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February 27, 2014

On the straight and narrow

Apparently, there’s a secret society of book reviewers, and one of their rules is that you’re never allowed to admit that you like straightforward books. With this column, Connor has ruined his chances of becoming a member.

  • Words: Connor Tomas O'Brien

So, here’s the thing: I like straightforward books, and my book reviewing colleagues don’t. Instead of reading stories that make sense, a book reviewer needs to keep a straight face and continue championing demanding and impenetrable tomes over stories that are deliberately user-friendly. Needless to say, after revealing all of this to you, I will almost certainly be booted, quite unceremoniously, from the Order of the Dog-Eared Page.

Before reading Matt Haig’s The Humans, I stumbled upon a blog post of his titled ‘Snobs kill books’. In it, Haig makes the point that it’s a mistake to equate a work’s accessibility with a lack of intelligence. “It is the easiest thing in the world,” Haig argues, “to write a difficult book no-one likes except a handful of highbrow reviewers”, but much better [and more difficult] to create a work that engages with readers both meaningfully and straightforwardly.

Doppler is a strange book… but the gimmicky, quirky nature of the story conceals a scathing analysis of the shaky foundations upon which we’ve constructed our Western consumer culture.

The Humans is nothing if not straightforward. In fact, it appears to have sprung from Haig’s desire to construct a narrative answering, as directly as possible, the question that every novel asks: “What does it mean to be human?” The core conceit of the novel is, admittedly, slightly naff – an extra-terrestrial being travels to Earth and proceeds to assume the form of a Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University – but it gives Haig exactly what he needs to investi­gate human nature without his work collapsing under the weight of its own self-importance. The Humans never takes itself particularly seriously, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t very clever. It’s full of little nuggets like “civilization is the result of a group of humans coming together and suppressing their instincts”, which are funny and appealing on the surface, certainly, but also as insightful as pages upon pages of rambling Pynchon.

Norwegian writer Erlend Loe developed a cult following in the nineties for Naïve. Super, a work about a young man who weathers a quarter-life crisis by retreating into a world of rubber balls and BRIO blocks. Doppler, which recently received an English translation, is ostensibly the same kind of story, with the protagonist a few years older and with a wife and kids in tow. After a bicycle accident, our main man Doppler decides to retreat to live in the wilderness, coming to befriend a baby elk he names Bongo. Like The Humans, Doppler is a work written as a series of short, flat, unshowy declarative sentences. And, like The Humans, the work’s simplicity belies its intelligence. We watch as Doppler follows through on his plan to “bore myself to happiness”, stealing food and constructing a totem pole dedicated to his father. It’s a strange book – almost a bizarro, alternate universe Walden – but the gimmicky, quirky nature of the story conceals a scathing analysis of the shaky foundations upon which we’ve constructed our Western consumer culture [and our own psychologies].


Connor is a writer, front-end web designer, researcher and general creative type. He’s the Creative Director of digital studio, and the co-founder of Bkclb [an ebookstore for independent writers and adventurous readers]. He has edited The Bright Young and On Dit, is the author of Quiet City [an illustrated collection of short stories], and is a columnist for Kill Your Darlings.

Finally, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? is perhaps the most straightforward book ever written, or at least tries very hard to be – Heti is even kind enough to signpost the work’s guiding line of enquiry right there in the title. The memoir-novel follows a semi-fictionalised Heti on her quest to figure out how to be “the human ideal”, which makes it predictably insufferable at times. The intolerable stuff, though, is easily balanced out by pages of wonderful passages in which Heti tries, earnestly, to Figure It All Out, moving from a belief that one’s self is contained in one’s art to the polar opposite, and from an obsession with bohemianism to a longing for consistency of identity [“In that moment, I wanted nothing so much as for someone to say of me: She is the most consistent person you have ever met. Even at home, she never changes!”].

Heti, in particular, has had to defend her work – defend the apparently too-small scope of it, and the accusations of narcissism that accompany the publication of many works of female self-writing – which strikes me as odd. As Haig has suggested, it’s easy to please critics by writing books that are vague and thorny and capital-A Ambitious, while straightforward books, works that wear their intentions too clearly, have to justify their place. But intelligent books don’t need to clock in at a thousand pages, with run-on sentences stretching across chapters – at least not necessarily! The secret society are going to hate me for hammering this point home, but some of the smartest books really can be the most straightforward.

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