Since starting med school, I’ve always made it a point to read fiction before going to bed. Even though my own productivity has gone down significantly — nearly zero through third year, only slightly better now — I think I’ve read more extensively than ever before. Certainly many more contemporary authors.
Right now, I’m reading Monica Ali’s In the Kitchen. I read Brick Lane in college and liked it, though there were occasional moments when I was baffled by her stylistic choices, one time jump in particular. Reading In the Kitchen, I’m not so much baffled as frustrated. The characters are flat, unidimensional tropes: the Silent Russian, the Tart with a Heart, the Laid-Back Jamaican. The eponymous kitchen (if that’s the word I’m looking for) employs one of each nationality, because it is MULTICULTURAL. That clang you hear is Monica Ali’s anvil hitting your head.
Just when the narrative was starting to pick up momentum, she up and moved her protagonist away to be with Dying Dad. That segment was almost painful to read, because the dad lives in a small village now “overrun” by immigrants (let’s ignore the plothole of why immigrants would come open curry houses in a dying factory town where there are no jobs for anyone), and therefore every single conversation (seriously! every single one!) is about how England is losing its character because of the influx of the furriners. Rural people are nostalgic and racist! We get it! This is a FOIL to the MULTICULTURAL London restaurant! Bonus: a whole new set of stock characters, including the Wise Pubkeeper, the Demented Granny, and the Straight-Talking Sister. Plus, the dialogue here is wooden and speechy.
There were a blackbird on the lawn and I was stood there watching, the way he’s trying to pull up this worm, and there’s a fascination to it, if you’ve a mind to notice. Well, we never really look. You see the colours in the feathers, like a slick of oil on water, you see the beauty in it when you take the time.
The sentiment is banal, the language hokey, and the outcome non-existent. Gabe’s father doesn’t take his Life Lesson ™ on slowing down and noticing beauty to heart. He’s too busy bemoaning the loss of the British Character.
So why do I keep reading? Well, as a writer, I learn a lot from second-rate books. I learn a lot of what not to do. For instance, during a meeting between the protagonist, his Mafia-inspired boss, and the boss’ pathetic henchman, we read the following gem:
“Gabe watched the deputy manager clenching and unclenching his buttocks, a glaze of pious suffering over his face.”
I laughed out loud at that one, then found a pencil and replaced “buttocks” with “jaw.”
(Apologies for the lack of medical content this time. Um, maybe it’s an analogy? I learn medicine from other people’s mistakes? Or something.)