Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Ewwww La La

If Only It Were True, by Marc Levy, Read by Michael McGlone, Simon & Schuster Audio, 2000

The French have long been considered the worldwide arbiters of what's tasteful, fashionable, and worthwhile. Consider the sheer number of words that encapsulate tasteful judgment (gauche, élan, flair) that are of French derivation. All of that has come to an end. The best-selling status of If Only It Were True could possibly, single-handedly derail centuries of style making. That the country which produced Sartre, Robbe-Grillet, Colette could give birth to a man so impoverished in imagination as to write a book that reads as a fourth-rate novelization of a third-rate American romantic comedy is bad enough. That such a pulp of pap should be so embraced by the nation is rather too much to accept in this world.

Perhaps I'm being too hard on the French nation as a whole. After all, I still call America home even though there are twelve (twelve!) best selling Left Behind novels and the various spin-off franchises. But I call America home despite the sheer multitudes of slack-jawed ass scratchers we put out daily. Granted, a nation of sixty million can easily produce a million copy best seller during a slow month without it meaning the book represents a cultural zeitgeist. Still, after Algeria and the Dreyfuss Affair, If Only It Were True represents a blot on a nation that not even time will erase.

The thumbnail description of this book reads like a Hollywood pitch. A man (Arthur) falls in love with the "ghost" of a woman (Lauren) whose body still lives on in a brain-dead coma. Profound questions could have been raised about the nature of life, about the line separating medically alive from real life, about the lasting power of love. That's the kind of philosophical meat I'd expect from the country that gave us Montesquieu.

Instead, we get the kind of book in which rather pointless details are included for no good reason, just some sentence padding. Like telling us that when Lauren pours her dog's morning breakfast it's Iams Special Formula. Or how we are often told which radio station the characters are listening to, despite no character working at a radio station or being really into music or this fact playing any role in the events.

It's the kind of book in which Arthur talks to the ghost in front of his coworkers, saying things like "Let's go, Lauren. Paul, I don't expect you to understand this. You're too conventional." It's one of those books where the "ghost" angle is the easiest part to believe. Arthur can't understand why other people, who can't see Lauren, but see him talking to Lauren and putting his arm around her, think he might be a bit touched in the head. It's the kind of book filled with clichéd phrases like "the weight of the world on her shoulders," "bag of tricks," and "atmosphere remained tense." A steering wheel is described as "spinning in a limbo all its own." Huh? What does this kind of writing mean to imply? That sentence might have pleased the author with its metaphysical, mythological reference, but it really, really, really tells a reader nothing whatsoever.

What I'm trying to convey here is that it's the kind of book that is not only badly plotted, badly populated with badly drawn characters, and badly padded out with unnecessary phrasing, but it is a badly written book — not so much written as pieced together from the novelist's refrigerator magnet kit.

Now, of course, Dear Reader, you're asking yourself if I'm being too harsh. Surely a book that involves the out of body experiences of a brain dead woman must touch upon some aspects of the semi-afterlife. Well, Lauren can sort of influence the material world around her; after all, Arthur can touch her. And she manages to turn on the TV at one point — to watch Larry King. Here Levy one-ups his deeper minded existentialist countrymen. Hell is not so much other people, it's American talk shows.

And what lesson does Lauren learn from her coma life? That life and time are precious. Comment profondément! This is similar to the important things Arthur learns when he and his buddy Paul steal Lauren's body from the hospital and take her to his mother's old cabin. (Don't ask. The whole scenario is even more improbable than the major premise of this story.) Arthur remembers his now-dead mother and recalls all the lessons she taught him, inoffensive platitudes ripped off from the motivational posters high school principals consider sage and effective. We are treated to the many letters she wrote him. Apparently, Arthur’s mom wrote more by-the-time-you-read-this letters than Ozzy Osbourne has held farewell tours. Time is precious, his mother writes repeatedly. Seize the day. Enjoy life. Floss daily.

Into this bucolic existence comes the dark note. Lauren's body, back at the hospital (through yet another unbelievable chain of events, this one involving a rather forgiving police detective who returns her body with no qualms and no charges filed) is in jeopardy. Her mother is going through with her earlier, aborted plan of pulling the plug on her daughter. Although they have no real reason to believe this is the end, Arthur and Lauren act as though it is. In what they think are Lauren's last weeks of "life," they go to movies and watch television. It seems Arthur didn't pay much attention to his mother's letter about living in the moment. Somehow a matinee probably wasn’t what she had in mind. Or more Larry King.

When Lauren does disappear, in what an idiot unfamiliar with crappy novels might suspect is her death, it's hard to feel any real worry or sadness, because it's blatantly obvious she's going to go back to her body and the lovers will be reunited. Yet when her body predictably recovers consciousness, she is unable to speak. This doesn't stop Lauren's mother, who considered Arthur the prime suspect in her daughter's kidnapping, from inviting him to the hospital to watch her wake.

Michael McGlone, reads this book in the same fashion as it was clearly written: in a brain-dead robotic drone. His monotone baritone didn’t improve the book by any stretch, but it did turn a dull, improbable collection of scenes into a lulling, snooze of dull, improbable scenes.

In what is only a fitting epilogue to this roman de merde, Hollywood has bought the book. Reese Witherspoon and Mark Ruffalo are listed as credited cast, I suspect in the main roles. I predict big box office in time for some major holiday like Bastille Day. If there is any justice, that ancient French prison will be put to good use for just one more author. Just one.

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