Read The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud Free Online
Book Title: The Sentimentalists|
The author of the book: Johanna Skibsrud
Edition: W. W. Norton Company
Date of issue: April 9th 2012
ISBN 13: 9780393341638
Format files: PDF
The size of the: 673 KB
City - Country: No data
Loaded: 1924 times
Reader ratings: 4.6
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I found the writing in this novel utterly exasperating. The sentences are convoluted, coiled together with endless commas and parentheses and semi-colons; fractured thoughts hammered roughly back together with an excess of punctuation.
Never have I read such a short book so slowly. Moving through this text was like pushing through molasses, the structure and arrangement of words sucked at my eyeballs like quicksand.
Many people seem to embrace the convoluted, disjointed language in this book because it was "written by a poet". I have read many novels written by Canadian poets. Margaret Atwood is a poet. Michael Ondaatje is a poet. Anne Michaels is a poet. Their books demonstrate the positive influence a rich appreciation for language can bring to prose.
This book gave me none of that. No glittering diction, no seductive cadence, no driving rhythm. Instead it was fractured, distracted, digressive. Steeped in an incurable awkwardness, where everything remains oblique, every statement amended with a string of qualifications and apologetic explanations.
John Barber of the Globe and Mail stated that 'The Sentimentalists' was "Undoubtedly the most obscure book ever to win a major literary award in Canada." Indeed.
I would love to have been a fly on the wall for the final debate between the prize panelists - Michael Enright, Claire Messud and Ali Smith - when they were discussing the merits of this novel. Why choose this over Douglas Coupland or Jane Urquhart? How to equate this on a par with the writing of previous Giller winners like Mordecai Richler and Alice Munro?
Both the Globe and Mail and the National Post wrote articles shortly after 'The Sentimentalists' won, highlighting a shortage of available copies of the book. The selection of a book published by such a small press may have had a political motivation, to show support for a struggling industry that has been hit hard by economic strain and funding cuts.
Mark Medley in the Post writes: "...Giller Prize juror Claire Messud said that when she first received a copy of The Sentimentalists what struck her wasn’t Skibsrud’s writing but the book itself: 'Physically, it’s a beautiful book.'"
The original print run of 2,500 hand-pressed copies may have been works of art, but as I am writing this, just two years later, those artifacts are long out of print. The physical copy I read, borrowed from my local library, was a standard trade paperback, produced by Douglas & McIntyre, and due to chronic print run shortages caused by the publisher's stubborn refusal to call in help from other presses, most of the post-award sales were in e-book format anyhow. Oh, the sadness.
Here's a video interview with Johanna Skribsrud that shows clips of one of the jurors, Ali Smith, speaking about the character in this book being "history" and "at the same time, the character in this book is a relationship, and it's a relationship between a father and a daughter", and "at the same time it's a relationship between the individual and a time" and "it's a relationship which resonates over time".
Seriously? So, we should just disregard the actual characters, then? Well, good. I didn't like them anyway.
Aside from my lack of connection to the narrator and the rest of her dysfunctional family, many plot elements seemed randomly thrust in the text and left to fester. The constant insertion of scraps of dialogue from the movie Casablanca. The pointless anecdote about the sister finding a benign lump on her left ovary that goes nowhere. The boat.
Worst of all, we're never given a satisfactory explanation of the question asked on page 103, "Why did Owen go to the war when he didn't have to?" This plagued me: Canada's involvement in the Vietnam War was "non-belligerent". A few thousand of us went as peacekeepers, and about 110 Canadians died there. But why would a nice Ontario boy be in a combat unit? Did he cross the border to enlist as an American?
Skibsrud's own father was born in America, which explains why she tells the story from the perspective of an American soldier. Ostensibly, the book is set in Ontario because Napoleon's war buddy Owen had family there, but we are never told of the extraordinary circumstances that would have lead to a Canadian being on the front lines. We're never given insight into the friendship between Owen and Napoleon during the Vietnam flashback section, nor do we learn why or how Napoleon and Owen's father Henry became friends, just that it happened and now everyone is in Ontario.
After slogging through the first three sections of the book - Fargo, Casablanca and Casablanca 1959 - I was ready to throw in the towel.
In the final section called 'Vietnam 1967', the father's storytelling takes over, and it's like the book wakes up from its coma. Shaking off the lethargy of the fugue state it has been wallowing in for 100 pages, it remembers things like action, pacing, and movement. The forward momentum falters at points, but readers briefly break free from the jail cell of introspective reminiscence where we have been kept prisoner for so long.
However, since 'The Sentimentalists' won the $50,000 Giller Prize in 2010, I've created a little 4-step tutorial for aspiring authors who seek to replicate Skibsrud's magic formula.
Award-winning sentence construction 101
with Johanna Skribsrud
Step One: First, create agonizingly, disruptive caesural breaks with an overabundance of commas, then - break things up further still with interjections - surrounded by, em-dashes.
"When, a little later, Helen discovered the extent of his credit-card debt and insisted that my father give up trading altogether, he - with not too much of a fuss - after that, did." p. 42
Step Two: And don't be afraid to start with a conjunction. Or hell, start with TWO conjunctions. Open with a vague proposition. Wander miles away from it. Finish with obscurity. State nothing conclusive.
"But because they hardly spoke of it, they did not interrupt our dreaming, and perhaps were even instrumental in leading me, at that age, to the false presumption that a thing could, quite simply, be forgot." p. 37
(Remember: Use, oodles, of, commas. Toss them in, anywhere.)
Step Three: Describe a commonplace event - like traffic moving - with a tossed salad of improbable syntax and obscure medical terminology. As always, start with a subordinating conjunction. Bonus points if you can brutalize the whole sentence into a string of broken parenthetical phrases.
"So that, even when I could hear again the cars lurch from their standing positions forward, even when I could feel again the thrombotic pressure of their blinking lights, now stalled, now pulsing with longing, to turn left, to turn right, I myself stood still, caught at that particular intersection from which I could go no further." p.47
(Maybe the car's turn signals were suffering from hypercoagulability of its endothelial cells?)
Step Four: Crown your achievements with an awkwardly ambiguous modifier. This is the perfect time to let go of that growing obsession with commas, to avoid accidental clarification.
"Perhaps all of this will seem slightly less surprising if I divulge at this point that the event I have just described occurred exactly ten days after stumbling upon the man who for six years I had been intending to marry as he made love to another woman." p.48
(Not exactly a conventional wedding ceremony, but certainly one to remember, eh? "Do you take this bride?" "I do… *grunting* I DO… *wet slapping sounds* I DOoohhh…! *'O'-face*")
To be fair, there are a few moments of genuine beauty here; it's not 100% maudlin navel-gazing. On page 50, there's a nice description of an old poetic trope - how love is like a little bird. Skibsrud takes this worn comparison and makes it her own. Near the end of the book, on page 159, she constructs a lovely image of the narrator's inner turmoil:
"Instead, I felt only very strange and small. Like I was sitting inside myself in little pieces. As though I could, if I wished, take myself apart like a Russian doll and find myself in layers there, each one smaller, and more hollowed than the last."
Yes, there's some genuine beauty. But $50,000 worth? I don't think so.
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Read information about the authorJohanna Skibsrud is a Canadian writer whose debut novel The Sentimentalists, winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize. She is also the author of This Will Be Difficult to Explain, as well as two poetry collections. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.
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