Sometimes, life-affirming novels just remind me how little there is to live for


I hate, or maybe secretly love, it when I read a book that is highly praised and turns out to be total tripe. To some extent, this is to be expected in genre fiction, so I can look past the folks who wet themselves over The Da Vinci Code, anything by James Patterson, or the latest Danielle Steele. But what about the philosophical novel? Surely the folks who line up behind these have good taste, non?

Apparently not. I finished reading Veronika Decides to Die a couple of days ago. I've heard several folks call this a favorite book and go on and on about how it changed their lives. If that's the case, maybe they need to read a bit more. Or, at the very least, learn how to pick books that Oprah hasn't endorsed. If these people read, say, an Iris Murdoch, would their heads explode?

The book follows the story of Veronika, an unhappy Slovene who decides to kill herself because life is the same thing over and over. Her plan is foiled when she wakes up in a mental hospital and is told she's only got a few days to live, the pills she swallowed having damaged her heart. She meets some folks in the hospital, none of whom are actually mentally ill. By half way through, you know what's going to happen by the end, so you're not really surprised when the young "schizophrenic" (apparently the Portuguese word for the disease actually means "spoiled, sullen young man who flees all responsibility and lets a young woman debase herself sexually in front of him") boy and Veronika run away and live, live, LIVE! Yep, the point of all this is that life is worth living. Of course, Coelho doesn't get mental illness at all, nor present us with characters who wouldn't have a reason for not living. Hint: if all your characters are beautiful, articulate, successful and, more often than not, young with no problems to deal with bigger than being told they can't be artists, you've missed the point.

The novel started out promising: a little PoMo authorial voice, a good pace, some interesting characters. But it fell apart, became banal and obvious and tedious. We learn such valuable lessons as the idea that insanity is just living outside the consensus. That's about as deep as the philosophy runs. While patently false, this also highlights Coelho's treatment of mental instability. Basically, there's no problem that some love, air and maybe a like-minded chum can't solve in his vision of a mental hospital. No one there has a real problem and it's unclear if anyone there is actually suffering from anything other than low-level malaise. The kind that usually ends with a drinking binge or a new pair of shoes, not a hospitalization. Aside from his terrible misapprehension of real psychological problems, Coelho also makes a scary case for dubious ethics in the handling of such cases.

It's heartening to learn that Coelho is mistrusted in his native Brazil. That is novels contain typographic errors and he's considered a bit on the fluffy side. So now I'm left to wonder why the rest of the world just doesn't get it. At least I've got a new litmus test for potential friends. After all, isn't that what education is all about: becoming charming enough for cocktail parties while learning which type of folks to avoid at the very same events?


Post a Comment