The Sentimentalists, by Johanna Skibsrud. 9781554470785.
A horse, long of face, its hooves clattering on the cobbles that overlay the bones of settlers long dead, of child victims of diptheria and German measles, its long face hanging from the arch of its long neck, walks into a bar.
And the bartender says, why so ineffably sad? And we all weep.
This is a joke, as told by a poet-novelist. And The Sentimentalists is a novel, as told by a poet-novelist: over-written, over long even at a mere 216 pages, and, thanks to the Giller Prize, over-praised.
It starts well. Skibsrud has an ear and an attention for the rhythm of a sentence, and the first 20 pages or so are rich and evocative. It seems well done. But with those 20 pages done, with the scene set and the actors introduced, one expects the novel to go somewhere, to do something. It does not. Instead, it drifts about, rather aimlessly, talking about itself. And the middle sags.
Those sentences soon seem too rich in commas, too wordy, too long; Skibsrud is using entirely too many words to say very little:
On those occasions, what I had feared most was only that the space I had felt in me so palpably then might remain all my life in the unbearably empty state in which it had arrived. So to find that, on the contrary, it could disappear completely — and without a trace — without ever having been filled; that it could be compressed so soundly within a body that inside would remain only the mechanical procedures of the lungs and the heart, was a great surprise.
Uh, what occasions were those?
At night, I lay up in Owen’s old bedroom where I had slept so many nights as a child and felt nothing at all, except for the static hum of electricity from the floors below. A sad and irreversible change had occurred, it seemed, and the great and open space which I had always felt within me, that I had thought, in fact, had been me, had disappeared, so finally that I could not hope, I thought, to resurrect it, or feel again that lightness at the exact centre of my heart as I had on so many occasions before. When, in that very room, I had harboured in me an expectation of a world so vast, and of such incomparable beauty, that I could feel it loosening the muscles of my throat; a disturbance of which I could hardly endure.
Ah, yes. Those occasions. I know them well.
This ceases to be a question of style, and becomes a matter of substance, or more properly, of its lack. Reading these sentences, their vague language, their aversion to the concrete and particular, is rather like attempting to read braille through oven mitts: you’re certain something’s there, but you’re damned if you can figure out what. And if the chief joy of this book is to be found in its language, you wonder why you need 200 pages of it; it is like listening to a symphony that consists solely of a pianist repeatedly hitting the same note.
It is not only in its lack of movement that the novel sags. It is also packed with redundancies. Things disappear both completely and without a trace. The narrator harbours in her expectations, as if there is some other place one might harbour them. The garden shed, perhaps? Where is the poet’s attention to language, the economy and force of the poetic line? Adrift in the stagnant middle of this narrative, senses muffled, it begins to seem that one is reading page after page of filler. The novel takes a full 100 pages to get up and get moving.
Even 60 pages in, we know nothing of the characters. And this seems to be Skibsrud’s point, that we cannot see inside of other people. But neither do we have any concrete sense of their outer lives. Nobody does anything; nobody says anything — dialogue, through the first half of the novel, is often reported indirectly. The narrator may tell us that her father laughs, but we never understand why. We never hear the joke.
Indeed, we never hear any jokes; one thing the reader will not find herein is a laugh, or even a smile. The horse walks into the bar and we all are ineffably sad, though we know not why, and we hope, or think, that the emptiness at the very centre of our hearts will one day soon be filled with the expectations that we keep hanging beside the hedge trimmer out in the garden shed. But it will not be so, for life is ineffably sad.
And here is the crux of it: novels of this ilk flout the narrative building code by ignoring such load-bearing beams as character and plot. They dramatize nothing; indeed, they place themselves above such concerns, lumping together drama and melodrama. They labour to convince us that they are more literary than literature itself. But The Sentimentalists, in its continual tone of sadness, falls prey to melodrama’s cousin, sentimentality. We do not live our lives in a fog of sadness. To pretend that we can, to repeatedly strike this same note for 200 pages, is emotional masturbation. Having thrown away the tools by which emotional effects are earned — the stuff of drama — the novel strikes desperately at that same sad note. And all that sadness, like the joke about the horse, is without force. The Sentimentalists grasps to make us sad because it fails to understand the truth: without joy, there can be no heartbreak.