Before I blocked Will Self’s brother on Twitter for making fun of me (never, ever tweet at your heroes, I’ve never had one tweet interpreted in the tone in which it was intended), he said an interesting thing about reading books and how to know when to set an unfinished one down. For Will Self’s brother, time is of the essence. When one has a limited amount of time to read all the books, which we do, with the simultaneous aspiration to read all the books, which we do, it is vital to cultivate the ability to know when to tap out of a novel, particularly a long one, which could amount to as many as two other novels. Will Self’s brother’s rule is if he comes across one false note, he’s out. I’ve tried my best to emulate this methodology, despite the rift that has come between us in recent times. However, it is often more complicated than this.
I’ll tap out quite a bit and will feel no, or almost no, or at least very little, shame. I tapped out of Madame Bovary because of one character’s indulgence in a two-page monologue about agricultural methods and the changes in the social order of rural France being wrought by industrialisation. It would have been less discordant if said character introduced himself as Mr. Metaphor for the Ideology of the Enlightenment Man.
I generally feel entitled to leave such undisputed classics unfinished because I managed to plough through Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time over the course of a month, forever after ensuring that I will not be mistaken for some fly-by-night dilettante. This is not to say that it often wasn’t a struggle, Proust is riven with the kind of false note that would lead Will Self’s brother to bruise a spine against a wall, something that the novel has in common with Moby Dick had, another classic I tapped out of. The veiled references to and vague criticisms of homosexuality, aswell as women from two authors who were not heterosexual and lived in times where it was socially unacceptable to be so turned me off, it was just dishonest, boring, didactic and a bit sad.
Martin Amis’ novel Dead Babies was one I recently finished but nearly tapped out of twice, but didn’t. I was initially put off by the first fifty pages, in which Dead Babies revealed itself to be not so much a novel as a textual device constructed for the humiliation of fictional women. Misogyny, particularly in the form of extended essentialist diatribes, is a big reason while I’ll tap out, which, by the by, makes it difficult for me to enjoy anything written before 1900. I stuck with it, enjoying Amis’ turns of phrase and metatextual fiddling enough to keep me going. It then picked up a steady clip, as I began to see these insufferable grotesques were heading for a rude awakening as regards their current lifestyles and their treatment of women. I’m enjoying this, I frequently thought. This is a lot of fun. And then it dragged itself out and got awful again. I stuck with it but I should’ve bailed earlier really.