Sunday, February 19, 2006

7. I Sailed with Magellan

by Stuart Dybek

As the March pick for the Gapers Block Book Club, I was a little hesitant to pick up Stuart Dybek’s collection of short stories. I’m not sure why, but I think it had something to do with his other book, The Coast of Chicago, being picked as a One Book One Chicago read, although that doesn’t make sense since Pride and Prejudice was picked for that and I like Pride and Prejudice. I just had a gut feeling I wouldn’t like Dybek. I would say that happens when you read a lot, that you get really good at predicting what you’ll like, but that also doesn’t make sense because I’m constantly surprised by books I either thought I’d dislike or books I’ve never heard of. But in this case my gut was right. I hated this book.

I Sailed with Magellan is technically short stories, but they follow Perry Katzek, his family, and their lives in Chicago. Which is where I first trip up because I’m not a fan of this sort of story collection. You’ve read The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing? You remember how nothing really flowed and there were parts where you weren’t even sure who was narrating? That would be why. Magellan is not immune to these problems. The only reason I knew that this was supposed to be one story was that the same names kept popping up. And it said so on the back of the book. We jump around from Perry’s childhood to adulthood to adolescence and there are some stories in which he doesn’t appear at all. It doesn’t work. I say, write a novel or write a short story collection. Make up your mind. There’s no reason why your short stories can’t be linked in theme or character, but I’ve yet to see the benefits of the short-story-novel.

Worse than the poor structure is the writing itself. I can describe it in one word: sappy. It’s florid and overly descriptive and while I don’t have any problems with taking a few extra lines to provide a vivid description, Dybek’s adjective skills are out of control. They don’t provide vivid description – they provide canned emotion: “We’d been kissing all day – all summer – kisses tasting of different shades of lip gloss and too many Cokes. The lake had turned hot pink, rose rapture, pearl amethyst with dusk, then washed in night black with a ruff of silver foam. Beyond a momentary horizon, silent bolts of heat lightning throbbed, perhaps setting barns on fire somewhere in Indiana.” I mean, are you serious? This is what you write about your near-sexual experience, sissy boy? It’s not better elsewhere in the book either: “Falcons that roost among gargoyles, feral cats, high-voltage wires, plate glass that mirrors sky – so many ways to fall from blue. When men fly they know by instinct they defy.” Reading this is like watching a chick flick. It’s like Dybek is writing in the manner he thinks women want to read, which is particularly insulting if that’s the case. And if it’s not the case, then you just need to put down the thesaurus for a few days. Also, hide your Julia Roberts DVDs.

But the worst part – oh yes, there’s worse yet – is the sex. There’s a good deal of sex in this book and all of it is uncomfortable. In writing, sex should be either exciting or beautiful or disturbing, depending on your intended effect, but it should never leave the reader thinking, “Umm…ew? Can you stop writing about that now?” I’ll pick just one moment, because there are plenty to choose from but this one was particularly bad, in the story called “Breasts,” which, yes, had a lot to do with that part of the female anatomy. In this scene, the main character, who is not Perry Katzek, is with a former lover in a car and while they’re close to getting together again, she “squeezes a nipple and catches a milky tear on a fingertip and offers it to him, reaching up to brush it across his lips.” Okay. Not only is this not the singular instance in this book in which Dybek equates lactation with sexiness, it is also not the singular instance in which he uses the phrase “milky tear.” I nearly gagged when I read that. Both times. I’m not anti-breast feeding and it’s something I plan to do should I have children, but it’s in a whole other realm of the human experience than the homely sex that’s happening here. It’s just not good.

Don’t get me wrong…this is not, by far, the worst book I’ve ever read (Owen Meaney, that would be YOU). It just wasn’t any good and I’m surprised that it won any awards, but I guess that happens with saccharine stories that are meant to pull on the female heartstrings. It works for Oprah. I just know that I'm not that kind of girl and it seems that my gut knows it too.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ewww I don't think I will be able to erase that from my mind EVER! Ewww ew ew creepy. I bet he's the kind fo guy who suckles on his girlfriends breasts.

9:38 AM  
Blogger Exxie said...

Hee hee. Glad I could share the ickiness with others.

10:21 PM  

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