Every so often a book comes along that gives the reader the opportunity to really consider this thing called literature. Great books—even good books—tend to cast such an enveloping spell that one has to actively, and often painfully, step back from it in order to try to figure out what makes it so compelling. But a bad book—and by bad, I mean so egregiously awful that new adjectives for suckitude should be created—dispenses with the engagement and allows for pure appraisal.
End of Dreams by D.C. Douglass offers such an opportunity. Reading it made me think about just what it is that constitutes literature. Literature here is defined very broadly: any genre—“literary,” thriller, romance, science fiction, etc.—as well as plays, even narrative poems. A contemporary romance novel is about as different from, say, Paradise Lost as anything else, but there are some basic characteristics that they share.
Words, for one thing, but that’s fairly obvious. Even the shlockiest rag is written in words (for the most part—there are some fine, if postmodern, works out there that incorporate symbols and pictures as well). Also, stories. Most books and plays and such (again, there’s the avant garde and experimental, but let’s just stick to the mainstream for the sake of this argument) tell a tale, with a beginning, middle and end, no matter how shuffled that chronology may be.
More than that, though, and this was my recent Eureka! moment, they share a distance from real life as it is lived. Novels (I’ll stick to those for now) can be about anything; they can include anything: sex and excrement and degradation and investigations of minutiae and on and on and on. What they can’t be—and still be successful—is an actual transcript of life as it is lived.
Most of us lead fairly banal lives: we wake up in the morning, pee, wash our faces, brush our teeth, make the bed, figure out what to wear for work, pour some coffee into the machine and flick the switch, open the refrigerator door, take out a loaf of sliced bread, put two slices in the toaster, replace the bread and remove the butter and some jam. Etc., etc., etc., until we fall asleep at night and then rise to do much the same thing the next day. It’s not that every day is identical—maybe tomorrow you’ll choose cereal instead of toast; perhaps today you’ll have a life-changing conversation with a friend who lives far away, or next week you’ll wrap up a longstanding project at work.
Literature can include all of this and more. It can even include that morning routine, but it has to focus on what is essential to the story. If a character’s daily routine is crucial to defining him or her, then it belongs. If not, then the writer just skips over all that, because literature is not life, it is life distilled and patterned. Even the most “realistic” novels pick and choose which moments of life to record, in order to build a vision of life that is rich or emblematic or, for that, matter, teaches a lesson.
A lot of this, of course, depends upon style. And every genre, no matter how pulpy, offers the opportunity for creative, idiosyncratic, inventive and personal style to be showcased. Good writers channel their stylistic proclivities into the patterning of their stories. Bad writers—well, that’s a whole other ballgame.
End of Dreams is burdened by a severe lack in both these areas. It is weighed down by useless recitations of daily life that don’t build up to anything told in a style fatally moribund. The novel tells the story of Camron Dickerson, a thirty-six-year old, recently divorced, black engineer living in Minneapolis. Without knowing anything about the author, it becomes immediately clear that the novel, such as it is, is a mixture of autobiography and fantasy. (One woman has not one, but two, orgasms while giving Camron a blow-job. Perhaps the author does not know much about the female orgasm, but some genital stimulation is required to achieve climax, and by genital, I do mean hers.) The result is a book that reads like a man’s detailed diary—without the profound thoughts that diaries can sometimes contain—rather than offering any insight into the state of contemporary life, single or married. But it doesn’t do that particularly well; the vocabulary is hilariously garbled: “teamed” for “teemed;” “decorum” for “décor;” “”persona” for person.”
As illustration, here is a paragraph from the opening chapter (chosen at random, since almost any would do):
He returned to his car, a black ’98 Dodge Intrepid. Rambling through the compartment between the front seats, he quickly found a suitable pen. He again locked the door, and dropped the single key back into his pocket. He didn’t carry his full key ring with him while clubbing because that big mass of metal messed with the flow of his pants. He also checked to see if he had some business cards. He took out his wallet and saw that he had three. That should be enough.
Conversations work in much the same way: they record the chitchat, but gloss over any deeper engagements with topics. So we find out that Camron appreciates the food cooked on Christmas by his new girlfriend, but we don’t get to eavesdrop on the things they say that form a rapport between them.
We do learn a lot about Camron, though: he drinks Miller Genuine Draft, sports leather gloves, and likes to look at “the sistahs” as they walk up a set of stairs in front of him, but if that’s all there is to it, then we might as well follow our brothers or cousins or best friends around for a few days and write down everything they do.
Maybe this has to do with Camron himself. He’s utterly unlikable: vain and cheap (we know he has at least one “knee length leather coat,” but he doesn’t want to spend more than a few dollars at a nightclub). There also seems to be a faint strain of misogyny in his relations with women, —this despite the fact that almost all his interactions are with women, or, I should say, “females,” which is often how they are referred to (incidentally, I’d like to call a moratorium on using the noun “female” when referring to human women, who are, after all, more than simply mates for the males of the species). In all fairness, though, that may just be the result of the fact that he is too boring to engage women on any sort of significant level.
He is also, it turns out, a complete dog who responds to the pressures of his marriage by trolling the clubs for women rather than engaging his problems. No couples therapy or sessions with a pastor, just the self-exculpatory thought that he is “pacificistic” when it comes to relationships. Maybe it’s just me, but going out to a club instead of talking to your wife is not the reaction of a pacifist, but of a weasel.
Mostly though, Camron never comes alive because he never makes a misstep. He never makes a fool of himself, or—in his own mind at least—says the wrong thing or genuinely engages with any of the emotional situations in which he finds himself. The whole book seems to be an exercise in justification for past deeds. He learns nothing over the course of the story, despite rehashing the details of his failed marriage. In the end, all he can come up with is that both he and his ex-wife are too “stubborn.” There’s no indication that his attitudes or behavior will change in the future or that he has learned how to find a woman who will best complement him.
The truth is, End of Dreams has a bigger problem than all the already large problems enumerated. It clearly fits into the romance genre: it’s about relationships and it presents idealized love partners for the protagonist, with whom he has idealized sex that is often described in florid, euphemistic language. But the readers of romance novels are overwhelmingly women, and it’s hard to see many women wanting to read this novel, because the picture of masculinity that is presented does not fit into the fantasy that romance holds out to them. The only fantasies fulfilled in End of Dreams are Camron’s.
Women deal with male fantasies of sex and relationships all the time. It doesn’t take a book written from a male perspective to tell women that men like women with nice bodies who are wild in bed but don’t ask much of anything else out of it. The pages of romance novels, however, offer these readers a place in which to feed their own desires, which often include a sensitive man who can see beyond the superficial trappings to the goodness of a woman’s heart and who are tender and attentive lovers. Douglass’s version may be closer to the truth, but that not what the romance genre’s purpose is.
Which leaves this novel without any readers. And while End of Dreams may have enlightened a thing or two about literature for me, it did not answer that final question: what, exactly, is a book with no one to read it?