Wednesday, September 12, 2012

He Blinded Me With Science

It took me F O R E V E R to finish Sinclair Lewis' novel Arrowsmith. And it was SO not worth the time I spent reading it. I started it while I was still pretty sick with pertussis and I was constantly falling asleep while reading but I just chalked it up to being sick. But then I got (mostly) better and continued to fall asleep and pretty soon I realized that this book is just boring and pretentious. Seriously, 1926 Pulitzer judges, this was the best you had? Don't read it. Don't let anyone you know read it. FRIENDS DON'T LET FRIENDS READ SINCLAIR LEWIS.

 Back to the point. This book is boring because:
  • It is overly technical. BONUS: Because it is primarily medically technical and medical technology had advanced a little bit in the past 86 years, it is not only chock full of jargon, but all the jargon is also completely out of date. I was drowning in stale science, going cross-eyed trying to get through the detailed explanations.
  • It has a ton of long sections of dialogue where individual characters carry on like interminable windbags but don't really say anything important. Sometimes they are talking about the unbearable outdated science, so it's like a double whammy.
  • The same thing happens over and over and over again. Dr. Martin Arrowsmith goes somewhere with hope for accomplishing X; X becomes unachievable due to factors A, B, and C; he in turn responds like a petulant child and moves on to the next scenario with hope for accomplishing Y. And so on. Bo-ring.
  • It went on for like 50 pages after it should have ended, and was at LEAST 150 pages too long altogether. Blah blah blah.
This book is pretentious because the effort that went into it is obvious. Clearly Mr. Lewis was trying to write a Great American Novel. I have always imagined the labor that goes into the truly great American novels to be like playing first base: when it's truly great it looks easy, in spite of the tremendous effort that goes into it.

A classic Bildungsroman, we follow the progression of Martin Arrowsmith from his youth through his mid-40s. At first I admired Martin, he seemed to have genuine integrity. In his quest for knowledge and truth his primary tool is science. His primary hindrance is that he's a selfish dickhead. When, at the beginning of the story, he ended up engaged to two women at once and decided the best way out of it would be to invite them both to lunch and say something like, "Welp, girls, I've gone and got myself engaged to both of you!*" and just see how things played out, I knew I was going to dislike him for the rest of the story. And I had something like more than 400 pages left to read at that point. Yikes. When, at the end of the story, his adoring wife died (utterly alone!) of the bubonic plague while he was off dicking around and holding hands and kissing another woman I thought, "Good! The a-hole deserves to feel miserably guilty for the rest of his life!" (Side note: The only noble characters in this story all die crappy deaths. Sad face.)

Anyway, I have a love/hate relationship with coming-of-age stories. Henry Fielding's Tom Jones and Laurence Sterne's Tristam Shandy helped to establish the Bildungsroman genre and I hated both of them. I had to read them in college. In the same class, actually. I didn't finish either one. (Actually, I just looked "Bildungsroman" up on Wikipedia and those books are two of the very first examples listed! Look at that English Lit degree coming in handy!) The afterword in my copy of Arrowsmith likens it to yet another book, Samuel Richardson's Pamela, that I read and absolutely hated in college. And you guessed it, it was in that same awful class! Man, that was a tough semester. All of these novels contributed to the establishment of this genre and they are all terrible. Thank goodness we have far superior, modern works like Bryce Courtenay's The Power of One and Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove series (which we will read in another fifty novels or so) to redeem the genre.

I've written and deleted four different final paragraphs to this post and they're all boring and lame. Probably because this book was lame. I'm ready for Early Autumn by Louis Bromfield. Thank God it's shorter.

Here is a cute picture of my cat commiserating with me while I was suffering with pertussis and struggling with this stupid book:

*Not an actual quote. I'm never, ever opening this book again as long as I live. Ever!


Louise Treadwell said...

I am incredibly amused that we managed to attend the same university during the exact same years while studying the exact same major but never had a class together. That almost seems difficult to do.

Maria said...

We had one class together! It was a spring or summer class, and the instructor was a man, we read some stupid plays and some other crappy books. It was a terrible class, he was a terrible lecturer. Once while we were both trying not to fall asleep you wrote one sentence in your notebook and shifted it do I could read it:

"This class is so boring it's like driving through Ohio."

Brilliant! I still think of that every time I'm driving through Ohio!

Maria said...

Also, I'm pretty sure I skipped that class a LOT, so I am not surprised you don't remember me being there. LOL!!

Louise Treadwell said...

LOL!!! I can totally see myself writing that but I can't remember the actual class. I must have completely blocked out the traumatic experience. I don't even remember MYSELF being there! LOL