Stuff I’m reading. What I’m thinking about it. How about you?
Sum by David Eagleman
It’s a pretty rare occasion that my dear, devoted little sister
presses a book into my hands and says “you have to read this.” Usually, it’s the other way around — normally she’s trying to do some freaking amazing painting or drawing or something, and I’m standing over her with a copy of Margaret Atwood’s ‘Good Bones’ yelling STOP THAT RIGHT NOW AND READ THIS BOOK, WOMAN. However, since December ‘09 when she first read Sum
, she’s been practically throwing the book at my head every time we’ve been in the same room. And in the interest of avoiding a concussion, I’ve finally got round to reading it.
My sister isn’t the only person to sing the praises of this strange little book. It was published by Canongate, so the Scottish literary community went all-a-flutter over it when it first appeared, and it’s been recommended to me by many people across the Twitter- and blog- spheres. And don’t get me wrong — it’s a great book. It deserves all the hype and praise it gets. In theory.
What do I mean by that? I mean, this is a bloody fantastic amazing brilliant idea for a book. Forty different theories on what the afterlife might be like? Hell yeah! Who doesn’t want to read that? Who doesn’t wish they thought of that first? Who couldn’t write forty of their own? Buy this book now, everyone!
Except, I’m a nitpicker… I’m a poet, after all. So yes, the idea is great and I hate David Eagleman for having had it before I did. But what about the execution?
To be honest, the writing itself has not blown me away at all — in fact at times I’ve been frustrated by its wrong-headed plainness, its refusal to incorporate more than a few occasional flashes of linguistic interesting-ness (”velvety blue angel” was genius, Eagleman… why did it shock me in amongst the surrounding monotony?). I’ve also been frustrated by its repetition, and Eagleman’s over-dependance on clichéd ideas about the afterlife — seriously, I’m on page 90 (which is nearly the end) right now, and if I find one more reference to harp music, I’m going to scream. Some of the stories/chapters/theories are just plain confusing to read; others haven’t been thought through desperately well (an afterlife that builds a copy of you based on birth, marriage and death records… so oh yes, the afterlife didn’t really exist til records began a few hundred years back. What?!). Don’t get me wrong — some are brilliant. “Absence”, in which Heaven is actually a warzone reminiscent of the Vietnam jungle, is really poignant, a very clever satire. But all too often I found myself thinking “great idea! But I could have written about it so much better.” Is that arrogance? If so, apologies — I couldn’t help it! I just couldn’t bring myself to like Eagleman’s style. It’s sparse, and in places feels careless — but it’s not well-done carelessness, like James Frey’s loose rattle, for example. It just feels… average. Three stars out of five. I liked it, but I couldn’t love it. Which is a shame, because as an idea, this book is exceptional.
What did you think to Sum? What are you reading this week?
(Photo by DeanPeterson)