted or gimicky.
The reader encounters this telling-not-showing really quickly into the book. The main character is introduced as a child, and only a few pages later, Dreiser just cheats. I’ll show you what I mean in a moment.
In his books, Dreiser often drifts from character’s mind to character’s mind. He actually does quite fluidly and I enjoy it, so no problem there. But it’s as if he drifts into the other characters’ minds in this case solely to escape needing to advance the plot by, well, plot. Here’s Cowperwood’s mother thinking to herself after her son had bought and sold something at an auction:
“Mrs. Cowperwood looked at her boy curiously at dinner. Was this the son she had nursed at her bosom not so very long before? Surely he was developing rapidly.”
So, reader, in case you missed it, things are moving forward, says Dreiser! The whole book is like that. And everyone always says the same thing: “Wow, this person is very strong and determined and I am so very impressed by him. Never before have I been this impressed.” YAWN.
But what’s worse is the insult that underpins the message. The other characters, in essence, say, “in case you’re not getting what you need to know about this character from the plot, I’ll just go ahead and say what you should be thinking.” And with that, I think I’ve gotten to the heart of what I dislike so much about the book. It’s not just poor character development. It’s an affront on my intelligence. And it takes the power out of my hands to decide how I think the character is developing. I’m being assaulted on all sides from all characters in unison instructing me to be impressed by a character that is not impressive.
I’m far too rebellious to do what I’m told.
Another lovely post, Amanda; and it’s been far too long since the last one. I have missed your writing. I like how you’re just as happy to say what you dislike as to say what you enjoy. I have a theory that school conditions us to say positive things about whatever books the teachers force us to read; then college/university conditions us the opposite way. I’m not sure how to test this.
Anyway, I hope you had a wonderful festive season, and that you’ll be blogging again before long.
I appreciate the comment, and I especially appreciate that someone likes when I complain, ha!
That’s a great observation. The K-12 education system certainly does try to instill rather mindless positive feelings toward the books on the syllabus. It’s probably mostly done in a desperate attempt to counteract all the “THIS IS STUPID I HATE STUPID MC STUPIDSON HAMELT IT’S SO STUPID” kind of feedback teachers hear day in and day out. I don’t know if college ever actually challenged me to think the other way, but it was certainly an atmosphere where disliking a book was acceptable–as long as you could defend yourself. Shrugging your shoulders and saying “I just didn’t like it” didn’t cut it anymore. As it should be!
One of the best things I ever heard from a teacher was, “behind every complaint is an observation.” That’s always what I want to be doing–not finding things to complain about for the sake of complaining, but letting complaints things teach me about what I believe is good writing. I find mindless complaints insufferable, but I think the cultish worship that happens at the alter of the author is going too far in the opposite direction.