Thursday, April 24, 2008

Problems with Execution

I've read a couple of wildly unrelated books lately that are better in their ideas than in their execution.

The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears, by Dinaw Mengestu, promises some kind of relationship between three exiles from three different African countries and what happens in the run-down neighborhood of one of them, Logan Circle in Washington, DC. As it turn out, though, reading the novel reminds me of watching a movie called Strangers in Paradise years ago (when I lived in the suburbs of Washington DC, in fact). Pretty much all that happens in Strangers in Paradise is that the characters smoke cigarettes and stare moodily out the window. Same for the main character of The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears--he walks moodily around Logan Circle, he sits moodily in his failing convenience store, he wraps Christmas presents moodily in his small apartment. The events of the plot fall flat, unendowed with any larger meaning. If this is a new style of literary writing, it's even less interesting than the New-Yorker-approved minimalism of past decades.

The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart, is a YA novel designed to appeal to gifted children, starting as it does with a newspaper ad asking "are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?" I have to agree with Walker that the best part of the story is at the beginning, when the children have to undergo testing to see if they will be offered the "special opportunities." In fact, the author blurb on the back cover says that the idea for writing the book "appeared in the form of a chess riddle."

The frustrating thing about this book is that even though the children are supposed to be gifted and the mission they're sent on is important and mysterious, they don't end up doing anything very smart. I got quite impatient with how long it took them to figure out clues, after all the build-up about their intellectual superiority. There is one mildly clever surprise at the end, about why one of the characters acts the way she does, but that's not enough to make 485 pages of mediocre adventure seem like it was worth the trip.

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