Book review: The Raven

The RavenThe Raven by Peter Landesman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I first read this book not long after it came out. I was still at university, and was still enamoured of study and reading between the lines enough to think that if a text was gnomic enough it must have been super-profound, and if I didn’t get it, it was my fault and not the book’s.

That was then. Now, I can go “eh, fuck that book” with impunity and not feel as if I need to turn in my Lit Nerd decoder ring or something. Because even though there’s a lot of mystery in the book – it hinges on the shadowy 1941 fate of the titular doomed vessel – I think a lot of it is unintentional, and the result of poor planning.

The Raven is Peter Landesman’s first novel, and it shows. It’s the sort of novel that’s written after mainlining a bunch of a certain type of literature, letting it percolate for a little while and then doing a kind of Markov Chain cut-up reinterpretation. Think of it as And The Ass Saw The Angel but with Melville and Hemingway replacing Faulkner, and with slightly less planning than smack-hammered Cave’s work presented. It’s long on atmosphere and short on editorial prowess – there’s too much unevenness in the way the work is presented.

(It’s probably worth noting that Landesman is now better known as a Hollywood producer than an author.)

Reading the work presented me with a problem. I kept feeling as if I’d had a blackout or a stroke or something when I came back to it, as it’s arranged in a pretty disjointed manner. I get the feeling there were some images that Landesman thought sounded great in the draft stage, and he’s worked like hell to keep them in, even if they don’t really make sense. The chronology of the book is murky and the feeling of constant sliding from one area, one person to another is disorienting in a way which indicates a lack of control, rather than the minutely-planned bugfuckery of someone like Pynchon, say.

What’s weird about this book is that in writing it, Landesman has pretty much done a hatchet-job on the truth in a manner similar to one of the main characters, Dove, because it’s based on a true story. Is this a bit of wry self-insertion? Self-awareness? It just seems a bit cheesy – I think I preferred the book before I knew it was based on a real event, particularly given that the overall tenor of the thing is that, welp, only people on the boat will know what happened on that terrible day!

If that’s the case, why bother with the story at all? This could have been a quite acceptable Annie Proulx-styled collection of gruff fisherfolk and hard livin’ snapshots without the whole IT’S A CONSPIRACY! thread running through it.

Ah, but the gruffness. The gruffness. It’s everywhere – this is kind of like a waterlogged Silent Hill from whence nobody can escape. Everyone hates the fucking sea but continues to work on it, despite old age, a water system that makes Flint, Michigan look pristine, and an education that would enable one to jetpack out of the damp shithole. But nope, they’re all wedded to the place, and labour through their jobs with such old-timer wisdom-and-spitting that the only thing with more liquid than the harbour must be the town’s collection of spittoons.

The problem is that such gruffness works inexorably towards caricature. So by the end of the book, everyone I read about became a variation on The Simpsons‘ Captain Horatio McCallister.

Yeah. Again, this is what happens if you read a lot of the Men Bein’ Men on THE SEA canon – rather than becoming a meaningful contribution to that shelf of work, you run the risk of becoming a soggy wanksock tribute; something with the same odour, but none of the oomph of the original.

I read this hoping I would have come across some meaning this time around that I didn’t notice before. But it’s not the case. It’s a shame, as when the writing is accomplished at times, and never less than evocative when it’s not trying to be too tricksy for its own good – but there’s a lot of hand-waving and grizzled silence where there should be plans and structure.

(Short version: go and listen to Insurance Fraud #2 by The Mountain Goats instead, as you’ll get all the atmosphere and the hinted-at narrative for an investment of about three minutes. It’s preferable.)

My Goodreads reviews are here.

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