Friday, May 27, 2011

The Book of Unfair Swipes- Cara Hoffman's So Much Pretty

Cara Hoffman’s novel, So Much Pretty, illustrates what strong writer Hoffman is; her prose is brilliant, quick, moving, deep. So much of this novel showcases her skills as a writer. She knows how to take the surface of life and puncture it with words. To show us, with a turn of one of her phrases, that things are not quite how we suppose they are. This is the best aspect of her writing --- one she has displayed elsewhere --- and no doubt will continue to dazzle us with.

Internally the novel is compelling, and makes the reader (a good reader, anyway) marvel at the world she has created. But it is at the interstices of her work where the problems begin. Hoffman is a deeply ideological writer. She is interested in issues, first and foremost, and will sacrifice other elements of novel writing and novel crafting to achieve this.

We first see this in the format of the novel. NPR noted that the constantly changing point-of-view structure “[is] a kind of debut novelist’s gimmick here — she writes each chapter from a different point of view, giving the book a “greek chorus” feel (another sign of a first writer: she uses invented court documents and letters to fill in plot holes in her characters’ knowledge).”

This is mostly unfair. The technique is used to great effect, and builds veracity as it is moved forward. What is closer to the mark is that in the Greek chorus Hoffman fails to give a strong voice and vibrant tenor to the characters who fall beneath her ideological contempt.  Some voices just sing better than others.

This is not a “fair” novel in that sense. When reading the POVs of characters on the wrong side of the ideological tracks, Hoffman slips into caricature and creates weak and one-dimensional portraits. This is a fatal flaw in the book. Reading these parts alongside the stronger segments will erode the reader’s confidence in the book and the author. We see the mission in these portions but not the strength of the talented, remarkable artist.  Hoffman just skims along the surface here, not doing much real work.

The New Yorker notes “[w]hen issues --- violence against women, pollution, denial --- Hoffman's writing tends toward diatribe.”  This is largely true, and weakens the base of the novel. Again, Hoffman wants to write a book driven by her sense of outrage, and framed by her ideology of what causes people to behave savagely. Hoffman does a great deal to explore this issue in the novel, but unfortunately the artist and social critic don’t blend well in So Much Pretty.  The balance of the writing gets skewed by the heavy influx of opinion, ideas, and rage pointed in all  directions.  Hoffman’s gifts, and they are great, get heavily diluted in the process.

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